In the Bronx, building a team on a budget

When the Yankees signed Randy Winn yesterday, the move kicked off a firestorm of comments. Even though pitchers and catchers are still three weeks away, even though the Yanks are the reigning World Series Champions, Winn’s signing sent shockwaves through the Yankee Universe. It meant the end of Johnny Damon‘s tenure in pinstripes, and it proved, once and for all, that the Yankees are playing baseball on a budget this year.

For most baseball fans and writers, the idea of a team sticking with a budget is not cause for consternation. The vast majority of baseball teams — 29 of them, in fact — have operated under budgetary constraints. Some teams have more money to spend while others have to make the most of the funds available to them in order to remain competitive. That — and not the idea of OBP as the Holy Grail of baseball — was the driving thesis behind Moneyball. Still, no one blinks if a mid-market team has only $95 million to spend.

In the Bronx, though, things are different. The Yankees are on top of the world. They have a brand new stadium, a brand new World Series trophy, a top-rated regional sports network and an internationally-identifiable brand. They made the Yankee hat more famous than Jay-Z can. With this cachet of fame and success, the Yankees should not have a budget. Or so goes the baseball motif.

As we sit in 2010, though, life has changed economically since the glory days of the mid-2000s as the Yankees’ payroll kept climbing and climbing and climbing. First, George Steinbrenner has passed control of his team onto his sons. While Hal has the desire to win, he also recognizes the business needs of the Yankees. He knows that exceeding the payroll budget by a few million dollars also leads to a few million more in luxury tax payments. He knows that the team owes some debt service payments on their new stadium, and he knows that, prior to 2009, the Yankees’ operating income was a cool $3.7 million the red. With a $209 million payroll in 2008, the Yankees could not turn a profit.

In a few weeks, we’ll hear from Forbes about baseball’s 2009 finances, but considering the Yanks’ adherence to a budget this winter, the team is probably in a similar situation. Based purely on the stadium-centric finances, I believe the team is breaking even at the stadium with most revenue coming from their TV rights deals and the YES Network. So the Yankees have decided that they need a budget. It might be $200 million; it might be far greater what any other team will pay for their players; but it’s still a budget. With the economy in tatters around us, how hard is it to understand that the Yankees can’t just open up their checkbook with no regard for the fiscal impact of it?

For some people — Ken Rosenthal’s latest comes to mind — this is an inconceivable turn of events. For 40 years, the Yankees have spent, spent, spent. Why should a few million dollars stop them from reupping with Johnny Damon? Why would they go for Randy Winn instead? Mike had a fully rational explanation earlier today, but Rosenthal, a career baseball man, could not escape from the trope that the Yankees do not have a budget. Shockingly, they do.

In the end, it’s tough to say who bears the blame for Damon’s departure. Joel Sherman has written two articles (here and here) exploring the fallout from the Boras/Cashman dispute. The Yanks say they had made a few offers to Damon’s camp while Boras, not wanting to appear as though he overplayed his hand, claims he was more flexible than the Yankees say and that the Yankees didn’t really want Damon back anyway. Pick your side in that one. The truth remains that, in an era of fiscal problems, the Yankees do have a budget. They probably have room to improve at mid-season, but today, they are done spending. The money just isn’t there.

The biggest WPA swings of the 2009 postseason

Over the past few weeks, we’ve written about the biggest hits and the biggest pitching performances of the 2009 regular season. It was only a matter of time before we got to the postseason. This time, though, I wanted to do it a bit differently. WIth the two previous posts we subjectively ranked the performances. It’s a bit different in the postseason, when every big hit seems like the biggest ever. Plus, Rebecca already ranked them subjectively.

This time around, we’ll look at big hits in terms of WPA. For the uninitiated, that’s win probability added, a stat that shows us a team’s chance of winning a game at any given moment. Our list consists of the 10 biggest swings in WPA. What hits gave the Yankees the best chance to win the game? These are the top 10 such hits.

10. ALCS Game 5: Teixeira doubles, .192 (video)

After a 10-1 drubbing of the Angels in Game 4, the Yankees had to wait a day to finish off the Angels. On the mound was A.J. Burnett, who pitched well in Game 2. He had, in fact, pitched will in both of his playoff starts, instilling us with a sense of confidence. After a season of watching Bad A.J. show up after a few Good A.J. starts, it seemed like he put all that behind him. He seemed to be, dare I say it, stepping up in the playoffs.

The feeling wouldn’t last too much longer. It was as if Bad A.J. shoved Good A.J. aside, beat his chest, and said, “My turn!” After walking Chone Figgins to start the game, Burnett surrendered hits to the next four batters, alternating doubles and singles. Before he had recorded even one out, Burnett put the Yankees in a 4-0 hole. John Lackey then went to work, holding down the Yankees over the next five innings, after getting out of a first and second, none out jam in the first.

Finally, in the top of the seventh, the Yankees started a rally. Melky Cabrera started with a ground ball double to right, which Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter followed with walks to load the bases. Johnny Damon couldn’t get in the run, leaving Lackey with a bases loaded, two outs situation. Except Mike Scioscia didn’t want to leave it in Lackey’s hands, opting to substitute lefty Darren Oliver. It seemed an odd decision. Lackey had pitched pretty well all game and was just one out away from ending the frame. With the switch hitting Teixeira coming to the plate, the substitution didn’t make much sense.

Teixeira wasted no time in making Scioscia regret it, as he slammed a ball in the left-center gap, bringing around all three base runners and putting the Yankees within one. Hideki Matsui tied the game two batters later, and Robinson Cano put the Yankees ahead after him, smoking a triple into the right-center gap. The Yankees would blow the game the very next inning, making it all the more frustrating. But that doesn’t render Teixeira’s hit any less important. That was a huge turning point in the game, and almost won the series.

Credit: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

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KLaw’s Top 100 Prospects List

Keith Law posted his list of the game’s top 100 prospects today (it’s all behind the Insider wall, unfortunately). with two Yankee farmhands making the cut: Jesus Montero at #10, and Manny Banuelos at #96. “Montero’s ticket to the big leagues is his bat,” says KLaw, “and his hitting style is similar to that of another big guy who spent a lot of his career at DH: Frank Thomas.” Frank Thomas was good at hitting baseballs, in case you didn’t already know. As for Banuelos, he says his ceiling is “probably just a No. 3 or No. 4 starter, but given his youth and feel he’s got a good chance to get there.”

Arodys Vizcaino cracked the list at #43 (“… potential as a front-line starter”) while Austin Jackson came in at #70 (“… upside keeps dropping as he moves up the ladder”). Old buddy Jose Tabata also cracked the list as #57 (“… dwindling chance to be an impact player”). It’s a good sign that the Yanks’ system has produced five top 100 talents, even though only two of them remain with the organization.

KLaw also posted his top ten prospects by organization, and the Yanks’ list is made up of the usual suspects: Montero, Banuelos, Zach McAllister, Austin Romine, etc. Might as well mention that MLB.com’s top 50 list came out last night, and Montero ranked 19th overall. That’ll be the lowest you see him ranked all offseason.

Report: Yankees to hire Kevin Towers

Via MLBTR, the Yankees are going to announce the hiring of former Padres’ GM Kevin Towers before spring. It’s unclear what KT’s responsibilities will be, though he’s expressed a desire to get out of the office and back into the field. Chances are they’re bringing him aboard as a consultant, otherwise he’d be forfeiting the money San Diego still owes him.

This is a great, yet completely unsurprising pickup. Brian Cashman and Towers have long had a great relationship, and Towers’ keen eye for pitching is a welcome addition. Welcome to the Boogie Down, KT.

What should the Yankees expect from Randy Winn in 2010?

When word got out that the Yankees had agreed to a deal with Randy Winn yesterday, many fans were up in arms over letting a silly little thing like a budget get in the way of bringing Johnny Damon back. Damon was a proven performer on the big stage after all, and he had just played a major role in helping the team capture their 27th World Championship. Instead the Yanks opted for Winn, who was so bad with the bat in 2009 that he got outslugged by Ramiro Pena. By 30 points!

Brian Cashman has been saying for weeks that he only had $2MM to spend on a left fielder, but almost no one took him seriously because hey, they’re the Yankees and they usually get what they want and will pay top dollar to do so. Not this time. Scott Boras told Cash that he wouldn’t take a penny less than $26M over two years for Damon back in December, and Cashman ended up calling his bluff. So now the Yankees are paying Winn $2M in 2010 to do something. Whether that’s serve as the every day left fielder or be a platoon partner for Brett Gardner or just provide a veteran presence on the bench, we don’t know. We won’t know until the season starts either.

Winn’s .262-.317-.353 batting line in 2009 represents the worse full season offensive output of his career, an ominous sign for a 35-year-old. His .158-.184-.200 line against lefties was the worst mark by a righty batter in 54 years, however that comes with the disclaimer of a microscopic .178 BABIP. One-seventy-eight. If he had posted his career average BABIP against lefties (.301), he actually would have picked up an extra 17 hits, nearly doubling his average to an even .300. That is some horrific luck ladies and gentlemen. It’s so horrible that even at his age, a rebound is all but guaranteed. Bouncing back against lefties alone will improve his overall offensive output, but moving from cozy AT&T Park Park to the New Stadium will help as well. I’m not saying Winn will revert to his ~.350 wOBA ways of ’07-’08, but matching Melky Cabrera‘s .331 wOBA from a year ago isn’t out of the question. He did have 22.3% line drive rate in 2009, his highest in at least eight years, so Winn’s bat hasn’t gone totally limp.

The one area of Winn’s game that doesn’t need to improve is his defense. He’s been well-above average in both corners over the last few years, and Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg him as a +2 defender in left and +9 in right. The Yanks could optimize their defensive alignment by sticking Winn in right and sliding Nick Swisher over to left (where he projects for +1 UZR), but for now let’s assume Winn’s staying in left. Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR metric rates him as well-above average on the bases, but if you’re into raw stolen base totals, then you’ll be pleased by Winn’s 56 steals and 88.9% (!!!) success rate over the last three years. Gardner’s fast, crazy fast even, but he was too hesitant in late-inning stolen base situations at times last year. Given his experience, Winn should absolutely be the new guy for that job, and he should be fantastic at it.

So let’s round it all up. We’ve got Winn as a .331 wOBA hitter next year (essentially replacing the Melkman), a +2 UZR defender in left, and let’s say +2.4 runs on the bases (half of his 2009 total). Assuming 400 plate appearances, Winn would be just a tad over a two win player in 2010, but let’s call it an even two. For all intents and purposes, that’s league average. Despite his struggles last season, Winn was worth just under two wins, so we’re not out of the realm of reality here. A two win player for $2M is a bargain, and even if the aging process is harsh or the NL-AL switch is tougher than expected and knocks Winn down to a one win player, the Yanks are still paying him about two-thirds of his market value. The Yankees should expect the bare minimum from Winn, but chances are they’ll be rewarded with more.

He’s certainly not a sexy name and he won’t be as productive as Damon, but the Yankees didn’t just take a match to $2M bucks. Remember, he’s not replacing Damon; Curtis Granderson is. Winn is essentially filling Melky’s spot (for $1.1M less). He’s a useful player and perfectly qualified for what the Yankees are asking him to do. Oh sure, there’s always a chance Winn will be just awful and is DFA bait by May, but I’d be shocked if he ends up being that bad. It’s a very easy move to back out of, and the Yanks did well to improve two of their roster’s biggest weaknesses (defense and baserunning) with Winn. And he’s going to bat ninth for cryin’ out loud, with this lineup they could let the pitcher bat and be a top five offense.

Update: As requested, here’s an overlay of the park dimensions of AT&T Park and the New Yankee Stadium. Keep in mind that the right field wall in San Francisco is 20-feet tall.

Photo Credit: Eric Risberg, AP

Pitchers in the first year of a $100 million deal

On Tuesday night the Oklahoma Sports Museum honored CC Sabathia with the Warren Spahn Award, given to the best left-handed pitcher in baseball, for the third straight year. Created in 1999 and handed out annually, the award has seen just five winners. Randy Johnson won the first four years, Andy Pettitte took it in 2003, Johan Santana won it when he won his Cy Young awards, 2004 and 2006, and Dontrelle Willis won in 2005. The story of the night, however, was not the award itself, but rather how Sabathia handled the pressure of moving to New York.

Jeff Latzke of the Associated Press gathered some quotes from Sabathia about his transition from the smaller markets of Cleveland and Milwaukee to baseball’s biggest stage. Good guy that he is, CC credited his teammates for all the support they provided.

“It takes a lot of pressure off when you play with great players,” he said. “Just being around those guys and them having experience of being in the postseason and being on a championship run, it definitely gives you a calming feeling to be able to be around those guys every day and know what it feels like to win a championship.” He then added, “Every game I started this year, I didn’t feel like I needed to go out and throw a shutout or go out and be perfect. Just keep the game close, and hopefully my team is going to score enough runs to win.”

Intuitively it makes sense that a big-time pitcher would face less pressure on an offensively charged team. A $100 million contract might buy you and your family anything you want, but it can’t buy you a break with your new team’s fan base if you don’t live up to the deal. Still, there’s no way to actually prove the calming effect of a 900-run offense. We’d have to play mock psychiatrist, and I’m just not interested in that game.

Still, to explore this a little deeper, look at Mike Hampton, baseball’s second $100 million pitcher. He headed to Colorado in 2001 after two stellar seasons with the Astros and Mets. The Rockies offense that year scored 923 runs, leading the NL by 76. They OPS’d .837 as a team, .035 higher than the next highest. Yet Hampton posted, by a run and a half, the worst season of his career, pitching 203 innings to a 5.41 ERA.

(Of course, that Rockies team didn’t quite have the experience the 2009 Yankees had, but again I’m not trying to prove or disprove Sabathia’s statement. Just looking at other similar situations.)

Then look at Kevin Brown, baseball’s first $100 million man. He didn’t quite repeat his stellar 1998 after the Dodgers signed him for the 1999 through 2005 seasons, but he still managed a 3.00 ERA, good for a 143 ERA+ as offense flourished in baseball. His team, however, scored just 793 runs, 17 below league average.

Yet while Brown and Hampton don’t conform to the idea that a high powered offense helps calm a pitcher, the two $100 million pitchers prior to Sabathia do. Johan Santana moved from small market Minnesota to big market New York in 2008 and lowered his ERA by 0.80 runs to 2.53. He also led the league in starts. The Mets offense was third in the NL in runs that year. Barry Zito, who made the move a year earlier, saw his ERA inflate by 0.80. The Giants had the second worst offense in the league that year.

I’m sure that in some way, having a powerful offense full of experience players helped ease Sabathia’s tension as he took the mound early in the season. How much it affected his pitching, however, we’ll never know. I’m fine with that. All we do know is that after a slow start to the season Sabathia pitched as well as we could have reasonably expected. He appears ready to do it again in 2010.

“I’m itching to get to spring training, itching to get started, itching to see the guys and just try to do it again.” More excellent words have never been spoken.

Credit: AP Photo/Nate Billings

Open Thread: Images of Johnny

When the Yankees agreed to a deal with Randy Winn this afternoon, it effectively ended Johnny Damon‘s tenure in pinstripes. I’ll admit it, I was one of the many who hated the Damon signing when it first happened because I despised him for his time with the Red Sox and that grand slam off Javy Vazquez in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. Although it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, Damon’s four years in the Bronx were more than enough to make me appreciate him as a player and as a person.

A .285-.363-.458 hitter with the Yanks, Damon hit more homers in pinstripes than with any other team he’s played for, and of course he was an important part of last year’s World Championship. His nine pitch at-bat against Brad Lidge in the 9th inning of Game 4 of the World Series was one of the greatest at-bats in recent Yankee history, and his double steal one pitch after that was perhaps the biggest moment of the postseason. Damon was tremendously productive with the Yanks, and he was integral in changing the culture from uptight and corporate to fun-loving.

We should all thank Johnny for his service in pinstripes. Even though I hated him at the start, I’ll readily admit he was worth every penny.

After the jump, we’ve got some of Damon’s finest moments with the Yankees. Pictures are worth 1,000 words, after all. Once you’re done perusing them, then go to town on this here open thread.

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