Did the Yanks make a mistake by passing on Reed Johnson?

Just a few days after the Yankees brought Randy Winn aboard the Dodgers struck by signing Reed Johnson, who was also in consideration for the left field spot in the Bronx at some point as well. When the deal was first reported, I said it would be interesting to see how much money Johnson got compared to Winn, who was the recipient of the Yankees’ last $2M. As it turns out, the Dodgers landed Johnson for just $800,000, which makes the Winn contract look just awful.

It’s not that Winn is overpaid compared to the value he provides, in fact if he’s just a one win player in 2010 (something he’s been in every single one of his full seasons in the bigs) then the Yankees are getting a slight bargain. However with the market like it is and compared to his peers like Johnson, Winn is overpaid. Obviously there’s a lot more going on here than just what appears on the surface, and we have no idea what went on behind the scenes. Winn was reportedly ready to accept another offer (from the Nationals) and he certainly leveraged that against the Yanks, and Johnson may have taken a bit of a discount to go back to Southern California, where he grew up. We have no idea how (or if) those factors came into play.

But getting back to the players, the idea was that the Yanks were looking to bring in a righty hitting outfielder to platoon with Brett Gardner, and Johnson seemed perfect for the role. He’s a career .313-.378-.463 hitter against southpaws, compared to Winn who’s hit .280-.332-.426 off lefties in his career and just .158-.184-.200 against them in 2009. There’s just no disputing that Johnson was a far better fit for that role, however the game doesn’t end in the batter’s box.

Just looking at the players the Yankees have vying for bench spots – Winn, Ramiro Pena, Jamie Hoffmann, Greg Golson, Frankie Cervelli – it’s easy to see that the team is emphasizing defensive competence with their reserves. Johnson’s defense has been a mixed bag, as he’s posted an above average +5.4 UZR in 106 defensive games in left over the last three seasons, so it’s a nice number in a not large sample. Most of his recent action has come in center (just 21 games in right over the last three seasons), where he’s posted a -6.0 UZR in 121 defensive games. We’ve already discussed the fact that Winn is one of the best defensive corner outfielders (and best baserunners) in the game here, so the run prevention smiley face goes on Winn’s paper.

The prevailing thought is that the Yankees are susceptible to lefty relievers in the late innings with the likes of Curtis Granderson and Gardner hitting towards the bottom of the lineup, and that’s certainly true, but it’s not like Johnson has set the world on fire as a pinch hitter. In 90 career pinch hitting appearances, he’s a .238-.303-.375 hitter, and if we’re going to trash Winn for 125 at-bats vs. lefties in 2009, it would be hypocritical to not denounce Johnson for his small sample size shortcomings. And the Yankees aren’t a team that pinch hits all that much anyway (97 total pinch hitting appearances in 2009, most of which came when they were resting players in September), so we’re talking about a situation that might pop up once or twice a week.

Yes, giving Randy Winn $2M next season is drastically overpaying considering to how the market shook out, however we’re talking about a spare outfielder and the 23rd or 24th man on the roster. Overpaying that guy for one season isn’t a big deal, especially for the Yanks. Johnson is a nice player, but as fans we tend to focus on just one aspect of a player’s game and trick ourselves into thinking they’re more (or less) than they really are, and that seems to have definitely happened with these two players given their production against lefthanders. CHONE projects Winn for 0.8 WAR in 2010, Johnson got a whopping 0.1 WAR. Sure, Reed Johnson hits lefties well, but Randy Winn does everything else better. The price is definitely wrong, but the player is right.

Photo Credit: Paul Beaty, AP

The illusion of parity

Did you know that, during the last decade, all but seven teams reached the playoffs? And did you further know, that during the 2000s, 19 of baseball’s 30 teams reached the playoffs more than once? Never mind the fact that eight of 30 teams make the playoffs every year; that’s parity!

Or at least it is if you’re ESPN’s Senior Editor David Schoenfield. In the companion piece to his crazy realignment scheme, Schoenfield spent yesterday’s Hot Stove U. column writing about parity in baseball. Schoenfield starts with the proposition that baseball has a competitive balance equal to or greater than that of the NFL, and then he finds some proof.

From the get-go, Schoenfield’s proof isn’t what we would call rigorous. Baseball enjoyed eight different World Series champs in the 00’s while football has seen six or maybe seven Super Bowl champions. “Baseball has more champions, nearly half of its 30 teams have reached the World Series, and more than two-thirds have played in a league championship series,” he writes. “The NFL totals are clearly similar.”

Schoenfield goes on and on about baseball’s maybe, not-quite-there competitive edge and even manages to talk about how money helps. He writes:

There is no denying that a correlation exists between payroll and success (good players, after all, generally cost more money). Check out the table below. Of the 10 teams that won the most games in the decade, six were in the top 10 in total payroll. Of course, payroll is not the sole determining factor in winning, as many pundits want you to believe. The Twins and A’s both made the playoffs five times in the decade, and the team that spent the smallest amount, the Marlins, won a World Series. And market size is not always a direct line to payroll. St. Louis plays in the 20th-largest market, smaller than Minneapolis, Denver, San Diego or Cleveland, and not much larger than Tampa or Pittsburgh. Of course, the Cardinals are often wrongly portrayed as a large-market franchise simply because they are successful.

Notice the number of times Schoenfield turns to the one-offs. Yes, the Marlins won the World Series, but they did so not with the lowest payroll but with the 20th lowest figure. They are an outlier and not even an unreasonable one at that. Media market size, meanwhile, doesn’t matter as much as Schoenfield would have you believe because baseball revenues are driven by in-stadium finances and reach. The Cardinals might play in the relatively small St. Louis, but their popularity and reach extend well beyond the borders of that Midwestern city.

Schoenfield is right about one thing here though: There is a correlation between money and winning. Take a look at this table reproduced from numbers the ESPN scribe provides:

The best-fit line returns an R-squared of 0.45. This suggests a fairly strong correlation, over the span of 10 years, between wins and money spent on payroll. It doesn’t imply causation, and money isn’t the only factor in winning. But in terms of an argument for parity, this graph one doesn’t help the cause. Outliers will win; small-market, low-payroll terms will get lucky now and then; but money will come out on top more often than not.

It’s easy, in the end, to link this to the Yankees. That mark in the upper right-hand corner — the one with more wins and more dollars spent than anyone else — represents the Yanks, and as the 2003 Marlins skew the data, so do the Yankees. Without them, the R-squared drops to 0.36, still a reasonably strong indication of correlation but one that definitely allows for other factors. Of course, with the Yanks making the playoffs nine out of ten times, that leaves just seven spots for the other 29 teams, and any edge can help.

So is there parity in baseball? I don’t think so, and I believe Schoenfield overstates his case. Money can still get you places. Whether that is a bad, though, is an entirely different question all together.

You can never have enough non-roster relievers

The Yankees appear ready to go to war with their current roster. The 40-man is full, and the 25-man roster, other than the final spot or two, seems set. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the bullpen looks especially strong, with not only a number of late inning relievers, but also a couple of long men who can spot start. So why would they want to explore the remaining free agent relievers? Because few of them will require a major league deal. Former Rays reliever Joe Nelson signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox, and a number of others could follow.

If the Yankees plan to sign a reliever to add depth, they’ll have to choose from a group of flawed relievers who present some semblance of an upside. This would count out someone like Kiko Calero, who has a solid track record and performed well in 2009. They’ll be looking more for scrap heap guys, ones who have played well in the majors, but in this environment won’t attract a major league deal. The gut reaction on most of these guys will likely be, “no, he sucks,” but there’s really no harm in trying out a guy on a minor league deal. You never know when you’ll find a Brett Tomko — and let him stick on the roster long enough to pitch well.

Luis Vizcaino

For half of the 2007 season, Luis Vizcaino was the man. Acquired in the Randy Johnson trade, The Viz started his Yankee tenure on shaky ground, losing a game and blowing two others — though the Yankees would win both — in his first two months. During that time he allowed 21 runs in 26 innings, and was prone to the big inning — 11 of those 21 runs came in just three appearances. Once the calendar hit June, however, The Viz flipped it into overdrive.

For the next three months he’d destroy opposing hitters, allowing just seven runs over 41.1 innings. That included 39 strikeouts and a .182 batting average against. But pitching 41 innings over three months extrapolates to 82 over the course of a season, more than most relievers pitch in a season and more than Vizcaino had thrown since 2002 with Milwaukee. He faded a bit in September and ended the year with 75.1 innings. After signing with the Rockies the next season, Vizcaino made two appearances before hitting the DL with a shoulder issue that would keep him out until June.

The Cubs acquired him in exchange for Jason Marquis at the beginning of 2009, but they DFA’d him after just four appearances, in which he allowed no runs. The Indians then signed him, and then released him after just 11 appearances. I couldn’t find much on where he went afterward — he has no minor league stats from 2009, so I assume he just waited and waited. Maybe the rest will help him rebound for the 2010 season. It could be worth a minor league deal to find out.

Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Joaquin Benoit

Though he hasn’t pitched since 2008, Benoit presents appealing traits for a reliever. He strikes out a lot of batters, in some years more than one per inning, while keeping his home runs low. That’s the main run on Vizcaino, the propensity for the longball. That’s hell for a reliever. In the three years before his injury-shortened 2008 season, Benoit allowed less than one home run per nine innings.

Benoit, a former starter who took the bullpen full-time in 2005, features three pitches. His fastball sits at around 91-92, and he has a changeup that has about 8-9 mph separation. His killer pitch is a hard slider, clocked at 86 mph in his phenomenal 2007 season. He really did break out that year, allowing 26 runs on 68 hits in 82 innings pitched, striking out 87 to 28 walks. Best of all, he allowed just six home runs in that span, especially nice because his home park tends to favor home runs.

The rub, of course, is the rotator cuff injury that kept him out for all of 2009. Will his slider still run in the high 80s? Will his fastball still sit low 90s? Can he adjust his pitching style to the limitations of his surgically repaired shoulder? It’ll take a spring training invite to find out.

Credit: AP Photo/Ronald Martinez

Russ Springer

This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned Russ Springer as a bullpen option, and as long as he keeps on pitching it probably won’t be the last. Springer actually has roots in the Yankees system, a 7th round draft pick back in 1989, eventually sent to the Angels in the Jim Abbott trade. But if you’ve read RAB over the past year, you already know that.

Springer is a high strikeout reliever, working with mostly his fastball that clocks in the low 90s and a cutter/slider in the mid-80s. After stellar 2007 and 2008 seasons in St. Louis Springer signed with the A’s, where he didn’t pitch quite as well but was still serviceable. Over 41.2 innings he struck out 47 hitters to 14 walks, though he allowed a ton of hits. The Rays picked him off waivers in August, and he pitched about the same there, the strikeouts coming down but the hits coming down, too.

What’s odd about Springer’s 2009 is that his batted ball types completely shifted. He was never a ground ball guy, but he still managed around 30 percent from 2006 through 2008. Then in 2009 it dropped all the way to 19.2 percent, while his fly ball shot up to 61.6 percent, 10 points higher than it had been with the Cardinals. I’m not sure if that’s a red flag or a sign that a correction is in order. It’s tough to guess at these things when the player in question will be 41 in 2010.

Still, on a minor league deal, the Yankees could do worse than check in on Springer. Maybe the old arm has one more good year left in it.

Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Ron Mahay

For years, we heard baseball commentators declare that the Yankees absolutely needed a lefty in the bullpen. They went through tons of them, but none quite worked out. Meanwhile, a lefty they had traded for Enrique Wilson was busy putting together a solid career out of the bullpen. Finally, in July 2008 the Yankees re-acquired Damaso Marte. With him in tow, the line now is that the Yankees need a second lefty in the bullpen. Wonderful.

The Yanks sent two left relievers away in trades this season and brought back one. Boone Logan has a shaky, to be kind, MLB track record, and there’s a chance the Yankees don’t even break camp with him. If they want a second lefty they might have to look outside the organization. There doesn’t appear to be much interest in Ron Mahay at this point, but the veteran lefty can still provide some value. He’s reportedly holding out for a major league deal, but there’s no guarantee he’ll get one.

As expected of a lefty reliever, Mahay fares better against lefty hitters. His numbers against righties have fluctuated, and were downright horrible last season. At 39 years old he might be cooked. But on a minor league deal, there seems to be little harm. If the Yanks want to look at other lefty reliever options, Mahay could be their guy — on their terms, of course.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

The downside

Okay, so perhaps I exaggerated the “no downside” part of the non-roster invite argument. The Yankees stand to lose little by bringing in various spare parts to compete for roster spots for spring training. If they don’t come to camp in Tampa, they’ll go somewhere else. Many of them will find themselves jobless again by the end of March. Teams bring in players like this every year, at little risk.

The only downside this presents is a lack of spring training innings for the guys the Yankees might want to examine closer. In addition to the regular bullpen guys, the Yankees probably want to get a better look at pitchers like Romulo Sanchez, Ivan Nova, Hector Noesi, Chris Garcia, and Wilkin De La Rosa. Bringing in a NRI means fewer innings for those guys before they head to the minor league complex.

As long as the Yankees can keep a potential NRI past spring training and into the season, a deal makes sense. That would provide true depth, at least through the first month of the season, when veterans on minor league deals can usually opt-out and pursue opportunities elsewhere. That’s the kind of deal the Yankees should pursue, and probably are pursuing.

Open Thread: Overreactialignment

During these slow days of winter (unless you count that Willy Taveras blockbuster!) we’re subject to lots of nonsense stories, usually stuff about salary caps and competitive balance, but in some case realignment as well. David Schoenfield wrote a feature for ESPN in which he presents what their editors call a “radical idea” for making baseball less unfair by reorganizing the divisions each year. Allow me to excerpt.

Why does baseball have to keep the same division format every year? Why should Tampa Bay and Baltimore always have to beat out the Yankees and Red Sox while the AL Central teams duel each other to 87 wins? Why should the Angels only have to beat out three teams instead of four in the AL West?

So the plan is to realign the divisions after every season. For the American League, there would be three basic rules:

1. The Yankees and Red Sox always remain in the AL East. It makes sense and it’s good for the game.

2. Tampa, Toronto, Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland can play only in the AL East or AL Central. All five cities are in the Eastern time zone and having them play in the West creates logistical and television issues.

3. The Angels, Seattle and Oakland always remain in the AL West. This makes sense for logistical reasons, as well.

Now, how do we disperse the remaining teams? Simple. MLB holds a big telecast two days after the World Series ends. We put all the team names in a big ball like during the NBA lottery selection show. Teams send their general manager and a star player and Hall of Famers like George Brett and Reggie Jackson draw out the team names. You wouldn’t watch this? You wouldn’t love to see Dave Dombrowski throw up in his mouth when the Tigers draw the AL East? You wouldn’t get excited to see Andrew Friedman high-fiving Evan Longoria when the Rays draw the AL Central? You know you would watch this.

Well, I probably wouldn’t watch it, but in general the idea of changing the division each year is completely unrealistic (and to his credit, Schoenfield acknowledges that). Why are we punishing the Yankees (and Red Sox) by keeping them in the same division year after year, while other teams get to enjoy life outside the AL East? Believe or not, there will be a point in time when either the Yankees or Red Sox aren’t competitive, so what are we going to do then, lump them in with the group that gets to change divisions each year? Aside from that, you’re killing some rivalries by constantly moving teams around. It’s not just the Yanks-Sox, it’s the Cardinals and Cubs, or the Giants and the Dodgers.

The game is in a place right now where the the two most dominant teams are in one division. It’s not fair to the other three clubs stuck in the division, but that’s life. Was anyone suggesting that baseball should realign when the Blue Jays and A’s were dominating baseball in the late-80’s/early-90’s? Somehow I think not.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the evening, and here’s your open thread. The big story of the night is Nick Swisher‘s cameo on How I Met Your Mother (WCBS, 8pm), in which he’ll be playing Nick Swisher. I’ve never watched the show, but I’ve already set the DVR. Other than that, you’ve got House and 24, but none of the sports locals are in action. Enjoy the thread.

Determining the value of draft picks

Every team and every person has a different philosophy about how their team should approach the draft, and to be honest there is no right answer. I’ve always preferred high school players because the sooner you get them into a professional system with professional instruction and conditioning programs, the better. College programs have come a long way, but those coaches can still do lots of damage (especially to pitchers). Oh sure, you’ll have to wait longer for your prize when drafting high schoolers, but that’s life.

In a piece for THT, Alex Pedicini looked at the top 100 draft picks from 1992-1999, and determined the most valuable demographics in terms of WAR. College hitters in the first round are generally the safest group, averaging 1.336 WAR per year during their first six seasons in the bigs (which their original team controls), while college pitchers are the most dangerous at just 0.649 WAR/year. That’s right, taking a high school pitcher in the first round has historically been a safer pick that their college counterparts.

Pedicini also breaks it down by draft pick (the top 20 picks are by far the most valuable) and position (corner infielders and outfielders are the safest, righty pitchers by far the riskiest). Check it out, it’s a short but very interesting read.

Report: Mauer agrees to 10-year extension (UPDATE: No he didn’t)

Update (4:31pm): Buster Olney is shooting the report down now. So much for that.

4:20pm: First it was Felix Hernandez, and now another drool-worthy future free agent target is off the market. Via MLBTR, AL MVP Joe Mauer has agreed to a 10-year contract extension with the Twins, locking him up until the ripe old age of 37. No word on the money yet, but I would think it’s over $200M. Good for him, good for the Twins, good for baseball, bad for the Yanks.

Imagining the sole situation in which Johnny Damon returns to New York

Preface

In no way do I believe the Yankees will do this, nor do I think they should. Johnny Damon had an excellent pinstriped tenure that ended with a World Series title. Retaining him seemed like an option, but only if his contract demands fell into the Yankees’ desired range. That didn’t happen, and the Yankees moved on. While I’d love to see Johnny back in the lineup this year, it’s so unlikely at this point that I had to concoct this crazy scenario. As the price for acquiring one year of Damon, it hardly seems worth the trouble.

The set-up

In the MLB Rumors and Rumblings section of his Weekend Update on Baseball Prospectus, John Perrotto mentioned Damon’s desire to play for the Rays, citing his nearby residence in Orlando. In the next sentence, Perrotto drops the bomb. “He has not completely ruled out a return to the Yankees, even though they have signed Randy Winn to presumably take his place on the roster.” Ignoring the one-for-one replacement of Damon with Winn — and further ignoring the flawed idea of “replacing” production — this is an interesting statement. How could he not rule out a return to the Yankees when it seems everyone else has?

Last week, just after the Winn signing, SI’s Jon Heyman wrote a column about the situation between the Yankees and Damon, quoting both Brian Cashman and Damon at length. Both sides expressed the desire for a reunion, but both recognized the obstacles that stood, and continue to stand, in the way. Both also conceded that they could get back together at some point in the future. “You never know,” said Cashman. Not the most specific of endorsements, but like any good GM, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility if a favorable situation arose.

The scenario

The Yankees have three outfielders who have guaranteed 2010 contracts: Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Randy Winn. Beyond that they have Brett Gardner, who will make the league minimum and who has two options remaining, and Jamie Hoffmann, whom the Yankees must offer back to the Dodgers if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training. By all appearances, the Yankees will use Gardner and Winn in left, doling out their playing time as their performances warrant. Hoffmann, if he makes the roster, would serve as the fifth outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement — perhaps as a pinch runner with Gardner already in the game.

For now, we can discount Hoffmann. I doubt the Yankees will make roster moves to accommodate him. If he plays well enough to earn a spot, he’ll get it. If they have another player who can fill his role better, they’ll go with that player. That leaves four outfielders, which sounds about right. Winn and Swisher can play both corners, while Granderson and Gardner profile best in left or center. That seems to cover the outfield. So where in the world would Damon fit?

In any return scenario, Gardner would be the odd man out. He not only has an option or two remaining, but he has drawn interest from other teams this off-season, namely the Reds, Padres, White Sox, and Royals. Because any Damon contract would cover just one year, the Yankees wouldn’t necessarily have to trade Gardner to open a spot. They could simply start him in the minors and use him to fill in when needed. This makes the Yankees situation a bit more flexible.

The main obstacle in a Damon-Yankees reunion is the same as it ever was. Before acquiring Winn the Yankees had just $2 million left in their Opening Day payroll budget. All of that went to Winn, so unless Damon is willing to play for the league minimum the Yankees would have to free up some salary. Of their players currently under contract, only Chad Gaudin makes sense from a salary standpoint. He’ll make $2.95 million to start 2010.

In his column, Heyman notes that Cashman floated “a contract of $6 million with $3 million deferred at no interest.” The idea, apparently, is that while the entire $6 million would count against the official Opening Day payroll, Hal Steinbrenner might be open to a deal with deferred money. With around $3 million in savings from dealing Gaudin, presumably for a low-level or low-ceiling minor leaguer, the Yankees could put this offer back on the table. They could go even lower, too, because we haven’t seen much interest in Damon since the Winn signing.

Why it makes sense

If Damon hits as well as he did last season, he’ll be more valuable than Winn at the plate in 2010. If his defense, as Damon himself says, “was only the first two months, and it involved probably five plays,” then perhaps he can play a capable left field. We know that his bat plays well at the Stadium, and that he’s a good guy to have in the clubhouse. His speed, while not what it was when he first signed, is still an asset.

Why it doesn’t make sense

To list them:

  • Trading away pitching depth to sign another outfielder doesn’t seem like a great idea.
  • The Yankees seem to like Brett Gardner, probably enough to give him at least a half-season’s worth of at-bats in left field.
  • The chances of Damon replicating his 2009 season remain low. He’ll be a useful offensive player, but it’s doubtful that he replicates a career year — one in which he slipped considerably toward the end.
  • Stats and scouts agreed that Damon played poorly in left field last season, so his return to league average doesn’t appear likely.

Why it won’t happen

Judging from his track record, I don’t think Brian Cashman will alter his roster, trading away valuable pitching depth, just to accommodate Damon. They’re likely mindful that 2010 Damon isn’t 2009 Damon, and that the latter outperformed most reasonable expectations. True, for $6 million, with $3 million deferred, he wouldn’t have to replicate his production to justify the contract. But, again, the Yankees would have to make a further sacrifice in order to even think about bringing back Damon. I just don’t see them doing that.

Really, this is just a crazy thought based on Johnny not yet ruling out a return to New York. The door might remain unlocked, but it’s definitely shut. I doubt the Yankees would go through the trouble at this point. They should be too busy preparing for another championship season in 2010.

Photo credit: Eric Gay/AP