Repeating History With Yu Darvish

(Photo Credit: Darvish via Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images, Johan via AP)

After much speculation and anticipation, the Nippon Ham Fighters officially posted Yu Darvish late last week. MLB clubs have until 5pm ET this Wednesday to submit their bid for the 25-year-old right-hander, and so far the Yankees have been playing coy. Team officials “sounded pessimistic about making a significant posting bid, if they submit one at all” according to Joel Sherman, but this is exactly how Brian Cashman has operated the last few years. It’s hard to take these claims seriously.

Four offseasons ago, the Yankees were in a similar position to the one they are in right now: in need of pitching with an ace-caliber starter in the prime of his career to be had. The Twins were openly shopping Johan Santana — just 28 years old and coming off one of the most dominant four-year stretches in recent baseball history — because he was under contract for just one more season and they couldn’t afford to sign him long-term. Only a few clubs had the prospects to put together a trade package and the financial wherewithal to sign him to a huge contract extension, and the Yankees were one of those teams.

Cashman did the song and dance as trade rumors swirled for a while, but ultimately he and the Yankees passed on Santana. They rolled the dice with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy in 2008, an experiment that was a disaster and ultimately contributed to the team missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half. Passing on Johan was just one piece of Cashman’s grand rotation plan though, a plan that included pursuing CC Sabathia as a free agent during the 2008-2009 offseason. The consequences were pretty severe in 2008, at least around these parts, but the plan worked masterfully. The Yankees signed Sabathia — another left-handed ace in his prime, but one without as many question marks as Santana — for nothing but money and watched him lead them to the 2009 World Championship. This offseason, Cashman and the Yankees could be pulling the same trick again.

(Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

In Darvish, teams have a chance to acquire someone purported to be an ace but with very real questions about his game. Santana’s problem was his sudden spike in homerun rate and reports an elbow issue that caused him to lose some velocity and reduce the usage of his slider. He was proven in MLB and the AL though, which is the question with Darvish. We don’t know how he’ll transition to the States, and the track record of Japanese starters over here isn’t very good beyond Hiroki Kuroda. The Yankees would have had to pay twice for Johan (once in prospects then once in a huge contract extension), but Darvish is available for only money (including a huge up front posting free payment).

Playing the role of Sabathia this time around is next offseason’s crop of free agent pitchers, which includes Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, John Danks, Matt Cain, Jeremy Guthrie, Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, and Shaun Marcum. Some are bonafide stars, some are mid-rotation workhorses, some are risky high-upside plays. Some of those guys will surely sign extensions over the next ten months, but the sheer volume of quality pitchers leads me to believe that at least some of them will be available next offseason. By not paying big bucks for Darvish and his uncertainty now, the Yankees could be gearing up for a run at one of those arms next winter, guys with track records in MLB and generally safer bets.

What Cashman did four winters ago — putting all his eggs in the Sabathia basket — was incredibly risky in many ways, but there isn’t that much risk this time around. For one, he already has CC anchoring his rotation, so there isn’t that need for someone to place atop the rotation. They’re just looking for someone to put between Sabathia and ahead of everyone else. Secondly, Sabathia was The Guy after the 2008 season, the best pitchers on the market after him were A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe, nice pitchers (at the time) but hardly whom you’d consider rotation stalwarts. This time around the options are plentiful, even if a few of those guys sign extensions like I said.

No one asked me, but I would like to see the Yankees sign Darvish because it’s not often a 25-year-old with his pedigree comes along for nothing more than money. Then again, I could also see them stand pat or acquire someone like Kuroda or John Danks for 2012 with an eye towards going nuts on pitching next winter. Not saying I necessarily agree with it, but I could see them going that route. There wouldn’t be as much risk as there was four years ago, but the thought process is basically the same. It’s already worked once, but the question is can it work again?

Can A-Rod return to the .500 SLG plateau?

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

On the heels of my A-Rod OBP post from several weeks ago, commenter Andy asked whether we can expect Alex to get back over the .500 SLG threshold. While the safe answer is “probably not,” what with Alex turning 37 and all next year, I was curious to see what a breakdown of Alex’s 2011 round-trippers might portend for the future.

As you know, Alex Rodriguez hit a career-low 16 home runs across 428 plate appearances in his injury-riddled 2011 campaign, or a pace of 26.75 PA/HR. However, this pace wasn’t impacted by his second half — up until he hit the DL in early July he’d hit 13 home runs in 344 PAs, which is a 26.46 PA/HR pace. As a point of comparison, for his career he’s a 16.91 AB/HR hitter.

Aside from injury speculation, part of A-Rod’s power outage is likely due somewhat to his recent struggles with left-handed pitching, as he only hit two home runs off LHP all season. However, a more interesting picture begins to emerge when looking at B-Ref’s Play Index breakouts of Alex’s home runs. In 2009, eight of his 30 home runs came while behind in the count, nine while the count was even and the remaining 13 while ahead. In 2010, seven of his 30 home runs came while behind, six while even and 17 when ahead. And in 2011, he hit zero home runs when behind in the count, five when even and 11 when ahead.

Now, clearly hitters fare better when ahead in the count and are subsequently more likely to hit home runs, but based on this data Alex was obviously not a threat to go yard in 2011 once the pitcher got ahead. This is further underscored by the following graph detailing Alex’s last three years of tOPS+ and sOPS+ when ahead, even and behind in the count (click to enlarge):

Not only was Alex not a threat to go yard when behind in the count in 2011, he wasn’t a threat to do much of anything, performing 83% worse than usual in those situations, and 12% worse than league average.

So what were pitchers giving Alex after they got ahead of him?

Versus right-handers, Alex could expect to see a fastball the majority of the time when behind in the count; however, once lefties got two strikes there was a strong chance Alex was going to see a curveball or a slider, two pitches he was largely ineffective (0.22 wCB/C and 0.06 wSL/C) against.

Moving on to pitch location, if we look at his home runs versus swinging strikes, it appears that Alex chased an increased number of pitches low and away in 2011 compared with 2010, which would seem to make sense given that Alex does most of his home run damage middle-in.

As far as pitch type goes, Alex’s home run breakout was as follows:

The two home runs off lefties came on a changeup (hooray!) and cutter (double hooray!), two pitches he’s had some difficulties with. The other changeup homer came off James Shields, which is just awesome considering how much Shields — not to mention changeups in general — kills the Yankees.

So what does all this mean for Alex’s chances of increasing his home run tally in 2012, and hopefully getting that SLG back above .500? For one, it’s pretty clear he’s going to need to be more aggressive when falling behind in the count. However, he’ll also have to improve his ability to stay away from breaking pitches with two strikes in the count, as they’re likely to finish out of the zone.

Now, the same could be said for every single player in Major League Baseball, but as illustrated above this was a pretty big weakness for Alex in 2011, and enhanced pitch recognition should help him battle back more frequently when he gets behind and ideally get a better pitch to drive. This also ties in to getting his plate discipline numbers back in line with his career averages. If Alex can regain the superb selectivity he featured for much of April 2011 combined with a revamped approach after falling behind in the count as well as against left-handers, he should return to being the middle-of-the-order force we know and love, and the SLG will follow suit.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 12th, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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Open Thread: Mike Stanton

(Chuck Solomon/SI)

The Yankees have been looking for reliable left-handed relief for about a decade now, ever since the end of Mike Stanton’s first tenure in pinstripes. The Yankees signed Stanton as a free agent on this date in 1996, giving him a three-year deal worth $5.55M. He was brought in to provide left-handed bullpen help as well as give the team some protection for Mariano Rivera. Stanton had closing experience with the Braves and Mo was still unproven in the ninth inning role. It sounds silly, but that’s what happened.

Stanton was more than a lefty specialist during his time in New York, especially during the dynasty years. He pitched to a 3.67 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in 434.1 IP in 428 appearances from 1997-2002, performing better against righties (.246/.322/.351 against) than lefties (.263/.319/.396). Stanton was also one of Joe Torre’s biggest weapons in postseason play, posting a 3.38 ERA in 32 innings in 34 games. The team never needed him in the ninth inning thanks to Rivera’s other-worldliness, instead using him and Jeff Nelson as a devastating lefty-righty setup tandem.

The Yankees unceremoniously cut ties with Stanton after the 2002 season, when he was 35 years old. They made the same two-year, $4.6M offer to Stanton and fellow lefties Chris Hammond and Mark Guthrie, and the first one to take it got the contract. Hammond took the offer and Stanton didn’t even bother to reply after feeling disrespected, instead joining the Mets on the three-year pact. He bounced from the Mets back to the Yankees to the Nats to the Red Sox back to the Nats to the Giants and then to the Reds before calling it a career after the 2007 season.

Stanton pitched in the second most games in baseball history (1,178), behind only Jesse Orosco (1,252). The new Mike Stanton is a lot more fun to watch because he can do things like this and this and this, but the old Stanton enjoyed a 19-year career and was a reliable performer during the latest Yankees dynasty.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. The late football game is the Giants at the Cowboys (8:20pm ET on NBC), which should be pretty fun. The Rangers are also playing as well. You folks know what to do, so have at it. Anything goes.

Reyes deal reinforces need to extend Cano’s contract right now

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

One week ago, we learned that Jose Reyes was leaving the Mets to join the suddenly free-spending Marlins on a six-year contract worth $106M. The deal includes an option for a seventh year as well. The Mets lost their most popular and almost certainly their best player simply because they couldn’t afford him given the team’s financial plight. Thankfully, the Yankees don’t ever figure to have that problem, at least not anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be proactive about locking up their core players.

Reyes and Robinson Cano are similar players but different. Reyes is a leadoff guy whose game is build on speed while Cano is a middle-of-the-order bat with a sweet swing allergic to soft contact. They were born roughly eight months apart (Cano is older) in the Dominican Republic and are both six-win middle infielders at their best. Reyes has some injury concerns the crazy durable Cano doesn’t, but it’s very clear that Reyes’ new deal with the Marlins will be a benchmark for Cano’s next contract. That’s why they need to sign him right now.

I’ve suggested a six-year pact worth roughly $120M in the past, a contract that seems very realistic now that we know what Reyes got. If fact, it seems like a bit of a bargain given his utter lack of injury problems. The idea would be to guarantee Cano’s options for 2012 ($14M, this has already been picked up) and 2013 ($15M), then tack on another four years at $20M per season. Add in a signing bonus, a buyout of a seventh year option, and stuff like that gets you to $120M total. Signing Robbie now and locking up his age 29-34 seasons is much more preferable than waiting for him to hit free agency in two years and buying his age 31-36 seasons.

I generally agree with the Yankees’ philosophy of not signing players until their contracts expire, especially when it comes to pitchers, but Cano is a definite exception. He’s a special hitter at an up-the-middle position, their best all-around position player, a homegrown star, the whole nine. That’s the kinda of guy that deserves a long-term deal. If Cano has two more years similar to his last three, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be looking at a Matt Kemp kind of contract on the open market, which is something the Yankees should try to avoid by talking about a contract now.

Noesi and JoVa keep rolling in winter ball

If you’ve got a few minutes of free time, I suggest listening to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast. Keith Law gives some serious praise to Mason Williams (starting around the 27:30 mark), calling him the most exciting prospect in the Yankees’ system. “I absolutely think he’s going to be a star,” said KLaw. “Two years from now … that guy’s untouchable, don’t even think about trading him. I think he’s going to be that good.” I assume the only reason he stopped short of calling him the next Ken Griffey Jr. is his anti-Yankees bias.

Anyway, the Yankees have re-signed both Noel Castillo and Kelvin Perez after they became minor league free agents. The winter ball leagues in Latin America are winding down, so we’ve only got another update or two before baseball is officially closed for business in 2011. Go back a few weeks to see the final Arizona Fall League stats

Dominican Winter League
Abe Almonte, OF: 28 G, 6 for 37, 3 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB, 6 K, 2 SB, 2 CS (.162/.205/.162)
Zoilo Almonte, OF: 11 G, 6 for 35, 4 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 9 K, 1 CS (.171/.206/.200)
Melky Mesa, OF: 16 G, 9 for 41, 6 R, 2 2B, 3 3B, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 9 K, 1 SB, 1 HBP (.220/.273/.415)
Gary Sanchez, C/DH: 7 G, 5 for 15, 2 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB, 7 K (.333/.412/.333) – hasn’t played in about three weeks
Cesar Cabral, LHP: 18 G, 0 GS, 11 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 12 K, 1 WP (0.82 ERA, 0.82 WHIP) – one of their two Rule 5 Draft selections
Juan Cedeno, LHP: 14 G, 0 GS, 7.2 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K (1.17 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) – recently signed out of an independent league
Ronny Marte, RHP: 1 G, 0 GS, 0 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 2 BB (? ERA, ? WHIP)
Hector Noesi, RHP: 9 G, 9 GS, 40.2 IP, 40 H, 20 R, 12 ER, 7 BB, 24 K, 2 WP (2.66 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) – now he’s up to 121.2 IP on the season

Mexican Pacific League
Jose Figueroa, OF: 3 G, 1 for 2, 1 K (.500/.500/1.000) – 19-year-old spent this year in the Dominican Summer League
Walt Ibarra, IF: 35 G, 17 for 104, 13 R, 3 2B, 3 RBI, 7 BB, 24 K, 1 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.163/.223/.192)
Ramiro Pena, IF: 21 G, 20 for 79, 7 R, 4 2B, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 8 BB, 9 K, 1 SB, 1 CS (.253/.322/.418)
Jorge Vazquez, 1B/DH: 47 G, 63 for 179, 30 R, 7 2B, 17 HR, 55 RBI, 17 BB, 54 K, 3 HBP (.352/.415/.676) – he’s played 165 games between winter ball and the regular season this year, hitting .287/.342/.562 with 49 homers, 40 unintentional walks, and 220 strikeouts in exactly 700 plate appearances
Felipe Gonzalez, RHP: 1 G, 0 GS, 1 IP, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB (9.00 ERA, 2.00 WHIP) – 20-year-old has spent the last four seasons in the Dominican Summer League
Cesar Vargas, RHP: 1 G, 0 GS, 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HB (9.00 ERA, 3.00 WHIP)
Pat Venditte, SwP: 25 G, 0 GS, 31.2 IP, 22 H, 10 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 32 K, 1 WP (2.84 ERA, 0.76 WHIP) – holy K/BB ratio!

Puerto Rican League
Ray Kruml, OF: 20 G, 13 for 59, 5 R, 3 2B, 1 3B, 4 RBI, 2BB, 9 K, 6 SB, 2 CS (.220/.273/.415)

Venezuelan Winter League
Dan Brewer, OF: 6 G, 1 for 19, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 10 K, 1 HBP (.053/.174/.053)
Colin Curtis, OF: 25 G, 25 for 87, 13 R, 6 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 12 BB, 14 K, 2 SB, 1 HBP (.287/.386/.425)
Jose Gil, C/1B: 27 G, 20 for 27, 16 R, 8 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 7 BB, 13 K, 1 SB (.278/.342/.458)
Jose Pirela, IF: 45 G, 54 for 177, 20 R, 6 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 30 RBI, 10 BB, 21 K, 3 SB, 1 CS, 4 HBP (.305/.351/.418) – pretty nice winter
Rich Martinez, RHP: 1 G, 0 GS, 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 2 K (0.00 ERA, 2.50 WHIP)

Brian Cashman, Prevaricator Extraordinaire?

In recent days, while teams like the Marlins and Angels snapped up every big name free agent on the market, Brian Cashman preached patience and fiscal responsibility. When Yu Darvish was posted at the end of last week, Cashman said the following (courtesy of Chad Jennings):

“Sometimes, if you like somebody a great deal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be in a position to participate,” Cashman said. “I think, obviously he’s extremely talented. If he’s going to get posted, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out and how everybody on this side of the fence – meaning all Major League clubs – how they decide to or not to participate, and at what level. But that’s all for another day.”

“We’ve got a lot of depth (in the rotation),” Cashman said. “Can we add to it? We’d like to. But is it realistic? It’s not necessarily that realistic because for me to be able to push through something, I’m probably going to have to overpay to do that. And that’s a tough thing to do, especially when you’re sitting with a lot of talent, a lot of people you could slot in and (have them) do this job. It’s just, do you want to bet on somebody doing it significantly better at the expense of payroll flexibility going forward or (the loss of a prospect in a trade)? I’m OK with the balancing act. I’m OK with the decision making. I didn’t expect much, and it’s hard to improve on what we already have.”

Couple these quotes with the recent reports that the Yankees are trying to cut their payroll in anticipation of being below the luxury tax threshold in 2014, and you have the makings of another quiet offseason for a team that seems to need some established starting pitching. However, despite the fairly pervasive reports that the Yankees are unlikely to bid on Darvish, sign a free agent to a large deal, or give up major prospects to acquire a top starter, there is precedent to suggest that Cashman is simply working to muddy the informational waters.

The most famous example comes from late-2005, when Brian claimed that the Yankees were going to enter the 2006 season with Bubba Crosby as the center fielder. No one quite believed it at the time, but most fans were still stunned when Cashman stole Johnny Damon from the Red Sox a few weeks later. Prior to the 2009 season, the Yankees’ GM suggested that the rumors of the Yankees adding Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and either Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett were “crazy talk” from a “fantasy land.” He suggested that even acquiring just Sabathia and Teixeira was a ridiculous idea that had no merit. A scant few weeks later, Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett were all in pinstripes.

On two other occasions, Cashman made forceful public statements only to later be overruled by management. He stated quite clearly that if A-Rod used the opt-out in his contract following the 2007 season, the Yankees would not participate in his free agency. And just last offseason, he declared that he would not surrender his first round pick, only to be effectively overruled by management a few days later when they signed Rafael Soriano.

The fact of the matter is that it is usually in Cashman’s best interests to be less than forthcoming with the entire and absolute truth. It does him nothing but harm to effusively express interest in a free agent or to suggest that the club has major holes that desperately need to be remedied. Furthermore, when it comes to this particular offseason, with Darvish finally on the market, it actually behooves him to actively spread misinformation:

The process of acquiring players from Japanese baseball includes a blind posting system. Interested teams get to make a single bid for the exclusive rights to negotiate with the player, without knowledge of the bids being made by other clubs. Essentially, clubs need to guess at the market and then make their bid accordingly. This can prove to be extremely difficult, as evidenced by the Red Sox’s $51 million bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka, which reportedly exceeded the next highest bid by at least $15 million.

The guesswork nature of this process lends itself towards misinformation. Teams that are interested in Darvish have an incentive to downplay their level of involvement, which could help suppress the market and lower the range of bids. Conversely, teams that have little interest might feign heavy internal consideration of a large bid, so as to drive up the price for rivals and generally push the market upwards. Taken together, this means that almost all of the information you might hear on Darvish, regarding any team, is likely to be filtered through the lens of self-interest and may be being released to influence the bidding environment. As we saw with the Daisuke situation, until the Nippon Ham Fighters announce the winner, everyone will be in the dark on the posting process.

I entered this offseason expecting the Yankees to add some pitching, and I still believe that all the talk of an austerity budget is a ruse designed to keep the bidding on Darvish reasonably low. That said, the events of last offseason, in which Cashman claimed not to feel a desperate need for pitching and then followed through by not adding a major starter all year, give me pause. The Yankees and Brian Cashman may actually feel that Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, and Hector Noesi provide them with enough options to construct a quality rotation behind CC Sabathia. It’s also possible that they are running a misinformation campaign, but one targeted at next offseason and players like Cole Hamels. Whatever the truth is, Brian Cashman’s history suggests that we should not be too quick to believe what we read.