The ‘…and left field’ gap

When Brian Cashman spoke on Day One of the Winter Meetings, he stressed the team’s priorities this off-season. “Pitching, pitching, pitching — and left field,” he said.

So far, it’s been a winter of mixed results. He re-signed Andy Pettitte to shore up one of those pitching spots, and he could still explore Ben Sheets or Justin Duchscherer. Either would be a good fit for the Yanks, but even without them, they have a stellar staff.

CC Sabathia summed up those feelings. “They don’t give us enough credit, I don’t think,” Sabathia said. “Everybody keeps talking about Boston now, Seattle now with Cliff and Felix [Hernandez], but I think we’ve got some pretty good guys in our clubhouse that can match up with anybody. They never talk about me or A.J. or Pettitte. I guess we like it like that. We’ll just keep sneaking up on people.”

With a front line of veterans, a back end of youngsters and many other potential fill-ins, the Yanks do not suffer from a lack of pitching. But what about Cashman’s final piece? What about that left field hole? With Johnny Damon on the way out — he and the Yankees remained approximately $6 million apart on a two-year deal — the Yankees’ left field situation is somewhat blurry.

In a way, as Tyler Kepner explores, the Yanks have plugged in some of their more glaring holes. Writes The Times scribe:

In the big picture, the Yankees are swapping two older left-handed hitters who made $26 million in 2009 (Damon and Hideki Matsui) for two younger left-handed hitters whose contracts average about $14 million in 2010 (Curtis Granderson and Johnson). They are replacing a speed guy and a slow guy with another speed guy and another slow guy.

The Yankees ultimately decided that Matsui was more of a health risk than Johnson. That notion would have been laughable a few years ago, when Matsui was an iron man and Johnson was brittle. But the Yankees feared that Matsui’s surgically repaired knees would only get worse, while Johnson seems to have no pre-existing injuries.

Johnson works the count well, a trait the Yankees value, and like Matsui, he excels against left-handers. Granderson does not, but he appealed to the Yankees for his defense, power and youth.

The Yankees had to contend with a budget this year, and so far, they’ve done a good job of finding younger and cheaper replacements for two of their stalwarts. Yet, left field remains a hole. If the season were to start tomorrow, Melky Cabrera would be the Yanks’ starting left fielder, and that is an inadequate solution. As a center fielder, Melky turned in an sOPS+ of 104. In other words, he was slightly better than the league average center fielder. As a left fielder, though, his .752 OPS would have been .028 below the league average for the position and would have ranked the Yanks 12th in the league at left field.

The Yanks could hide Melky’s bat in center over the last few years, and maybe they can do the same in left. His arm will play well there. But the team can’t expect Melky — or Brett Gardner, the more productive offensive player so far — to hold down left field. Chris over at iYankees thinks the team could find the money for Matt Holliday, and I have to image Cashman and Steinbrenner are considering it. After all, that “and left field” need isn’t going to fill itself.

Why it’s Duchscherer, Sheets, or stand pat with the pitching staff

For a team whose priorities this off-season are pitching, pitching, pitching, the Yankees haven’t made many moves in that department. Re-signing Andy Pettitte has been their only pitching transaction, and while that’s an important one it doesn’t bolster the staff for the 2010 season. With the offense seemingly set, they will likely focus on pitching for the rest of the winter. But we could even see them stand pat in that department, if they don’t land one of two free agents.

Of the remaining free agent starters, only two make any sense for the Yankees. They’re also the two we’ve talked about since the off-season began: Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer. Anyone else would just provide depth, like Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin, and Al Aceves. That’s not a bad thing — the Yankees should look into acquiring as much pitching depth as they can afford. But Sheets and Duchscherer are the only two the Yankees should sign for the rotation.

Ben discussed the rotation situation last night, debunking an ESPN Radio report that claimed only one of Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain would be in the 2010 rotation. Brian Cashman cleared up the situation on Michael Kay’s radio show yesterday, and Steve from The Yankee Universe has the transcript, in which Cashman clarifies the misinterpretation of his words. ESPN, as it turns out, cherry picked a quote which, when put into the context of the question, doesn’t mean anything close to what they made it out to be.

Said Cashman on Kay’s show about the possibility of Hughes or Chamberlain starting the season in the bullpen:

If we went in with a starter that we actually like better, yeah. I have no problem with that. I mean we went into the playoffs with Hughes, Aceves and Chamberlain all in the bullpen. Why? Because we had guys we were giving the ball in the rotation , although it was a truncated rotation, we were giving the ball to guys we felt were more capable at that moment in time. So there’s no change in philosophy, as of right now, those guys are all starters. And if nothing changes, those guys are all starters. The question was ‘Well what if you get a starter?’ well, that means we have four, that means the remaining population competes for the final spot.

Who on the free agent market, other than Sheets or Duchscherer, could the Yankees possibly like better than the guys they already have? Chris from iYankees pointed to a GAKIII report mentioning Jarrod Washburn. Really? How can the Yankees possibly like Washburn more than the guys they have in house? Sure, he had a great first half, but he’s a fly ball pitcher who had the best outfield defense in the league behind him. His home run rate also dropped considerably, due mostly to a very low home run to fly ball ratio. Chances are he reverts to his career norms in 2010, which would not play well at all in Yankee Stadium.

Who else could they like more? Erik Bedard? He’s an injury case like Sheets and Duchscherer, and could provide as much upside, but his media aversion wouldn’t work well in New York. He remains perhaps the best possibility outside the aforementioned pair. Jon Garland? Same as Washburn, only he’s a righty, younger, and healthier. Doug Davis? Noah Lowry? Jason Marquis? Brett Myers? Joel Pineiro? I don’t see how any of them present the Yankees with better options. They’d just be fodder for depth, to be stashed away in the minors or in the bullpen. They’re not viable candidates to seriously compete for a rotation spot to start the season.

As it stands, the Yankees are fine with pitching. They’ll need to catch a few breaks, but they could go into the season with just a few tweaks and still have one of the league’s best teams. If they add a starter, it will probably one to demonstrably improve the rotation. For now, that appears to be Sheets and Duchscherer. Other options might work nice as depth, but as the British would say, they’d be redundancies.

Open Thread: Yankees All-Decade Team

That’s right folks, more best of the decade stuff! If I had any foresight, I would have anticipated all of this and started a category for it, but alas. Today’s feature is the Yanks’ All-Decade team, provided by Scals at The Blue Workhorse. He provides a little blurb on each player, but I’ll trim it down and give you his roster:

C: Jorge Posada
1B: Jason Giambi
2B: Robinson Cano
SS: Derek Jeter
3B: Alex Rodriguez
LF: Johnny Damon
CF: Bernie Williams
RF: Bobby Abreu
DH: Hideki Matsui

SP: Andy Pettitte
SP: Mike Mussina
RP: Joba Chamberlain
CL: Mariano Rivera

Four of the everyday positions are obvious. You can make a good case for Alfonso Soriano over Cano at second, though I won’t argue it too much. As for the outfield, I’m going with Gary Sheffield in right over Abreu. In 347 games in pinstripes, Sheff hit .291-.383-.515 with 76 homers and more walks (183) than strikeouts (175). Abreu was “just” a .297-378-.465 hitter with 43 jacks and far more strikeouts (276) than walks (190) in 372 games with the Yanks. Sure, Sheff was a jerk, but he was damn productive jerk.

The two starting pitchers are pretty obvious, ditto Mo at the back end. But Joba as the reliever of the decade? Come on. The guy made just 50 relief appearances (60 IP) for the team, which barely qualifies as a full season’s worth of work for an elite reliever. Tom Gordon, on the other hand, was straight up dirrrty in his time with the Yanks. Two years, 159 appearances, 170.1 IP with a 2.38 ERA and 165 strikeouts. Joba has the wow factor, but Gordon was pretty clearly the team’s best non-Mo reliever during the aughts.

What do you guys think, disagree with anything else? Talk about that, or whatever else you want here. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are all in action. Have at it.

By the Decade: Tino and the Giambino

Our Yankees by the Decade series continues today with a look at first base. After talking about the decade of Derek yesterday and Jorge’s time behind the dish on Wednesday. Today, we have an actual debate.

For this one, because the Yankees used 42 players at least once at first base, I limited our analysis to the guys who played at least 10 games at first over the decade. At some point or another, the Yankees decided to give these players somewhat regular playing time. It’s quite the list.

Jason Giambi 1639 459 80 2 129 373 355 21 58 376 35 .280 .420 .567
Tino Martinez 1436 376 69 6 64 246 126 13 12 210 38 .262 .325 .452
Mark Teixeira 586 171 42 3 37 115 80 9 11 109 13 .292 .384 .563
Nick Johnson 461 118 24 0 19 66 74 5 14 89 9 .256 .375 .432
Andy Phillips 412 110 19 4 10 56 26 0 2 79 13 .267 .311 .405
Tony Clark 243 54 12 0 16 48 26 3 2 90 6 .222 .300 .469
John Olerud 162 46 7 0 4 26 21 1 2 20 5 .284 .371 .401
Doug Mientkiewicz 160 45 12 0 5 24 16 0 3 23 2 .281 .356 .450
Wilson Betemit 114 27 4 0 5 21 7 0 1 38 4 .237 .285 .404
Craig Wilson 95 21 3 0 4 8 4 0 1 34 2 .221 .26 .379
Miguel Cairo 94 26 7 0 0 13 3 1 2 13 2 .277 .310 .351
Josh Phelps 63 19 2 0 2 11 6 0 2 12 5 .302 .380 .429
Todd Zeile 60 13 3 0 3 8 11 0 0 12 0 .217 .333 .417
Shelley Duncan 58 13 3 0 2 8 8 0 0 12 1 .224 .318 .379
Nick Swisher 40 13 3 1 3 8 10 0 0 5 1 .325 .460 .675
Aaron Guiel 27 5 0 0 0 3 3 0 1 8 2 .185 .290 .185
Ron Coomer 24 5 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 3 1 .208 .269 .208
Richie Sexson 24 6 1 0 1 6 5 0 0 7 1 .250 .367 .417
Luis Sojo 19 2 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 3 0 .105 .190 .105
Juan Miranda 18 6 1 0 1 4 2 0 1 8 0 .333 .409 .556
Clay Bellinger 16 2 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 7 0 .125 .176 .118
Cody Ransom 12 5 2 0 1 4 1 0 1 4 0 .417 .500 .883
  5763 1542 295 16 306 1050 789 53 113 1162 140 .268 .369 .484

For the Yankees, finding a suitable first basemen took up a lot of resources in the 2000s. The 1980s belonged to Donnie Baseball, and the 1990s were split between a fading Mattingly and Tino Martinez. As the 2000s rolled around, Tino’s days in the Bronx were numbered. He hit an admirable .280/.329/.501 with 34 dingers and 113 RBI in 2001, but heading into his age 34 season, Tino was given his walking papers.

The Yankees turned their attention to the big fish that off-season: Jason Giambi. Coming off of some stellar years for the Oakland A’s, the Yankees desperately wanted to add Giambi’s bat to the lineup. For seven years and $120 million, they did just that. After hitting .330/.458/.617 over his final three years in the A’s, Giambi would be playing on the world’s biggest stage.

At first, he struggled in the Bronx. He didn’t homer until the Yanks’ ninth game of 2002 and didn’t appear to be the feared hitter the Yanks thought they were getting. That is, until the flood gates opened on May 17, 2002. That night, Giambi blasted a walk-off Grand Slam in the 12th inning as the Yanks downed the Twins 13-12. The Giambino had arrived. He would end the year with a .314/.435/.598 with 41 home runs and 122 RBI.

For Giambi, though, 2002 would represent his peak in the Bronx. The power would begin to tail off in 2003, and although the batting eye would remain stellar, Giambi began to break down. He missed half of 2004 with a variety of injuries and much of 2007 as well. He found himself in the eye of the steroid hurricane and could not escape controversy. He rebounded nicely in 2008, but with Mark Teixeira looming, Giambi was gone.

So is Jason Giambi then the first baseman of the decade? Offensively, he makes a strong case for himself. As a first baseman only — not as a DH — he hit .280/.420/.567 with 129 home runs in 28.44 percent of the Yanks’ first base ABs. Tino, who made a Bronx return in 2005, came in second in team first base ABs but hit just .262/.325/.452 and blasted just 64 home runs.

Yet, the Yankees spent much of the decade trying to find someone who could actually play defense at first. The team learned early on that Giambi was ill-equipped to handle the glove. He wasn’t confident in his throws and generally had poor range. His cumulative UZR at first during his Yankee years was a -18.8. Only once in his Yankee career did he play more than 92 games at first and that was in 2008 when the Yanks had no better options. From 2004-2007, he played just 204 of the Yanks’ 648 games in the field. He was, in other words, a very highly paid designated hitter who could be stuck at first base when need me.

To that end, the Yanks tried just about everything. They used Nick Johnson for much of 2003 at first and brought back Tino in 2005. They tried the all-glove Doug Mientkiewicz; they begged Andy Phillips to do anything with the bat at the big league level; and they even gave Miguel Cairo enough chances to accrue nearly 100 ABs as a first baseman. The situation was that dire.

As we sit here in 2009, we’re on the precipice of the decade of Mark Teixeira. Already third on the list of Yankee first baseman of the ’00s by plate appearances, Mark’s contract ensures that his glove and bat will occupy first base for much of the 2010s. It will be a stark contrast with the ’00s, a decade that belongs to Giambi’s bat but not his glove and one that saw many players try to man first with varying degrees of success.

Johnny Damon overplayed his hand

With Nick Johnson back with the Yankees, Johnny Damon‘s days in pinstripes are, barring a change of heart by both sides, over. According to reports, Damon wanted to stay in the Bronx, and he eventually lowered his demands to two years. He would not, however, compromise on the money. The Yankees, according to Ken Davidoff, smartly valued him at two years at $7 million per season, but Damon did not want to take a paycut from his $13 million salary. “I wanted it to happen. I have nothing but great things to say about the Yankees,” Damon said to Mark Feinsand. “If the Nick Johnson thing works out, it will be good for them. It’s part of baseball.”

I have to wonder why Damon let these negotiations get out of hand. Did Scott Boras think some team would give Damon $13 million over three or four years? Did Damon’s agent believe that the Bobby Abreu deal in 2009 — a one-year, $5 million — would not be revisited upon Damon? The Yankees were willing to take him back, and he wanted to return. Scott Boras, though, and perhaps Damon himself overvalued the left fielder, and now he’s going to end up taking a paycut to join another team.

Damon could have made it work for the right money; but the Yankees were willing to go in another direction; and now it’s over. Barring a rather ridiculous scenario such as the one Ken Rosenthal proposed in which the Yankees would trade Nick Swisher to free up money to resign the older and less versatile Damon, Johnny will sport another uniform next season, and that will be all his doing. “I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do,” Damon said. “I know there are some teams interested, but the Yankees are the best organization I’ve been a part of so far in my career. I wish them all the best.”

Yanks reach agreement with Nick Johnson

Update (3:10pm): Looks like SportsCenter might have jumped the gun; T-Kep says Nicky J. still has to take his physical. That’s what I get for trusting ESPN.

2:17pm: ESPN just reported that the Yanks have officially signed Nick Johnson to a one year contract. Buster Olney says Johnson will make $5.5M in 2010 with a mutual option for 2011 worth another $5.5M. There’s also incentives based on plate appearances.

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