Ring opts for free agency

Via Anthony McCarron, lefty reliever Royce Ring has elected to become a free agent, which is his right after being outrighted off the 40-man roster earlier this week. Ring spent most of the season with Triple-A Scranton and wasn’t able to grab hold of the second lefty reliever’s job in a brief September tryout (2.1 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 2 K). Make sure you check out our Organizational Depth Chart to see where the roster presently sits. It’s pretty bleak at the moment.

What Went Wrong: The Return of Javy Vazquez

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The old adage says that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, and the Yankees had plenty of momentum when they relied exclusively on their three best starters during their run to the 2009 World Title. That resulted in tremendous workloads for CC Sabathia (266.1 IP), A.J. Burnett (234.1 IP), and Andy Pettitte (225.1 IP), enough that Brian Cashman was concerned about a carry-over effect in 2010. Despite having Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre in tow, he went out an acquired one of the game’s proven workhorses, bringing Javy Vazquez back to New York in a December trade with the Braves.

Vazquez had been treated as the scapegoat for the 2004 ALCS loss ever since being traded to the Diamondbacks as part of a package for Randy Johnson after that season, but life goes on and he continued to pitch. His lone season in Arizona featured a 4.06 FIP in 215.2 IP, but he demanded a trade during the offseason to be closer to his family on the East Coast, his contractual right. The D-Backs shipped Javy to the White Sox for a package built around young centerfielder Chris Young, and he went on to post a 3.80 FIP in his three seasons on Chicago’s south side. After a 2.77 FIP in 219.1 IP for the Braves in 2009 (and a fourth place finish in the Cy Young voting), Vazquez found himself back in the Bronx.

(AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill)

Javy had thrown no fewer than 198 innings every year since 2000 (only one season below 200 IP during that stretch), and only that Randy Johnson guy had struck out more batters in that time. Unlike 2004, when a then-28 year old Javy Vazquez was expected to be a cornerstone in New York’s rotation going forward, the 34-year-old version was expected to do nothing more than soak up innings at the back of the rotation. Two-hundred league average innings was all the team needed out of him, and after the season the two sides would part ways with the Yanks landing two high draft picks as compensation when he signed elsewhere.

To say the 2010 season started inauspiciously for Vazquez would be an understatement. His very first pitch of Spring Training went for a solo homer off the bat of Jimmy Rollins, a sign of things to come. Javy’s first start of the season resulted in eight runs allowed to the Rays in just 5.1 innings, and five days later he was booed off the mound in Yankee Stadium after surrendering four runs in 5.1 innings to the Angels. Vazquez’s first five starts were simply atrocious, a 9.78 ERA with eight homers allowed in just 23 IP. Opponents were wOBA’ing .457 off the Yanks’ fourth starter, and things got so bad that the Yankees had to skip his turn in the rotation in early May just to figure out what they should do.

To his credit, Javy rebounded from the rough start and pitched very well for about two months. He started 11 games (and made one relief appearance) from mid-May through mid-July, pitching to a 2.75 ERA (3.66 FIP) and holding opponents to a measly .249 wOBA. Vazquez was the team’s best starter not named Sabathia during the stretch, and he was giving the Yanks everything they asked of him and then some. Unfortunately it was all downhill from there.

The Angels tagged Vazquez for five runs in five innings on July 21st, and he allowed four or more runs in four of six starts after that stretch of brilliance. Even worse was the obvious physical decline. His fastball, already down two miles an hour from last year, was now regularly sitting in the mid-80’s (right). His breaking balls were flat and lacking depth, leaving the changeup as his only consistent weapon. That didn’t last very long, as Javy was yanked from the rotation for good after allowing four runs in three innings against the lowly Mariners on August 21st. He pitched to a 6.59 ERA the rest of the way, mostly in long-relief though he did make three spot starts. The low point came in his second to last appearance of the season, when he hit three straight Rays to force in a run, turning a blowout into a full-blown laugher. Perhaps all those innings finally caught up to him and/or he was hiding some kind of injury. Doesn’t matter now.

All told, 2010 amounted to the worst season of Vazquez’s career. His 154.2 innings were his fewest since 1999, his 5.32 ERA his worst since 1998, and his 5.56 trailed only Ryan Rowland-Smith (6.55) and Scott Kazmir (5.83) for the worst in baseball among pitchers that threw at least a hundred innings. If he hadn’t been mercifully pulled from the rotation late in the year, he would have led baseball in homeruns allowed. As it stands, the 32 he gave up were the fourth most in the game, and his 1.83 HR/9 was second worst. The Yankees paid him $11.5M and received -0.2 fWAR in return, meaning Javy was no better than some Triple-A fodder toiling away in the minors.

To make things worse, Vazquez pitched his way out of Type-A free agent status, falling down into Type-B range. Not that the team would offer him salary arbitration after such a horrible year, but they wouldn’t even have been able to get those two high draft picks even if they wanted to risk it.

We know the Yanks didn’t give up much for Vazquez thanks to the benefit of hindsight. Melky Cabrera was the worst everyday player in baseball this season (-1.2 fWAR, min. 450 PA) and has already been released. They didn’t even wait until the non-tender deadline. Mike Dunn has a live arm but has already been replaced by Boone Logan. The x-factor is prospect Arodys Vizcaino, who put together a 2.22 FIP in 114 IP before suffering an elbow injury. He’s a top 100 prospect, and if he comes back well from the injury, the Yanks will regret the deal even more.

Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankee brain trust wasn’t asking for much out of Vazquez. They wanted 200 league average innings, which meant an ERA right around 4.20. All they wanted was someone to take the pressure off the three guys at the front of the rotation and young Phil Hughes in the back, someone they could ride hard all year and count on for length each time out. Vazquez didn’t give them that at all, pitching so poorly that he couldn’t even beat out Dustin Moseley for a spot on the postseason roster. Expectations were relatively low, and Javy failed to deliver on even that.

Talks with Jeter and Rivera to start in a day or two

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees will start talking to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera (or their agents, anyway) about new contracts in the next day or two. The five-day window for teams to negotiate exclusively with their free agents expires at midnight Saturday, but that doesn’t really matter for these guys. The Yanks are going to pay both players far more than any other team will be willing to offer, so they have little to lose by taking their time and seeing how things play out.

RAB Live Chat

What Went Wrong: Teixeira’s Down Year

Over the next week or two or three, we’re going to recap the season that was by looking at what went right as well as what went wrong for the 2010 Yankees.

Teixeira's season did not start or end well (Charles Krupa/AP)

April struggles are no stranger to Mark Teixeira. In his career he has a .329 wOBA in April, easily his worst month of the year. He makes up for it in the following five months, producing at an elite level. We saw him do that in 2009, which left us with faith that he would do the same in 2010. Unfortunately, his season did not unfold in a similar manner.

For all that’s made of Teixeira’s early season woes, it is actually something that developed fairly recently. In 2004 he had a .422 wOBA in April, but then dipped in May to .323. In 2005 his .347 April wOBA surged to .416 in May and .419 in June. The next year he posted a .375 wOBA in April. Even in 2008 he had a .341 wOBA in April — not up to his normal standard, but certainly better than what we’ve seen lately.

Teixeira’s first April in New York actually didn’t go that poorly, or at least not as poorly as it felt at the time. While a .330 wOBA is low for him, it’s not terrible. His problem, unsurprisingly, was the inability to hit the ball on a line. He had a mere 11.9 percent line drive rate and a 57.6 fly ball rate. That poor contact led to a .196 BABIP. But after he got into a groove he started to hit the ball much better, raising both his line drive and ground ball rates. That led to more hits and more power.

When Tex again struggled in April 2010, it was easy to write it off as a repeat of 2009. In fact, there were indicators that he might make an even better recovery. While his numbers were worse — an abysmal .270 wOBA — his hit tendencies were a bit better. He hit 19 percent of balls in play on a line and just 39.7 percent in the air, but still had a .148 BABIP. Yet that recovery took a while. And once it did kick in, Tex hit further troubles.

May started with a bang. Teixeira went 6 for 9 with a double in the first two days. A few days later he hit three home runs in a game against Boston (though one, to be fair, was off non-pitcher Jonathan Van Every). But the slump resumed shortly thereafter. After he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in a game against the Mets reporters flooded to his locker and asked what was wrong. Tex took it as well as he possibly could have, but his struggles were undeniable. He didn’t help his case with another good, but not to Teixeira standards, month of June.

Recovery was in the cards, but it would be short lived. Teixeira went berserk in July, 33 for 96 (.344) with 20 walks (.462 OBP) and 18 extra base hits (.698 SLG). August was another quality month, .289/.355/.629 (.411 wOBA). The team streaked towards the end of the month, and it appeared as though they would soar to another AL East title. But then the injuries happened.

At the end of August he missed a day with a thumb injury; the team admitted that he wouldn’t fully heal until the off-season. Then in mid-month he fractured his little toe. That caused him to overcompensate, which led to knee inflammation. It’s unclear whether that was a big factor in his season-ending hamstring strain, but the cascade does make sense. Teixeira, for his part, produced a mere .312 wOBA in September, his power noticeably absent. In the playoffs he did hit a big home run in Game 1 of the ALDS, but after that he went just 2 for 22, both singles.

Even the best players have down years. It’s unfortunate that the Yankees experienced them from their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, but that will sometimes happen. The good news is that one down year does not render a player useless in the future. After an off-season of recovery and reflection Teixeira will be back in 2011, and I expect he’ll return to his normal production. And who knows: maybe he’ll produce in April as he did in 2004 and put together a career year.

Mailbag: Montero, Swisher, LOOGY, Blue Jays

Time for another edition of the RAB Mailbag. I’m not keeping track, but it’s pretty safe to say that there have been more questions asked about Jesus Montero than any other single player in the history of the mailbag. And it’s not a small margin either, you should see what comes in that I don’t answer. You guys freaking love talking about the kid. Can’t say I blame you.

Anyway, if you want to submit a question, you know what to do. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar, and if it’s something I can answer intelligently without a week’s worth of research, I’ll answer it. On to the questions …

Josh asks: In short, what do you think the Yanks should do with Jesus?  Moreover, what do you think they will do?

I chopped out a bunch of the question for the sake of space, but essentially Josh goes on to ask about his defense and his chances to improve and what not.

My thoughts about what to do with Montero are pretty simple. Let him come to Spring Training next year and compete for a job, and unless he absolutely destroys the Grapefruit League and makes strides on defense, send him back to Triple-A to start the season. When the time comes, in May or June or whatever, call him up and let him split catching and designated hitter duties with Jorge Posada. But he has to play every day, they can’t let him go stale by playing just two or three times a week. Let Tony Pena go to town with him defensively in the interim.

It doesn’t end there though. If a trade opportunity comes along this winter that could significantly improve the big league team, I’d have no hesitation about trading Montero. The Yankees have shown a willingness to deal him, but only for super-elite guys like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. That’s what I’m talking about, a bonafide impact player in his prime.

Now, what do I think they’ll do? I think they’ll do something pretty similar, actually. I think they’ll be more open to giving him a job right out of Spring Training than I would, but otherwise it’s the same basic idea. Either use him to land a monster piece in a trade, or have him tag team with Posada when the time is right.

Update: It appears that the Yankees plan to make Montero the most-of-the-time starter in 2011.

Ellis asks: I’m not sure any of us have fully stopped to appreciate how awesome Nick Swisher was this year. .288 with 29 HRs, highest slugging pct of his career (.511). Why isn’t Swish considered one of the best outfielders in the game?

Yeah, there’s way too many people focusing on his postseason performances (.269 wOBA in 94 plate appearances, less than a month’s worth) and not his overall body of work. His wOBA increased by two points this season even though the league average dropped by eight, and his defense remained roughly average. Not great, but certainly not a liability. He traded some walks for base hits, something you take every day of the week, and all told Swish was worth 4.1 fWAR this season, seventh best among AL outfielders.

Swisher doesn’t qualify as an elite outfielder, but he’s definitely in that next tier. If he maintains his newfound ability to hit for average (.288 AVG this year was a career high by 26 points) and gets his walk rate back up previous levels (9.1 BB% in 2010 after no worse than 13.9% from 2006-2009), Swish is probably close to a five win player. If people are going to discount that because of four bad postseason series (he was awesome in this year’s ALDS), then so be it. Their loss.

Mike asks: With Marte not being able to throw til the All Star break, we need another left hander in the bullpen. Internally there are close to no options (Kei Igawa, no thanks) so this will sound crazy but how about Jamie Moyer. At 47 he still can start let alone pitch. If he takes a significant pay cut, would he be a potential left hander?

I thought about this myself before the question was sent in, but after looking into it more deeply … hell no. Moyer doesn’t have much of a platoon split (.309 wOBA against vs. RHB, .335 vs. LHB in 2010), and over the last three years lefties have gotten to him to the tune of a .319 wOBA. That’s almost league average, which simply isn’t good enough for lefty specialist work. Boone Logan, for example, held lefties to a .242 wOBA this season. As a whole, AL lefties had a .304 wOBA against southpaws this season, and I suspect it would be even higher if we looked at just the AL East.

Even beyond the splits, Moyer doesn’t have a knockout breaking ball, instead relying more on his deadfish changeup to get chases out of the zone. He just doesn’t strike out enough batters (5.4 K/9 since 200) for high or even medium leverage work. And of course there’s the age (48 next month) and injury issues (131 days on the disabled list over the last two years). Moyer’s just not dependable enough. I’d pass, though I like the creativity.

Jerome asks: How close are the Blue Jays to being really competitive in the AL East? With the Rays losing some key pieces next year, I was hoping for 2011 to be a good old two-horse race between the Yankees and the Red Sox. But then it occurred to me: The Jays obviously have a powerful lineup, and some pretty decent young arms in Marcum, Romero, Cecil and Morrow and others. It seems like only a few tweaks would make this team a force to be reckoned with. Are they a threat in 2011?

The Jays are on the right track, but there’s still a ton of work to do. Their offense was far too reliant on the homerun last season (first in HR + 26th in OBP = just 9th in runs), and they really need Adam Lind (.309 wOBA) and Aaron Hill (.291) to rebound to their 2009 levels (.394 and .357, respectively). Jose Bautista won’t hit like he did last year again (even if something did click, that was an unsustainable pace), and the team needs steps forward from Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia, and Yunel Escobar. That’s quite a bit to ask for.

The pitching staff is good, but neither Ricky Romero or Shaun Marcum is an elite guy. Both are very good, just not fantastic. Brandon Morrow has the potential to be that guy, as does Kyle Drabek, but they’re not there yet. So yeah, Toronto’s headed in the right direction, but they’re at the very least a year away, and that’s if everything starts to go right in 2011. A 2013 breakout seems more likely.

A parable: From riches to Rags

Dave Righetti amidst his July 4, 1983 no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Once upon a time, the Yankees pulled off a coup. In November of 1978, the Yankees traded Mike Heath, Sparky Lyle, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich, Domingo Ramos and some cash to the Texas Rangers for Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella, Greg Jemison and former first round draft pick Dave Righetti. When the Yanks signed Goose Gossage, incumbent closer Sparky Lyle wanted out, and the Bombers, as Murray Chass wrote, “salivated over Righetti.”

“All of the reports on him are super,” team president Al Rosen said. “He might be the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues. [Scout] Jerry Walker thinks we have another Guidry, but I don’t think that’s possible.”

Righetti, then just 20, made his debut as a September call-up in 1979. He started three times that fall and went 0-1 but with a 3.63 ERA. He walked 10 in 17.1 innings — six in his Major League debut — and struck out 13. But in 1980, he hit a roadblock. Expected to make the team out of Spring Training, he struggled during the Grapefruit League and spent the year at AAA Columbus. Faced with what his pitching coach called “unreasonable expectations,” Righetti struggled to find consistency and would not return to the Majors until 1981 when he stuck around for good.

On May 23, Righetti came up to take a spot in the rotation vacated by a trade. The hard-throwing lefty dazzled. He had the command that had eluded him throughout 1980, and the Yanks stuck with him. In 105 innings spanning 15 starts, he went 8-4 with a 2.05 ERA, struck out 89 with a league-best 7.6 K/9 IP and walked 38. He beat Milwaukee twice in the ALDS and Oakland once in the ALCS before succumbing to the Dodgers in the World Series.

In 1982, his control eluded him a bit. He went 11-10 with a 3.79 ERA and struck out 163 in 183 innings, but he also walked 108. It was a down year, and one he would out-pitch in 1983. That year, he became the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game, and he did it on George Steinbrenner‘s birthday as well. He 14-8 with a 3.44 ERA in 217 innings, and the Yanks were well on their way to developing an ace.

Yet, after a 2.1-inning start against the Indians on September 18, 1983, Dave Righetti would not make another Major League start until 1992 when he was with the Giants, pitching 3000 miles away from the mercurial Yankees. The Yankees, you see, decide — or rather George Steinbrenner unilaterally decided — that, with the departure of Gossage, Dave Righetti would become the closer. And he would pitch only in the 9th inning, as the Boss made perfectly clear year after year.

“He is going to be the closer,” Steinbrenner said in a 1990 Sports Illustrated profile on Rags. “He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I’m the only one who knows how to use him. I’ve told my manager and coaches, ‘If you reach for him too early, you’ll be reaching for the next train home.'”

Six years before that proclamation though, the drama played out in the pages of the newspaper. Righetti found out that he would be closing when his brother read a report in the paper, and the Yanks’ explanation for it was quixotic at best. As Steve Aschburner wrote:

How smart is [Steinbrenner]? According to him, Righetti is a natural to replace Gossage. He breaks out the numbers: In the first two innings, Righetti had a 1.90 earned-run average. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than 4-1. Opponents batted just .190 in those innings. By contrast, Righetti’s ERA after his first two innings jumped to 4.06, his strikeout-walk ratio dropped to 2-1 and opponents averaged .255. If Righetti could do so well in the first two innings, Steinbrenner reasoned, he could do it in the last two.

And so a closer was born. Instead of finding another reliever to take over the ninth inning spot, George went with the hard-throwing left-hander who had enjoyed success as a closer. It was a typical George Steinbrenner Mid-1980s move.

Over the next few years, the Yankees would toy with the idea of moving Righetti back into the rotation. The team could never quite find the starting pitcher they needed to overcome years of missing the playoffs, but the Boss always wanted to keep Righetti in that ever-important closer role. He never wanted to be a reliever. “David didn’t want to become a reliever. He was worried he would fail and be out of baseball. He could probably have been a 20-game winner for five or six years and made twice as much money,” Righetti confidant Bill Goodstein said to Sports Illustrated.

Yet, as 210 other players wore pinstripes throughout his tenure as a Yankee reliever, Righetti bore the brunt of Spring Training rumors. Will he or won’t he start? “People always ask me how I can keep so quiet,” Righetti said. “Well, sooner or later, you cause yourself more problems by talking.”

But by 1990, he was clearly fed up with it, and after the season, he jumped to the Giants as a free agent. A Yankee fan by birth, he left behind the pinstripes. “I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They’ve never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I’ve never complained, they think I don’t stand up for myself. They think I’m a patsy,” he said a few months before leaving.

Righetti’s Yanks finished second twice as he closed, but then they slipped down in the standings. By 1990, they were a seventh place team with their homegrown closer and erstwhile starter logging just 53 innings on a staff that put together a league-worst 4.21 ERA.

This year, Righetti triumphed. He won the World Series as the pitching coach of the Giants, and he captured the ring that had eluded him while a member of the Yankees. He did so with four homegrown starters pitching on a staff modeled after Guidry. They lead the NL in ERA and strike outs and allowed the second-most walks in the NL. The Yankees of the 1980s meanwhile always had to grapple with a harsh reality: Perhaps moving a hard-throwing left-handed starter to the bullpen to fill a role that didn’t need filling by such a promising young arm was not the best move for a franchise always searching for homegrown pitching.