Report: Yankees considered pursuit of Beltran

Via Bob Klapisch, the Yankees toyed around with the idea of pursuing Carlos Beltran as a free agent earlier this winter. They consider him an upgrade over Nick Swisher, but they ultimately passed because of Beltran’s balky knees. Klapisch’s source likened the situation to Hideki Matsui, who was allowed to leave after 2009 because of his knee problems.

Back in October we heard that the Yankees were discussing Beltran in team meetings, but that was so early in the offseason it was hard to believe it was anything more than due diligence. Beltran parlayed his bounceback .389 wOBA, 4.7 fWAR season into a two-year, $26M contract with the Cardinals late last week. Given the return for similar players, it’s hard to believe Swisher would have landed the Yankees anything more than a pair of decent prospects in a trade. Certainly not a quality starting pitcher without adding prospects into the deal.

Open Thread: Foobaww

(Photo via Iowa State Athletics on Twitter)

There’s no baseball to be played in Yankee Stadium these days, but there will be college football. The 2011 Pinstripe Bowl will be played one week from today, featuring Rutgers and Iowa State. I know we’ve got plenty of Rutgers alum around here … are any of you planning on going? I heard the previous games at the Stadium were a blast, but college football isn’t my thing and I can’t imagine shelling out big bucks to watch two schools I didn’t attend play a bowl game.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. All three hockey locals are in action tonight, but if you’re like me, I suspect you’ll spend most of the night trying to improve your 20 gift-wrapping tool (on the 20-80 scouting scale, of course). You folks know what to do, so have at it. Anything goes.

Yanks hit with $13.9M luxury tax bill

Major League Baseball sent out its luxury tax bills on Thursday, and the Yankees owe $13.9M for the 2011 season. That’s down from $18M last year and $26.9M in 2009, and is their smallest bill since paying $11.8M in 2003, the first year the luxury tax was in place. For luxury tax purposes, the Yankees’ final payroll in 2011 was $212.7M. Checks to the commissioner’s office are due on January 31st.

The Red Sox were the only other team hit with a luxury tax bill this year, and will have to hand over a $3.4M check thanks to their $189.4M final payroll. Since the current system was put in place eight years ago, the commissioner’s office has collected a total $227.1M in luxury tax payments, and $206.1M (90.8%) of that has come from the Yankees. The Sox, Angels, and Tigers are the only other teams to have paid over the years. If you’re curious about where the luxury tax money goes, Maury Brown says the first $2.5M goes into the legal fund, then 75% of what’s left goes towards players benefits and the final 25% goes into the growth fund.

Once more unto the breach

In many respects the current Yankee offseason has been remarkably similar to last year’s. While the team hasn’t been spurned by the biggest free agent starter available this time around, for a second straight year they’ve been notably cautious with upgrading the roster (well, with the exception of the ill-advised signings of Pedro Feliciano and Rafael Soriano), as Brian Cashman seems determined not to overpay for anything other than the closest he can get to as sure a thing as there is in baseball.

This approach is fairly sound from a pure baseball operations perspective, although it’s left factions of the fanbase a bit skittish (especially in the aftermath of the John Danks extension), particularly with regards to a perceived lack of interest in the still-available starters on the board despite Cashman’s repeated public declarations of wanting to improve the pitching staff.

In trying to make sense of the Yankee front office’s increasing reluctance to be in on, well just about anyone, I keep coming back to the one event that has ostensibly dictated every move (or non-move) the team has made during the last calendar year, and that’s missing out on Cliff Lee. In hindsight I don’t think the team ever really thought Lee wouldn’t take its offer — especially considering it wound up representing the most years and guaranteed money (seven years, $148 million) — and what we’ve seen since is an organization that’s had to completely revamp its roster planning on the fly.

We saw fliers taken on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia — neither of whom end up being Yankees if the team signs Lee — but they came exceptionally cheap and with little risk. If they didn’t work out, all the team had to do was eat a minimal amount of cash and dump them. We watched them sit tight at last July’s trade deadline, unwilling to overpay for less-than-sure-thing Ubaldo Jimenez.

This offseason many are now clamoring for the team to try Hiroki Kuroda or Roy Oswalt on one-year deals, and while I won’t go so far as to build a case against either, as either hurler appears to make a a good amount of sense as a one-year stopgap for the Yankees (and for the record, I’m fine with signing either one), the fact that the Yankees haven’t been terribly aggressive on either player should also signal that maybe these right-handers aren’t the no-brainers they would appear to be on paper. There’s a lot to like about Kuroda, but while the difference in environments is often overstated the relative difficulty level between pitching in the NL West and AL East is still very real, and I’d imagine the Yankees’ internal projections see Kuroda as more of a #4 than the #2 type many are hoping he could be. How many teams in 2011 paid their number-four starter the $12 million many presume the 36-year-old Kuroda is seeking?

As for Oswalt, consider this — the Yankees decided to roll the dice on Bartolo Colon last winter despite having not pitched in the Majors in over a year and a set of medicals that would make Ben Sheets envious. While the Colon move worked out far better than the Yankees ever could have expected — and cost nothing — the reticence on Oswalt would seem to indicate that the team doesn’t believe Oswalt’s asking price matches up with his questionable health.

The other side of the Lee coin is that, as a general manager with a fair number of high-profile free agent pitching signings that haven’t worked out — Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Kei Igawa and A.J. Burnett immediately spring to mind, not to mention two failed Javier Vazquez deals (though both were defensible at the time) — I think Cash is now hellbent on not overpaying another team’s free agent for past production. It’s why he’s stayed away from the Wilsons, Buehrles and even Darvishes of the world this winter, and why he’s (to this point) ignored Edwin Jackson.

Should the market for, say, Oswalt somehow fall below the $5 million threshold, Cash (and every other GM in the game) would undoubtedly be all over it, but until that point I’m not sure I’d expect to see Oswalt in pinstripes. Same goes for Kuroda. When you consider that the Yankees got Colon and Garcia for a combined $2.4 million (pre-incentives) and turned them into 5.8 bWAR, that tells me that the team feels confident enough in its in-house options that it doesn’t feel like it has to make a free agent upgrade, or is only interested in backfilling the back of the rotation with pitchers on the team’s terms.

With no sure thing available for just money since Lee last year, the Yankees have had to forge a very different path for themselves. Many of us spent a lot of time looking at potential low-cost options for the rotation last offseason — I for one wrote up Jeff Francis, Brad Penny and Justin Duchscherer among others last winter — and it appears that’s exactly what the Yankees intend to do once again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up with Rich Harden, who I looked at back in November; or maybe even someone completely off the radar like Joel Pineiro (not saying I endorse this, but maybe he’s worth a shot on a Colon/Garcia-type deal); or the oft-injured Chris Young.

Or maybe Cash stands pat, happy to go into the season with a rotation of CC SabathiaIvan NovaPhil Hughes-A.J. Burnett-Freddy Garcia, with Hector Noesi waiting in the wings. Many are expecting the bottom to fall out on Nova, but I’ve begun to wonder if, in the desire to rein in expectations, we’re actually underrating what Ivan can do. I’m also — perhaps foolishly so — bizarrely optimistic on Hughes and Burnett. If either or both can turn in a season of starting with an ERA under 4.50, the robust Yankee offense will still be in position to win a lot of their starts.

Additionally, for what it’s worth — and depending on your opinion on forecasting systems, it may not be much — as rosters currently stand the Yankees are projected to win the AL East by both CAIRO (with a 94-68 record) and Oliver (92-70). While the usual projection caveats of course apply, and rosters will obviously change prior to opening day, that the Yankees would appear to have a roughly 93-win team on paper even if they don’t add a single piece the rest of the winter should be pretty heartening, all things considered.

While we’ve grown accustomed to splashy acquisitions, Cashman has proven himself fairly adept at dumpster diving in the wake of the Cliff Lee saga, and it seems like Yankee fans may once again have to forgo filet mignon in favor of dog food for a second straight offseason.

Mailbag: Hudson, Dempster, Chen

There’s nothing quite like the Friday before a holiday weekend. These are the best days to work if you’re stuck in a traditional office because no one’s around and the phones aren’t ringing. Save that vacation time for the busy weeks in the spring and summer. Anyway, just three simple questions this morning, I want to enjoy the holiday too.

(AP Photo/John Amis)

Simon asks: With Danks off the list and the Yankees reportedly not exactly impressed with Kuroda/Oswalt, could Tim Hudson become available?

I can’t see that happening. Hudson is a damn good pitcher and Atlanta’s ace, and they are going to contend next year. Or at least they should contend, they have a good team. They moved Derek Lowe in a salary dump and are trying to move Jair Jurrjens because they know his knee is a grenade with the pin pulled, but they’ll keep Hudson and try to build their rotation around him and a hopefully healthy Tommy Hanson. Hudson on a one-year deal would make a lot of sense for the Yankees, but I just can’t see the Braves being open to moving him without a major haul in return.

Mark asks: Does Ryan Dempster seem like a Cashman-esque acquisition? Proven veteran, one year left on deal, could stabilize the 3-4 slot in the rotation.

The Cubs are very much in sell mode, and Dempster is one of their more attractive pieces. I wrote a Scouting The Market post on him back at the deadline, and for the most part it still applies. He gives up homers and has a big platoon split, but he also strikes out a ton of batters and throws 200 IP like clockwork. Dempster unsurprisingly picked up his $14M player option for 2012, so he’s not exactly easy on the wallet, but it’s a one-year deal and it’s shouldn’t take a ton of prospects to acquire him. He’s worth looking into, definitely, but he’s not without risk.

(The Japan Times/AP)

Greg asks: Seeing as how Yu Darvish is most likely not to be had by the Yanks, is there any insight on Wei-Yin Chen? Could this guy be what the Yankees are looking for?

Greg sent this in before the Rangers won the bidding for Darvish, obviously. I wrote about Chen last month, so let’s recap…

Other than Darvish, Chen is probably the most coveted Asian pitcher this winter. The 26-year-old lefty was born in Taiwan but has pitched for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan for a few years now. He got Tommy John surgery out of the way in 2006. “He had been sitting low-90s and touching 95 in past years but was more 88-92 early in 2011, and his slider didn’t have its usual bite,” said KLaw, who ranked him 19th on his top 50 list. “By the end of the year, he was back up to 92-94 and the slider was sharper … He has a decent split-change that should make him more than just a lefty specialist, although it’s not an out pitch for him. Chen still has plus control.” He is a true free agent thanks to some contract shenanigans.

The Orioles have interest in signing him, or at least they did at one point this month. I look at Chen almost like a prospect, as in he might need some time in the minors before being ready to contribute to the big league team. Even if he doesn’t need time in the minors, I’m not sure they should count on him for immediate impact. He’d be another arm for the stable with the potential to help more down the road, if anything.

Open Thread: Westbrook & Lilly

Photo Credits: Suzanne Plunkett (Westbrook) & John Froschauer (Lilly), AP

Right now, the Yankees have one veteran ace and about a dozen #4/5 type starters in their rotation mix, most of them young. Twelve years ago, it was the other way around. They had about four veteran aces and little depth, which is what they sought to acquire when they traded the late Hideki Irabu to the Expos. On this date in 1999, the Yankees sent Irabu to Montreal for prospects Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker.

Parker never amounted to much, appearing in just one big league game in his career. That came in April 2001, when he gave up seven runs in three innings to the Blue Jays. He hurt his shoulder and didn’t pitch again that season, and he missed all of 2002 as well. He’s been out of baseball since 2005. Westbrook, then just 22, pitched in three games for the 2000 Yankees (ten runs in 6.2 IP) before being traded to the Indians as part of the package for David Justice at the deadline. He went on to have a long and successful career with the Tribe and now with the Cardinals, though Justice helped the Yankees to their third consecutive World Championship that season. Flags fly forever, as they say.

Lilly, 23 at the time of the trade, stuck around for a while. He made six relief appearances for the 2000 Yankees (six runs in eight innings), then made 21 starts and five relief appearances for the 2001 Yankees (5.37 ERA). The next season he was in the Opening Day bullpen, but eventually moved into the rotation. Lilly made eleven starts and five relief appearances for New York that year (3.40 ERA), then was traded to the Athletics as part of that four-team humdinger that brought Jeff Weaver to the Bronx. Like Westbrook, Lilly went on to have a long and successful career following the trade, bouncing from Oakland to the Blue Jays to the Cubs to the Dodgers. In 205.1 IP for the Yankees, he posted a 4.65 ERA.

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Here is tonight’s open thread. For those of you with the NFL Network or in the local markets, you can watch the Colts and Saints at 8:20pm ET. The Rangers are also playing the Islanders, which should be fun. Talk about that or anything else you like here, the thread is yours.