Yankees avoid arbitration with Phil Hughes

The Yankees and Phil Hughes have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract for 2012, the team announced. His agent says the deal is worth $3.2M with performance bonuses, so he received just a $500k raise thanks to his disaster season. A repeat of his 2010 effort would have bumped Phil’s salary north of $5M. Hughes was arbitration-eligible for the second time, meaning he’ll go through this again next offseason then qualify for free agency the offseason after that.

Noon ET tomorrow is the deadline for teams and their eligible players to submit arbitration figures, so a bunch of signings will happen in the morning. The Yankees have five more players up for arbitration: Russell Martin, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and Brett Gardner. MLBTR has projected salaries.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Carlos Pena

One area where the Yankees’ offense stands to improve over 2011 is at the DH spot. Last season their DHs hit a combined .251/.336/.450, which ranked sixth in the AL. Now, with at most half of a DH platoon already on the roster, the Yankees have an opportunity to move up the DH ranks and add to their offense. This morning Mike examined Johnny Damon’s case and determined that if money is truly a factor, Damon makes enough sense. In the post he mentioned another name, though, that makes plenty more sense from a performance standpoint.

The Yankees and Pena are no strangers. In early 2006, following his release by the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees signed him to a minor league contract. A year later he was tormenting them as a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He stuck with Tampa for for years, belting 20 home runs against the Yankees in that span. Even before that, the Yankees were part of the trade that sent Pena from Oakland to Detroit. That, as you’ll regrettably remember, was the trade that netted the Yankees Jeff Weaver. Here’s what Pena would bring the Yanks if the two parties were to reunite.

Pros

  • He absolutely mashes right-handed pitching. Since 2009 only 24 hitters have fared better than Pena’s 130 wRC+ against righties. In terms of pure power only six have hit righties better. That plays well for the heavy half of a platoon.
  • He has the experience. Not only did he spend four years in the AL East, producing a 134 wRC+ in that span, but he’s also been around in the postseason. In 80 postseason PA he’s hit .269/.388/.522 with four homers. It’s a tiny sample, but for all the emphasis on postseason failure and success, Pena is a great success.
  • He’s worked with Kevin Long in the past. In fact, they worked together during the 2006 season, which immediately preceded Pena’s breakout.
  • He’s a quality defender at first, and could step in should Mark Teixeira get hurt. That is, he provides some insurance.
  • It’s hard to understate how his righty bashing helps his case. It’s a pretty big point in his favor.

Cons

  • He probably won’t come cheap. After his 2010 season, in which he produced a 105 wRC+, he took a one-year deal with the Cubs in order to rebuild his value. He did that, igniting in the second half on his way to a 119 wRC+. The Cubs paid him $10 million, so it seems unlikely he’d sign for less than that — unless the market has completely bottomed out on him.
  • He’s not effective against lefties, producing just a .306 OBP since 2009 despite a 14.1 percent walk rate. Oddly, though, the three pitchers off whom he has homered the most often — Andy Pettitte, Jon Lester, and Bret Cecil — are all lefties.
  • His defensive value is negated by his lack of playing the field. It also means he’s essentially a DH only, limiting roster flexibility.

While it’s not common to see a player of Pena’s caliber take a pay cut, especially after he succeeded in having a rebound season, the market for Pena appears a bit thin. The only two teams connected to him so far are the Indians and the Rays, two teams that aren’t exactly rolling in cash. The Brewers could make sense, but they say they’re maxed out. Other than that, we’re down to non-contenders such as the Orioles and Pirates. The market, then, seems to favor the Yankees. Even near their payroll ceiling, they likely have more resources than all of the above teams. They won’t go out and bid big for him, but if they continue their patient streak, the Yanks could find Pena falling into their laps. He’d be a great fit for a platoon DH role in 2012.

The Long-Term Catching Situation

(Al Bello/Getty)

As I said on Saturday morning, the trade of Jesus Montero has some far-reaching implications for the Yankees organization. First and foremost they’ll miss his offense, but he also factored into the team’s long-term catching situation. Granted, very few people not employed by the Yankees actually think he can stick behind the plate long-term, but his name had to be included any time we discussed the team’s future behind the plate. That has changed, obviously.

Thankfully, the catcher position is not an immediate concern. Russell Martin will be back as an arbitration-eligible player in 2012, projected to earn $6.7M by MLBTR’s system before becoming a free agent after the season. He was exactly league average on offense during his first season in pinstripes (.325 wOBA and 100 wRC+), which means he was better than the average AL catcher (.307 wOBA and 91 wRC+). Defensive metrics are imperfect (especially for backstops), but he definitely helped prevent runs with his glovework. Martin will be the regular catcher in 2012, there was little doubt about that even before the trade.

I have to think Austin Romine was pretty thrilled to find out that Montero had been traded, allowing him to finally step out of his shadow and solidify his position as the team’s catcher of the future, at least in theory. Even though he made his big league debut in September, Romine needs to get a couple hundred at-bats in Triple-A, which he should have received in 2011 but didn’t because of Montero. He’ll get those at-bats this summer while Frankie Cervelli backs up Martin, then hopefully force his way into the 2013 picture.

Further down the minor league ladder is J.R. Murphy, who made enough progress behind the plate in 2011 that staying at catcher long-term is no longer a pipe dream. Gary Sanchez is right behind him, but the reports on his defense have been pretty rough over the last year. Both guys can hit, more than Romine can, but they’re also several levels away from the big leagues and we all know how much can wrong when you’re talking about kids in Single-A. Both are a footnote in the team’s long-term plans at the moment, so it’s basically up to Romine to provide help behind the plate in the next few seasons. The only problem is that catching prospects tend to develop late, so his timetable might not line up perfectly with the team’s needs.

Because of the large learning curve — a new pitching staff and new hitters to study — and the physical wear-and-tear associated with the position, it takes catchers longer to adjust to big league life than any other type of position player. The Buster Posey and Joe Mauer types that come up and provide immediate impact are the exception while Matt Wieters-like growing pains are the rule. Having a veteran caddy to ease the transition is certainly preferable to just rolling the dice and hoping for the best with the kid, especially when you’re trying to contend. That veteran caddy for Romine could very well be Martin, who has expressed an interest in remaining with the Yankees beyond 2012.

“If you are asking me if I want to be here, yes, but they are in a nice position with the quality of kids they have,” said Martin to George King back in September. Brian Cashman has praised his backstop since signing him last December, but also said a long-term contract “hasn’t been discussed” as of a month ago. For what it’s worth, Martin’s agent did acknowledged that his client would consider a multi-year pact with the Yankees, and Moshe explored the merits of a such a deal earlier this offseason. In a perfect world, he’d take nothing more than two or three-year contract and help gradually usher in the Romine era, like Joe Girardi helped usher in the Jorge Posada era a generation ago.

The Yankees have a long tradition of great hitting catchers, but Montero won’t be around to carry the torch. Murphy and Sanchez might be able to fill that role down the road, but we’re several years away from that. Romine won’t have that kind of offensive impact, but he has the tools to be a sound defensive backstop while being a non-zero with the stick in the future. That’s a valuable player — especially at or near the league minimum — but the Yankees are going to have to make sure he’s given adequate support. Martin on a medium-term contract extension makes some sense, but if he’s not open to it, it would behoove the team to find a veteran backstop to ease their young catcher into the lineup.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Johnny Damon

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Everything’s changed in the span of 72 hours. The Yankees went from being light on pitching and heavy on offense to having a surplus of starters and a DH vacancy following their Friday night bonanza. We know they have some interest in Carlos Pena, but he might be too expensive and also too inflexible for the current roster. A cheaper and possibly better fitting solution might be former Yankee Johnny Damon, who the team has already contacted.

Reunions almost never work out, especially when you’re talking about a player closer to his 40th birthday than his 35th. The Yankees wouldn’t be asking Damon to ignite their offense like they did during their World Series run three years ago, they’d be asking him to setting to a Tim Raines/Darryl Strawberry-esque complementary role. Let’s see what he’s bringing to the table these days…

The Pros

  • After a down power year with the Tigers in 2010 (just eight homers and a .130 ISO), Johnny clubbed 16 dingers with a .156 ISO last season. He was one two-bagger shy of the 30-double plateau for the third straight year and the 13th time in 15 years.
  • Although he always seemed to be battling nagging injuries during his first stint in pinstripes, Damon has played in at least 140 games every year since his rookie campaign in 1995. Durability is an underrated skill.
  • Johnny actually had a reverse split last year (.313 wOBA vs. RHP and .355 vs. LHP), but he’s shown no split over the last three years (.345 vs. .344) and a very small one during his career (.353 vs. .341).
  • Damon stole 19 bases under the run happy Joe Maddon in 2011, his most since swiping 29 in 2008 and his 16th straight year with double-digit steals. He’s also quite good at putting the ball in play, striking out in just 14.2% of his plate appearances last year and just 11.5% of the time in his career.
  • The importance is overstated, but there is some value in Damon being familiar with New York, the Yankees, and being in a pennant race. I hear he also gives some sweet veteran presents.

The Cons

  • At 38 years old, Damon is already in the danger zone when it comes to total collapse in performance. His wRC+ has gone from 128 in 2008 to 124 in 2009 to 109 in each of the last two seasons. Further decline is more likely than a rebound, which would put him at or below the league average offensively.
  • After walking in 10.7% of his plate appearances from 2006-2010, Damon’s walk rate dipped to a below league average 7.9% in 2011. His 27.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone was his highest in five years and the third straight year it’s increased. Despite the solid strikeout rate, his 8.1% swing-and-miss rate was his worst since the data started being recorded in 2002.
  • Playing the field regularly is not an option anymore. Johnny has played just 352.1 innings in the outfield over the last two years, with 82.9% of his plate appearances coming as the DH. He can probably spot start in left once in while, but anything more is asking for trouble.

True Yankee™ status is a powerful thing, and it’s been known to cloud judgment from time to time. Damon isn’t the guy he was in 2009 (.376 wOBA with 24 homers) and he’s not some kind of clutch god (.225 AVG and .287 wOBA with runners in scoring position last two years), and returning to the Yankees won’t magically revitalize him. Sure, Yankee Stadium will probably allow him to pop a few more homers, but at his age he’s more likely to keep slipping. Then again, stranger things have happened.

If the Yankees want to go real cheap on their DH spot next year, Damon’s probably the best they’ll be able to do on the free agent market. He’s a useful piece but no longer a difference maker capable of wreaking havoc atop the order, but he’ll stay in the lineup and put together tough at-bats, maybe even hitting the ball out of the park on occasion. An Andruw Jones-esque contract is probably in order, meaning just $2M with some incentives. Anything more than would be pushing it, especially since no other club is in a rush to sign him.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 16th, 2012

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: Saying Goodbye

Prospects are like being in love in high school. Our commitment level is through the roof and we’re convinced that no matter what everyone else says, it’s for real. No one understands, we’re in love. Ultimately we’re left heartbroken in the end, then we get over it and move on to the next.

I’m fairly certain that no Yankees prospect has captured more hearts than Jesus Montero, who is just a physical exam away from being a Seattle Mariner. We caught a glimpse of his hell raisin’ capabilities in September, but not nearly enough. His long-awaited big league debut did not disappoint, giving our years of rosterbation and minor league box score checking validation. Montero was going to be the next great Yankee, launching opposite field bombs over the short porch for the next 20 years. It was going to be glorious.

A year and a half ago we almost broke up because of a silly fling with a floosy named Cliff*. We weren’t thinking clearly back then and got caught up in the moment. This breakup is for real though, and it hurts. We’ll spend the next five weekends eating ice cream out of the container and watching bad movies on Netflix, wondering where it all went wrong. Then we’ll get over it. The green grass of Spring Training will draw us out of our misery and the pop of the glove catching that 97 mph fastball will make us feel alive again. None of us will ever forget Montero, but sometimes you can’t control things and you have to move on. He may very well be the one that got away, but chances are we’ll find someone else and fall in love all over again.

* * *

Here’s your open thread for the day. Like yesterday, I’m posting this early because of the NFL playoffs. The Texans and Ravens play at 1pm ET (on CBS), then the Packers and Giants give it a go at 4:30pm ET (on FOX). The Rangers are also playing later tonight, and that game will be on the NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus. So all you Time Warner customers actually get to see the team with the league’s best record tonight. Talk about whatever you like, anything goes.

* Yes, I know how wrong that sounds.