19 November 2008

Yankees Possible Free Agent Signings

The Yankees have made no secret of the fact that they have a lot of money to spend this winter. As I detailed in my last post, they have about $70 or $80 million coming off the books this winter, and Brian Cashman has already begun putting the spin on the money they'll spend this winter. He told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick,

"Even if everything that we hope and dream for happens, we'll spend less money this free-agent market than we did last free-agent market,"

As though there were another player on whom the Yankees might be tempted to spend over a quarter of a billion dollars, as they did on A-Rod.

Obviously, nobody else in in that stratosphere, so keeping the 2009 winter's budget under the $400 million mark should not be a problem. However, there is no shortage of talent available on the market this year, and the Yankees will fill some holes, mostly pitching, via that route.

First things First:

There was an apparent hole in the 1B/DH spot in the lineup when the Yankees chose to buy out Jason Giambi's option for $5M instead of paying him another $22M to hit .250 with 30 homers again next year. However, with the acquisition of Nick Swisher, that hole may be filled. Swisher was a first round pick for Oakland in the famed Moneyball draft of 2002, and he moved through the ranks quickly, making it to the majors just two years later. He hit 35 homers for Oakland in 2006, walking 97 times and then drew another 100 walks with decent power in 2007, during which he also cut down on his strikeouts a bit.

Traded to the White Sox last winter, Swisher ran into a lot of bad luck and hit only .219 this year, though he did hit 24 homers and walk 82 times. His BABIP was almost absurdly low, .249, compared with a league average of .302, which likely just means that he hit into a lot of bad luck. A return to the norm in this area will bring his batting average a little closer to respectability, to about .240, not far off the production they were getting from Giambi. The Yankees are probably going to let him try to prove that 2008 was a fluke.

All of this is to say that Mark Teixeira is probably not on the agenda. He's the best position player on the free agent market, who plays a position for which the Yankees had a vacancy just a week ago, but all the news out of New York seems to be suggesting that the Yankees are going primarily after pitchers.

So, without further ado...

Pitching the Pitchers:

Before I get to which players the Yankees might sign, a few comments on the ones they did not:

Ryan Dempster: Won 17 games last year with a 2.96 ERA and got some CYA votes, this after spending most of the previous four years as a reliever, and not always a good one. It's not like he'd never been a good starter before, it's just that it had been a long time, and in those days, Dempster typically gave you about 100 walks with your 200+ innings.

With much-improved control, it looks like Dempster has turned a corner, and that's what the Cubs obviously believe as well, or they would not have given him that 4-year, $52M contract. I'm not as convinced, though I can find little in the statistical record to suggest that the season was an unrepeatable fluke.

Jeremy Affeldt: After six years of mostly awful pitching in Kansas City and Denver, Affeldt finally had a decent year in 2007, for the Rockies, of all teams. Then, as a free agent in 2008, he signed with Cincinnati, another team with a brutal park for pitchers, but somehow he made it work, tossing 78 innings with 80 strikeouts and a 3.33 ERA. He was all but unhittable on the road, with a 1.77 ERA in 36 innings, but considerably more pedestrian at home, 4.64 in 43 innings, mostly due to the fact that he surrendered 7 of his 9 homers there.

In 2007, Affeldt had a bizarre reverse-ballpark split, with a home ERA of 1.74 (at Coors Field!) and a road ERA of 5.46. Relievers are a fickle lot, and he could just as easily post an ERA of 2.5o as 5.50 next year and nobody would be particularly surprised either way. A lefty reliever with stuff good enough to pitch in long relief, not just LOOGy spots, Affeldt got $8M for two years, which seems to be the going rate for a good southpaw (Damaso Marte got $12M for three years from the Yankees.)

Keith Law commented that going to AT&T Park, which suppresses homers, if not runs, should only help him. While I would not have agreed with Keith about ranking Affeldt #15 among all available free agents this winter (ahead of K-Rod, Brian Fuentes, Ben Sheets, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Mussina?), I do agree that San Francisco is as good a fit for him as he could have wanted.

Anyway, moving on to guys the Yankees can sign...

C.C. Sabathia: The Yankees have reportedly put an offer on the table for something like $6 years and $140M for Sabathia, which would be the biggest contract for a pitcher in history, both in terms of total value and average annual salary. The big lefty won the AL Cy Young Award in 2007 ans then was even better in 2008, with a lower ERA, more innings, more complete games and shutouts, and a lot more strikeouts. Since he spent about half his season in each league, he didn't win the Cy Young Award for either, though he got some votes in the NL.

Sabathia led the majors in 2008 in Starts, Innings, Complete Games and Shutouts, and was second in strikeouts and fourth in ERA and adjusted ERA. He was 5th in the majors in WHIP (Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched, a rough measure of a pitcher's ability to keep men off base) and strikeouts per nine innings, and 8th in Strikeout to walk ratio.

In addition, until the last two seasons, C.C. had not logged an overabundance of innings on that precious, young arm. He finished second in MLB in Pitcher Abuse Points (a metric calculated by Baseball Prospectus, which can help predict pitcher's chances of injuries and/or loss of effectiveness), but before that, he'd never finished higher than 17th. Add to this the fact that he's only 28 years old, still in the prime of his career, and you've got yourself the best free agent pitcher to hit the open market since, well, maybe since Greg Maddux in the winter of 1992.

Most of the big contracts doled out to starting pitchers in the last decade fall into one of three categories:

1) Exclusive Negotiating Rights: Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter - these were all contracts with no direct competition, since the players were still in their arbitration years. C.C. can negotiate with anyone he chooses.

2) Great, but Much Older: Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine - all older when they hit the free agent market, most in their mid 30's already, so you knew (or should have known) that their best years were already behind them. C.C. just turned 28 in July and should have ten more years as a useful major leaguer, and as a superstar for some of those.

3) Same Age, Lower Quality: Mike Hampton and Barry Zito both hit the market around age 28, but both had a history of success based largely on pitching for good teams in pitcher's parks, and both had only decent fastballs and a penchant for walking guys about 100 times a year. Those kinds of flaws manifest themselves more clearly as a pitcher ages. C.C. has a blazing fastball (94-97 mph), plus a nasty slider and change up, and typically only walks a batter about once every five innings.

All of this likely means that, if he has a good agent, he ought to get a contract in the range of eight years and $160 million. The Milwaukee Brewers' GM Doug Melvin was complaining last week that he thought the Yankees were overbidding by offering $140 million when the only other offer on the table was for $100 million, but the Yankees know what they're doing. They're still $20 mil under his market value.

Notes of Caution: Despite the relative paucity of innings before 2007, C.C. has seen more innings in the last two seasons than any pitcher in the game. Those numbers are not extraordinary for a pitcher of his quality, by any means, but it's worth remembering that the Brewers, in their push to make the playoffs for the first time in a quarter of a century, regularly rode C.C. pretty hard.

Also, Sabathia is not exactly a statue of a Greek god, if you know what I mean. He's listed as 6'7", and 290 lbs, which probably means he's comfortably over 300 or 310. There's no reason a man that size can't be successful, especially since he won't typically have to run the bases in the AL if the Yankees sign him, but his body will be more prone to breaking down under the strain of its own weight than, say, Johan Santana's.

Derek Lowe:

I've got to hand it to the Dodgers' front office. At a time when Lowe was coming off the worst season of his career, and was on acrimonious terms with his bosses in Boston, Los Angeles gave him a 4-year $36 million contract that seemed ridiculous at the time. It was suggested by some parties that perhaps the Dodgers knew something we didn't, and it turned out that they were more than right. (Alas, they did not start him three times a week, as I had suggested.)

At a time when pitchers who amass 190 innings and win 12 games were getting contracts worth $15 million per year or more on the free agent market, Derek Lowe was making $9 mil, and averaging 13.5 wins, 213 innings, and a 3.59 ERA that was about 20% better than the league adjusted average.

With that said, I'd be very surprised of Lowe could move back from a pitcher's park in an easier league and have any kind of sustained success with the Yankees. His home/road splits are extreme, 2.95 at Dodger Stadium in the last three seasons combined, 4.24 on the road. His interleague record is nothing special either, just 6-9 with a 3.91 ERA, including 0-4, 5.13 in 2008. The Yankees' infield defense does not exactly inspire confidence in the hearts of ground-ball pitchers like Lowe, and he'll be near 40 at the end of whatever contract he signs, and few pitchers are still effective at that age.

He might be a decent bet for another NL team, and/or one with a pitcher's park and a good infield defense, perhaps the Padres or the Brewers, who are going to need another starter when C.C. leaves, or even an AL team like Kansas City or Seattle, where homers are hard to come by. But the Yankees are probably not a good option for him.

A.J. Burnett: Other than the silliness of having two starting pitchers known only by their initials, there are lots of reasons for the Yankees not to sign Burnett.

1) ERA's Heading North as He Goes South: He's 31 years old, and just posted the highest ERA for a season of at least 100 innings in his major league career. (With adjustments, his 2001 season was slightly worse, but that's picking nits.)

2) 200 Twice in a Row?: This is the third time in his career Burnett has pitched at least 200 innings at the MLB level. After the 2002 season, in which he pitched 204 innings and won 12 games, he made only four starts (23 innings) in 2003 and then made 19 starts (120 IP) in 2004.

He then logged 209 innings and won 12 more games in 2005, but injuries limited him to 136 and 166 innings in the following two seasons, respectively. This year he pitched 221 innings, and I would be very afraid that his injury bug will find him out and limit him to about half of the innings you expect to get for a guy making $15 million or so.

3) Burnett came out of the Marlins organization in the early 2000's, a very bad omen for a lot of pitchers. Some of the others who were in those rotations with him include:

  • Ryan Dempster, who struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness for five years before this season, which may yet prove to have been a fluke
  • Josh Beckett, who's had one good year in three since leaving Florida for Boston
  • Brad Penny, who's logged 200+ innings once since 2001, and spent half of 2008 on the DL
  • Carl Pavano: Unmitigated disaster. 9-8, 5.00 ERA in 146 total innings during the 4-year, $40 million contract the Yankees gave him.
  • Dontrelle Willis, erstwhile 22 game winner who logged only 24 MLB innings this year, and was sent down to Single-A(!) to straighten himself out.

And those are the success stories! Remember when all of those guys, plus Claudio Vargas, Blaine Neal, Wes Anderson and Geoff Goetz were supposed to become stars? Remember Nate Bump and Hansel Izquierdo? Yeah, neither does anybody else.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying the Yankees shouldn't sign Burnett. All I'm saying is:



Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 comment:

She-Fan said...

Very impassioned plea about Burnett, but I think we'll end up with him. Cashman just needs to put a lot of language in the contract about stints on the DL. We don't need another Pavano.

- http://janeheller.mlblogs.com