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.

Yanks made a hefty offer to Pavano

(Kevork Djansezian/AP)

Perhaps the oddest moment of an odd winter came during the Rafael Soriano press conference. Speaking to the press after Soriano’s introduction, Brian Cashman revealed that he had discussions with Carl Pavano. There was an offer, and Ken Rosenthal’s sources indicated that he was on the verge of a pinstriped return. That didn’t work out, though, as the Twins wooed him back with a two-year, $16.5 million deal. Still, he stood to make a decent sum from the Yankees.

Today SI’s Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees offered Pavano one year at $9.75 million plus incentives. That base salary would have trumped Pavano’s annual salary with the Twins, but there’s no chance that the incentives would have brought him anywhere near that $16.5 million guarantee. Still, I wonder what the situation would have been if the Twins only offered the two years and $13 million that the Pirates did. Might he have come back to New York for up to, say, $12 million in incentives?

The issue really highlights the fan divide on the subject. Despite question marks in the Nos. 4 and 5 rotation spots, many fans wouldn’t have wanted Pavano back under any circumstances. The emotions of seeing Pavano, flat-out accused by some fans of stealing $40 million from the Yanks, for some outweigh the positives he could bring to the mound. My stance runs counter to that; I mocked Pavano as much as the next guy, but on a one-year contract he made more sense than perhaps any other non-Lee pitcher this off-season.

The point is moot, of course. We’ll never get to see Pavano write his redemption story. Instead he’ll start on Opening Day for the Twins. The Yanks did make a significant effort, though, offering Pavano the highest average annual value. But in the end more money, and a less hostile environment, won out.

Probably a Yankee by any other name

Visual proof that Carl Pavano did indeed make some starts for the Yankees. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After Cliff Lee shocked the baseball world and signed with the Phillies, I wasn’t quite sure what the Yankees would do, but I thought they might kick the tires on the second-best free agent pitcher on the market. After all, with Andy Pettitte‘s 2011 role uncertain and A.J. Burnett‘s ability to get outs under fire, the Yankees need someone to throw quality innings, and this free agent could do that.

Over the past two seasons, this free agent had pitched reasonably well. Splitting time between a bottom feeder and a division leader in 2009 and spending all of 2010 with the AL Central champs, he went 31-23 with a 4.39 ERA and a FIP around 4.01 in 420 innings. He posted a combined K/9 IP of 5.7 but saw his strike outs dip from 6.6 per 9 innings in 2009 to 4.8 in 2010. It didn’t matter though because he allowed just one home run every nine innings and gave up the second fewest bases on balls in the AL. With a heavy sinker, he also exhibited ground-ball tendencies, a trait that allows a pitcher to succeed with low strike-out rates.

There was but one problem: His name was Carl Pavano, and he had a history with the Yankees. His history, as we well know, wasn’t just any history; it was an injury-filled disastrous history that saw many questioning his desire to play baseball and others accusing him of flat-out ripping off the Yankees. Pavano signed a four-year, $39.95 million deal with the Yankees and made just 26 starts over the course of the deal. It was an epic disaster.

Of course, at the time of Pavano’s signing in December of 2004, the deal wasn’t a bad one, and it’s often easy to forget that. After the Yanks’ epic 2004 ALCS collapse, the team needed pitching, and Pavano hit the market after back-to-back 200-inning seasons. The Yanks’ 2003 World Series loss was fresh in the Front Office’s mind, and Pavano was one of the arms that had stymied the Yanks’ bats. So the wooing began.

It was quite the courtship. Pavano made the tour of the league, stopping in Boston, Detroit, New York, Baltimore and Seattle. Everybody wanted the right-hander, and he had his choice of destinations. Eventually, he landed with New York and called it a “dream come true.”

That dream though became a nightmare. By mid-2006, Pavano had, as ESPN.com reported, sustained “shoulder, back, buttocks and elbow injuries” and had neglected to inform the team that he had broken his ribs in a car accident in Florida while out on a rehab assignment. By early 2007, he had made doubters out of his teammates. “It didn’t look good from a player’s and teammate’s standpoint,” Mike Mussina said during Spring Training. “Was everything just coincidence? Over and over again? I don’t know…It got to a point where we just didn’t want to even hear about it or talk about it anymore.”

After drawing the Opening Day start in 2007 due to injuries to everyone else on the Yankees, Pavano went down in mid-April with an elbow strain. He eventually needed Tommy John surgery and would not return to the field until late 2008. By then, the Yankees were ready to say good bye and slam the door shut on that era.

Yet, two years later, the team has found itself without pitching, and as Mike detailed earlier, they turned to Pavano this winter. GM Brian Cashman had, according to Ken Rosenthal, “several conversations” with Pavano’s agent, and Pavano “seriously” considered a return to the Bronx. As Rosenthal reported, Pavano “even [told] friends at one point that he intended to rejoin the team.”

The ultimate hang-up was one of dollars. The Yanks had offered a one-year deal, and when the Twins guaranteed a second season, Pavano jumped at their offer. He took fewer annual dollars in exchange the security of a second year, and the reunion-to-be turned into one that never was.

It’s no longer worth justifying anything surrounding Carl Pavano. He either suffered through bad luck or a poor mind. He could have come back to the Yanks to salvage his reputation, but he would have been received far, far worse treatment than Javier Vazquez did last year. In fact, the fan reaction to Vazquez would would have seemed like a giant group hug in comparison.

Unfortunately for the Yanks’ rotation and for Pavano, the biggest sticking point is that he is, in fact, Carl Pavano. Perhaps the Twins’ second year saved Brian Cashman from himself for the second season in a row. But if Carl Pavano were some other pitcher with similar numbers, chances are that he would have been fitted for pinstripes by now.

Soriano Presser Notes: Joba, Pavano, Pettitte

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Rafael Soriano was officially introduced as a Yankee today, though unfortunately the MLB.com broadcast didn’t show any of the juicy Q&A with Brian Cashman and the rest of the bigwigs. Thankfully we have Twitter, so here are some notes from the presser with the source in parenthesis…

  • Cashman acknowledged that a) he did not recommend signing Soriano to ownership, and b) it was Hal Steinbrenner‘s call. “I just didn’t think it was an efficient way to allocate our remaining resources,” said the GM. (Joe Lemire)
  • “Its not my team. I don’t own it,” said Cash. “[The Steinbrenners] do. In any job you better be prepared for every decision to not go your way.” (Peter Botte)
  • Cashman did acknowledge that Soriano makes the team considerably better in 2011, jokingly saying “I think 29 other GMs would love to have their owner shove Rafael Soriano down their throat.” The man has a point. (Lemire & Botte)
  • The inevitable question was asked, and Cashman responded “[Joba Chamberlain] is a bullpen guy, for the 200th time.” Such a damn shame. (Botte)
  • Cash admitted that the team considered and had several discussions with the agent for … wait for it … Carl Pavano. Pavano was said to be seriously considering a return to New York, but he decided to pass on the team’s offer of a one-year deal when the Twins offered two guaranteed years. He passes the “better than Sergio Mitre” test and at this point he’d only cost a second rounder, so why the hell not? This offseason jumped the shark a long time ago anyway. (Botte & Brian Costello & Ken Rosenthal)
  • As for the rest of the free agent pitching market, Cash had a doozy of a quote: “It’s a difficult market to choose from. Listen, if you’re still on the board, there’s a reason for it … The starter might have to come from within. Hopefully we have some of these young kids answer the bell for us.” The truth stings, huh? (Bryan Hoch)
  • Since Scott Boras was at the presser, Cashman continued talks with him about Andruw Jones. I’d be surprised if he hasn’t agreed to terms by Monday, honestly. (Hoch)
  • And finally, there is still no official word from Andy Pettitte regarding his potential return or retirement, but Joe Girardi did speak to him last week and confirmed that the lefty is at least working out to remain in baseball shape. Better than nothing, I suppose. (Bryan Hoch)

Mailbag: Carl Pavano

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

If Carl Pavano hadn’t already pitched for the Yankees, would you consider him as an starting pitching option?

With Hiroki Kuroda and Jake Westbrook re-signing with the Dodgers and Cardinals, respectively, Pavano is the best pitcher on the free agent market not named Cliff Lee. Usually a guy like that would be the first backup plan should the Yankees fail to sign Lee, but given their history there’s zero chance of Pavano returning to New York. They’d sooner start Sidney Ponson every five days. But let’s forget all that for a second and break him down as a pitcher.

Pavano, 35 in January, has developed into a bonafide workhorse over the last two seasons, ironic given his tenure in New York. He threw 221 innings in 2010 (seven (!!!) complete games) and 199.1 the year before, good for the 19th most innings in all of baseball over the last two seasons. A sinker-slider-changeup mix results in a ton of groundballs (47.5% over the last two years) and he doesn’t hurt himself with walks at all (just 73 unintentional walks during that time, or 1.56 BB/9). Lots of innings, lots of groundballs, and few walks are a slam dunk recipe for success, but there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about Pavano going forward.

For one, he doesn’t strike anyone out, just 4.76 K/9 in 2010 and 6.64 (second best mark of his career) the year before. Pavano’s swing-and-miss rate is just 8.02% over the last two years, below the 8.5% league average. His fastball velocity is trending downward, and despite the impressive ground ball rate, Pavano can still be prone to giving up the long ball (1.07 HR/9 since 2009). That’s with just about a quarter of his innings coming at spacious Target Field as well, a park that suppressed homers to just 64.1% of the league average in its inaugural season. When he’s made mistakes, he’s made them up in the zone, a bad sign.

Given the contracts already handed to Kuroda, Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Jon Garland, it’s safe to say that Pavano’s looking at no fewer than two years (likely three) guaranteed at $10M per season. For a guy that struggles to miss bats and needs a strong defense behind him to survive, that price just doesn’t make sense for the Yankees. They’ve built their pitching staffs around strikeout pitchers the last few years, taking what was once a below average team defense out of the equation as much as possible. It’s a sound strategy regardless of what the team’s defense looks like, really, but Pavano doesn’t fit that mold at all. He’d probably be able to step into their rotation and be a back-end innings guy in New York, which absolutely has value, but they need something better that right now.

Even assuming 2005 through 2008 never happened, I’d still be against a Carl Pavano signing unless the Yankees whiffed on Plans A, B, and C. He’d be a last resort kind of guy for me. If he’s not missing bats and is giving up a decent amount of homers now, what will he be doing in two or three years?

Exploiting Minnesota’s weaknesses

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The Twins finished the regular season with the fourth best record in baseball (94-68) and on a three-plus month hot streak that saw them go 47-25 down the stretch. They did that primarily by crushing their own division and the AL West, because their 15-18 record against the AL East is hardly awe-inspiring. Like every other team they have their flaws, some more noticeable than others. Exploiting those weaknesses is going to be important for any team playing the Twins, and it just so happens that they draw the Yankees in the ALDS.

Here are two of Minnesota’s biggest drawbacks, two things that the Yankees wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of in years past because they lacked a little something called speed.

Running On Carl Pavano

Yankee fans are well aware of their team’s problem with allowing stolen bases. Jorge Posada and Frankie Cervelli hardly ever throw anyone out (just 17.3% combined), and some pitchers on the staff seem allergic to holding runners (coughA.J. Burnettcough). The Twins have a bit of a stolen base problem of their own, and it comes in the form of former Yankee Carl Pavano.

Pavano, who has always been slow to the plate, allowed 31 stolen bases in 39 opportunities this year (79.5%). Essentially one out of every seven baserunners with an opportunity to steal have at least attempted it, and most of them were successful. Joe Mauer, who threw out 42.2% of attempted basestealers from 2004-2008 is down to just 26.2% over the last two seasons. He also battled some shoulder soreness this summer, so he’s more susceptible to the stolen base than ever before. Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Derek Jeter need to take advantage in Game Two and swipe bases whenever possible.

It’s not just about stealing bases to get runners in scoring position either. Pavano is a ground ball pitcher (51.2% grounders this season) and has gotten a double play in 11.5% of his opportunities this year, so swiping some bases will help avoid those twins killings, particularly when Jeter and his league leading 65.7% ground ball rate are at the plate. Run boys run.

Jason Kubel’s Defense

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Justin Morneau’s injury hurt the Twins in more ways than one. Sure, replacing his .447 wOBA is basically impossible (though Jim Thome did a helluva job trying), but it also forced an unfavorable defensive shift. Michael Cuddyer stepped in as the everyday first baseman, pushing Jason Kubel into rightfield full-time. There’s a reason that 60% of Kubel’s starts in 2008 and 2009 came as a designated hitter, and that’s because the man is awful with the glove.

Over the last three seasons, his -17.5 UZR in right ranks 35th out of 39 qualified fielders (min. 1,000 innings), and that’s mostly because of an awful range score (-14.5). Kubel simply doesn’t get to all that many balls out there, and that’s a bit exacerbated by spacious Target Field. Beyond just catching the ball, his throwing is a big time liability and something the Yanks can absolutely take advantage of.

In baserunning situations such as first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double, second-to-home on a single, and sacrifice flies with the runner at second and/or third, Kubel’s “hold” rate is just 39.3%. The league average is close to 46%. His “kill” rate checks in at just 3.4%, well below the 6% league average. A “hold” is when he limits to the runner to just one base on a single or two on a double (so first-to-second on a single, not first-to-third, etc.), nothing more. A “kill” is when he actually threw a runner out attempting to take the extra base.

Clearly, Kubel’s arm is something guys like Gardner, Granderson, Jeter, Robbie Cano, and even Alex Rodriguez need to exploit. He’s very unlikely to throw them out trying to take the extra base, so they should push the envelope as much as possible, particularly with Francisco Liriano on the mound. They simply won’t get many opportunities to generate extended rallies against him, so they have to create offense in other ways.

It’s also worth noting that Delmon Young is equally awful in left, with a -43.3 UZR over the last three seasons (dead last among qualified fielders). His hold rate on first-to-homes on a doubles, second-to-home to singles, and sacrifice flies to score a run (it’s not often a runner goes first-to-third on a single to left, or advances from second on a sac fly) is just 38.3%, his kill rate 5.3%. Like I said earlier, run boys run.

* * *

I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s not just the Yankees that have weaknesses heading into the playoffs. In addition to the above, the Twins are likely to be without top setup man Jon Rauch because of a knee injury (though he had it drained and claims he’s good to go), and their bullpen had the fourth worst strikeout rate in baseball this year at 6.74 K/9. If you’re going to let the Yanks put balls in play in the late innings, bad things will happen. With any luck they’ll take advantage.

Waiting for Pavano

Ken Davidoff hit the nail on the head yesterday when he called Carl Pavano a symbol of the Yanks’ recent failures. In discussing the way the Yankees felt about Pavano, the $40 million man who made 26 starts over four years, and the approach to team-building during the latter part of the Torre Era, Davidoff called out the Yanks.

“The truth lies,” he writes, “not in choosing sides among friends-turned-enemies Cashman and Torre but in understanding what Pavano and his $39.95-million heist represented: a haphazard period during Cashman’s reign in which personnel decisions were driven by haste, emotions and a lack of appreciation for old-school background checks and new-wave statistical analysis.”

Davidoff notes how the Yanks of 2004 are a seemingly far cry from the Yanks of both the mid-1990s and this season. “If the Yankees had conducted better research on Pavano, perhaps they would’ve learned of a) his surliness; b) his stupidity; c) his bouts with apathy; and, most important, d) how the batting average on balls in play (BABiP) from his standout 2004 season – matched against his line-drive percentage that year – indicated that his numbers were boosted by luck,” he notes.

Baseball, it seems, is not without its dark sense of humor. In three hours, the Twins will put their season into the hands of one Carl Pavano and the Yanks will look to move on to the ALCS for the first time since signing Pavano. During the media gaggle yesterday, the Yankees danced around the topic of Pavano.

“He worked extremely hard and he tried the best he could,” Brian Cashman said. “Unfortunately too many times I’d get that phone call that we had a problem and it was one that needed to be surgically fixed, or required a lot of time to allow the healing process to take place.”

Current and former Yankees — Mike Mussina, in particular — were not afraid to criticize Carl, but this week, the attacks have been muted. The team knows not to get too far ahead of themselves, but how can they not think of sore buttocks, car crashes, broken ribs and arm surgery as they face off against a player who somehow made 33 starts this year and won 14 games, five more than during his entire Bronx tenure?

Maybe Carl can provide the Twins with a reprieve for a day, but the Yankees will be itching to put Pavano behind them today. No matter the outcome, it will be fitting to see him take the hill later today against the Yanks in a potential clinching game. Expected to lead them to this point, he did simply by not being here any longer.