Past Trade Review: Chuck Knoblauch

The Yankees figure to be prominent players on the free agent market every offseason, however they threw us a changeup this winter and instead pulled off two major trades while committing no more than one year to any free agent. Curtis Granderson steps into the outfield for the next few seasons, and even though Javy Vazquez is only signed through 2010, it has to be considered a major move just in terms of how valuable he could be. The cost in both trades was the same: three young players with several years of cost control ahead of them.

Twelve years earlier, the Yanks made a similar trade, one that turned a weakness into a strength at the cost of minor league depth. After watching their second basemen hit .282-.331-.362 with just five homers in 1997, the worst production the team received from any position besides catcher, rookie GM Brian Cashman acquired All Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch from the Twins. Cashman had succeeded Bob Watson as the team’s general manager just five days before the trade was completed, so he wasted no time making a big splash.

Of course, Knoblauch was very outspoken about his desire to be traded, forcing GM Terry Ryan’s hand. The Twins won just 68 games in 1997 and hadn’t made the playoffs in six years, and the 29-year-old didn’t want to spend his prime years duking it out for fourth place in the AL Central. So, in early February of 1998, just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers were due to report, the two sides consummated the following deal:

Yankees Received
2B Chuck Knoblauch

Twins Received
LHP Eric Milton
SS Cristian Guzman
OF Brian Buchanan
RHP Danny Mota
Cash (Wikipedia says $3M)

At the time of the trade, none of the four players the Twins received had yet to appear in the majors, while Knoblauch was coming off a four year stretch in which he hit .319-.413-.468 with 188 stolen bases while making four All Star appearances. His 127 OPS+ during those four years was higher than Roberto Alomar’s (124). The trade gave the Yanks a veteran lead off hitter, pushing young phenom Derek Jeter down to what would become his customary two-hole.

Milton, the Yanks’ first round pick in 1996 and then just 21-years-old, had split 1997 between High-A Tampa and Double-A Norwich, posting a 3.11 ERA with a 162-50 K/BB ratio in 28 starts and 171 innings. Yeah, things were different back then, innings limits weren’t exactly a top priority. Minnesota sent him straight to the big leagues in 1998, and he responded by posting a 5.64 ERA with a 107-70 K/BB ratio in 32 starts and 172.1 IP. He would go on to no-hit the Angels the next season, and in the end he became a fixture in the Twins’ rotation until 2002, posting a dead even 100 ERA+ in 162 starts and close to 1,000 innings along the way.

Knee issues limited Milton to just three starts in 2003, and with free agency just a year away, Minnesota shipped him to the Phillies for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, and a player to be named later. As you can imagine, Milton provided the Twins with a great deal of value as a league average innings eater. All told, he was worth 13.2 wins over a replacement player during his time in the land of 10,000 lakes.

Guzman, just 19 at the time, had hit .273-.310-.354 with 23 steals mostly with Low-A Greensboro the year before the trade. He spent his first season in the Twins’ organization playing in Double-A, hitting .277-.304-.352 with another 23 steals. Minnesota jumped him to the big leagues in 1999, though he struggled greatly and hit just .226-.267-.276 with nine steals. Guzman improved a bit the next year, and in the long run he hit .266-.303-.382 with 102 steals in six years with the Twins. He thrice led the league in triples, and even appeared in an All-Star game. The lure of a free agent payday (four years, $16.8M from the Nationals) spelled the end of Guzman’s time with Minnesota, though he gave the team 3.9 wins over replacement total.

Buchanan, another former first round pick by the Yanks (1994), had developed into a minor league slugger with good but not great numbers. He toiled away in Triple-A for a few years after the trade, seeing big league action in parts of three seasons for the Twins before being traded to the Padres during the 2002 season for a light hitting A-ball shortstop by the name of Jason Bartlett. Buchanan hit .258-.319-.428 in 455 plate appearances for Minnesota, providing just one-tenth of a win above a replacement player.

Mota, a 21-year-old righty that had spent parts of three seasons in the Short Season NY-Penn League prior to the trade, steadily climbed the ladder and ultimately contributed just 5.1 IP of 8.44 ERA ball to the big league team. He was out of affiliated baseball by 2002, contributing a whopping one-tenth of a win below replacement level to the Twins cause.

As for Knoblauch, he parked himself atop the Yanks’ batting order for four seasons, though he never quite produced at the levels he had in Minnesota. He hit .265-.361-.405 with 31 steals and a then-career high 17 homers in 1998, however he was perhaps best remembered for the “Blauch-head” play against the Indians in the ALCS, when he stood around arguing with an umpire rather than picking up a ball in play, allowing Cleveland to take the lead in extra innings. Knoblauch went on to hit a game-tying three-run homer in Game One of the World Series, helping the Yanks to a sweep of the Padres and a World Championship.

With a season in pinstripes under his belt, Knoblauch rebounded to hit .292-.393-.454 with 28 steals and a career high 18 homers in 1999, helping the Yanks to another World Title thanks to a .283-.353-.391 postseason performance. However, he began having issues with this throwing, leading to a career high 23 errors. Knoblauch missed time with injury in 2000, and his throwing problems became so severe that he spent significant time as a designated hitter. Nevertheless, he hit .283-.366-.385 as the Yankees captured their third straight World Championship.

Knoblauch, unable to overcome his issues throwing to first base, moved to left field permanently in 2001, and he hit just .250-.339-.351, the worst offensive showing of his career to that point. In the four years since he was acquired, Knoblauch went from an elite hitter at a premium position to a below average hitter in a corner outfield spot. The Yankees let him walk as a free agent after the season, and Knoblauch was out of baseball by 2003. During his four seasons in pinstripes, Knoblauch contributed just 6.6 wins above a replacement level player to the Yankees cause.

Let’s round up the WAR data in a nice, easy to read table.

The Twins quartet provided their team with a combined 17.1 wins above replacement, mostly thanks to Milton obviously. That doesn’t include the contributions they got from Silva, Punto, and Bartlett, but we can’t count that against the Yanks here because Minnesota might have made those trades anyway, just with different players.

While the Twins got the better end of the on-the-field production here – and there’s no denying that – the Yankees did win four pennants and three World Series with Knoblauch in the lineup every day. Unlike say the Brewers and CC Sabathia, the Yanks didn’t forfeit a significant part of the future for just one playoff appearance here.

In the end, this trade was a classic win-win. The Twins got exactly what they were looking for, two legitimate big leaguers and a little extra, while the Yankees got what they wanted in the form of championships. Minnesota’s reward is easily measured in WAR, but Knoblauch was a part of a dynasty in New York, and it’s impossible to put a number on that. Hindsight is 20-20, and I’d bet that both sides would do this deal again 100 times out of 100.

Photo Credit: Doug Mills

Thinking about the Yankees’ numbers

As Spring Training nears, the Yankees’ numbers are slowly talking center stage. Now, I’m not talking about wOBA, UZR or other intriguing numbers. Rather, I’m talking about those numbers on the backs of all of the players’ jerseys. As the old concessionaire’s saying goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and the Yankees are seemingly running out of numbers.

On Monday afternoon, Ed Price on Tweeter noted how the Yankees are pushing it numerically this spring. With their 40-man roster and 20 invitees, the team will have 60 players in camp, and a whole slew of coaches who need uniform numbers too. Last year, with 64 players in camp, the highest number on the field in Tampa was Kanekoa Teixeira’s 94. This year, the Yanks will again push toward 90.

This problem of numbers — if we can call it a problem — is generally a March-only issue. In recent years, the Yanks have had just two players sport numbers in the 90s range. Brian Bruney donned 99 for a spell in an effort to find some numerically-inspired consistency while Alfredo Aceves has embraced number 91 to honor Dennis Rodman. In 1952, Charlie Keller wore 99 for a spell as well, but when the rosters are pared, most players break camp with numbers at 55 or lower.

Why then are the Yanks heading to Tampa ready to dole out numbers more fit for linebackers and offensive linemen than baseball players? For the Bombers, it is one of nostalgia and historical recognition mixed with some recent stubbornness on behalf of the team and its fans. The Yankees, as we know, have retired 15 numbers — including Jackie Robinson’s and eventually Mariano Rivera‘s 42 — for historical and political purposes. Does Phil Rizzuto’s number 10 need to be shelved? What of Billy Martin’s 1? Ron Guidry’s 49, hung up in Monument Park to lure him back to the team as a pitching coach? Reggie Jackson’s 44?

And then, the Yankees have those numbers than sit in limbo. Joe Torre’s number 6 will remain reserved for a future reconciliation. Bernie Williams‘ 51 has been unissued since Bernie didn’t retire after the 2006 season. And who could forget the uproar over the Yanks’ willingness to issue 21 to LaTroy Hawkins for a few weeks? O’Neill might have been the 41st Yankee to don that one, but in the collective mind of the fans, it belongs only to him.

Eventually, the Yankees will have to hang up a few more numbers. Rivera’s 42, already on ice due to the league-wide retirement of it, will earn a place in Monument Park. Derek Jeter‘s number 2 will never see another player, and if we want to get overly sentimental Andy Pettitte‘s 46, Jorge Posada‘s 20 and maybe even A-Rod‘s 13, depending upon his career accomplishments, might wind up unused forevermore.

So at some point, the Yankees will run out of single-digit numbers to hand out. They’ll have to break that triple-digit barrier unless they do what the White Sox have done and unretire some numbers. Omar Vizquel will wear Luis Aparacio’s number 11 with the Hall of Famer’s permission, and the Yanks, a team that has, in the Steinbrenner era, put its history on a golden pedestal, may need to unretire some respectable numbers. The fans too may have to let go or else we will be cheering on future greats wearing awkwardly large numbers on their uniforms.

Above: Bernie Williams’ 51 remains in limbo. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

Can Thames 2010 be more like Thames 2006?

Marcus Thames is not an everyday player. Never has been, really. His abilities, which include a seeming ability to hit lefties, make him a platoon player. True to that, he’s seen about 40 percent of his career plate appearances against lefties, whereas an every day player — I’ll use Derek Jeter as an example — sees about 25 percent of his plate appearances against lefties. Since the Yankees have just two righties in their A lineup, a lefty masher might be a nice complement off the bench.

Yet Thames had something of a disappointing 2009. It’s part of the reason that the Tigers didn’t tender him a contract, and certainly a big factor in why he had to accept a minor league deal. His OBP, at .323, was among the highest of his career, but he didn’t hit for nearly as much power as he had in years past. Even during his poor performance in 2007 he maintained a .257 ISO. That number dropped all the way to .202 in 2009, the worst mark of his career.

The reason for the power outage becomes apparent when looking at Thames’s batted ball breakdown. He hit 47.4 percent fly balls in 2009, which ranks on the lower end of his career. In 2006, his career year, he hit almost 60 percent fly balls. The resulting increase in ground balls led to a higher BABIP in 2009, .301, but his batting average, .252, actually went down slightly from 2006. Furthering the problem, his HR/FB dropped to 14.3 percent, again the lowest mark of his career.

What I wonder is how much Thames’s oblique injury affected his power numbers. He missed 44 days in 2009, hitting the DL on April 23 and not seeing action again until June 6. He actually hit well at first, posting a .267/.341/.527 line in the 164 plate appearances following his activation. His numbers dropped greatly at the end of the year, though, as he hit .235/.309/.351 in his final 110 plate appearances. The injury, for some reason, makes me think of Bobby Abreu, who strained his oblique in camp in 2007 and went on to hit .228/.313/.289 through the season’s first two months.

As we can see in his splits, Thames’s power outage came almost exclusively in August and September, as he posted excellent ISO figures upon his return. As you can further see, his fly ball numbers dropped in those months, as his ground ball frequency rose. Also obvious: his HR/FB dropped off in the last two months, most notably in September when he didn’t hit a single home run. The injury might help explain some of that, and would explain even more if it recurred and he didn’t tell anyone, though we have no way of really knowing that.

Unless the Yankees really like what they see from Jamie Hoffmann in camp, I’d bet Thames makes the team as a righty pinch hitter, mostly for Brett Gardner or Randy Winn. Bench players often bring one skill to the table, and Thames has demonstrated tremendous power in the past. If he recovers from last season he can contribute as a pinch hitter and possibly a starter against some lefties. In other words, he’s something like a righty Eric Hinske. That doesn’t sound all that bad.

Credit: AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Looking at some interesting splits for Yankee hitters

It was only a matter of time before everyone started doing some creative stuff with the new splits data at FanGraphs, and sure enough Moshe Mandel at TYU used the info to look at some interesting splits for various members of the Yankees’ 2010 lineup. The one piece of data that really stood out to me was Curtis Granderson‘s home HR/FB (8.9%) vs. away (15.7%). Overall, his numbers at Comerica Park (.306 wOBA) were way worse than those away from it (.372) last season, yet that’s not a consistent theme throughout his career. The splits were much closer in previous years, though still slightly better away from MoTown.

Does that bode well for a 2010 rebound? Yeah, I think it does. Looking at his 2009 home spray chart, you can definitely see that Granderson hit some balls that were turned into outs at home that probably would have done some damage (over the fence, off the wall) elsewhere. As some are wont to say, time with tell.

Open Thread: Winn comes cheaper than originally thought

When the Yankees first reached an agreement with Randy Winn a few weeks back, reports indicated that he would receive the last $2M left in the budget. Not long after that, the Dodgers landed Reed Johnson for just a six-figure payout, and I said the Yanks overpaid to get their man, even though he was the right player.

Well guess what? It turns out Winn’s deal isn’t quite as rich as originally reported. Take it away, Joel Sherman

The Yankees today also officially signed Winn to his one year contract for a $1.1 million base with $900,000 available in incentives: $100,000 each for 50, 75 and 100 plate appearances, and $150,000 apiece for 125, 150, 175 and 200.

Yes, the incentives add up to $900,000 which would make the total value of the deal the original $2M. However that money is far from guaranteed, and if Winn pockets it, it means either a) something bad has happened in the outfield, or b) he played well enough to earn the playing time. Remember this is a very easy deal to back out of. If Winn’s not producing, they’ll just dump him.

Bottom line: Randy Winn at $2M was an overpay, but Randy Winn at 55% of that with some incentives is just fine. No reason to cancel your season tickets.

Update: Commenter Cecala points out that Winn’s incentives are based on plate appearances against lefty pitchers only. Even better.

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Once you’re finished disagreeing with me, go ahead and use this as your open thread for the night. In case you haven’t heard, we have a perpetual off-topic post now, available at the end of the nav bar above. You don’t have to wait all day to talk about something we don’t have a post for anymore. Anyway, the Devils are the only local team in action tonight, but there is a new hour of 24 on. Enjoy the thread.

Montero headlines non-roster invites

At long last, the Yankees have released the list of non-40-man roster players they’ve invited to Spring Training. Drum roll please…

Kyle Higashioka
Jesus Montero
P.J. Pilittere
Mike Rivera
Austin Romine

David Winfree

Colin Curtis
Marcus Thames
Reid Gorecki
Jon Weber

Wilkins Arias
Jeremy Bleich
Grant Duff
Jason Hirsh
Kei Igawa
Zach McAllister
Royce Ring
Amaury Sanit
Zack Segovia
Kevin Whelan

Sixty players in all will report to camp, some with more of a chance to make the team than others. They need all the catchers because there’s a lot of mounds in the Tampa complex, and someone has to catch all those guys throwing bullpens. Sanit’s a nice sleeper. He’s an older Cuban guy without blow-you-away stuff, but I bet he sees the big leagues at some point in 2010.

Obviously, I can’t wait to see Montero permanently damage some psyches with his bat.

Yankees sign Marcus Thames

Update (3:44pm): Joel Sherman confirms that it is in fact a minor league deal, adding that Thames will make $900,000 if he makes the team. He pulled down $2.275M last season.

3:27pm: Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have signed Marcus Thames to what I assume is a minor league deal. The soon to be 33-year-old has historically crushed lefties, though those splits weren’t as pronounced last year. With negative defensive value and zero baserunning prowess, anything Thames contributes will come from his ability to run into the occasional mistake pitch from the right side. He’s just some competition for Jamie Hoffmann in Spring Training.

Thames, of course, grew up in the Yanks’ system, and homered on the very first pitch he saw as a big leaguer, taking The Big Unit deep.