Requiem For An Offseason

As soon as the ink was dried on Freddy Garcia’s minor league contract, it effectively signaled the end of the Yankees’ offseason. Oh sure, there might be a Justin Maxwell mixed in between now and the start of Spring Training, but for the most part all the major business is finished. Garcia steps in as the front-runner for the fifth starter’s job, the bench has been solidified, and the bullpen has been upgraded considerably. Yet despite all of that, it’s hard to consider this offseason a success for the Yankees.

Yep. (AP Photo)

It was clear coming into the winter that starting pitching was priority number one, two, and three, and it was certainly no secret that the Yankees wanted Cliff Lee to solve their rotation woes. They made a valiant effort to sign him, but it was a major, major blow when Lee shocked the world by returning to Philadelphia. The alternatives on the free agent market were not appealing, and they were made even worse when Hiroki Kuroda and Jake Westbrook quickly re-signed with the Dodgers and Cardinals, respectively. Unless Brian Cashman & Co. were willing to part with top prospects for a band-aid or roll the dice with Zack Greinke, there was little help on the trade market. Their hands were tied but let’s be frank, it’s their own fault for being in a position where they were so desperate for Lee in the first place.

Once Lee was off the board, the Yankees finally sprung into action. They signed Russell Martin less than a week later, shoring up the defense behind the plate and giving Jesus Montero that much more time in Triple-A should he need it. There are very few complaints about spending $4M on a starting catcher on the right side of 30 and just two years removed from his last All-Star Game berth, but there are some complaints to be made about spending that much on a lefty specialist. That’s the annual salary the Yankees awarded Pedro Feliciano over the next two seasons in the middle of December.

Don’t get me wrong, Feliciano’s a fine reliever, a workhorse guy that could legitimately appear in 90 games if needed, but he’s still nothing more than a lefty specialist. With Damaso Marte – another lefty reliever slated to earn $4M in 2011 – expected to be on the shelf basically all season because of shoulder surgery, the Yankees felt the need to get a guy like Feliciano. The market for relievers went bonkers this year, so unfortunately two years and $8M guaranteed is the going rate for guys like Feliciano these days. If any team can afford it, it’s the Yankees.

That wasn’t the end of the bullpen spending though. Ownership jumped in after the calendar turned to 2011 and signed Rafael Soriano to serve as Mariano Rivera‘s primary setup man against Cashman’s recommendation. The damage: three years, $35M, and the team’s first round pick in a loaded draft class. Although Soriano is an obvious upgrade, the team assumed all the risk by giving the player the option of opting out of the deal after the first or second year, a contract so absurdly stupid that’s it’s still kind of hard to believe. For a total of $16M or so, Feliciano and Soriano represent maybe a two-win upgrade for the 2011 Yankees, and that’s if everything breaks right. More than likely it’ll be one win, maybe a win-and-a-half. Every little bit counts, but there are other the ways the team could have improved that much while using fewer resources.

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The rest of the moves were marginal upgrades at best. Andruw Jones is a damn fine fourth outfielder, and the various waiver claims (Maxwell and Brian Schlitter), Rule 5 Draft picks (Robert Fish and Daniel Turpen), and minor league signings (Luis Vizcaino, Warner Madrigal, Mark Prior, Andy Sisco, etc.) are fine for building depth. The Yankees still did nothing to upgrade their rotation however, still trying to rebound from Lee’s rejection.

Resigned to shopping off the clearance rack, the Yanks signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal in the middle of January even though it’s been five full years since he threw even 100 innings in a season or posted an xFIP below four-and-a-half. It’s a minor league deal though, no risk. A few weeks later they added Freddy Garcia, who at least made it to the mound for 150 innings last year and was above replacement level. That he is now the front-runner for the fifth starter’s job is an indictment of the offseason and current rotation.

Of course, the wild card in all of this is Andy Pettitte. He told the Yankees not to wait around for him at the outset of the offseason and he’s stuck to his word, having yet to formally announced his retirement or return as far as we know. Cashman says the team has been operating as if Andy won’t be coming back but I think we all know they’re holding out hope that he will. Either way, he’s still a 38-year old that battled elbow, groin, back, and hamstring issues last season. If you’re counting on him to save the rotation, something is very wrong.

If I had to grade the offseason right now, I’d probably give it a D. Maybe a C-, but just maybe. The Martin and Jones signings were sound, but the Soriano contract is absurd and I can’t get too exciting about Feliciano. He’s just a LOOGY. The Yankees haven’t addressed their rotation, basically at all, though I’m glad they didn’t do anything stupid and reactionary like trade Jesus Montero for Edwin Jackson or Carlos Zambrano, that would have been a disaster. Cashman gets credit for a patience, ownership not so much, but the bottom line is that the team as it stands is weaker than last year’s because of the starting staff.

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The Big Three, revisited

For a young baseball player, nothing can be worse than the spectre of expectations. Ask Rocco Badelli, now retired at 29 and long called the next Joe DiMaggio, how he feels about the label now. Ask every relief pitcher who gets tagged as the next Mariano. Ask young sluggers about the pressures of Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera comparisons.

Meanwhile, for those kids who come of age as a member of the Yankees, the expectations are even greater. Win today, win tomorrow, win yesterday. There’s no time for growth, development, mistakes or adjustments. If you can’t cut it from the get-go, you’re not tough enough. I shudder to think where Robinson Cano would be had he hit .229 instead of .289 over his first 50 games.

A few years ago, as Mike mentioned in tonight’s Open Thread, we hitched our wagon to Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. The Yanks had three top arms they had selected in the early rounds of the amateur draft, and these kids were working their way successfully through the organization when Johan Santana became available. The Twins wanted Kennedy and Hughes plus others, and we believed it would be a mistake to include two of them in a deal with Minnesota.

At the time, we didn’t expect all three of them to be top-flight Major League starters. It rarely works that way with young arms. But we expected them to be useful Major Leaguers or Major League pieces in the right deal, and that’s what happened. Phil Hughes has emerged as a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation arm; Joba Chamberlain is working himself back from a shoulder injury more serious than originally thought; and Kennedy has found success in the NL after helping net the Yanks Curtis Granderson. My personal views on Joba’s role notwithstanding, that’s a great tale of pitcher development.

Now we have our second generation of the Big Three, and they’re getting a lot of attention early on. We call the top arms in the Yanks’ rotation the Killer B’s. They are, after all, the next generation of hyped — or overhyped — pitchers. Andrew Brackman, 25, Dellin Betances, 22, and Manny Banuelos, 19, are names regular RAB readers know well and names with which Yankee fans will soon become familiar. Already, reporters are getting itchy.

With the Yankees’ rotation heavy with question marks and thin with top-flight starters, the kids are under the microscope. Enter Joel Sherman. In his blog post today, Sherman talks about other Yankees who unexpectedly forced themselves into the picture. Alfonso Soriano‘s killer Spring Training in 2001 made the Yanks play him. Robinson Cano came up ahead of schedule when Tony Womack just couldn’t cut it. Phil Hughes was pressed into service when the Yanks’ thin rotation started to fall apart. Can history repeat itself with one of the Killer B’s?

Sherman almost answers his own question in the negative. Brian Cashman told The Post that these kids — the potential future — won’t be rushed. “They shouldn’t be caught up in our major league problems,” he said. But Sherman, who may be speculating or may be doing more than reading tea leaves, can’t help but wonder:

No matter how short the rotation might be, it is not up to two inexperienced pitchers to solve the mess caused by Cliff Lee’s rejection and Andy Pettitte‘s continued defection. Banuelos and Betances have each made three career starts at Double-A, which is the highest level they have attained. Both had injuries last year that severely restricted their workload. So you can expect that the Yankees will institute an innings cap not much above 130 — if that high — this season. With that the case, it would be hard to begin or end the year with either Banuelos or Betances in the rotation. In addition, Cashman stressed that Banuelos is 19 (he turns 20 next month).

For now, Banuelos and Betances are ticketed for Double-A. But keep this in mind: Many members of the Yankees organization feel breaking young pitchers in via the bullpen is worthwhile, so it is possible that the last 20 or 30 innings of their work could be out of the major league pen. Also, don’t forget, Soriano was not supposed to be with the Yankees in 2001 nor was Hughes supposed to be with the team in 2007. So whatever the rules are in the chill of February, remember they are always subject to rewrite.

I don’t discount Sherman’s sourcing. He’s very well connected within the upper reaches of the Yanks’ braintrust. But if the recent past is any indication, the Yanks won’t rush prized arms. Banuelos and Betances have combined for 30 AA innings. Brackman threw 80 at that level and is very much a work in progress, and the Yanks like to let their works in progress arrive when ready. If any player is going to play themselves onto the Yanks during Spring Training, it will be Jesus Montero and not Brackman, Banuelos or Betances.

So we’ll wait out this second generation of the Big Three. We’ll give them their innings at AA and AAA, and we’ll see their names pop up in trade rumors all season. If they can approximate the success of the first Big League — a starter, a reliever and a trade chip — the Yankees can pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The road to that end is long yet, and there is no need to rush.

Open Thread: Johan Santana

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It’s been a long, long time since we campaigned to Save The Big Three. That was three offseasons ago, when the Yankees (and Red Sox) were talking to the Twins about acquiring two-time (shoulda been three-time) Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. The rumored package was Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Mitch Hilligoss, and Jeff Marquez, though Minnesota was supposedly holding out for Ian Kennedy. Think the Cliff Lee or Andy Pettitte stuff is too much this winter? That was nothing compared to the non-stop Johan rumors, around the clock coverage of a trade we never wanted to happen. Three years ago today, it all came to a merciful end when the Mets officially acquired Santana for what amounted to a package of spare parts.

We were happy, many were not. The Yankees were in clear need of pitching help, moreso than they are right now, and there was Santana, an ace in his prime waiting to be had. Brian Cashman gambled that he could keep his prized young players (though four of those five guys are long gone) and simply buy CC Sabathia as a free agent the next offseason. It was a ballsy and absurdly risky move, but that’s exactly what happened. Less than two years after the Johan non-trade, Sabathia, Hughes, and the rest of the Yankees were parading down the Canyon of Heroes, world champs for the 27th time. They took their lumps along the way, missing the playoffs in 2008, but here they are today with both Sabathia and Hughes headlining their rotation while Johan recovers from major shoulder surgery across town. I don’t think Hollywood could have written a better script.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Isles, Nets, and Knicks are all playing, but talk about whatever you want. Go nuts.

Piniella set to consult for San Fran

When, in early 2009, it became clear that Lou Piniella was going to end his managerial career after the 2010 season, Hal Steinbrenner expressed his desire to bring Lou back to the Bronx in an advisory role. Piniella also had fond feelings for the Yanks and the Yanks for him. It is not a reunion to be, however. As John Shea of The San Francisco Chronicle reported this morning, Piniella will be joining the Giants instead. Piniella and Giants’ GM Brian Sabean are tight from their time together with the Yanks, and the former skipper will consult for the defending World Champions instead of the Yankees.

‘I wanna be where the fans are’

With apologies to Bruce Springsteen for the headline, take a look at this map. Not quite an accurate survey of the landscape of baseball fan-dom, CommonCensus has mapped the baseball landscape through online surveys. The result is a rough approximation of where fans of the 30 clubs live. Red Sox fans have clearly taken to voting as they seem to possess a territory in western Connecticut and eastern New York far greater than the club’s reach.

Anyway, kill 15 minutes on the high-res version and start voting here to help reshape the Yanks’ share of the country. For what it’s worth, Montana doesn’t seem to be a hotbed of people, let alone baseball, and for another excellent if inexact map of the baseball landscape, check out the United Countries of Baseball.

The RAB Radio Show: February 2, 2011

The Yankees made a small move today, acquiring Justin Maxwell from the Nationals. Maxwell has some promise. Before the 2010 season Baseball America ranked him 8th in the Nationals system, and he has displayed plenty of power. Mike and I break down where he fits in and how this represents the Yankees’ M.O. lately in acquiring outfielders.

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Yanks pick up OF Justin Maxwell

With that swing Maxwell drove in four. (John Bazemore/AP)

Via MLBTR we learn that the Yankees have acquired recently DFA’d outfielder Justin Maxwell from the Nationals. It’s not a particularly big move, but it does give the Yankees a potential fifth outfielder, as well as some depth for AAA. That is, he’ll likely push Greg Golson back to the minors. The Yankees will send Adam Olbrychowski to the Nationals.

Maxwell, 27, was rated the Nationals’ No. 8 prospect heading into the 2010 season. Baseball America call him a “physical specimen with plus athleticism” and noted his patience and power potential. His review ends with an encouraging note, too: “If he hits, he can be a valuable four-tool player.” In between, though, were a few negatives, including injuries, inconsistent contact skills, and a poor arm. The injuries remain an issue: Max well recently underwent Tommy John surgery, though he’s expected back for spring training.

The Nationals have recalled Maxwell in three seasons, but he’s managed just 260 PA in his career. In 2009 it appeared he was on the path to regular playing time, as he produced a .357 wOBA, which included plenty of power, in 102 PA. But in 2010 he fell off, a mere .279 wOBA in 131 PA. Even in AAA he experienced a power dip, though his .390 OBP helped compensate.

The Yanks aren’t asking much of Maxwell. He’s out of options, so either he makes the team or he heads back through the waiver process. (Edit: He does have a remaining option.) I think he’s a better option than Greg Golson, but even if he’s not there’s little risk in this move. The only downside is having to remove someone from the 40-man roster. That man is Jordan Parraz. They still have to remove someone for Andruw Jones. Mike and I discussed 40-man roster issues on a recent podcast.

This move won’t make an enormous difference in the 2011 season, but it’s another example of the Yankees shoring up when there’s an opportunity. If Maxwell helps, great. If not, he’s easily expendable. We’ve criticized Brian Cashman in the past for not using his resources to build powerful benches. It appears this year that he’s put a bit more focus on that aspect of the team.

Bonus: Here’s another Maxwell grand slam.

Update by Mike (2:58pm): Joel Sherman says that Maxwell does in fact have one option remaining, which is excellent news.