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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Mailbag: Bailey, Giambi, Johan, Relievers

Only four questions this week, but they’re good ones. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the best way to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(Joe Robbins/Getty)
(Joe Robbins/Getty)

Nate asks: If Homer Bailey is indeed being dangled, what kind of package would it take to land him? Should the Yankees go after him?

There has been speculation the Reds could trade Bailey in an effort to create payroll space, perhaps to sign Shin-Soo Choo long-term. Matt Swartz’s insanely accurate arbitration model projects the right-hander to earn $9.3M next season, his last before qualifying for free agency. Bailey reportedly hasn’t shown much interest in signing a long-term contract and presumably has his eye on a massive contract a year from now. Hard to blame him.

Bailey, 27, has emerged maybe not as an ace these last two years, but something damn close to an ace. He had a 3.49 ERA and 3.31 FIP in 209 innings this season after posting a 3.68 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 208 innings last year. Bailey was once one of the very best pitching prospects in the game — he was one spot behind Phil Hughes on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list after the 2006 season — and now he’s coming into his own as he enters his peak years.

Even though he only has one more year of team control left, I do think the Yankees should pursue Bailey if the Reds are indeed open to moving him. Not only would they be acquiring a really good pitcher –they could definitely use one or two of those, you know — but they would get a year to evaluate him in their league and ballpark before deciding whether to commit to him long-term. If not, they’ll get a draft pick. Kind of a win-win situation, I suppose.

Not too many pitchers of Bailey’s caliber have been traded one year from free agency in recent years, so we don’t have a good idea of what it would take to acquire him. Javy Vazquez (Expos to Yankees) and Cliff Lee (Phillies to Mariners) kinda fit the bill, but they were both better and more established than Bailey at the time of those trades. I’m guessing three prospects — one stud and two lesser pieces — is in the ballpark. The Reds don’t have any urgency to trade him though, so they won’t give him away. I don’t even think they will trade him. He’s a guy a win-now team keeps.

Andrew asks: With Jason Giambi looking to play one more year (according to Ken Rosenthal), would a reunion on a cheap one-year deal make sense? Cheap power designed for Yankee Stadium off the bench to hit for offensively challenged Yankees late in games (i.e., Brendan Ryan types should they re-sign him).

Giambi, who turns 43 in January, hit .183/.282/.371 (85 wRC+) with nine homers in 216 plate appearances for the Indians this year. That includes some really memorable walk-off homers as the Tribe made their push for a wildcard spot. I think it’s safe to assume moving into Yankee Stadium would help his power output, but how much? An extra five homers? Eight? Ten? The concerns I have are a) Giambi can’t play the field, and b) Derek Jeter figures to eat up a lot of DH time next season. The Yankees had an inflexible DH-only type on the roster this year (Travis Hafner) and it was a problem at times. I love Giambi as much as the next guy, but I don’t think he’s a fit for the current roster.

Michael asks: I wanted to know your thoughts about seeing Johan Santana in pinstripes for next year? He has a $25 million player and a $5.5 million buyout option. Can you picture Brian Cashman offering him a one-year, league minimum contract?

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)
(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

The Mets are obviously going to buy Santana out, but no, I can’t see the Yankees giving him a one-year contract at any salary. There’s no way they would (or should) guarantee him anything coming off his second (!) torn shoulder capsule. Torn capsules are the kiss of death; no one has ever had one and come back the same pitcher. The victim list includes Santana, Rich Harden, Mark Prior, Chien-Ming Wang, John Maine, John Danks, and Dallas Braden, among others.

That said, I do think the Yankees would be open to giving him a minor league contract a la Wang this year or Bartolo Colon in 2011. Santana came back from the first torn capsule and had a 4.85 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 117 innings last season, and that was in a big ballpark in the easier league. I’m not sure how anyone could expect anything out of him after another capsule injury, nevermind moving into Yankee Stadium and the AL East. Santana has been adamant that he wants to continue pitching, so if he wants to take a minor league deal to prove himself in Spring Training (and likely Triple-A early in the season), great. If not, no biggie.

Donny asks: After reading your “What Went Right: One-Run Games” post, I came to the conclusion that the team should keep David Robertson in the eighth and find someone else for the ninth. I came to this conclusion based on how Robertson reacted to his first introduction to closing (not good). My worry is that changing his role might have similar effects that it had on Joba Chamberlain and, to a lesser extent, Phil Hughes. Do you agree with this thought and if so, who should top the wish list (reasonably) if you are Brian Cashman?

Two things here. One, why is everyone freaking out about Robertson as the closer? How long as he actually been the team’s closer? A week, maybe, before getting hurt? That’s not enough to tell us anything about anything. Mariano Rivera blew three saves in the first two weeks of the 1997 season, remember. Robertson is one of the absolute best non-closer relievers in baseball. If you aren’t comfortable sticking him in the ninth inning, then who? He’s the perfect candidate. Two, moving Robertson from setup man to closer is not at all similar to moving Joba and Hughes back and forth between the rotation and bullpen. All you’re changing is the inning Robertson throws. The other two guys had to change their preparation, off-day routines, the way they pitched, everything. Huge, huge difference. Huge.

Now, all of that said, yeah the Yankees definitely need to bring in a good late-inning reliever this offseason in my opinion. With Rivera retiring, they’re losing an elite reliever. That’s 60 or so elite innings gone.Off the roster. Doesn’t matter what inning or role they came from, that’s a lot of production to replace. Free agent relievers are always risky investments, but the Yankees don’t really have a choice. A bullpen full of kids scares the crap out of me. Looking at the list of free agents, potential bullpen targets include Jesse Crain, Matt Lindstrom (if his option is declined), Edward Mujica, and the perpetually underrated Jamey Wright. I had my eye on Grant Balfour earlier this year, but he had a great season and won’t come cheap.

Mailbag: Wells, Soriano, Giambi, Teixeira

Four questions and four answers this week, the final mailbag before Opening Day. Hooray for that. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything throughout the week.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Ryan asks: The Vernon Wells trade … will essentially be the Yankees paying an above average one-year deal with help in the second year. My question is, where was this in the offseason, when they could have overpaid for one-year deals? Is this simply because they learned that Mark Teixeira‘s salary would be paid by the World Baseball Classic and freed up extra money?

I think it’s a combination of things. First and foremost are the injuries — the Yankees probably didn’t think they needed any more help in the offseason because they were already good enough. That’s a dangerous way to think as we see now thanks to all the lost players and recent scrambling. Secondly is the WBC money, since it is a nice chunk of change they’re getting back. Then again, spending those savings (and potentially more) on Wells might not have been the brightest idea.

Brian Cashman made it pretty clear Wells will be the team’s everyday left fielder while Curtis Granderson is out — “So the rest of these guys are fighting for support positions,” said the GM to Chad Jennings — and I can’t help but think the team views him as a Granderson replacement for 2014. Maybe Wells will play his way out of that role, who knows. The Yankees have had a lot of success with these veteran scrap heap pickups in recent years, but dropping $13.9M on a player is beyond a scrap heap pickup to me. That’s a big commitment.

Matt asks: Hindsight being 20/20n, would you rather have Wells for the reported two years, $13.9 million or Alfonso Soriano for the same?

Soriano, no doubt about it. He was actually good last season, hitting .262/.322/.499 (116 wRC+) with 32 homers. Wells … hasn’t done anything close to that lately. There’s also some tangible evidence — switching to a lighter bat at in mid-May, at which point his production took off — suggesting Soriano’s revival was real and not a fluke. Even though he’s three years older than Wells, he’s much more productive.

The issue with Soriano is that the Cubs wanted a legitimate prospect in return. They didn’t consider it just a salary dump like the Angels did with Wells. It’s also unclear if they would have structured the money in such a way that Soriano would have counted as zero dollars towards the 2014 luxury tax threshold. I don’t want either player, but if I had to pick one I would rather give up an actual prospect to get the much better player. The Yankees obviously disagree.

(G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)
(G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)

Mitch asks: Four years from now, which contract do you think will have been better for the Yankees — Mark Teixeira’s or Jason Giambi‘s?

It’s unfair to directly compare the contract terms — seven years, $120M vs. eight years, $180M — because of inflation and Collective Bargaining Agreement changes and all that. Let’s keep it to on-field performance.

Giambi hit .260/.404/.521 (145 wRC+) during his seven years in New York while Teixeira is at .263/.357/.506 (128 wRC+) after year four with four more to go. Forget the wrist injury, I don’t think there’s any way his offensive production would catch up to Giambi’s even if he was perfectly healthy. In terms of batting runs above average (wRAA), Tex is basically halfway to Giambi’s total in pinstripes in ~60% of the playing time (107.4 vs. 214.1).

The question now is whether Teixeira’s defense will be good enough to compensate for the offensive gap. Giambi was at -35 DRS and -22.4 UZR during those eight years with the Yankees while Teixeira is at +28 DRS and +19.6 UZR after year four. That’s a huge gap and that figures to only grow larger. Combining offense and defense, Giambi averaged +25.6 runs produced per year in pinstripes. Teixeira is at 33.9 per year. It’s a huge difference built largely on questionable defensive metrics. Giambi was a better hitter and I’m an offense first guy, so I’ll say his contract will go down as the better one for the Yankees with the obvious caveat that Tex still has four years to change things.

Fred asks: With six starting pitchers to start the season, and maybe seven if Michael Pineda actually returns at some point, doesn’t it make sense to employ a six-man rotation every two or three turns through the rotation? With CC Sabathia‘s innings load being an issue, plus the ages of Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, doesn’t it make sense to insert whoever the sixth starter is a couple times a month to help soak up innings, keep the other guys fresh? It basically means the top five starters go about two or three less starts for the year and the sixth man gets about a dozen starts. Helps everyone no?

Well, let’s see all the starters get healthy at the same time before we start worrying about this. Phil Hughes has return from his bulging disk before anything can happen, and who knows how that will go. This also assumes all six (or seven) starters are actually effective and worthy of making starts. Someone is bound to disappoint, it’s just usually how it goes.

Now, that said, yeah I do think the Yankees should consider sliding in a sixth starter now and then just to take the load off Sabathia and, in particular, Pettitte. They could use off days to push them back a bit or even skip them entirely if fatigue becomes an issue. It’s a difficult thing to balance because the theoretical sixth starter has the remain stretched out, and if he’s the long man they’ll lose him out of the bullpen for a few days. If he’s in the minors they’ll have to make sure he’s lined up properly to pitch on whatever days. As I said, Pettitte is the big one for me since he hasn’t thrown a full season since 2009. The Yankees should monitor him carefully throughout the summer.

Mailbag: Former Yankee Edition

Here’s a special Thursday edition of the RAB Mailbag, with three questions about former Yankees that may or may not be useful to the 2011 team. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in any questions.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Sam asks: Would you have any interest in trading for the Giambino to take over for Posada as a DH?

The Rockies just placed Jason Giambi on the disabled list with a quad strain, so he won’t be traded before the deadline. This question was sent in before then, obviously. Giambi is a prime candidate for an August waiver trade though, assuming the quad isn’t that serious and he can get back on the field within two weeks or so.

Unlike the subject of the next question, Giambi has hit all year and really hasn’t stopped hitting for any length of time in recent years. He’s got a .253/.378/.486 batting line in just about two seasons with the Rockies, and this year he’s rocking a .418 wOBA in 112 plate appearances. Giambi has been a part-time player though, mostly pinch-hitting and starting at first once or twice a week. Because he’s outperforming Jorge Posada both this year and last year (especially against RHP), he’d be a fine upgrade, though I doubt he maintains that level of performance playing every day. He might fall off to what, maybe a .360 wOBA? .375? .340? Either way, it’s an upgrade, but one they would have to wait to acquire if they wanted to at all.

Chris asks: What would it take to get Matsui? I’d rather him than a guy like Beltran. 1. Matsui is a proven clutch player unlike Beltran who was left holding the bag in 06-08 during the worst collapses ever. 2. Matsui knows and hits Red Sox pitching unlike Beltran and 3. He costs less (in terms of money and probably prospects).

This was sent in before the Carlos Beltran trade, and I’m not going to spend any time disproving the three points made. Beltran’s a better player than Hideki Matsui and always has been (as for the clutch stuff, look their numbers with RISP, Beltran destroys Matsui), and there’s very little to argue otherwise. But Beltran’s not an option now and probably never really was, so let’s move on.

Anyway, signs point to Matsui being pretty much done. He had a great game against the Yankees on Sunday (5-for-5 with two doubles) and has been on a tear over the last week or so (.500/.528/.882 in eighth games), but that doesn’t make the rest of the season moot. Before this current hot streak, Godzilla was hitting just .212/.294/.328 overall with sub-.300 wOBA’s both at home and on the road. It wasn’t just an Oakland Coliseum thing. Posada’s days as a productive player are over, but he’s still outhitting Matsui against right-handed pitchers, .339 wOBA vs. .290. Andruw Jones is also outhitting Matsui against lefties, .374 wOBA vs. .367, so I’m not sure where the upgrade is.

If the Athletics were to trade Matsui, the return would have to be minimal. He’s got no defensive value and is in clear decline, one hot week doesn’t change that.

(AP)

Matt asks: Any chance the Yankees will make a play for Melky Cabrera? He’s having a good season in KC and he’s a switch hitter.

Melky’s having a great year, he’s hitting .297/.333/.453 (.347 wOBA) and has been worth 3.2 fWAR, more than the first five-plus years of his career combined (2.6). Where does he play though? Is the plan for him to replace Andruw? Jones is outhitting Melky against left-handed pitchers (.374 wOBA vs. .332), though he’s a definite upgrade over Chris Dickerson. What would happen when Alex Rodriguez comes back though? Dickerson’s the one going down for him. I’m also unconvinced that Melky could play like he has in a part-time role, it’s not an accident that he’s having his best season when he knows he’ll be playing everyday (or when he’s in his age 26 season, but that’s besides the point).

The Royals appear uninterested in dealing Cabrera because they will be able to retain him as an arbitration-eligible player next year, and it would take quite a bit to acquire him now. I don’t think the upgrade is big enough to warrant a move, not when he’d only be a bench player.

* * *

I don’t really see any of these three guys as a fit for the Yankees. They have a big bat waiting in Triple-A if they want to replace their designated hitter, and the cost associated with acquiring Melky to replace Jones makes it a lateral move at best. Reunions are always fun, but there’s no match here. Nostalgia won’t win them anything this year, not unless they bring back early-2000’s Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina.

Open Thread: The Giambino Returns

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

It’s been three years since the Yankees parted ways with Jason Giambi, but he’s coming back to the Bronx this weekend as a visiting player with the Rockies. Yeah, he came to Yankee Stadium with the A’s in 2009, but I think it’ll be little different now since some time has passed. Giambi hit .260/.404/.521 as a Yankee and is hitting .262/.361/.639 this year, and he’ll be Colorado’s designated hitter during the three game series. He was a big time personal fave, so I’m looking forward to seeing him one last time. I miss the taters.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. Very light baseball schedule today, though MLB Network is carrying a game (teams depend on where you live). That’s pretty much it, but use this thread to talk about whatever you want. Go nuts.