Roger Clemens and the late-winter trade

Of all the dramatic things I've ever seen, Roger Clemens pitching on Opening Day in 1999 was not one of them. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

These days, Yankee fans have a relationship with Roger Clemens that could be described as tenuous at best. Our final memories of the Rocket include his early departure in Game 3 of the 2007 ALDS, a mediocre half season in the Bronx and Suzyn Waldman’s infamous histrionics on the day of his return to pinstripes. Today, Clemens’ pending perjury case may be pushing Andy Pettitte away from the Yanks, and no one wants to dwell on that sad state of affairs.

But Clemens’ first tenure in pinstripes was cause for celebration. He won an undeserved Cy Young Award and two World Series rings. He went 77-36 and was a key cog in the last years of the great Yankee Dynasty of the 1990s and early 2000s. To top it off, the Yanks didn’t land Clemens until February 18, 1999, two days before pitchers and catchers were due in Tampa. How did it all go down?

The Yankees’ love for Roger Clemens started long before the winter after their 114-win season. After a 10-13 season in which he sported a 3.63 ERA and a 9.5 K/9 IP, Clemens was a free agent bound for greener pastures. The Red Sox didn’t want to pony up, and George Steinbrenner had his sights set on the Rocket. The Boss offered four years and $32 million while Clemens instead signed with Toronto for three years and $24.75 million (with an $8.1 million option). He received a higher average annual salary but signed for fewer guaranteed years to go to Toronto, and the Yanks signed David Wells instead.

After two seasons of spinning his wheels in Toronto, Clemens was tired of Canada. He won two Cy Young Awards and went 41-13 with a 2.40 ERA, but the Blue Jays finished in last in 1997 and in third, nearly 30 games behind the Yanks , in 1998. So he asked for a trade, and the Blue Jays were willing to oblige. Although the Rocket eventually rescinded that request, Toronto found a market and an opportunity to free up $9.85 million.

As with any big trade, this one did not come easy, and in fact, it dragged on for months. The Yankees were interested from the get-go; in fact, they were eyeing Clemens at the 1998 trade deadline. The price to land Clemens, however, was steep. In early December, as the Yanks were competing with the Rangers, the Rockies, the Tigers, the Indians and the Astros, the club seemed willing to trade Andy Pettitte to Toronto. The Blue Jays, though, wanted some package including some or all of Orlando Hernandez, Ramiro Mendoza, Homer Bush, Mike Lowell and top prospect Alfonso Soriano.

In January, after Clemens withdrew his trade request — a request deemed to be against MLB rules anyway — talks stalled. The Yankees tried and failed to pry Curt Schilling away from the Phillies, but the Blue Jays kept lingering. And then, on the precipice of Spring Training, it all clicked. Toronto asked for David Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd, and the Yanks pulled the trigger. New York and David Wells mourned David Wells’ exile from the Bronx, and up in Boston, Red Sox fans were quite blue as the Yanks landed their ace.

Today, we’re waiting for the Yanks to fill their holes. They’re not coming off a historic season or a World Series win. They fell two games short of the Fall Classic this past year and failed to land Cliff Lee last month. But the off-season isn’t over until Opening Day, and we’ve seen big trades happen on literally the last day of baseball’s winter. Until then, the 2011 Yankees are still just a work in progress.

Open Thread: Hello, RJ

Hey look, it's Brad Halsey! *crickets* (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

Two days ago we celebrated Randy Johnson’s departure from the Yankees, but today is the six year anniversary of his acquisition. Hard to believe it’s been that long already. They parted ways with Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey, and then top prospect Dioner Navarro, none of whom they really miss. We all know Javy’s story, but Navarro never played a game for Arizona. He was packaged with some others and sent to the Dodgers for Shawn Green later than day. Halsey tossed up a 4.61 ERA in 160 innings for the D’Backs in 2005 before being traded to the A’s for Juan Cruz. He shredded his shoulder not long after that and hasn’t played in affiliated baseball in 2007. I was unfathomably stoked about the trade at the time, but it’s taught me and many others to not get too excited about 41-year-old pitchers coming to the AL East from the NL West, no matter how historically great they are.

Anywho, here is your open thread for the evening. The Rangers, Isles, and Knicks are all playing, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Treat the thread as you see fit, enjoy.

Minor Notes: Sojo, Tyson, Injuries

Got some minor league news to pass along this afternoon, so let’s round it up bullet point style…

  • The AP reports that Luis Sojo has been named the manager of the two-time defending High-A Florida State League champion Tampa Yankees for the 2011 season. The best bad utility infielder ever managed the club from 2006 through 2009 before leaving the team for an unknown reason last February.
  • Meanwhile, former Tampa Yanks manager Torre Tyson has been re-assigned and is now the organization’s minor league defensive coordinator, whatever that means.
  • Chad Jennings got a bunch of minor league injury updates from VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman. Eduardo Nunez, who fouled a ball off his face a few weeks ago, is a-okay and will be 100% by the time Spring Training begins.
  • David Adams, who rocked the Double-A Eastern League to the tune of a .403 wOBA before suffering an ankle injury in May, is healthy and will be ready to start the season. I suspect he’ll go back to Trenton, he only had 173 plate appearances there before the injury.
  • Jeremy Bleich is unlikely to be ready to start the season on time after having surgery to repair a torn labrum last summer.
  • Caleb Cotham has nearly as many surgeries (two, knee and labrum) as professional appearances (three), but he’s throwing again following the shoulder procedure. His status for the start of the season is unknown right now.
  • Reegie Corona won’t be healthy enough to start the season after breaking his arm in a collision last summer, and he’ll likely to serve as a DH when he eventually does come back. That’s a shame, because he owns a .328 wOBA in his last 2,554 plate appearances. Corona is on the 40-man roster (for whatever reason), so they Yankees could stick him on the 60-day DL to free up a roster spot. He’ll accrue service time while on the DL, which isn’t really the issue, but the team will have to pay him a big league salary compared to his puny minor league compensation.
  • And finally, remember Carmen Angelini? He missed all of last season with hip issues but is healthy and expected to start the 2011 season … somewhere. The kid had a lot to work on before even before the injury (.270 wOBA in 889 pro plate appearances), so he mind wind up back in Extended Spring Training.

Yankees finalize 2011 coaching staff

The Yankees announced today that with the exception of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, the coaching staff will return intact for the 2011 season. Tony Pena will handle bench coach duties while Mike Harkey oversees the bullpen, and Mick Kelleher and Robbie Thomson will coach first and third bases, respectively. Hitting coach Kevin Long signed his new three-year deal not long after the season ended. Dave Eiland being replaced was a surprise, but otherwise everyone was expected to return.

The RAB Radio Show: January 11, 2011

The Yankees have again been connected to an injured pitcher, so that’s what we’re going to discuss. It started off with Justin Duchscherer, but we move onto the other injury cases, Jeremy Bonderman and Jeff Francis. We wonder what each is seeking, and how each can help the Yanks.

Then we’re onto the other area of need, fourth OF. Last night Ben discussed Andruw Jones vs. Marcus Thames, so Mike and I continue where he left off. Mike brings up another name, and I continue talking about Johnny Damon.

Podcast run time 24:18

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Yankees’ 2010 offensive rank by position

It feels as though we haven’t come to fully appreciate the 2010 Yankees. I can understand why. The 2009 team spoiled us, and while the 2010 team made it close to a repeat World Series berth, they fell a bit short. They also fell a bit short in the AL East. That’s one reason why this off-season just doesn’t have the same feel. There doesn’t seem to be anything to reflect on and enjoy — whereas at this point last year we were still basking in the 2009 season.

Today I’d like to look back on the 2010 season and find some of the positive aspects. The Yankees will return almost all of their starters, so this can also help us look forward to the 2011 season. Here’s how the 2010 Yankees ranked on offense by position, using my favorite offensive stat, wOBA.

Catcher: 4th

Despite Francisco Cervelli getting 317 PA, the Yankees still managed to finish behind only the Braves, Reds, and Phillies in offensive output by catchers. Cervelli’s .359 OBP certainly helped matters, while Posada’s .454 slugging gave them a nice balance.

First Base: 12th

This was certainly one of the year’s disappointments. A number of first basemen had standout years, while Teixeira experienced one of his worst. We can only look forward to better things in 2011.

Second Base: 1st

This comes as little surprise, since Robinson Cano took nearly every rep at second base. Only one other team, the Marlins, came within 20 points of the Yankees’ — read: Cano’s — .389 wOBA from second base. Now just imagine Robbie’s season if he didn’t slump all September long.

Third Base: 11th

This was at about the disappointment level of Teixeira, though third base was certainly not all on A-Rod. He managed a .363 wOBA, while the team as a whole was at just .327. Eduardo Nunez, Ramiro Pena, and Kevin Russo just aren’t adequate stand-ins. Those 26 A-Rod-less games at third certainly hurt.

Shortstop: 13th

The Yankees finished 2nd among shortstops in wOBA in 2009, but dropped all the way to 13th in 2010. Jeter himself ranked eighth among shortstops in wOBA, but some teams, the Red Sox among them, got added production from players who did not qualify for the batting title.

Left Field: 10th

Much of Brett Gardner‘s value lies in his glove — UZR rated him the best left fielder in the game, while DRS had him at second — he still managed to hit a little bit in 2010. Overall, Yankees left fielders produced a .334 wOBA, which kept them in the top third of the league. With Gardner’s glove, that’ll play.

Center Field: 5th (tie)

Even though he experienced a rough debut in the Bronx, Granderson still brought the offense, particularly in terms of power. The tie is with the Blue Jays, a team that also got a ton of power out of the center field spot. The Yankees, though, got a bit more balance, as their center fielders hit .262/.355/.423, while the Jays’ hit .269/.324/.496.

Right Field: 13th

Nick Swisher himself had a .377 wOBA, but everyone else who played right field for the Yanks — Austin Kearns, Randy Winn, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, and Chad Huffman — dragged down that number. It’s still a top half finish, but not quite as impressive as you might think given Swisher’s performance.

DH: 5th (AL only, obviously)

Despite losing their DH after just a few weeks, the Yankees still managed to get a .348 wOBA out of the spot. The top team DH, the Red Sox, amounted to just .357 wOBA, so the discrepancy wasn’t huge.

Team: 1st

You might not think it by the individual rankings, but the Yankees finished with the best team wOBA in the league. They’ve actually been in that spot in four of the last five seasons. We were spoiled when the team demolished the competition in 2009, when the team wOBA was .366 and the next closest was .352, but the 2010 team could certainly mash.

Team leader: Robinson Cano

It’s tough to beat a .389 wOBA. In fact, only 11 hitters did it in 2010.

Should the Yankees move Cano up in the order?

(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

Despite down years from Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees still boasted one of the game’s best offenses in 2010. In fact, they led the league in OBP (.350, by nine points), wOBA (.347), and wRC+ (115), leading to an MLB-leading 859 runs scored, so yeah, I guess we should just come out and say they were the best offense in the game in 2010. That’s thanks in part to an MVP caliber effort from Robbie Cano, who at age 27 hit .319/.381/.534 with 41 doubles and 29 homers, good for a .389 wOBA and a 145 wRC+.

Cano did all that after the team issued a challenge in Spring Training, giving him a bit more responsibility by moving him to the fifth spot in the order rather than the sixth or seventh he’d been hitting for the last half-decade. No longer was he considered a complementary piece, the Yankees wanted to Cano to step up and become one of their cornerstones. He obviously responded quite well and now maybe it’s time to issue another challenge: should he be moved up again?

No, I’m not talking about batting him cleanup or even third, I mean letting him hit second in 2011. Mark Teixeira and/or Alex Rodriguez would not be displaced in this alignment, not that they should have any control over the matter. This of course assumes that Derek Jeter will leadoff, and frankly we have no reason to suspect he won’t right now. Just like everything else, there are both pros and cons for moving Cano up to the two-hole, so let’s go through them both…

The Case For

Perhaps the biggest reason to move Cano up to second is to simply get him more at-bats. Last year American League number two hitters came to the plate 10,376 times compared to 9,638 times for number five hitters. That’s a 7.7% difference, and although it sounds small, it’s the difference between getting Cano 600 plate appearances and 646 plate appearances. Yankees’ number two hitters received 9.5% more plate appearances than number five hitters in 2010, so the difference is even more substantial on a team-specific level. Robbie’s clearly one of the team’s best hitters, so you want him to come to the plate as often as possible.

"I'm this many times better than every other second baseman." (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Another reason is to “optimize the lineup,” so to speak. Traditionally, the number two hitter is supposed to be someone that can “handle the bat” while number three hitter is supposed to be the best hitter on the team, however The Book showed that the best hitter should actually bat second. The reason is that the number two hitter comes to the plate in situations that are just as important as the number three hitter’s, but he does so with greater frequency. Another reason is because the number two hitter tends to bat with the bases empty more often than the three-hole hitter, so he can help start rallies by batting earlier. The Yankees are fortunate enough to have several fantastic hitters, so moving Cano into the two-hole creates more opportunities for Tex and A-Rod to drive in runs. With Brett Gardner (presumably) batting ninth and Jeter first, Robbie will still have a ton of RBI opportunities himself.

A lesser benefit is that it splits up the lefties at the bottom of the order, something Joe Girardi always tries to do. Separating Cano and Curtis Granderson by one batter is one thing, since the opposing team could always have their lefty specialist walk the righty batter sandwiched between them, but with three or four hitters between them it’s a different story. Maybe this doesn’t matter since Cano traditionally kills lefties (.366 wOBA vs. LHP over the last four years), but anything that makes life more difficult for the opposing manager is okay in my book.

The Case Against

The case against moving Cano up in the order is pretty simple: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? He was an MVP candidate while hitting fifth in 2010, so why screw around with it and potentially ruin a good thing? Well, it’s a very simplistic view, because Cano was also extremely productive as (primarily) a seventh place hitter in 2009, but moving him up made him even better. Sticking him between Gardner and Jeter on the front end with Tex and Alex behind him could bring about another level production, who knows. If it doesn’t work out, moving Robbie back to fifth is as easy as writing a name on a lineup card.

Another thing to consider is protection for A-Rod, but this probably won’t be much of an issue. At least not as much as it is made out to be, anyway. The Yankees could simply plug Nick Swisher or Jorge Posada or Granderson into that five-hole and nary miss a beat. Personally I’d go with Swish in that spot, but that’s just me. No, they won’t produce like Cano did in 2010, but they’re not going to embarrass themselves back there.

The double play component can’t be ignored either. Cano has grounded into no fewer than 18 double plays in his five full seasons, including 19 last year. Only Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, Michael Young, Yadier Molina, Derek Jeter, and Carlos Lee have more GIDP’s over the last five years. Hitting second will give Robbie the opportunity to kill just as many rallies as he can extend, which is more than he would be able to as a five-hole hitter.

* * *

The thing to remember is that the batting order really doesn’t have as big of an impact as we think it does, unless the manager does something stupid like bat his two worst hitters first and second and his two best eighth and ninth. As I said earlier, the Yankees have enough great hitters than Joe Girardi could pick the batting order out of a hat and still trot out one of the best offenses in the game, so Cano’s spot isn’t of paramount importance. A little optimization never hurt anyone though, and sliding Robbie up so that’s he’s starting rallies for Tex and A-Rod instead of cleaning up their leftovers is most likely what’s best for the team over the course of 162 games, and I’m for all for it.