The Spending Spree, Three Years Later

Bumping this back up top because it quickly got buried by the Hiroyuki Nakajima news this morning.

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

This is RAB’s fourth year at the Winter Meetings and my third year, personally. The first time we were here was the 2008-2009 offseason, which is easily the most memorable winter in recent Yankees memory. Brian Cashman famously left Las Vegas and headed to Northern California to put the finishing touches on CC Sabathia‘s contract, and a few days later they added A.J. Burnett to the mix as well. Nick Swisher had joined the team a few weeks earlier, and Mark Teixeira was still a few weeks away from spurning the Red Sox at the last minute.

That was a franchise-altering week, one that contributed to the 2009 World Championship and still affects the Yankees’ moves today. They’re reportedly willing to eat money to move Burnett and the two years left on the contract he signed during that week in Vegas, and the opt-out clause Cashman gave Sabathia in NorCal resulted in a new extension a few weeks ago. The Yankees are flirting with a $195M payroll at the moment, thanks in large part due to the 2008-2009 offseason.

“We had a lot of money coming off of our payroll in ’08,” said Cashman to reporters yesterday. “So the decisions we made in the winter of ‘09, that was kind of like our 2010 and 2011 Winter Meetings combined. We’re still living off a lot of those decisions that we made that winter, and it’s benefited us. We’ve improved our club or tried to in various ways since then, but that obviously was a big, defining winter for us, no different than what Miami seems to be trying to do right now for them.”

Cashman stuck with the company line yesterday, reiterating that he is not optimistic about making any kind of significant deal this week. The team appears unwilling to open its wallets for anything less than a pitcher they consider a frontline guy in the AL East, but maybe that would be different if they didn’t already have so much money on the books. That’s the downside of selling out for big name free agents three years ago, though the upside was oh so good.

Scouting the Trade Market: Scott Baker

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

I’ll preface this by saying that nowhere have I read that the Twins are interested in moving Scott Baker, nor have I read that the Yankees would have any interest in acquiring him. This is simply pure Hot Stove speculation, taking a statistical look at whether or not a given player fits the team’s needs.

Mike reviewed a potential Baker acquisition last offseason, and concluded that, while the fly-ball percentages have been downright scary (his 45.0% FB% since 2007 is the 3rd-highest among AL pitchers during that time; though interestingly Jered Weaver tops the list), the minuscule walk rate (9th-lowest in the AL during that same time, and four of the players ahead of him on that list are no longer in the junior circuit) has helped mitigate some of the long ball damage, the right-handed Baker would be an asset to the Yankee rotation, fly-ball tendencies be damned. Mike also noted that the Twins’ asking price would likely be Banuelos or Betances due to Baker’s solid track record and team-friendly contract, and while Baker could be a helpful mid-rotation piece, there’s obviously zero chance the Yankees would surrender either pitcher for a slightly above-league average pitcher with a fly-ball rate that would make Phil Hughes (45.2% since 2007) jealous.

However, Baker just concluded the finest season of his career, and with the Twins a few years away from returning to contention no matter how wide-open the AL Central always seems to be, perhaps they’d entertain the thought of moving Baker, who, it should be noted faced the third-toughest Quality of Opponent in all of MLB in 2011 (which admittedly was the impetus behind this post). After all, they finally traded the long-rumored-to-be-on-the-move Kevin Slowey to the Rockies yesterday, and while Slowey and Baker aren’t quite in the same league pitching-wise, they’re also not that different.

Additionally, were the Twins open to trading him there’s no way they could realistically expect a Killer B, now that he has one year left on the extension he signed back in 2009 that will pay him $6.5 million for his services this coming year — his age 30 season — with a $9.5 million option for 2013. Not only that, but I’m actually fairly surprised that Baker hasn’t already been run out of town given that his K/9 jumped up above 8.0 per nine to a career-high 8.22 that would’ve been the 10th-best rate in the AL had he had enough innings to qualify. Certain Twins fans may realize the importance of the almighty K, but Minnesota’s modus operandi has been pitching-to-contact for as long as I can remember.

Here’s a snapshot of Baker’s career:

Baker posted career-bests nearly across the board in 2011, although while he had a very nice (if injury-shortened) year I don’t think we can reasonably conclude that Baker’s all of a sudden now a true talent 3.14 ERA/3.45 FIP pitcher unless he’s found something/made some kind of adjustment that will limit the home runs going forward. His 2011 BABIP was right in line with his career mark even though his strand rate was at an all-time high, yet he posted a lower GB% rate (34.3%) than he did in 2010 and a slightly higher FB% (44.7%). xFIP saw him as a 3.61 ERA pitcher, which seems a bit more realistic, although those expecting the career 4.12 hurler to post a mark in the mid-3.00s could be a bit disappointed.

Given that his rate stats don’t appear to be able to explain Baker’s improvements across the board, I was curious to see whether he’d made any adjustments to the way he went after hitters. Here’s a breakdown of Baker’s repertoire over the last three seasons, courtesy of

According to the PITCHf/x data, current-day Scott Baker is ostensibly a three-pitch pitcher: two fastballs, the requisite four-seamer and a sinker, and a slider. He has a changeup, but only threw it 5% of the time last season. However, if the PITCHf/x data is to be believed, Baker completely overhauled his arsenal in 2011.

In 2010 he threw a four-seamer 44.4% of the time; according to this data in 2011 that fell all the way down to just 8.5%. Apparently all those heaters were replaced with what the system classified as a sinker (though the previous two years of data had it as a two-seamer), which Baker threw 57.7% of the time this past season, up from 18.1% in 2010 and just 4.1% in 2009. Now, the usual caveats with pitch classification apply, and it’s likely that a fair percentage of Baker’s four-seamers were misclassified as sinkers, although per this article from July, it sounds like Baker does actually throw a sinker now.

Still, even if he did increase his sinker deployment, it seems highly unlikely he threw them nearly 60% of the time this past season, as he almost certainly would’ve generated a higher ground-ball rate. The 10.2% Whiff% on the sinker lends additional credence to the misclassification, as it seems highly unlikely that Baker would double the league-average Whiff rate on a pitch that carries the lowest average Whiff rate among all pitches for right-handed pitchers.

So assuming Baker hasn’t turned into Chien-Ming Wang — and the 8.22 K/9 further suggests this to be the case — we have a right-hander with a below-average four-seamer velocity-wise (only 90.7mph), a sinker/two-seamer that doesn’t even get ground balls 40% of the time, and a slider that appears to be right around league average. I have to say I’m a bit baffled at how Baker managed such a robust K rate given this information — I suppose the movement on his four-seamer, as cited in the aforelinked article from Twins blog Twinkie Town, is outstanding, and results in a lot of weak contact, although that 30.2% foul-ball rate is not only pretty out-of-control but would also make Phil Hughes blush.

I entered into this analysis hoping to uncover something about Baker that could make me endorse a trade for him, but I’m coming up empty. CAIRO projects him as a 3.90 ERA/3.74 FIP pitcher over 159 innings for next season, while Bill James has him at 3.99/4.05 in 140 innings with a 7.3 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 1.2 HR/9.

Those are fine mid-rotation numbers, but the Yankees have enough internal candidates who can attempt to put up reasonable facsimiles of those projected lines; I can’t see moving anyone for a 30-year-old with one very good year under his belt and nothing in the numbers that would indicate continued higher-level success.

Yankees win bidding for Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima

Nakajima during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

12:18pm ET: The Yankees have won the bidding according to Ken Rosenthal, and the two sides now have 30 days to negotiate a contract. Jon Heyman says the bid was approximately $2M, which is nothing. The bids for fellow infielders Akinori Iwamura and Tsuyoshi Nishioka were $4.5M and $5.3M, respectively. They then agreed to three-year contracts worth $7.7M and $9M with the Rays and Twins. Iwamura was posted during the 2006-2007 offseason, Nishioka last winter.

Rosenthal says that Nakajima strongly prefers to the play on the West Coast, so it might be tough for the Yankees to convince him to be their utility guy.

12:01pm ET: Via David Waldstein, the Yankees have placed a bid for Japanese shortstop Hiroki Nakajima, who they apparently like as a utility guy. Given the trade interest in Eduardo Nunez, I suppose landing Nakajima would make it easier for them to deal the incumbent utility man. Nakajima’s posting period ended on Saturday, though the high bid has not been announced.

I don’t know much about Nakajima, but last year NPB Tracker called him the second best hitter in Japan. The 29-year-old right-handed batter hit .297/.354/.433 with 16 homers and 21 steals for the Seibu Lions in 2011, and he’s consistently been a .300 average/15+ homer/15+ steal/50+ walk guy in his career. From what I can tell, he’s played shortstop exclusively over the last four or five years. Here’s his Under Armour commercial, which is seriously the best video I can find.

Should the Yankees win the bid, the question will then focus on Nakajima’s willingness to be a bench guy right smack in the prime of his career. He did ask to be posted last year but was rebuffed by the Lions, so he’s been thinking about coming stateside for a while. Is he willing to do so as a utility guy? I guess there’s nothing we can do other than wait.

Yanks shopping Burnett at Winter Meetings

Ever since the conference call in which Brian Cashman announced his new contract it seemed inevitable that the Yankees would attempt to trade A.J. Burnett. After two horrible seasons, in which he produced the second-highest ERA among all qualified starters*, a move might be in the best interests of both parties. Burnett’s contract poses a significant obstacle, but even if the Yankees eat some money they can save on 2012 and 2013 payrolls, perhaps allowing them to add another starter via trade or free agency. According to The New York Post, they have already started spreading word of Burnett’s availability.

If the Yankees truly want to move Burnett they’ll have to eat a significant portion of his contract. The Braves set something of a precedent earlier this off-season when they ate two-thirds of Derek Lowe’s remaining salary to facilitate a trade. Yet Lowe has just one year remaining on his contract, which made the situation a bit more palatable. With two years and $33 million remaining on Burnett’s contract, the Yankees would have to eat $22 million to keep pace. Yet according to the Post report they’re only willing to eat $8 million, or just under 25 percent of Burnett’s contract. While that certainly won’t get the job done, it is also just a starting point.

Since the last time we wrote about trading Burnett, the market has changed a bit. A number of mediocre pitchers have received multi-year deals, which might signal a willingness to listen on a pitcher of Burnett’s potential. The Royals signed Bruce Chen for two years and $9 million. The Dodgers double dipped, signing Aaron Harang for two years and $12 million and Chris Capuano for two years and $10 million. While all three pitchers have produced better results than Burnett in the last two years, all three are flawed in their own ways. It stands to reason, then, that another team could have interest in Burnett on similar terms. That would, again, mean the Yankees eating roughly two-thirds of Burnett’s contract.

The matter of compensation remains an open issue. Yes, perhaps some team is willing to pay Burnett $6 million per year for two years. But would they also be willing to give up something in order to obtain Burnett? While that might appear to complicate the equation, in this situation a Derek Lowe type return — low-level minor league pitcher — might suffice. That is, if the Yankees’ likely purpose in shopping Burnett is to trim payroll a bit so they can acquire an upgrade. Their reward in the trade is flexibility, rather than a player. That extra $6 million per season can go towards signing a free agent, especially from next year’s class, or acquiring a slightly higher priced starter.

If the Yankees do indeed trade Burnett, it will likely come after they acquire another starter. Trading him and then failing to acquire a starter would only deplete the depth they have built. Even then, the numerous complications with this deal could render it impossible to complete. The Yankees would have to eat far more than the $8 million they currently propose, and they’d have to accept almost nothing in return. Is that extra $6 million per year worth it to them? Or would they rather just hold onto Burnett and hope for the best? We likely won’t get an answer to that this week, since no acquisitions appear imminent. But we could get some action later this winter if any teams decide that they’d rather trade for Burnett than sign a scrapheap pitcher.

No baseball for old men

For the past few years, the Yankees haven’t exactly embraced the designated hitter position. In 2009, Hideki Matsui made 108 starts as the team’s primary designated hitter. In 2010, no one had more than 41 starts as DH, and this past year, Jorge Posada‘s 91 starts led the team as 10 other players also took their turns as the designated hitter.

This isn’t a new approach for the Yanks. As their core has gotten older, the club has embraced the idea of a rotating DH. Give one guy the bulk of the playing time, but keep the spot open to spell A-Rod, Jeter and even Teixeira and Granderson. It keeps everyone fresher, but on the flip side, it means more playing time for the likes of Eduardo Nunez. The Yanks are weakening their lineup without someone to fill the DH slot.

This winter, the Yanks are at a crossroads. They aren’t going to bring back Jorge Posada, and the market for DH types is thin. They could have explored bringing aboard an Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder type, but the Front Office feels that they have a fearsome enough offense without overspending for another first baseman. Plus, Jesus Montero lurks.

Once upon a time, I would have loved to see the Yankees pursue David Ortiz. Despite his generally whiny demeanor and the fact that he’s made a career out of beating the Yankees, Ortiz is a lefty power hitter custom built for Yankee Stadium. After a down year in 2009, he’s hit .290/.384/.542 with 61 home runs over the past two seasons. Even as he ages, he’s still an offensive force.

Yet, Ortiz has drawn nary a lick of interest. His signing would cost a team a draft pick, but I figured that an offensively-starved club — the Orioles, the Blue Jays, the Mariners — would eye Ortiz as a potential short-term solution. Instead, Big Papi is likely to accept arbitration from the Red Sox. Unless the two sides work out a longer solution, he’ll earn a small raise over his 2011 salary and stick with the Sox for another season. That is, frankly, one of the bigger surprises of the off-season.

For the Yanks’ one-time catcher, then, this Ortiz development isn’t a good sign. Jorge Posada is a few years older than Ortiz and isn’t quite the hitter any longer. He can still hit with some pop from the left side, and he doesn’t cost a draft pick. But teams don’t seem to be in the market for DH-only types right now. Rather, the DH slot is today reserved for those MLBers playing out the back ends of their long-term deals. It’s not really about finding a spot for a premiere offensive player who can’t field.

So as Ortiz stays with Boston and Posada rides off into the sunset, likely to scrounge up a Spring Training invite if he doesn’t just call it a career, the Yankees will head into 2012 with a youngster and a bunch of older guys as their designated hitters. Montero will get the chance to shine while A-Rod and his balky legs will need some rest. Jeter might DH a bit too as he nears his 38th birthday. This is what the DH has become, and it’s still far better than watching some pitchers attempt to bat.