Steinbrenners in talks to sell Yanks to Dolans

James Dolan may be the next Yankee owner. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen, file)

When Hank and Hal Steinbrenner took over control of the Yanks from their ailing father George, many fans feared the the family would try to cash in on their billion-dollar asset. Although Yankee fans knew the destructive tendencies wrought by King George during his team, they also came to love George’s singular focus on winning and knew that any other potential ownership group brought with it fears of a heavy hand and bad baseball minds.

Today, multiple New York media outlets confirm what we were dreading: The Steinbrenners are in talks with the Dolan family concerning the Yanks. Although neither side would confirm the talks, a source close to the Yanks said that a deal could be reached before the All Star Break. At that point, the other owners would have to vote to approve the deal.

“Ever since Hal and Hank were appointed co-chairs of the team,” the source said, “the family has been pressuring them to sale. With the Knicks and Rangers in their pockets, the Dolans seemed to be a logical choice, and James has been chomping at the bit to run a baseball team.”

Early reports indicate that the Dolans will pay upwards of $1 billion for a controlling share of the team and the final price could top $1.2 billion. Yankee Global Enterprises, the holding company controlled by the Steinbrenners that owns both the Yankees and YES Network, will hold onto the TV station for now. Considering that George paid $10 million to buy the Yankees in 1973, the family is certainly turning a pretty penny from their 36 years of ownership.

This isn’t the first time that the Dolans, owners of the lucrative Cablevision empire, have expressed interest in buying the Yankees. In late 1998, Steinbrenner and the Dolans were rumored to be close to a sale of the team. George would have gotten $600 million while retaining control over the Yankees, but the deal fell through in March of 1999 over George’s continued involvement with the Yanks. Ownership, it seems, won by winning since that sale didn’t happen.

As the Steinbrenners get rich, though, the franchise and its fans are in for a bumpy ride full of uncertainty. James Dolan, the chair of both Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, has developed a reputation as a hands-on owner who isn’t very good at installing top player managers. On his watch, the Rangers missed the playoffs every year from 1998-2005 despite leading the NHL in payroll. They still aren’t a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks, meanwhile, have been a walking disaster since the early 2000s. They haven’t finished a season above .500 in nearly a decade and haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990s. On Dolan’s watch, they suffered through the Isiah Thomas Era and spent millions on just one season of Larry Brown. The team has overpaid for overrated and old players, and Dolan was rated one of the worst owners in the league by Sports Illustrated.

Maybe this will work out for the best. Maybe the Yankees have too many good baseball minds in charge for the Dolans to ruin things. Maybe Cablevision will take a hands-off approach for its $1 billion investment. I can’t help but think though that we’ll miss the Steinbrenners more than we realize. [Read more…]

Bronx Banter Breakdown on the Yanks’ competitors

Over the course of this week, Joe and Mike are previewing the Yanks’ AL East competitors. I got in on the action last week when Alex Belth of Bronx Banter asked me to join him and Cliff Corcoran on his SportsNet NY web-only video series Bronx Banter Breakdown.

In the third and final installment that we recorded on Friday, we discuss the state of the AL East. Cliff thinks the Red Sox are the Majors’ most improved team this winter, but I’m more worried about a looming Tampa team featuring a pair of guys playing for contracts. Check out the video below.

For those who missed the two other installments, the first piece examined the Yankee pitching while the second looked at the team’s offense. Thanks to Alex and Cliff for having me on, and be sure to check out Bronx Banter.

Open Thread: Recapping the season preview

Over the last month or so, the three of us have broken down and previewed just about every aspect of the 2010 Yankees. It was quite the undertaking but we’re very pleased about how it all turned out. Here’s a link to each post, in case you missed any or just want to go back and relive the magic…

You can always just search for 2010 Season Preview in the sidebar to find any and all of those posts. Hope you enjoyed them.

Anyway, here’s the open thread for the evening. The Knicks and suddenly hot Nets (three wins in their last four games!) are both in action, but go ahead and talk about whatever you want. Just don’t be a dick.

Talking Yankees baseball with The Times

For the second year in a row, Justin Sablich of The New York Times invited me to participate in a blogger roundtable previewing the Yanks’ upcoming 2010 campaign. He emailed me, Cliff Corcoran from Bronx Banter and Steve Lombardi from Was Watching a series of questions, and we happily obliged him with answers. The first part is available right here on the Bats blog. In it, we talk about the moves the Yankees didn’t make this winter, the team’s outfield situation, the Great Joba Debate and the aging Yankees’ health concerns. Check it out. Part Two drops tomorrow.

Update 6:10 p.m.: I forgot to mention this originally, but there’s still time. I’ll be on Blog Talk Radio’s Flushing to the Bronx at 6:15 for a 15-minute chat about the Yankees’ upcoming season. You can listen live right here.

AL East Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Years of futility have helped the Orioles rebuild their team. While the fans have suffered through 12 straight losing seasons, the front office has used that to its advantage. High draft picks have led to a number of marquee players in the organization, many of whom will play a prominent role in 2010.

Lineup

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

After appearing in the ALCS two years in a row, the Orioles finished below .500 in 1998. At 79-83 they had the 13th worst record in the league. They also lost a number of free agents, netting them six of the first 50 picks in the 1999 draft. Five were busts. The only one that panned out was No. 50, a shortstop named Brian Roberts. It took a while for him to develop, but he took over second bas full time in 2004, and broke out in 2005. Once the subject of myriad trade rumors, Roberts now appears entrenched in the organization. He begins a four-year, $40 million extension this season. Unfortunately for the Orioles it appears he’ll open the season on the DL, but once he returns he’ll slide into one of the top lineup spots and likely provide his usual production.

While the Orioles didn’t get much out of their first five picks of the 1999 draft, they took a key player in the sixth round. There they selected left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard. Heading into the 2002 season he was the No. 90 prospect in baseball, and answered by posting a 1.97 ERA at AA Bowie. He did face some injury issues, though, which kept him out for much of the 2003 season. By 2004 he was with the big league club for good. His value to the current lineup, though, came after the 2007 season. The Orioles, with Andy MacPhail at the helm, traded him to the Bill Bavasi-led Mariners for, among other minor leaguers, Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and Chris Tillman.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

Jones, a supplemental first round pick by the Mariners in 2003, has shown improvement during his first two years in Baltimore. He came with high expectations as the No. 28 prospect in baseball heading into the 2007 season, and in 2008 he played full time for the Orioles. He wasn’t great, posting just a .313 wOBA, but his value was still in his potential. He came closer to fulfilling that last season, posting a .343 wOBA. UZR rates him as positive over those two seasons, though we’re still dealing with a small sample. If he stays healthy again in 2010 we could see big things from Jones atop the Orioles lineup.

With their No. 7 pick in the 2003 draft the Orioles selected Nick Markakis. He spent just three seasons in the minors, and played zero games at AAA, before breaking camp with the team in 2006. Markakis had a stellar 2008, posting a .389 wOBA, a 23-point improvement over 2007. That was mostly due to a spike in his walk rate, up to 14.2 percent. That dropped back down to 7.9 percent in 2009, though, and Markakis’s wOBA fell 40 points to .349. It was an all-around down year for him, as his ISO fell 25 points and his UZR ranked in the negatives for the first time in his career. It’s tough to keep down a hitter like Markakis, though. I expect him to rebound to somewhere around his 2008 production this season, holding down the middle of the Orioles lineup.

In the second round of the 2005 draft the Orioles selected outfielder Nolan Reimold, who raked his way through the minors. After mastering AA in 2007 and 2008 he moved onto AAA in 2009, where he posted a .530 wOBA. The Orioles saw it fit to call him up and give him 411 plate appearances, in which he posted an impressive .365 wOBA. Yet he won’t get the start in left this season, as he had a poor spring after undergoing surgery to repair his left Achilles tendon. While he’ll eventually take over, Felix Pie will get a shot at every day at-bats to start the season. He definitely showed improvement in 2009, and could become a valuable role player, or trade bait, for the Orioles down the road.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

Matt Wieters was a more highly regarded prospect than Mike Moustakas, Josh Vitters, and Daniel Moskokos, all of whom went before him in the 2007 draft. But Wieters is a Scott Boras client, and the Royals, Cubs, and Pirates apparently didn’t want to pay his bonus demands. The Orioles took advantage. He didn’t sign in time to play in 2007, but he more than made up for it in 2008, posting a 445 wOBA in advanced-A and then a .472 wOBA in AA. That earned him the top spot in Baseball America’s Top 100 for 2009. The Orioles opened him in AAA but called him up after 163 PA, installing him as their primary catcher. He hit well, though he didn’t quite live up to the considerable hype surrounding him. Even so he posted a .330 wOBA. Watch for him to break out in a big way this season.

Sometimes players come back to you. The Orioles traded Miguel Tejada before the 2008 season, four years after they signed him to a six-year, $72 million contract. He finished out the final two years in Houston, where he hit well but seemingly dropped off defensively, especially last season. With no multiyear offers and no teams willing to play him at shortstop, he re-signed with the Orioles this off-season as their primary third baseman. A player the Orioles received in the Tejada trade, Luke Scott, figures to be the primary DH. He posted a .343 wOBA in his first year, followed by .355 last year. He’s a man without a position, though, because the Orioles’ outfield is filled with younger, more promising players.

First base presents an interesting situation for the O’s. They signed Garrett Atkins this winter, who has steadily declined since his .410 wOBA in 2006. That number fell to .368, then to .337, and finally to .291 last season. He played pretty poor defense at third, though with Tejada on board the Orioles moved him across the diamond. He might not last long as the starter, though. Michael Aubrey, whom the Orioles acquired from the Indians for a PTBNL last June, could make a case for playing time, perhaps acting as a platoon partner. The O’s could eventually turn to Brandon Snyder, their No. 6 prospect. After hitting very well throughout the minors he stumbled a bit at AAA, so he’ll get a chance to get up to speed there. There’s also a chance, though I’m not sure how great, that the O’s could call up their No. 2 prospect, third baseman Josh Bell, acquired from the Dodgers for George Sherrill, and move Tejada to first.

Pitching

Any rebuilding team needs to stock up on high-tier pitching prospects. The success rate from them is pretty low, so having a number of these pitchers means a greater chance that one or two will pitch in the bigs eventually. The Orioles feature a nice blend of veterans and youngsters, and as the year progresses they could perhaps insert another prospect or two into the rotation.

Photo credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Adding to the veteran presence atop the rotation, the Orioles traded for Kevin Millwood this off-season. They didn’t have illusions of him putting them over the top, of course. He was cheap, costing them just reliever Chris Ray and their Rule 5 pick, and he affords the Orioles more flexibility in developing their younger arms. For instance, with Millwood in the rotation the Orioles can afford to leave Chris Tillman in the minors to get a bit more seasoning. David Hernandez, who is a bit older and not as highly regarded a prospect, will take the final rotation spot. Again, the Orioles are lucky to have flexibility. I’ll save space here by pointing you to FanGraphs for more on the decision to start Hernandez in the rotation.

Jeremy Guthrie, formerly the staff ace, pitches behind Millwood this season. A 2002 first round pick by the Indians after being drafted in 1997 by the Mets and in 2001 by the Pirates, Guthrie did not live up to the hype in the minors. Out of options in 2007, the Indians waived him and the Orioles pounced. Guthrie rewarded them by improving his walk rate, which was the primary component in his revival. He posted ERAs of 3.70 and 3.63 during his first two years with the O’s, though those marks were out of line with his FIPs, 4.41 and 4.53. A spike in BABIP and fly ball rate led to more hits and home runs last season, and Guthrie’s ERA spiked to 5.04 against a 5.31 FIP. If he brings the ground balls back to his career level, though, he could see a bit of improvement in 2009, though I imagine he’ll be more around 4.50, as his FIPs from 2007 and 2008 indicated, rather than his mid-3s ERAs.

At my girlfriend’s sister’s rehearsal dinner last year I sat at a table with the bridesmaids and their dates. I didn’t know any of them, so I tried to work in a baseball conversation with the guy sitting next to me. Turns out he’s a huge Orioles fan and was impressed that I knew Brad Bergesen, who happened to be pitching that night against the Red Sox. (It was also the night that Joba dominated the A’s.) Bergesen, a fourth-round pick in 2004 and a high school teammate of Phil Hughes, came along slowly, but in 2008 he made great strides, leading to his call-up in 2009. A comebacker off the shin cut short his 2009 season, and a shoulder injury suffered while shooting a commercial caused a minor setback, but Bergesen has looked good this spring and will slot in behind Guthrie.

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

The Orioles shut down Brian Matusz in mid-September last year in order to keep him under his innings limit, which was apparently somewhere around 160. That also kept him under the 50 innings that would have erased his prospect status, so he checked in at No. 1 on the Orioles’ list this year. The No. 4 overall pick in 2008, Matusz signed late and missed the minor league season. His first full professional season, then, was 2009 and he cracked the Major League rotation. That should speak volumes about his potential. He features an above average fastball, curveball, and slider, and when an Orioles official said his changeup wasn’t up to par he made it the focus of his next start, throwing it more than 20 times. That’s a luxury he won’t have in the majors, though his above-average command of his other three pitches should help. The Orioles also laud his intelligence and intensity, which they think can help him top their rotation for years to come.

The name Mike Gonzalez might ring a bell for Yankees fans. During the 2006-2007 off-season it became clear that the Pirates would trade him, and rumors of a deal involving Melky Cabrera circulated. The Braves won out, though, sending Adam LaRoche to the Pirates and installing Gonzalez as their closer. That worked for 17 innings, after which Gonzalez underwent Tommy John surgery. He came back strong in 2008, minus a few too many home runs, and was even better in 2009. His walk rates in both seasons fell below his career average, and his strikeouts were above. Baltimore signed him to a two-year deal over the off-season, probably so he can actually hold down leads for the young pitchers. He might help out if the Orioles make a Rays-like run in 2011 as well.

The rest of the bullpen doesn’t appear strong at all. With Ray gone Jim Johnson will assume the primary setup role. He was excellent in 2008, throwing 68.2 innings and posting a 2.23 ERA and 3.38 FIP. That was completely unsustainable, though, as he allowed no home runs all year. That’s impressive, but most pitchers will allow home runs on about 10 percent of their fly balls. Johnson evened out and then some in 2009 with a 12.1 percent HR/FB. He does keep the ball on the ground and struck out 6.30 per nine innings. Behind him Mark Hendrickson will be the long man and Koji Uehara will slot in somewhere once he comes back from his hamstring issues. Matt Albers, Cla Meredith, and Alberto Castillo, among others, could get shots, but I don’t think the O’s are looking for the next big setup man among them.

Conclusion: Better than the Jays

The Orioles still have a way to go before they contend, though if they catch a few breaks they could make a run as early as 2011. After a dozen consecutive losing seasons, I’m sure their fan base can handle one more, especially with how this team is shaping up. They have two potential top of the rotation arms in the rotation to start the year and then have another who nearly cracked the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that their Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 prospects are all pitchers. If they head into next season with Matusz, Bergesen, and Tillman with one or two of those prospects in tow, we could see big things in 2011.

As for 2010, I’d say that unless something big goes wrong that the O’s will climb out of the AL East cellar and finish ahead of the Jays. I’ve done a lot of writing about the Jays this off-season, and while I do like their outlook, they’ve cleaned out the team for the time being. The Orioles have better hitting and better pitching in the current talent column, and really they have better future talent as well. The Jays are doing an admirable job in trying to correct J.P. Ricciardi’s mistakes, but with two financial powerhouses and two more well-run franchises residing in the same division they could find themselves in last place for a few years running. Hey, someone has to finish there.

2010 Draft: Draft Eligible Sophomores

The Indians failed to sign Tim Lincecum as a DES in

Major League Baseball’s amateur draft has some pretty quirky criteria for eligibility. If you graduated high school but haven’t attended college, you’re eligible. If you have a high school diploma and go to a four year school, you have to wait until age-21 to go back in, but if you go to a two year school you can re-enter the next year. Heck, if you’re 18-years-old and have your GED, you can be drafted as a high school junior like Jeremy Bonderman was. Trust me, there’s even more craziness that I don’t care to get into.

For the purposes of this post, all you need to know is that any four year college player who turns 21-years-old within 45 days of the draft is eligible to be selected, regardless of class. Most players don’t meet this criteria until their junior or senior years, but some make it earlier, hence draft eligible sophomores. Every so often you’ll see a draft eligible freshman, like Royals’ 2009 fourth rounder Chris Dwyer out of Clemson (the Yanks drafted him out of high school in 2008), but those guys are few and very far between.

Because they have the opportunity to go back to school for their junior year and re-enter the draft the next summer, DES’s have more negotiating leverage than most college draftees. A college junior can’t pull that trick because if they go back and complete their senior year, they’re out of college eligibility and will have absolutely no leverage in negotiations. Kentrail Davis, the top DES last year, received an over slot $1,200,000 bonus from the Brewers as the 39th overall pick, which is pretty typical for these kind of players.

As you probably guessed, DES’s have a better chance of falling in the draft due to signability. The Yankees took advantage of this to land Graham Stoneburner in the 14th round last year, giving him a well above slot $675,000 bonus to turn pro. This year’s crop of DES’s features one possible top ten pick and one really intriguing arm for later on in day one of the draft, so let’s dive in…

Cole Cook, RHP, Pepperdine
A semi-local kid who was born in New York City but later moved to Southern California, Cook ‘s father spent ten years on Broadway before making the jump to television and moving his family west in the late-90’s.. He goes by the screen name of Peter MacKenzie, and based on his IMDB page, chances are you’ve seen him in something. But I digress.

Cole took a redshirt as a freshman in 2008, then emerged as the team’s best arm the next season. He led the Waves in wins (7), innings pitched (83), strikeouts (79), batting average against (.195), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.95) in 2009, which earned him a spot on the All-WCC Freshman Team and the Louisville Slugger All-Freshman Team. Coming into the spring as the team’s ace, Cook has posted a 3.55 ERA (~2.20 FIP) with a 39-11 K/BB ratio in 45.2 innings over six starts this season.

Big and strong at 6-foot-6 and 220 lbs., Cook’s best pitch is his 91-93 mph fastball that runs back in on righties. He backs it up with low-80’s changeup and a pair of breaking balls: a sharp high-70’s slider and big loopy curveball. Both breaking balls are kinda sketchy, and chances are he’ll have to scrap the curve all together so he can focus on developing the slider down the road. Despite low walk totals and good control, Cook has to iron out his mechanics to firm up his stuff and be more consistent with his pitches in general. He uses a lower arm slot, something similar to Justin Masterson, which a) makes him very tough on righties, and b) is further reason to go with the slider. His makeup is off the charts, as he uses his older brother’s battle with leukemia for motivation.  Cook is considered a second round talent at the moment, but could easily pitch his way into first round consideration or bonus demand his way down to the double digit rounds.

Photo Credit: Phil Coale, AP

Zack Cox, 3B, Arkansas
Arguably the top college hitter in the draft (NHD), Cox was part of the impressive crop of Kentucky high schoolers that featured four top three rounds talent in 2008. With all due respect to Robbie Ross, Danny Webb, and Nick Maronde, Cox is clearly the best of the group, and that was obvious even after he hit .266-.342-.558 as a freshman (solid, but unspectacular for a top college prospect). The righty hitter has displayed hitting prowess this spring, leading the Razorbacks in basically every offensive category with a .435-.527-.641 line and nearly twice as many walks (18) as strikeouts (10).

A shortstop in his younger years, Cox slid over to third base and may or may not stay there long-term. Regardless of where he ends up in the field, his bat will play. With supreme contact skills and an advanced approach, Cox is a good bet to hit for a high average and post strong on-base percentages in the future, though his power is more likely to come in the form of doubles than homers.  He’s pretty much maxed out physically at an even six feet and 215 lbs., so there’s not much projection left. What you see is what you’re going to get, and that’s a great hitter. He’s a top ten talent, and it’s unlikely the added leverage of being a DES will drop him to the bottom of the first round.

One more DES worth mentioning is Mark Canha of Cal, who brings defensive versatility and a well-rounded offensive game to the table. He’s similar to Xavier Nady, another Berkeley product, and has hit .368-.467-.529 while being a perfect 5-for-5 in stolen base chances this year. Capable of playing the outfield, Canha has been stationed at first base this year in deference to more athletic outfielders. He’s expected to be a mid-round talent, somewhere in the 5th to 8th round range, but could easily fall more if teams don’t think he’s worth his asking price.

Given their perpetual spot near the end of the first round, the Yankees have to use other avenues to acquire top talent. While high schoolers are most commonly associated with the concept of signability, DES’s also bring some talent to table. Cox may be a bit of a pipe dream, but Cook is a very interesting arm that could be available by time the team’s third or fourth pick comes around.

Spring Training Game Thread: Twins vs. Yankees, in progress

We were a little delayed in getting up the game thread this afternoon as Joe, Mike and I were enjoying lunch and didn’t realize YES had picked up today’s game. So we’ll join this ALDS rematch between the Yanks and Twins now in progress.

Phil Hughes, the fifth starter, is facing the Twins, and he had a rocky first inning. He allowed a pair of runs on two hits and a walk but still struck out two. While batting, Denard Span took out his mother with a foul ball, but she seemed to be okay. I don’t have the pitchers scheduled to follow Phil, but Hughes is set for a good long outing. This is his final tune-up of the spring, but the Yanks have not yet announced when he will start in April.

Jeter SS
Thames DH
Posada C
Rodriguez 3B
Swisher RF
Granderson CF
Gardner LF
Pena 2B
Miranda 1B

Hughes P