The Yankees’ $189 Million Reality

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The mandate the Yankees are under to reduce their payroll to $189 million by 2014 isn’t a capricious decision designed for ownership to maximize profits and for the baseball operations to bolster their credentials in the industry by winning without the limitless payroll that was one of the important hallmarks of the club from 1996 on through 2012 when they won five championships and made the playoffs every year but one. It can’t be avoided: the Yankees won year-after-year, in part, because of their spending power. While it’s an easy argument to say that with George Steinbrenner gone and the more thoughtful and less maniacal Hal Steinbrenner holding the most sway over the pursestrings, the family is trying to line their pockets to a greater degree—a degree that was secondary to the Boss’s bottom line: winning. It’s also an easy argument to make that GM Brian Cashman wants to lower the payroll to get his share of the credit pie that has gone to the new age thinkers in baseball like Billy Beane, Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman because they were either working under parameters that made it a necessity for them to find bargains, get lucky, or formulate new strategies to compete with the big spenders in baseball; or, in Epstein’s case, were trying to win with a souped up version of Moneyball using stats backed up by a massive payroll.

Both are probably, to a point, accurate. But the Yankees are trying to get under the $189 million threshold by 2014 for the cold hard fact that if they don’t, they’re going to have to pay a penalty of 50% for going over that amount. It also has to be understood that the Yankees payroll will not be permanently limited by that 2014 number. If they’re under $189 in 2014, by 2015, they’ll again be able to spend as the Yankees have spent in the past—with no concept of restraint—because the penalty will revert to the lowest level of 17.5%.

It’s short-term. What this means in the near future, though, is that there won’t be the headlong dive into free agency and by taking huge contracts off the hands of other clubs in trades because right now the Yankees must be cognizant of their payroll. There’s no getting around it.

There are methods to achieve this end. Some clubs, like the Athletics and Rays, let their players play under the constraints of the collective bargaining agreement where they can’t be free agents until they’ve accumulated six years of service time. Or they sign them to long-term contracts that are agreeable to both sides, buy out their arbitration years and perhaps the first couple of years of free agency giving the players a guaranteed payday they might not get if they don’t perform or get injured. This is a method to keep the youngsters they’ve developed.

The Rays have essentially ensured that their star Evan Longoria will be a Ray for the duration of his career with the long term deals he signed as a rookie and the extension he agreed to last week. It’s conceivable that Longoria cost himself an extra $100 million or more with the contracts he signed. That’s his choice and the Rays took on significant risk as well.

Teams can do as Beane did a year ago (and several times before) and clear out the house of veterans who are set to make big money in exchange for the best prospects they can get their hands on and restart the process over and over again.

Or they can do what the Yankees are doing by signing veterans in their mid-to-late-30s to 1-year contracts, pay them handsomely, and hope they stay healthy and perform up to what they were in their primes.

Because the Yankees are saying they’re serious about this “$189 million by 2014” statement and have always backtracked on prior payroll-limiting endeavors, there’s a belief in the Yankees universe that they’re biding their time and waiting; that they’ll open the checkbook once they realize that a playoff appearance is something to be earned and not a birthright and that they’re ill-equipped to win in 2013 and 2014 as they’re currently constructed; that it’s a matter of time before they pull the same trick they did when they acted as if they had no interest in free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira and the Red Sox were widely expected to sign him before the Yankees struck with lightning quickness and decisiveness getting the first baseman and keeping him away from the Red Sox. This completed the 2008-2009 shopping spree with Teixeira joining CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to repair the failure of 2008 when they had again tried to lower payroll by going with homegrown pitchers and were rewarded with a missed playoff spot and indignation permeating their organization, the media, and fans.

Here are the numbers to understand the circumstances the Yankees are now in. Their guaranteed contracts for 2014 are as follows:

Alex Rodriguez—$25 million

Mark Teixeira—$22.5 million

CC Sabathia—$23 million

Derek Jeter—$8 million player option ($3 million buyout)

That comes to $75.5 million. There are the players who are movable and exchangeable with other similar contracts such as Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, David Robertson, and Eduardo Nunez. So you can figure that the rest of the starting rotation and filling out the bullpen won’t be super-expensive. Robinson Cano is a free agent at the end of 2013, is represented by Scott Boras and will want somewhere between $190-220 million. Ignoring the risk of giving a lackadaisical player like Cano such a massive contract, they’ll do what needs to be done to keep him with a backloaded deal.

With all of that comes the vicious truth that for 2013, the Yankees are not jumping in on Zack Greinke; they’re not signing Josh Hamilton; and they’re not trading for Justin Upton (his no-trade clause includes the Yankees, so they’d have to redo his long-term contract). They let Russell Martin leave when it was widely reported that they wanted him back when the Pirates—the Pirates—gave him 2-years and $17 million. These are the same Pirates that once functioned as a big league farm club for the Yankees to take their stars off their hands for whatever crumbs of prospects the Yankees deigned to give them.

Losing Martin isn’t that big of a problem, but their current catching depth chart consists of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Eli Whiteside, and minor leaguer Austin Romine. They don’t have a right fielder with the pending departure of Nick Swisher and the talk of bringing Ichiro Suzuki back comes more from the fans, media and Ichiro himself than it does from the Yankees. Maybe—maybe—they’re downplaying possible interest in Mike Napoli and will sign him to a team-friendly deal in which he’s paid well for 2013, has a reduction in salary in 2014, and has a back-end raise in years 3 and/or 4. This would be done based on need and to keep up appearances as the club is under expanding ridicule and anger for their lack of action.

This concept that their offense is still good enough is ignoring that they don’t have a catcher; they don’t have a right fielder; they don’t have a DH; Jeter won’t repeat 2012; and A-Rod and Curtis Granderson spent most of the second half of 2012 in a fog. They can’t go into 2013 with an offense looking like it does right now and logically believe they’re title contenders.

The 2013 team is elderly by athletic standards and the days of a 35-43-year old player posting numbers better than he did when he was 28 ended with drug testing. As much as Yankees apologists refer to the annual playoff appearance and utter pompous statements of “World Series or failure,” extolling the self-proclaimed “specialness” of the Yankees brand, the reality is that the Yankees are currently, on paper, the third best team in the AL East behind the Rays and Blue Jays; are in the same predicament with the Red Sox of clinging to what was; and have a resurgent Orioles club glaring at them from their wing rather than their posterior.

Jeter and Rivera are recovering from severe injuries; A-Rod is breaking down physically and when he can play is a threat emeritus rather than a mid-lineup basher—and now it’s being reported that A-Rod needs more hip surgery and may miss part of 2013; they have to rely on Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte to anchor the rotation behind Sabathia, who is also coming off of elbow surgery and has a massive amount of wear on his tires.

Is all of this likely to yield the same results it has in the past?

These are the Yankees of today and for the next two seasons. They have money, but it’s tied up. They’ll spend it, but it’s not going to be for long term improvements via the not-so-free market until after the 2014 season. By then they might be dealing with two years of missed playoffs, mediocrity or, if things go worst case scenario, finishes at or under .500. There’s a sense of disbelief among the media and fan that this is the way the Yankees are doing business; that it’s a ruse and everything will go on as before once they’ve grown tired of teasing their fans.

Don’t say the worst happen because it just happened to the Red Sox and, to a lesser degree, the Marlins, Phillies, and Angels. No one thought the Red Sox would ever fall to the depths that they did in 2012 and it can happen to the Yankees in 2013-2014. Dynasties—including that of the Yankees—have collapsed before. It’s not farfetched to predict their downfall again because the pieces are in place and getting more entrenched by the day. In fact, it’s inevitable.

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The Meaning of the David Wright Signing

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A week after Black Friday, it was Blue and Orange Friday as the Mets signed their star third baseman David Wright to an 8-year contract extension for $138 million. Of course this decision elicited reactions far and wide. Let’s take a look at the reality of the Wright contract for everyone involved.

For David Wright

I wrote about Wright’s decision to re-sign with the Mets yesterday.

Wright had the choice of waiting until his chance at free agency after next season and face the prospect of being traded or getting hurt. Maybe he would have had a career season and put himself in position to make perhaps $20-30 million more on the open market; maybe he would’ve been traded to a preseason/mid-season title-contender.

Or it could’ve ended badly.

Wright saw what happened to his friend and former teammate Jose Reyes when he chased the money, went the the Marlins and now is playing for the Blue Jays in Canada on artificial turf for the next five years. There was the added attraction of Wright being a Mets icon who will rewrite their record book, be the best position player in their history and to never wear another club’s uniform. The offer was on the table, he wasn’t going to do much better as a free agent and didn’t really want to leave apart from a fleeting, “what if?” curiosity of what it would be like elsewhere.

In the end, he chose to stay in the only baseball home he’s ever known.

For the Mets

There’s no getting around how important it was for the Mets to keep Wright not just because he’s a top 5 third baseman in all of baseball and their most popular player, but because they had to undo the perception of the club being broke and having little interest in: A) spending money; B) give the fans what they wanted.

Like Carlos Beltran functions as a symbol of the near-miss of the 2006 team; Jason Bay the symbol of the desperation to hold onto the shriveling tendrils of contention; Reyes the star who spiraled down the drain like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme money that gutted the Wilpons’ finances, Wright is a bridge to the better times of the Mets and can be the elder statesman for the future.

It was important for the club to step up, show the fans, media, and the rest of baseball that they were willing to do what it took to keep the one player they had to keep. It wasn’t simply an on-field maneuver. Truth be told, the rebuilding might have been expedited with a lower payroll had they traded Wright for a package of prospects—in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were loud voices in the front office that wanted to do that exact thing. But for the same reason they didn’t trade Reyes when many were screaming that they should, there were collateral reasons not to pull the trigger on Wright.

And here’s a flash about Reyes: the Mets did want him back. To say that they didn’t is silly. What they didn’t want to do was give $100 million to a speed player whose defense was markedly declining and who had had multiple injuries over the years when they knew they were also going to need money to sign Wright. What they were hoping was that the Reyes market crashed and he had to return on a deal the club found reasonable. Had the Marlins not jumped in with their backloaded $106 million deal, that’s exactly what would’ve happened. In addition, the Mets had a big league ready replacement for Reyes in Ruben Tejada. No such replacement on or off the field existed for Wright.

It didn’t have racial undertones of choosing the handsome, steady white guy over the flashy and injury prone Dominican. It was a cold baseball decision made by the front office—exactly the type of rationality they wanted when the hired Sandy Alderson as the GM to replace the “I want to make people happy immediately regardless of long-term cost” Omar Minaya.

As for the repeated reference to Fred Wilpon’s ill-advised comment in the New Yorker Magazine that Wright wasn’t a superstar player, it was a year-and-a-half ago. Do you really believe that Wright and Wilpon haven’t since spoken and hashed it out? The Mets paid him like a superstar and Wright will be the first one to tell you that he’s not an Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez in their primes. How many true “superstars” are there in baseball? Not many and Wright, along with many other All-Star players, is not a prototypical superstar. It’s not the insult it’s portrayed to be and in the end, what’s the difference?

For the rest of baseball

Wright is very popular around baseball and if he’s willing to invest the rest of his career to the Mets, it’s a signal that the circumstances are getting better around the entire franchise. Because of the lack of money and last four seasons of steady decline and rebuild, the Mets were a “no go” destination unless a player had no other choice. As we’ve seen with the Orioles and Athletics on the positive side and the Red Sox and even the Yankees on the negative side, that is more of a function of how they’re viewed in the moment.

With Wright onboard and the young pitching Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jonathon Niese that has much of baseball salivating to get their hands on them, along with NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, the Mets have the foundation in place to make a serious move into legitimate contention.

Wright signing and the Mets paying him tells the rest of baseball that the talk of wanting to keep Wright wasn’t lip service to placate without a true intention of following through. They followed through.

For the fans

Even the most miserable Mets fan who didn’t want Wright back, who is still complaining about the supporting cast they’re surrounding the third baseman with, has to feel some sense of happiness that they’re keeping someone and not masochistically pleading for a repeat of the flogging they took for their dealings with Reyes.

They kept Reyes rather than trade him because, as said before, they wanted to keep him; and they also wanted to sell a few more tickets in a lost season. It was a retrospective mistake, but it was more understandable—given the circumstances—than the simplistic entreaties that they “should’ve traded him” would suggest.

Mets fans will still complain, but it won’t be about not holding onto their own players. For now anyway.

For the media

As usual, the Mets can’t win with the media. Whatever they do, it’s twisted to suit the narrative of a moderately brainless idiot who occasionally and by mistake manages to get something right.

This is exemplified by today’s passive aggressive piece in the New York Times by Tyler Kepner. Amid the begrudging credit given to the club for keeping their third baseman, Kepner took the cheap shots that have become a prerequisite in this market by, of course, mentioning the Wilpon comment; rehashing past mistakes such as Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo; questioning the wisdom on the part of Wright and the Mets in staying together; and naturally making sure to mention the supposed superiority of the Yankees who, according to Kepner, have a “business model sets them up to contend for the title every year.”

That same Yankees’ business model that: has an array of immovable contracts; Derek Jeter appearing as if he’s packing on the pounds to audition to be Engelberg in The Bad News Bears—20 years later; ancient players from top to bottom; lost Russell Martin to the Pirates; and has, topping their catching depth chart, the equally horrendous Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart.

Referencing the Yankees as anything to admire right now is an outrageous display of clinging to the past and a none-too-sly shot at the Mets during a brief moment of happiness.

Kepner offhandedly points out the acquisition of Wheeler from the Giants for Beltran in the tone of the Mets being a broken clock that manages to be right twice a day, then contextualizes it by equating the decision to trade Angel Pagan—a talented player who is baseball-stupid—as the Giants getting “even.” Like the Wright signing, the Pagan trade made sense at the time. It didn’t work, but the way to judge any trade/free agent signing/draft pick is whether it was logical. Anything other than that is second guessing.

What the Mets have done under Alderson is to retreat from the Wilpons’ prior modus operandi with GMs of the past and, instead of concentrating on doing what the media wanted them to do to garner good press, are pushing back and running the club as it should be run. The same press that had Minaya thinking everyone is his friend is intimidated by Alderson because the GM sees right through them and won’t respond to their tactics—tactics that Kepner again employs and will be roundly ignored if not ridiculed by those who know better and understand his intentions with such a transparent piece.

This is a positive move for the Mets. They did what needed to be done in keeping Wright. That is the only way in which this signing must be judged. It makes sense now, therefore it makes sense, no matter what happens in the future and over Wright’s career that will be as a Met and a Met alone.

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The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.

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Yankees Modern Art

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If it were 2002 instead of 2012 and the Yankees had been humiliated by getting swept in the ALCS, there wouldn’t be organizational meetings; statements pronouncing the job security of the manager and general manager; assertions that players who had failed miserably would be back in pinstripes. Since their four game meltdown at the hands of the Tigers, there hasn’t been the outraged lunacy in the organization that would’ve accompanied a George Steinbrenner team not simply losing, but getting swept.

They didn’t run into a hot pitcher. They didn’t walk into a buzzsaw lineup. They weren’t devastated by injuries to irreplaceable players to the degree that they should’ve gotten whitewashed. They didn’t lose a tough 6-7 game series and put up a good show while doing it.

They got swept.

Swept like leaves tumbling to the ground during the Fall season that is supposed to belong to the Yankees. Swept like ash from from one of Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland’s ever-present Marlboro cigarettes.

Swept.

Steinbrenner would’ve openly congratulated the Tigers, noting what a great job Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski did, complete with the glare and unsaid, “And my staff didn’t.”

As capricious and borderline deranged as Steinbrenner was, he served a purpose in creating a sense of urgency and accountability for even the most seasoned and highly compensated stars. They’ve become an organization that tolerates failure and allows indiscretions and underperformance to pass unpunished. Would he have sat by quietly as the team spiraled in September? Would he have exhibited such passivity while the decisions made by the entrenched GM elicited one expensive disaster after another?

Passivity vs accountability is an ongoing problem for the Yankees and there is an in-between, but the Yankees haven’t found it. How is it possible that the GM is not under fire for his atrocious drafts, dreadful trades, and inflexible and unsuccessful development of pitchers? Is it lost on observers that the two teams that are in the World Series made it with an array of starting pitchers who were not babied in the way that Cashman decreed would be the method of acquisition and development for his pitchers—all of whom are either stagnant and inconsistent (Dellin Betances, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain), on the disabled list (Michael Pineda, Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos), traded (Ian Kennedy, Phil Coke), or failed completely (Andrew Brackman)?

Could the Yankees have used George Kontos this year? He’s a forgotten name, but appeared in 44 games for the NL champion Giants and was a useful reliever for a pennant-winning team. In exchange for Kontos they received Chris Stewart, a journeyman backup catcher for whom defense is supposedly a forte and whose numbers, on the surface, imply that he was “better” for the pitchers than starter Russell Martin. In reality, Stewart was CC Sabathia’s semi-personal backstop and 18 of Sabathia’s 28 starts were caught by Stewart. It’s easy to look “better” when catching Sabathia as opposed to Freddy Garcia.

If a team is limiting its payroll and can’t spend $14 million for a set-up man who could be the closer just in case Mariano Rivera gets hurt as they did with Rafael Soriano, they need to keep pitchers like Kontos who could help them cheaply. They can’t toss $8 million into the trash on pitchers like Pedro Feliciano, then look across town to blame the Mets expecting the usual cowering silence for the accusation. (At least the Mets replied for once and shut the blameshifting Yankees’ GM up.)

Firing someone for no reason is not the answer, but firing someone for the sake of change is a justifiable reason to make a move—any move. No one’s losing their jobs over this? The majority of the club—including Alex Rodriguez—is coming back? Cashman hasn’t been put on notice for his on and off field faults?

Manager Joe Girardi has lost a serious amount of credibility in that clubhouse coming off the way he buried the veteran players who’d played hard and hurt for him during his entire tenure. There wasn’t a love-fest going on with Girardi, but there was a factional respect for the job he did that was demolished with his huddling with Cashman in the decision to bench A-Rod.

What they’re doing in bringing back the entire front office, manager, coaching staff, and nucleus of players is saying that there was nothing wrong with the team in 2012; that a season in which, apart from June and September, they were barely over .500 and putting forth the thought that they’ll be the same, but better in 2013. How does that work? The already aging players are a year older, but they’ll improve?

No. That’s not how it goes.

If the Boss were around, there would be demands to do something. It might be a bloodbath, it might be a tweak here or there, it might be a conscious choice to get A-Rod out of pinstripes no matter the cost. But there would be something. Coming from his football/military background, it wasn’t a bullying compulsion alone that Steinbrenner had to fire people and make drastic changes when something didn’t go according to plan. It was a necessity. Occasionally that resulted in stupidity the likes of almost trading Ron Guidry for Al Cowens; of trading Willie McGee for Bob Sykes; of trading Al Leiter for Jesse Barfield; for firing highly qualified baseball men in the front office and as manager and replacing them with sycophants whose main function in life was to make sure the Boss got his coffee at just the right temperature.

Where’s the middle?

Questions would be asked rather than adhering to a plan that’s not working. There was an end to the threats. Now there don’t appear to be consequences. They’ve gone from one extreme to the other when, in his last decade in charge, there was a middle-ground (still leaning heavily to the right) when Steinbrenner was alive.

There have been calls for the Yankees to return to the “feel good” tenets of 1996 and the dynastic confidence of the cohesive and well-oiled machine of 1998-2000. It’s true that during that time there wasn’t an A-Rod magnitude of star sopping up a vast chunk of the payroll and making headlines in the front of the newspaper more often than the back, but those teams were also the highest-paid in baseball. There was no Little Engine That Could in 1996.

With the mandate to reduce the bottom line to $189 million by 2014, it’s not judging how the team failed as they did in 2008 by not making the playoffs, and buying their way out of it with Mark Teixeira, Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Players aren’t running to join the Yankees in quest for a championship anymore and the money isn’t as limitless as it once was, so the playing field is level and the venue no longer as attractive.

You can’t have it both ways and claim to be superior to everyone else while having loftier goals than everyone else and being more valuable than everyone else, then run the team the same way as everyone else. It can’t work.

But they’re keeping this main cast together. It’s Yankees modern art where losing is tolerated and the aura of the Boss is mentioned as a historical artifact like the dinosaurs. He really existed once. It seems longer ago than it actually was and it’s fading off into the distance with each passing day and each organizational staff member’s comfort to the point of complacency.

They’re complacent all right; they’re consistent too. Every year it’s the same thing with the same people, and they expect it to change in the next year.

Trust me, it won’t.

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Anatomy Of A Yankees Swoon

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The Yankees, their fans, and the media that covers them on a daily basis are all wallowing in denial, excuses, self-pity, delusion, and desperation. The team itself still has time to save its season, but they’re well on the way to joining the Red Sox and Mets in the lore of historic and embarrassing collapses that, for the Yankees with their payroll and superiority complex, will surpass those of teams past.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the Yankees and the likelihood of steering out of this spiral.

Injuries and lack of depth

This is the batting order they presented last night against the Rays:

1. Derek Jeter-SS

2. Curtis Granderson-CF

3. Nick Swisher-1B

4. Robinson Cano-DH

5. Alex Rodriguez-3B

6. Raul Ibanez-LF

7. Jayson Nix-2B

8. Chris Dickerson-RF

9. Chris Stewart-C

And pitching, Freddy Garcia.

This is the starting lineup for one of the latter days of spring training, not for a pennant race in September against a younger, faster, healthier Rays team in direct pursuit. On the heels of journeyman Steve Pearce batting cleanup, Eric Chavez having to play almost every day after A-Rod got hurt, Ibanez playing too much, Swisher having to play first base in place of Mark Teixeira, and using Garcia and David Phelps in the starting rotation, is it any wonder the 10 game lead has been extinguished?

No one wants to hear about injuries. No one wants to hear whining about the umpires or a “woe is me” lament. No one cares about the Yankees problems. They’re scouring the bargain bin for the likes of Pearce and Casey McGehee and expecting to move along smoothly without a hitch. A 4-A player doesn’t stop being a 4-A player just because he puts on a Yankee uniform.

Non-issues become problems when the team’s losing

Cano’s repeated incidents of nonchalance weren’t an issue when the team was winning, so it can’t be referenced as one when they’re losing. The Yankees let Cano’s jogging around go because there wasn’t much they could do about it and it was okay with a 10 game lead. Now that the lead is gone, it’s not okay? It doesn’t work that way. Jeter runs out every ground ball, why can’t Cano?

In a similar vein, manager Joe Girardi wasn’t scrutinized heavily for his occasionally strange strategic decisions when the team was star-studded and rolling unstoppably toward another division title with an eye on the World Series. Once the decisions actually make a difference not just in a game, but in the standings and the team is in danger of falling out of the playoffs completely, there’s ludicrous speculation about his job security if they complete this collapse.

Girardi, like most of the other 2012 Yankees, has never been in this pressurized situation during the season. In 2008, it was known by September 1st that, barring a miraculous comeback, they weren’t making the playoffs. In 2009, they won 103 games. In 2010, the biggest decision they had was whether or not to try and win the division or accept the Wild Card. In 2011, they coasted late in the season and played a lineup similar to the one they’re currently playing and allowed the Rays to sweep them and overtake the Red Sox (something I don’t hold against them).

Now they have to play and they have to win. When Girardi was in a pressurized situation of the post-season in 2009 and his maneuvers were important, he was found wanting. He made odd and panicky pitching changes and ill-thought-out lineup and in-game moves. That Yankees team happened to be talented enough to overcome Girardi’s overmanaging and win the title.

I don’t blame Girardi for this stumble, but it’s now that he has to maintain control of the ship and not grip the handles too tightly, but his volcanic eruption last night that resulted in an ejection and his snippy replies to questions in post-game press conferences indicate a growing tightness that will permeate the team.

Personnel gaffes

The Yankees and GM Brian Cashman have made it clear that they no longer intend to purchase every star on the market to have at least 2 players who could be or have been All-Stars at each position. They want to get under the luxury tax when the draconian measures to restrain salaries come into effect and it shows on the field. They didn’t pursue Cliff Lee when the Phillies were listening to offers on him; they didn’t make a substantial package available at mid-season to get Justin Upton; they weren’t avidly chasing any of the available players who might’ve been able to help them drastically. Instead, they traded for Ichiro Suzuki and got him for nothing. Ichiro can still catch the ball in the outfield and steal a base, but he’s hitting identically with the Yankees as he did with the Mariners: lots of singles and no on-base skills with an average hovering around .270.

These in-season acquisitions come after consecutive winters in which they wasted money (Pedro Feliciano); signed fill-in veterans and scrapheap denizens (Russell Martin, Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Chavez); and gave away assets (Jesus Montero) for literally nothing (Michael Pineda and the “key” Jose Campos).

This is not to suggest Montero would be a significant contributor to the Yankees in a Yankees uniform—he’s been okay learning on the job behind and at the plate with the Mariners—but he was something other teams coveted; they could’ve traded him for a known commodity rather than going the cheap and “controllable” route with Pineda.

Hiroki Kuroda was a great signing.

The Yankees vaunted young pitching that they developed with it in mind that they wouldn’t spend tons of cash on other teams’ abused arms? That’s not working either. Phil Hughes is an okay big league pitcher, but he’s a 3rd or 4th starter that you can find on the market. Joba Chamberlain is a bottom-line disappointment. Ian Kennedy wasn’t good for the Yankees; they received Granderson for him making it a win. Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Campos, Pineda—where’s the next Andy Pettitte? A Yankees’ pitcher they brought through their system and turned into a top-flight starter?

Seeking solace

Teams, fanbases and media members who’ve experienced a collapse have all done the same things. They look at the schedule; they lean on one another looking for positive reassurance; they repeat the mantra of “Everything’s gonna be alright” with the unsaid, “Isn’t it?” as an addendum.

Mike Francesa had Yankees beat reporters Sweeny Murti and Mark Feinsand on as guests and it was something of a sycophantic think-tank in which the schedule was seen as the Yankees friend and the three discussed not what the consequences would be if the Yankees missed the playoffs or that increasingly real possibility, but how many games they would recover and win the division by.

Michael Kay sounds so disconsolate that he can barely stomach a third piece of chicken parmesan.

Fans are clutching each other as if they’re in a prayer circle looking towards the heavens wondering why the Baseball Gods that have smiled so consistently on the Yankees hath forsaken them.

It’s not a conspiracy. They’re just not very good.

Meteorology

It wasn’t a stand-alone instance that the Mets and Red Sox collapsed in 2007 and 2011. There was a perfect storm that assisted greatly in the fall from the playoffs. The Mets kept losing to the Phillies and blew their lead, but would’ve made the playoffs if not for the Rockies ridiculous hot streak in September that launched them from also-ran to the World Series.

The Red Sox had a blazing hot Rays team chasing them and the Yankees who didn’t play their regulars in the last series against the Rays.

Now the Yankees, even with the extra Wild Card available, are in an American League with 8 teams for 5 playoff spots. If they fall from first place, there’s a good chance that falling from playoff position will come immediately after.

Studying the schedule is meant to be a calming device, but it’s not. Referencing games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Twins is a stretch as well. Mets and Red Sox fans can tell Yankees fans all about the futility of studying the schedules during a swoon such as this. The 2007 Mets consistently lost to the horrific Nationals; the 2011 Red Sox were undone by the then-terrible Orioles; the Yankees lost 2 of 3 to the Blue Jays just last week and the Red Sox would see vengeance and a salvaging of their dismal season by taking part in the Yankees downfall.

The Yankees can’t count on other teams helping them to get them into the playoffs. They have to win a few games themselves—something they’re not doing and with this lineup, may not be capable of doing.

Clinging to the past; reaching back for the stars

This Yankees team finds itself chained to a past that’s not going to return. Still reliant on Jeter to be the star; waiting for Pettitte to return and save the day; blaming their stumble, ridiculously, on the loss of Mariano Rivera—they haven’t replaced them and are finding out how truly hard it is to do so with hardened veterans who’ve been through the battles and come out on top.

Rafael Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been during the season, so the absence of Rivera is not a viable reason for the way they’ve played. The idea that Soriano’s shift to the closer’s role hindered the set-up area is ignoring how thoroughly unreliable Soriano was as a set-up man.

While Jeter has had a renaissance in 2012, that can’t last forever. What are they going to do then?

What are they going to do when Pettitte is retired and stays retired? If Rivera can’t be as effective as he was prior to his knee injury or can’t come back at all?

They don’t have ready replacements as was the intent when they “developed” their young players and the players they have now are feeling the heat they never expected to feel to make the playoffs when they joined the Yankees.

Sign free agents? They’ve openly said the vault isn’t as open as it once was and they’re on the hook for a ton of money for A-Rod, Teixeira and CC Sabathia for the foreseeable future. Make trades? Does anyone want those prospects who’ve leaped backwards and been hurt this season?

There is no endless dynasty. The Yankees of the 1960s came undone because they failed to adapt to the draft and their stars got old all at once. The same things that happened to other teams that collapsed like the Mets and Red Sox are present with this Yankees team and they’re not so easy to gloss over when the team doesn’t win. In fact, they become more stark; they become the foundation for a slide that takes years to recover from.

I happens to everyone. And whether the Yankees recover from this in time to make it to the playoffs and even win while there, that’s not going to stop the inevitable reality. This is a sign of the beginning of the end and it will be pointed to as such when things really come apart, sooner or later.

Right now it looks like sooner.

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Believe It Or Don’t—The Bad (American League)

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Yesterday I examined teams that were expected to do poorly, but haven’t and whether or not their performances are real. Today let’s look at the teams that were supposed to be good and have started out…bad.

This is the American League; the National League will be posted later.

  • New York Yankees

What they’re doing.

The Yankees are 21-20 and in fourth place in the American League East, 5 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles.

How they’re doing it.

The easy answer is to say that the Yankees are hovering around .500 because of injuries. Strangely, the loss of Mariano Rivera hasn’t hurt them yet and presumably won’t until (if) they’re in the playoffs.

The word “if” concerning a playoff spot was once a hedge, but no longer. This team is not, under any circumstances, guaranteed a playoff spot in spite of the specious logic of Mike Francesa when he says something like, “well, they’ve made in in 15 of the past 16 years” as if there’s a connection.

They loaded up on starting pitching by trading for Michael Pineda and signing Hiroki Kuroda; prior to that, they also re-signed Freddy Garcia.

Pineda’s out for the year (at least); Kuroda’s been alternately brilliant and awful; and Garcia was bounced from the starting rotation. Andy Pettitte’s return gives them another veteran starter but they can’t reasonably expect Pettitte to be close to what he was in his prime.

The starting pitching has been inconsistent, but serviceable; the bullpen is still functional. It’s been the lineup that’s the problem.

Russell Martin is hitting .170 and losing playing time to the defensively superior and offensively inept Chris Stewart. Alex Rodriguez is now a “threat emeritus” against whom opposing clubs still need to be careful, but can challenge and beat him with power fastballs. Robinson Cano has gotten hot in May. Mark Teixeira has taken Derek Jeter’s place as the target of the fans’ ire. He’s been ill with a bad cough and hasn’t hit at all. It seems so long ago that Jeter was called “Captain DP” among other things; now Teixeira has taken his place.

Eventually, Teixeira will hit.

Believe it or don’t?

They’re going to hit enough to get back into contention for a playoff spot, but that doesn’t mean they’re a lock to get in.

Don’t believe it but don’t get too overconfident (or suffocatingly arrogant) either.

  • Boston Red Sox

What they’re doing.

The Red Sox are 20-21 and in last place in the AL East, 6 1/2 games behind the Orioles.

How they’re doing it.

The starting pitching got off to a woeful start and the transition from the laid back Terry Francona to the polarizing Bobby Valentine, combined with the front office regime change and still simmering tensions from the 2011 collapse put the Red Sox in an onerous situation.

Josh Beckett has pitched well in his last two starts following the golf outing/strained back/public effigy he endured. Daniel Bard is a Daisuke Matsuzaka return away from a trip back to the bullpen and they’ve lost Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis to injuries. Adrian Gonzalez hasn’t gotten hot yet.

Believe it or don’t.

After everything, the Red Sox are only one game behind the Yankees.

I didn’t think they were a legitimate contender before the season. Nor did I think they were as bad as they looked early in the season.

Objectively, they’re about a .500 team.

Believe it.

  • Detroit Tigers

What they’re doing.

The Tigers are 20-21, in third place and 3 games behind the Indians in the AL Central.

How they’re doing it.

The Tigers were widely predicted to run away and hide in the AL Central based on their high-powered offense, deep bullpen and all-world ace in Justin Verlander. Those factors would make up for a rancid defense and questionable backend of their rotation.

The offense is seventh in runs scoured and is functioning with black holes at second base and DH. The starting pitching behind Verlander has been bad. Jose Valverde was on the verge of losing his closer’s job before he injured his back.

Believe it or don’t?

This isn’t a new experience for the Tigers. For years after their shocking run to the World Series in 2006, they acquired big, expensive names in an “I’m collecting superstars” fashion by getting Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis and it didn’t work then either.

The offense will be okay but the back of the rotation with Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and a series of youngsters is a major problem.

They’re not an under .500 team, but they’re not walking into the playoffs.

Don’t believe it, but they’re going to have to fight their way into the playoffs.

  • Los Angeles Angels

What they’re doing.

The Angels are 18-24, in last place in the AL West and 8 games behind the Texas Rangers.

How they’re doing it.

They’re 13th in the American League in runs scored continuing the same absence of firepower that cost them in the pennant race in 2011. The difference now is that they have Albert Pujols.

The bullpen has been bad and closer Jordan Walden was replaced by veteran Scott Downs.

Inexplicably, only three of their everyday players have on base percentages over .300 and one of them isn’t Pujols.

This team is not a Mike Scioscia-style team that preferred speed, defense, good pitching and opportunism. The chasm between the manager’s style and the type of team he has is showing and it cost hitting coach Mickey Hatcher his job.

Believe it or don’t?

Don’t believe it.

Their starting pitching is too good and Pujols is going to hit at some point. It’s going to take some time for everyone to get on the same page, but by the All Star break, I’d expect an uneasy peace among new GM Jerry Dipoto, Scioscia, the newcomers and the remaining veterans for the Angels to right their ship and make a playoff run.

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