The RAB Radio Show: January 17, 2011

It appears as though the Yankees are on the verge of signing Andruw Jones, so he takes up most of today’s podcast. We’re talking about the need he fills and why he’s the best among the current free agents.

Podcast run time 20:05

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

The Opt-Out Clause

You're gonna have to shave that thing. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

Late last week the Yankees agreed to a contract with a Rafael Soriano, and it’s not just a normal contract. It’s an absurdly player-friendly contract that’s almost too good to be true from the player’s perspective. The guy gets a guaranteed $11.5M in 2011, and then depending on how things play out over the next eleven or so months, he can either go seek a bigger contract elsewhere or take another $10M from the Yankees. If he does the latter, then twelve months after that he gets to decide if he wants to test the market or take another $13.5M of the Yankees money. It’s a fantastic contract for Soriano and I’m certain there are quite a few players around the league envious of him.

Therein lies the problem, the structure of the contract is just ridiculously unfavorable to the Yankees. Forget the money, that’s a drop in the bucket to them, it’s the structure of the contract and they way Soriano is now allowed to determine his role with the team for the next three years. Within minutes of the news breaking about the contract and the inclusion of these opt-outs, the general sense was that people were hoping that Soriano would pitch well in 2011 then opt out and go somewhere else. Hoping he opts out! If you have to hope a guy opts within a weekend of the deal being announced, that’s a pretty definitive sign that something is wrong.

There’s basically one way this deal will end up being a positive for the Yankees, if Soriano is fantastic in 2011 and he opts out to sign elsewhere. That’s it. Anything else happens, it’s a loss because everything is out of the team’s hands. They have zero say about whether Soriano will be a part of their club in either 2012 or 2013 (unless they can magically trade a reliever making eight figures at some point), and the only way they know for certain that he’ll still be around is if he gets hurt or just starts sucking like relievers can do for no apparent reason. But the other side of the coin is that if Soriano is dominant, he’s going to take off and look for a bigger contract elsewhere, maybe even just a bigger one from the Yankees. The team has no leverage, the risk on their end exists in the form of two years and $23.5M while the risk to Soriano is … what? Where’s the trade-off?

I’m just using Soriano as an example here, the same logic applies to CC Sabathia and his opt-out next offseason. Trust me, I’m a thousand percent aware that CC has said he won’t opt out (not necessarily using those words, mind you) pretty much since the day he signed his contract, but I don’t believe him. He’s not stupid, CC and his agent know that next winter’s free agent pitching crop is weak, so if he opts out he’ll have the Yankees by the balls. They can’t afford to lose him so the four years and $92M left on his contract will turn into a brand new five year, $120M contract like the Phillies gave Cliff Lee. Hell, when Sabathia hits the free agent market next winter, he’ll still be a full year younger than Lee was this winter. Five years and $120M is probably just a starting point.

The thing I hate most about these opt-outs is that they’re being passed off as “creative.” That was the word used for the Soriano deal, just like it was for Derek Jeter. Taking on all of the risk is not creative, it’s a horrible management of resources and will come back to bite the Yankees rather hard if they continue handing out contracts structured like this. It’s likely to happen with Sabathia in a year, and it’s likely to happen when a 39-year-old Jeter gets to decide if 40-year-old Jeter should earn no less than $8M regardless of how well he’s actually playing.

Look, there’s no denying that Soriano makes the 2011 Yankees considerably better. He’s a world-class pitcher and the bullpen is considerably stronger with him, I’m not going to argue that aspect of this contract because there is no argument. On the field, the dude is a beast and I look forward to watching him pitch and rooting for him to succeed. But the contract, good grief the contract. The Yankees took on all the risk with a microscopically small chance that it ends up working in there favor. It reeks of desperation and the opt-outs strike me as saying “we really don’t want to do this and we’re hoping that we can get out from under this deal as soon as possible, please please please don’t get hurt in 2011.” If you’re that concerned about a contract, just don’t do it.

Oh well, there’s nothing that can be done about it now, but giving out opt-out clauses like this just isn’t a smart way to build a team. The risk is too great and the reward is far too small, there’s no other way around it.

Brown: Yankees nearing deal with Andruw Jones

(AP Photo/Gregory Smith)

Update (12:20 p.m. ET): Yahoo’s Tim Brown reports that the two sides are nearing a deal. Ken Rosenthal recently reported that the Yankees were “balking” at Jones’s asking price, though.

No longer the defensive wizard he once was, Jones can handle still handle center or leftfield on occasion and will be a massive upgrade over Marcus Thames in that department. He can also crush lefties (.369 OBP, .229 ISO, .363 wOBA vs. LHP last two years) and isn’t totally useless against righties (.310 OBP, .262 ISO, .340 wOBA). Jones won’t hit for average, but bench players that will take walks and hit for a ton of power with passable defense are a valuable commodity.

Original Post (11:00 a.m. ET): We’re less than a month away from the start of the camp, but the Yankees still have a few items on the to-do list. One of them is acquiring a fourth outfielder. We’ve seen them connected to Andruw Jones before, and this morning ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the Yankees “are the frontronners” for Jones. He appears to fit the Yankees’ needs well, as he’s a right-handed hitter who can play the outfield corners. He’s probably not fit for full-time duty any more, so the Yankees could provide a good fit for him.

Mike wrote about Jones in December, and Ben then compared him to Marcus Thames. A week and a half ago we learned that the two sides had started talks. Hopefully they get it done this time around. Two years ago Jones opted to sign with the Rangers instead of the Yankees.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 17th, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.


Early season schedule works in Yanks’ favor

We might not have to see too much of this guy in April. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

There’s nothing quite as exciting as Opening Day, not after five long and cold winter months without any actual baseball. Rumors and signings and trades are fun, but nothing compares to the games. Yet once the season starts, everyone has the same complaint: what’s up with all the days off? As you know, it has to do with the weather. April showers bring May flowers lots of off days because baseball doesn’t want there to be an overload of doubleheaders early in the season. As annoying as it is, the logic is sound.

All those days off are a nuisance to us fans after the long offseason, but they can benefit the 2011 Yankees quite a bit. You may or may not have heard, but the Yanks have a bit of a fifth starter problem. Actually, it’s more like a fourth and fifth starter problem, though I’m down with giving Ivan Nova a chance given the lack of alternatives. Sergio Mitre is another story all together. No one has any faith in him being even a slightly below average big league starter, especially in the AL East, but that’s where the schedule comes into play. The off days in April give the Yankees ample opportunity skip him.

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so I grabbed the early season schedule off the official site and laid out the starting pitching plan. The identities of SP1 through SP4 are irrelevant as long as SP5 is the guy we’re trying to avoid, which in this case is Mitre. The number in parenthesis is the number of days the pitcher has had off, so (4) is normal rest. Here’s March/April…

As you can see, the Yankees will only need their fifth starter three times in the season’s first month, a span of 27 games. The front four also gets a nice little break during the week of the 17th in the form of an extra day of rest. SP5 and SP1 could be flip-flopped on the 15th and 16th, but doing so will give SP1 one start with two extra days of rest (on the 22nd) rather than two starts  with one extra day of rest each (16th and 22nd)  I just spread the rest around a bit, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. An added benefit is that the fifth starter will be available out of the bullpen for at least a few days in between starts, taking the load off the regular cast of relievers in early going.

There’s not much to see during the first few weeks of May since the Yankees will have to stay on rotation through the ninth, their first off day of the month. If they stay on rotation after the day off, they’ll be able to trot out their top three starters against the Red Sox on the 13th through 15th. All told, the Yankees will have to use their fifth starter just six times in the season’s first 42 games. The less Mitre the better, but if they have to start the season with him in the rotation, at least they can spread out the damage, so to speak.

Of course all of this is academic and so, so much can change between now and then. The weather could decide not to play nice, maybe someone gets hurt, maybe Mitre comes out and dominates one or two guys surprise and get a little more responsibility, who knows. As it stands, the Yankees can avoid their fifth starter quite a bit in the early going, and it could give them enough time to find a better solution than what they have right now.

Open Thread: John Flaherty

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Eight years ago today, the Yankees signed current YES broadcast John Flaherty to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. He competed with Chris Widger to be Jorge Posada‘s backup during camp and won the job with ease, leading to Widger’s release in April. Flaherty spent three years in pinstripes and was generally awful, hitting just .226/.261/.387 in 389 plate appearances while throwing out 26.0% of attempted base stealers. I think we all remember his signature Yankee moment though, the walk-off shot into the gap against the Red Sox in the game Derek Jeter flew into the stands to catch a pop-up. Flash can be bland as an announcer, but that one hit against Boston is easily the most memorable by a Yankee backup catcher during the Posada era. Not even close in my book.

Anyways, here is the open thread for the evening. If you turn on CBS, you’ll be able to catch the end of the Jets-Patriots game. You’ve also got the Rangers and Flyers plus a new episode of Family Guy. Talk about whatever you want.

The Right Trades

Like most GMs, Brian Cashman knows a little bit about making a smart trade. And while he’s certainly caused us to sigh in absolutely hopeless exasperation (sometimes followed by ‘We’ll never win a World Series again!’), he’s definitely struck gold a few times in recent history. Lately, right field has been patrolled by players brought over as a result of Cashman successes, and not only have they done well, but the trades themselves have been absolute steals. Works of art, even.

In 2006, a 38-year-old Bernie Williams was patrolling right field due to badly timed injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, and new call-up Melky Cabrera was in left. Williams was on his way to a .281/.332/.436 season, but Cashman was interested in more. He had his eye on Bobby Abreu, who was currently batting a career-low .277 and flitting with his career-low OPS of .871 in Philadelphia. Cashman refused to send Phil Hughes to the Phillies, but a deal was struck just before the deadline in 2006, sending Abreu to the Bronx with Cory Lidle for four minor leaguers. At that point, only one of them, Matt Smith, had logged any major league innings at all: a grand total of 12 IP, with four hits, eight walks, and nine strikeouts. The other three players — Carlos Monasterios, CJ Henry, and Jesus Sanchez — hadn’t played a single inning above A ball. Henry was a first round pick signed for $1.5M, so while the possibility was there, it was not exactly a sure thing. Sanchez and Monasterios were international free agents from Venezuela.

Abreu went on to hit .330/.419/.507 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs in his first 60 games in pinstripes and capped it off with four RBIs and a double in the postseason. It was a good start to his tenure, and his success would continue throughout 2007, where he hit posted an 117 OPS+, 16 homers, and five triples. The Yankees exercised his option for $16M for 2008, where he just kept getting better. He struck out less, hit more homers, and tacked twenty points onto his batting average. Meanwhile, the four minor leaguers pitched and hit in a grand total of 24 IP – all Matt Smith. There’s no question who got the better end of the deal. Abreu was worth a total of 7.3 WAR, while Smith clocked in at exactly replacement level.

Abreu would not return in 2009, though, due to the increase in his salary he was predicted to ask for. The Yankees had already picked up Xavier Nady (and Damaso Marte) near the 2008 trade deadline from the Pirates and were perfectly equipped to start him in right. They had traded Ross Ohlendorf (6.43 ERA in 40 IP), and three minor leaguers: Jose Tabata (AA), Jeff Karstens (AAA), Daniel McCutchen (AAA). Even better, Nady’s salary was a mere $6.5M in comparison to the +$16M Abreu was expected to ask for.

But Cashman wasn’t finished for 2009. He struck up talks with the White Sox for their first baseman/outfielder hybrid Nick Swisher, who had managed to hit career-worsts basically across the board, posting a pathetic .219/.332/.410. Cashman saw beyond the numbers, though; he saw a decent reserve outfielder who he could buy low and maybe even sell high on in the future. All Chicago asked for was Wilson Betemit, and minor leaguers Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez. Betemit had played in 87 games in 2008 and hit a decent .265/.289/.429. Sold.

Then, only seven games into the 2009 season, Nady went down with elbow trouble and required Tommy John surgery. Swisher, picked up as a reserve player, was pushed into the starting right fielder’s spot. The rest was history: Swish turned into a clubhouse asset, a semi-decent right fielder, and a power slugger. While he hit only .249, he also took nearly 100 walks and slugged thirty home runs in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. He posted a then-career high .869 OPS, fueled by his .371 OPB, and all for the low, low price of $5.4M. Swisher and Nady together cost less than Abreu had in 2008, too. Swisher’s only problem was his dismal October numbers: 7-for-54 with 15 Ks. Ouch. Regardless, Swisher’s numbers were far, far better than the .200/.280/.311 Betemit posted in 50 plate appearances in Chicago. Nunez made seven appearances and posted a 9.53 ERA, giving up 10 hits and 6 ER.

2010 only made the deal sweeter. Betemit signed with the Royals and went .297/.378./511 in 315 plate appearances, which wasn’t half bad, but Swisher outdid him. Not only did he play in 150 games, even when we all thought he should sit due to a busted knee and a September slide for the team, but he completed his transformation to slugger by posting career-high numbers. He traded in his walks for hits, improving on his .249 in 2009 to .288 in 2010, hitting the same amount of homers and completing the transformation to 4 WAR player. He destroyed the Twins in the 2010 ALDS with a home run and two doubles. He’s even super clutch.

While Swisher isn’t guaranteed to maintain his career-high numbers, he’s definitely in line for another great year in pinstripes. Betemit, meanwhile, has signed a 2011 contract with the Royals, and while a modest improvement might happen, it’ll certainly be nothing in comparison to Swisher. The man’s already posted the 3rd and 4th best Yankee right fielder performances (Sheffield is #1 and #2) since Paul O’Neil.  Meanwhile, Marquez and Nunez stew in AAA, with the first posting a 4.48 ERA, and the latter a 5.48.

I think it’s safe to say that Cashman has a pretty decent head on his shoulders. Like all GMs, he’s going to make a few mistakes, and things are going to happen that are out of his control. But even when taking away the free agent power that Cashman wields, he still proves to be pretty good at picking out a right fielder when he sees one he wants. Go Cash.