2012 Season Preview: Contract Years

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

Don't go Mo. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The Yankees are known for their free-spending ways, and while that may be scaled back in the near future, the team still has plenty of roster and financial decisions to make. Eight players on the club’s projected 25-man Opening Day roster are scheduled to become free agents after the season, assuming the no-brainer 2013 options for Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson are exercised. No less than four of those eight impending free agents can be considered critical pieces of the roster.

Things have a way of changing over the course of a 162-game season (plus playoffs), but the Yankees are going to have some tough choices to make in about eight months. In some cases, the may not have a choice at all.

Freddy Garcia
The Yankees quickly re-signed Garcia to a one-year, $4M contract early this offseason, but now he’s an extra piece. It’s easy to say they jumped the gun and should have waited to re-sign him, but they got him on such ridiculously favorable terms compared to what similar pitchers — Bruce Chen (2/9), Chris Capuano (2/10), and Aaron Harang (2/12) — received this winter that the Yankees will have no trouble trading him later this summer if they decided to go that route. Pitching depth is never a bad thing, and even if the fifth starter competition is rigged, I’m sure we’ll see Sweaty Freddy make some starts this year. Right now, it seems all but certain that Garcia will move on to another team as a free agent next offseason.

Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez & Eric Chavez
Three spare parts on cheap one-year contracts, Ibanez ($1.1M) will be the left-handed half of the DH platoon while Chavez ($900k) backs up both corner infield spots. Jones ($2M) will get playing time against southpaws, either in the field or at DH. None of the three players are all that crucial to the team’s short- or long-term success, with Andruw representing the most indispensable part. That said, he’s on the short end of a platoon. Injuries have a way of forcing guys like these into larger roles than expected. Jones will be the priority re-sign after the season if all goes well, but the other two will have to wait like they did this winter.

Hiroki Kuroda
The 37-year-old Kuroda was non-committal about his future when he arrived at camp a few weeks ago, instead saying he’s ready “to give 100% and contribute to the Yankees as much as possible.” Hal Steinbrenner agreed to expand the budget to sign the veteran right-hander for $10M, a signing of tremendous importance that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves because of the Michael Pineda trade.

With youngsters Pineda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes in the rotation, Kuroda and CC Sabathia will be counted on to provide stability and innings every five days. He’s being reunited with former Dodgers battery-mate Russell Martin, which will hopefully get his ground ball rate back into the 50% range after a one-year hiatus. There’s no secret regarding Kuroda’s status with the team; he’s a one-year stopgap brought in to solidify the rotation while the younger pitchers take their lumps. If he performs well and is willing to return in 2013, I’m sure the Yankees would welcome him. If not, then no big deal. Both parties will move on.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
The Yankees have already touched base with Martin’s camp about a three-year contract extension, but talks are now on hold until after the season. Yadier Molina’s hilariously huge contract (five years, $75M with an option and a no-trade clause) is a total game-changer, raising the salary bar for above average catchers in their prime years substantially. Martin will benefit, the Yankees will not if they choose to re-sign him.

While Austin Romine and Frankie Cervelli represent viable and payroll friendly alternatives, there is definite value in having a guy like Martin around for the next few seasons. He can ease the transition of the youngsters and provide some certainty at a position where so many teams have none at all. By no means is Martin a star, but he fits the Yankees well and there are several reasons for the team to re-sign him after the season. Molina’s contract will make that extraordinarily difficult, as the Rangers and Diamondbacks learned when impending free agents Mike Napoli and Miguel Montero abruptly ended extension talks this week.

Nick Swisher
Unlike Martin, the Yankees have not approached their right fielder about any kind of contract extension. Also unlike Martin, the Yankees don’t have an obvious, in-house replacement for Swisher. Things could change during the course of the summer, but as of today there’s no player in the system who you could point to as a viable corner outfielder for 2013.

Swisher has made it obvious that he loves playing for the Yankees, but he also said he won’t force the issue and is willing to test the free agent waters next winter. Concerns about a down walk year because of his playoff failures (and thus his “inability to handle pressure”) are misguided because Swisher was playing for a contract last season too. If he performed poorly, he was faced with the same fate as today: heading out onto the open market coming off a bad season on the wrong side of 30. The Yankees seem more content to play this one by ear, mostly because finding a replacement corner outfielder won’t be as difficult as say, finding a replacement catcher. That said, Swisher is a pretty important piece of the offense and losing his production would hurt.

Mariano Rivera
Based on his comments from a few weeks ago, the Yankees may not have a choice when it comes to retaining Rivera after the season. The greatest relief pitcher in the history of the universe hinted at retirement his first day at Spring Training, saying he’s made a decision about his future and won’t change his mind even if he saves a zillion games or if they offer him a zillion dollars. That seems like a weird thing to say if he was planning on giving it another go in 2013.

Mo is the only player in this post the Yankees would absolutely, no doubt about it retain after the season if given the chance. Other roster decisions would be based on him and around his new contract, which is something that applies to very few players in today’s game. The Yankees have plenty of potential replacements should Rivera hang ’em up after 2012, but a pitching staff is a unique thing. They could carry Rivera and his potential replacements at the same time, unlike say Martin, Romine, and Cervelli. This is pretty much out of the Yankees’ hands. If Mo is willing to come back next year, they’ll bring him back. If not, well then we’ll see him in Cooperstown in six years.

Mailbag: A-Rod, LHP, Lineup, A’s, Mo

Six questions but five answers this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything, whether it be mailbag questions or something else entirely.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

EJ asks: Do A-Rod‘s financial bonus achievements impact the salary cap? That is, I believe that if A-Rod reaches certain homerun lifetime milestones, he receives X amount of dollars. Does this money belong to part of the equation for calculating the team payroll amount and thus be part of the luxury tax? Would that amount that he would receive be part of that year that he reached the milestone alone or would it be divided equally by the length remaining on the contract? Could this impact the plan to lower the payroll in 2014?

Alex Rodriguez will get a $6M bonus for each of his 660th, 714th, 755th, 762nd, and 763rd career homers, and bonuses do count towards the luxury tax. I’m not 100% sure, but I do believe they’re applied to the year they are earned as far as the tax is concerned, not spread out over the life of the contract. A-Rod is at 629 career homers this season, so hopefully he starts approaching a few of those milestones by 2014. The Yankees are going to have to leave some room for those bonuses in their payroll that season to avoid going over the $189M threshold.

Mark asks: With Andruw Jones as the LF/DH against LHP, does it look like Eduardo Nunez and Francisco Cervelli will be seeing regular playing time against southpaws?

I don’t think Cervelli will see regular playing time against lefties, chances are Joe Girardi will let him be CC Sabathia‘s personal catcher again and get him into the lineup once or twice a week that way. As for Nunez, I can absolutely see him getting regular at-bats against southpaws, playing either short or third while Derek Jeter or A-Rod get the day at DH. He’s hit lefties (.317 wOBA) better than righties (.298) in his short big league career, and he has shown a similar split in the minors. The Yankees seem pretty intent on getting Eduardo Scissorhands a decent amount of plate appearances in 2012, and this is one way to do it.

Jon asks: With Robinson Cano pretty much entrenched as the #3 hitter, where does that leave Mark Teixeira? Is he the #5? Does Andruw Jones (when he plays) or Nick Swisher have a chance to be the #5?

I think the most likely 3-4-5 lineup to open the season is Cano, A-Rod, and Tex. Teixeira did have a disappointing year in 2011, but he remains one of the game’s very best power hitters (39 HR and a .246 ISO last season) and batting him any lower that fifth strikes me as foolish. I think you’ll see Swisher bat sixth and Raul Ibanez seventh against right-handers but Jones sixth and Swisher seventh against southpaws. As long as Cano, A-Rod, Tex, and Curtis Granderson are four of the first five hitters in the lineup, I won’t have any major issues with the batting order.

(REUTERS/Alex Gallardo)

Max asks: Scott Sizemore is out for the season. Any chance the A’s want Nunez for, say, an outfield prospect? Is there anyone in the A’s farm you’d want to pursue that’s reasonably available?

Nick asks: Do you think the Yankees could target one of the A’s extra outfielders as a cheaper alternative to Swisher next offseason? Collin Cowgill? He doesn’t seem to have a spot in the Oakland outfield and the Yankees could stick him in AAA until next season.

Might as well lump these two together. I wouldn’t trade Nunez to the Athletics unless the Yankees would be getting a “significant” piece back just because he’s the team’s only legitimate backup infielder. If Jeter gets hurt and misses a month again, I’d much rather see Nunez out there for 30 games than Ramiro Pena. “Significant” is up for a debate, obviously. I’m not talking about a top 100 prospect or anything, but it would have to be a young, everyday caliber player right on the cusp of the show, an outfielder preferably. Michael Taylor makes some sense (though I’m not his biggest fan), but I don’t really buy Cowgill as an everyday guy on a contender.

I think a trade involving Brandon Laird would be more likely, though I don’t believe his trade value is all that high. A Laird-for-Cowgill swap would be an easy win for the Yankees. The A’s say they’re going to stick with their in-house options to replace Sizemore, specifically converted catcher Josh Donaldson. If that doesn’t work out, the two sides could always get together for a trade a couple months into the season. The Yankees are the ones with the luxury of time here, the A’s are the ones pressed to make a swap.

Marc asks: Clearly Mo is the greatest and we’ve had the joy in watching him dominate over the years. But what few current players get the honor of saying they hit Mo pretty well?

Over the course of his career, Mariano Rivera has held hitters to a .210/.262/.290 batting line (.552 OPS) in 4,815 plate appearances. After the jump is a big huge table listing all active players with at least a .552 OPS against Rivera, min. 10 PA.

[Read more…]

Link: Remembering the Yankees when they were bad

As Yankee fans in the early 21st Century, we have it good. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s barely remembers the team when they were bad, and fans who came of age during the last 17 seasons know only the good. In fact, most Yankee fans alive today know only the good. In the team’s history there are only three distinct periods of bad: the Don Mattingly years, the New York Highlander years and that time from the end of the Mick’s playing days until 1976.

That second era of bad Yankee years started in around 1965 when my dad was a teenager. After losing the 1964 World Series, the Yanks finished 6th, 10th, 9th, 5th and 5th again, and they lost Mickey Mantle, a generation-defining great. For those who came of age, then, during that late 1960s/early 1970s period, this Dan Barry piece in The Times should ring true. He came of age during one of those rare moments in Yankee history when the team bad. When he was 8, the Yanks finished in last place; when I was 7 the 1990 Yankees accomplished the same feat.

Today, we forgot those eras when another team ruled New York. In the early 20th Century, the Giants captured the town while the 1969 Mets and 1986 Mets were the feel-good stories those years. Today and for most of the past two decades, it’s always been about the Yanks. Maybe one day, they’ll be a so-called second division team, but it’s tough to say when. They just keeping winning, and those of us who remember the mid-1960s or early 1990s think of those seasons, rightly so, as blips on the long-running Yankee radar of greatness.

Mark Teixeira hires agent Casey Close

Via Jon Heyman, Mark Teixeira has hired Casey Close to be his new agent after dropping Scott Boras almost one year ago to the day. Close — who the Yankees selected in the seventh round of the 1986 draft — also represents Derek Jeter and former Yankees Tyler Clippard, Jerry Hairston Jr., and Marcus Thames. Teixeira still has five years and $112.5M left on the eight-year, $180M contract Boras got him prior to 2009, so the switch to Close has no impact as far as we’re concerned. He’s probably just handling behind the scenes stuff we couldn’t care less about.

Open Thread: 3/1 Camp Notes

Improv!

Short day in Tampa because the Yankees had their annual team bonding experience in the afternoon, which was held in a comedy club. The players performed pre-written sketches while others were improvised. Apparently Freddy Garcia and Hiroki Kuroda did an Egyptian dance to Notorious B.I.G and Mark Teixeira was the MVP of the event. I dig it, nothing brings people together like forcing them into uncomfortable situations with each other. Sounds like a good time was had by all. Here’s the latest from camp…

  • Chad Jennings is the man with the pitching and hitting plans. Every big league starter threw live batting practice today except for Ivan Nova, who threw a bullpen session as a tuneup for Saturday’s start against the Phillies. Everyone but Austin Romine (back) took their swings.
  • Robinson Cano was back in camp after spending a few days in the Dominican Republic following his grandmother’s death. He hit in the cage with hitting coach Kevin Long and then later out on the field. [Erik Boland]
  • Joba Chamberlain felt no lingering stiffness or soreness following his first full mound session on Tuesday, and the plan is to have him throw 3-5 more fastball-only sessions before mixing in some breaking balls. [George King]
  • George Kontos is scheduled to throw tomorrow for the first time since tweaking his oblique last week while Manny Delcarmen will miss a few days with a lat problem. David Robertson and Rafael Soriano will throw in the bullpen tomorrow. [Jennings]
  • Non-Yankees Injury News: A.J. Burnett broke the orbital bone around his right eye yesterday when that bunt hit him in the face. He’s going to have surgery tomorrow and they won’t know how long he’ll out until after the procedure. That really sucks. Why are pitchers hitting again? [Pirates]
  • Adam Warren gets the start against the University of South Florida tomorrow, a game that will not be televised. Joe Girardi said all of his regulars except Cano will play, with the infielders getting two at-bats while the outfielders get one. Cano will play in Saturday’s game against the Phillies, as will the starting outfield. That game will be on MLB Network, and it looks like future Yankee Cole Hamels will be the opposing starter. [Mark Feinsand]

Here is tonight’s open thread. All three hockey locals are in action tonight, but feel free to talk about whatever you want here. Have at it.

[Photo via Marc Carig]

Hal Steinbrenner confirms 2014 austerity plan

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

It’s been more than three months since we first heard about the Yankees’ intentions to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014, but now we finally have confirmation from ownership. Hal Steinbrenner spoke to reporters briefly this morning, making it clear that talk about the austerity budget isn’t just for show. Courtesy of Marc Carig and Chad Jennings

“The [$189M payroll] in two years is definitely a goal of ours,” Steinbrenner said. “We’re not too far off. We’re going to have a very similar payroll this year to last year, but I think we have a better team. Somewhat of an accomplishment I guess, on paper anyway. We’ll see. But yes, that 189 is a real number, and we’re going to be shooting for it.

“I’m a finance geek, I guess I always have been. That’s my background. Budgets matter and balance sheets matter. I just feel that if you do well on the player development side, and you have a good farm system, you don’t need a $220M payroll. You don’t. You can field every bit as good a team with young talent. When you consider (Manny) Banuelos and (Dellin) Betances and some of the pitching we have coming up with (Ivan) Nova and (Phil) Hughes and (Michael) Pineda, next year, when one of those two or both of those guys are up, we’re going to have the kind of young pitching we haven’t had since … I don’t know when the last time was.

“Luxury tax is an option; it’s a personal option. We do it. We go into it knowing exactly what we’re doing. Being the only team that does it, I’m just not convinced we need to be as high as we’ve been in the past to field a championship caliber team … I’m looking at it as a goal. But my goals are normally considered a requirement. Is it a requirement with baseball that we be at $189M? No, it’s not a requirement. But that is going to be the luxury tax threshold and that’s where I want to be.”

I sense a collective freakout coming on, but I think Hal laid things out well. He didn’t say they were unwilling to pay the luxury tax (they obviously are), just that they feel they can win a championship without paying it. We all know he’s right, we it happen almost every year.

Dave Pinto had a great take on the whole austerity budget thing, saying the Yankees essentially want to become “the Rays with money.” That means develop a core from within, then use the payroll advantage to add high-end free agents/trades strategically rather than necessarily. It’s exactly how the late-90s dynasty was built. It would make the Yankees crazy dangerous, but it’s much easier said than done.

The team’s current payroll is somewhere in the $225M range, so getting it down to $189M in two years will be no small feat. Shedding the Rafael Soriano, A.J. Burnett, and (sadly) Mariano Rivera contracts will account for roughly $39M in savings alone, but it’s not that simple. Robinson Cano is due a substantial contract extension, both Nova and Pineda will be arbitration-eligible by 2014, the trio of Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Russell Martin will either have to be re-signed or replaced, and so on. It’s doable, but it won’t be easy. The club seems very committed, however.

2012 Season Preview: Part-Time Help

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

Via Reuters Pictures

A full-time DH is something we’ve grown accustomed to. From Jason Giambi to Hideki Matsui to Nick Johnson to Jorge Posada, the Yankees have entered each of the previous six seasons with a guy whose only job was to hit. Yet in recent years those plans have gone awry. Last year Posada became a platoon player when his futility as a right-handed hitter became evident. Johnson got hurt within the first month of 2010. Matsui missed 63 games in 2008 with knee troubles. Giambi’s injury history runs pages, including a big chunk of the 2007 season.

This year, they’re trying something different. While they brought in Raul Ibanez, he’s by no means the full-time DH. He’ll fill a platoon role, taking reps mostly against right-handed pitchers. Against lefties, however, not only will Ibanez sit, but the lineup as a whole could see some interesting changes. The Yankees can afford to do this, because they’ve employed useful part-time players. They should make the Yankees more flexible in 2012.

Raul Ibanez

For most of the off-season, the idea of Raul Ibanez on the Yankees wasn’t even considered. They already had a full outfield plus a DH, and a reunion with Andruw Jones seemed probable. Combine that with Ibanez’s poor 2011 season, at age 39, and the idea was a complete non-starter. That is, until the Yankees swapped their young DH for a young pitcher. That opened up a roster spot, which started the discussion about which left-handed bat would best fit. From the start, though, the Yanks had their eye on Ibanez.

The hope, apparently, is not only that he can bounce back at age 40, but also that a role that pits him primarily against right-handers will help bolster his production. After all, from 2001 through 2010 his OBP never dipped below .342 against right-handed pitchers, and his SLG never dipped below .442. In 2010 he hit .277/.366/.455 against righties. Still, his numbers last year, .256/.307/.440 in 402 at-bats, don’t bode well for his future. Not for a guy who turns 40 in early June.

Still, in Ibanez the Yankees have a low-cost option to whom no one is attached. That is, if he pulls a Randy Winn the Yankees can simply give him the Randy Winn treatment, DFAing him in May if it comes to that. (And who knows, by that point Johnny Damon might still be available.) Given his age and performance, it’s tough to expect much from him.

Andruw Jones

Last year, it appeared that Jones was on his way to being 2011’s Winn. In 2009 and 2010 Jones started strong, but his production started to dip in May. In 2011 he never even got that head start. By the All-Star break he was hitting .195/.278/.356 in 97 PA. The lack of production combined with the minimal playing time portended an imminent release — perhaps after the Yankees acquired a replacement on the trade market.

Jones made some adjustments, thanks to a call from his mom, and tore through the second half. He started 31 games, got into 41, and hit .291/.416/.612 in 126 PA. This year he’s back, as he says, to take someone’s job. That could come in handy, should Ibanez falter.

It’s tough to set reasonable expectations for Jones at this point. His numbers started to decline precipitously at age 30, after he he produced two of his best-ever offensive seasons at ages 28 and 29. But his numbers have been back on the rise as he enters his mid-30s. By all accounts he’s a man on a mission, trimmer than ever and ready to go with a repaired left knee. Even if he is healthy and ready, can his performance scale? He had only 222 PA last year. How will he fare with double that?

Eduardo Nunez

It seems that the biggest controversies arise over part-time players. Is Eduardo Nunez a future starter? Is he inadequate, given his defensive miscues, for even a reserve role? Yankees fans debate Nunez far more than his playing time warrants. In his current role of backup middle infielder, he suffices. He’s not without his shortcomings, but that’s precisely why he’s a reserve.

With both Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez spending time on the DL last year, Nunez did get a fair share of playing time, 338 PA in 112 games. In that time he predictably produced below-average numbers, though not horribly so; a .265/.313/.385 line amounted to an 84 OPS+. He showed some pop at times, socking over 30 percent of his hits for extra bases. Some improvement, both on offense and defense, in his age-25 season, could go a long way.

The only issue for Nunez is the same one he had last year: playing time. A big chunk of his playing time came during two spans: first when Jeter was on the DL, and then when Rodriguez was on the DL and Eric Chavez had not returned. His biggest opportunity for playing time could come against left-handed pitching. If Jones is in for Brett Gardner in left, that still leaves the DH spot vacant. Rodriguez, or even Jeter on occasion, could slide into the DH spot, leaving some playing time for Nunez.

Eric Chavez

The Yankees enjoyed Chavez’s presence last year, enough so that they brought him back when it seems fairly unnecessary. During the winter the Yankees talked about getting Nunez more playing time, but Chavez only eats into that. While he does provide a left-handed look off the bench, something they might not have if Ibanez has been in the lineup that day, his overall role remains difficult to decipher.

Basically, Chavez’s role is Rodriguez insurance. If he needs days off against righties, then maybe Chavez gets more playing time. But how many days off is Rodriguez really going to get if he’s healthy? It seems, then, that Chavez is there in case Rodriguez gets hurt — which is not an ideal role for him, since he himself gets hurt frequently enough. He might be a nice player to have around, but it’s hard to envision his role on the 2012 Yankees.

Francisco Cervelli

Cervelli is what he is: a backup catcher. There’s really not much more to say than that. He has some defensive issues, sure. Just as he over-exaggerates his fist pumps, he over-exaggerates his pitch framing. He’s not very proficient at picking off base runners. But he’s not quite a terrible hitter. In 2010, pressed into semi-regular duty, he hit .271/.359/.335. In 2011, as Russell Martin‘s primary backup, he hit .266/.324/.395. Those aren’t standout numbers, but they’re only slightly below average. Many, if not most, teams wish they had a backup catcher who could produce that kind offense.

* * *

In the last few years we’ve seen the Yankees put a greater emphasis on their bench. This allows them to be a bit more flexible. It affords veterans days off without the team losing too much production. It also allows them to use players in their optimal roles. That is, they can platoon players who need it, because they have a complementary player. Given the general state of the Yankees’ starting offense, the bench might make only a one- or two-win difference in any given year. But in the dogfight that is the AL East, that can play a large role in the end-of-year standings — even more so now that winning the division is that much more important.