Open Thread: Building a team with up the middle players

The late 90s Yankees were blessed with incredible talent in up-the-middle positions. Those teams are a testament to the strategy of developing pitching and up the middle players, and using trades and free agency to fill in the other positions. It’s just not easy to find players like Jorge, Jeter, and Bernie on the free agent market, or even in a trade from another team.

Part of the reason the Yankees succeeded in 2009 was that they had excellent talent up the middle. Jorge Posada is one of the best hitting catchers in the league. Jeter is near the top, if not at the top, for shortstops. Cano is one of the better hitting second basemen, and Melky Cabrera hits league average, which is above average for center fielders. The Yanks appear ready to reload, too, as their two top prospects are a catcher and a center fielder.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, friend of RAB Tommy Bennett looks at the up the middle free agents. As expected, the class isn’t all that inspiring. Thankfully, the Yankees have a superior player at every position except maybe center field (Mike Cameron), but even in that case they have a young player who has shown promise. He’s easily an acceptable alternative to Cameron.

Unfortunately, the article is subscriber-only. This is Tommy’s takeaway line, with which I fully agree. “The lesson to be drawn is that if you’re looking to add more than one of these players on the open market, you might want to take seriously the possibility that you’re not going to be competitive this year.” This is true in most years, and 2009 is no exception.

That said, this is your open thread for the evening. Treat it well.

For Halladay, cost would include Phil or Joba

As Roy Halladay continues to hover above this off-season as Johan Santana did two years ago, the Blue Jays’ demands for him are coming into view. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Alex Anthopoulous, the new Toronto GM, will have to make a splash if he ships out Halladay. He’ll need a good, young, sure bet to take Halladay’s place and set Toronto on the path to AL East competitiveness.

With that in mind, it is clear that any trade talks with the Yanks would involve the names Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes being bandied about. After all, these are two kids who can get out AL East hitters while pitching in pressure-packed stadiums in New York and Boston. What GM wouldn’t try to demand one of the two from Brian Cashman?

Yesterday, in his regular Sunday round-up in the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo confirmed that the Jays would readily give up Halladay for Phil or Joba. He wrote:

The Yankees could easily get into the Roy Halladay hunt if they’re willing to part with Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain, which they apparently are. The one player they’d love to hold on to is Austin Jackson, their future center fielder who could keep their outfield costs low.

This is a tantalizing tidbit from Cafardo for so many reasons, and as we like to talk about rumors, talk about it we shall. First, Cafardo casually mentions that the Yankees are “apparently” willing to part with Hughes or Joba. This unsourced development is a drastic turnaround from recent years when the Yankees have not wanted to let any of their young pitchers out of their grasp, and I’m not so sure I believe it here.

As with Santana, Roy Halladay comes with one year guaranteed and the option to negotiate for more. He will be 33 on Opening Day, a good four years older than Santana was on Opening Day 2008 when he made his Mets debut, and while Halladay may be more durable and better equipped to deal with the rigors of age than Santana, the Yanks would be acquiring one year of an old pitcher for a few years of Joba or Phil. If it didn’t make sense a few years ago before we had a better sense of what Joba or Phil could do, it doesn’t make too much sense now.

Next, Cafardo’s belief that Austin Jackson is “the one player” the Yanks would love to hold on to seemingly flies in the face of conventional wisdom. While Cafardo mentions Jesus Montero in another paragraph about the Yanks’ catching prospects, I find it hard to believe that Montero would be made available over Austin Jackson. Montero has a better bat and plays one of the key up-the-middle positions. Jackson profiles as a future center fielder, but Montero ranks higher up on my the Yanks’ prospects list. I’d be far more open to moving A-Jax than I would Montero (or Hughes and Joba, for that matter).

Cafardo’s piece allows us to confirm the high price for Halladay, but anyone following the Blue Jays would know it already. I don’t believe the Yanks intend to trade Phil or Joba for Halladay, and I don’t think the team should.

On World Series winners and roster turnover

Throughout the late 1990s, the Yankees won three World Series in a row and came within two outs of a fourth with much of the same cast of characters. In fact, 14 players on the 2001 team were also on the 1998 team, and other than the DH spot, the regular 1998 starting lineup took the field during 2001.

This stability makes the Yankees unique among World Series winners. Most, according to a Jonah Keri article in The Times this weekend, turn over 28 percent of their roster — or approximately seven players — after winning. These moves make teams better, younger and more able to maintain a competitive edge, and the current iteration of the Yankees would do well to heed Keri’s warnings.

First, some numbers. Keri used the introduction of the Wild Card as a baseline, and he found that six of the 13 World Series winners, not counting the 2009 Yankees or the extreme outlier 1997-1998 Marlins, turned over less than a quarter of their rosters and combined to lose 47 games — or nearly eight per team — more than they had in their World Series years. Those teams that turned over more than 25 percent lost just three combined games more the following year. Clearly, a savvy general manager along with some roster machinations can lead to repeated success.

For the Yankees, Keri’s lessons are particularly apt:

The Yankees face another regression-related situation. They had an old roster in 2009. Two of the top three starters, five of the nine starting batters as well as the Hall of Fame closer were 33 or older.

It is possible that 35-year-old Hideki Matsui’s knee problems are behind him and that 28-homer seasons will remain the norm. It is conceivable that Johnny Damon’s tying a career high for homers at 35 (he turned 36 on Nov. 5) means we should expect a big power threat for the next half-decade. It is imaginable that Andy Pettitte, a 15-year veteran who has flirted with retirement in recent years and has nearly 3,000 regular-season innings under his belt, will keep winning games well into his late 30s and beyond.

But it is not likely. Few players are more likely to see a regression in their numbers than those getting well into their 30s who have suddenly had a big bounce-back season. The Yankees caught lightning in a bottle with Matsui, Damon and Pettitte, who are free agents, as well as incumbent 30-somethings like Jorge Posada. Even (gasp) Mariano Rivera cannot fight Father Time forever.

The Yankees, warn Keri, shouldn’t grow complacent, and by extension, neither should the fans. It would, in fact, be foolish for the Yankees and their fans to claim this team can repeat what it did last year without questioning some holes. To that end, the Yanks should look to free agency to boost the team. A few younger bats are out there, and some hurlers who could replace Andy Pettitte loom as well.

But there is a part to Keri’s thesis that he didn’t explore in his column. I e-mailed Jonah today to ask him about the so-called sentimental players who have won over fans by winning a World Series: What if the ‘sentimental guys are 1) on short term deals and 2) are better than other options on the market?

Jonah’s answer was not surprising. “You definitely want to go with incumbents if nothing better is out there,” he wrote. “Of course, something better clearly is out there, between Holliday and Bay, plus maybe some trade candidates. So yes, it could very well be a question of deciding whether, say, Damon at 2/28 is better than Holliday at 7/120. There’s no easy answer to that one – you’d probably just go for the better (and younger) player, since the Yankees can obviously afford it.”

The Yanks can afford Holliday today, but do they want to be paying him in four or five years? That’s the real rub, and the answer is “probably not.”

Oftentimes, good teams are, in part, the product of career years and a good deal of luck. With their walk-off wins and overall season numbers, the Yanks certainly exhibited a combination of the two in 2009. To avoid a fall, expect some roster turnover. If the incumbents can be had for cheap and the big fish sign elsewhere for too much money, as Keri said to me, the Yanks would be golden, and that right now is in the hands of the Front Office.

Teixeira, Jeter finish second and third in MVP voting

Joe Mauer grabbed 27 of 28 first place votes, and took home AL MVP honors today by a rather wide margin. Mark Teixeira came in a distant second, while Derek Jeter trailed him for third place. Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers finished fourth, and got the only other first place vote. I’m calling Detroit bias.

Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano, and CC Sabathia also received top 10 votes. Mauer was the deserving winner, no doubt about it. (You can view the full voting results right here.)

Going after the big Fish

Josh JohnsonLate last week we got word that contract extension talks between the Marlins and righthander Josh Johnson had reached a stalemate, and there doesn’t appear to be any way around it. “We made it clear that it was going to be this year or it wasn’t going to happen,” said Matt Sosnick, Johnson’s agent. “It was now or never. And the Marlins agreed.”

Johnson’s camp was looking for Zack Greinke money (four years, $38M), but the Marlins reportedly offered just three years and $21M, which is Nate Robertson money. Instead, the two sides are now preparing their arbitration cases, which should result in Johnson making somewhere around $5M in 2010. A team friendly salary for sure, but the Marlins are looking at a $36M payroll for next season with $32M already committed before arbitration raises to Johnson and nine others. The Fish will surely trade off some expensive players this offseason, it’s what they do.

Considering where he is in his career, Johnson’s trade value is as high as it can be. He had a tremendous season in 2009 (5.5 WAR) and still has two years of team control left. As we’ve seen in the past, guys with just one year of control left don’t bring as big of a return. The price will surely be steep, but if you’re going to unload some of your best young players, Johnson is the kind of guy you do it for.

There’s always concern whenever you import a pitcher from the National League and stick him in the AL East, however Johnson isn’t like most pitchers. He has true front-of-the-rotation power stuff that enables him to do the two best things a pitcher can do: strike guys out and generate ground balls. Here’s the list of pitchers who struck out at least eight batters per nine innings, walked no more than two-and-a-half batters per nine innings, and got at least three groundballs for every two flyballs in 2009:

  1. Josh Johnson

That’s it. Not Felix, not Lincecum, not even Greinke. No one else. Just JJ. His fastball is a legit mid-90’s heater, and he backs it up with a sharp mid-80’s slider and split-change that he probably doesn’t use often enough. He’s got a huge powerful frame (listed at 6′-7″, 250 lbs on the Marlins’ site) that screams durability and innings eater. The Yankees got a first hand look at him on June 20th of this year, when he allowed just three hits and one run over seven innings against our beloved Bombers. Here’s the video highlights from that game.

Joe Girardi is familiar with Johnson, having managed him in Florida during his rookie campaign in 2006. Of course, there’s the incident in when Girardi sent Johnson back out to mound after an 82-minute rain delay, which was followed by Johnson experiencing some forearm tightness, and soon enough Tommy John surgery. That’s the only injury of Johnson’s career, so it’s not much of a red flag considering how well he’s recovered. In fact, his innings buildup had been textbook up to that point.

Year Age Level Innings IP Increase
2002 18 Rookie 15 -
2003 19 Low-A 82.1 +67.1
2004 20 High-A 114.1 +32
2005 21 Double-A/MLB 152 +37.2
2006 22 MLB 157 +5

Johnson was drafted in 2002, hence the partial minor league season. He probably threw another 40 IP in high school that year, so don’t sweat the big jump. The rain delay game was on September 12th, 2006, what ended up being his last outing of the season. If he finishes off the month healthy, he’s probably at 180 IP with a +28 IP increase on the season.

Looking around at some other instances in which a pitcher of Johnson’s age, caliber, and cost were traded, the return seems to be pretty consistent: two top young players with two or fewer years of service time, plus some lesser prospects. Think Javy Vazquez (the first trade), Dan Haren (the second trade), and Josh Beckett. All three fetched two young stud players plus some lesser prospects. Let’s use that as a blueprint.

As I see it, the Yanks have three players that qualify as true studs: Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Jesus Montero. Austin Jackson is a notch below those guys. As for Joba and Hughes, I think you have to draw a line and make it one or the other, not both. That means Montero has to be included in the deal. Fine. That’s life, you have to give something to get something. The Marlins have been looking for a catcher of the future for years, and Montero would fit that bill. Plus they could always flip him elsewhere. Whatever they end up doing with him, I don’t really care.

Getting back to Joba and Hughes; both have four years of team control left, but Joba has proven more in the big leagues up to this point, primarily by staying healthy as a starter over a full season. I consider both guys to be interchangable, and I don’t really have a preference who stays and who goes. I know it’ll hurt, but think about it, if those guys reach their ceiling, what will they be? Well, pretty much what Josh Johnson is right now. I don’t see how you’d have a problem giving up a young guy that might turn into that kind of a pitcher for a young guy that already is that kind of pitcher. I guess you can let Florida pick between them, then begrudgingly agree to make it sound like they got the guy you want to keep. Whatever, I’m not exactly an expert at negotiating.

As for the rest of the package, I’d make pretty much everyone else in the farm system fair game, plus the younger guys in the big leagues: Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Ramiro Pena, Frankie Cervelli, David Robertson, and Phil Coke. Florida wouldn’t have any interest in Robbie Cano because a) he’s getting expensive (owed $19M over the next two years), and b) they already have a second baseman in Dan Uggla. Even if Uggla’s traded, Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan would take over at second, his natural position.

Obviously some guys are more valuable than others based on where they are in their careers. K-Rob™ is more valuable than Mark Melancon, Ramiro Pena is more valuable than either Eduardo Nunez or Reegie Corona, etc. You’d prefer to keep the guys already in the big leagues, even if means giving up that one extra second or third tier prospect. Let’s assume that Zach McAllister – who is basically the Yanks’ best starting pitching prospect in the minors – is part of the deal, as is Eduardo Nunez. The names really aren’t important, I’m more concerned about prospect status. Any combination of a Grade-B and a Grade-C prospect will work. If you want to call it Arodys Vizcaino and Abe Almonte, that’s fine with me, I don’t care.

So, is a Johnson for Joba, Montero, McAllister, and Nunez fair? Thanks to the wonderful world of spreadsheets and sabermetrics, we can find out. Using the trade value calculator created by Sky Kalkman of Beyond the Box Score and my WAR/salary assumptions, we can determine that Johnson has a trade value of $52.6M, while Joba is worth $31.8M in a trade. Victor Wang’s research says that top 10 hitting prospects (Montero) are worth $36.5M, Grade-B pitchers (McAllister) $7.3M, and Grade-C hitters age 22 or younger (Nunez) $0.7M. That makes the total value of the Yanks ‘package $76.5M.

So yeah, maybe that package would be overpaying. Perhaps Florida should kick in a prospect, or maybe even one of their nine other arbitration eligible players since they’re looking to unload some of those guys. I’m not going to get hung up on a difference of 45.4% when there are so many assumptions in play. On the surface, that four player package is at least on par with what the Red Sox gave up to get Josh Beckett, if not greater. However, the Yanks aren’t absorbing $18M worth of Mike Lowell, and Josh Johnson now is better than Beckett was then (Beckett’s WAR the year before the trade was 4.0). Beckett just had the added hype of being the second overall pick and a highly touted prospect and World Series MVP. I feel comfortable saying that package is at least in the the ballpark.

It’s not often you get a chance to acquire a pitcher of Johnson’s caliber. A young, power arm with his best years still ahead of him. This isn’t 32-year-old Roy Halladay, or Johan Santana coming off a sketchy second half. Johnson’s a bonafide franchise cornerstone type of pitcher that will be paid below market value for the next two years, possibly longer if he’s down with re-opening discussions about a contract extension after a trade. He’s not Felix Hernandez, but he’s not far off. The Yankees would do well to bring him to the Bronx.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

The return of the RAB Radio Show

That’s right. It’s back. Joe and I will sit down and record the sucker later today, but we need you guys to send in some questions for us to answer. Email them in either of us using the email addresses in the far right sidebar, and we’ll get to them on the show.

Oh happy days.

What Went Right: Andy Pettitte

As we wrap up our What Went Right/What Went Wrong series, we look at one of the Yankees off-season decisions.

For the first year and a half of his return to the Bronx, Andy Pettitte was everything the Yankees could have expected. He wasn’t quite the pitcher that left after the 2003 season, but no one thought he would be. Instead, he was a reliable No. 3 starter, stepping up his game when the team needed him — notably in April 2007, when, in the first month of his return, he pitched twice in relief. Bringing back Pettitte for the 2008 season was a no-brainer, but the story was a bit different for the 2009 season.

It all started on July 31, 2008. After a tough start against Toronto earlier in the month, Pettitte came back with stellar performances against the A’s and the Red Sox, allowing just two earned runs while striking out 16 in 14 innings. He took the mound against the Angels that day with the Yankees just one game back of the Red Sox for the Wild Card. They’d just acquired Xavier Nady to help an unimposing offense, and Damaso Marte to shore up the bullpen. Things were looking bright for the Yankees, despite a prolonged early season slump.

Pettitte didn’t look good from the start, allowing four base runners in the first two innings. The game got out of hand in the third, when a pair of three-run home runs gave the Angels a big lead. Pettitte surrendered another run before Joe Girardi removed him with one out in the sixth, with the Yankees down 7-2. Chris Britton then allowed another three-run shot, and the game was all but over. The Yanks dropped to a game and a half back of the Wild Card, and never got that close again.

While the Yankees offense underperformed in 2008, they also suffered injuries to three of their top pitchers. Chien-Ming Wang injured his foot in June, Joba Chamberlain hurt his shoulder in August, and Andy Pettitte pitched with a bum shoulder for the second half of the season. From the Angels game on, that was evident, as he allowed 47 runs (45 earned) through 65 innings over 11 starts. Opponents racked up 87 hits over that period, good for a .323 BAA. The season ended with the Yankees missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons, leaving a bitter taste in everyone’s mouthes.

Pettitte, a consummate competitor, didn’t want to walk away that way. He made it known after the season that he wanted to come back for another season in pinstripes. The Yankees, however, weren’t so sure. They had big plans to overhaul the pitching staff in the off-season, and Pettitte didn’t necessarily factor into the strategy. Had he finished strong in 2008 he almost certainly would have, but his shoulder injury had the Yankees brass wondering if he’d be effective in 2009. After a few months of speculation, the Yankees and Pettitte finally agreed on an incentive laden deal, a $5.5 million base with incentives for innings pitched.

The deal worked out for all parties. Pettitte pitched 194.2 innings in 2009, missing just one start the whole way. His ERA, 4.16, was as good as the Yanks could have hoped. His WHIP was the lowest since his amazing 2005 campaign with the Astros. While he won only 14 games, that had more to do with the Yankees’ late inning surges than it did with Pettitte’s pitching. He did the job the Yankees had envisioned for him: keep the game close and let the Yankees offense take care of the rest.

The 2009 season changed when the Yankees rallied to open the second half. They went 10-2 after the break in July, and then went 21-7 in August, putting themselves comfortably ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East. Pettitte was a big part of that run. He pitched 59.2 innings from July 20, his first post-break start, through August 31, starting nine games in which the Yankees went 7-2. He allowed just 17 earned runs in that span, striking out 62 to 15 walks. His triple slash against was an ace-like .210/.260/.554. Plenty of players surged through that period, and Pettitte was a big part of it.

Heading into the season, Pettitte was the nominal fifth starter. CC Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, and A.J. Burnett were the veterans atop the rotation, and after Joba Chamberlain’s impressive run as a starter in 2008, he was penciled into the fourth spot. Andy Pettitte as a fifth starter is a luxury few teams can afford, and the Yankees are lucky to be one of those teams. When Chien-Ming Wang proved ineffective and eventually injured, and when Joba didn’t quite have the season the Yankees envisioned, Pettitte was there to step into the No. 3 starter role. Not many presumptive No. 5 starters can answer that call.

Not only did Pettitte answer the call, but he achieved an unprecedented feat. On September 27, Pettitte got the win in the AL East clinching game against the Red Sox. He then went on to clinch the ALDS against the Twins, the ALCS against the Angels, and the World Series against the Phillies. No one pitcher has ever closed out the division and all three rounds of the playoffs in the same season.

The Yankees and Pettitte now face a decision for the 2010 season. Pettitte has to decide whether he wants to pitch again, and the Yankees have to decide if they want him back. I don’t see any reason why the Yankees wouldn’t want him. The only starters penciled into the 2010 rotation are Sabathia and Burnett, and while we assume that both Chamberlain and Hughes can step into the rotation, the Yankees could still use another reliable arm. Any way the Yankees decide to fill out their 2010 rotation, Pettitte should be in the plans if he wants to pitch. As he showed last year, he can contribute to the club in big ways.