Pitching options starting to come off the board

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The 2010-2011 offseason was always going to about Cliff Lee for the Yankees, and it still is. The two sides are expected to talk at some point over the next few days and then really kick things into gear during the Winter Meetings in Orlando next week. In the meantime, other free agent pitching options have been agreeing to, and finalizing contracts elsewhere, meaning that Plan B’s and C’s and D’s are coming off the board.

Aside from Lee, the case could be made that Jorge De La Rosa was the best free agent pitcher on the market, or that he at least had the potential to be. We know that the Yankees have kicked the tires on the 28-year-old southpaw, though he was never anything more than a backup plan to Lee. Now De La Rosa isn’t even that to New York; he agreed to a big fat three-year contract with the Rockies yesterday. Jon Garland and especially Javy Vazquez were far down on the pitching target list (I’m thinking Plan J and Y, respectively), but they’re no longer options as well. Garland took a one-year pact with the Dodgers, and Javy as you know landed in Florida. Jake Westbrook, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ted Lilly have all re-upped with their old clubs as well.

The trade market offers some alternatives, but giving up players/prospects and then taking on money is less preferable to the Yanks than simply using their greatest asset, their checkbook. Why (hypothetically) give up prospects for Zack Greinke and then have to pay him eight-figures a year when you can just sign Lee? What about Chris Carpenter or Fausto Carmona or Ricky Nolasco? Same deal, the cost is two-fold and he return won’t be as great.

Those six now-signed free agents above didn’t represent much to the Yankees directly (like I said, they were backup plans), but they’re going to feel the impact of their signings regardless. The free agent pitching market is getting thinner by the day, which not only means that the number of viable alternatives to Lee is dwindling, but also that the southpaw’s leverage and the urgency to sign him are on the way up. Obviously Lee was always going to be in his own little negotiating world as an elite player and he would have gotten nine-figures regardless of what else happened on the market, that’s not going to change.

What can change is how aggressive teams become in pursuing him, especially the Rangers. They have the money to throw around and are slowly running out of places to spend it. They could always stick Neftali Feliz back in the rotation, sign a closer, and hope for the best, but that sounds like a last resort based on the latest reports trickling out of Texas. If the Yankees are unable to sign Lee, what’s left for them, Carl Pavano or Kevin Millwood?

This is nothing more than idle musings, of course, but there’s always a chance something like this plays out. The more pitchers that come off the board before Lee signs, the worse it is for the teams that plan to seriously chase him.

Plan B: Eduardo Nunez

Via Buster Olney, the Yankees have identified their Plan B at shortstop in the unlikely event that Derek Jeter signs elsewhere or retires: Eduardo Nunez. They would rather give the 23-year-old the opportunity to win the job in Spring Training than pursue a veteran free agent (Olney mentions out-machine Orlando Cabrera, yuck). The Yanks sure do seem to have a lot of faith in Nunez, who’s drawn 50 unintentional walks with a .102 ISO in 1,034 plate appearances at Double- and Triple-A over the last two seasons. Let’s not forget that he was seemingly unable to throw a ball to first base without making it an adventure in his late season cameo this year.

If they want to go in-house, fine. Just start Ramiro Pena then, at least he’ll be brilliant defensively.

Keep one, trade one: Granderson or Swisher?

Chances are the Yankees won’t make any changes to the outfield this off-season. Their payroll is already over $150 million, counting estimated arbitration raises, and they still have a few positions to fill. Why, then, would they mess with one of their stronger aspects? The Yankees featured the only outfield in which each member boasted a 4+ WAR. While that brings no guarantees for next year, it certainly makes the situation appear a bit stronger than, say, starting pitching. Why mess with what’s worked?

Let’s turn to a hypothetical, though. What if the Rangers somehow outbid the Yankees on Cliff Lee? The Yankees would then turn to the trade market for a starting pitcher. While prospects such as Jesus Montero will certainly top teams’ wish lists, we’ve often seen teams require major league ready talent in a trade. This is especially true for established teams. To use the mystery pitcher as a for-instance, if the Yankees inquired on Chris Carpenter the Cardinals might require an outfielder they can plug right into the lineup. That moves us to the title question:

If you had to trade either Nick Swisher or Curtis Granderson in order to acquire a starting pitcher, whom would you choose?

I like this comparison, because not only are Swisher and Granderson the same age, but they also came into the league in the same year. That means that their comparison charts on FanGraphs line up perfectly. Here’s the wOBA chart:

And the WAR chart:

These charts are another reason to like the comparison. While it appears that Swisher has come into his own as the better hitter, Granderson’s defense has allowed him to stay close to Swisher in terms of WAR. In fact, Granderson’s career WAR is a bit better than Swisher’s, mainly due to Granderson’s 2007 being far better than any year in Swisher’s career. But if you look at their WAR by nth best season, you can see that they’re pretty damn close:

Let’s examine this case step-by-step.

The case for dealing Swisher

(Kathy Willens/AP)

As a hitter, Swisher is the easy sell. He was known as a solid hitter with a good eye and decent power when he was in Oakland. Then he ruined his value by producing poorly in Chicago. With the Yankees he has done nothing but improve. His .375 wOBA in 2009 was the best mark of his career, and he topped that in 2010 with a .377 wOBA. Even more impressively, he accomplished the improvement with a more aggressive approach. If he can get his walk rate back over 10 percent in 2011 while maintaining the contact skill he displayed in 2010, he might be even more valuable.

This makes him valuable to other teams. The perception that he’s a better hitter than Granderson might mean he weighs more heavily in a trade. His defense has been the source of much criticism, but it’s mostly overblown. He makes a few boneheaded plays here and there, but for the most part he’s solid while roaming right field in Yankee Stadium. He is, however, prone to trouble on the road. Still, it’s easier to hide middling defense and focus on quality offense than the reverse.

The case against dealing Swisher

Trading Swisher leaves the Yankees with an outfield of Granderson and Brett Gardner. That’s some excellent defense right there, but it lacks the traditional power bat. Granderson helps compensate in that department, since he hits for more power than most center fielders — he ranked fifth in the majors, and two of the guys ahead of him did not play the majority of their innings in center. Still, it’s tough to imagine how they’ll replace Swisher in right, without any viable in-house options.

That might mean splurging on Jayson Werth. True, the Yanks could go for Carl Crawford and have an outfield defense for the ages. And perhaps the short porch would enhance Crawford’s power. But they’d have to shuffle things, perhaps putting Granderson in right because he has the best arm among them (and that’s not saying a ton). Werth and Crawford will probably require something around 75 to 80 percent of Cliff Lee’s average annual value, so if the Yankees were to acquire a pitcher in the mold of Chris Carpenter — high priced and near free agency — they might not be able to afford one of those two.

The case for dealing Granderson

(Mark Humphrey/AP)

While Swisher has shown improvement in his numbers during the last two years, Granderson has moved in the opposite direction. There’s a chance that the level at which he hit in 2010 is the level at which he’ll hit for the next few years. If that’s the case, the Yankees might want to trade him if they find an interested suitor. The problem, of course, is selling his skills to that mystery team. But if they can do that, they’ll still be set up to recreate the outfield.

With Granderson gone the Yankees can slide Gardner into center field. That opens up an opportunity to find a player for either of the corners, since Swisher could likely handle left field (but, because of middling defensive skills, is probably better in the more confined grounds of right field). Crawford is the obvious solution here, though the same caveat applies as above. If the Yankees trade Granderson and his $8.25 million salary, but take back $17 million, and then try to add $18 million for Crawford — well, they might not fit that under budget. Then again, we’ve seen the Yankees break budget in the past. Perhaps if it means acquiring a front end starter and rebuilding the outfield they’ll take a chance.

The case against dealing Granderson

We saw a much improved Granderson in the final month and a half of the season. After his mid-August tutorial with Kevin Long he hit .261/.356/.564. That’s a small sample and doesn’t tell us anything by itself. But combined with our knowledge that he changed things a bit, we can be a bit more confident that his 2011 will be better than his 2010. And if his 2011 resembles his 2008, the Yankees will have one of the most valuable center fielders in the league.

Remember, too, that the Yankees have a ton of fly ball guys on the staff. A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia can induce grounders, but they’re not near the top of the league. Phil Hughes is an extreme fly ball pitcher. Andy Pettitte is a fly ball pitcher at this point in his career. The Yankees can use some high quality outfield defense. Granderson fits that bill. Why trade him, when his offense could easily rebound and his defense remains well above average? Those skills can be invaluable to the Yankees.

My pick

Just so I’m not leaving the decision to everyone else while leaving myself out of it, I’ll go with my pick. I’d trade Swisher. I think he’s an easier sell at this point, and I think the Yankees can find an adequate replacement. Granderson is the riskier guy to keep, for sure. If he continues hitting along the lines of his 2009 and 2010 season numbers he’s not going to be as valuable as Swisher, defense or not. But I like what I see. Give me the center field defense and the power, with potential for more.

Arbitration Case: Joba Chamberlain

This play will never get old. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

While all the fun comes in trying to figure out who the Yankees will sign as free agents and how much they’ll pay them, we can’t forget that they have quite a few players already in house that need new contracts. Phil Hughes is the team’s most notable player heading into his first season of arbitration eligibility, and we broke down his case yesterday. We can’t forget about his running mate Joba Chamberlain though, he’s headed to arbitration for the first time as well.

Joba’s in a unique spot because he’s bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen. The Yankees have explicitly stated on more than one occasion that he’s a reliever going forward, so that’s the role and demographic we”ll use as a basis for his 2011 salary. He’s not a closer, so we have to compare Joba to some other non-closers when they were headed into their first season of arbitration. Here’s a list of some statistical comparables that I dug up…

A few of these guys are closers now but weren’t before they hit arbitration for the first time. Broxton had just taken over that role for the Dodgers midway through his final pre-arbitration season, so he’s the outlier here, evidenced by his relatively massive raise. Saves equal money, no matter how dumb the stat is. The average first year arbitration salary and percent raise in the table are a weighted average based on innings. Players that threw more innings should have a bigger impact on our end result, and this ensures they do.

I’m extremely pleased with how close the strikeout and walk numbers are, and the differences in saves (which don’t matter much anyway) and ERA+ are not outrageous. Applying that 232.3% raise to Joba’s 2010 salary of $487,975, we get a projected 2011 salary of $1,133,566. That’s reasonable for an above average short reliever his first time through the process, in fact it might even be a tad generous.

Here’s the thing though: we can’t completely forget about all the time Joba logged as a starting pitcher because his agent sure won’t during negotiations. In fact, just 37.3% of Joba’s career innings (131.2) have come as a reliever. The other 221.2 IP have been as a starter. If we use the 684.4% raise applied to Hughes yesterday, then Joba’s staring at a $3,339,701 payout next season. Let’s combined the two projected salaries (starter and reliever) based on the percentage of innings he’s thrown in each role…

(37.3% x $1,133,566) + (62.7% x $3,339,701) = $2,516,813

That seems too high and frankly the ~$1.13M from earlier seems a little too low, so let’s split the difference and call it $1.825M. As you can see, we take great pride in our accuracy.

In all seriousness though, that salary passes the sniff test and seems appropriate for a player of Joba’s caliber and with his level of accomplishment. Of course it’s entirely possible that none of this will matter to the Yankees. Joba’s name figures to pop up in trade rumors this winter, and if they pull the trigger on a deal, then he and his 2011 salary become another team’s responsibility. Either way, the the days of getting cheap production out of Chamberlain are pretty much over.

On the need to hold the line at three years

Derek Jeter takes batting practice prior to Game 6 of the ALCS. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Derek Jeter news these days is flowing fast and furious. As the Yankees, with a line straight of Harry Potter, reportedly want Jeter and his people to “drink the reality potion,” negotiations are at a stand-still. The Yanks’ three-year, $45-million offer remains on the table, and while Jeter is believed to want a deal worth around $23-$24 million annually for four or five years, he has not yet made a formal proposal.

Time waits for no man though. While the Yanks and Jeter have not spoken since before the Thanksgiving holiday, the rest of baseball is moving ahead apace without Jeter, and various contract signings could impact the Captain’s baseball future. First, short stop Juan Uribe signed a three-year, $21-million deal with the Dodgers to play second base. Then, the Rockies and Troy Tulowitzki moved closer on a deal that will extend the Colorado short stop through 2020 and pay him between $115-$120 million over the final six seasons — his ages 30-35 seasons — of his deal.

In a sense, Jeter’s leverage just went up in smoke. One middle infielder not nearly as good as Jeter has been or can be signed for just $7 million a season while a 26-year-old stud will earn around $160 million over the next ten seasons. Besides the fact that he’s Derek Jeter, can Casey Close possibly justify a contract with a higher average annual value than Tulowitzki’s? Should the Yankees reduce their offer to Jeter? It wouldn’t be out of the realm of the ordinary.

Meanwhile, what we do know is that the Yankees are waiting. They’re waiting for Jeter to make a firm offer so they can make a counterproposal. They’re waiting to see what Jeter’s camp expects, and they’re waiting for a clear sense of the years and dollars it will take to re-up with the captain. In discussions amongst the three of us, Joe says he wouldn’t be surprised if the Yanks reached a three-year deal with the Jeter for $60 million and an option for the fourth. In light of the Tulowitzki deal, the dollars might give us pause, but after a certain point, the Yankees don’t care about the money.

Rather, for Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenner brothers, the overarching issue has to be about the years. The 2011 season will be Jeter’s age 37 season, and if he signs for only three years, he’ll have a guaranteed contract that covers his ages 37-39 years. In all of baseball history, only 68 players have averaged 120 games or more, and the successful among them have been power hitting outfielders or first basemen. The list of players who have done so while playing at least 50 percent of their games at short looks a little bit like this:

Rk Player OPS+ G From To Age PA BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Honus Wagner 139 389 1911 1913 37-39 1646 .321 .392 .468 .860
2 Omar Vizquel 91 453 2004 2006 37-39 1961 .286 .352 .376 .727
3 Ozzie Smith 91 371 1992 1994 37-39 1626 .284 .345 .349 .694
4 Rabbit Maranville 77 433 1929 1931 37-39 1898 .275 .339 .350 .689
5 Luis Aparicio 74 367 1971 1973 37-39 1576 .253 .303 .320 .622
6 Larry Bowa 64 366 1983 1985 37-39 1201 .245 .292 .307 .599
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/29/2010.

In other words, Derek Jeter, who is bound for the Hall of the Fame, would have to defy age to be worth a three-year commitment, and that’s without factoring in the dollars. Anything more than three years is bordering on the irresponsibility for a Yankee braintrust trying to win a winning ballclub. Since 1901, only seven times has a player 40 or older made it through at least 100 games with 50 percent of them at short. Only two of those players have taken the field since 1949.

Rk Player OPS+ G Year Age Lg PA BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Honus Wagner 126 156 1915 41 NL 625 .274 .325 .422 .747
2 Luke Appling 125 142 1949 42 AL 619 .301 .439 .394 .833
3 Luke Appling 125 139 1947 40 AL 572 .306 .386 .412 .797
4 Honus Wagner 120 123 1916 42 NL 484 .287 .350 .370 .721
5 Barry Larkin 101 111 2004 40 NL 386 .289 .352 .419 .771
6 Honus Wagner 92 150 1914 40 NL 616 .252 .317 .317 .634
7 Omar Vizquel 61 145 2007 40 NL 575 .246 .305 .316 .621
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/29/2010.

The results are similarly dire for those who play second base, and the Yankees do not have the luxury of moving Derek Jeter off of short. Were Jeter to sign with another team, it’s likely that he wouldn’t be expected to play short, but the Yankees have Alex Rodriguez anchoring third, Mark Teixeira signed at first for another six years and Robinson Cano ensconced at second. The outfield is full, and Jeter’s offense doesn’t profile as a DH — or as a left fielder for that matter. For the Yankees, he’s a short stop teetering on the edge of old age for a baseball player.

The Yankees know this. That’s why they’ve been in no rush to offer another year or add more to the pot of dollars. For Derek, that reality potion has a bitter taste, but if and when he drinks it, he just might find no better deal out there than the one the Yanks are offering today.

Gil McDougald, ten-year Yankee vet, passes away

Gil McDougald, the 1951 Rookie of the Year, passed last night at his home in New Jersey at the age of 82. According to his family, the ten-year Yankee vet died from complications from prostate cancer. McDougald, a versatile infielder who played third, second and short during his decade with the Yanks, was a five-time All Star with a career line of .276/.356/.410. He won five World Series with the Yankees and retired at the age of 32 only when it became apparent that he would be selected in the 1961 expansion draft. The Times has an obituary, and William over The Yankee U has an excellent look back at McDougald. Our thoughts go out to the McDougald family.

Vechionacci heads to Japan

Channeling his inner Jon Albaladejo, former Yankee farmhand Marcos Vechionacci has signed on with the Hanshin Tigers as an ikusei player according to NPB Tracker. An ikusei player is basically the Japanese equivalent of a minor league contract; you can learn all about it here.

Vech was once one of the Yankees’ most promising prospects (and also a personal fave), a switch-hitting shortstop/third baseman that put up a .373 wOBA across three levels as a 17-year-old. The Yanks rushed him up the ladder at a time when they needed trade chips, and it killed his development. Vechionacci enjoyed the best season of his career in 2010, wOBA’ing .350 as a 23-year-old corner infielder with Double-A Trenton, though he became a minor league free agent after the season. Good luck to him.