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.

email

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.)

A Yankee contract negotiation from the past

I miss Moose (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Baseball is not your typical business. Employees, i.e. players, cannot expect a raise every year. They can for a certain period, but at some point their skills begin to decline. At that point teams are willing to pay them less and less, and for good reason. Understandably, players try to fend off this notion for as long as possible. Not only does it mean less money for them, but it’s an admission that they’re getting older and won’t be able to do the things they once did. No one wants to admit that to themselves.

Some players take this better than others. As we saw last year, Johnny Damon didn’t take it well at all. He turned down an offer from the Yankees because it constituted a pay cut. This winter we’re seeing Derek Jeter desiring to remain at his $20 million salary even though his production no longer justifies it. Yet I can remember one player who took a pay cut graciously. That happened in the winter after the 2006 season, and the player was Mike Mussina.

In the winter following the Yankees’ third straight World Series victory, the market was rife with free agents. Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, and Mike Mussina highlighted the class. The Yankees went with the pitcher, signing Mussina to a six-year, $88.5 million contract. In the deal’s final two seasons, plus the 2007 option season, Mussina earned $17 million. But by the end of the 2006, even though he had pitched very well during that season, he realized that he wasn’t going to make $17 million again. So he took a pay cut.

The deal went pretty smoothly from what I can remember. Mussina signed for two years and $23 million — a $1 million signing bonus and $11 million in each of the two seasons. That represented a nearly 55 percent pay cut from his 2006 salary, and a 34 percent pay cut from the average annual value of his previous contract. Yet he took it with grace. In fact, the only stipulation on it seemed reasonable: he demanded to make more than Carl Pavano. Done and done, said Cashman.

In some way, I can see a parallel for Derek Jeter. In one way, he’s in a unique situation and therefore can’t really compare himself to someone else. In another way, I can’t really blame him for wanting more than A.J. Burnett. That’s why a three-year, $50 million contract makes sense. That not only puts Jeter’s salary a tick above Burnett’s, but it also means their contracts expire at the same time. I can even see the Yanks being generous and offering an option year, so that Jeter might stay with the team longer — and so that he makes more from the Yankees in 2014 than Burnett does.

(If the Yankees wanted to get really generous they could go three years, $56.7 million, which would replicate the average annual value of Jeter’s previous contract.)

Yet it’s clear that Jeter is not being as honest with himself about his position as was Mussina. That’s his right, I suppose. Rare is the player in Mussina’s mold. Still, I can’t help but wish Jeter would see things in the same way as his former teammate. If that were the case, he’d already have a contract by this point.

By the Decade: The rise, fall and rise of pitching

With 2010 upon us, it’s nearly time to wrap up our Yankees By the Decade retrospective on the aught-aughts. I’ll publish a summary of the series, but first, we have to tackle the Yankees’ starting pitchers.

For the Yankees, the 2000s was a tough decade of pitching. For the first four seasons, the Yanks thrived on pitching, and then, it all fell apart. After losing Andy Pettitte, David Wells and Roger Clemens following the 2003 season, the team struggled through some sub-par pitching performances from 2004-2008. Only last season with the arrival of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett did the Yanks’ pitching again bring the team a World Series win.

As the decade’s dust settled, the final Yankee starting pitcher tally reached 62. Nine players made just one start for the Bombers, and another seven drew the ball for two starts only. We’ll get to them later. Below is the table of all Yankee starters who made 10 or more starts as well as their overall numbers. Due to the limitations of David Pinto’s Day-by-Day Database and the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I couldn’t break out these pitchers’ starters-only numbers in any reasonable amount of time.

Player GS G W L IP H BB SO CG SHO ERA ERA+ HR
Mike Mussina 248 249 123 72 1553 1565 318 1278 12 8 3.88 114 166
Andy Pettitte 217 219 111 63 1362.1 1478 403 1013 9 2 4.10 110 113
Roger Clemens 144 145 69 32 915.1 859 308 851 2 1 3.88 117 96
Chien-Ming Wang 104 109 55 26 670.2 701 197 310 4 1 4.16 107 41
Orlando Hernandez 82 85 32 27 521 480 165 415 3 0 4.13 111 79
Randy Johnson 67 67 34 19 430.2 401 107 383 6 0 4.37 100 60
David Wells 61 62 34 14 419.1 452 65 238 6 2 3.95 112 45
Joba Chamberlain 43 93 15 9 281.2 266 121 285 0 0 3.61 121 27
Jaret Wright 40 43 16 12 204 238 89 118 0 0 4.99 89 18
Kevin Brown 35 35 14 13 205.1 239 54 133 0 0 4.95 89 19
C.C. Sabathia 34 34 19 8 230 197 67 197 2 1 3.37 127 18
A.J. Burnett 33 33 13 9 207 193 97 195 1 0 4.04 106 25
Javier Vazquez 32 32 14 10 198 195 60 150 0 0 4.91 92 33
Ted Lilly 32 49 8 12 205.1 191 80 182 2 1 4.65 96 31
Jeff Weaver 32 47 12 12 237.1 292 62 150 0 0 5.35 82 28
David Cone 29 30 4 14 155 192 82 120 0 0 6.91 70 25
Darrell Rasner 29 36 9 14 158.1 182 52 89 0 0 5.06 88 20
Philip Hughes 28 72 13 10 192.2 175 72 177 0 0 4.20 105 19
Jose Contreras 27 36 15 7 166.2 145 72 154 0 0 4.64 96 26
Jon Lieber 27 27 14 8 176.2 216 18 102 0 0 4.33 104 20
Carl Pavano 26 26 9 8 145.2 182 30 75 1 1 5.00 86 23
Shawn Chacon 23 31 12 6 142 143 66 75 0 0 4.69 93 18
Sidney Ponson 18 21 4 5 96.1 125 39 48 0 0 6.63 67 14
Denny Neagle 15 16 7 7 91.1 99 31 58 1 0 5.81 83 16
Kei Igawa 13 16 2 4 71.2 89 37 53 0 0 6.66 68 15
Ian Kennedy 12 14 1 4 59.2 63 37 43 0 0 6.03 74 6
Aaron Small 12 26 10 3 103.2 113 36 49 1 1 4.60 94 13
Sterling Hitchcock 12 57 6 9 140.1 181 51 95 1 0 5.84 76 15
Randy Keisler 11 14 2 2 61.1 68 42 42 0 0 7.19 63 13
Ramiro Mendoza 11 133 23 12 259 259 59 162 1 1 3.82 119 27
Al Leiter 10 16 4 5 62.1 66 38 45 0 0 5.49 77 4

The bottom of this chart is a scary sight indeed. Al Leiter, Randy Keisler, Kei Igawa, Shawn Chacon, Sidney Ponson, Carl Pavano, Denny Neagle, Darrell Rasner and Jeff Weaver all made enough starts to give me nightmares today. The ninth and tenth slots — Jaret Wright and Kevin Brown — are illustrative of why the Yanks suffered through five years of postseason futility.

To find the true stars of the decade, we have to look at the top of the list. For a few years, Chien-Ming Wang was as good as it gets for the Yanks. Now he’s a non-tendered free agent trying to come back from shoulder surgery and a bad foot injury. El Duque and David Wells were both stand-out starters during their peak years, but the two made just 82 and 61 starts respectively this decade. Roger Clemens made 144 starts, and while his 117 ERA+ as a Yankee leads the list of those we’re considering, his total output doesn’t match that of those who lead the list.

And so we are left with two candidates for pitcher of the decade. Do we give the award to Andy Pettitte or to Mike Mussina? On the one hand, Pettitte won two World Series with the Yanks and gave us a 2009 to remember. Mike Mussina, through no fault of his own, captured zero World Series titles. On sentimentality and rings, Pettitte has the upper hand.

But numerically, can Andy take the cake? Outside of pick-offs — 36 for Pettitte against two for Moose — Mike’s numbers are seemingly better across the board. He has an ERA edge of 0.28 runs and leads in the ERA+ race 114-110. He struck out 7.41 per 9 IP while Andy K’d just 6.69 per 9 innings. His 4.02 K/BB ratio is better than Pettitte’s 2.51 figure by a significant amount. Mussina gave up nearly 0.25 more home runs per 9 innings than Andy, and Pettitte’s .638 winning percentage is slightly higher than Mussina’s .631 mark. Wins, though, aren’t exactly the best metric of pitching success.

So in the end, I’m left with a choice. Does Mike Mussina win on the strength of his 2001, 2003 and 2008 seasons as well as his relief appearance in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS? Does Andy Pettitte carry the decade on his World Series prowess and bulldog mentality? I might give the slight edge to Pettitte while recognizing that Mussina in his prime was a better pitcher, but it wouldn’t be wrong to do otherwise. As the new decade dawns, CC Sabathia and perhaps a young hurler named Joba or Phil could inherit this mantle. For now, the two old bulldogs can fight it out.

After the jump, a complete list of all who made nine starts or fewer for the Yankees this decade. [Read more…]