If Damon departs, Cameron could be the man

Open season in the free agent market began a week and a half ago, yet we haven’t seen any major activity. Andruw Jones signed with the White Sox and Alex Gonzalez signed with the Blue Jays, but those aren’t the types of deals baseball fans crave. Absent this year were the big deals early in the season. Two years ago the Angels signed Torii Hunter in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Last year the Yankees already had a six-year, $140 million offer out to CC Sabathia. This year we’ve had nothing of the sort, and yesterday’s activities explained why.

At midnight, the deadline passed for teams to offer their own free agents arbitration. If a team signed a Type A or Type B player before his former team decided whether to offer him arbitration, the former team would receive compensation. The Angels signed Hunter and the Yankees made a huge offer to Sabathia because it was assumed that their teams would offer them arbitration. Things weren’t so certain this year. Of the 21 Type A free agents eligible for arbitration offers, only 10 received them. Teams proceeded with caution, not wanting to get stuck with a player at the wrong price.

Johnny Damon was among the Type As not offered arbitration. While this doesn’t make the Yankees’ desire to retain Damon any clearer, it does tell us that they do not want to pay him $15 million next season. If they do want him back, they want him on a lesser contract. Maybe that’s one year, maybe it’s one with an option, maybe it’s two. But the AAV of any contract will not be in the $13 million range, or else the Yankees probably would have made the offer.

(This actually made me think of Buster Olney’s quip from Monday, about the Yankees “getting the right player at the right price.” Maybe Damon is the right player, but his arbitration price would not be right. Hence, they declined. Compensation draft picks are nice, but not when they interfere with your major league roster construction.)

As he does with all of his clients, Scott Boras has been talking up Damon. He dropped a mention of “three to four teams who are seriously interested,” but that was in the hypothetical. It’s not quite clear which teams are interested in Damon, but if one of them is willing to offer Damon three or four years, he’ll soon be an ex-Yankee. Even if a two-year deal emerges, there’s no guarantee the Yankees will match. Again, they want their player at the right price. Those are two tough parameters to reconcile, but it seems to be the Yanks M.O. these days.

Even though Damon could return, the Yankees will likely move forward planning for life without him. Since an outfield of Cabrera, Gardner, and Swisher is not ideal, the team could look for help on the open market. That brings us back to a familiar name: Mike Cameron. Though the Yankees have not said anything about the free agent center fielder, they have expressed interest in him as recently as last winter. He was under contract with the Brewers then, but now, as a free agent, he could attract the Yankees.

Buster Olney opens a blog post with a bit on Cameron, who, at age 36, is one of the oldest center fielders in the league. Even so, he ranked third in the majors in UZR at his position, and eighth in wOBA. He wouldn’t match Damon’s offense, especially as a righty at Yankee Stadium, but he could help compensate with his defense. Combine that with a one-year contract, and Cameron might be, to borrow Olney’s phrase, a fit for the Yankees.

It sounds like Cameron could be interested, too, given the quote Olney provides.

“I feel like I can still play one of the better center fields in the game,” Cameron said the other day. “I feel like I can play with the best of them. At the same time, you have to understand if you want to be in the right spot, [moving to corner outfield] might be an option you want to take. … I’m just trying to get in the right spot to get in the playoffs.”

So he’s willing to move to a corner, and he wants to play for a playoff contender. It sounds like maybe, just maybe he was hinting at the Yankees. He could have been hinting at other teams, of course — perhaps the Red Sox would show interest if Jason Bay and Matt Holliday sign elsewhere. But there is definitely a fit with the Yankees. Hey, he even stays in touch with former teammate CC Sabathia, with whom he played for just half a season.

If Damon leaves the Yankees for a larger contract, I would think Cameron sits next on the list. He and Matsui, both on one-year contracts, would help the Yankees’ lineup in 2010 without tying up those positions long-term. That essentially buys the Yankees another year to evaluate their young players and come up with a longer term solution in the outfield. For Cameron it would mean playing for a contender — he could even play center, too, with Cabrera moving over to left. That would create a good defensive alignment while providing ample offense.

Yankees sign Taiwanese infielder

Via MLBTR, the Yanks have signed 18-year-old Taiwanese infielder Fu-Lin Kuo to a $150,000 bonus. He’s just the second Taiwanese player ever signed by the Yanks, the first being Chien-Ming Wang, of course. Taiwan Baseball says Kuo has the potential to hit for average and gap power with average range at second base, his likely destination. I’m guessing he’ll debut in Extended Spring Training next year, followed by a stint with the Rookie level GCL Yanks.

Open Thread: Henry wants MLB to overhaul revenue sharing system

One of the rights of the offseason is talk about how unfair baseball is with respect to big market clubs vs. small market clubs, and every so often some executive from a small market team will bemoan the fact that they can’t compete financially with the Yankees. For the most part, the other side of the coin – all of the big market teams that forfeit millions to smaller market teams – never gets talked about, however Red Sox owner John Henry came out and said the revenue sharing system needs an overhaul.

Allow me to quote:

“Change is needed and that is reflected by the fact that over a billion dollars have been paid to seven chronically uncompetitive teams, five of whom have had baseball’s highest operating profits,” Henry responded in an e-mail. “Who, except these teams, can think this is a good idea?”

Henry added, “While the Red Sox are in the 16th largest media market we’ve found a way to be very competitive even though we are funding other teams. At the end of the day, the small market clubs still cannot begin to compete with the Yankees and have a very hard time competing with the teams that are struggling to pay them so much. Consequently, a system that directly impacts competition has to replace the current system, that hoped to, but ultimately did not cure competitive imbalances.”

[snip]

The Red Sox principal owner reiterated that baseball’s free market system should continue and that teams should be able to operate as they please but that those who spend a lot will pay a lot of payroll taxes. “If the Yankees and the Mets spend a billion dollars plus of their investment dollars to build new ballparks, they should be allowed to keep their revenues from that,” Henry wrote. “But if they want to spend $200,000,000 annually on payroll they should be heavily taxed directly on that – and if they want to spend more than that, they should be even more heavily taxed. So should all clubs who spend heavily on payroll – to the extent necessary – to bring the system into balance.”

Ah yes, the poor Red Sox in the 16th biggest largest market have done a great job remaining competitive despite facing such an uphill battle. Great story, compelling and rich. Truly inspiring.

Back to reality. One thing we have to acknowledge is that there are more ways to use revenue sharing money than signing big league free agents. Tampa and Florida have built perpetually productive farm systems through the draft, assuredly with some help of that revenue sharing money. In fact, you can argue this is exactly how the revenue sharing cash should be spent. Building a foundation for the team with a continually replenishing source of talent. Of course, it’s much easier said than done.

Henry also makes a good point about how the current revenue sharing system screws over the Yankees:

“Baseball has determined that the best way to deal with the Yankees is to take as much of their revenue as possible. I see that in direct opposition to the ideals this country was built on. Baseball is a business and should be treated as such. Baseball is also a sport that needs competitive balance in order to prosper. Taxing their revenues and other “large markets” in the way it is presently done, is simply confiscation on an order of magnitude never seen in any industry in America,” Henry said.

As for the perceived lack of competitive balance, I don’t really think it’s a huge problem. By my count, 23 of the 30 teams have made the playoffs within the last ten years, and 15 different teams (half the league!) have appeared in the World Series in that time. Giving the Royals more money probably won’t stop them from wasting $48.35M on Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth, and Willie Bloomquist. At some point the crutch of being a small market team has to be removed, and blame has to be shifted to management.

I’m not going to get into talk about a salary cap, because it’s ridiculous. The reason a cap works in the NFL is because every team can afford to spend to the max. If you want to do that in baseball, you’d have to set the cap at like, $50M. A floor doesn’t help either, it just means small market teams would have to put more money in the pockets of fringe players to make payroll. It’s just not feasible.

Anyway, that’s my competitive balance rant for the day. Use this puppy as your open thread for the night. The Knicks take on the Suns at home, but otherwise you’re on your own for entertainment. Anything goes, just be cool.

Tommy Henrich, 96, nickamed ‘Old Reliable,’ dies

Tommy Henrich, an 11-year Yankee veteran and winner of four World Series, passed away this morning at his home in Dayton, Ohio, the Yankees announced today. Henrich, who played with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, among other Yankee greats, earned himself the nickname Old Reliable during his years in the Bronx. For Henrich, the clutch hits just keep on coming.

Henrich is something of an unsung hero from his time in the Bronx. Overshadowed by legends, he hit .282/.382/.491 in 1284 games. He was a five-time All Star and a four-time World Series winner. Yet, he missed three years — his ages 30, 31 and 32 season — to World War II.

His former teammates remembered him fondly today. Said Yogi Berra who played with Henrich for four years, “Tommy was a darn good ballplayer and teammate. He always took being a Yankee to heart. He won a lot of championships and did whatever he could to help us win. When I came up in 1947, he taught me little nuances about playing the outfield. Being around Tommy made you feel good, whether playing cards or listening to him sing with that great voice. He was a proud man, and if you knew him, he made you proud too.”

At the time of his death, Henrich was the fifth oldest Major League alum and the oldest living player to don pinstripes. That mantle has now passed to 92-year-old Virgil Trucks.

For the second year, the Yankees offer arbitration to no one

Last year the Yankees shocked some of us by declining to offer arbitration to any of their free agents. This year they’ve done the same, reports Joel Sherman, but it’s not as shocking. As Mike and I said on the RAB Radio Show, we thought it made sense to offer Pettitte and maybe Damon, but the Yankees have something else in mind. Is this an attempt to keep as much money as possible clear? Or do the Yankees just not want to deal with the possibility of any of them accepting arbitration?

The RAB Radio Show: December 1, 2009

The off-season gets rolling tonight, as teams have to decide whether to offer arbitration to their free agents. Mike and I talk through the process and what it means for the three qualifying Yankees: Johnny Damon, Andy Pettitte, and Xavier Nady. Case in point for the Elias system being a joke: Nady is eligible for compensation, but Matsui is not.

The arbitration process is a complicated one, and in the Yankees case there are two sides to each story. There are certain scenarios under which offering arbitration to Pettitte and Damon makes sense. There are others where it does not. What the Yankees ultimately decide, which we’ll find out later today, will give us an idea of what they’re thinking. Last winter they declined to offer anyone arbitration because they wanted to have the greatest amount of available payroll. We’ll see how they proceed this year.

There are questions, of course, and we answer all of them. Among them are some non-Yankees questions. These we encourage. There are always Yankee-centric topics to discuss, but Mike and I are two guys who like to talk baseball, whatever the team. So if you have a question about someone like Zack Greinke, send it in. We’ll have fun discussing it.

Podcast run time: 1:09:45

You know what the RAB Radio Show is great for? Downloading and listening on your commute home. You can download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking that link and selecting Save As. You can play it in your browser by left clicking that link, or you can use the embedded player below. If you don’t subscribe to the RAB RSS feed, you can subscribe to the podcast feed on our server, or subscribe in iTunes. As always, feedback is appreciated. Also, we’re working on the audio issue. This ultimately means buying equipment.

Also, I swear the embed is the right episode this time. Scout’s honor.

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“MLB needs a strong Yankee franchise”

Brian Cashman rarely reveals more than is necessary. As the general manager of the Yankees he faces the media frequently, but he never gives away too much. Instead, he speaks in a rehearsed, collected manner that is alternately comforting and frustrating. Comforting when the team is winning and we’re all happy. Frustrating when the team is struggling and we’re seeking answers. Sometimes I want to see him tone down the censor and talk more in-depth about the job and the decisions.

At the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square this morning, WFAN hosted a breakfast with Cashman. Steve S., b/k/a The Artist, kindly invited me, and we enjoyed an hour plus of Cashman talking about the team. Mike Francessa emceed, and unlike on his show he wasn’t argumentative for the most part (except for when it came to Joba, which I’ll get to in a moment). He let Cashman have the floor, and what resulted was a more candid Casham than I’ve ever seen.

The headline is a direct quote from Cashman. In fact, it was the first thing he said to the audience. In front of a New York audience it probably wasn’t the height of candor, but at that point it was clear to me that this wouldn’t be a cookie cutter Brian Cashman interview. He confirmed my thought a few moments later when he called Joe Torre’s book “garbage.” I know he was critical of the book in the past, but this is the first time I’ve heard him speak so strongly about it. Which makes sense, as he explains. Cashman was, after all, the general manager for all but two of Torre’s Yankee years, and wasn’t once interviewed for the book.

He then moved onto the managerial hiring process. With Joe Torre at the helm since Cashman took over, he’d never had to conduct manager interviews. Even in 1995-1996, when he was the assistant GM, there was no real process for interviewing candidates. The job was simply offered to Torre, and he accepted. This came after, earlier in the off-season, Torre turned down an offer to be general manager. No one wanted to work in that position under Steinbrenner at the time, and The Boss found that embarrassing. It probably led to the decision to hire Cashman in 1998; there was little chance Cashman, who started with the Yankees as an intern in 1986, would turn down the position.

When deciding among Don Mattingly, Tony Pena, and Joe Girardi, the Yankees set up day-long interviews that involved the entire baseball operations team. The heads of pro scouting, amateur scouting, player development — everyone in the organization who would have to deal with the manager on a frequent basis. As far as the actual assessment, Cashman gave an example. He put the Yankees projected 2008 roster in front of each candidate and asked what he would do in the following situation. It’s July. CC Sabathia is on the mound. How do you arrange the lineup? He noted that at least one chose to sit the lefties in that situation. Then he presented the same scenario, but changed it to Game 1 of the ALDS. Still Sabathia, still the same roster. Yet at that point, the manager left the lefties in the lineup. The exercise wasn’t to find a per se correct answer. Rather, Cashman wanted an explanation for the dissonance, if it were present.

Of course, when the topic of starting pitching arose, Francessa put back on his bullheaded attitude regarding Joba Chamberlain. He’s a born reliever, yada yada yada. Cashman explained the situation as he always does: it’s much harder to find a starter than a reliever, when you find a good starter on the free agent market he’ll cost you a lot of money, and it’s easier to move a starter to the bullpen if necessary. Francessa kept interrupting and misunderstanding. He said no fewer than five times that it was a “purely economical issue,” as if it were some great revelation. Of course, it’s not “purely” an economical issue, though economics do play a prominent role. It’s also about maximizing the value of each player, but Cashman couldn’t get in a word edgewise to explain that.

Another fascinating part of the talk came when Cashman described the new guys. When he brought in Nick Swisher, A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira, the told them to not check their personalities at the door — that he brought them in not only because they were exceptional baseball players, but because they could change the stodgy atmosphere of the Yankees clubhouse. “I told them to not be intimidated,” he said. That’s a tremendous task, of course. The Yankees clubhouse contained four luminaries from the 90s dynasty. How can four new guys come in and turn things around? Apparently they were up to the task, though, and Cashman couldn’t be happier.

“I like the Joba fist pumps, I like pies in the face,” he said. What’s there not to like about it? Francessa weighed in, saying he thought that some of Swisher’s and Burnett’s antics were childish. Remember, though, that these guys are playing a game. It might be a business, it might be career, and it requires a level of seriousness. But the career, the business, is a game. Cashman seems more than pleased that his 2009 team kept that in mind.

Towards the end Francessa opened the floor for fan questions, and encouraged us to ask about the team’s plans. Cashman noted that he couldn’t go too into detail, because, “if I say we’re after a certain player, then the Red Sox know that.” So while Cashman was at his most candid, he also knew when to play his cards close to his chest. From the tone of his answers, it doesn’t sound like the Yankees will offer arbitration to any of their free agents. He didn’t say this explicitly, but it’s what I inferred from his answers.

Steve got in a question, perhaps the best of the event. He asked Cashman how draft pick compensation factors into a decision on signing a free agent relief pitcher. Cashman opened by talking about the volatility of relief pitchers and how the Yankees have assembled the bullpen from within over the past few years. Francessa then directed him back to the question, to which Cashman replied that unless it was a situation where there was a specific guy they wanted, to fill a certain role, then they would not sacrifice a draft pick to sign a reliever. In other words, don’t expect the Yankees to pursue Rafael Soriano or Mike Gonzalez if the Braves offer them arbitration this evening.

It meant getting up hours earlier than I normally do, but this breakfast event was more than worth the small sacrifice. Francessa let Cashman have the floor, and that was a great success. I learned more about what goes into his job than I have from dozens of previous interviews. And hey, I might even track him down and ask him a bit more at the Winter Meetings next week. Also, a big thanks to Steve for the invite. I owe you a beer, buddy.