Mailbag: Albert Pujols

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Dave asks: Now that Pujols has given the Cards an ultimatum regarding his contract, can we start imagining him with NYY? Who’s a better 1B – he or Teix? Didn’t he used to play other positions? Couldn’t he handle one of the outfield corners, or perhaps share 3B/DH with A-Rod (keeping both fresher)?

We’ve already gotten a swarm of emails about the possibility of Albert Pujols joining the Yankees in the next year or so, and those emails don’t figure to stop anytime soon. This post is going to serve as our default answer to that question barring any significant changes to the situation, so I suggest bookmarking it.

The idea of Pujols in pinstripes is drool-worthy. He’s the best player in the game and the most devastating hitter on the planet, and he’ll hit the free agent market at essentially age 32 (his birthday was a week or two ago, so at the start of the 2012 season he’ll be 32). He should still have a few seasons of super-elite production ahead of him, and even once he starts to slip, Pujols will still be one of the game’s best. But we’ve seen this movie before.

Three seasons ago a 32-year-old Alex Rodriguez hit the free agent market after opting out of his contract. He was coming off an MVP-winning 2007 season, when he hit 54 homers with a .449 wOBA in 158 games. He owned a .416 wOBA and two MVP awards in his first four years as a Yankee, playing in no fewer than 154 games in each season. That production and his relatively young age led to the mammoth ten-year, $275M contract.

That contract is now the mother of all albatrosses. A-Rod hasn’t played in more than 138 games in any of the three seasons since signing it, and his production, while still fantastic, has slipped down to a .393 wOBA since then, including .363 in 2010. He needed hip surgery barely 18 months after signing the contract, an issue severe enough that it will need to be monitored for at least the next few seasons, if not the rest of his career. With seven-years and no less than $184M left on the contract, the Yankees need to hope that their third baseman avoids injury and remains productive to at least break even on the deal. Getting surplus value is pretty much out of the question now.

This is nothing against Alex, he’s a great player, it just goes to show the risk associated with giving gigantic contracts to 30-somethings. He had played in 154+ games every year from 2001 through 2006, but he’s visited this disabled list in each of the three seasons since, and that doesn’t include all the added rest needed for his hip. It just goes to show that no matter how durable a guy is, things can change quickly once they start to get up there in age.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Pujols is no different, and in fact he’s been battling an elbow issue for the last few years. He finally had surgery to correct it during the 2009-2010 offseason, but it still gave him trouble this past September. He might not get an A-Rod deal, but at the very least he’ll get Mark Teixeira‘s contract, and probably more since he’s just straight up better than Tex. Giving out another humongous contract to a guy in his 30’s is pretty much the last thing the Yanks need right now, especially if he’s not a pitcher.

And that’s the other thing too, what happens with Tex if you sign Pujols? You can’t trade him because a) he’s got a full no-trade clause, b) no other team is taking on that contract, and c) eating like, half the money left on it just for the sake of moving him is a terrible idea and a massive waste of resources. I guess you could use one guy at first and DH the other, but you’re then wasting one guy’s defensive skills, which the team is paying for and are excellent. You can’t move Tex back to third (moving A-Rod to DH) because he hasn’t played the position since 2003 and has a grand total of 99.2 big league innings there. Pujols has the elbow problems and has been a full-time first baseman since 2004, so moving him isn’t much of an option either.

I’d love love love to see Pujols in the middle of the Yankee lineup, with Robbie Cano batting ahead of him and A-Rod and Tex behind him, but it’s the definition of overkill. You’re going to compromise roster flexibility well into the future, tying up about $90M annually in THREE players (all corner infielders in their 30’s, too), and all for what amounts to a DH upgrade. I fully expect the Cardinals to re-sign Pujols at some point this calendar year, but even so I can’t imagine the Yankees getting involved. I’m certain his agent will bring them up just to drive up the price, but there’s just no fit. The Yankees can afford it, but that’s doesn’t mean it’s the wisest idea.

RAB Live Chat

Mailbag: Scott Baker

Shave that goatee, son. (Rex Arbogast/AP)

Reggie C. writes: What about the possibility of acquiring Scott Baker from the Twins? He’s a potential buy-low candidate. Baker probably isn’t as good as his ’09 stats, but he can’t be as bad as ’10? If Pettitte retires, is Baker an option?

To this point in the off-season I’ve thought about a lot of potential fills for the back end of the Yankees rotation, but until Reggie’s email I hadn’t considered Scott Baker. Let’s take a look at his case.

In 2008 Baker was the Twins’ best pitcher, but since then he’s declined a bit. He went from a 3.45 ERA and 3.79 FIP to 4.37 and 4.08, and then 4.49 and 3.96 in 2010. Last year was a particularly rough one. After getting lit up for six runs in 4.2 innings against Cleveland — against Cleveland in mid-July his ERA stood at 5.15. After a rough first half, that was not the start he needed to the second half. Then, after he recovered and posted a 3.28 ERA over his next eight starts, he sat out almost three weeks with right elbow soreness. He returned to pitch well in his final two starts, but was relegated to the bullpen in the ALDS.

Baker’s problem during the past two seasons has been home runs. During his 2007 and 2008 campaigns his homer rate hovered around one per nine, which, while not great, is acceptable — especially for a fly ball pitcher such as Baker. In the last two years that has been up around 1.2 per nine. That becomes a bit more troubling when we factor in Baker’s home park last season. Even with the comfy confines of Target Field he still gave up more than his share of homers. Even worse, lefties hit more fly balls off him than righties, which bodes poorly for his chances at Yankee Stadium.

Still, just because Baker hasn’t been lights out in the past two seasons doesn’t mean he hasn’t been serviceable. He pitched 200 innings in 2009 and 170.1 in 2010, and in both seasons his ERA outpaced his FIP. This isn’t to say he’s due for a regression, but when we examine other factors it appears more likely. For instance, the Twins had a 69.3 percent defensive efficiency last season, 16th in the majors and 9th in the AL, while the Yankees converted 71.1 percent of balls in play into outs, second in the majors and the AL. Looking just at the outfield, Minnesota had a -3.1 UZR while the Yankees had 7.6. In other words, had Baker pitched for the Yankees in 2010 I suspect his BABIP would have been a tick lower than .329.

My favorite aspect of Scott Baker’s game is his low walk rate. Over the last three seasons Baker’s walk rate is just 2.21 per nine, which puts him behind just 14 other pitchers (three of whom are currently his teammates). The low walk rate certainly helps mitigate the home run issue, since it means fewer runners on base. Baker’s WHIP did jump this year, but that was probably due to the BABIP spike. Again, I suspect that the Yankees’ superb outfield defense would have made some degree of difference there.

Would the Twins be willing to deal Baker? They do have Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing, and Kevin Slowey for the rotation, with a few other options, including Nick Blackburn, able to fill the fifth spot. Baker is signed to a relatively team friendly contract; he’ll earn $5 million this season and $6.5 million in 2010, followed by a $9.25 million team option in 2013. There have been indications that the Twins would be willing to trade Kevin Slowey if they re-signed Pavano (and we’ll examine Slowey’s case next week), so I wonder if they’d dish Baker for a package of prospects. After all, the team payroll is over $100 million for the first time ever, and they might want to shave a few dollars here and there.

I’m not sure what I would give up for Baker, but I do think he’s a fit for the Yankees’ rotation. The fly ball tendencies are a bit scary. He might let a few more baseballs leave the park at Yankee Stadium, but he does have a low walk rate and a good outfield defense to help mitigate those concerns. Unfortunately, considering Baker’s track record and his contract, I fear that the asking price will be one of the Bs. The Yanks will need those guys if they want to avoid having rotation issues like this in the future.

Mailbag: Aceves & Blanton

We’ve got two quick questions this week, one about the status of Al Aceves and another about the price to acquire Joe Blanton. Make sure you use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions throughout the week.

Will the Mexican Gangster ride again?

Tucker asks: What’s the deal with Alfredo Aceves? Is there competition for him? It seems like the Yanks could bang out a deal with him pretty quickly.

It’s been a very quiet winter for Ace, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. He broke his collarbone riding his bike and needed surgery in December, and the Yankees non-tendered him not long after that. The Rockies showed some interest in signing him, but that died off pretty quickly. That’s it, we haven’t heard a thing about any teams being interested in him since, other than the Yankees wanting to bring him back on a minor league contract.

The collarbone injury will keep Aceves out until well into March, so he’s going to be behind other pitchers in Spring Training and might not be ready in time to start the season. He’d make a ton of sense for the Yanks right now because they could easily stick him in the rotation, where he’d probably outproduce both Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova. The back is the real question mark though, he missed basically the entire 2010 season because of it and had multiple setbacks. I’d love to see the Yanks sign him to a minor league contract right now, but I fully understand why they’d want to wait until he’s healthy. Seems like every other team is thinking the same way.

Anonymous asks: At this point, Joe Blanton is the best guy out there who is available. It may be hard to swallow acquiring him after losing out to Cliff Lee, but let’s put that aside. What would it take to get him?

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

I suppose the best way to do this would be to look at some recent trades involving comparable pitchers. The first one that jumps to mind is Tom Gorzelanny, who fetched two not top ten prospects and a not top 30 guy. He’s quite a bit cheaper and is under team control for one year longer than Blanton though, so we have to mark down accordingly. Another match could be Edwin Jackson, who required a big league ready, middle-of-the-rotation pitching prospect and a rookie level pitching prospect that would be found towards the middle of the top 30 list. But again, Jackson’s contract was more favorable than Blanton’s, which has two years at $8.5M per left on it.

The trade that send Blanton to Philadelphia isn’t a good comp either, since his recent performance at the time was much better than it is right now, and his contract situation was considerably more favorable. None of these are great matches, but at least they give us an idea of what to expect. It sounds like at least two prospects will be required, and one of them will have to be in the 10-20 range prospect of a top 30 list. Perhaps that guy is Adam Warren or David Phelps, and then you’re still taking on Blanton’s entire contract. It’s a fair swap, but with the Phillies needing to move his contract, no team should offer a fair return. The Phils don’t have much leverage right now.

I wrote about Blanton last month, and although he’s probably the best of the available starters, his contract isn’t great and then you have to give up prospects on top of that. Yes, he’s durable as hell, but he’s barely qualified as league average in the last three years, and that’s while he was in the NL on the best offensive team in the division. Seriously, I would rather just sign Kevin Millwood to a one-year deal. A move for Blanton impacts the 2012 team and isn’t necessarily easy to back out of. If I’m going to start committing considerable future payroll to a starter, I want it to be someone better than Blanton.

Musings on an expanded playoff format

The business of baseball is alive and well right now. The sport is drawing in well over $6 billion in revenues; attendance is at an all-time high; and the players and owners are enjoying unprecedented riches. In fact, considering the game’s prosperity, a casual fan would be hard-pressed to know that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners expires this year.

In essence, it’s a good time for the CBA to come due. While players might agitate for a higher minimum salary and bigger cut of those billion-dollar revenue totals, the biggest complaints concerning the game’s economic structure right now involve draft pick compensation for free agents and, of course, knocking down the Yankees. The Bombers have not been deterred by revenue sharing or luxury tax payments, and in fact, they’ve kept on spending at higher and higher levels.

But the Yankees are a minor issue in the grand scheme of the game. As David Pinto noted earlier this week, baseball’s big issues “seem to be settled.” Pinto instead wonders if the CBA negotiations might be more macro in scope. How would a group of owners and players redesign the game if they were starting from scratch today? Can, he asks, baseball restructure itself to “give teams more of a chance of making the playoffs?”

It seems as though one of the ways baseball will try to reinvent itself is with another playoff seed. Toward the end of 2010, we heard that a fifth team from each league would qualify for a playoff game or series against the traditional Wild Card team. This would allow more teams to reach October and would sustain interest in the game throughout the fall. Would it help?

Out of idle curiosity tonight, I took a look back at the recent AL playoff picture. While baseball on the whole doesn’t really have a major competitive balance problem, the AL does, and right now, the American League East is ascendant. A team from the East has reached the ALCS in each of the last four seasons. In three of those four years, the AL East team has reached the World Series, and in two of those four years, the AL East has won the World Series.

The Wild Card lately too has been dominated by the American League East. Since 2003, an AL East team — the Yankees, the Red Sox or Rays — has won the Wild Card every year except 2006. Three times since 2003, the two AL East teams have faced each other in the American League Championship Series. In other words, nine of the last 16 ALCS teams have come from one division, and based on the distribution of talen within the American League, it’s tough to see this outcome changing over the next few seasons. The Yankees and Red Sox have the clear financial edge, and the Rays have put together a front office capable of building perennial contenders on a budget. Only the fact that these two teams play each other so often will give anyone else a slight opening.

The extra Wild Card would solve this problem to a certain extent. Only in 2010 and 2008 would three AL East teams have reached the playoffs with a second Wild Card. The AL West would have captured the crown four times and the Central once with a split in 2007. The second Wild Card then would generally ensure that some team that isn’t the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays reaches the playoffs.

So is that a solution to improving baseball? I’m not in love with the wild card nature of a Wild Card playoff, and it would open up the field to a bad team having a hot month. But absent a tricky realignment based perhaps on economic clout or a steeper penalty against the rich teams, it might be the best baseball can do right now. Either way, hearing about creative ways to improve the game will be far better than rumors of a strike. I can easily live with labor peace.