Brian’s big gamble

After losing the 2003 World Series, the Yankees knew they had to make some changes to their team. Although they out-hit and generally out-pitched the Florida Marlins, Jack McKeon out-managed Joe Torre, and nowhere was that more evident than in the fact that Jose Contreras pitched in two more games that series than Mariano Rivera did.

Yet, despite their 101 wins, the Yanks radically overhauled their team. Andy Pettitte left for Houston. Roger Clemens retired, unretired and joined the Astros. David Wells, a World Series goat who left his Game 5 start after just one inning, broke up with George Steinbrenner and signed with the Padres.

As the Yanks went searching for pitching, they encountered a few obstacles. Arizona demanded a king’s ransom for Curt Schilling which, considering what they eventually accepted from the Red Sox, is more galling today than it was in 2003. The Yanks eyed Bartolo Colon for a minute or two and eventually reeled in Vazquez. Tyler Kepner called it a pivotal move for a team in flux.

The Yankees were so confident in Vazquez’s ability to succeed in New York and play a big role with the team that they quickly signed him to a contract extension. The Yanks gave him an ace’s salary — four years and $45 million — before the youngster had even thrown a pitch in the Bronx.

We know how this first part of the story ends. Vazquez had an All Star-worthy first half and then struggled during the second half before serving up the the home run that would break the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. Yesterday, speaking with reporters after the Yanks reacquired, Vazquez said he had some arm issues during that second half. “In the second half,” he said, “my arm didn’t feel as good as it did in the first half, and it was really the first time in my career, and really the only time in my career, that I felt my arm wasn’t where it’s supposed to be. I started getting treatment a little later than I should have. I never said anything. I went out there every five days. I hated not being out there. That might have been my mistake, I never said anything.”

After the season ended, George Steinbrenner dispatched Vazquez to the desert. The Boss stepped in and landed himself Randy Johnson in exchange for Vazquez. The Yanks had wanted Randy since the Mariners traded him in 1998 but just kept missing out. Now, they had their man but at the expense of Cashman’s favorite youngster.

Yesterday, the Yankee GM revealed that he tried to reacquire Vazquez twice after trading him. He called Arizona after 2005 before the right-hander was shipped to Chicago, and he called Chicago in 2008 before Javy went to Atlanta. Both times, he said, the Yankees “just didn’t match up.”

So now, the Yankees have their man at the expense of Melky Cabrera, Mike Dunn and Arodys Vizcaino, a live young arm who has yet to see action above short-season single A. Although Vazquez this time will be the team’s third or fourth starter, expected to give innings with an ERA in the low-4.00 range, this move is Cashman’s big gamble. It pushes Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes out of the rotation for at least part of the next season and puts the emphasis back on a pitcher who probably shouldn’t have been traded in the first place.

The Yankees don’t need Javier Vazquez to be great. They need him simply to be good, and you can bet that no one is rooting harder for him than Brian Cashman. Long accused of poor pitcher evaluation skills, Cashman opted to shore up the rotation with a pitcher who has been through the New York mill and emerged shaken but not damaged. Now we’ll have to see if he can do it again.

Cashman sports a successful track record

The winter of 2005-2006 proved to be a definitive one for the Yankees organization. After reaching the World Series in 2003, the team lost in the ALCS in 2004 and then, after getting off to an 11-19 start in 2005 lost in the ALDS, despite adding two expensive pitchers over the off-season. General Manager Brian Cashman‘s contract expired after the loss to the Angels, and it was unclear whether he’d return. As he told an audience earlier this month, the team had been doing things George Steinbrenner‘s way since the World Series loss in 2001.

Cashman got his autonomy after the 2005 season, and in the fourth year, after yet another new contract, he finally built a championship ballclub. While he had the advantage of baseball’s fattest checkbook, he also had to deal with aging players on long-term deals, a barren farm system, and a fan base that wants to win now at all costs. That’s not an easy balancing act, even when you can throw money at some problems.

So what has Cashman done with his authority? Here are the 12 pitchers and 13 position players who had the most playing time in 2005:

C: Jorge Posada
1B: Tino Martinez
2B: Robinson Cano
SS: Derek Jeter
3B: Alex Rodriguez
LF: Hideki Matsui
CF: Bernie Williams
RF: Gary Sheffield
DH: Jason Giambi
BENCH: Tony Womack
BENCH: Ruben Sierra
BENCH: John Flaherty
BENCH: Bubba Crosby
BENCH: Matt Lawton

SP: Randy Johnson
SP: Mike Mussina
SP: Chien-Ming Wang
SP: Carl Pavano
SP: Kevin Brown
SP: Jaret Wright
SP: Aaron Small
SP: Shawn Chacon
SP/RP: Al Leiter
RP: Mariano Rivera
RP: Tom Gordon
RP: Tanyon Sturtze

How did this group turn into the 2009 champions?

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How do the Yankees keep their moves quiet?

We enjoy the baseball off-season differently than our fathers and grandfathers did. MLB Trade Rumors and Twitter add instant gratification to the team building process. This adds a premium to scoops. A MLBTR link or a widespread retweet means more page views for the publication, therefore more advertising revenue. Reporters look under every table, between every seat cushion for a rumor to feed the masses.

With so many guys covering the Yankees — beat writers, columnists, national reporters — it’s easy to imagine that they cover everything. No rumor goes unturned, right? Like, for instance, when the Yankees make an offer to a free agent. This week, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick said that free agent pitcher Justin Duchscherer would soon decide which of three offers to take. Duchscherer has been connected to the Yankees, but we hadn’t heard of an official offer from them, NBC’s Craig Calcaterra noted.

There has been a lot of chatter about the Yankees being interested lately, but that seems a little late to the game, and no word of an offer has yet seeped out of Yankeeland. Given how many people crawl that beat, I’d be rather surprised if a previously unreported offer had been made by New York.

In a way it would be surprising if an official offer slipped by the pack of repeaters covering the team. Surely one of them has to hear something, right? Yet it appears to be a tough beat in New York. The Yankees have maintained confidentiality these past two winters, as if Brian Cashman ordered his close advisers to take vows of silence. Just ask any of the guys on the Yankees beat. None of the higher ups really say anything.

The way things have run these past two years, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Yankees made an offer to Duchscherer. As it turns out they probably didn’t. But that’s because they had another target in mind. On Monday night at 8:41, ESPN’s Buster Olney heard that the Yankees were working on a deal for a starting pitcher. Ken Rosenthal confirmed, and we waited the rest of the night waiting for a name. At just after 9:30 this morning, Joel Sherman found out it was Javy Vazquez. An hour later, we had confirmation of a done deal. The Yankees worked quick and kept things so quiet that reporters couldn’t get as much as a name until an hour before completion.

What’s amazing is how quiet other teams have kept, too. No one from the Braves leaked this to a reporter. We also didn’t get word on the Granderson trade until about 14 hours before completion, and even that was to a pair of national writers who seem to get every scoop. I even wonder, in that case, if the Tigers or the Diamondbacks leaked that to put the pressure on the Yanks. I doubt the leak came from the Yankees, who were the last ones to sign off.

The stealth tactic has worked well. I do wonder exactly how it’s benefited the Yankees. How many deals fall apart after they’re leaked? If that’s a common occurrence, the Yankees are doing themselves a huge favor by keeping that type of information on the down low. Even if it doesn’t help that much, it’s a pretty neat tactic when observing from afar. The Vazquez experience played like a suspense flick. Buster Olney provided the exposition, we waited in suspense while people speculated as to who it could possibly be, then we got the climax, some falling action (made more amusing by some ridiculous reactions), and finally the resolution, an afternoon conference call. I could get used to this mode of operation.

KLaw’s analysis of the Vazquez trade

As he does with ever major move, Keith Law gave his take of today’s Javy Vazquez trade, noting that the Yanks “could very well enter 2010 a better team on paper than they were at the same time before 2009.” That should scare the crap out of the rest of the league. KLaw acknowledges that Arodys Vizcaino is a fantastic prospect, but also adds that Melky Cabrera is a “fairly pricey for a fourth outfielder,” and that Mike Dunn still has a ton of work to do on his command.

It’s definitely a long term sacrifice for a short term gain, but the Yanks can afford to take such risks.

Open Thread: Images of Melky

Earlier this morning the Yankees shipped Melky Cabrera and two prospects to Atlanta for Javy Vazquez and a store brand lefty reliever. It’s no secret that the three of us at RAB weren’t Melky’s biggest backers, but that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate his four-plus years of service to our beloved Bombers.

As frustrating as it was to watching him swing at pitches over his head, Melky had a flair for the dramatic and his energy was refreshing to watch on a team that got too corporate at times. He filled in admirably when Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield went down with injuries in 2006, and since then he’s done a fine job while playing all three outfield positions. Whether he was robbing homers at the wall or walking off with wins, Melky was a fan favorite and he’ll be missed.

Instead of a written word tribute, let’s honor the Melkman with some images. After the jump, a collection of our favorite Melky moments. Be sure to add yours in the comments. Otherwise, here’s your open thread. Also, make sure to check out the content from our heavy afternoon:

Yanks looking to trade Gaudin or Mitre
Prospect Profile: J.R. Murphy
Damon, Bay, or Holliday would break the budget
Minor league notes, with a tidbit about Jesus Montero, plus a minor league signing.
You’ll never guess who the Yankees third baseman of the decade is…
Javier Vazquez by the numbers

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Javy Vazquez by the numbers

Just some stuff I came across regarding Javier Vazquez today…

Payroll implications

By my back of the napkin calculation, the Yankees were at around $197 million in payroll before the Vazquez trade. This included estimated arbitration raises to Melky Cabrera, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre, plus filling out the roster with reserve clause players. Given all the talk about the Yankees’ 2010 budget, it didn’t appear they had room to make a big move. That is, unless the budget number is a bit higher than $200 million. That seems to be the case.

I could go through and make a calculation of the new payroll, but since this is an informal look at the numbers, I’m taking a different approach. Let’s compare what the Yankees shed this off-season to what they picked up.

Off the books
Johnny Damon – $13 million
Hideki Matsui – $13 million
Andy Pettitte – ~$10.5 million
Xavier Nady: $6.5 million
Chien-Ming Wang: $5 million
Brian Bruney: $1.25 million
Melky Cabrera: $1.4 million
Jose Molina: $2.125 million

Total: $52.775 million

Javy Vazquez: $11.5 million
Curtis Granderson: $5.5 million
Nick Johnson: $5.5 million
Andy Pettitte: $11.75 million

Total: $34.25 million

Derek Jeter: $1 million
CC Sabathia: $8.8 million (not sure how he showed up on the OD payroll, though)
Robinson Cano: $3 million
Nick Swisher: $1.45 million
Damaso Marte: $0.25 million

Total: $14.5 million

The additions and raises add up to $48.75 million, or just over $4 million in savings. That money will cover the arbitration cases for Gaudin and Mitre, and if the Yankees do trade Gaudin it would cover just about everything. So if the Yankees do intend to sign a left fielder, they’ll go over 2009 payroll by a little bit. But, if CC’s full salary (the ~$15 million salary plus signing bonus) did count against the OD payroll (I think it did), then the Yanks have some wiggle room. Not Matt Holliday wiggle room, but a little at least.

Quality of opponents faced

I’m not sure what we can take from Baseball Prospectus’s quality of batters faced statistics, but it’ll be an interesting look in any case. Clearly, with the pitcher in the nine hole Vazquez faced easier competition in the National League in 2009. But by how much?

Javy’s best American League season came in 2007 with the White Sox. Over 216.2 innings he pitched to a 3.74 ERA, posting 8.85 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, and a 3.80 FIP. Those are excellent numbers by any standard — though his 1.20 HR/9 mark is a bit concerning (though partly a product of the Sox ballpark). That year, he faced opponents who combined for a .270/.339/.418 line. Not too shabby.

Last year, when he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting, Vazquez faced batters who hit a combined .254/.328/.403. They’re a bit worse, as expected, since the nine hole is consistently filled by a pitcher. Stilll, it’s good to know that he can do it against better opponents, too. For comparison, in his 2008 season in Chicago he faced batters who hit .263/.337/.412, so they were slightly worse than the hitters he faced in 2007, but he fared worse.

Confused yet?

Batted ball data

When trying to account for an uncharacteristically good or bad season from a player, I like to check out their batted ball data to see if there is any significant shift. There appears to be one for Vazquez in 2009. He increased his ground ball percentage, which is always welcome, but more importantly he drastically reduced his fly ball percentage. He had been in the low 40% range for most of his career, but in 2009 he brought it all the way down to 34.8 percent. That’s quite excellent for a player who has a home run to fly ball rate of over 10 percent for his career. Javy is home run prone, but if he keeps the ball out of the air he’ll fare much, much better in that regard.

Plate discipline

Another stat from Vazquez’s FanGraphs page: opponents had a tough time making contact with pitches outside the strike zone. In 2009 Vazquez threw more pitches outside the zone than at any point in his career. Yet he still posted the best walk rate since 2001. The key: opponents just couldn’t hit those pitches. Does it mean Vazquez found something on his breaking and off-speed pitches that eluded him before? I’m not quite sure. It’s an interesting phenomenon, for sure.

Not only did Vazquez throw more pitches out of the zone in 2009 than he had before in his career, but opposing hitters swung at them less frequently than in years past. Even with those two factors, hitters just couldn’t make as much contact on those pitches. That’s something I’ll definitely be looking for when Javy takes the mound this season.

First half of 2004

Many fans can’t forgive Javy for his 2004 meltdown. It started at the All-Star break, and extended all the way through the playoffs. But don’t let that discount what he did early in the season. Through 18 starts, Javy averaged almost 6.2 innings per start, posting a 3:1 K/BB ratio and allowing just 47 runs through 118.2 innings.

By the Decade: Better off with him

On a busy day in the Yankee Universe, we continue our look at the Yankees By the Decade with a stop at the Hot Corner. For the last six seasons, A-Rod has owned that position, and he is clearly the third baseman of the decade. It’s not even close.

A. Rodriguez 3227 971 158 5 229 692 482 49 75 721 89 .301 .401 .566
Scott Brosius 895 231 45 2 29 112 78 3 7 156 27 .258 .320 .410
Robin Ventura 716 181 29 0 35 128 124 7 2 152 22 .253 .362 .440
Aaron Boone 189 48 13 0 6 31 11 0 3 30 7 .254 .302 .418
E. Wilson 117 27 4 2 2 15 5 0 0 18 2 .231 .258 .350
Todd Zeile 91 18 4 0 3 13 12 0 0 16 2 .198 .286 .341
Ron Coomer 83 27 4 0 2 9 2 0 0 12 5 .325 .341 .446
Clay Bellinger 81 17 2 1 4 14 2 0 4 20 0 .210 .261 .407
Cody Ransom 74 15 8 1 0 8 7 0 0 24 3 .203 .272 .338
W. Betemit 66 17 7 0 1 6 1 0 0 12 2 .258 .269 .409
Luis Sojo 62 11 2 0 0 7 3 0 1 8 1 .177 .227 .210
Miguel Cairo 54 11 3 1 0 5 4 0 0 12 1 .204 .259 .296
M. Ensberg 54 10 0 0 0 3 4 0 0 14 1 .185 .241 .185
Ramiro Pena 47 12 1 0 0 4 3 0 0 8 1 .255 .300 .277
A. Soriano 26 4 1 0 2 2 1 0 0 9 0 .154 .185 .423
Andy Phillips 25 4 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 7 1 .160 .192 .160
Jerry Hairston 25 9 2 0 0 5 5 0 1 3 1 .360 .484 .440
Nick Green 25 8 2 0 1 1 0 0 1 9 0 .320 .346 .520
Angel Berroa 20 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 6 1 .100 .143 .150
A. Gonzalez 17 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 1 .118 .167 .118
Eric Hinske 14 3 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 4 2 .214 .312 .214
Totals 5908 1628 286 12 314 1058 748 59 95 1242 169 .276 .362 .487

To get a sense of just how good A-Rod has been at third base, let’s look at some comparative numbers. For the table above, I used players who had played at least ten games at third base. Thus, Gary Sheffield’s brief 2004 cameo at the Hot Corner and other similarly misguided experiments from the past decade are not covered here. As it stands, A-Rod enjoyed 54.6 percent of the Yanks’ third base at-bats and around 55.8 percent of all plate appearances. My, how he delivered.

In those at-bats, A-Rod was responsible for 72.9 percent of all Yankee third base home runs, 64.4 percent of the walks and 83 percent of the intentional walks. He accounted for 65.4 percent of all third base RBIs, and without his stunning .301/.401/.566 line, Yankee third basemen hit .245/.313/.393. He simply towers above anyone else including old fan favorite Scott Brosius and 2003 hero Aaron Boone.

What is amazing though about this decade of A-Rod is how tumultuous it has been. It began with a near-trade to the Red Sox in late 2003 that fell apart over Boston’s reluctance to pony up the dough. After the proposed Manny-for-Alex swap fell through, the Yankees swooped in and landed A-Rod and his contract for Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias. The Yanks were the only team that could afford A-Rod’s astronomical salary, and they gave up nothing too great in return.

For A-Rod, it was a tough adjustment to New York. He had a down-for-him year in 2004, hitting just 36 home runs with a line of .286/.375/.512. He was great in the ALDS against the Twins and then vanished, along with the rest of the team, in Games 4-7 against the Red Sox in the ALCS. Much as Javier Vazquez was dismissed from New York for his role in the collapse, A-Rod too bore the brunt of the blame, most notably for his slap play in Game 6.

He responded nicely in 2005 and won the first of his two Bronx MVP awards. He hit .321/.421/.610 with 48 home runs and 130 RBIs. Again, though, his post-season numbers were bad. In the ALDS, he went just 2 for 15. The following postseason, he went 1 for 14 in the Division Series, was dropped to eighth in the batting order and drew himself the Choker label.

In 2007, Good A-Rod showed up again, but the fans were wary. On the verge of opting out of his contract, A-Rod hit 54 home runs, drove in 156 and did nothing in October. As the Red Sox were about to win the World Series, he opted out of his contract, and the Yankees vowed never to deal with him again. Three weeks later, he was back in pinstripes for a record deal worth up to $305 million over ten years. The press hated him, and the fans were skeptical.

This past year, the fans finally embraced A-Rod. He notched his 12th straight year with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs by blasting two and driving in seven on the final day of the season, and his hot hitting carried over into the playoffs. Against the Twins, Angels and Phillies, A-Rod hit .365/.500/.808 with six home runs and 18 RBIs. As a decade begun with Scotty Bro and celebrated by Aaron Boone came to a close, Yankee fans had finally come to accept A-Rod as he should be, as the third base as the decade and as the team’s offensive star.

Despite early-season articles, despite sports writer consternation, the Yankees are truly better off with Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez. Make no mistake about it.