Not Mike Mussina

(Reuters)

Who do you think of first when you think of the New York Yankees, #24?

Recency, a penchant for the dramatic, a great glove and a power bat would of course lead one to what might seem like the obvious choice: Robinson Cano. And it’s a pretty good answer, too, in my opinion. Robbie’s grown up into a core member of the team and is, quite frankly, a really good baseball player. He’s expected to hit third in the lineup this year, which means that there will be many men-on dingers and RBIs this year, plus lots of stellar plays he makes look easy and, of course, thousands of giant gum bubbles.

But Cano isn’t the only answer. Here’s some hints: he played first base for the Yankees from 1996-2001 (really knew how to pick his years, didn’t he?), hitting .279 with an OPS+ of 114 and 175 home runs. The answer, to anyone who was around during those years, should be obvious: the wonderful and amazing Tino Martinez. As a kid, I loved Tino only slightly less than I loved Paul O’Neill, and even four years after Tino left, I was still a little sore over this obnoxious second-baseman taking his number, which I believed should have been retired. I was a little insensible as a kid, but the point still stands. In sports and especially on the Yankees, where there are no names on the jerseys, the numbers become associated quite strongly with the player.

(While we’re on the subject of Paul O’Neill and #21, I seem to recall LaTroy Hawkins begin given a lot of crap for taking that number and then changing it, which filled me with more joy than you can ever imagine.)

As the Spring Training pictures roll in, the one thing that keeps throwing me off is Michael Pineda wearing #35. Like every other sensible Yankees fan, I loved Moose and felt it was really depressing that he never got a ring, and while I don’t think retiring his number is in the cards, it’s really strange to see someone else wearing it. Pineda’s a good choice to carry on his legacy of really good pitchers I wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley at night, but that doesn’t change that he isn’t Mike Mussina. Of course, people taking the numbers of old players is just another part of growing up with baseball. Pretty sure no one else is ever going to wear 2, though.

Let’s switch gears a little bit. I had this argument with a friend while I was in New York last year, so I’ll ask all of you: my friend had purchased a Hideki Matsui jersey some years ago while he was still a Yankee. Like a sensible person with disposable income, he had no name of the back. These days, Russell Martin, who is a pretty valuable piece of the team in his own right, now wears #55. Does your jersey magically become a Russell Martin jersey? Is it still a Matsui jersey in your brain, and that’s all that matters? Is the jersey meaningless without the player you bought it for? If no one ever wears #55 again, do you never wear the jersey? What if the number’s retired?

And because this is an article about Yankees jersey numbers: between 6, 46 and 20, which ones get retired?

Who's next? (photo by flickr user 2Eklectik, used under Creative Commons.)
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The Vlad Guerrero Option

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images))

The Yankees’ search for a part-time DH has essentially come down to three finalists: Raul Ibanez, who remains the front-runner; Johnny Damon, whose quest for 3,000 hits might be hindering his play, and Hideki Matsui, whose 2011 season looked like the end of the road. Chances are the Yankees will move on one of these players once they’ve shed A.J. Burnett and a portion of his salary. But none of that has happened yet. That leaves other suitors a chance to make a case. One has already spoken up.

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Vladimir Guerrero “has made it known to the Yankees that he wants their DH spot.” We’ve been over many possible DH candidates, but to date we haven’t discussed Guerrero. He just didn’t seem to fit, based on a surface judgment. Instead of simply accepting this, though, let’s look a bit deeper into what Vlad can bring to the team. Might he be a better DH option than the current suitors?

The first strike against Vlad appears to be his handedness. All of the prominent suitors for the Yankees’ DH role, including minor league signee Russ Branyan, hit from the left side of the plate. Given the current roster construction, a lefty does make sense for that part-time DH spot. Since Andruw Jones will take reps against left-handers, the Yanks could use someone who can handle right-handers.

Yet that obscures the issue a bit. First, some of Jones’ at-bats will be at the expense of Brett Gardner. While Gardner can hold his own against lefties, he has absolutely no pop against them. Using Jones in left adds power to the lineup, while at the same time keeping Gardner’s legs fresh. The DH spot, then, can remain open against LHP at times.

The other issue: not every lefty hits righties better than every righty. This comes at the top of the scale — Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera, both righties, have hit right-handed pitching better than anyone in the last two seasons — and the bottom. That is, just because someone hits left handed doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily good against them. We can see this when comparing the DH candidates.

In terms of overall numbers, Damon and Vlad have been the best hitters in the last two seasons, producing 109 and 108 wRC+ numbers. Ibanez trails them by a bit, producing average numbers. Matsui, on the strength of his 2010 season, actually ranks just behind Vlad and Damon, with a 107 wRC+.

When we turn to production against RHP, Matsui actually comes out ahead with a 110 wRC+. From there Ibanez, Vlad, and Damon are all close, with slightly above average numbers. That is, there’s not a huge difference among them in terms of production against right-handed pitching. That is, Vlad can hang with them, even though he bats right-handed.

In terms of age, Vlad also holds the advantage. He’s 37 this season. Ibanez is 40, and Damon and Matsui are both 38. There might not be much to this, since they’re all past their primes and could fall off a cliff at any moment. There’s also the issue of their current declines. Here’s how much each one dropped off, in terms of wRC+, from 2010 to 2011.

Guerrero: -24
Damon: even
Ibanez: -19
Matsui: -30

Of course, the dips from Matsui and Guerrero are greater, because they had far better 2010 seasons than both Damon and Ibanez. At the same time, Damon is the only one to finish with above-average numbers in 2011. This makes the situation a bit murkier.

If one thing becomes clear when breaking down the situation, it’s that Ibanez’s status as front-runner makes little sense. He’s the oldest in the group, saw a pretty steep decline from 2010 to 2011, and overall produced the worst numbers in the past two years. While Matsui’s stark decline from 2010 to 2011 might disqualify him as a serious candidate, the same could, and probably should, be said of Ibanez. It’s hard to see where the optimism comes from.

Guerrero, it appears, isn’t at all the worst candidate for the Yankees’ DH gig. He might hit right-handed, but hey, so did the guy who was originally supposed to fill the DH role in 2012. The only big red flag is that he realized a marked drop-off in 2011, though part of that involves his quality 2010 season. His case is definitely stronger than I had originally envisioned.

Chances are the Yankees won’t seriously consider Guerrero for DH, and in a way that’s a shame. Maybe he doesn’t hit left-handed, but he looks like a better option than Ibanez right now. If the Yankees are having trouble working out something with Ibanez or Damon, perhaps Vlad does become a dark horse. It’s hard to make a case that the other guys are much, if any, better.

Plenty of low-risk options available for DH

The free agent market brims with left-handed hitters who could play the role of part-time DH for the Yankees. The list comprises many household names, and each could provide the Yankees with quality at-bats in a part-time role. Each is also flawed, which is pretty standard for any remaining free agent (Prince Fielder excepting). Yet that could work in the Yankees’ favor. It means the players are likely open to a part-time role, which fits the Yankees’ needs well enough. It also means that they’ll likely fit into the $1 to $2 million budget the Yankees have reportedly set for the DH spot.

Even better: Most, if not all, of these candidates could sign minor league deals. That means all the upside for virtually no risk. Here they are, in the reverse order of preference.

Nick Johnson: Many, if not most, Yankees fans will retch upon seeing this. The last go-round with Johnson ended horribly. He came to the plate just 98 times and hit for extra bases just six times. He did walk a lot, as can be expected, but that’s about all he did. Last year Johnson rehabbed in the Indians system, though he didn’t even crack a .320 OBP at AAA. He also experienced wrist issues, again, earlier in the season. If the Yankees do want to give Johnson another look, it simply has to be in addition to someone else.

Dan Johnson: We all remember the other Johnson from his bottom of the ninth heroics in Game 162 last season. Johnson apparently has a penchant for this type of hit. They do call him The Great Pumpkin, after all, because he comes around once a year and hits a big homer, usually to the Red Sox peril. Problem is, he hasn’t really hit in the majors since 2007. He does clobber AAA, having produced a .445 wOBA in 2010 and a .374 wOBA in 2011. But that apparently doesn’t help his major league performance much. Again, he’s a fine option if there’s someone else ahead of him.

Hideki Matsui: We know that the Yankees have been in contact with Matsui, but they’ve likely been in contact with many other similar players as well. As Mike noted in that brief post, Matsui’s 2011 stunk pretty badly. He was stuck in Oakland, and his slow start did not help his case. At age 38, he could be all but finished in the bigs. But on a minor league deal he could be an interesting option. After all, he did have a decent 2010 season, particularly in the second half. Return him to the familiar confines of Yankee Stadium and limit his at-bats to right-handed pitchers, and he might have one more year left in him.

J.D. Drew: There is no doubt that Drew, now age 36, is in stark decline. After putting up two phenomenal years for the Red Sox in 2008 and 2009 he’s seen his numbers drop in the last two years, and last year particularly. Drew also spent considerable time on the DL last year. A platoon DH role could help mitigate some of that injury risk, but the declining numbers, particularly in terms of power, are a bit disconcerting. He gets bumped to the mid-tier because of his name value, his batting eye, and his ability to play the outfield if necessary. The Yanks would really have to believe that they can get a quality 400 PA out of him if they were to even sign him to a minor league deal.

Casey Kotchman: Last season the Rays signed Kotchman to a minor league deal, and that worked out exceedingly well for them. In 563 PA he produced a 125 wRC+, mainly on the strength of his .378 OBP. At the same time, much of that value came from his .306 batting average, which was almost 40 points higher than his career average. As expected of a left-handed hitter, he did handle righties quite a deal better than lefties, producing a 136 wRC+ against them. But unless Kotchman turned something around for real in 2011, it’s tough to get past his career 102 wRC+ against righties.

Raul Ibanez: There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Ibanez, whose 2012 will be his age-40 season. His numbers took a big dip in 2011, particularly his walk rate. He managed to walk in just 5.7 percent of his PA, his lowest rate since 1998 (when he came to the plate just 103 times). The good news is that he’s one year removed from a pretty decent season, and even in his poor season he hit righties well enough. In 2010 he was even better, with a 116 wRC+ against righties. He’s a risk, for sure, but if the Yankees can keep Ibanez fresh he could whale quite a few homers at Yankee Stadium.

Russell Branyan: This is my official endorsement for Branyan, who is the ideal candidate for a platoon DH role. His career 120 wRC+ against righties looks attractive enough, but it’s his .259 career ISO against righties that looks the most attractive. He’ll strike out his share, but he’ll also launch quite a few bombs — we’ve already seen two mammoth homers of his at Yankee Stadium. While last year was a down year, in 2010 Branyan produced a 137 wRC+ against righties, including 19 homers and 17 doubles in 322 PA. A return to that level, minus all PA against left-handed pitching, makes for an ideal fit. He and Andruw Jones would make a powerful and cost-effective DH platoon.

Again, every player on this list is flawed, some greatly so. Clearly they’d be better off with a more sure things, such as Carlos Pena. But if they really do have a budget of $1 to $2 million for a DH, one or more of these guys might be the way to go. They all have the potential to produce decent to very good numbers against right-handed pitching, which is just what the Yankees seek. That they’d all come on minor league deals makes them even more attractive, since that eliminates almost all of the risk. If the Yankees do not find a true righty-mashing DH, they’d do well enough with a Branyan or an Ibanez.

Yanks have been in contact with Hideki Matsui

With their DH job now up for the grab, the Yankees have been in contact with Hideki Matsui according to Jon Heyman. Since they reportedly only have about $2M to spend on a bat, it figures that they’d go for players they know to try to maximize value.

Matsui, now 37, had the worst season of his MLB career in 2011, posting a .306 wOBA and 93 wRC+ with a dozen homers for the Athletics. It wasn’t just the ballpark either, his .313 road wOBA was below average as well. Aside from a ridiculously hot 24 game stretch after the All-Star break (.432/.481/.663), Godzilla was pretty awful last year. Given Matsui’s well-documented knee problems, I’d rather have Johnny Damon assuming similar contracts, but that’s just me.

Remember Hideki’s arrival as Darvish slips away

All of the recent brouhaha over Yu Darvish, I got to thinking about Hideki Matsui. Unlike many high-profile Japanese players who made the jump to the states, Matsui hit the Majors as an unrestricted free agent. There was no blind bidding process and subsequent negotiation. Hideki was free to pick whatever team he wanted. It almost made sense.

For Darvish, the decision to push his team to post him was a calculated risk. As ESPN.com’s Patrick Newman and Eno Sarris showed (in an Insider-only piece) on Tuesday, Darvish probably could have made more had he waited a few more years. If his deal with the Rangers ends up being at an annual level of around $12 million, there’s a good chance he would earn more in the long term by returning to Japan this year and entering the States via bidding process. Teams wouldn’t have to pony over sunk dollars on a posting fee, and Darvish would stand to make all of the money from his contract.

Yet, the allure of guaranteed dollars is a tough one to resist. It’s why pitchers are willing to sign seemingly below-market deals earlier in their careers. The threat of injury lurks, and easy access to millions is too tempting to turn down. Darvish will sign a deal that locks him up for five or six years, but if he’s as good as advertised, he’ll cash in again in his early 30s. That said, he would be wise to sign a high-dollar, low-year deal with the Rangers and hit free agency at 29. Texas, though, would rather lock him up for longer.

Anyway, I digress. The erstwhile World Series MVP was my original focus. I realized a few days ago, as the Yanks continued through a silent off-season, that I missed Matsui. Now, I don’t believe the Yanks should bring him back, but I miss his presence in left field and his bat in the lineup. Bring back the glory days of Matsui, the player who hit .292/.370/.482 on the Yanks, and I’ll be happy.

So how anyway did the Yanks land Hideki? It was the more traditional path. By the end of 2001, Matsui’s name was bandied about as a future Major Leaguer. He was the highest paid Japanese player at the time, and the next stop for him would be the States. The first time the Yanks were tied to him arrived in August of 2002 when Jack Curry reported that Jean Afterman was scouting Matsui. Over the next few months, rumors of the Yanks’ interest hit the news. Would the Bombers land both Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui prior to 2003?

Hideki was a new — and seemingly rare — breed of Japanese players. He used a quick bat to pull the ball and was a power hitter more in the American baseball mode. As the offseason wore on, both the Yankees and the Mets emerged as potential suitors for Matsui’s services. As the Yankees tried to determine if they wanted Bartolo Colon or Roger Clemens for 2003, they stepped up their pursuit of Matsui as well, and by mid-December, they seemed poised to land him for three years and $20-21 million. It was an easy negotiation and an easy deal. Godzilla came to New York.

Since Matsui’s arrival, no Japanese player has made quite the same impact on Major League Baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka and, to a greater extent, Kei Igawa failed to deliver as advertised, and no power hitters or All Star position players in the Ichiro or Matsui mold have arrived on U.S. soil. Now, it’s Darvish’s turn, and in Texas, where the defending AL Champs are in bad need of pitching, he’ll get a chance to star. The whole world will be watching.