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Yanks say Swish not being shopped, obviously

Yesterday afternoon, a low-level rumor by Bob Nightengale concerning the Yanks’ reportedly making Nick Swisher available took the Internet by storm, and we debunked and contextualized it. Late last night, one of George A. King III’s Yankee sources denied the rumor and said that Swisher isn’t being “shopped.” Of course, he’s not being shopped, but as I said yesterday, if the right offer comes around, he’s available. Nick Swisher is definitely not untradeable.

Dodgers a possibility for Wang?

The deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players is December 12, just a few weeks away. The Yankees will have decisions to make on a few players, including Melky Cabrera, Brian Bruney, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre. Chances are the Yankees will offer arbitration to all four, though I still think there’s a chance they’ll non-tender Bruney. The biggest decision they face, though, is on Chien-Ming Wang. The Taiwanese righty might have already thrown his last pitch in pinstripes.

We learn this morning, via MLBTR, that Wang would consider pitching for the Dodgers. Really, he’ll probably consider pitching for all 30 teams, but the Dodgers have a comfort factor. Wang, always described as shy, would have not only two familiar coaches in Joe Torre and Larry Bowa (Don Mattingly, too), but he’d also have former schoolmate Hong-Chih Kuo. In picking his 2010 team, that will probably play a part for Wang.

Just because there’s a connection, of course, doesn’t mean that Wang is ready to don Dodger blue. If the Yankees do non-tender him, and the prevailing opinion in the NYC media is that they will, Wang and his agent Alan Nero will seek the best possible deal. Familiarity might help in that regard, making the Dodgers a strong possibility. And there’s no ruling out Wang re-signing with New York.

I’ve read opinions that the Yankees have mistreated Wang, though I don’t exactly buy that. They didn’t offer him a long-term deal, instead taking him to arbitration over $600,000 in 2008. It was a wise move by the Yankees. Wang, as we know, had two shoulder injuries before 2008, and the Yankees were proceeding with caution. The team and player then acted quickly last off-season, signing a one-year, $5 million deal before Christmas. Wang’s season-ending injury certainly had something to do with that.

It’s hard to see signs of disrespect in that. Not every pitcher gets a long-term deal from his original club. Some teams prefer to take that route, as the Giants did with Matt Cain. Others like to proceed with caution, especially with pitchers who have an injury history. Such has been the Yankees’ dealing with Wang. Now they’ll have another set of negotiations with Wang, presumably over a lesser contract that will bring him back for 2010.

Most of us, I think, would like to see Chien-Ming Wang back in pinstripes next season. We’ve seen him at his best, and if he can return to that level, or something near it, he can fortify the Yankees’ rotation mid-season. The Yankees have many factors to weigh in this decision, including the cost of keeping Wang around, weighed against the risk that he’ll fail. It’s doubtful Wang makes more than $6 million next season in arbitration, and my guess is that if the Yankees do tender him a contract that they’ll work out a one-year deal before the February arbitration hearings.

I think the Yankees have little to lose by offering Wang arbitration. That ensures that if he does return to form, it will be to the Yankees’ benefit. It’s essentially a $6 million bet on his health, though, and without his medicals in hand it’s impossible to make that decision. The Yankees have seen them, or else will see them. I trust they’ll make the right call.

What Went Right: The Improved Defense

Over the next week or so, we’ll again break down what went wrong and what went right for the 2009 Yankees. The series this year will be much more enjoyable than the last.

Brett Gardner laying out for a ball Jacoby Ellsbury could only dream of getting to

Pitching and defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. The 2008 Yankees were one of the game’s worst defensive clubs, ranking next to last in the AL, and third worst overall, with a -44.5 team UZR. They were particularly bad in rightfield, where Bobby Abreu shied away from walls (-25.3 UZR/150), and at first base, where Jason Giambi had the range of a life-sized cardboard cutout of Jason Giambi. If that wasn’t bad enough, both Derek Jeter (-0.7 UZR/150) and Robinson Cano (-7.0) were subpar in the middle infield.

Unfortunately, bad defense has been a staple of recent Yankee teams, and it’s not a coincidence that those teams bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. The 2009 Mariners and 2008 Rays were able to overhaul their defense in one offseason, but the Yanks weren’t in a position to turn such a trick last winter because they’re locked in at so many positions. Instead, the team had to make small improvements where they could, and hope that new first base coach Mick Kelleher could help the guys that were already here.

The first step in the defensive transformation came  when the braintrust decided to let Abreu and Giambi walk. Both were extremely productive offensive players, but … um … “limited” in the field, which dragged down their value and overall contribution to the team. Nick Swisher replaced Abreu and instantly upgraded the defense through his average range and willingness to go after a ball hit to the wall. Mark Teixeira took over for Giambi, and the difference was like night and day. Not only would Tex dare to venture after balls hit more than three feet away from him, but he also saved many an error for the other infielders with his scoops around the bag.

Replacing Abreu and Giambi was only part of the process. After a subpar defensive season in 2008, Cano rebounded to provide solid defense at the keystone spot, and even just part-time duty from Brett Gardner helped turn more balls hit to center into outs. Perhaps the most surprising defensive improvement came from Derek Jeter, who despite being traditionally awful in the field, actually enjoyed what was arguably the best defensive season of his career. Kelleher has a reputation as a defensive guy, so maybe we need to start giving me more credit than we have (basically none).

Here’s a position by position comparison of the 2008 and the 2009 Yankee defenses (click for a larger view):

2008 vs 2008 UZR

As you can see, the team improved defensively at five of the seven non-pitcher & catcher spots this year. Johnny Damon‘s unexpected nosedive off the defensive cliff is the glaring exception, although Alex Rodriguez also went backwards a bit last year, likely due to his hip surgery. In the end, the team enjoyed tremendous defensive improvements at first and short, as well as in right and center. As a reward for their efforts, they set a Major League record by not committing an error in 18 consecutive games.

Overall, the Yankees went from one of the worst defensive clubs in the game in 2008 to about middle of the pack in 2009. Their -18.5 team UZR this year is by no means outstanding, but when combined with their strikeout pitching staff and juggernaut lineup, it was more than enough to get the job done.

Photo Credit: Jeff Gross, Getty Images

What to expect from Jorge Posada in 2010

Catchers tend not to age well. Baseball players typically start to decline physically in their early- to mid-thirties, but for catchers, who spend seven months a year squatting, it can come on earlier and more dramatically. For the past few years, Jorge Posada has defied the typical aging patterns of a catcher. He’s had two of his four best seasons, in terms of OPS, in the past three years, including his best overall two years ago, at age 35. That earned him a four-year, $52.4 million contract in the winter of 2007.

That year in the middle, though, was not good. He spent most of the year on the disabled list with shoulder issues which led to season ending surgery. When he was on the field he wasn’t terrible, hitting .268/.364/.411 in 195 plate appearances, but that’s not the production we’re used to seeing from Posada. At least not over the two years before that. It certainly left his 2009 status up in the air. Reports were that his shoulder would be ready for Spring Training, but there were no guarantees that it would hold up, or that Posada would return to his old form.

Other than a minor injury in May, Posada had a great 2009. His OPS, as mentioned, was the fourth highest of his career. This had a lot to do with power — Jorge’s .522 slugging percentage was well above his carer average of .480. Best of all, his shoulder held up just fine, as he threw out 31 of 80 base stealers, his highest percentage since 2006. But does this recovery signal that Posada will follow it with another good season in 2010?

This brings us back to the part about catchers not aging well. Posada will 39 next August (though it will be his age-38 season). Not many catchers last that long, and it’s not a great bet that Jorge somehow replicates Carlton Fisk’s late-career run. There’s certainly concern that Posada will drop off, perhaps significantly, in 2010. What some of us want to know is, just how likely is a decline from Jorge?

In The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010, Bill James writes about the topic of player performance from year. He wants to know how likely a player is to have a better year than his previous one. This is based on factors like the player’s OPS in the past year vs. his career OPS, his age, batting average on balls in play, and other factors. He explains it all in the article. You can download the PDF here, or just check it out in the embed below.

Not only does James think Posada has a poor change of repeating his 2009 numbers, but he thinks that Posada is the least likely player in the league to replicate his 2009. I’m not here to debate the merits of James’s methodology. I happen to think, though, that Jorge isn’t very likely at all to perform nearly as well as 2009. I don’t base my concern on a rigorous system like Mr. James’s, though his is an interesting study. I do, however, find concern in many of the areas James studies.

First, age is certainly a concern. Jorge is old for an effective baseball player, and very old for a catcher. Age catches up to different players in different ways and at different times. Jorge didn’t move behind the plate until he was already in the minors, so that gives him some advantage, but even still he’s been catching for many, many years now. Maybe the late move helped him stave off the typical catcher aging curve, but that won’t last forever. Next year might not be the year, but eventually it will be. I’m certainly concerned that next year will be it.

Second, much of Jorge’s 2009 production was based on power. His Iso was .238, the highest mark of his career (he was, though, at .237 in 2003), and his 17.9 percent home run to fly ball percentage was his highest in six seasons. Power is a skill that tends to decline with age. It’s highly unlikely that Posada will match his 2009 Iso mark in 2010, because he’s only been that high once before in his career — and also, in case it’s not clear, he’s 38 years old and will turn 39 during next season.

Third, Jorge’s walk to strikeout ratio plummeted in 2009. He walked 48 times to 101 strikeouts, which was his worst ratio since 2001. As James notes, some players have good years while striking out a lot and not walking much, but they tend to decline in subsequent years. Posada also experienced a high BABIP in 2009, .335, which was not quite on the level of his .389 mark in 2007, but still well above any of his seasons since 2002. This is a further concern for Posada, again, because of his age.

No one wants to see Jorge Posada’s production decline. He’s been an important part of the Yankees for over a decade, and to lose his bat at the catcher’s position would be a tough blow for the lineup. I really hope that Jorge has another year in him that he can fight off the normal aging curve for a catcher. Given his age and parts of his performance in 2009, however, I’m not that confident. Baseball’s a funny game, though. Maybe Jorge goes on and OPSs .829 at age 42 like Fisk. It’s more likely, though, that he declines before that. I’m just a little concerned that it will start next year.

The cited Bill James article comes from The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010, which you can buy here. Yeah, it’s a little cheaper on Amazon, but Amazon screws authors. Might as well support the guys who created it.

Photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Curtis finishes the season with a bomb

The Arizona Fall League regular season is over. Surprise finished 16-16, two games back of the Peoria Javelinas for the West Division title. The Javelinas will take on Phoenix in the title game on Saturday.

AzFL Surprise (11-9 loss to the Peoria Saguaros on Wednesday)
Brandon Laird: 1 for 4, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 K
Colin Curtis: 3 for 5, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K - finishes the season on a 14 for 37 (.378) with 4 doubles, a triple, and a homer

AzFL Surprise (7-4 win over Phoenix on Thursday)
Mike Dunn: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1-0 GB/FB – 14 of 26 pitches were strikes (53.8%) … PitchFX had the fastball at 93.94-95

So that’s it for nightly DotF until next April. You’ll still get your winter ball updates every Sunday, but those won’t last much longer either.

Open Thread: Just a few more hours…

…until nothing happens. Yes, free agents are free to sign with other teams at midnight EST, but that means little at this point. Maybe we’ll start to see rumors with dollar amounts attached to them, but that’s about it. Otherwise, we’ll continue to play the free agent waiting game.

The main reason we don’t see much activity early on is that teams have yet to make arbitration decisions on their players. That happens on December 1, so there’s still some time left. We sometimes see cases of teams signing a Type A free agent before his former team gets a chance to offer him arbitration, but those cases are rare. Most of the time a signing team wants to see what the former team will do.

The only cases in which you’ll see a Type A player sign before the arbitration deadline is if his former team is sure to make the offer. Torii Hunter, for instance, signed with the Angels before the Twins offered him arbitration, but the offer was a given. There was no way that the Twins weren’t offering Hunter arbitration, so the Angels used that to their advantage and signed Hunter quickly.

Will a team make a similar move this off-season? I’m not so sure. But, with the arbitration deadline still looming, teams will be more reluctant to sign a free agent. Chances are we won’t see a major move until then. In other words, the running of the free agents at midnight is just like pitchers and catchers reporting. We look forward to it, but it really doesn’t mean anything.

This is your open thread for the evening. The Devils play at 8. For the rest of us there’s football, Miami at Carolina. But, more importantly, you can now get all of our posts via Twitter. Just follow @RABFeed. That’s just the RSS feed. The @RiverAveBlues feed will remain the same.