RAB Retrospective: The Perfection of The 2008 Off-Season

The 2008 free agent signings
So long ago. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The 2008 season might not have been as bad as 2013, but Yankees fans would still like to forget it. It seemed that every little thing went wrong that season. Whenever it looked as though the Yankees might have a charge in them, the suffered another blow.

Let’s consider a (perhaps incomplete) list of those maladies:

  • Both Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, top prospects who showed promise in 2007, started off the season in disastrous fashion.
  • Then Hughes got hurt.
  • Darrell Rasner started 20 games.
  • Much worse: Sidney Ponson started 15.
  • Save for a brilliant start here and there, Andy Pettitte was thoroughly mediocre.
  • The only two starters under age 30, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, had wholly disappointing seasons. Cano was benched for lack of hustle, while Carbera got sent back to AAA after more than two service-time years in the bigs.
  • Jorge Posada, fresh off signing a new contract, played the first half with a bum shoulder which required surgery, forcing a cast of offensively inept backups into starting roles.
  • Hideki Matsui‘s balky knees limited him to under 400 PA and sapped him of his power.
  • Chien-Ming Wang suffered a foot injury that would indirectly end his career.
  • Derek Jeter had his worst season since 1996. (Sure, he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award that year, but we’d come to expect more of him.)
  • Joba Chamberlain dazzled out of the pen, and then in the rotation — until he suffered a shoulder injury that cut his season short (and probably ended up causing a lot more long-term damage than we typically account for).
  • They traded a reasonably effective Kyle Farnsworth and got back a wholly terrible Ivan Rodriguez.
  • Xavier Nady hit .330/.383/.535 before the Yankees traded for him, .268/.320/.474 for them.
  • Damaso Marte was terrible and then broke after the trade. Thankfully, they didn’t end up giving away anything of consequence.
  • All told the Yankees used 27 — twenty-seven! — pitchers.

What went right? Mike Mussina’s resurgence was nice to watch. Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi both stayed healthy and produced decent numbers. Alex Rodriguez wasn’t his 2007 MVP self, but he was still a top-five hitter. Unfortunately, he started his streak of six straight years on the disabled list. (Which he’ll have snapped at season’s end.) The Yanks did discover Al Aceves, which was nice, and Brian Bruney, which was nice for a very short period of time.

Despite all that, had there been a second Wild Card, or had the Rays improved by 22 wins, instead of 31, the Yanks would have made the playoffs. So how bad could the season have been?

It could have been a fatal sign going forward. The franchise players were getting older. Each had been hurt or saw diminished production during the 2008 season. The only starters under age 30 took steps backwards. Maybe it didn’t feel like it at the time, but the potential for disaster loomed during that off-season. The Yankees needed big changes, and that’s not easy to achieve through free agency.

Thankfully for the Yankees, the 2008-2009 free agent class featured a number of players who fit their exact needs. Even more thankfully, they shed a number of their biggest, and in some cases worst, contracts at the exact right time.

The 2008 payroll was a then-franchise-record $209 million (just a bit more than the 2005 payroll). Without some of those bigger contracts coming off the books, there’s now way that even the Yankees can afford to add contracts for CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira (and to a lesser extent, Nick Swisher). But the exact right contracts expired at the exact right time.

Jason Giambi cost the club $22 million in 2008. They essentially shed $17 million, though, since they had to pay him a $5 million buyout on his 2009 option.

Carl Pavano cost the club $11 million in 2008.

Bobby Abreu cost $16 million, but with a $2 million buyout the Yankees saved $14 million.

Mike Mussina cost $11 million, but the Yankees probably weren’t glad to be rid of him at that point.

Andy Pettitte cost $16 million. Worthwhile in 2007, but not so much 2008.

They also saved some money when Ivan Rodriguez’s contract expired. Trading away Wilson Betemit’s $1.6 million was like finding some loose change in the couch cushions.

In total the Yankees shed more than $70 million in salaries, mostly for players they were glad to be rid of, of who were considerably overpaid in 2008.

Time to reallocate those resource to more productive players.

Add up the guys they signed. At $23 million for Sabathia. $22.5 million for Teixeira, $18.5 million for Burnett, and $5.3 million for Swisher, plus another $5.5 million for bringing back Pettitte, you get $74.8 million.

They were able to fill their needs with such high-priced guys, because they had a number of lower-cost players on both sides of the ball. It took some faith in them rebounding, but Cano and Cabrera cost them a combined $7.4 million in 2009. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes earned the minimum, as did almost everyone in the bullpen. If they didn’t have those major-league-ready younger players, then spending $75 million on top-tier players makes less sense. You can have a core of great players, but you still need 25 players on the roster.

At the end of 2008, the Yankees were in a tough spot. Their younger players saw their flaws exposed during the season. There was plenty of uncertainty about the tested veterans. Without the perfect free agent class and money to lure them, the 2009 Yankees might not have been much better than 2008. Without some of those younger guys returning to form, or performing well for a change, the successful free agent signings might not have mattered.

The Yankees found the exact guys to fill needed spots. It cost them plenty, but each of the free agent signings (and trade bounty, in Swisher’s case) added significantly to the 2009 team’s production. Perhaps just as importantly, the Yankees stuck with those younger players and saw their patience rewarded. The entire off-season could have gone a lot differently. But it played out perfectly. We all know the reward.

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Sherman: Yankees scouted Abreu in winter ball

Via Joel Sherman: The Yankees scouted former Yankee Bobby Abreu during his winter ball stint in Venezuela. The didn’t like what they saw and have obviously decided to pass. Remember, they tried to acquire him from the Angels for A.J. Burnett last offseason.

Abreu, who turned 39 on Monday, went 8-for-41 (.195) with three doubles and a triple in eleven winter ball games, drawing nine walks against ten strikeouts. He managed a .242/.350/.342 (97 wRC+) line in 257 plate appearances for the Angels and Dodgers last season, his fourth straight year of declining production. Bobby can still draw a walk like few others (14.4 BB% in 2012), but his power had disappeared (.108 ISO since 2011) and he absolutely can’t hit lefties (79 wRC+ since 2011). He also doesn’t steal many bases anyway and he was a terrible defender when he was playing in the Bronx five years ago. Abreu worked out at first base for some teams this winter, but he’s shown all the symptoms of age-related decline and I don’t want the Yankees to be his employer when he finally crashes.

Thinking about Bobby Abreu

(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Angels came into the season with a very crowded outfield/DH picture, but they cleared things up a bit last night by releasing Bobby Abreu following their fifth straight loss. Top prospect Mike Trout was recalled to hopefully inject some life into their season. Anaheim is still on the hook for the $9M left on Abreu’s contract, less the pro-rated portion of the league minimum should he sign elsewhere.

The Yankees, as you may recall, actually agreed to trade for Bobby this past offseason before A.J. Burnett invoked his no-trade clause because he didn’t want to go to the West Coast. It stands to reason that they’ll at least explore the idea of signing Abreu as a free agent now even though they brought in a different left-handed hitting DH type after the trade fell through. It doesn’t hurt to look.

The timing works out well given Brett Gardner‘s injury. The Yankees are carrying a 13-man pitching staff at the moment, so they could easily option Cody Eppley to Triple-A and create 40-man roster space for Abreu by shifting either Cesar Cabral or Joba Chamberlain to the 60-day DL. That would give them a very short window to see what he still has to offer as the left-handed half of a DH platoon without having to jettison Raul Ibanez. It’s worth noting that Gardner performed bunting drills yesterday and was scheduled to visit the doctor, though no update was given. He is eligible to come off the DL next Friday.

Joe wrote about Abreu at length at the end of Spring Training, noting that he’s unlikely to be much an upgrade over Ibanez, if he is one at all. Since both guys are relatively cheap and terrible on defense, the decision would essentially come down to Ibanez’s power vs. Abreu’s on-base skills and base running. The Yankees value makeup and clubhouse presence, though they obviously have first hand knowledge of what Bobby is like in that department. Signing Abreu for what amounts to a week-long audition seems like a decent idea given the lack of risk, though I don’t think it’s the most imperative of moves. There are valid reasons both for it and against it.

Could the Yankees again turn to Abreu at DH?

(Via Reuters Photos)

Before the Yankees agreed to terms with Raul Ibanez, they explored the trade market for DH options. The thinking was that they might be able to offload A.J. Burnett in exchange for a left-handed hitter, fulfilling two organizational needs at once. While that never materialized, there were a few whispers about possible targets. Among them was former Yankee right fielder Bobby Abreu, who seemingly has been squeezed out of Anaheim’s lineup. But since Burnett could and did refuse a trade to the Angels, the situation never developed.

A month later, the situation has changed. While Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia spoke of giving Abreu 400 at-bats, that might no longer be the case. Kendrys Morales has come back strong, and the indication is that he’ll be the regular DH. With all three outfield spots spoken for, and with Mike Trout looming, there doesn’t appear to be any regular at-bats for Abreu. The Angels will almost certainly look to trade him before the start of the season. Might the Yankees match up?

The Yankees signed Ibanez to fill the DH spot against right-handed pitching, but the 39-year-old has done little to impress this spring. He has gone 3 for 40 with just two walks, though he did homer on Saturday. His bat looks slow, and there appear to be few redeeming qualities in his spring. We’ve received many emails to RAB lamenting Ibanez’s struggles and suggesting alternatives should he continue to flail. Since he earns just $1 million, he is expendable under the right circumstances. Unfortunately, Abreu’s situation is quite similar to Ibanez’s.

Abreu has 37 at-bats this spring and has just four hits. He has walked just three times, though chances are he’s not honing his discipline. Instead, according to Scioscia, he’s just working on his timing. Abreu, too, is writing off his poor spring performance, saying that he’s focused on getting himself ready for the season and not with his actual production. Still, it’s difficult to see how he’s in a better position than Ibanez. In fact, he might be in a worse position.

After a terrible season in 2011, Ibanez has worked to get himself back into playing shape. There have been no concerns about his weight, his preparedness, or his work ethic this spring. Abreu, on the other hand, has constantly chirped about his dissatisfaction with his role. He also gained weight, another concern for a player his age. Essentially, his words this spring have brought into question his attitude. Ibanez has never come under fire for such character issues. In fact, he is often lauded for his clubhouse personality.

Abreu can turn to his recent performances, but even those fall short. For the last two years he’s seen his average drop to .250, which has in turn dropped his OBP into the .350 range. His power dropped off considerably last year as well, further damning his case. Indeed, he might have a point about his treatment by the Angels; there’s little doubt that Abreu is a better offensive player than Vernon Wells, who will continue to start in left field. But his diminishing performance, combined with his spring numbers and his combative attitude, all work against him.

Perhaps a change of scenery would brighten things for Abreu. Maybe that would spur him to a season that resembles his 2009 and 2010 campaigns. Unfortunately, a match just doesn’t seem to be there with the Yankees. They already have someone like that in camp, and he didn’t show up overweight while throwing jabs at the organization. If Abreu were performing well this spring, maybe the Yankees would consider it. Even then, the Angels would probably have to release Abreu, since the Yankees won’t want to trade useful players for him or pay part of his $9 million salary. But with Abreu struggling similarly to Ibanez, there seems to be no point. The Yanks will just stuck with who they have and monitor the market for upgrades if they feel they need one.

Mailbag: Bobby Abreu

(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

George asks: Would Bobby Abreu be a trade candidate for LH DH? Looks as though the Angels are shopping him and he’s signed for a year at $9 million. I’m not sure as to whether the Angels would take on A.J. Burnett‘s contract or not, but something may be worked out if it makes sense.

This was emailed in on Thursday night, before we learned that the ten teams included in Burnett’s no-trade clause are all on the West Coast. So right away we can forget about the Yankees trading him to Anaheim for anyone even though they could really use some rotation depth beyond that stellar top four.

As for Abreu, he definitely makes some sense as a left-handed DH. Putting aside the money and logistics for a second, Bobby still does three things exceptionally well: he draws a ton of walks, steals bases, and stay in the lineup (140+ games in each of the last 14 seasons). His batting eye remains one of the very best in the game, with a 14.7% career walk rate and 13.3% in 2011. He also stole 20 bases (21 to be exact) in 2011 for the 13th consecutive season. You have to figure he’ll slow down at some point — he likely already has, but his instincts have kept him productive on the bases — but if nothing else, he still fits into that Yankee mold of working the count and grinding away at-bats. That style fits perfectly into that seventh hole of the lineup.

On the downside, Abreu’s batting average has sunk into the .250s over the last two seasons (.254 to be exact) after sitting at .285+ for more than a decade. All those walks have resulted in a .353 OBP over the last two years rather than one that’s approaching or above .400. Don’t get me wrong, a .350-ish OBP is still pretty good, but it’s not what we’re used to seeing out of Bobby. Furthermore, his power has started to dry up at age 37 (38 in March), as he hit just eight homers in 585 plate appearances last season (two came in one game against the Yankees, if you remember). Part of that is the pitcher friendly ballpark in SoCal, but not all of it. It’s also worth noting that his performance against left-handed batters has completely tanked the last few years (like, sub-.290 wOBA bad), so you’ve got to consider him a strict platoon bat these days. Obviously, he can’t play defense either.

The Angels owe Bobby $9M in 2012, and he can become a free agent after the season. He’s reportedly open to a trade given the club’s crowded outfield/DH picture, but there’s a sense that they may hold onto him for the time because they don’t have another reliable left-handed bat with Kendrys Morales still on the mend. That said, Jayson Stark recently heard “they’d [trade him] for a middling prospect, just to move the money.” Ideally, they’d get a right-handed bullpen arm in return, he added Stark. The Yankees have middling prospects and a right-handed bullpen arm or two (George Kontos?) to spare, so matching up for a swap doesn’t figure to be difficult.

I don’t necessarily endorse it, but if the Yankees can free up some cash by trading Burnett, Abreu would be a viable DH option. The Halos would have to eat some money and take a lesser prospect in return, but it’s not the craziest thing ever. Someone from the Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez, Russell Branyan group might be more logical and affordable however, especially since Bobby isn’t guaranteed to outproduce any of them. In situations like this, oftentimes the easiest way to go (sign a free agent) is the best.