Past Trade Review: Paul O’Neill

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

It might be hard for the younger generation of fans to believe, but two decades ago the Yankees were a non-factor in the AL East, finishing no better than fourth in the then-seven team division from 1987 through 1992. They hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1981. Don Mattingly was a bonafide homegrown superstar, but Dave Righetti’s talent was being wasted in the bullpen, Ron Guidry was fading, and a numerous free agent signings and trades just didn’t work out. For every Dave Winfield there was an Andy Hawkins, for every Rickey Henderson a Tim Leary.

George Steinbrenner, who always dipped his toe deep into the baseball operations pool, was banned from day-to-day management of the team in late-July 1990 after paying Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Winfield. Gene Michael took over as general manager the very next month, and he and his front office staff went to work rebuilding the Yankees without The Boss interfering. They were patient with prospects, valued high-end pitching, and above all wanted batters that worked the count and wore pitchers down.

One of the team’s few established above-average players was centerfielder Roberto Kelly, who broke in during the 1987 season but didn’t grab hold of an every day job until two years later. He hit .284/.339/.426 from 1989 through 1991, increasing his homer output from nine to 15 to 20 during that time. Kelly rode a hot start (topped out at .361/.396/.514 in late-May) in 1992 to his first appearance in the All Star Game, though ironically enough that ended up being the worst full season of his career (98 OPS+, 0.8 bWAR) up to that point.

The then-28 year old Kelly was obviously a solid contributor for the Yanks, but his on-base percentage (just .325 from 1990-1992) wasn’t good enough for a guy that spent the majority of his time hitting in one of the top three spots of the batting order. Eighteen years ago today, Stick dealt Kelly to the Reds for a fellow 1992 All Star outfielder named Paul O’Neill and Single-A first base prospect Joe Deberry.

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

O’Neill was more than a year older than Kelly and relegated to an outfielder corner defensively, but it didn’t matter. He fit the grind-it-out philosophy, not only getting on base 34.4% of the time from 1989-1992, but he was also trending upwards. His IsoD (isolated discipline, or OBP-AVG, which measures a batter’s ability to get on base by a means other than a hit) went from .069 in 1990 to .090 in 1991 to .100 in 1992. O’Neill also brought World Series experience, though he wasn’t without his warts. The lefty swinger had plenty of trouble against southpaws, hitting .225/.279/.295 off them in 1992, and just .227/.278/.332 over the last three seasons.

O’Neill’s first season in New York was the best of his career up to that point, a .311/.367/.504 effort, career highs across the board. He was still hopeless against lefties though, hitting just .230/.279/.319 off them that year. The Yankees improved by a dozen wins from the previous season and finished second to the Blue Jays in the division. O’Neill managed to top his strong debut season with a career year in 1994, winning the batting title and hitting .359/.460/.603 with more walks (72) than strikeouts (56) for the first time in his career. As if someone flipped a switch, he hit .305/.439/.571 off lefties and went to his second All Star Game, finishing fifth in the MVP voting. The Yanks were robbed of their first playoff berth in more than a decade because of the strike though; at 70-43, they had the best record in the AL.

As the Yankees incorporated more and more young players onto their roster, O’Neill remained one of manager Buck Showalter’s stalwarts. His newfound level of production proved to be his true talent level, as O’Neill hit a whopping .317/.397/.517 during his first six years in pinstripes. He was the three-hole hitter the majority of the time during the team’s titles runs in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, usually protected by cleanup hitter Bernie Williams, the guy that replaced Kelly in centerfield after the trade.

All told, O’Neill hit .303/.377/.492 with 185 homers in his nine years with the Yanks, going to four All Star Games and finishing in the top 15 of the MVP voting four times as well. Steinbrenner, reinstated by the commissioner two years after being banned, dubbed him The Warrior, and fans fell head over heels in love with him for his style of play. O’Neill was famously hard on himself, throwing helmets and smashing water coolers whenever something went wrong, and if you took a gander at him in the outfielder between pitches or at-bats, you’d often catch him practicing his stance and swing with an invisible bat.

(AP Photo/ Pat Sullivan)

O’Neill’s Yankee career is full of far more memorable moments than I care to count, but two stick out to me. The first is pretty obvious, the “Paul O-Nei-ll clap clap clapclapclap” chant in the ninth inning of Game Five of the 2001 World Series, a grand send-off in his final game at Yankee Stadium. The second came back in 1996 (left), when he ran down a Luis Polonia line drive to record the final out of Game Five of that World Series, saving an extra-base hit in a game that ended 1-0. I’ll also never forget yelling at him through the TV to catch the final out of David Wells’ perfect game with two damn hands. Sheesh.

As for Kelly, he went on to be very productive for Cincinnati, hitting .313/.353/.447 for them before being traded to Atlanta for Deion Sanders during the 1994 season. He bounced around a bit the rest of his career, making stops with the Expos, Dodgers, Twins, Mariners, and Rangers before rejoining the Yankees in 2000, a 27 plate appearance finale to his career. He was certainly a quality player, just not at the same level of O’Neill. Deberry never played in the big leagues, topping out at Triple-A. He was out of baseball by 1998.

O’Neill’s 24.8 bWAR with New York is more than Kelly’s entire career (16.9, just 5.0 post-Yanks), but we don’t need any kind of advance stats or detailed analysis to call this trade a clear win for the Yankees. It’s arguably one the ten best trades in franchise history, maybe even top five. The Warrior is still a fan favorite and a semi-regular at Yankee Stadium to this day, showing up to Old Timer’s Day and calling games for the YES Network whenever he feels like getting out of Ohio.

Happy Paul O’Neill Trade Anniversary Day, I’m not sure any of us knew how important and beloved he’d become.

The Arbitration Question: To Offer Or Not?

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The free agent signing period officially starts this Sunday, but free agency won’t begin in earnest until later this month when we know which players will force teams to give up a draft pick to sign them. Some are obvious; the Cliff Lees, the Carl Crawfords, the Jayson Werths, those are the ones we don’t have to think about. They’re going to cost you. But with players like Paul Konerko, Carl Pavano, and Frank Francisco, it’s not so obvious. That’s why we have to take the wait and see approach.

Quick primer on the rules: If a team offers one of their free agents arbitration and he signs elsewhere, they’ll receive two draft picks if he’s a Type-A (the signing team’s top pick and a sandwich rounder pulled out of the air) or just one if he’s a Type-B (the sandwich rounder). Of course the player has to decline that arbitration offer for the team to be entitled to that compensation, which is no longer a given these days. Salaries are coming back down to Earth and teams are shying away from older players, so the chances of these guys accepting arbitration has gone up considerably in recent years. But you knew that already.

The Yankees haven’t offered arbitration to any of their free agents in the last two offseasons, and there’s really no reason to expect them to alter that practice now. The last compensation pick they received for losing a free agent came way back in 2008, when they gained a supplemental first round pick for losing Luis Vizcaino (they used the pick on Jeremy Bleich). Yeah, it’s been a while.

Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte all qualified as Type-A free agents, and we know that it’s pretty much Yankees or bust for those three. Since the chances of them signing with another club are tiny, I don’t see the point in offering them arbitration. There’s nothing to be gained by it, and an offer would put all of the risk on the Yankees. There are worse things in the world than having those three on well, well above-market rate one-year deals, but I don’t think that’s enough of a reason to assume the risk given the tiny chances of the reward. Perhaps you feel differently.

Javy Vazquez is a no-brainer. He’s a Type-B who made $11.5M in 2010, and of course he was awful (-0.2 fWAR) due to stuff that deteriorated as the season progressed. The best course of action is to simply cut ties and walk away. I know the Yanks considered two draft picks to be part of the deal (he was a Type-A once upon a time), but things didn’t work out. No sense in trying to force the issue, let Javy walk with no stings attached. That leaves two more decisions to be made…

Lance Berkman

When the Yanks acquired Berkman at the trade deadline, he waved his no-trade clause under the condition that they would not pick up his $15M option for 2011. Usually it’s the other way around, the player wants the option picked up in exchange for agreeing to the deal. I guess that means Puma really doesn’t want to stick around and plans on exploring the open market this winter.

(AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

Under normal circumstances, there’s no way you’d offer Berkman arbitration given his bloated salary and declining production (yes, I know he was pretty good with the Yanks, but his .345 season wOBA was the worse of his career), but this isn’t a normal situation. Berkman’s demonstrated a desire to get out of town by demanding that they decline his rather lucrative option, and unless he’s had a change of heart over the last few months, I think they should offer Fat Elvis arbitration and hope he declines.

Yeah, it’s very risky given his salary and the team’s not infinite payroll, but I think there’s enough writing on the wall to risk it. Granted, it’s not my money, so what do I know. If Berkman was a Type-A instead of a Type-B, I definitely wouldn’t offer because a team is unlikely to give up a high pick to sign him. But since that’s not the case, I say go for it. Be bold.

Kerry Wood

Wood earned $10.5M this year, which is a boat load for a reliever, even a closer (which he was at the start of the year). In fact, he was the seventh highest paid relief pitcher in baseball this season, just ahead of B.J. Ryan. Yeah, the Blue Jays are still paying that guy.

Anyway, Wood (a Type-B like Berkman) will probably be able to find a job closing games somewhere, but he’s not going to sniff that kind of annual salary again. Remember, he was on the disabled list twice before the trade, and his 26 innings with the Yankees were unfathomable lucky (6.23 BB/9, .235 BABIP, 98.1% strand rate). Considering those three things (improbability of finding that much money on the market, his health track record, and unsustainably good performance), I’d wish Kerry good luck and decline to offer him arbitration. If he accepts and you’re stuck with a $11-12M setup man … yikes. The Yanks have money, but that doesn’t mean they should spend it stupidly. Sorry Kerry.

* * *

So assuming the Yanks offer arbitration to Berkman and Berkman only, they’ll receive one extra draft pick next year if/when he declines. Not much, but it’s better than nothing in a stacked draft class, especially when the Yanks are expected to forfeit their first round pick to sign a Type-A free agent of some kind. The deadline to offer arbitration is Nov. 23rd and players then have seven days to accept or decline, so this is going to sneak up before we know it.

Finding Thames version 2011

Pat Burrell would be excellent in Thames's role (Eric Risberg/AP)

As Mike wrote earlier, Marcus Thames was one of the best finds of the 2010 off-season. The Tigers non-tendered him after a disappointing season in which he saw his greatest asset, his power, drop off considerably. For two months Thames waited for the right call, and he finally got it in February. The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal, though as we learned it might as well have been a major league one. Despite a poor spring the Yankees added Thames to the active roster. It was a move that would pay off better than anyone expected.

Part of Thames’s allure was that he came so cheap. The Yankees paid him a base salary of just under a million for production that, according to FanGraphs WAR, amounted to about $2.3 million. Even with the performance bonuses Thames couldn’t have reached that level. It was a great deal for a bench player, and it’s something that the Yankees should seek to repeat this winter. Unfortunately, Thames himself probably won’t present the same value. The Yankees could still bring him back on a reasonable one-year deal, but I’m sure they won’t match a multi-million dollar or multi-year contract.

Unless the Yankees plan to pursue a righty outfielder and trade Brett Gardner, they’ll again need a right-handed bat for the bench in 2011. Given the current payroll structure and the expected additions this off-season, they’ll probably seek a bargain in the same mold as Thames: a veteran with historically decent numbers who is for some reason not gaining much attention.* The two obvious spots to look here are the free agent pool and the non-tender candidates.

*And you can forget Elijah Dukes.

It’s too bad that Pat Burrell’s resurgence in San Francisco will land him a solid major league deal, because he seems to fit the Thames mold. He had a poor season-plus in Tampa Bay before they released him, but found his groove once he started playing the field again in San Fran. Could he do it as a bench player? I’m not sure. But he’d be worth the gamble. But given the current outlook, he’ll probably land a gig with an NL team, perhaps with those World Champion Giants.

It might be hard to remember, but Bill Hall was once a promising player. In 2005 and 2006 he produced wOBAs of .360 and .369 while playing good defense all over the infield. He produced a combined 8.7 WAR in those two seasons. But in 2007, with the arrival of top prospect Ryan Braun, the Brewers moved Hall to center field, a move he vocally opposed. He played solid D out there, but his offense tumbled. His wOBA for the next three seasons: .317, .297, .261. The Brewers eventually traded him to the Mariners, who traded him to the Red Sox last winter. Hall did improve, a .342 wOBA while playing every position except first base and catcher — he even pitched an inning. His versatility does make him an attractive target.

Andrew Jones has recovered his power over the past few years, but chances are he’s in line for a bigger gig. But he has essentially played part-time in the past two years, either because of injury or slumping, so perhaps he’ll take a bench role on a team like the Yankees, knowing that he’ll get more time if Brett Gardner slumps or Curtis Granderson continues to hit lefties poorly.

Two familiar faces could also be options for the Yanks: Austin Kearns and Xavier Nady. I doubt the Yanks would bring back Kerans after his case of the whiffs in September, but there’s still a chance. Then again, he hasn’t posted an ISO north of .200 since 2006. Nady would be the true bounce-back candidate, since he had quite a horrible year in Chicago. He might even have to settle for a minor league contract, which would be even better for the Yanks.

Among the non-tender candidates there doesn’t appear to be many attractive names. In fact, the best fit among them would be Jeff Francoeur. The guy can certainly hit lefties and play defense, so he wouldn’t be the worst signing. I just don’t think many fans would enjoy the idea of Frenchy on the Yankees, even if he sat on the bench most of the time.

After that there are possible trades, so the Yankees won’t lack options to fill the bench gap. There are plenty of players available; so many, in fact, that I’m sure the Yanks can find one on a reasonable deal. After doling out two or three big contracts, they’ll need that kind of value from the bench.

What Went Right: Mr. Thames To You

(AP Photo)

As the 2009-2010 offseason played out, it became increasingly clear that the Yankees needed some sort of righthanded bat to balance out their lefty heavy outfield. Nick Swisher wasn’t the problem since he’s a switch hitter, but the newly acquired Curtis Granderson had significant trouble against southpaws in recent years (.267 wOBA vs. LHP from ’08-’09) and Brett Gardner was still a complete unknown at the time. Enter Marcus Thames.

The former Yankee farmhand agreed to a minor league contract in early February that granted him an invitation to Spring Training, at which point he’d have to compete for job against the likes of Rule 5 Draft pick Jamie Hoffmann, Greg Golson, and David Winfree. Thames didn’t perform well during camp at all (.135/.182/.269 in 52 at-bats), but the Yankees preferred his experience and power to whatever the younger guys had to offer. If you’re going to go for experience over youth, a bench/platoon spot isn’t a bad place to do it.

Thames started the season in a platoon with Gardner (not Granderson, contrary to what we all expected) and played in only two of the team’s first eight games. He got a start at designated hitter in the ninth game of the season, going 2-for-3 with a double in a win against the Angels. That earned Marcus another start the next day, which resulted in another two hits, and before you knew he finished the month with a .588/.650/.941 (.666 wOBA) in 20 trips to the plate. Thames kept hitting so Joe Girardi kept giving him starts through the month of May.

The Yanks started play with a 24-13 record on May 17th, certainly a dynamite record, but they hadn’t had one of those big remember-why-you-love-’em wins yet. Thames gave New York just that when he completed a ninth inning comeback against Jonathan Papelbon by following Alex Rodriguez‘s game-tying two-run homer with a walk-off two-run homer of his own. Brought in to mash lefties, he also was getting the job done against righties, and that homer won him a place in the heart of every fan.

Mr. Thames to you. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

After a bum hamstring sidelined Thames for close to a month, he returned on Independence Day and provided an instant jolt to the team’s offense. He pinch hit for Ramiro Pena in the tenth inning of a tie game against the Blue Jays, driving in the winning run with a walk-off broken bat single. Not bad for a welcome back moment, eh? A few weeks later he helped the Yanks mount a comeback win against Cliff Lee and the Rangers by whacking a solo homer in the eighth before driving in the go-ahead run with a single in the ninth.

Thames’ role became more and more prominent as the season progressed. He hit .342/.384/.671 (.438 wOBA) after returning from the disabled list through September 1st, after which he and the newly acquired Lance Berkman went into a straight platoon at DH. All told, Marcus hit .288/.350/.491 (.365 wOBA) with a dozen homers in 237 plate appearances on the season, filling the role of platoon bat perfectly. He did his job against lefties (.354 wOBA) and was even better than expected against righties (.382).

Of course, we can’t forget the horror show that was Thames’ outfield defense. He played just 171 innings in the outfield all season, but he managed to cost the team more than four runs defensively. It seemed like a helluva lot more, I know that much. The most notable blunder came a day after the walk-off homer against Papelbon, when Thames botched a fly ball in right that led to a pair of unearned runs in the ninth and an eventual loss. Thankfully Girardi wised up, and Thames’ days as a regular outfielder were finished after he came back from the disabled list.

Mighty Marcus Thames was everything the Yankees hoped he would be and then some, giving them pop off the bench and later on, production in a damn-near every day role. As far as gambles on minor league deals go, the Yankees hit the jackpot with this one.

Report: ‘No chance’ Greinke would accept trade to NY

Via Jon Heyman, “people close to” Royals’ ace Zack Greinke say there’s no chance the righty would accept a trade to New York. Greinke has some sort of convoluted no-trade clause, and it’s only natural that he’d be connected to the Yankees after Kansas City put him out on the market.

The anti-Greinke camp was pretty strong given the concerns about his bout with social anxiety disorder and the MSM-made pressure cooker of New York, so this should make them happy. Sure, there has to be some concern when you’re dealing with something like that, but Greinke is a special case; a supremely talented 27-year-old with three straight years of no worse than 4.9 fWAR. Usually you move mountains to acquire a player like that, and who knows, they still might.

The problem with the playoffs

After a rough September, the Yankees stormed into the playoffs nearly a month ago. In three games played over four days, they quickly dispatched the Minnesota Twins to reach the American League Championship Series for the second straight year. And then they sat, sat and sat some more.

In total, the club sat for six days before playing Game 1 of the ALCS, and the Yanks never seemed to click in their series against the Texas Rangers. The pitching wasn’t sharp, and after a long layoff, the bats seemed sluggish as well. While speaking on the air earlier today, Yanks’ owner and Manager General Partner Hal Steinbrenner fingered the long delay as a culprit behind the Yanks’ ALCS loss. “We seemed a little bit cold in that series. I don’t know if it was the long layoff or not,” Hal said, obviously intimating that it was indeed the long layoff.

The problem seems particularly exacerbated when we look at the playoffs on the whole, and the problem starts with the ALDS. When the baseball season ended on Sunday, October 3, teams were granted two days off before the first Division Series games. The LDS slates were designed to take forever in the grand scheme of baseball. Due to built-in travel days, had the Yanks gone to five games, the series would have taken seven calendar days. The Reds and Phillies played only three games, but it took five days for the series to wrap.

The layoff in between the LDS and LCS series is problematic too. Had the Yankees gone to five games, they would have had two days off in between series as the Rangers did. At that point, they would have played five games over nine days since the regular season had ended. Outside of April and the All Star Break, at no point during the season do teams play just five times over nine calendar days.

The break after the LCS and the World Series is nearly as painful. This year, the two League Championship Series finished in six games. The Rangers wrapped their series on a Friday with World Series Game 1 scheduled for the following Wednesday while the Giants had three days off after their Game 6 win. This development too is a relatively new one.

A few weeks ago, I dug up playoff schedules for 1998 and 2003 as a point of comparison, and the changes were apparently from the get-go. The 1998 season ended on Sunday, September 27, and the playoffs started on Tuesday, September 29. The Yanks needed just three games to beat the Rangers in the ALDS that year, but their five-game set was slated for just six calendar days with no day off between Games 4 and 5. The other ALDS series enjoyed the same schedule so that the two would have ended on the same day, and the ALCS was slated to start on Tuesday, October 6 with just one day off between a potential ALDS Game 5 and ALCS Game 1. Game 7 of the ALCS was scheduled for Wednesday, October 14, and the World Series started on Saturday, October 17. Game 7 of the 1998 World Series was scheduled for two days before the start of the 2010 World Series. The 2003 playoff schedule was similarly more condensed.

In essence, even though the Yanks swept their ALDS series in 1998, they had just three days off before the ALCS started. Compare that to this year’s six-game vacation. No wonder the team came out of the gate seemingly playing slowly.

So what went wrong? At some point over the last few years, baseball decided it needed more days off. It needed to make sure that no Division Series game overlapped with another. It needed to maximize prime time playoff exposure while discarding baseball continuity. It had to make us nearly forget in between the ALCS and World Series that baseball was going on.

The sport’s reaction is, of course, the opposite of what you would expect it to be. Instead of proposing to fix a situation where the World Series winners played 15 games over a span of 27 days this year, Bud Selig and Co. want to expand the playoffs. More teams! More rounds! More days off! Coming to a baseball stadium near you in 2012.

The details are sparse, and the MLBPA and Commissioner’s Office will hammer out in agreement when the Collective Bargaining Agreement comes due next year. Selig, though, has his flawed rationale. “We have less teams than any other sport” in the playoffs, he said in September. “We certainly haven’t abused anything.” If the NHL and NBA both allow more than half of their teams to reach the endless dance these leagues call the playoffs, why shouldn’t baseball? Brilliant, indeed.

The answer is a simple one: Baseball should prepare for flexible playoff scheduling while restoring the master schedule to the 2003/1998 model. The league doesn’t need all of these days off in between the end of the season and the playoffs, in between the end of the rounds and the start of the next. At the very least, considering the options are narrowed just by the initial schedule, baseball should be able to determine that, if the ALDS series end early, the ALCS can start earlier. If the two LCS series end early, move up the World Series.

Baseball is meant to be played every day, and for six months, we see our teams take the field day in and day out with off-days few and far between. In the playoffs, the season grinds to a halt. It stretches from early October into early November for only one reason: money. It doesn’t always have to be about the money, and as baseball in October starts to feel fleeting, the herky-jerkiness of the playoffs should give way to a smoother schedule. It would be for the good of the game.

Thanks to Jeff Quagliata, the research manager at the YES Network, for tracking down the old playoff schedules. Find him on Twitter at YEStoResearch.

Banuelos & Heyer combine for six strong innings

Manny Banuelos, Austin Romine, and Brandon Laird were selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Showcase. It’s an All Star Game, but not based on AzFL performance. It’s the best prospects in the league all in one game. The game will be played this Saturday at 9pm ET and guess what? It’ll be broadcast on MLB Network. Neato.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (2-2 tie with Surprise in 11 innings) ewww ties … they probably ran out of pitchers
Brandon Laird, DH: 1 for 5, 1 RBI – four for his last 27 (.148)
Jose Pirela, 2B: 1 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 CS – the walk was intentional
Manny Banuelos: 3 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 6-2 GB/FB – 25 of 40 pitches were strikes (62.5%) … Project Prospect’s Adam Foster tweeted a mini-scouting report
Craig Heyer: 3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 4-2 GB/FB – same deal as ManBan, 25 strikes in 40 pitches … creepy