For MLB, 2009 brought money, money, money

Despite a depressed free agency market brought about ostensibly by a bad economy, Major League Baseball enjoyed a banner year for revenue in 2009. According to Maury Brown at the Biz of Baseball, the 30 clubs drew in a combined $6.6 billion in revenue last year, a 1.5 percent increase over 2008. Brown believes that higher ticket prices charged at both new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are partially responsible for the increase, and MLB retained its spot on the money-making scale right behind football. It will be interesting to see how these figures play out when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in late 2011. The money is out there, but many owners are trying to invest more wisely than in the past.

Pondering Sabathia’s opt-out clause

When the Yankees and CC Sabathia came to terms on a contract last winter, the deal was generally reported to be for seven years and worth $161 million. In one sense, that’s true because it’s the total amount the deal could be worth, but in another sense, we should consider the deal Sabathia signed to be for three years at $69 million with a four-year, $92-million player option. That opt-out clause must loom large.

As the Yankees and CC discussed the deal last winter, the opt-out clause was seemingly marginalized. The Yanks put in the deal, in the words of Buster Olney, “just in case” the Sabathia family didn’t like living in the New York area. That phrase seemingly indicates that, if Sabathia is happy, he won’t exercise that opt-out option. I don’t think we should believe that.

Over the last few years, opt-out clauses have come into vogue in baseball. A-Rod earned himself one in 2000 that he triggered in 2007. He walked away with a better deal that guaranteed him a contract until he turns 42. A.J. Burnett had the chance to opt out of his five-year, $55-million deal following the 2008 season. He did so and signed another five-year deal worth $82 million with the Yanks. Similarly, J.D. Drew opted out of his five-year, $55-million deal following the 2006 season and landed another five-year deal worth $70 million. Aramis Ramirez did the same in 2006 and can do so again following the 2010 season.

In a way, the Ramirez opt-out is an important one for the Yankees. He’ll be playing his age 32 season this year, and the market isn’t nearly as robust as it was when he signed his current five-year, $75-million deal. If he doesn’t opt out, he’ll become the first high-profile player not to exercise that option. Yet, on the other hand, his deal isn’t comparable to Sabathia’s. He’ll be leaving only one guaranteed year on the table and a club option. CC will be just 30 and will have four guaranteed years on the table when the 2011 season wraps up.

The Yankees have to be moving ahead with the idea that Sabathia will opt out. They are basically three scenarios. In one, he gets injured or unpredictably declines such that four years and $92 million are his earnings ceiling for those four years. In another, he uses the threat of an opt out to secure more money from the Yanks. In a third, the economy will be so bad that a lefty ace coming off his 30-year-old season can’t find more than $23 million and four years. The last is a possible but unlikely scenario.

So the Bombers will pay careful attention next year to the free agent pitchers. Josh Beckett will hit the market, and Cliff Lee will be available. Brandon Webb too will be out there for the taking, and the Yanks will have to move on a pitcher with an eye toward this opt out and beyond.

I hope Sabathia stays in New York. I hope he continues to lead the team deep into October, and I hope the winning is an antidote to the option to leave. But I know that money will play a big role in his decision, and the Yanks knew that last year. It might be a little too early to know what Sabathia is thinking, but Brian Cashman and the Yanks will have to plan for that worst-case scenario as much as we don’t want to consider it.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Listen: Mike on The Shore Sports Report

Just a heads up, I’m going to be on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio today at 4:05pm ET. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m sure you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well. This is going to be a weekly gig for us. We’ll be discussing basically whatever is going on with the Yankees at the moment, so don’t miss it!

Were the 2005 Yankees the worst defensive team ever?

After the heartbreak of 2004, the Yankees needed a boost in 2005. From all appearances, the team’s biggest trouble in 2004 was its pitching staff. The team lost Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and David Wells after the 2003 season, and replaced them by trading for Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez. A year earlier they signed Jon Lieber while he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and during Spring Training they signed old friend Orlando Hernandez. Those four, along with Mike Mussina, could have been a formidable rotation had they all been at their best. Of course, things like that never seem to work out in baseball.

In the 2004-2005 off-season, the Yankees blew up the whole project. Brown and Mussina stuck around because of their contracts, but everyone else was out. Lieber left for the Phillies, El Duque signed with the White Sox, and the Yanks traded Javier Vazquez for Randy Johnson. To replace the two departures, the team signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. It was hardly a perfect solution. In fact, it seemed like more of the same, just with different names. Unsurprisingly, the team ERA, while numerically lower in 2005, ranked worse in relation to the league.

Clearly, the Yankees replaced very good pitchers with far inferior ones. In 2003 the staff posted a 3.66 FIP, second in baseball. In 2004 that jumped to 4.27, 12th in the majors. In 2005 it was just about the same, 4.28, but that ranked 15th. For years I thought the conversation ended there. Worse pitchers means a worse pitching staff. Not only were the five starters inferior to the ones in 2003, but injuries forced the Yankees to trot out even worse arms.

But as we learned in 2009, even a team with a middling pitching staff can post a quality ERA if it has quality defenders behind it. The 2009 Mariners posted a team 4.39 FIP, which ranked 9th in the AL. Yet their team ERA of 3.87 was No. 1. The difference was in the team defense. The Mariners posted a team 85.5 UZR, 16 runs better than the next best team. In other words, with a pitching staff perhaps negligibly better than the 2004 and 2005 Yankees teams, the Mariners still managed the top ERA in the AL. (Though, of course, having an ace like Felix certainly helps.)

Defensive stats weren’t widespread in 2003, but if they were perhaps the Yankees would have taken a different approach to rebuilding the pitching staff. The team UZR that year was -62.2, second worst in the majors and worst in the AL. In 2004 that was even worse, -76.3. To put that number into even more grave context, the second worst team, the Red Sox, were at -34.1. Yes, the Yankees defense in 2004 was more than twice as bad as the second worst team. While the pitching staff was not nearly as good as 2003, the worsened defense exacerbated the problem.

Yet that’s nothing compared to 2005. The Yankees, as a team, posted a -137 UZR. That’s a 137-run penalty due to their defense. The second worst team, the Reds, ranked at -67, so once again the Yankees were twice as bad as the next worst team. The second worst AL team, the Royals, ranked -52.4, so the Yankees were even worse when compared to their own league. Finally, to continue with the theme of worst, the -137 UZR is, by far, the worst team UZR since 2002, when we began tracking UZR.

While the Yankees still ranked last in 2006, a -73.9 UZR, they were a bit closer to the next worst team, the Pirates at -53.3. In terms of the AL, however, they could be considered even worse. The White Sox ranked 13th that year at -29.3, putting a huge gap between the two teams. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Yankees started to improve, with a -8.8 UZR, which ranked 21st in the majors. After a step back in 2008, the Yankees jumped up to 19th in the majors in 2009. The defense still isn’t great, not even in the top half of the league. But compared to 2005, they’re a team of Ozzie Smiths.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Link Dump: Granderson, Hughes, DePaula

Some stuff worth mentioning, but not worth their own posts…

Curtis Granderson gets contacts

Despite having 20/30 vision, new centerfielder Curtis Granderson will be wearing contacts for the first time in his career this season. “They said, ‘Your vision is 20/30, so let’s see if we can improve it,'” said Granderson. “For most people, they’d let it go, but since we can possibly make me see better to hit, who knows. We’ll see.” They considered Lasik at one point, but I guess they didn’t see the need to go that far just yet. Neither side is using his eyesight as an excuse for Granderson’s struggles against lefties or pop ups or anything like that, they’re just looking to make an improvement wherever they can.

Phil Hughes is throwing changeups

About a week ago, we heard that the Phil Hughes was going to focus on developing his changeup this spring in an effort to boost his repertoire in anticipation of returning to the rotation. Of course, we’ve heard this before. During his bullpen session yesterday, Hughes threw about a dozen changeups (40 pitches total), and he’s going to continue doing so all through the exhibition season. Given his fastball-cutter-curveball trio, Hughes doesn’t need the change to be anything more than a show-me pitch to lefthanders, but if he can develop into something better than that, then great.

Yankees still in on Rafael DePaula

Even though he’s sitting on an offer from the Mariners, the Yankees are still trying to sign Dominican righty Rafael DePaula. The 17-year-old was suspended by MLB for a year because he apparently lied about his age, however his birthdate has since been confirmed and he’s free to sign with any team. DePaula stands 6′-3″ and has reportedly hit 97 in the past, which puts him in line for a seven figure payout. The largest bonus the Yanks have ever given to an amateur pitcher from Latin American is the $800,000 they gave Arodys Vizcaino back in 2007.

A look at the history of stadiums and stadium names

Wezen-Ball put together a great infographic showing each club’s stadium and it’s name, dating back to the 1800’s. I love stuff like this. So much I didn’t know…

Yanks working to improve Montero’s throwing

Early on in camp this year, the story to end all stories has been uber-prospect Jesus Montero. A career .700-.750-1.400 hitter in big league Spring Training, he has already made a big impression with his batting practice showings this year despite being in camp for just over a week. He’s going to begin the 2010 season as the everyday catcher for Triple-A Scranton, though it’s still hard to believe that through his age-19 season, Montero is a .325-.379-.509 hitter in 1,071 minor league plate appearances despite reaching Double-A.

PECOTA pegs Montero as a .299-.352-.498 hitter with 23 homers if given 528 plate appearances in the big leagues next year, which is obviously an extremely optimistic projection. For comparison’s sake, Jorge Posada has matched that OBP and SLG in a single season just three times in his career. “He’s going to hit,” said one evaluator that Buster Olney spoke to. “There’s no question about that. Some guys just know how to hit; he’s like that.” Yeah, he’s going to hit, but not like that this early in his career.

Of course, Montero’s bat was never the question, defense in. Olney discussed some of the things the Yankees are trying to help Montero become a passable catcher, including a unique set of throwing mechanics. Instead of popping up on both feet and firing to second, bench coach Tony Pena and the Yanks have him keeping his right foot in place while taking a short stride with his left foot. It sounds awkward, and I tried it a handful of times in my living room while writing this post, and it’s definitely not a natural feeling. (Disclaimer: I’m most likely less athletic than Montero). Basically, the only way someone could pull this off consistently is if they have a strong arm, which Montero does.

I’m not sure how long he’s been throwing like this, however he did thrown out 32% of attempted basestealers during his Double-A Trenton stint last season. Of course, he caught a grand total of 33 games for the Thunder, so this is statistically insignificant. Montero’s thrown out just 23% of all attempted basestealers during his career, but that number isn’t trustworthy at all because the Yanks don’t emphasize their pitchers holding baserunners at the A-ball level and below. Frankly, we just don’t know how well this has/will work.

The consensus is that Montero will not be a catcher moving forward. However, the Yankees are coming up with creative ways to make it work back there, even if it’s just for the time being. It’s not often catchers jump right into the big league lineup full-time as rookies, so all the Yanks will need Montero to do for the next few years is be able to fake it back there two or three times a week. The bat is so special, none of us will mind the defense.

Photo Credit: Bryan Hoch, MLB.com

Sit back and enjoy the Derek and Alex show

As the sports world has come to focus on the daily minutiae of baseball, we often forget to look at the big picture. We examine lineup configurations for the optimal daily performance. We look at whether or not star players will sign or resign for how much money they’re actually worth. We second-guess pitching moves and strategic plays. But now and then, it’s worth to let it all go for a little while and enjoy the history of it all.

Beyond the October run, the Yanks and their fans got a glimpse of history, appropriately enough, in a game the team lost. On a Friday night in September — the 11th, in fact — in a game in which the Yanks were beaten badly by the Orioles, Derek Jeter set the record for most career hits as a Yankee. Both teams came together to applaud Jeter’s feat, and the fans loved it even if Andy Pettitte and the bullpen couldn’t salvage a win on a rainy night.

It should be just the first of many milestones Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez reach over the next few years. Assuming that Jeter re-ups with the Yankees — and don’t worry, he will — the Yankees are in for years of milestones, says Times beat writer Ben Shpigel. He writes of the projections that predict record-setting careers for A-Rod and Jeter:

If he stays healthy, Rodriguez, who turns 35 in July, is the top candidate to shatter Barry Bonds’s career record of 762 home runs. Sometime near the 2011 All-Star Game break, Jeter, who currently has 2,747 hits, is projected to get his 3,000th.

It remains highly unlikely that he will break Pete Rose’s mark of 4,256 — he would have to average 216 hits over the next seven seasons — but there is a good chance that Jeter, who turns 36 in June, will end his career with at least 3,400 to 3,500 hits. Only eight players have amassed more than 3,400, and only five have reached the 3,500 mark, beginning with Tris Speaker at 3,514.

Shpigel talked to Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus about PECOTA and Sean Smith about his CHONE projections. Both analysts believe A-Rod and Jeter to be prime candidates for history. Derek, they believe, will retire among the top hitters of all time, and A-Rod will be right there with him. As long as the two stay healthy, these milestones are well within reach.

For the rest of us — those of us who pay to watch the team play, those of us who are paid to cover the team — we can just sit back and watch history unfold. Maybe A-Rod will be overpaid over the next few seasons; maybe Jeter will get a contract extension that rewards him for being Derek Jeter and not for being a short stop approaching 40. But as history unfolds, we can forget those problems and appreciate the generational talent showing us their wares on the baseball field. It is, after all, what makes baseball great.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig