Agent calls Yankees a ‘dark horse’ in Iwakuma bidding

Via NPB Tracker, agent Don Nomura called the Yankees a “dark horse” in the bidding for Japanese righty Hisashi Iwakuma. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a classic case of an agent trying to drive up the price by looping the Yanks into the mix. I posted about Iwakuma yesterday, and we have zero indication that they actually have interest in acquiring him, at least until this report from his agent. The posting process started today, so we should found out a results in the next week or so.

Open Thread: Important Offseason Dates

Now that the 2010 baseball season is officially over, we can all turn our attention to the Hot Stove League. The Yankees figure to be prominent figures this offseason, as always, and their first order of business will be re-signing Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Cliff Lee is a not-to-distant second … or is that third? Either way, you get the drift.

The baseball offseason is full of important dates for various events, such as arbitration deadlines and the like. Here’s a round-up of this winter’s key dates, with a brief explanation…

  • Nov. 2nd-6th: Period for teams to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents. This used to be 15 days.
  • Nov. 7th: Free agents can now negotiate – and sign – with any team.
  • Nov. 16-17th: GM Meetings in Orlando. There will be rumors, but probably not any major moves.
  • Nov. 17th-18th: Owners Meetings in Orlando. Everyone complains about the Yankees.
  • Nov. 20th: Deadline for teams to set their 40-man roster with regards to the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Nov. 23rd: Last day for teams to offer their free agents arbitration, which they must do to receive draft pick compensation.
  • Nov. 30th: Last day for free agents to accept an arbitration offer.
  • Dec. 2nd: Last day to tender contracts to players with less than six years of service time. Another batch of players will hit free agency as they’re non-tendered.
  • Dec. 6th-9th: Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista. All hell breaks loose.
  • Jan. 5th-15th: Period for teams and players to file for arbitration.
  • Jan. 18th: Salary arbitration figures are exchanged.
  • Feb. 1st-21st: Salary arbitration hearings. Everyone likes to avoid these.
  • March 2nd-11th: Contracts of players with less than three years of service time can be renewed at any salary by the team (as long as it’s 80% of his previous year’s salary).
  • March 28th: Deadline to release players with non-guaranteed contracts without having to pay them their full 2011 salary.

I have no idea when the Rule 5 Draft is this year. Usually it’s on the final day of the Winter Meetings, but there’s been talk that’ll be moved up to late-November. That Nov. 20th date for setting the 40-man roster isn’t even set in stone (all of the other ones are, however). You’re also going to see a lot of options picked up and declined this week, those things usually have to be addressed within three days of the end of the World Series (or something like that) per the contracts.

Anyway, you may notice that everything is earlier this offseason than in years past, and that’s by design. MLB and the union want to give players as much time as possible to find jobs, and it’s hard to blame them given the way the market’s played out over the last few years. It’s also good for us, because all of the Hot Stove action starts that much earlier.

* * *

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Knicks are playing the Magic in the Garden have been postponed because of asbestos at the Garden, so that’s pretty much it for local sports. Now I remember why I hate the offseason. Talk about whatever, just be cool.

Harkey gets ‘serious consideration’ for pitching coach spot

Via Sweeny Murti, bullpen coach Mike Harkey is being given “serious consideration” for the team’s vacant pitching coach position. He’s served as the Yankees’ bullpen coach since 2008, and although he has no full-time experience as a pitching coach in the big leagues (remember he did fill in for a month while Dave Eiland was on personal leave in June), he’s done it at the Triple-A level. Harkey’s familiarity with the staff certainly works in his favor.

Hal talks playoffs, Jeter, payroll, plans

Hal Steinbrenner has vowed to make the 2011 Yankees a World Series-caliber team. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ Managing General Partner and co-chairman, took to the airwaves this afternoon and spent around 20 minutes chatting with Michael Kay and then Mike Francesa on New York’s two sports talk radio stations. While keeping the Yanks’ offseason plans close to the vest, Steinbrenner let slip a few choice words on the playoff scheduling, Chuck Greenberg’s recent comments, the clubs’ payroll and the Yanks’ willingness to dip into the free agency pool.

We’ll start with the sexy stuff. Hal opened both interviews with his assessment of the team’s performance in the playoffs. Both times, he blamed the days off in between the end of the ALDS and the start of the ALCS. “We seemed a little bit cold in that series,” Hal said of the ALCS. “I don’t know if it was the long layoff or not.” I’ll have more on the playoff format and the unnecessary days off later tonight, but the Yanks never seemed to click during the ALCS. Having to stop play for six days probably didn’t help.

As a side note, Hal also called the 2010 season “very disappointing.” I don’t find myself too disappointed by a six-game ALCS series even though the Yanks lost. Counting the playoffs, they won 101 games this year, tops among AL teams and just one fewer than the World Series champion Giants. It was disappointing to see them go down against Texas, but this was a fun season.

The Yanks’ co-owner shifted gears after that to talk about Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. “We absolutely want [Jeter] back. We absolutely want Mo back,” he said. Having said that, we’re running a business.” In fact, that’s a point Hal stressed in both radio appearances. The Yanks are a business and with Derek, the Steinbrenners want “a deal both sides are happy with.”

Hal seemed less nostalgic and sympathetic to the idea that Jeter deserves a huge contract than either Kay or Francesa wanted him to be. While noting that Derek is one of the all-time Yankee greats, he warned Kay, “There’s always the possibility that things could get messy.” To Francesa, he elaborated, “I want to get a deal done that he’s happy with but also that I’m happy with.”

In addition to resigning their own players, the Yankees will be active in the free agent market. Without naming specifics, Hal committed to spending the organization’s money. “We are looking at the free agent market as we do every year,” he said. “We certainly have money to spend and we’re going to look into it.” The team’s payroll, Hal said, will likely be on par with 2010’s though. So we shouldn’t expect too many big-ticket purchases if the team adheres to that budget.

Steinbrenner also stressed the team’s strategy. The use the free agent market to complement their youth movement, but they’re always going to spend money. “The fans need to know we’re not putting money in our pockets left and right,” he said. “We put most or all of it back into” the team. He also mentioned that the Legends Suites were sold at rates above 90 percent this year and that the franchise may adjust some ticket prices for 2011.

Finally, Hal talked about Chuck Greenberg’s comments. The Rangers CEO accused Yankee fans of being both violent and apathetic, and the Bombers were prepared to retaliate. These were “inappropriate, ridiculous comments,” Hal said. While the club accepted Greenberg’s apology, Hal was fairly merciless. “Stupid comments…they were inappropriate, “he said. “You need to apologize to our fans.”

At the end of both interviews, Hal said it was there intentions to build up the 2011 Yankees a “World Series-type team.” Whether it be via trade, free agency or both, the Yanks have a busy Hot Stove League ahead of them.

Yankees remove Gaudin & Ring from 40-man roster, add Mesa

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees have outrighted reliever Chad Gaudin and Royce Ring from the 40-man roster. Gaudin elected to become a free agent, and as far as I know Ring didn’t. High-A outfielder Melky Mesa was added to the 40-man, protecting him from this winter’s Rule 5 Draft. I’m not sure he’d be able to stick on a big league team’s 25-man roster all season in 2011, but okay. Gaudin and Ring were both on borrowed time, they were going to be cut one way or other at some point. Yay hot stove news.

Update: Mesa was scheduled to become a minor league free agency, that’s why they added him and the move came so quickly. Makes sense.

What Went Right: Don’t Ya Know

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It all started with a challenge.

The Yankees, fresh off their 27th World Championship, let World Series MVP Hideki Matsui depart as a free agent after the 2009 season in their never-ending quest to get younger and more athletic. When camp opened up in February, it was unclear who would replace Godzilla as the fifth hitter in the lineup, protecting cleanup man Alex Rodriguez and mopping up any messes left behind by the middle of the order. Joe Girardi and the rest of the shot-callers could have taken the easy way out and stuck Jorge Posada in the five-hole. He’s a long-time Yankee stalwart with plenty of credentials to claim that spot, so it was a natural fit. Even Nick Swisher, fresh off a 29 homer season, would have made sense.

They didn’t take the easy way out though. Instead of going with the easy pick they issued a challenge to Robbie Cano, one of their youngest regulars. It’s time for you to be more than just a (very good) complementary piece, we need you to be a cornerstone, a centerpiece off the offense. Robbie’s excellent 2009 season (.370 wOBA, 4.4 fWAR) was marred by his failures with runners in scoring position (.207/.242/.332, .251 wOBA) and in high-leverage spots (.255 wOBA), understandably causing some to question the decision to move him up into the heart of the order. If he couldn’t hit with runners on base, how is he supposed to protect Mark Teixeira and A-Rod? We all knew that Cano had all the talent in the world, but could he deliver in his new role?

Cano’s response to those questions was a quick and emphatic YES. He opened the season with five hits (including a double and a homer) in three games at Fenway Park, and it wasn’t until the 17th of April that Robbie went hitless in a game. His month of April was the best by a Yankee not named A-Rod in more than a decade, as he finished the season’s first month with a .400/.436/.765 batting line (.497 wOBA) and eight homers. The hot hitting didn’t stop after April ended either, Cano entered the All Star break with a .336/.389/.556 line (.400 wOBA) and as the league’s first 4.0+ fWAR player.

The overall season performance is MVP worthy; a .319/.381/.534 batting line that featured career highs in wOBA (.389), homers (29), runs scored (103), runs driven in (109), walks (57, more than 2008 and 2009 combined), isolated power (.214), bWAR (6.1), and fWAR (6.4). Cano didn’t stop there either, he was the team’s best hitter in the postseason, a .343/.361/.771 (.464 wOBA) effort with four homers in the team’s six ALCS games. When Tex’s season ended in Game Four because of a hamstring injury, Robbie stepped right into the three-spot and homered the very next day. Regular season or postseason, Cano was an absolute monster in 2010, and it was all because of some subtle improvements.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Remember those struggles in men on base in 2009? Forget about that. Robbie hit .322/.407/.515 (.352 wOBA) with runners in scoring position and an even sexier .449 wOBA in high leverage situations this year. He was even better away from the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium (.402 wOBA) than at home (.376), as hard as that can be to believe. Comparing his 2009 and 2010 spray charts (courtesy of Texas Leaguers), you’ll see that he traded opposite field singles and doubles for balls yanked hard into rightfield, mostly over the wall. Cano’s pre-game screen drill with hitting coach Kevin Long is the stuff of legend, designed to help him keep his hands in on pitches over the inner third of the plate while stilling hitting the ball with authority, and it certainly paid off this season. His defense went from strong to spectacular, with jaw-dropping plays on balls hit up-the-middle becoming his specialty.

On a personal level, Robbie also reached many career milestones in his sixth big league season. He picked up his 1,000th career hit with a bases loaded ground rule double in the eighth inning of a late July game against reliever Victor Marte of the Royals, reaching that milestone in fewer at-bats than any Yankee not named Derek Jeter and Don Mattingly. A fourth inning solo homer off Brian Moehler of the Astros a few weeks earlier tied the game and was Robbie’s 100th career long ball. He also notched his 200th career double in his second plate appearance of the season and his 500th career RBI on the third to last day of the season, both again the Red Sox in Fenway.

Robinson turned just 28 years old two weeks ago, so he’s very much in the prime of his career. In fact he should be just entering his prime years. That’s pretty impressive considering he was a .306/.339/.480 (.356 wOBA) career hitter with a pair of 4.4+ fWAR seasons before 2010. Cano proved to everyone that the young kid with a knack for getting the bat on the ball hitting in the bottom third of the order was capable of carrying the Yankees as their older stars continue to fade into the background, and his emergence as one of the game’s elite was far and away the highlight of the 2010 season. When he’s locked in, few are more fun to watch that the guy with the smile on his face.

What happens if the Yankees trade Montero?

(Kathy Willens/AP)

During the three and a half years of RAB’s existence we’ve gotten excited about a number of prospects. At our inception it was Phil Hughes, and it quickly turned to Joba Chamberlain (and even Ian Kennedy). The latest in the prospect craze is Jesus Montero. He is considered by many talent evaluators, including Baseball America’s Jim Callis, to be the game’s best hitting prospect. The only question is of whether he can catch in the bigs.

At the end of the regular season I answered a mailbag question about the Yankees catching situation in 2011. Ideally they’d carry Montero, Jorge Posada, and Francisco Cervelli. That would allow Montero and Posada to rotate between catcher and DH, with Cervelli serving as a true backup (i.e., plays once a week). But we know that ideal situations don’t often come to fruition. Plenty stands in the way of the Yankees and their heavy hitting catcher rotation.

Reader Mike writes in with an interesting question about the situation:

Isn’t 2011 the make or break year to use Montero? I mean lets say the Yankees want to go with Posada/Cervelli at C and someone else DHing that means Montero will end up in AAA again. But won’t that block Austin Romine‘s development? Isn’t Romine due for a promotion to AAA, and you can’t have both those guys on the same level considering both need to be playing everyday in the minors.

I’m not sure it’s a make it or break it year, but it certainly will mean something for Montero’s development. There’s a decent chance that Montero breaks camp with the team and plays the role described above. Yet there’s still a good chance that he opens the season back in Scranton. That means Romine starts in Trenton again, since, as Mike mentions, both players at this point need to catch full time. Romine could then move up to AAA once the Yankees are ready to promote Montero. Splitting the season between AA and AAA might be a good thing for Romine, who still has plenty of development ahead of him.

That might not seem interesting; it actually sounds pretty normal. What’s interesting is the question I asked myself after reading Mike’s question: What happens if they trade Montero? He might be the team’s best hitting prospect since Nick Johnson, but he’s not untouchable. As the Yankees rebuild the pitching staff this winter they might find that Montero helps them more as trade bait. We can all make a list of what players the Yankees should target if they trade Montero, but what I want to know is what the team plans to do at catcher in that scenario.

Going with Posada and Cervelli again is a poor idea. Posada started just 78 games at catcher, 10 fewer than in 2009. The Yankees simply cannot count on him to provide much production behind the plate. I doubt they sign a DH this off-season, in fact, because Posada will have to fill that spot often. That leaves Cervelli as the starting catcher, a role for which he is not suited. As a once-a-week back-up he’s more than adequate. Even if he has to spot start while the starter goes on the DL, you could do a lot worse. But if he’s the only one who can take on full-time catching duties, the Yankees should look elsewhere for a better alternative.

On the free agent market there aren’t many upgrades. Victor Martinez is the best of the lot, but there are a number of points against him: 1) He’ll cost a draft pick, 2) He’ll be 32 next year, 3) He has defensive issues, 4) He’ll almost certainly be overpaid by a catching-starved team. There are a couple of free agent catchers, John Buck and Miguel Olivo (should his option be declined), who can hit for power, but that’s the only dimension to their games. Perhaps the Yankees could look to one of these guys as a one-year stopgap, but I’m not sure that they present that large an upgrade over Cervelli.*

While Olivo had 3.2 WAR and Buck 2.9, they did it with over 100 more PA — and there’s no guarantee that they can repeat that in 2011. At the same time, I expect Cervelli’s defense to improve, since most of it consisted of mental lapses, which is a correctable issue.

Another option is to work a trade. This would likely be for a player coming off a down year, such as Mike Napoli, or a 2012 free agent. Again there aren’t many attractive names there, though Ryan Doumit does stand out a bit. The Pirates recently acquired Chris Snyder, who will likely start behind the plate for them in 2011. That means the Pirates can trade Doumit, who is one of their better bargaining chips. The only issue is that he is also not a great defensive catcher. Neither is Napoli. But, since Montero isn’t, either, I’m not sure the Yankees would be losing out in this aspect.

There will be temptation this winter, particularly if Cliff Lee signs elsewhere, to trade Montero in order to upgrade the pitching staff. But doing so would leave the Yankees in a bind of sorts. The available veteran catchers are not world beaters; Montero could potentially outhit them all next year. He might not stick at catcher in the majors, but he’ll hit anywhere, even if it’s DH. After looking at the alternatives, I think it’s better to hold Montero and try to use other pieces, or just cash, to upgrade the pitching staff.