Don’t expect Ben Sheets to be a bargain

Every year there are a few free agents who were once good, but who have succumbed to injury. They’re a baseball fan’s dream. We imagine the best of all possible worlds, an incentive laden contract that protects against loss and maximizes reward. If only the front office were smart enough to understand that, they’d have a great pitcher. Alas, only one team gets the player, and it’s usually not our favorite one.

This year’s free agent class features three of these pitchers. Erik Bedard, Rich Harden, and Ben Sheets should all be fine for Opening Day 2010, but each had trouble staying healthy in 2009. At their best they’re all very good pitchers, but because of the health questions they probably won’t cash in this off-season. That is, unless there’s a reason to believe that the injury concern isn’t too great.

Ben Sheets is a familiar name to Yankees fans. He was one of the top free agent pitchers last year, and therefore was on the Yankees radar. Before he revealed the severity of his elbow injury, Sheets was considered an alternative to A.J. Burnett — and he might even have been the better choice. After surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow, Sheets played the waiting game, but ultimately did not pitch in 2009.

This could be a good thing, says Keith Law.

The year off may do him wonders, as he’s had a lot of non-arm injuries that have limited his workload for the past few years, and he was never terrible when pitching at less than 100 percent. So as this type of pitcher goes, he’s a pretty good value; not much downside with the upside of a No. 2 starter who might give you 160-180 innings.

In comparing Sheets to Burnett last off-season, Mike listed Sheets’s injury history. Law is right that Sheets has suffered many non-arm injuries, including a viral and ear infection in 2005, a torn lat in the same year, and a sprained middle finger in 2007. His most serious arm injury was a right shoulder strain in 2006, which kept him on the DL barely more than the minimum, but which also came up a month later, causing him to miss more than two months.

The latest injury is of concern, of course, raises concern because it was an arm injury. A torn flexor tendon isn’t considered as serious as a torn ligament, but it’s still an arm injury. Some teams just can’t afford to take that risk, even for a pitcher like Sheets. That will depress his market value a bit, but I’m not sure he’ll be a true bargain. There are plenty of teams that could use a pitcher like him, and I think it might mean a higher base salary and fewer incentives.

Even if other teams aren’t offering a high base, the Yankees might have to. As Tyler Kepner notes, the price on Sheets “would probably be low enough that the Yankees could afford to outbid other teams.” That’s the way things usually work with the Yankees. They have money and everyone knows it. So when the Yankees want a player that other teams want, they sometimes have to pay a premium. It’s one reason why the Yankees payroll is so high, but that’s a topic for another day.

Ben Sheets would be a great addition to any team. His injury history, and especially his latest one, make him a bigger risk than others, but his upside is perhaps the best on the free agent market. The Yankees liked Sheets when they met with him last off-season, and could certainly pursue him again this year. He’d be a gamble, and the Yankees might have to pay a premium for him, but if it works out the 2010 staff will be greatly strengthened.

Kennedy strong in his final start of 2009

AzFL Surprise (9-2 win over Mesa) the season ends on Tuesday … Phoenix and the Peoria Javelinas will play in the AzFL Title Game on Saturday .. chances are it’ll be on MLB Network, but I’m not 100% sure
Colin Curtis: 2 for 4, 2 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 SB – 4 HR in 19 games
Ian Kennedy: 5 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 5-5 GB/FB – 50 of 66 pitches were strike (75.8% (!!!)) … he finishes his AzFL stint with a 4.25 ERA but a 2.26 FIP in 29.2 IP … considering how ridiculously offensive this league is, giving up just one homer is a minor miracle … IPK also said he feels great

Meanwhile, the list of minor league free agents was released today. Here’s who the Yanks are losing:

RHP: Paul Bush (AA), Michael Gardner (AA), Justin Pope (AA), Humberto Sanchez (AAA), Jay Stephens (AA), Jose Valdez (AAA)
C: Brian Peterson (AAA), Chris Stewart (AAA)
3B: Eric Duncan (AAA), Carlos Mendoza (AA), Cody Ransom (AAA), Marcos Vechionacci (AA)
SS: Doug Bernier (AAA)
OF: Edwar Gonzalez (AA), Freddy Guzman (AAA), Richie Robnett (AA), John Rodriguez (AAA)

I guess I was wrong that Jason Hirsh was eligible for free agency, so that’s good. They’ll probably re-sign a few of these guys, but most of them can walk. Old buddies Chase Wright and Justin Christian are free agents now. I’d love to see the Yanks bring in  Ryan Speier, Andrew Brown, and/or Chad Cordero to add to that cache of dirt cheap, interchangeable relievers.

Oh, and the guys at Project Prospect rated Slade Heathcott the 14th best centerfield prospect in the game.

Open Thread: Unbiased, you say?

In theory, reporters are supposed to be our objective lens. They’re supposed to cast aside fan biases and tell us what happened. Yet as we enter awards season it becomes clear that reporters cannot hide their biases. No one can, really. We are human, after all, and part of our humanity is that we all see the world differently. Still, for a group that touts objectivity, I’d like to see them at least feign it when voting on awards.

This is not an indictment of all reporters. Some of them have an excellent sense of the game and can put their own teams aside when voting on awards. As has become clear over the past few years, though, some just can’t help but vote for the hometown team — or, in a case last year, against the rival player. It usually doesn’t have a huge effect on the outcome, but it does speak to a biased viewpoint.

In 2007, Alex Rodriguez won the MVP in a near unanimous decision. His 54 home runs and 156 RBI led the league by wide margins, and since those are the numbers writers tend to focus on the most, it’s no surprise that he got all but two first place MVP votes. The problem wasn’t that two writers voted for Magglio Ordonez over Rodriguez — Magglio had a great season, leading the league with a .363 batting average. No, the problem was that both writers were from Detroit, and that their reasons reek of bias.

Said Jim Hawkins of the Oakland Press in Pontiac, Michigan: “I saw Magglio play every day. What I saw was a player having an MVP year. I have no quarrel with anyone who voted for A-Rod. He also had an MVP year. But with the injuries the Tigers had and the effort and performance I saw from Magglio, there’s no question he had an MVP year.”

Said Tom Gage of the Detroit News: “I went with what I saw. So many times, you have to vote off the stat sheet. I fully expected A Rod to win. He had a great year. But I saw an MVP year. There were stats to back up the impression that I came away with from the regular season.”

So they voted for Magglio because that’s who they saw during the season. That’s about as biased as it gets. They could have cited Magglio’s superior batting average, on base percentage, and doubles, but instead focused on their bias — which they are not supposed to have, being “objective” reporters.

Last year, Mike ranted about Tom Haudricourt’s ballot. Haudricourt covers the Brewers, and that bias seemed to have shown on his MVP ballot. He voted Albert Pujols, clearly the NL MVP last year, seventh. Seventh place. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Haudricourt hadn’t placed three Brewers on his ballot, and also three first basemen ahead of Pujols. It looks like Haudricourt voted on his NL Central bias.

This year brings us back to Detoit, where Steve Kornacki used his Cy Young vote on Justin Verlander. Verlander had a good season for sure, but he wasn’t at the level of Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez. Yet Kornacki voted for Verlander anyway, with the following justification:

Verlander received my first-place vote because nobody was tougher on the mound with the season on the line for his team.

Verlander threw at least 120 pitches in six of his last eight outings and won his last three starts, forcing a one-game playoff against the Minnesota Twins with his final victory.

He was an inspirational ‘horse,’ using Tigers manager Jim Leyland’s term for him, on a fading team.

This pretty clearly falls victim to the base rate fallacy. It also looks like a case of confirmation bias. The decision looks even worse because Verlander pitches in the same division as Greinke, so even if Kornacki wanted to discount Greinke’s accomplishments because of a weak division, he couldn’t honestly vote for Verlander instead.

All that said, these are subjective awards, and we should expect the voters’ biases to play a role. My problem is with the facade of objectiveness. Reporters are not some select class who can set aside their biases and deliver down the middle news. They’re just as subject to cognitive biases as you and me. That might not be as clear during the regular season, but as we enter awards season, their biases come out front and center. I just wish they’d admit to them more, rather than continuing to feign objectivity.

If you don’t feel like talking about how reporters vote for awards, you’re in luck. This is your open thread for the evening. Have at it.

Coaching staff remains unsettled for 2010

Johnny Damon, Andy Pettitte, and Hideki Matsui have dominated headlines over the past two weeks, but they’re not the only Yankee free agents. The Yankees face decisions on most of their 2009 coaching staff, and according to Brian Cashman, the team is “nowhere” in those talks. Manager Joe Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long are under contract for 2010, but the contracts of all other coaches have expired.

Cashman did add that the team “would love to have all of them back under the proper circumstances,” which likely mean one-year contracts with a salaries similar their 2009 figures. The coaches include pitching coach Dave Eiland, bench coach Tony Pena, third base coach Rob Thomson, first base coach Mick Kelleher, and bullpen coach Mike Harkey.

What Went Right: Injury Bouncebacks

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.

At this time last year, the Yankees roster was anything but set. They had a huge offer out to CC Sabathia, and planned to pursue at least one other starting pitcher. That would help shore up the rotation, but clearly there were no guarantees. On top of that, the Yankees powerhouse offense went out with a whimper in 2008. Not only did the Yankees need another bat to enhance the offense, but they’d need contributions from players who underperformed in 2008.

With the acquisition of Nick Swisher, the Yankees had four players who underperformed in 2008. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui missed much of the season with injuries, and Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher had poor seasons at the plate. Even with the potential addition of Mark Teixeira, the Yankees had a lot to worry about. Without contributions from at least two of those four, the Yankees offense wouldn’t have been nearly as formidable.

Two of four didn’t seem like asking a lot. Two of the players in question were proven veterans coming off injuries, and other two were players in their primes who each had a bad season. But as it turned out, all four bounced back. That turned out to be a key to the 2009 season. It meant the Yankees had above average contributors in eight out of nine lineup slots, with the final filled by an average player. How many other teams can boast of such a powerhouse?

Here’s how the Yankees in question performed in 2008, and how they bounced back in 2009. All stats are from FanGraphs, at risk of Jeremy Greenhouse calling me out.

Player 08 wOBA 08 WAR 09 wOBA 09 WAR
Jorge Posada .340 0.8 .378 4.0
Hideki Matsui .348 0.8 .378 2.4
Nick Swisher .325 1.0 .375 3.5
Robinson Cano .307 0.5 .370 4.4

Both Swisher and Cano both returned to their pre-2008 forms, which brought a huge boost to the offense. As you can see from the table, these were not insignificant improvements. Not only did they increase rate production over 2008, but they stayed healthy and therefore added that value over the course of the season. WAR favors Cano over Swisher by almost a full run, but that’s mostly because of the positional adjustment. Both had phenomenal seasons, especially compared to 2008.

Posada and Matsui contributed in two ways. First, they improved their net production over 2008. Even when healthy, Posada and Matsui weren’t quite where they had been in years past. Their wOBA numbers weren’t bad in 2008, but the Yankees have seen them perform much better. There was certainly fear that age had caught up with them, but they answered that charge by coming back to produce in 2009. That leads to the second part of their improvement, remaining healthy. Even with their production in 2008, they didn’t help the team as much because they were hurt for much of the season. In 2008 both stayed healthy enough to add a ton of value to the team, as evidenced by their WAR figures.

All four players certainly had the potential to bounce back after poor 2008 campaigns. Cano and Swisher were guys in their primes who had bad years, and Matsui and Posada were two veterans who faced injury struggles. During the 2008-2009 off-season, it would have been wildly optimistic to predict that all four would bounce back. The Yankees got lucky in that regard. All four contributed to the 103-win season, which set up the team’s run through the playoffs. The 2009 Yankees might have made the playoffs if only two of those four bounced back, but they wouldn’t have been nearly as dominant. While the improved pitching staff was a big part of the story this season, we shouldn’t overlook Posada, Matsui, Cano, and Swisher. Their contribution was a big part of making this season as special as it was.

Yanks decline option on Mitre

Via Marc Carig on Twitter, the Yankees have declined the $1.25 million option the team held on Sergio Mitre. This move, however, does not portend the end of Mitre’s pinstriped career. Since he is arbitration-eligible, he remains, as Carig notes, under team control. The Yanks could still opt to non-tender him, but for the amount it will cost to resign him, Brian Cashman will look to retain him on an incentive-laden deal. Just a few days ago, I predicted that the Yanks would pick up his option. So much for that.

Greinke takes home the Cy Young

Both the AL MVP and AL Cy Young are pretty obvious picks this year, and half of those awards were made official today. Royals’ righthander Zack Greinke was named the AL Cy Young Award winner, beating out Felix Hernandez in a landslide. Greinke’s season was simply off the charts: 242 K in 229.1 IP, 2.16 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 2.81 tRA. His 9.4 WAR was by the far the most in baseball this year (Ben Zobrist was second with 8.6), and it was the best mark put up by a pitcher since Randy Johnson went for 9.9 WAR back in 2004. Congrats to Zack, there really wasn’t much of a debate here.

In a normal year, CC Sabathia might have gotten more consideration, but thanks to the phenomenal seasons put forth by Greinke, Justin Verlander, and Felix Hernandez, he finished fourth (two second place votes, seven third place votes). It’s all cool though, Sabathia added something to his resume this season that none of those guys have.