The Yanks’ recent history of January & February transactions

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The holidays are always a slow time for baseball news, and this year is no different. The Yankees haven’t done anything significant this offseason beyond agreeing to a deal with Pedro Feliciano, so any further improvements to the team will have to take place after the New Year. I decided to take a look back at the moves the team has made in January and February of the last five years just to get an idea of what we can expect over the next few weeks, and unsurprisingly, it’s nothing excited. Let’s recap…

January: Signed Royce Ring, traded Mitch Hilligoss for Greg Golson.
February: Signed Marcus Thames, Dustin Moseley, and Chan Ho Park.

Ring didn’t contribute much to the Yankees since he spent basically all season in Triple-A Scranton, but Golson played quite a bit in September as a pinch runner and defensive specialist. He even made the postseason roster. Thames, Moseley, and CHoP all spent a lot of time with the big league team, though Thames was the only one to have a positive impact. Park was the only one of the three on a big league contract, but he had a case of homeritis before being cut at the trade deadline. Moseley was below replacement level filling in for Andy Pettitte.

January: Signed Pettitte and Angel Berroa, finalized deal with Mark Teixeira.
February: Signed Brett Tomko.

Tex agreed to his deal a few days before Christmas, but it wasn’t made official until after the holidays. The same will be true of Feliciano this winter. Berroa was a minor league signing that ended up spending some time with the big league team after both Alex Rodriguez and (shudder) Cody Ransom hit the disabled list. Tomko was another minor league deal that was sub-replacement level in a handful of appearances for the Yanks before being jettisoned.

Pettitte was coming off a terrible second half in 2008 and was doing the retire or not retire thing all winter, then the Yankees played hardball with him salary-wise. I suspect we’ll get some resolution as to Pettitte’s status for next season during January, one way or the other.

January: Signed Billy Traber and Morgan Ensberg.
February: No significant moves.

Blah. Both Traber and Ensberg were signed to minor league contracts yet opened the season on the 25-man roster, but both guys were terrible and banished to the minors and released before the All Star break, respectively. It’s worth noting that the Yanks did sign both Al Aceves and Manny Banuelos in February, but those were long-term moves not necessarily designed to impact the 2008 team.

January: Signed Doug Mientkiewicz and Miguel Cairo. Traded Randy Johnson and $2M to Arizona for Luis Vizcaino, Ross Ohlendorf, Alberto Gonzalez, and Steven Jackson.
February: Signed Ron Villone.

Minky! (AP Photo/Jerry Lai)

Finally, something interesting. Minky was better with the Yankees than people remember, posting a .346 wOBA with studly defense at first. Cairo and Villone stunk, and the writing had been on the wall about an RJ trade for weeks by time it was consummated. Vizcaino was the team’s best middle reliever that year, at least until Joba Chamberlain showed up in August, and Rock ‘n Rohlendorf was actually on the postseason roster that season. Gonzalez did little in his brief time in New York, Jackson even less. The trade did save the Yankees $14M, money they eventually gave to Roger Clemens when they signed him at midseason.

February: Signed Bernie Williams, Octavio Dotel, Miguel Cairo, and Al Leiter. Finalized deal with Johnny Damon.
February: Claimed Darrell Rasner off waivers from Washington. Signed Scott Erickson.

Bernie’s deal was just a formality since we all knew he was coming back, and Damon’s contract was made official after being agreed to in December. Dotel was on a minor league rehab deal as he came back from Tommy John surgery, but his contribution to the Yankee cause later that season was minimal. Cairo and Leiter were forgettable, as was Erickson. Rasner proved useful for a few seasons before heading to Japan, though he was never anything special. Just a nice arm to take a beating whenever the team needed it.

* * *

For the most part, every move made in January and February over the last five seasons has involved complementary pieces or minor league filler, not counting Damon and Tex. Pettitte should get resolved next month like I said, and based on recent history, any moves the Yankees make before Spring Training will be rather insignificant. They’ll probably bring in a starting pitcher, but we all know it’s unlikely to be some kind of high-end arm. Count on it being an innings guy for depth. With any luck, he’ll be better than Rasner.

Joakim Soria and the Yankees

(Orlin Wagner/AP)

Perhaps we’d better start from the beginning.

Trade deadline 2010. The Rangers acquire Cliff Lee and the Angels acquire Dan Haren. The Yankees had varying degrees of interest in both, and both ended up elsewhere. Clearly they were going to look wherever possible for ways to upgrade the team. On July 25th’s Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees “made a big proposal for Royals closer Joakim Soria.” That’s it. There was no mention of names involved in the proposal. Just one vague statement.

Two days later, in the sidebar of a trade deadline column, Jayson Stark expanded a bit. “The Yankees just made another run at Soria, as first reported by — even dangling Jesus Montero.” Is this Stark adding a bit of reporting? Is he speculating? Who did he talk to that mentioned Montero’s name? And, most importantly, if this was in fact the case why wasn’t it a more prominent item in the column? Or maybe it’s just a matter of wording. After all, Montero’s name coming up in conversation, or even being dangled, is quite a bit different than him being offered in a trade.

(This is along the lines of a story this morning, where the headline didn’t reflect the content. The game of telephone continued from there.)

Once Cliff Lee went to Philadelphia and especially once Zack Greinke went to Milwaukee, it was inevitable that we’d hear some sort of connection between the Yankees and Royals involving Soria. The Royals have said that they intend to keep their closer, but that won’t stop the rumor mill from turning. It turns out that Soria himself has restarted it. MLB Trade Rumors links to an article that quotes Soria regarding his no-trade clause. While he can block trades to the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, Cardinals, and Cubs, only one of those names came up in conversation.

“I didn’t put it there, my agent did, as a strategy,” Soria said. “But if the Royals decide to trade me to New York I would gladly go to play with the Yankees or any other team… I repeat, I would not block a trade to the Yankees. I like to play baseball and I would play with any team.”

This is clearly going to raise some eyebrows, but I wouldn’t make much of it. There are a few reasons to not take seriously any of this Soria talk at all.

Regarding the summer 2010 rumor: If Cashman did offer Montero for Soria, he should be relieved of his duties. The same goes for Dayton Moore if he refused.

Regarding acquiring Soria now: Why not just sign Rafael Soriano at that point? Soria is under contract for four more years at $26.75 million. It would probably take another $15 or so million to land Soriano, and it would cost the 31st pick in the draft. But the Royals clearly won’t let Soria go for cheap. It’s probably better to keep the prospects who are closer to helping and spend the extra money, something the Yankees can do with ease.

We constantly see the Yankees connected to every available high-profile player. It was determined the minute Soria became a star that he’d eventually be mentioned as a Yankees target. But given what we know, there’s no reason to believe any of it. Maybe Montero’s name did come up in a discussion regarding Soria. If that happened, I doubt the conversation lasted long. The Yankees might want Soria, but the Royals also appear to want a bit much for him. I wouldn’t expect this one to move, despite the rumors we’ll hear every July and December from now until Soria’s free agency.

Open Thread: Snowpocalyse 2010 (cont’d)

Tourists. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s still a snowy mess here in New York, but at least most of the streets are plowed to come degree. It’s amazing how bad weather can bring civilization to such a standstill; I couldn’t even get chinese food delivered last night, two days after the storm. What the hell? Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. The Vikings are at the Eagles (NBC), and the Knicks are in Miami to get their asses whopped by the Heat again. You guys know what to do, so have at it.

Weekend Writer Update: You’ll be happy to know that we’ve finally gotten around to selecting five finalists for the two weekend writer positions, so with any luck we should have the search wrapped up by the end of the week. We’ll probably hold off on sending out emails letting everyone know the deal until Monday since I suspect quite a few of the applicants are away on vacation and what not.

Levine: “Cash is doing the right thing”

Via Pete Caldera, team president Randy Levine came out and backed the team’s patient approach this offseason. “[Brian Cashman] is doing the right thing,” he said. “He’s being patient. We have time. We’ll make [the team] better.” This qualifies as news during the slow holiday season, but what did you expect Levine to say? He’s not going to come out an bash his GM for the uneventful offseason.

In other news, pitchers and catcher are just 48 (!!!) days away.

Mailbag: Can the 2011 starting rotation be better than 2010’s?

Dumping Javy is a bigger help than you may realize. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Tarik asks: Assuming Pettitte returns, and doing nothing else, couldn’t the Yankees rotation be better than it was last year? I mean, AJ couldn’t possibly be as bad as he was and Nova could very likely turn in a performance better than Vazquez.

I think it’s a long shot that Pettitte will return, probably something like 75-25 in favor of retirement, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that he will in fact return for the 2011 season. That would make the Opening Day rotation CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova. Order isn’t important in this exercise.

Sabathia will again be the ace and there’s very little reason to expect him to not be awesome. Sure, he had minor knee surgery, but he’s also losing weight to alleviate some of the negative impact. Last season’s peripheral stats (7.46 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 0.76 HR/9) were actually his worst since 2005, when he posted a 3.69 FIP (3.54 in 2010). He did make up for it with a 50.7% ground ball rate, and hopefully new pitching coach Larry Rothschild will help bump his strikeout rate up a notch. CC was a 5.1 fWAR pitcher in 2010, and I would expect him to be a five win guy again next year.

Unlike Sabathia, Hughes is (theoretically) on the upswing of his career and it’s reasonable to expect improvement. The two parts of his game he needs to improve the most are his homer rate and overall efficiency. As Joe explained last month, the vast majority of the homer issues came during an eight game stretch in the middle of the season; 48% of the homers he allowed came in just 27% of his starts. Furthermore, 80% of them came at home. That’s not to say Hughes will all of a sudden stop surrendering homers, but there’s reason to expect some improvement.

As for the efficiency thing, his 4.12 pitchers per batter faced in 2010 was tied for the most in baseball with Max Scherzer. It’s impossible to say what becoming more pitch efficient will do for a Hughes’ overall performance, but it could just as easily be bad as it could be good. For our purposes, let’s assume it does nothing. After a 2.4 fWAR season in 2010, Hughes should be able to best that by even a small margin going forward. The one thing that could derail him is injury after a career high workload, so let’s be conservative and call Phil a two win pitcher next year.

Burnett’s a complete enigma, but he was so bad last year (1.3 fWAR) that he almost can’t help get better. His 4.83 FIP was a career worst by a considerable margin, but I would be shocked if he pitches to his 3.93 career FIP next year. Let’s split the difference and call it a 4.38 FIP in 2011, which is still worse than his 2009 effort. That FIP spread across 180 innings will give you 2.4 fWAR according to Sky Kalkman’s WAR calculator, but again let’s be conservative and call it an even two wins.

Things get tricky with Pettitte because he’s older and therefore injury prone, as we saw in 2010. Although he was pretty awesome most of the year, his 3.85 FIP was right in line with what he did in both 2007 and 2008, so it wasn’t an out-of-this-world good performance. Let’s say he tails off a bit and pitches to a 4.15 FIP like he did in 2009, and makes it to the hill for 120 innings. That works out to 1.9 fWAR, but let’s give him the benefit of doubt and again call it an even two wins. Someone will have to fill while Pettitte is on the theoretical disabled list, but let’s just say that whoever takes his spot ends up being is exactly replacement level and adds zero wins to the tally.

We don’t know what to expect out of Nova next year because he’s so young and these guys can be so unpredictable, but I can’t imagine he’ll repeat Javy Vazquez‘s -0.2 fWAR performance. If he does pitch that poorly, the Yanks will simply send him back to the minors and call up Hector Noesi or David Phelps or whoever. Let’s say Nova or the other fifth starter dreck pitches to a 5.00 FIP in 180 innings, or 1.2 fWAR.

Check out the table to the right for the final tally. Surprisingly, the 2011 rotation ain’t half bad compared to the 2010 outfit based on my admittedly half-assed projections. Basically all of the improvement is tied to getting Javy out of there and replacing him with even a below average starter, but a slight rebound from Burnett helps as well. If the Yankees fill in Pettitte’s missing innings with someone better than a replacement level starter, the 2011 staff will only get better.

Now this is where I explain that this is an extremely simplistic and incredibly unscientific look at things, so don’t take it to heart. I repeat, this is an extremely simplistic and incredibly unscientific look at things, so don’t take it to heart. I just did it for fun more than anything because I thought the mailbag question was interesting. I obviously didn’t account for the starts that Sergio Mitre (0.0 fWAR) or Dustin Moseley (-0.4 fWAR) made in 2010, and we can’t ignore that there’s a decent chance of getting less than 120 innings from Andy and also Hughes as well. The Yankees should absolutely go out an get some kind of starter between now and the start of Spring Training, but maybe the concerns about their rotation are being overblown. Crazy, I know.

Mailbag: Chris Capuano

(Morry Gash/AP)

Mark L. writes: Worthwhile to look at [Chris] Capuano?

Yesterday I was looking for an excuse to write about Chris Capuano, and I thank Mark L. for handing it to me. Capuano is an interesting pitcher for a few reasons, though not all of them are good. But given the Yankees’ current pitching situation, they can’t turn away and possibly productive additions.

The first thing many people will want to know after looking at Capuano’s FanGraphs page is why there are no entries for 2008 and 2009. This is the first reason why Capuano is interesting. He spent those two years recovering from Tommy John surgery. That might seem like an inordinate amount of time for recovery; usually we see pitchers come back in 12 to 18 months, and some have made it back quicker. For Capuano, though, it was his second TJ surgery. He did pitch some low-level minor league innings in 2009, but after surgery in May of 2008 his real comeback didn’t begin until 2010.

After about 40 minor league rehab innings, Capuano re-joined the Brewers in early June for a start in Florida. He got lit up pretty bad in 3.2 innings and after that moved to the bullpen. After 15 relief appearances he moved back into the rotation for a final seven starts. Save for the first one they went quite a bit better than his first go-round. All told he had nine starts, which is hardly a sample from which we can draw conclusions. Of those nine starts, only four laster six innings or longer. That makes him a tough candidate for a starting staff. Yet his insistence on being a starter next season was part of the reason why he and the Brewers broke off negotiations.

As expected, Capuano’s numbers were better out of the pen than they were in the rotation. These numbers run the gamut: strikeout rate, walk rate, FIP, xFIP, ERA, WHIP, etc. This is to be expected. Most pitchers’ stuff will play up better in the pen than in the rotation. While that doesn’t mean that all pitchers are destined for the pen, it does mean that some will perform far better in relief than they do as a starter. Given Capuano’s history and his numbers, it appears that he is one of those guys. Unless he doesn’t find a starting gig and relents, I can’t see much of a fit for the Yankees.

My biggest problem with Capuano is his home run rate. In 777.2 career innings he has allowed 110 HR, or 1.27 HR/9. That rate has been fairly consistent from year to year. He combines this with neither a superb strikeout rate, 7.4 per nine, or an outstanding walk rate, 3.02 per nine. Both of those numbers are good, but they’re not enough to overcome the home run rate. This shows up in his peripheral ERAs, a 4.47 career FIP. This does not sound like a guy I want facing the potent offenses of the AL East.

What plays in Capuano’s favor is his handedness. Anyone who throws with his left arm, regardless of how many times that arm has been reconstructed, will get chance after chance. Considering the bevy of left-handed power threats in the AL East, having a few lefties on hand is certainly desirable. The Yankees have already addressed this issue by signing Pedro Feliciano, plus a number of lefties on minor league contracts. Capuano could be another solid addition to the bullpen.

While he does allow home runs to lefties, it’s not nearly to the same degree as to righties. He also strikes out more lefties and walks far fewer. Again, we can turn to his peripheral ERAs to get a good comparison. Against righties he has a career 4.79 FIP, while against lefties he has a 3.23 FIP. If this doesn’t scream lefty reliever I don’t know what does. If he were willing to sign a deal as a reliever, I’d completely advocate this move. But I don’t think that scenario will ever arise.

There are plenty of teams that can afford to gamble on a lefty with some upside. The Pirates, for instance, can likely find a spot for Capuano in the rotation. If he wants to rebuild his value, he’s probably better off heading to bottom dweller and proving himself there. He’d then likely be in line for a bigger contract next winter. He could rebuild some value pitching out of the pen for a first division team, but if that were the case why wouldn’t he just stay in Milwaukee? They’ve built up quite a 2011 team, but they don’t have room in the rotation.

We enjoy exploring all possible free agent options, and I’m glad someone wrote about Capuano (though I’m sure I would have written about him anyway). But at this time it doesn’t appear there’s a match. Capuano wants a starting gig, but that’s not his optimal role on a contender. If for some reason he doesn’t find a gig in a poor team’s rotation and decides he’ll pitch in relief for a first division team, I’d love to see him as another lefty in the Yanks pen. Otherwise, he’s just another guy whom we’ll discuss, but we’ll never see in pinstripes.

Mailbag: Yu Darvish

(AP Photo/Chris Park)

Nigel asks: With the Yankees out on Lee and no premiere pitchers available in the near future, is Yu Darvish the next big time Yankee signing at SP?

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: Darvish is the best pitcher on the planet not currently employed by one of the 30 MLB clubs. He’s crushed the competition in Japan over the last four years, striking out 9.2 batters per nine innings while walking just 2.1 per nine. Opponents have taken him deep just 34 times in 792.1 innings over the last four seasons, or roughly once for every 23.1 IP. Aside from a brief bout with “lower body strains” in 2009, Darvish has been perfectly healthy, throwing no fewer than 200 innings and ten complete games in three of the last four years.

Patrick Newman of the indispensable NPB Tracker wrote a post at FanGraphs this past March explaining why Darvish is the real deal, and that was before the righty put up the best season of his career. I suggest giving that a read before going any further, and when you’re done with that, here’s a video to watch.

Darvish was expected to be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters this offseason, but he decided to delay the move to MLB by a year because of a divorce. I hate to speculate, but you have to think he’s waiting the year because he doesn’t want his future ex-wife to get half of the mega-contract he’s sure to land when he comes stateside. Anyway, Darvish now plans to join MLB after the 2011 season, and so we wait.

We know that the Yankees have scouted him extensively in the past, and of course they’ll have interest when the time comes simply because he’s young (two months younger than Phil Hughes!) and a top flight pitcher. The team’s pitching rotation will change quite a bit between now and next offseason, but that won’t stop them from pursuing a high end arm. It all comes down to price.

Brian Cashman has said that he considers posting fees to be a waste of money (after the Kei Igawa deal, obviously), and they pretty much are because all they buy you is a 30-day exclusive negotiating window. You still end up paying the player very handsomely. Talk of a $70M+ posting fee has been bounced around for years now, but I can’t imagine it’ll go that high. Teams are not oblivious to what’s happened with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has done anything but justify Boston’s $100M+ commitment. The posting fee will certainly be exorbitant, but I’m willing to bet it’s closer to $50M than $70M.

As for a comparable contract, Felix Hernandez’s five-year, $78M deal makes sense. Darvish won’t be a true free agent in the sense that he’ll be able to solicit bids from every team, so that will limit his leverage. That means you’re looking at a $130M or so total investment, something only a handful of teams can afford. Basically the Yankees, Red Sox, probably the Mets ($36.5M coming off the books after 2011, and that’s just three players), Angels, and the Mariners. Maybe a few other clubs get involved, but it’s tough to see.

As good as Darvish is, there’s a ton of risk in acquiring him. His strikeout totals in Japan are very good but not great, and his workload at such a young age is pretty ridiculous. Remember, they pitch once a week in Japan, not in a five-man rotation. That’s a big adjustment that has to be made and should not be overlooked. It’s not like Darvish is Igawa though, he’s is a power pitcher that misses bats and limits homers, so even if the AL East turns him into a 7.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9 guy, he’s essentially Matt Cain going forward. Any team would add that guy to their rotation.

Next winter’s free agent pitching crop is pretty weak, assuming common sense wins out and Adam Wainwright’s option for 2012 kicks in. That alone will make the competition for Darvish pretty stiff. I think the Yankees will submit a competitive bid next winter and make a legit run at acquiring him regardless of happens between now and then, but I would not be at all upset if they lose out on him because some team is trying to make a statement with a huge bid. Of course, if the 2011 seasons turns into a pitching disaster and the Yanks miss the playoffs, all bets are off.