New free agent option: Kelly Johnson

If the 2010 season began today, Melky Cabrera would be the Yankees starting left fielder. From an offensive standpoint, that’s not ideal. While Melky improved in 2009 after below average 2007 and 2008 seasons, he was just a league average hitter. Of all American League outfielders with at least 500 plate appearances, Melky’s wOBA ranked above just four: Ryan Sweeney, Vernon Wells, B.J. Upton, and Alex Rios. His defense, average in center field, might add a few runs in left, but it’s doubtful that would bridge the gap. The Yankees need to remain focused on adding a left fielder.

Johnny Damon appears the team’s top target, but recent stories indicate that the two parties remain far apart. In fact, Damon says that the team hasn’t made an offer yet and he hasn’t made his desires known to them. That hasn’t stopped Scott Boras, of course, from making outrageous demands on behalf of his client. If the Yankees don’t offer at least three years at at least $13 million, he says, they shouldn’t even bother making one. That leaves the Yankees still searching for left fielders. While I think the two parties will reconcile soon enough, it’s always fun to explore other options.

We’ve been over most of the free agent options, but on Saturday night we got a new wave. Teams decided to not tender contracts to some of their arbitration-eligible players, making them free agents. Among the new crop is Kelly Johnson, former Braves second baseman and left fielder. One of the Braves weaknesses last year was their outfield, so it seems odd to consider one of their players who could have filled that slot. Still, teams do make mistakes. Perhaps Johnson could slide back to left and help the Yankees.

Any team that signs Johnson gambles that he’ll return to his 2007 form, when he hit .276/.375/.457 with 16 home runs. Those numbers would play well in left field for almost any team, but there’s no guarantee that Johnson reaches that mark. His numbers have declined for the past two years, his OBP dipping to .349 in 2008 and then .303 in 2009. In 2009 this was due to a sharply declining walk rate. In 2009 he picked up the walk rate a little, but his BABIP and batting average took a huge hit, dropping to a .224 average as he hit .249 on balls in play.

As with Curtis Granderson, it appears that Johnson’s BABIP numbers in 2009 were mostly due to an increased fly ball percentage, 43.1 percent, up from 36.5 percent in 2008. That came at the expense of line drives. 24.7 percent in 2008 and17.9 percent in 2009. The increased fly balls and decreased line drives, combined with a little bad luck, can easily lead to a terrible season. The question for the Yankees is of whether Johnson can recover.

Another issue which held Johnson back in 2009 was his right wrist. After missing time with bilateral leg cramps in late June, he hit the DL in early July with wrist tendinitis. He returned on July 23, and for the rest of the season hit .261/.358/.493, though it was in just 83 plate appearances. By then he’d lost his starting job, and the whispers of a non-tender began to circle. The right wrist for a lefty is the power wrist, and a resurgence of power, even in a short sample, is good news for Johnson.

The Braves’ payroll situation further complicates the matter. They’ve hovered around $90 to $100 million over the past few years, and are over $80 million now before their arbitration players and any other additions. Johnson earned nearly $3 million in 2009, and that certainly factored into the team’s decision to non-tender him. They can’t afford to pay a player $3 to $4 million if he’s going to produce like Johnson did in 2009. In other words, they can’t afford to take the gamble, but another team could, especially because they won’t have to pay him anything close to his 2009 salary.

Chances are the Yankees won’t show much interest in Johnson. He’s a second baseman who has limited experience in left field, and who also had Tommy John surgery in 2006. If he rebounds to his 2008 level, he’s hardly an upgrade over Melky Cabrera. Only if he recovers to his 2007 form will he provide a team value in left field. Unless other teams aren’t interested and he’s forced to sign a minor league deal, I don’t think the Yankees move on Johnson. Still, his circumstances make him an intriguing option. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team grab him to play second base and get rewarded with an .800 OPS season.

Open Thread: Giants vs. Eagles

This one tonight has some pretty serious playoff implications. If the Giants win, they remain right in the thick of the wildcard chase with three games to go. But if they lose, well that’s going to be rather difficult to overcome. The Cowboys already lost, so the NFC East isn’t out of reach either. Kickoff is set for 8:20pm ET on NBC.

Go ahead and chat about the game here, or anything else you want for that matter. Dr. House is making a cameo on Family Guy, so that should be fun.

New faces in winter ball

Just two or three more weeks left in the winter leagues, which means Spring Training is inching closer…

Dominican Winter League
Abe Almonte: 18 G, 4 for 15 (.267), 7 R, 2 RBI, 4 BB, 3 K, 2 SB
Jamie Hoffmann: 21 G, 16 for 68 (.235), 8 R, 5 2B, 5 RBI, 7 BB, 14 K, 3 SB – new kid on the block
Juan Miranda: 11 G, 17 for 40 (.425), 8 R, 4 2B, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 2 BB, 6 K, 1 SB – he’s been shut down for the winter, minor elbow issue
Eduardo Nunez: 2 G, 1 for 4 (.250), 1 R, 1 BB
Wilkins Arias: 23 G, 15.2 IP, 17 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 4 BB, 18 K
Noel Castillo: 1 G, 1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K – about time he showed up
Ivan Nova: 5 G, 4 GS, 25.2 IP, 17 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 17 K
Jon Ortiz: 6 G, 4 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Edwar Ramirez: 1 G, 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K

Mexican Pacific League
Walt Ibarra: 28 G, 16 for 54 (.296), 10 R, 1 2B, 4 RBI, 2 BB, 14 K, 1 SB
Ramiro Pena: 16 G, 17 for 56 (.304), 7 R, 3 2B, 1 3B, 4 RBI, 4 BB, 4 K, 1 SB - solid
Jorge Vazquez: 24 G, 24 for 90 (.267), 13 R, 4 2B, 9 HR, 21 RBI, 10 BB, 19 K – mashin’

Puerto Rican League
Amaury Sanit: 6 IP, 4.1 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K – didn’t pitch at all last week

Venezuelan Winter League
Frankie Cervelli: 6 G, 3 for 14 (.214), 3 R, 1 2B, 3 BB, 4 K – hasn’t played in over two weeks
Reegie Corona: 37 G, 39 for 113 (.345), 29 R, 16 2B, 2 HR, 16 RBI, 2 BB, 14 K, 3 SB, 1 CS
Jesus Montero: 9 G, 3 for 26 (.115), 2 R, 1 RBI, 3 BB, 4 K
Luis Nunez: 14 H, 13 for 44 (.295), 2 R, 3 2B, 7 RBI, 2 BB, 6 K
Juan Marcano: 1 G, 2.1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K – he was in the Dominican Summer League last season
Romulo Sanchez: 22 G, 26.2 IP, 19 H, 15 R, 12 ER, 16 BB, 36 K – almost guaranteed to see him at some point next year … Fat Sanchezes unite!
Josh Schmidt: 13 G, 10 GS, 55.1 IP, 48 H, 30 R, 23 ER, 23 BB, 51 K – he’s up to 139 IP on the year … his previous career high was 68 IP back in 2006
Pat Venditte: 7 G, 9.1 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 7 K – didn’t pitch last week
Eric Wordekemper: 5 G, 1 GS, 8.1 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 9 ER, 5BB, 3 K

Wang rejects Yanks’ split contract offer

If Chien-Ming Wang recovers from the shoulder injury he suffered last July, it will probably be with with another team. According to Bill Madden of the Daily News, the Yankees offered Wang a split contract which would guarantee him a spot on the active roster once his shoulder was ready. Wang’s agent, Alan Nero, rejected the offer, informing the Yankees that “Wang would be moving on.” This is not an unexpected development.

A free agent for the first time in his career, Wang surely wants to explore all of his options. Teams other than the Yankees will be interested, and perhaps one of them will offer the guaranteed money upon which Nero insists. There’s no harm in looking, and if no other offers top the Yankees’, chances are the two parties can work out a deal in the future.

The question of Wang’s potential return might hinge on the perceived rift between him and the Yankees. How much of this is true we don’t know, but there have been a few incidents, starting with the Yankees taking him to arbitration in 2008 over $600,000. A source tells Mark Feinsand that Wang is “still bothered” about the incident. Then there is the issue of Wang’s rehab from the lisfranc injury he suffered in 2008.

One story that sticks out in my mind is when Nero approached the Yankees about a possible contract extension. The Yankees said, “Make us an offer,” and talks ended there. That was before the arbitration incident.

For now, it appears Wang has his sights set elsewhere. There are reportedly six teams interested in him. The main questions here, I think, are of how Wang really feels about how the Yankees treated him, and of whether the Yankees are willing to top an offer from another team. The split minor/major league contract was already a good offer. We’ll see if Wang can get a similar one elsewhere.

Glove slap to iYankees for the Madden link.

Football open thread

The Kellen Clemens led Jets are in Tampa at 1pm ET, but the Giants don’t play until a little later tonight. Use this thread for all your gridiron talk.

Capping off an already strong bullpen

The Mad CapperWith Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain slated to start the 2010 season as members of the starting rotation, many fans are wondering how the Yanks will deal with the late inning bullpen void that those two have filled over the last few seasons. Some want to see them bring in Rafael Soriano Mike Gonzalez, others are content with letting David Robertson and Damaso Marte hold down the fort, while some are bringing up out of the box solutions. The Pirates, however, may have just gift-wrapped the Yanks a setup man by non-tendering their closer Matt Capps last night. Hey, it is the holiday season.

Capps (obligatory video) had a down year in 2009, posting an ugly 5.80 ERA in 51.1 IP despite converting 27 of 32 save opportunities. He also missed some time mid-season with elbow discomfort, though no structural damage was found. I wouldn’t bother writing this post if I didn’t think there was bounceback potential, and it’s pretty clear Capps has some.

First off, the enormous spike in his hit rate (12.1 H/9 in ’09 after 7.5 from ’07-’08) was fueled by an ungodly .370 BABIP, well off his career .279 mark coming into the season. Capps also experience a crazy spike in his homerun rate (1.7 HR/9 in ’09 after 0.7 in ’07-’08) despite a 40.7% fly ball percentage, his lowest in three years. Nearly 14% of the flyballs he gave up went over the fence, basically double his previous career average of around 7%. Regression to the mean in the BABIP and HR/FB% departments probably knock two runs off his ERA. The spikes are that ridiculous.

There’s basically two things you want your late game relievers to do (any pitcher, really), and that’s miss bats and throw strikes. Lord knows there’s nothing more frustrating than watching a reliever walk batters late in games. Thankfully, Capps doesn’t beat himself with free passes at all. He’s issued just 32 (!!!) unintentional walks in 271.2 career innings, even including his down year. That’s a 1.06 BB/9. Ridiculous. As for missing bats, Capps has a 6.9 career K/9 (7.6 last year), and batters have made contact on 82.2% of the swings they’ve taken against him, which isn’t great. Close to 70% of the pitches he’s thrown in his career have been strikes, including a whopping 67.7% on the first pitch, so he might be one of the rare guys who throws too many strikes. You have to admire his dedication to pounding the zone, but there’s nothing wrong with working an inch or three off the plate from time to time.

Despite the elbow issue, plus a shoulder related disabled list trip in 2008, Capps’ velocity was fine last year (92-94, mostly). He throws his fastball a little more than two-thirds of the time, using a slider to battle righties and a changeup against lefties. Prior to his subpar season in 2009, he showed a very small platoon split (.237-.262-.374 vs. RHB and .252-.294-.391 vs. LHB) thanks to that pair of offspeed pitches, so it’s not like you have to lift him against non-superstar lefthanders. Plus, at 6′-2″, 245 lbs, he fills the all-important bullpen fat guy role that’s been vacant since Chris Britton’s untimely departure.

At just 26-years-old (birthday is in September, so he’ll spend basically the entire 2010 at that age), there’s still plenty of room for improvement. It’s not like we’re talking about a 30-something journeyman here. Capps has legit end-game potential and is approaching what should be the prime of his career, and the best part is that the Yanks don’t necessarily need to count on him to be that guy. He can start the year as just one of the guys in the bullpen, eventually working his way into higher leverage innings.

Would Capps be down for that? Who knows. Saves equal bucks, and Capps has one more year of arbitration left after 2010, so middle relief would cut into his earning potential. Perhaps that could be solved with a two-year contract. He earned $2.3M last season, and was looking at $3M or so had he been tendered a contract. I’m not going to pretend to know what the price will be, but if it’s reasonable, I hope the Yanks would make a move.

Given the lack of attractive (and affordable) late game bullpen options on the market, I suspect Capps will draw significant interest. We’ve already seen four free agent relievers take home a combined $32.7M this offseason, and you could make a convincing case that Capps is better than all of ‘em. There’s usually one or two true non-tender gems a year, and this offseason there’s actually a fit for the Yanks. Hopefully they take advantage.

Photo Credit: Icon Sports Media

It’s official: Chien-Ming Wang non-tendered

Via Mark Feinsand, the Yankees have decided to not tender a contract to Chien-Ming Wang. Sergio Mitre, Melky Cabrera, and Chad Gaudin were all offered deals. “There’s no doubt that we had to make a tough decision,” said GM Brian Cashman. “We are still hopeful that our relationship can continue, but those decisions are yet to be made.” Hopefully something can be worked to out to bring the sinkerballer back for depth, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Good luck, Wanger.

Update: Since this is probably your last chance, make sure you bring your best CMW double entendres in the comments.