The deep connections between Cliff Lee and CC

Photo credit: Elaine Thompson/AP

The Yankees’ scouts don’t have far to travel tonight. The team, you see, is facing off against a familiar foe and the lefty who currently is in demand across baseball. Cliff Lee will make his first start against the Yanks since the World Series, and while the Yankee offense will try to eke out some runs against a hurler who doesn’t give up many, the front office will be plotting Lee’s future. It is, whether he knows it or not, inextricably tied to CC Sabathia‘s.

With the Mariners at 31-44, 15 games behind the Rangers and going nowhere fast, it is a foregone conclusion that Cliff Lee will don his fourth uniform in two seasons before July is out. Seattle will look to recoup some of their investment while building for a future that still isn’t even on the horizon, and some team looking for an extra push — perhaps the Mets, perhaps the Twins — will land Lee in the biggest blockbuster of the 2010 trade deadline.

The Yankees won’t enter those sweepstakes. Speaking last night at a Times Talk, Brian Cashman said he’s focusing more on the bench and the bullpen. A.J. Burnett‘s recent struggles notwithstanding, they’re quite satisfied with their starting five, and according to Ken Rosenthal’s latest, the price tag could be Jesus Montero and a “solid pitching prospect.” (At the same time, Rosenthal thinks the Mets can land Lee for Josh Thole, Fernando Martinez and a pitcher of a lesser caliber. What?)

Instead, the Yanks will bid on Cliff Lee during the winter. It’s no secret that he’s their number one target, and as he showed while pitching in the World Series for the Phillies last year, he can thrive on the game’s biggest stage. A veteran of the AL, in 86.2 innings this year, Lee has a 2.39 ERA. He’s striking out just under 8 batters per 9 IP and has issued four — 4! — walks all season. Opponents have hit just three long balls off of the southpaw.

In a word, those numbers are sick, and they’re lining Lee up for a handsome payday. Lee turns 32 in August, and the contract he signs this winter will be his last big payday. Based upon the recent deals for A.J. Burnett, John Lackey and Cliff Lee, I believe he’ll get a five-year deal with an option year and an average annual salary of $20-22 million. The Yanks could be nearing a winter where they dole out another nine-figure deal for a left-handed ace.

I say the Yankees so confidently because they need Cliff Lee right now more than just about any other contender. The Red Sox have two hurlers locked into long-term, high-dollar deals. The Mets are on the verge of getting burned by Johan Santana. Few other teams can afford Lee’s price tag or do business that way.

But what, you may ask, of the Yanks’ starters? Their rotation is impressive today when all is going right, but the long-term outlook of the 2010 five is no sure thing. Javier Vazquez is a Type A free agent this winter, and the Yanks will offer him arbitration before letting him walk. Andy Pettitte, despite his stellar first half, has been grumbling about retiring. With those two out of the picture, the need for Lee is clear, and it only becomes clearer when we consider the rest of the rotation.

Beyond Pettitte and Vazquez, the Yanks have young Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia. Hughes will stick around, but the futures for Burnett and Sabathia are hazy. We don’t know if we’re seeing Burnett decline or just suffer through a bad stretch of pitching. We must also consider Sabathia’s opt-out, and it is here that the two are inextricably linked.

If CC Sabathia exercises his opt-out clause following the 2011 season, the Yankees will need an ace to fill the void. By then, A.J. Burnett probably won’t be anything close to a potential number one, and even if Hughes continues his rise, the Yanks will need more pitchers — and a lefty — to fill the holes. With no better pitchers nearing free agency, Cliff Lee, then, is as close to a need as the Yankees have right now.

Even if CC doesn’t opt out, the Yankees will need to fill out their rotation. A.J. Burnett circa 2012 will be an adequate fourth starter, and maybe we’ll see an Andrew Brackman as the fifth starter. But a front three of Lee-Sabathia-Hughes is drool-worthy today. So in a few hours, we’ll see Cliff Lee start, and we just might be watching the future of the Yankees take the mound. Tonight, though, I’ll be rooting against him.

An eye toward the future while retaining the present

Earlier today, Brian Cashman and Randy Levine, center, helped lead the groundbreaking ceremony for Heritage Field. Last night, the two spoke about the Yanks’ organization. (Photo courtesy of the Yankees)

As the Yankee farm system plays host to numerous young stars, the team believes Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will be back in the Bronx next year. That’s the message team president Randy Levine and general manager Brian Cashman delivered at a Times Talk last night.

Speaking to a packed house of fans and reporters, Cashman and Levine expounded on the past, present and future of the Yankees as Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt and later the audience bombarded the two team officials with questions. Levine, though, generated the biggest reaction when he issued his statement on Jeter’s and Rivera’s futures. “We don’t negotiate in public, but I would find it highly, highly unlikely if both of them were not back with the Yankees,” he said. “”Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are the Yankees.”

Cashman, meanwhile, refused to comment as directly on the situation. He declined to respond to an audience member who asked about how A-Rod‘s deal could impact Jeter, and although he said that Jeter “still feels confident” at short and is viewed by the team as a short stop, he chose instead to highlight the team’s minor league stars. The GM spoke glowingly of Jesus Montero, Slade Heathcott, Austin Romine, the newly resurgent Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman as the crown jewels of the system.

The talent, said the GM, stems from the recognition in the mid-2000s that the team just couldn’t spend away its problems. In 2005, the Yanks began to invest in the draft, but Cashman recognized the limitations of that strategy. “I hope,” he said, “we never pick in the top ten of the draft.”

Young and old were the themes throughout the talk, and as Cashman discussed a decade bookended by World Series Championships, he wistfully spoke of a future many of us would prefer to ignore. One day, Mariano Rivera, the Yanks’ “Energizer bunny,” will hang it up. “It’s going to be hell replacing him. He has been the most meaningful Yankee during this stretch,” Cashman said.

With this public approach, Cashman and Levine are playing an interesting game with the near-term future of the organization. As Jeter’s and, to a lesser extent, Mariano’s free agencies loom, all parties have been mum, but the Yanks have quietly and not-so-quietly expressed the belief that they will “take care” of their superstars. As I wrote last September, this statement creates a conundrum. Even as the team says it isn’t negotiating publicly, it has handed significant leverage to a short stop suffering through one of the worst first halves of his career. That four-year, $100-million deal many think may be coming to Jeter after the season ends strikes me as a bad investment.

Still, the Yankee brass have a clear plan. They might be willing to pay for nostalgia, but they know that the future rests with the younger players. As Randy Levine reiterated the team’s approach toward reinvesting revenue in the on-field product, it seemed clear that club officials are eying another decade or two of Yankee dominance.

Beyond the talk of the future, the discussion hit on the issues a Yankee fan would assume they would. After the jump, a rundown. [Read more…]

Yanks win, but don’t hit much, in interleague

Batting average might not be the most useful analytical statistic, but that doesn’t render it useless. Instead, like OBP and FIP, it tells us one thing, namely how frequently the team records a base hit or home run. Like OBP, this is a binary statistic. Either the player recorded a hit or he didn’t. The denominator might present problems, but the stat still serves its purpose. To their credit the Yankees have a high team batting average, .275, fourth in the majors (and fourth in the AL). A few weeks ago, however, they were a bit higher on the list. Interleague play has bumped them down a bit.

Even so, interleague play went pretty well for the Yankees. They lost only one series, but they swept one as well. With their win over the Dodgers on Sunday they finished their NL tour with two wins in every three games, which is a bit better than their overall season win percentage. Yet, again, they did it while lowering their team batting average. The key to winning in the NL, it appears, was the team’s ability to not just hit the ball, but hit the ball hard. The Yankees certainly crushed the ball during the past few weeks.

(Just to be clear, I’m counting the first Mets series in the pre-interleague stats because it would be a pain to subtract that one too.)

Before their game on June 11 against the Astros, the Yankees as a team hit .282. During their 15-game interleague romp that fell all the way to .249. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, since the Yanks had trouble putting men on base in the last two games of the Phillies series, and really even into the Mets series. The team slugging predictably fell, from .452 to .410, but more importantly that also represented a drop in ISO, from .170 to .161. So not only did the Yankees hit the ball less frequently during interleague play, but they also did not hit for as much power.

The Yankees also didn’t get on base at nearly the clip they had achieved earlier in the season. From Opening Day through June 10 the team had a .364 OBP, but from June 11 through last Sunday they were at just a .337 mark. So what, then, did the Yankees do well during interleague? Pitch, of course. They also hit home runs a bit more frequently, once every 30 PA, against one every 33.87 PA earlier in the season. That might not seem like a huge change, but for two players it was.

The core of the lineup, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, started blasting the ball when facing NL opponents. To start the season Teixeira hit a home run every 30.68 plate appearances. During interleague he hit one every 16.75 PA. A-Rod showed even more improvement, hitting one every 31.86 PA before, and one every 15.67 during the NL stretch. Both of these are close to their career marks. A-Rod has hit a home run ever 16.69 plate appearances in his career, while Teixeira has hit one every 19.53 PA.

Clearly, A-Rod and Teixeira are among the heroes of interleague. Teixeira hit .246/.358/.474 overall, meaning he’s showing power and patience but still not the ability to find the open field consistently. (He would have hit .280/.388/.509 with just two more singles.) A-Rod similarly hit for a poor BA but made up for it otherwise, hitting .256/.362/.563 in his 47 interleague PA. Robinson Cano also hit well, though not like his overall season, at .293/.369/.500 in interleague. Brett Gardner was the beastliest of them all, hitting .349/.440/.395. Jorge Posada, too, crushed the ball, .268/.373/.512.

The laggards? They include Nick Swisher (.233/.288/.350), Derek Jeter (.241/.343/.379 — though we’ll forgive him because he walked in 13.4 percent of his PA), Curtis Granderson (.200/.267/.400), and Frankie Cervelli (.267/.290/.400). It’s not that they performed excruciatingly poorly — nearly half of Granderson’s hits went for extra bases, Swisher’s 14 hits ranked third on the team in that span, and Cervelli did hit for some power — but rather it’s just the random fluctuations of baseball. Some guys will hit well and some guys will hit poorly. The Yankees just happen to get their best performances from their best players, Jeter notwithstanding. That’s certainly a positive.

What we’re looking for with the return to the AL is for the offense to all fire at once. If Teixeira’s and A-Rod’s recent performances are indicative of their return to form, the offense could become something special. We might not see it immediately — the Yankees do, after all, face Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez in the next two games — but by the All-Star break we could see what this offense can really do. I said it before the season and I’ll say it again: this offense has the potential to be better than last year’s. With a few breaks we just might see it in action soon.

Tickets available for tonight’s game

A reader has a pair of tickets available for tonight’s Phil Hughes-Cliff Lee matchup that they’re trying to get rid of. The seats are located in Section 234, Row 12, Seats 19 & 20. That’s the main level in leftfield, right under the Audi Club in fair territory. Face value is $50, so it’s $100 for the pair, but the seller is willing to take the best offer as well. The tickets can be emailed, which is always nice and easy.

If you’re interested, just email me using the link on the right and I’ll put you in contact with the seller. Remember, Hughes vs. Lee!

Update (11:45am): The tickets have been claimed.

Possible trade target: Octavio Dotel

The Yankees and Pirates have developed a bit of a big brother-little brother relationship over the last few seasons. Whenever little brother has something that big brother wants, big brother imposes his will on little brother and takes it away. In exchange, big brother will give whatever he doesn’t want to little brother. The Yanks poached Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady from Pittsburgh in 2008, then turned the same trick last year when they grabbed Eric Hinske (and money to pay half his salary!), and in the meantime they’ve been sending their scraps (Steven Jackson, Eric Hacker, Casey Erickson, etc.) to the Steel City.

With an obvious need for a late inning arm in the bullpen, the Yanks could again turn to their little brother in Western Pennsylvania, who have a productive closer and no real need for one. We’ve already looked at trade scenarios involving Jeff Keppinger, Ty Wigginton, and David DeJesus, but now let’s turn our attention to the mound and our old buddy Octavio Dotel.

Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

Obviously, the Yanks already have a history with Dotel. They signed him to one year deal worth $2M with a bunch of incentives prior to the 2006 season, when the former Met was working his way back from Tommy John surgery. He ultimately appeared in just 14 late seasons games for the Bombers, and predictably battled control issues (very common after elbow surgery) as he pitched to a 7.50 xFIP in ten measly innings. The two sides parted ways after the season, and Dotel has since pitched for Royals, Braves, White Sox, and now Pirates.

The now 36-year-old righty has changed a bit through the years, replacing the upper-90’s gas with a low-90’s heater while scaling back it’s usage a bit in favor of a curveball. He’s still got the wipeout slider and still racks up a ton of strikeouts, but the walks have increased and so have the fly balls. The elbow has yet to give Dotel any more trouble, but he has dealt with some oblique issues (including this spring) and had a shoulder strain back in 2007. Any pitcher can hurt his arm at any given moment, but it’s less of a concern when the guy is on a short contract.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

That short contract will pay Dotel about $1.9M the rest of the season, and there’s a $500,000 buyout for his $4.5M option for next season. He projects to be a Type-B free agent quite comfortably, so if whatever team holds his rights at the end of the season is feeling frisky, they could decline his option and offer him arbitration for a shot at a supplement first round draft pick. On the downside, he could accept and be looking at an arbitration award north of $4M (ooo saves, shiny).

While it’s clear that the Yankees could use another end game arm, I’m not 100% convinced that Dotel is the answer. His walk and homerun rates aren’t necessarily a deal breaker, but they’re not the kinds of characteristics you want to see in a high leverage reliever. Experience certainly counts for something (to his credit, Dotel’s been pitching in high leverage spots his entire career), but it won’t overcome 5.34 BB/9 and 54.2% fly balls in a park that’s inflated homerun totals by something like 32% since being opened (using ESPN’s park factors). The element of name recognition comes into play here, so Dotel’s trade value is going to be perceived to be higher than his actual value.

Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator pegs Dotel’s trade value at $5M in the best case scenario, which is equivalent to a Grade-B hitting prospect or two Grade-C pitching prospects under the age of 22 according to Victor Wang’s research. Think Corban Joseph or Jairo Heredia and Nik Turley, something along those lines. For a three or four month rental of an inherently volatile reliever? I think I’ll pass.

* * *

Related Aside: Look at how many relievers have been traded on the deadline. Too many to count. How many went on to be productive for their new team? A whole lot less, that’s for sure. The position is just so unpredictable, it doesn’t matter how good a guy’s track record is when you acquire him. He might suck unexpectedly and for no reason whatsoever. That’s why I hate spending big money and giving multiple years to bullpeners.

Starting the bullpen carousel

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Sometimes your options are so poor that it really doesn’t matter what you do. That’s the situation at the back of the Yankees’ bullpen right now. Chan Ho Park, Chad Gaudin, and Boone Logan have provided so little value that, in theory, you could call up a random AAA reliever to replace them and you’d realize equal, if not better, results. That appears to be just what the Yankees will do. By all appearances, Dustin Moseley will join the team tomorrow at the Stadium.

We learned yesterday that Moseley has an out clause in his contract that allows him to elect free agency if not on the 25-man roster by July 1. Last night he was scheduled to make his final start before that date, but as Donnie Collins reported in the early evening, Moseley would not make his start. Collins went on to confirm that the move did not involve an injury, and later that Moseley was throwing in the bullpen. That sounds like we’re just an official announcement away from seeing Moseley join the team.

That means the Yankees will have to jettison one of those three underachievers. Since they have a 40-man roster spot free they could simply option Logan and let that be that. That way they could keep both Gaudin and Park on the major league roster while stowing away Logan for depth. It sounds like the most likely move from a GM who covets his depth. But at this point I’m not sure it’s the correct move.

What, exactly, do the Yankees think they’re going to get from Chad Gaudin? Pick a stat, either results- or peripheral-based, and you’ll see nothing but dreck. ERA: 6.89, FIP: 6.10, xFIP 4.57, tERA 5.96. Oh, he has a 3.84 SIERA. His numbers have improved a bit since joining the Yankees, so maybe he’s not a total waste. But that doesn’t mean the Yankees have to keep him around. They can try to do better than simply not a total waste.

Now seems like as good a time as ever to start sending the bullpen cart to Scranton and picking up random relievers for auditions. Moseley starts on Tuesday. Albaladejo figures to get a shot soon enough, probably at the expense of Park or Logan. Moseley will get a few chances, and a lack of success will lead to his release, only to be replaced by someone like Romulo Sanchez or Jason Hirsh. Better to find out what they have now, rather than try to deal for someone at the deadline when there’s an answer right under their noses.

Will Moseley, or any of these guys for that matter, prove the answer to the Yankees’ bullpen issues? Probably not. But chances are they won’t provide a necessarily worse option than Park or Logan or Gaudin. At this point there isn’t really a reason for Gaudin to be on the team. Someone will have to go, regardless, when Sergio Mitre returns from his DL stint. Why not DFA the guy who will be DFA’d at some point anyway? At least that way Girardi will get to keep his coveted double-lefty tandem.

Another big day for Sanchez, but GCL Yanks lose

Remember Rafael DePaula, the Dominican righty the Yankees were pursuing? Turns out he lied about his age and identity. I don’t know what’s next for him because he’s already been suspended for this once before, but it obviously doesn’t help his stock.

Triple-A Scranton (7-6 win over Rochester)
Justin Christian, LF & Reid Gorecki, CF: both 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 K
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 1 for 3, 2 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 2 E (fielding, missed catch) – forget the homer, that’s his fifth walk in the last four games … he has 19 all season!
Jesus Montero, DH: 0 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB
Jorge Vazquez, 1B: 2 for 4, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 K – 12 for his last 38 (.316)with five doubles & two homers
Reegie Corona, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 2B, 1 SB
Rene Rivera, C: 0 for 4, 1 K
Eric Bruntlett, 3B: 0 for 2, 1 BB
Greg Golson, RF: 0 for 3, 2 K – five for his last 32 (.156)
The Ghost of Kei Igawa: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 8-6 GB/FB - 43 of 83 pitches were strikes (51.9%) … in case you missed it, Dustin Moseley was scratched from this start, three days before his opt-out clause kicks in … not bad for a spot start
Zach Segovia: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 14 of his 20 pitches were strikes
Royce Ring: 1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 3-0 GB/FB – 12 of his 20 pitches were strikes
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K – 12 of his 20 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]