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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Mussina among big name first timers on 2014 Hall of Fame ballot

The BBWAA announced the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot today, which you can see right here. It runs a ridiculous 36 players deep. Nineteen of those 36 players are eligible for the first time, including all-time greats Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas. Former Yankee Mike Mussina is among the first timers as well. He is right on the Cooperstown bubble — I think he belongs — and there are good arguments to be made on both sides.

Don Mattingly will be on the ballot for the 14th time, but he received only 13.2% of the vote last year. He’s a long way off from the 75% needed for induction with only two more years of eligibility. Other former Yankees on the ballot include Armando Benitez, J.T. Snow, Kenny Rogers, Richie Sexson, Roger Clemens, and Tim Raines. Obviously some have greater legacies than others. Voters can only vote for ten players maximum, and there looks to be about 15 Cooperstown-worthy player on the ballot this year. These next few years will be messy.

Mike Mussina and the Hall of Fame

The BBWAA embarrassingly voted zero players into the Hall of Fame last week despite a ballot that included some of the best players many of us will ever see. That already-crowded ballot will get even more crowded next year, when shoo-ins like Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas become Hall-eligible. Former Yankee Mike Mussina will also join the ballot — has it really been five years since his 20-win season? goodness — and he also has a very strong case for enshrinement.

Mark Simon recently put together a look at Moose’s credentials, which include both longevity (14 straight seasons of 27+ starts) and a holy crap peak (1997-2001). His strong postseason track record is highlighted by an outrageous four-start showing in 1997. I believe Mussina is a Hall of Famer (Orioles cap), but he’s going to have a tough time getting in given all the other deserving players on the ballot. He might spend a few years waiting because of the numbers game.

Mike Mussina headed to Orioles Hall of Fame

Via Steve Melewski, Mike Mussina has been elected to the Orioles Hall of Fame. We all think of Moose as a Yankee, but the man did his best work while with Baltimore. During his nine full seasons with the Orioles, Mussina finished in the top five of Cy Young voting five times plus two other sixth place finishes. He’s among the franchise’s all-time leaders in bWAR (second), strikeouts (second), K/BB ratio (second), WPA (second), ERA+ (third), wins (third), starts (fifth), and innings (seventh). Congrats to Moose on a great career and well-deserved honor.

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.)