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.

There is no such thing as a stats vs. scouting debate

I did not make up that headline. I believe it, but other people have said it before me. Stats can tell you some things, scouting a player can tell you others. Some people take either extreme, but I think that for the most part we understand that both are necessary components of the game. Keith Law demonstrated this today. He revealed his Cy Young ballot and presented his rationale for picking Tim Lincecum.

Lincecum led the NL in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and WAR (Wins Above Replacement), both of which normalize a pitcher’s stats to account for the help he received from his defense, and he led both categories by wide margins. He also led the NL in VORP, which adjusts for park but not for defense, by a narrow margin.

Law was trained as a scout during his tenure in Toronto, and continues to act in that capacity today for Scouts, Inc./ESPN. Yet he uses advanced metrics in justifying his ballot. He understands the value of both, because he’s familiar with the benefits of both. I wish there were more writers like that.

Rumor de l’après-midi: Rosenthal on the bullpen

Apropos of our early discussion on Nick Swisher’s availability comes one of the more tenuous and sketchier bits of Hot Stove reporting we’ll see all year. In what may or may not qualify as something worth publishing on, Ken Rosenthal tells us that the Yankees’ pitching plans are still unclear. According to Rosenthal, the Yankees have not yet decided if the bullpen or rotation will undergo an off-season boost. Furthermore, the team may or may not be interested in some free agents. First, “one rival executive” says the Yanks are interested in both Rafael Soriano (RHP) and Mike Gonzalez (LHP), but “another source with knowledge of the Yankees’ thinking” believes the team will fill bullpen holes from within. The two strategies are, by the way, not mutually exclusive.

Anyway, the big problem with this type of reporting is that it does not engender trust in any of the people involved. Rosenthal seemingly puts his own theory — that Soriano or Gonzalez or both would do the Yankees some good — into the mouths of two unnamed baseball sources. Since the free agency frenzy does not commence until midnight tonight, nothing has happened, and it’s starting to show.

What it means to make a player ‘available’

Earlier this afternoon, Bob Nightengale of USA Today unleashed a panic amongst the members of the Yankee Universe. “The Yankees,” he Tweeted, “ever so quietly, are letting teams know that RF Nick Swisher is available.”

Nick Swisher! Available! Oh no! With just 87 characters, Nightengale created an uproar. Our inboxes started filling up with e-mails from RAB readers wondering if this rumor had any merit to it while Ben Nicholson-Smith at MLBTR wrote it up. Would the Yankees, already down a left fielder and a designated hitter, dare sell off Nick Swisher this off-season as well?

Of course, Swisher isn’t for sale, but debunking this rumor and contextualizing it isn’t that simple. It never is, and with the advent of the Internet, parsing rumors has grown more difficult. Let’s take this one for a ride though.

First, we must consider the source. Nightengale, a long-time vet of the Gannett daily, has a penchant rivaling that of Jon Heyman for conflating interest with a definite rumor. Here, he is taking a tidbit that isn’t quite news and spinning it into a secretive, hey-look-at-what-the-Yankees-are-doing item. That’s a clear warning sign that something is amiss.

Next, we must consider the nature of the rumor. What exactly are the Yankees doing? Well, they’re supposedly letting teams know that Nick Swisher can be had for a price. Is that news? I don’t think it is. Swisher is coming off of a rebound year in which he put up a 30.9 VORP. He is due $6.75 million in 2010 and $9 million in 2011, making him one of the more tradeable veterans on the Yanks. Of course, the team will solicit offers for him.

And that brings me to my next point. Third, we must consider what it means to be “available.” When a player is made available, it does not betray any interest on the Yanks’ part to see him shipped away. Rather, when a player is “available,” the Yankees expect other teams to put forward what they feel are reasonable proposals for this player. Without any insider knowledge, in fact, I believe this is how the Yankees acquired Swisher last year. The White Sox made him available; the Yankees made a low ball offer; Kenny Williams accepted; and the rest is history.

Beyond Swisher, though, the Yankees — and 29 other teams — generally make everyone available. Why not? Sometimes, a great trade comes along when teams aren’t actively shopping the player but when other teams know that potential trading partners are open to the idea of a trade. As far as the Yanks are concerned, the only players on the team who are not or should not be available include Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Mark Teixiera, CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Jesus Montero. Maybe we could add Jorge Posada and A.J. Burnett to make it a Gang of 10, but for the right price, anyone is tradeable.

In the end, this rumor isn’t about the Yanks’ faith or potential lack thereof in Nick Swisher. It’s not about their plans to leave themselves with a projected Opening Day outfield of Brett Gardner, Melky Cabrera and Austin Jackson. It’s about exploring options and not closing the door on a move that has the potential to make the team better. Odds are good that Nick Swisher will be in right field in April, but if he isn’t, then it’s because his departure made the team better. And that’s what it means to be available.

Lincecum takes home his second Cy

Tim Lincecum was named the NL Cy Young Award winner today, becoming the first pitcher to win back-to-back Cys since Randy Johnson won four in a row from ’99-’02. He narrowly beat out a pair of Cardinals for the award, as just ten points separated Lincecum, Adam Wainwright, and Chris Carpenter. Wainwright, who finished third in the voting, actually received the most first place votes (12).

Lincecum is arbitration eligible as a Super Two this offseason, and he’s won the Cy in each of his two full seasons. Get ready for the greatest arbitration case in the history of the universe.

Selig talks about a shortened playoff schedule

After 162 games over 180 days during the regular season, baseball slows down for the playoffs. Any given team can play a maximum 19 games in the postseason, which usually last 30 days (plus the days off following the regular season conclusion). That’s quite a change for players and fans, who are used to the every day nature of baseball. Couldn’t baseball do something to shorten the postseason schedule so that they’d get days off at least somewhat comparable to the regular season?

There are a few obstacles in the way of such a playoff layout. Travel days is an obvious one. It’s unfair to make a team, or both teams, travel from the West Coast after a game and play the next day. In fact, during the regular season a team cannot travel from the West Coast to the East Coast without a day off. So preserving some level of off-days when changing venues makes sense, because you never know where the travel will take you.

Another obstacle is the uncertainty of how long a series lasts. Three of four teams swept their opponents in the first round this year, and the other series went only four games. This meant many extra days off for these teams. First because of the unplayed games, but also because of the travel days between them — and in a 2-2-1 system, that’s two game days and a travel day for the sweeping teams, and one game day and a travel day for the four-game team.

Yet the biggest obstacle of all could be the television networks. They pay a lot of money to acquire broadcast rights for the playoffs, and they therefore want to maximize their advertising revenues. This necessarily means more days off. TBS and FOX benefit when they’re the only station with a game. This is why one LCS starts a day before the other, and also why there’s a random day off between Games 4 and 5. It puts each station in an exclusive position, meaning they’ll be able to grab a greater portion of the total audience attention.

On top of the want for extra days off, the networks also request to start the playoffs on a Wednesday. It helps them to get more games in during peak viewership hours. If the playoffs started on a Saturday, the lowest-rated night of the week, they would probably have fewer people watching, and therefore lower advertising revenue.

Commissioner Bud Selig recently addressed this issue, saying that he favors a shorter playoff schedule. In fact, citing an argument from Angels manager Mike Scioscia, Selig pretty firmly says that we can expect a tightened playoff layout.

“We’re going to change it,” Selig said. “I don’t disagree with Mike Scioscia. I think he was right, so we’re going to try and tighten that up.”

He goes on to cite some of the complications listed above, but concedes that some of the off-days — I’m assuming those requested by the networks — are unnecessary. That sounds like a definitive statement from Selig, though I’m not quite as optimistic that much will change next postseason.

I’d like to see some more flexibility in the scheduling, if possible. As we saw with the one-game playoff this season, sometimes there are issues of venue availability. The Twins and Tigers were supposed to face off the Monday after the season ended, but weren’t able to because the Vikings had a Monday night game scheduled for then. Baseball had to wait another day. There won’t be a football-baseball overlap for them this season, but there are still a few teams that play in dual-purpose arenas. And in those cases, flexible scheduling can be an issue.

Will Bud stand by his word on this one? I hope so. The long playoff layout afforded the Yankees an advantage this postseason, but I’d make the trade-off. Players go through a long, grueling regular season with just 18 off-days in six months. I’d like to see a more accurate emulation of that for the playoffs.

Addendum by Ben: Just to hit on a point, the lengthened playoff schedule, as Shysterball so aptly reminds us, was Selig’s doing in the first place. He’s simply trying to undo another bad decision he made when he kowtowed the interests of TV over the flow of the playoffs. Other than for the sake of TV, there’s no reason the ALCS can’t start two days after the last ALDS wraps up, and there’s no reason why the World Series can’t just start two days after the last LCS game is played. If Selig had the best interests of baseball in mind, he would fix this problem.

What Went Right: The Kids Are Alright

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.

Ramiro Pena & Frankie Cervelli

The Yankees lost a major piece of their team before the season even started, as Alex Rodriguez went down with a torn hip labrum that would keep him out for well over a month. Some people (who shall remain nameless) actually thought the team would be better off without him, but after a three week stretch of seeing Cody Ransom hit .180-.226-.320, everyone was singing a different tune. But I digress.

Ransom, slated to begin the year as the backup infielder, was pushed into every day duty, and taking Ransom’s place as the utility infielder was young Ramiro Pena. The Yankees could have gone with the easy move and taken the veteran Angel Berroa out of Spring Training, but Pena made a strong impression in camp thanks to all the extra playing time he received while Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano were away at the World Baseball Classic.

The then 24-year-old infielder had hit just .266-.330-.357 with Double-A Trenton in 2008, but his outstanding glove work meant he could still contribute something positive to the team. Ransom went down with a quad injury in late April, which meant Pena would have to hold down the fort at third base until A-Rod returned. The kid from Monterrey went on to hit .333-.375-.367 in nearly two weeks of playing time, and put up a crazy good +12.5 UZR/150 at the hot corner. Against the Angels on May 1st, Pena’s two run single in the eighth helped the Yanks overcome a five run deficit with just five outs remaining.

Unfortunately, A-Rod wasn’t the only prominent Yankee to miss time with injury in 2009. Jorge Posada missed most of May with a hamstring injury, and if that wasn’t bad enough, backup catcher Jose Molina also missed most of the month with a similar injury. The Yankees were forced to turn to the unproven Francisco Cervelli, who at the time was hitting just .190-.266-.310 in Double-A. Cervelli hit .286-.302-.310 in Posada’s and Molina’s stead, flashing some serious defensive skills behind the plate.

With the Yanks’ lineup struggling immensely in mid-June (13 runs in their previous six games), Cervelli hit the first homer of his career in Atlanta, tying the game and helping wake up the dormant offensive monster. The Yanks were just 38-32 at that point, but after Cervelli’s jack helped get the offense back in order, they went 65-27 the rest of the way.

Both Pena and Cervelli started the year as the third best option at their respective positions, but both performed when the team needed them most. Cervelli gunned down 10 of 13 potential basestealers, and Pena gobbled up everything hit within shouting range of him at three infield positions. Their youthful energy was a joy to watch and also a welcome addition to a team that can be a little uptight at times.

Photo Credits: AP and AP