Valuing Chien-Ming Wang and Sergio Mitre

The Yankees have the resources to take on a greater amount of risk than most teams. A misplaced $5 million might seriously hamper a smaller market team, but the Yankees — and the Red Sox, as evidenced by Brad Penny and John Smoltz — can take on a reclamation project and hope for the best. They did this in 2003, signing Jon Lieber after he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2002. They rehabbed him on their dime, and it paid off when he came back strong in 2004. So when it comes to Chien-Ming Wang‘s contract situation, there are no givens. The Yankees can afford to do what they think will most benefit the team.

As Mike wrote this morning, Wang is no stranger to shoulder injuries. “The bottom line is that for the third time in eight years, the righthander missed a significant portion of the season with a shoulder issue.” This has to make the team wary. Wang will be arbitration eligible for the third time this winter, having made $4.5 million in 2009. If the Yankees tender him a contract, he’ll make at least that, and because of his service time he could get a bump to $5 million. Let’s go with that latter number, just to make things easy.

The question facing the Yankees is whether that $5 million is worth it to keep Wang around. It’s not just his salary for the 2010 season, when he’ll pitch half a season at the most, but also the price for keeping him under team control for his final arbitration-eligible season in 2011. There are alternatives; the Yankees could decline to tender Wang a contract and then sign him at a lower price. They would then be able to offer him arbitration after the 2010 season for the final time. For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that if the Yankees non-tender Wang, he’ll take his services elsewhere. Tendering him means paying $5 million for 2010.

This is the Yankees, so $5 million might not seem like a lot. There’s risk involved, yes, and chances are that the Yankees would have to pay more than $5 million for one of the other risky starters out there. Those would include Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, and Rich Harden, and they would presumably be able to pitch the whole season, whereas Wang won’t be ready until July. Still, all three of those pitchers present a large risk. Wang will be cheaper, and the Yankees know him better than the other three. It seems that if they’re going the risky starter route, Wang’s their man.

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering regarding Wang’s status. Commenter Taz got it brewing in my mind when he asked, “Does anyone else think it’s ridiculous for the Yankees to exercise $1.25 mil on Mitre of the 6.59 ERA when pretty much any scrub from the minors would offer the same ability?” He says he’d rather put that money towards keeping Wang and replace Mitre with said scrub. Mitre’s $1.25 million is just a quarter of Wang’s projected salary, but every little bit helps, right?

First, to the issue of Mitre being a scrub. No one could be impressed with what they saw from Mitre during his tenure in pinstripes. He had one stellar start against the White Sox, but other than that he was shaky at best and downright terrible at worst. His defense failed him at times, but he could never pick up for them. It seemed like he was always making a bad situation worse. That infuriates fans, so it’s no wonder why Mitre has few supporters. Still, there is hope that he can provide value for the Yankees in 2010.

Mitre underwent Tommy John surgery in July of 2008. A year and six days after the surgery, he made his return. That’s a short span for a Tommy John patient. The normal recovery time is 12 to 18 months, and there are many stories of players who didn’t come back quite as strong at first, but who later recovered. Yet even if he does recover, I’ve heard the argument go, Mitre is just a scrub anyway. That I do not believe is totally accurate. In 2007, Mitre’s last season before the surgery, he had a 3.98 FIP, 4.34 tRA, and posted a 2.6 WAR. That’s pretty damn quality for a guy slotted to be the fifth starter at absolute best.

Like Mitre, no one was impressed with Wang this season. He started off pitching about as poorly as one could imagine, then hit the DL, then came back and was mediocre at best before succumbing to a shoulder injury. This led to a 5.38 FIP and a 6.01 tRA. Those numbers are both slightly worse than what Mitre posted in 2009. Both clearly had bad years, but because of what we’ve seen in the past, there’s a chance they’ll recover.

We know that Wang is a better pitcher than Mitre when they’re both right. We also know that Mitre can pitch the entire 2010 season, while Wang will pitch half at most. So, to begin answering Taz’s question, you might not want to cut loose Mitre and save his $1.25 million, because that investment can work for you all year, while the $5 million allotted to Wang will work only in the second half, if even that. But let’s take this a little further, into the completely theoretical.

Past performance does not guarantee future gains, but sometimes all we have to go on is past performance. For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that both Mitre and Wang return to their 2007 forms in 2010. Mitre would, under those circumstances, provide a 2.6 WAR for $1.25 million. Wang had a 4.4 WAR in 2007, almost two full wins better than Mitre. But because Wang would only pitch half the season, he’d only provided 2.2 WAR in 2010 under what I’m calling the best case scenario. The Yankees would pay him $5 million for that 2.2 WAR.

Even if both players recover fully to their 2007 forms, Mitre would provide a little more value than Wang. He’s the inferior pitcher, but because he can pitch the entire season he has that added value. Wang would be a greater force in the second half, but again he’d only be doing it for half a season, and he’d make four times as much as Mitre in the process. So there is an argument, albeit a weak one, that the Yankees are better off with Mitre in 2010.

Do I think that Mitre will provide 2.6 WAR in 2010? Not a chance. Not only will he not get the innings, but he also likely won’t return to the 0.54 HR/9 rate that led to his 3.98 FIP (a component of WAR). While WAR does adjust for park, I’m just not sure the adjustment will do Mitre’s transition justice. In 2007 he pitched in a spacious National League park. In 2010 he’ll pitch in a homer-heavy (but otherwise run-neutral) AL East park. He also probably won’t be higher than seventh on the starting pitching depth chart, so I would assume most of his innings will come out of the bullpen. I’d be surprised if he cleared a 1.5 WAR next year.

Do I think that Wang will provide 2.2 WAR in 2010? Probably not. I think he has a better chance of doing that than Mitre does of posting the same number, but that’s asking a lot from a guy who has missed a good portion of the past two seasons, and who is recovering from his third major shoulder injury. If he can provide 1.5 WAR in the second half, I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled. That would not only help the rotation later in the season, but it would also give them hope of a fuller recovery for 2011.

Unless the Yankees are hard-up for 40-man roster spots (and as Mike will show, they’re not), they should exercise Mitre’s 2010 option. It will represent a little over one half of one percent of their overall payroll. The tougher question is of Wang. If tendered he’ll eat up a 40-man slot until they can place him on the 60-day DL in March, and he’ll constitute about 2.5 percent of the overall payroll. Is that worth the risk? I’m still not decided, though I’m leaning towards yes. I fear that non-tendering him means he goes elsewhere, and I do not want to see him make a full recovery with another team. Wang was the anchor of the staff for two seasons when the Yanks lacked an ace. WIth the current staff, he only has to be a No. 3. I think he can fit into the Yankees plans for 2010 and beyond.

RAB Live Chat

Rumor du jour: Yanks interested in Lackey

We’ll have more on this one as the Hot Stove heats up, but early Yankee word out of the GM Meetings yesterday come to us from Jon Heyman. The Sports Illustrated scribe says the Yankees plan to look at John Lackey as their big free agent acquisition. Reports Heyman, “The Yankees aren’t expected to be as aggressive this winter on the free market as last offseason and they haven’t firmed up all their plans as yet, but one league source said of Lackey, ‘He’s definitely on their radar.’ Word is that the Yankees probably will be willing to repeat A.J. Burnett‘s $82.5 million, five-year contract for Lackey.” The Angels’ ace supposedly wants more than Burnett got. For what it’s worth, Tim Dierkes at MLBTR sees Lackey landing with the Yanks.

What Went Wrong: Chien-Ming Wang

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

Chien-Ming Wang goes down for the count

The 2009 Yankees came into the season sporting one of the most exciting rotations in the big leagues, as imports CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett joined forces with the incumbent Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain. After missing the last five months of 2008 with a fluke foot injury, Wang was supposed to be the rock in the two spot between Sabathia and Burnett. It was a pivotal season in the sinkerballer’s career, but instead it turned into a nightmare.

In his first start of the season, the Orioles put ten runners on base and scored seven runs while forcing Wang to throw 73 pitches in just 3.2 IP. Five days later, the Rays hung eight runs on Wang in just one inning of work. Five days after that, the Indians smacked him around for eight runs in 1.1 IP, and before long Wang ended up on the disabled list with what was called “weakness in the hips.”

There were all sorts of red flags about Wang’s early season performance. His velocity was down, his stuff wasn’t crisp, and he was elevating way too many pitches. It was all a recipe for disaster, and frankly that’s what those three starts were.

After working with the organization’s pitching instructors down in Tampa, Wang made a pair of better than good rehab starts (13 IP, 6 H, 0 R) with Triple-A Scranton before being hastily activated. His return from the disabled list was a clear panic move made after Joba was feared injured when he took a liner to the leg and left a start early. Working initially in relief, Wang was uncomfortable and his results were a mixed bag – just two runs in eight innings, but a .300 AVG against. Soon enough, the Yankees inserted Wanger back into the rotation, a rather questionable move.

His first start back in the rotation was ugly (eight baserunners and five runs in 4.2 IP against Texas), but after that he was pretty serviceable for about a month. The high point of Wang’s season came on June 28th, when he finally picked up his first win of the season thanks to 5.1 IP of two run ball in CitiField. In his next start, Wang left the mound with the trainer after serving up a meatball to Adam Lind.

At first, the latest injury didn’t seem serious. Wang was pain-free just two weeks after leaving his start, but not long after that he went down again after feeling pain during a game of catch. Three opinions later, Wang’s season was over in late July when he had season ending surgery to repair a torn labrum.

It may, or may not have all started in the offseason, when the Yankees told Wang to take it easy on his injured foot. It was used as an excuse, but frankly we’ll never know. The bottom line is that for the third time in eight years, the righthander missed a significant portion of the season with a shoulder issue.

And now, just a little more than four months after he last appeared in a game, Wang’s future with the Yankees is in doubt. Just the other day we heard that Wang was heading to see Dr. Andrews for a checkup on his surgically repaired shoulder, and reports indicate that he’s doing “remarkably well.” Regardless, there’s still a chance the Yankees will non-tender him in December, but even if they don’t, there’s no way the team could rely on him for anything next season.

The Yankees managed to win 103 games and their 27th World Series without their number two starter, but that doesn’t mean Wang’s awful season can be brushed under the rug.

Photo Credit: Nick Laham, Getty Images

Could the Yanks keep all three free agents?

When discussing the pending free agencies of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, the refrain all season long was that the Yankees would probably keep one and cut loose the other. On the surface, that seemed to make sense. Both players will be 36 next year, so they don’t fit with the Yankees’ supposed plan to get younger. Yet they’re both productive players, so holding onto one makes sense.

The problem is of replacing production. The Yankees got a lot out of Matsui and Damon, and it’s unlikely that an internal candidate could replace their production. In 2009 Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira replaced Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu. But if the Yankees are leaning away from entering another long-term contract, who will replace Matsui or Damon?

The answer, as Joel Sherman notes this morning, could be themselves. Not only that, but they’re looking for a way to retain all three of their major free agents, which includes Andy Pettitte. Sherman quotes a team executive, who says, “I hope we can figure out a way to have them all back.” According to the exec, the Yankees are more focused on those guys than external free agents.

This makes sense to me. No, retaining all three veterans would not make the Yankees younger, but getting younger for the sake of getting younger is not a productive strategy. The Yankees need offensive output and solid pitching, and their own guys can provide that. Why go out on the market when the solution stands right before you?

The key to bringing back all three is getting them on one-year deals. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for Pettitte, who will likely only want a one-year deal anyway, and Matsui, who enters a free agent market flooded with DH types. It’s unlikely another team would give Matsui multiple years, so his return to New York could come at one year and a reduction to his $13 million 2009 salary. For Pettitte, it could be a one-year deal at perhaps double his $5.5 million 2009 base salary. If the Yankees bring him back, I doubt it will be a heavily incentivized deal.

Damon is a bit tougher a case. His defense declined markedly in 2009, and at his age it’s tough to call that a blip. He could certainly recover in 2010 — he was, after all, one of the top devensive left fielders in 2008 — but that’s not a given. Still, his bat is still valuable, especially in Yankee Stadium, and his postseason run shows that is season-ending slump isn’t too big a worry. Another team might be willing to offer Damon more years and money than the Yankees, though again I’m not sure other teams will be so apt to take the risk on an older player.

The Yankees could find themselves in a good position in these three negotiations. Bringing back Matsui, Damon, an Pettitte on one-year deals, perhaps one plus and option for Damon, seems like the best possible solution this off-season. That brings little risk to the Yankees, since these are short deals. It also reduces payroll because Damon and Matsui would not make the $13 million they did in 2009. The Yankees could then use their remaining resources elsewhere, rather than tying up money in a long-term contract for a player in his 30s, or trading prospects to fill a hole.

Getting younger is nice, but it is not a goal unto itself. The idea behind it is to get more flexible and more durable. The Yankees, however, could bring back these three veterans and still have a strong club for 2010. There aren’t many, if any, better options on the market that don’t come with their own sets of risk. I think it’s a good idea to bring back the guys they know, conserve their resources, and reassess after the 2010 season.

How many championships has Mariano Rivera been worth?

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Glass of This Purist Bleeds Pinstripes. You can read her (slightly longer) versions on her site, in four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. We’re republishing it here because a) it took a lot of work and b) it’s really meant to be read as one article, anyway.

Special acknowledgment: This is far and away the most advanced, in depth thing I’ve ever tried. Without question, the best similarity I can come up with is asking someone who’s taken only high school Economics course to run the IMF, that’s basically what’s happened. As with any such endeavor, most of the actual work was done by others. With thanks to Jonathan Mayo, Will Moller, Joe Pawlikowski, Mike Axisa, Jim Johnson, Jamal Granger, Dave Cameron, Brent Nycz, Joshua Rosenberg, Dan Dilworth and Greg Fertel.

In this article, Rob Neyer dares us to come up with a way to measure how many Championships Mariano has been worth. Guess who enjoys masochism?

So, as you may know, there’s a myriad of stats out there, many of which I can only understand in theory, but there’s one measure that’s been created for the regular season that is very useful. You may have heard of it, as it’s called WAR — wins above replacement player.

NOTE: There are two measures we could use here, WAR and WARP, which try to accomplish the same thing (discussed below), but use two different sets of stats/data to do so. I’m going to stick with WAR because I think it sounds cooler. ANYWAY. So to understand WAR, two concepts are crucial: replacement level and leverage. I understand that many of you reading this will already be familiar with both of these, but since my hope is that those that don’t delve into stats very often can follow, and for the sake of my sanity, hope you won’t begrudge me a refresher.

Replacement Level
The idea behind replacement level is that you take any player in any line up on any given day and replace him with someone whose level of performance is what an average team can expect when trying to replace a player at minimal cost. In English, it’s saying that if, say, Andrew McCutchen went down on the Pirates with the flu, what’s the baseline production that the Pirates could expect from John Doe, who’s the cheapest available player to fill the spot? That production is replacement-level production.

Why not just use a league-average performance as a replacement? The answer is that the MLB statistics are largely skewed — MLB “regulars,” the guys putting up the big enough numbers to stay in lineups every day are a minority — while fringe players, those that struggle to stay in the big leagues, are much more common. Simply put, it’s easier to find a player that hits .250 than one that hits .330, but, like that student you wanted to kill because he got an A on that Spanish test while no one else did above a C, the one that hits .330 destroys the curve.

So, instead, you take into consideration what a GM and manager is likely to go for in the event of a player suddenly going down for a game or two–i.e., your utility infielder. Most teams–and the Yankees, of course, are not most teams–will go for whatever option is least costly–dipping into the pool of fringe Major Leaguers, the pool considered “freely available talent.” Of course, if a player is lost for a season, it’s an entirely different thing, but that gets beyond our scope.

What you end up with is on one end, you have your normal team–say the 2009 Yankees, and on the other, replacement-level team you’ve a line up where Wil Nieves is your best hitter, or Sidney Ponson as your best pitcher. What WAR does, then, is like having Nick Swisher go up to Joe Girardi before game six, and say, “Dude, I gave the Yanks, like x number more wins this season than you would have if Jerry Hairston had been your every day right fielder.”

(Note: via fangraphs, Hairston’s 2009 registered a WAR of 1.0, which indicates he performed above replacement level. Actually, this is helpful to give you an idea of how poorly a team with all replacement-level players would perform over the course of a season. Replacement Level is not the bench guys on the Yankees; it’s the bench guys on the Nationals and the Pirates.)

So before we move on, let’s make sure we understand everything that’s been discussed:

  1. The concept of Replacement Level enables us to compare performances of MLB “regulars” vs low-cost, “freely-available” replacement players.
  2. WAR is designed to measure how many more wins player X will net his team over player Replacement Level (i.e., our Swisher/Hairston faux metaphor).
  3. The values set for what a replacement level-performance entails varies by position — i.e., shortstops aren’t supposed to hit like right fielders, etc. Pitchers, too, have WAR. Over here you can see the rankings for pitchers, by WAR, for the 2009 season. To no one’s surprise, Zack Grienke tops the list. The type of season he had will do that to you.

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Curtis goes deep for Surprise

Make sure you check out Fack Youk’s take on Austin Jackson.

AzFL Surprise (5-2 loss to Peoria Saguaros)
Brandon Laird: 0 for 4, 1 K
Colin Curtis: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K – three homers in 57 at-bats in the AzFL, seven in 464 during the regular season
Zach Kroenke: 1 IP, zeroes, 0-3 GB/FB, 1 E (throwing) – 8 of 10 pitches were strikes … PitchFX had him at 90.88-91.7 mph with the fastball, which he threw eight times