Imagining the Yanks without A-Rod

You don’t need me to tell you that the 2009 Yankees were a very good baseball club. We all know how their season ended. We all know that they won a Major League-leading 103 games and captured those final key 11 postseason victories by the time the first week in November rolled around. Been there, done that.

Let me tell you though about one of the players who helps make the Yankees as good as they are. For 28 games at the start of the season, the Yankees were without one Alex Rodriguez, their high-priced and sometimes high-maintenance third baseman. Through those 28 games, the Yanks were 13-15, spinning their wheels and going nowhere fast. After A-Rod‘s return, the team went 90-44. By the end of the season, the Yanks were 82-42 in games in which A-Rod appeared and 21-17 without him. That turnaround might not be only A-Rod’s doing, but he was no small part of the Yanks’ success.

Yesterday, in an interview with YES, A-Rod spoke at length about his 2009 campaign. Even at the steroid revelations, the year started on a bad note for him as he needed a major hip procedure. For A-Rod, the comparison to other players cut down in their primes by bad hips seemed apt. Albert Belle and Bo Jackson were both destined for greater things than they achieved when hip conditions forced them off the field.

“I think I grew up a lot, both on and off the field. Staring at retirement right in the face, kind of like Bo Jackson. That’s the first thing I thought of,” he said on YES. “It was a commitment that I wanted to do for the team, and it was very scary. I knew I was putting the rest of my career at risk, but I felt that with the team at hand, it was a risk worth taking.”

A-Rod’s retiring at 34 is an idea no Yankee wants to consider. That would have been a disastrous development for the Yankees. Overall last year, A-Rod was a 4.4 WAR player, and the swing from those replacing A-Rod to A-Rod was approximately 5 wins. Although the Yanks are still good enough to have won without him, A-Rod is one of those players who makes the rest of the lineup better. His return coincided with Mark Teixeira‘s breaking out of a slump, and his presence took pressure off the rest of the lineup.

The Yankees could have filled the A-Rod hole easily this off-season by pursuing Adrian Beltre. The Red Sox’s new third baseman is a far superior defender than A-Rod ever has been at the Hot Corner, but except for Beltre’s insane 2004 campaign, A-Rod has been the better offensive player of the two. A-Rod’s three-year combined WAR is 20; Beltre’s is short of 10.

Now, A-Rod is primed for a big 2010. He didn’t need the second surgery, and he says his hip is feeling great. Outside of some rather mundane Kate Hudson developments, he hasn’t made headlines this winter, and I’m glad he’s around. He shed himself of the clutch burden and proved himself in the eyes of some of the game’s most judgmental fans. The alternative — life without A-Rod — is much, much worse.

Winn signing ‘the final straw’ in fan’s decision to cancel season ticket plan

We are all baseball fans, therefore we disagree on many issues. Some of these are small, nuanced issues, while others are larger more fundamental ones. Most of us agree that the Yankees did a good job this off-season to add good complementary players to a core that won them their 27th World Championship, but there are certain fans, represented by a tiny sample on this site, who believe that the Yankees got worse this off-season. They have their reasons, though as you can imagine I don’t find these reasons very valid in a baseball sense. Just how far will these fans go to show their disapproval?

One of them, at least, cancelled his season ticket plan. Ross at Stadium Insider has the story, which centers on the former season ticket holder’s letter announcing his intent to cancel. You can read the entire letter there. I will warn you, though, that much head shaking will occur. I’ll just pick out some highlights.

The list of transgressions includes bringing in players who have already proven they are capable of succeeding in ny ( nick Johnson and Javier vasquez), destroying the farm system that was finally being built back up to aquire older players who have had mediocre careers (granderson)…

After the … comes a bit about signing Winn and not Damon, which I won’t even touch. As to the other parts, well, I think this fan has a misunderstanding of certain players’ values. That isn’t even to mention his poorly worded opening sentence — why would you cancel your ticket plan over players who have proven they can succeed in New York? But, since he clearly meant cannot, I think he needs a reality check of sorts.

Nick Johnson played parts of three seasons in New York and hit .256/.376/.424, good for an OPS+ of 113. As we learned when discussing wOBA, OPS+ undervalues OBP a bit, so Johnson actually performed a bit better than his OPS+ mark indicates from 2001 to 2003. Even so, those numbers are solid, and indicate nothing about an inability to play in New York. Javier Vazquez pitched very well in the first half of 2004, but pitched through discomfort in the second half and his numbers suffered. Unsurprisingly, his fastball was about a mile per hour off his normal mark. So no, I don’t think he has shown an inability to pitch in NY, but rather think that physical issues held him back in New York.

And then…

Even in 2008, when I knew the team was rebuilding, I bought a plan because I knew they were making a sacrifice to improve their chances the following year.

Rebuilding, maybe, in the sense that they didn’t trade for Johan Santana, but other than that the statement is patently ridiculous. Does a rebuilding team re-sign three of its own free agents, adding $60 million to the payroll during a “rebuilding” year — including two players in their mid- to late-thirties? Does a rebuilding team set an all-time payroll record?

I’ll stop here, because trying to talk sense into someone like this is pointless. Every team has a high percentage of fans like this, who think that their non-expert opinion is all that counts. I just hate getting lumped in with that type.

A real budget means Wang will move on

Over the past two days it has become abundantly clear that the Yankees do have a budget, and that they’ve basically reached the threshold. Since acquiring Javy Vazquez in December, Brian Cashman has told agents and reporters alike that the team had about $2 million to spend. When they signed Randy Winn for that amount and publicly declared Johnny Damon a former Yankee, they proved that the budget was no bluff. Recent reports indicate that the Yankees will focus on non-roster invites, with Marcus Thames, Rocco Baldelli, and Jonny Gomes specifically mentioned. The team’s lack of financial wiggle room also affects another oft-mentioned free agent.

Now that we’re done discussing Johnny Damon, many of us will turn to the most prolific former Yankee on the market, Chien-Ming Wang. Last time we checked, Wang’s agent, Alan Nero, sounded curiously optimistic about his client’s prospects. Shoulder surgery is no small deal, especially for a pitcher who relied on a power sinker that radar guns clocked at 95 mph. Yet Nero claims interest is strong in Wang, and that he expects “a major-league offer with a substantial guarantee and a substantial upside,” adding that he and his client would be comfortable waiting until May, Wang’s target return date, if necessary.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark has the latest from Nero, who claims that a few teams are heavily in on Wang now, and could perhaps make an acceptable offer before spring training. Wang, according to Nero, is “two to four weeks behind” his normal winter schedule, though Stark notes that teams “sounded more skeptical about that prognosis.” Stark identifies the Mets, Dodgers, and Cardinals as the teams most connected to Wang.

The story hasn’t changed, really, since the last time we heard from Nero. Wang remains a considerable risk, and since he won’t return until early May at the earliest I can’t see any team offering him a deal, as Nero says, that they “can’t say no to.” What would that take, two, three million? Is there any team desperate enough for a pitcher that they’d pay two, three million for someone coming off shoulder surgery and who can’t pitch until May? Other than the Mets. Or maybe the Royals.

The Yankees appear not to have interest in retaining Wang at this point, at least on their terms. Maybe if they unloaded Gaudin’s salary they could fit Wang in the budget, but then why would you trade a healthy pitcher for one who had shoulder surgery six months ago? It’s sad to see him go, and I hope he makes a full recovery, but we’ve seen the last of Chien-Ming Wang in pinstripes.

Open Thread: PECOTA puts Yanks out of playoffs

The nerds with their spreadsheets over at Baseball Prospectus have released their PECOTA projections for the 2010 season. You can check out their projected standings here, but you might not like it. The Yankees, with 93 wins, project to finish third in the AL East, two wins behind the Red Sox and three wins behind the Rays. A glance at their depth chart (which requires a subscription) explains why.

Offensively, the Yankees appear unmatched. Their 917 projected runs scored tops the league by 32. Most of the Yankees players project favorably — even Brett Gardner, who they predict will have a .360 OBP. With his speed, that will lead to many, many runs scored. The problem is on the pitching end. It projects only two starters, CC Sabathia and Javy Vazquez, to have ERAs below 4.00. The others aren’t bad, though PECOTA does predict a pretty horrible season for Andy Pettitte. It also projects a much worse season for Mo.

These are, of course, just projections, and PECOTA does drill down further for individual players. Nothing will ever perfectly predict baseball, but PECOTA can give us an idea of how certain players project based on historical counterparts. It’s an interesting look if nothing else.

With that, here’s your open thread. Not much going on in local sports this evening, with the Islanders in Carolina and the Knicks hosting Toronto.

Suit over YES Network origins dismissed

In August, Bob Gutkowski, one-time head of MSG and Yankee confidant, filed a suit against George Steinbrenner over the origins of the YES Network. Gutkowski claimed that he proposed the idea of a regional sports network owned by the Yankees in 1998, four years before the launch of YES, and that Steinbrenner later promised him an executive position at YES only to renege on that promise later on.

Earlier this week, Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District threw out the suit on some technical legal grounds. According Richard Sandomir of The Times, Sullivan said that Gutkowski failed to adequately plead damages and that the “‘purported oral agreement’ was unenforceable.” I would expect Gutkowski to appeal.

For those interested in the legal rationale behind the dismissal, Judge Sullivan’s decision is available here as a PDF and embedded below.

Gutkowski v. Steinbrenner Decision

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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