Blame Joba?

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You can’t blame both Joe West and Joba Chamberlain for last night’s Yankees loss to the Red Sox. When seeking a responsible party, Mariano Rivera also has to be part of the mix. But since that’s not allowed in Yankee-centric circles, the focus turns away from Rivera to the reviled Chamberlain and the cranky veteran ump West.

There were concession speeches going on when Chamberlain was seen warming up in the bottom of the ninth inning. Not even Michael Kay could muster any enthusiasm – phony or otherwise – to show a small positive notion that Chamberlain would do anything more than what he did: give up a run to lose the game. He gave up the run and took the loss, but it’s not entirely his fault.

It really wasn’t that long ago when there were “Joba Rules” T-shirts all over Yankee Stadium; concerns were expressed that then-manager Joe Torre would abuse Chamberlain as he did Scott Proctor and other relievers to ruin his incredible arm; and near fistfights and lunatic rants as to whether Chamberlain should be a starter or reliever were a daily occurrence and went on for years.

It’s 2013 and rather than swat the Cleveland midges that partially defined Chamberlain’s 2007 coming-out party, he’s gotten so heavy that he simply would eat them to add to his prodigious girth. The Yankees and their fans can’t wait until he’s some other team’s problem. The story has come 75 percent of the full circle.

The midges are an appropriate allegory for Chamberlain’s career with the Yankees. It was sabotaged and missed being something special. Who knows what would have happened had Chamberlain been placed in the starting rotation and allowed to pitch and figure things out on his own rather than be subject to the stifling and counterproductive innings limits and pitch counts that ruined not only him, but Phil Hughes as well? What could he have been if he’d been placed in the bullpen as Rivera’s set-up man and allowed to do his job in the same devastating fashion he did when he was a sensation for two months in 2007?

As the years passed and the Yankees jerked him from the rotation to the bullpen and back, as Chamberlain himself ate and trampolined his way out of the club’s and fans’ good graces, he’s become the “Oh God, no” pitcher that no one with anything invested in the Yankees wants to see. Last night’s result was what was expected, but it wasn’t due to anything Chamberlain did. While the Shane Victorino check-swing was viewed as so cut-and-dried that it was portrayed an obvious swing and Chamberlain got himself ejected for arguing it after he was pulled from the game, it wasn’t so blatant that the entire episode should be placed at the feet of West.

After the check-swing, Victorino hit a looping single to right field to score Jacoby Ellsbury. Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki’s throw to the plate would’ve been in time to get Ellsbury had catcher Austin Romine held onto it. How are any of the events subsequent to the check-swing Chamberlain’s or West’s fault?

Chamberlain is immature and was damaged by the way the Yankees anointed and babied him since his debut. That said, he still throws a fastball that reaches the upper-90s and has a hard slider that will accumulate a lot of strikeouts if he’s simply allowed to pitch without all the hovering hatred and preordained negativity that follows him around as long as he wears pinstripes. He’s going to go somewhere next season, either be a set-up man or closer and rejuvenate his value simply because that’s what happens with pitchers the Yankees have played up as their homegrown saviors and are tormented and dispatched when they don’t produce results commensurate with the overwhelming expectations.

Don’t be surprised to see both Hughes and Chamberlain with a team like the Marlins on cheap deals and pitching well. Or for Chamberlain to be the Astros closer. Or for the Rays to try to do what they did with Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney, give Chamberlain the chance to close and coax 50 saves out of him. Then the fans will turn their ire away from Chamberlain to the Yankees themselves for not getting out of him what another team will. He can be of use. It just won’t be as a Yankee and for that, much like last night’s loss, there’s plenty of blame to go around.




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Congratulations Ichiro On Hit Number 4,000!! (Make Sure You Purchase Your Commemorative T-Shirt On The Grand Concourse)

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Just remember one thing when quantifying Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,000 combined hits in Japan and North America: Kei Igawa was considered a “star” pitcher in Japan with these gaudy numbers before joining the Yankees. Considering the fact that he was pitching for a powerhouse Yankees team in 2007 and 2008, Igawa could have been less than mediocre and, based on his attendance record, won 12 to 15 games. Instead, in 16 games, the Yankees got an evil 6.66 ERA for their $46 million.

This is not to decry Ichiro’s accomplishment, but how can we legitimately consider this to be worthy of all the attention it’s getting as something other than an attempt on the part of the Yankees to sell some T-shirts? It may not be as silly as my snide Twitter crack that we should calculate O.J. Simpson’s accumulated yards in the white Bronco chase and add them to his NFL rushing total, but it’s in the vicinity.

Because of his contact with an agent, Reggie Bush’s USC football records were wiped out, he surrendered his Heisman Trophy and USC’s wins in 2005 were vacated. Since he was benefiting from these relationships while in college, couldn’t it be argued that he was technically receiving remuneration for his work and was therefore a professional? Shouldn’t his college rushing yards be added to his NFL totals?

You see where I’m going here.

The argument with Ichiro is that he was such an accomplished hitter in the major leagues that he would have had a vast number of hits—probably coming close to 4,000 by now—if he’d spent his entire career in North America. I don’t doubt it. But we can’t give legitimate accolades for a record of this nature based on “probably would have” vs. “would have” and “did.”

If Babe Ruth had been a hitter for his entire career rather than spending his first five seasons with the Red Sox as a pitcher, how many home runs would he have hit? If Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige had been allowed to play in the majors rather than being relegated to the Negro Leagues, what could they have done? There are no answers.

Then we get into the Japan-North America comparison. Do Randy Bass’s 202 homers in Japan get added to his nine big league homers to make 211? Does he jump ahead of Kirby Puckett (207) and Roberto Alomar (210) on the career list?

With a clear stake in the perception of being the top hit-getter in baseball history, Pete Rose diminished Ichiro’s hit total as not being equal in difficulty to his. Any comment Rose made was probably done during a break in relentlessly signing bats, balls and other memorabilia to accrue cash, but he’s not wrong in scoffing at the concept that Ichiro’s 4,000 hits are in any way equivalent to his 4,256 hits. Although he’s banned from baseball and unable to receive Hall of Fame induction, Rose is the true hit king whether Ichiro “passes” him in the next couple of years or not.

The Yankees’ celebration of the achievement was relatively muted compared to what they’ve done for such occurrences in the past. They’ve retired numbers they shouldn’t have retired (Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Roger Maris) and created “history” out of thin air even if it isn’t actual history in any way other than to suit the narrative. Michael Kay didn’t have a long-winded and poorly written moment-infringing speech prepared similar to the pablum he recited when Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit. The Yankees came out of the dugout to congratulate Ichiro and there will probably be a small ceremony at some point (to go along with the T-shirts), but Ichiro had 2,533 of his hits with the Mariners. His Yankees numbers are those of a fading veteran hanging on and collecting more numbers.

It was handled professionally and appropriately by the Yankees. The problem with this is the idea that there’s a connection between what Ichiro did in Japan and in the majors. There’s not unless you want to start going down that slide to count everything any player has ever done anywhere as part of his “professional” resume. That slide leads back to Igawa. He was a horrible pitcher for the Yankees who didn’t belong in the big leagues and was a star in Japan. For every Yu Darvish, how many pitchers are there like Igawa in Japan against whom Ichiro was getting his hits? Probably a lot. And that means the 4,000 hits is just a number that’s being lost in translation from Japanese to English. It’s an impressive number in context, but a number nonetheless.




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The Yankees’ Altered DNA

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Joel Sherman has broken out his eighth grade chemistry set to coincide with his sixth grade writing to “report” that it’s in the Yankees’ “DNA” to make trades at the MLB trading deadline. Apparently Sherman has abandoned reporting trades as completed to be the first to break the news only to have to retract when it falls apart as he did with Cliff Lee being traded to the Yankees three years ago, then not being traded to the Yankees. Now he’s switching to existentialism and “science.”

The “DNA” argument is missing several levels of evolution. Was it or was it not in the Yankees’ “DNA” to make bold and splashy off-season moves with the biggest names on the market? Was it or was it not in the Yankees’ “DNA” to eschew any pretense at fiscal restraint when it came to acquiring players via free agency or trade? And was it or was it not an annual expectation that the Yankees are absolutely going to be in the playoffs no matter what?

Did the DNA regress into the current circumstance with the Yankees resembling a developmentally disabled child due to a quirk in cell formation? Or has Sherman gotten to the point where he no longer has actual players and “rumors” to pull from his posterior in the interest of generating webhits and pageviews and is liberally relying on “Yankee history.”

The new reality is finally starting to sink in with the Yankees, their fans and the desperate media. The club is serious about holding down salaries and is not going to deviate from that plan even if it means they stagger down the stretch and are a non-factor or—perish the thought—sellers on August 31st. They aren’t going to be bidders on the big ticket items that might make a difference to get them back into a legitimate title contender this season or next season. In getting the payroll down to $189 million (even if Alex Rodriguez’s salary is off their ledger during his suspension) they’re going to need to repeat what they did this season with players on a level of Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells: veterans who no one else wants, have a semblance of a history and will sign for one season or be available on the cheap.

The argument that injuries have sapped the Yankees of viability this season is valid to a degree. But without amphetamines and PEDs, players the age of Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte break down. Sometimes players get hit and hurt as Curtis Granderson did twice. Other times the players are finished as is the case with Hafner, Wells and even Ichiro Suzuki.

The Yankees big issues now are they don’t have the money to buy their way out of an injury with an available name player; they don’t have prospects to deal; and the youngish star-level talent a la Andrew McCutchen signs long-term with his respective club rather than price himself out of town and is not on the trade block. So what’s left? The strategy has become obsolete because the core is old and they don’t have an ability to acquire fill-ins to surround or supplement them. When the money to patch holes is gone, the holes are not patched effectively. All the appellations of “specialness” and “Yankee magic” have degenerated to the same level as Sherman’s DNA stupidity. It was based on money.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the ridiculous analysis brought forth by know-nothings was that the Yankees would be better off if they hit fewer home runs. Four months of lost opportunities, Joe Girardi’s small ball bunting and wasted pitching performances has rendered that argument to the idiotic category in which it belonged.

Whether or not the Yankees do make a move for Justin Morneau and/or Michael Young to add to Alfonso Soriano or any other aging veteran who’s not under contract beyond 2014, it’s probably going to have little effect on this season. The teams ahead of them are younger, faster, more versatile, have prospects to deal and, in the biggest irony, have more money to spend.

As the season has moved along, we’ve seen the storyline shift from “Yankee magic” to “wait until the veterans get back” to “underdogs without expectations” to their “DNA.” In a month or so, when the dust settles on the state of the club, the new lament will be that the “playoffs loses its luster without the Yankees.” That, like the Yankees crying poverty, is a cry for help like a kid playing in his backyard having the umpire change his mind so his team will win. It goes against all logic and sanity. It’s something no one wants to hear. Baseball survived perfectly well without the Yankees in the playoffs every season from 1965-1975 and 1979 to 1993. It will do so again. In fact, it might be better and more interesting. It will tamp down the Yankees and their arrogance and clear out the bandwagon for awhile at least. These are the Yankees of 2013-2014. No trade is going to change that at this late date.

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Red Sox and Yankees: Early Season Notes

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Boston Red Sox

There haven’t been any glaring John Farrell managerial mistakes as of yet. He’s pretty much gone by the book. They’re over .500 and the main concern is Joel Hanrahan’s poor start and now hamstring injury.

What’s been prominent with the Red Sox has been the continuing talk amongst the media about what a better atmosphere there is in the clubhouse with the new faces they’ve brought in. Positivity has to lead to wins and whether that occurs over the course of a long season with the Red Sox remains to be seen. Their positive attitude won’t amount to much if they’re under .500 at mid-season. There’s a media-created desperation to bolster the Red Sox into the behemoth they were five years ago and that’s not going to happen, especially with this roster and that manager.

The latest hype is the attempted credit given to GM Ben Cherington for the acquisitions he made in last August’s salary dumping trade with the Dodgers. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster are receiving most of the attention for their arms. In realistic context, it’s not like the Dodgers were doing the Red Sox a favor by taking a load of money off their ledger. Josh Beckett was a “get this guy outta here” trade and Carl Crawford was hurt, but Adrian Gonzalez was acquired from the Padres for three of the Red Sox top prospects a year-and-a-half earlier and is a star in his prime. If you’re trading him, you’d better get some good prospects for him and not just add him as the X in the deal as a, “if you want X, you’d better take Y.”

New York Yankees

The Yankees have treaded water with Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter all out. Andy Pettitte’s been great, but now he’s having a start pushed back due to back spasms, thus dampening Mike Francesa’s elementary school enthusiasm that Pettitte could pitch forever and ever and ever as if he was trapped in the Francesa Overlook Hotel in which he’s overlooking Pettitte’s age and injury history.

They’ve gotten hot starts from newcomers Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner. The pitching, that was supposed to be a strong suit, has been bad behind Pettitte and CC Sabathia. The season will hinge on whether the new additions can maintain some level of production and the injured players return ready to contribute.

There are sudden concerns about Ichiro Suzuki’s slow start which shouldn’t be concerns at all—they should’ve been expected. He hit .322 as a Yankee last season and had a BAbip of .337. In 2013, he’s hitting .176 with a .167 BAbip (and no, I don’t have it backwards; his BAbip is really lower than his batting average). Ichiro’s success is contingent on his soft line drives and ground balls dropping in and finding holes. If they’re not doing either, he’s not going have numbers that appear to be productive.

Check out my appearance on Donn Paris’s Seamheads Podcast from yesterday here. We discussed the Angels, Astros, Mike Scioscia, the Red Sox, Yankees, Jeff Luhnow, player development, the draft and much more.

Essays, predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.comSmashwordsBN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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The Yankees’ Outfield Suddenly Looks As Bad As The Mets’

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Of course that’s in context. If you look at the projected outfields of the Yankees and Mets based on their players on paper, the Yankees are still superior. As diminished as Ichiro Suzuki is, he’s more proven that the cast of characters (led by Mike Baxter) the Mets have vying for right field. But whoever the Yankees put in left to replace the now-injured Curtis Granderson isn’t going to be better than Lucas Duda. Brett Gardner is a good player, but he’s not a prototypical “Yankees center fielder” along the lines of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, or even Bobby Murcer, Bernie Williams all the way down the line to Granderson.

In his first spring training plate appearance, Granderson was hit by a pitch and had his forearm broken. He’ll be out until May and now the Yankees are seeing how a bad bench and limited ready-for-prime-time minor leaguers can harm their rapidly declining chances to win a title. With a team this old, it’s inexplicable that they scrimped and saved to let Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez leave. Granderson’s one of the younger players on this ancient roster and got hurt while playing the game. The other, older players like Derek Jeter, Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis could wind up on the disabled list by waking up after sleeping in a strange position. What is going to harm this team to a greater degree—and one that hasn’t been mentioned as often as it should—is the inability to use PEDs and amphetamines to get through the season. There’s not a cure for what ails them other than letting nature take its course.

The Mets are rebuilding and had no intention nor realistic need to spend any money on players that weren’t going to help them in the distant future or were going to cost them the eleventh pick in the draft as Michael Bourn would’ve. The Yankees, on the other hand, have expectations of a championship in spite of their newfound austerity and conscious decision to stick with what they had and keep the severely declining Ichiro. With the money-related departures of Chavez and Ibanez, they’re left with limited veterans Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz as the probable left field replacement for Granderson with the possibilities of Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte.

Soon fans will start reverting to their “stars replace stars for even one game” template and demand the Yankees pursue and get Giancarlo Stanton. Whether the fans and media will have the nerve to suggest they pursue Mike Trout is the question. Neither will happen. Other possibilities of the more reasonable variety are Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano or Drew Stubbs. None are probable. Considering the expectations and lack of offense at catcher and right field with the aged and injury prone players they have in the lineup, they now have to function with an outfield that, plainly and simply, ain’t gonna cut it.

If this is an omen for the Yankees, it’s a bad one. It took one day—one day—for their weak bench to assert itself as the unpredictability of baseball from moment-to-moment reared its head. They went with the cheap bench and they’ve got the cheap bench. If a worst case scenario was predicted for the 2013 Yankees, this injury to Granderson and a comparison to the Mets is a great place to start.

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Youkilis Bookilis

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Kevin Youkilis immediately and (apparently) unwittingly invited the ire of Yankees fans and ignited a feeding frenzy among the media when he made what he clearly thought was a contextualized and innocuous comment about joining the Yankees and his history with the Red Sox. The comment is below:

“To say it negates all the years I played for the Boston Red Sox and all the tradition, you look at all the stuff I piled up in my house, to say I just throw it out the window is not true,” he said. “I will always be a Red Sock. That’s a part of your history, a part of your life. You can’t change that.”

Naturally, one sentence garnered all the headlines and it was done to create a story during the mostly dull, repetitive and languid days of spring training where, sans Alex Rodriguez and his traveling carnival, there’s not much to write about in Yankees camp. When read in full, Youkilis said nothing that could be construed as pronouncing fealty to the Red Sox, nor did he say he didn’t want to be a Yankee. However, after all the years of competition and intensity, Youkilis will be remembered as a Red Sox player who joined the Yankees out of mutual need. Unlike prior players such as Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon and even Roger Clemens, there was less ingrained hatred between the franchises when Boggs and Clemens were playing and Damon wasn’t prototypically “hated” by Yankees fans.

During the Boggs/Clemens years, the Red Sox were consistent playoff teams and the Yankees weren’t. The remnants of the rivalry stemmed from what went on over a decade before and had no present day feel. In fact, the Yankees were an awful, leaguewide joke. With Boggs and Clemens, the Red Sox won the AL East in 1986, 1988 and 1990. The Yankees were an also-ran in rampant disarray, bottoming out in 1989-91. Both Boggs and Clemens proved themselves to be loyal and valuable Yankees during their return to glory and maintenance of a great run. Damon was a likable, somewhat goofy and handsome acquisition who entered Yankees universe while they were still consensus selections to win the World Series. There was no reason to boo him.

In part due to the images of both franchises—the Red Sox as dirty, gritty and feisty and the Yankees as stiff, corporate, arrogant and stuffy—Youkilis doesn’t simply have to remove his Red Sox jersey and pull on the pinstripes to suddenly be a Yankee. The sour faces, beard and resemblance to Pigpen from Peanuts will not be tolerated in a Yankees clubhouse used to cleanliness, peace and quiet. Culture shock is to be expected and the media and fans are looking for methods to stir up the new surroundings for Youkilis and judge his adaptation to it.

It’s ironic that the catalyst to Youkilis’s departure from the Red Sox was a similarly unintentionally insulting statement made by then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine that Youkilis appeared less than emotionally and physically committed early in the 2012 season. With Valentine, it was misinterpreted and taken as a signal that the same Valentine who the players were afraid would show up was in full swing, confronting players and treating them with disrespect, causing them to face questions not about the game, but about what the manager said. They were waiting for it and when the opening arrived, it expedited Valentine’s inevitable doom.

It’s the same thing with Youkilis.

Whether or not Youkilis made this statement is irrelevant to the fans’ acceptance of him. The Yankees are not guaranteed anything in 2013. Given their age and lack of money to spend, the season can go either way. Fans will want someone upon whom to rain down their frustrations. They won’t boo CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira or Robinson Cano. There’s no point in booing Francisco Cervelli or Brett Gardner. They have an inexplicable love affair with Ichiro Suzuki. Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are unbooable. I guess they could boo Curtis Granderson, but their hearts wouldn’t be in it because he’s such a good guy. A-Rod’s not around.

Who’s left?

Youkilis.

Unless he performs as he did during his MVP-caliber years with the Red Sox, Yankee fans will be waiting to attack. He clarified himself the next day, but it won’t matter if he doesn’t hit. He took the bait and the media reeled him in. The fans will feast as soon as they’re hungry. It won’t be because of what he said about his days with the Red Sox, but it certainly didn’t help.

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Not Your Daddy’s Steinbrenner

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If Hal Steinbrenner is being sincere when he says he doesn’t understand why fans are concerned and upset that the Yankees haven’t made significant improvements over the winter, he’s gone beyond holding true to the company line he himself implemented and venturing into unexplored territory of delusion.

Back when George Steinbrenner was running things he was hard on his employees, but he was able to hit back at criticism (albeit in a loony, bullying way) without the screechy bewilderment that underscores Hal’s continued parental entreaties to a bratty progeny (the fans and media) that they should appreciate what they’re given.

Unwittingly or not, he’s lavishing expectations on a compromised and aged squad that are no longer as realistic as they once were. The Yankees do have the personnel to contend in 2013, but their margin of error is tied to the financial margins they’ve unilaterally enacted and with which they’ve constrained GM Brian Cashman. The easy answer will be to blame Cashman or manager Joe Girardi (in the last year of his contract), but is it fair to say it’s Cashman’s and Girardi’s fault for having run a club based on veteran mercenaries and a core of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who can still play but whose primes were a decade ago? All GMs and manager have their strengths and weaknesses and Cashman’s strength is buying free agents. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a difficult juggling act to put him in this position with no money to spend, a mandate to reduce the payroll to a finite number foreign to him during his tenure while simultaneously demanding that he figure it out and win.

George would’ve openly ranted and raved about his $200 million club annually flaming out in the playoffs, but with the ranting and raving there would be money available to get better. With this team under Hal, it’s not.

Hal is constantly referencing the money spent to retain Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Ichiro Suzuki and the signing of Kevin Youkilis, but he’s misunderstanding the litany of reasons that fans are justifiably concerned.

Their bench is atrocious. They’re old. In their division, the Blue Jays are substantially improved to go along with the still-strong Rays and the AL Wild Card winning Orioles. There’s talk from the likes of Mike Francesa that the Red Sox are “terrible.” Terrible is a bit much. If the Red Sox have 10 question marks heading into the 2013 season, the Yankees have 8.

When listening to Francesa and other Yankee-centric “analysts,” the shifting of tone is stark and noticeable. It’s not an automatic 95 wins and ticket punched to the playoffs in March. It’s “they’ll be in the mix.” In the mix of what is unexplained. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism to reconcile the “new” Yankees in their minds.

The talk that they’re going to “do something” to improve before the season has ceased as well for the simple fact that the reality has hit that there’s not much of anything they can do at this late date. Travis Hafner is about as good as it’s going to get as far as “improving.”

Another hard truth came this week with Felix Hernandez’s contract extension with the Mariners. The players available on the market aren’t young and star-level. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw—they’re not going to see free agency. With Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, the Yankees sought to mimic the Red Sox development of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to save money in the long run, but in 2008 the Yankees did that by choice and when it failed, they signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to fill the unfilled holes. Now, they have to develop out of necessity, making it all the more challenging. They don’t have the money to buy nor the prospects to trade or use themselves.

Hal sounds like he’s whining at the box he’s put his team in. For all of George’s faults, one thing he never did was whine. Perhaps Hal’s reaction comes from the safety and security of not having built anything of his own, but inheriting it. It was long thought that Hank Steinbrenner was reminiscent of their father as the out-of-control lunatic with a bloviating temper and outlandish statements that were quickly qualified with an eyeroll and head shake. Hank was figuratively (or literally, we don’t know) locked away. Hal was the sane and logical one. He was the rational, understanding, business-minded steward of the Yankee brand who let his baseball people run the club and understood why, if the team lost 7 out of 10, that it wasn’t a lack of motivation or work ethic on the part of the manager or coaches that required a pep talk of several firings, but because they hit a rough patch from which they’d emerge because of superior talent.

Hal’s statements could be seen as maintaining a unified front and waiting to see what happens, but I doubt he’s that calculating. He’s stung by the criticism and is not acknowledging the faults that his club has because he doesn’t understand them himself. He doesn’t have the intimidating persona that his father did implying that if the team doesn’t perform, heads will roll, headlines will explode, missives will be issued, and no one is safe. Randy Levine tries to play that part, but he’s sort of laughed at and ignored.

The sense of entitlement is prominent and a bigger reason than anything else to be worried if you’re a Yankees fan. If the ownership doesn’t comprehend the problems, how is it possible to fix them? This is especially so when the resources to do the repairs are as limited as they apparently are.

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If You’re Thinking of Comparing Hafner to Ibanez, Don’t

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Those thinking of equating the Yankees signing of Travis Hafner to last year’s signing of Raul Ibanez are in for a rude awakening.

Because the Yankees have had some success in prior years with inexpensive and available veterans such as Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones and Ibanez, it’s a false belief that the trend will continue with Ichiro Suzuki, Kevin Youkilis and Hafner. One thing doesn’t automatically guarantee the other. That’s the big issue with taking a player’s profile and comparing it to another player’s profile based on stats, history, position, contract, whatever—it’s not a real comparison because the individual nature is routinely ignored.

GM Brian Cashman wasn’t expecting the Ibanez from his days with the Mariners or his first two years with the Phillies, but considering Ibanez’s 20 homer, 52 extra base hit showing in 2011, it was reasonable to believe that Ibanez would hit 15-20 homers for the Yankees in a part-time role. He’d been durable, playing in at least 134 games a season going back to 2005. No one was expecting a Reggie Jackson-imitation in the playoffs. The Yankees got far more than they bargained for with a $1.1 million salary and Ibanez was a lifesaver.

Can the same be said for Hafner?

Put it this way: Ibanez wasn’t primarily a DH who had recurrent shoulder woes as well as back and oblique issues sending him to the disabled list over-and-over again as is the case with Hafner. In their wildest fantasies, the Yankees should be happy if they get from Hafner half of what Ibanez gave them. Even that’s a stretch. (And Hafner might not want to stretch too far for fear of tearing something, given his increasingly brittle musculature.)

Hafner, 36 in June, was one of the most dangerous fastball hitters in baseball during his heyday with the Indians between 2004 and 2007; he was an on-base machine and a clubhouse force. Then-Indians GM Mark Shapiro stole Hafner from his former boss and mentor John Hart when Hart was GM of the Rangers in 2002, getting him with Aaron Myette for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese. He was great for awhile; he’s a shell of that player now.

Hafner has played in over 94 games once in the past five years. When he was able to get in the lineup, he’s been productive and he can still turn around a high-90s fastball. He will take his walks. But he’s never consistently healthy. That’s not going to change at age 36 simply because he pulls on the pinstripes and the Yankees’ strategy of signing veteran former star players has been moderately successful in the past. Ibanez was signed as a complementary player with pop off the bench and the ability to play the outfield if needed. He wound up being needed to play far more than was initially expected due to the injury to Brett Gardner. The Yankees aren’t signing Hafner as a background roll of the dice as they did with Ibanez, they’re expecting him to contribute as a lefty-swinging DH.

It’s not going to happen.

Hafner will invite memories of Ibanez when he shows flashes of his old self by crushing a 100-mph fastball from Daniel Bard into the Yankee Stadium upper deck in early April (if he’s not on the disabled list already by then); the fans will think they got another “genius” pickup from Cashman until Hafner goes on the disabled list with a predictable malady, probably to his shoulder; then they’ll be trapped scouring the same bin for another bat to replace him. Only Yankees apologists who still function under the misplaced belief that every move Cashman makes will miraculously turn to gold are failing to accept this truth.

With each signing the newly austere Yankees make, their win total increases…if it was 2007. The club they’ve constructed would have won 115 games and been prohibitive World Series favorites six years ago. It’s not six years ago. Whereas in years past the Yankees motto was seemingly, “We want, we pay, we get,” it’s now become, “Let’s see what’s out there and what we can afford.” Hafner, with all his warts, is what’s out there and what they can afford.

Navigating the latest Alex Rodriguez scandal; wondering what they’re going to get out of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera as they recover from injuries; moving forward with zero power out of either corner outfield position; not having a proven big league catcher; worrying about money—these are not the Yankees who have been at the top of the American League for the past two decades. Yet there’s a prevailing belief that because everything worked out then, it’s going to work out now. Just because.

That’s a conceit combined with a desperate delusion as a defense mechanism to avoid the horrid reality that the run is over and a downslide reminiscent of the mid-1960s is well underway.

Hafner is the least of the Yankees problems, but he’s the least of their solutions as well.

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The Rejected Justin Upton Trade: Q&A

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The general reaction to the proposed Justin Upton trade from the Diamondbacks to the Mariners has been, “Why?”

Why would the Diamondbacks and GM Kevin Towers bother negotiating and completing the deal pending Upton’s approval while knowing that approval wasn’t going to come?

Why would the Mariners make such a deal while surrendering four players—Charlie Furbush, Nick Franklin, Stephen Pryor and Taijuan Walker—when the general consensus is that they need more than Upton to compete in a tough division?

Let’s discuss the answers.

Why did Towers bother?

Towers has no choice now. He has to get Upton out of there. He’s put himself in this position and there are lingering questions as to why there’s such a desperation to get rid of a 25-year-old, power hitting right fielder who’s signed to a reasonable contract. Usually in such a case there’s an obvious reason such as open animosity between player and club, money, poor performance or a rebuilding process. None of this is evident with Upton and the Diamondbacks. This is going to permeate the dealmaking process and clubs interested in Upton who may not have heard whispers (if they exist) of the real reason Upton’s available will hesitate and want an answer before they surrender a package similar to the Mariners.

The Mariners offer is important. Furbush is a useful lefty specialist, but the other players are significant. Pryor is a potential closer; Walker has a great power arm; Franklin is a former first round pick as a middle infielder with pop.

Towers was reportedly aware that Upton wasn’t going to okay the deal and perhaps he was hoping that the wearing down of the trade rumors that have gone on for over a year might spur Upton to say, “Let me outta here already.” But it was also a message to the rest of baseball that the cost for Upton is going to be steep for a deal to get done.

It makes sense in a way, but it might have backfired for Towers as the desire to trade Upton has now become a need. The difference between “I will” and “I must” is stark and the Diamondbacks have almost completely crossed that threshold. By that logic, they’re going to wind up with far less for Upton than what they were getting from the Mariners.

How did this help the Mariners?

On the surface, it’s a logical progression to use their farm system to acquire a superstar talent they’ll have at a reasonable cost for the next three years, but the Mariners knew that Upton would reject the trade just like the Diamondbacks did. But they tried anyway. Why?

Here’s why: Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik is in the final year of his contract. A surprising (and lucky) 85 wins in what was supposed to be year one of a rebuild in 2009 has lost its luster. He was referred to as a “genius,” and a new age thinker who used both scouting experience and new age stats to run his club. But disastrous signings such as Chone Figgins and off-field missteps like the allegations of lying in the entirety of his Cliff Lee dealings with the Yankees and subsequently trading for an accused rapist Josh Lueke made Zduriencik appear shady and amoral.

Whether it’s a fair assessment or not is irrelevant. If the on-field product had been better, these issues could be glossed over, but the on-field product has been awful and no one wants to hear about a rebuilt farm system. The Mariners have finished in last place in the AL West in each of the past three seasons and are desperately flinging things at the wall—Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Upton, flirting with Josh Hamilton, bringing in the fences at Safeco Field—and hoping to regain some attention from a fan base that’s stopped coming to the park.

Forgetting the on-field issues, here’s the bottom line: when Pat Gillick and Lou Piniella were running the place, the Mariners were first in attendance in baseball in 2001-2002. The last year when Bill Bavasi was GM in 2008 they lost 100 games and were sixth in attendance. In 2009, when they won those 85 games, they were seventh. In 2010, the year they acquired Lee to couple with Felix Hernandez and the Mariners were a trendy pick to make the playoffs, they were seventh. They were eighth in 2010 and 2011 and eleventh in 2012. It gets worse from there unless major names are acquired. They tried that with Upton and he said no.

With Ichiro Suzuki no longer there as a nominal drawing card, what possible reason other than King Felix is there to go see the games as long as the fans don’t think there’s any chance for them to win in a division with the Rangers, Angels and A’s?

The Upton trade was desperation, pure and simple, because Zduriencik’s job is on the line and if the season goes poorly without legitimate improvement, he’s getting fired. In fact, he might get fired during the season before the beginning of summer.

Was it worth it to the Diamondbacks and Mariners?

It was only worth it if they had convinced Upton to accept the trade before it leaked to the media. They didn’t. Now matters are worse for both. In the end, it was a huge gaffe that will define the organizations until the situations are settled and that settlement may not end as either Towers or Zduriencik envisioned unless they accounted for a worst case scenario that is looking more and more likely with each passing day.

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Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part II—the Aftereffects of Austerity

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In normal circumstances, the words “austerity measures” would never be linked with “$200 million payroll,” but that’s where the Yankees currently are.

With that $200 million payroll and the upcoming strict penalties on franchises with higher payrolls, the mandate has come down from ownership for the Yankees to get the total down to $189 million by 2014. This will supposedly save as much as $50 million in taxes and they’ll be able to spend again after 2014.

I wrote about this in detail here.

But what will the team look like by 2014 and will players want to join the Yankees when they’re no longer the “Yankees,” but just another team that’s struggled for two straight years and whose future isn’t attached to the stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who will either be gone by then or severely limited in what they can still accomplish?

To illustrate how far the Yankees have fallen under this new budget, the catcher at the top of their depth chart is Francisco Cervelli who couldn’t even stick with the big league club as a backup last season. They lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez. The latter three, they wanted back. They couldn’t pay for Martin, Chavez and Ibanez? What’s worse, they appeared to expect all three to wait out the Yankees and eschew other job offers in the hopes that they’d be welcomed back in the Bronx.

What’s worse: the ineptitude or the arrogance?

If George Steinbrenner were still around, he’d have said, “To hell with the luxury tax,” and qualified such an attitude by referencing the amount of money the team wasted over the years on such duds as Carl Pavano, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Steve Karsay, Kyle Farnsworth, Pedro Feliciano and countless others, many of whom were total unknowns to George, therefore he wouldn’t have received the convenient blame for their signings with a baseball exec’s eyeroll, head shake and surreptitious gesture toward the owner’s box, “blame him, not me,” thereby acquitting themselves when they were, in fact, guilty. But now, the bulk of the responsibility falls straight to the baseball people. He’d also be under the belief that the Yankees brand of excellence couldn’t withstand what they’re increasingly likely to experience in 2013-2014 and that the money would wind up back in their pockets eventually due to their success.

Are there financial problems that haven’t been disclosed? A large chunk of the YES Network was recently sold to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. In years past, that money would’ve functioned as a cash infusion and gone right back into the construction of the club, but it hasn’t. They’re still not spending on players over the long term with that looming shadow of 2014 engulfing everything they plan to do. Every improvement/retention is on a one or two year contract: Kevin Youkilis—1-year; Hiroki Kuroda—1-year; Ichiro Suzuki—2-years. It’s hard to find younger, impact players when constrained so tightly and the players they’ve signed are older and/or declining which is why they were available to the Yankees on short-term contracts in the first place.

The Yankees don’t have any young players on the way up to bolster the veteran troops.

It takes inexplicable audacity for GM Brian Cashman to trumpet the pitching prospects the club was developing under stringent rules to “protect” them, then to dismiss their failures leading to a release (Andrew Brackman); a demotion to the lower minors to re-learn to throw strikes (Dellin Betances); and injury (Manny Banuelos). The reactions to the injuries to Banuelos, Jose Campos and Michael Pineda are especially galling. Banuelos’s injury—Tommy John surgery—was casually tossed aside by Cashman, pointing out the high success rate of the procedure as if it was no big deal that the pitcher got hurt. But he got hurt while under the restrictions the Yankees has placed on him—restrictions that were designed to simultaneously keep him healthy and develop him, yet wound up doing neither.

Campos was referenced as the “key” to the trade that brought Pineda; Campos was injured in late April with an undisclosed elbow problem and is now throwing off a mound and expected to be ready for spring training. That he missed almost the entire 2012 season with an injury the Yankees never described in full would give me pause for his durability going forward. The 2013 projections for Pineda to be an important contributor are more prayerful than expectant, adding to the uncertainty.

There’s a streamlining that may make sense in the long run such as the decision to drop StubHub as an official ticket reseller and instead move to Ticketmaster. They sold that chunk of YES and are in the process of slashing the payroll.

Any other team would be subject to a media firestorm trying to uncover the real reason for the sudden belt-tightening with the luxury tax excuse not be accepted at face value. Is there an underlying “why?” for this attachment to $189 million, the opt-out of the StubHub deal, and the sale of 49% of YES? The potential lost windfall of missing the post-season and the lack of fans going to the park, buying beer and souvenirs, paying the exorbitant fees to park their cars and bottom line spending money on memorabilia is going to diminish the revenue further.

Perhaps this is a natural byproduct of the failures to win a championship in any season other than 2009 in spite of having the highest payroll—by a substantial margin—in every year since their prior title in 2000. Could it be that the Steinbrenner sons looked at Cashman and wondered why Billy Beane, Brian Sabean, Andrew Friedman, and John Mozeliak were able to win with a fraction of the limitless cash the Yankees bestowed on Cashman and want him to make them more money by being a GM instead of a guy holding a blank checkbook? In recent years, I don’t see what it is Cashman has done that Hal Steinbrenner couldn’t have done if he decided to be the final word in baseball decisions and let the scouts do the drafting and he went onto the market to buy recognizable names.

Anyone can buy stuff.

Cashman’s aforementioned failures at development show his limits as a GM. It’s not easy to transform from the guy with a load of money available to toss at mistakes and use that cash as a pothole filler and be the guy who has no choice but to be frugal and figure something else out. Much like Hank Steinbrenner saying early in 2008 that the struggling righty pitcher Mike Mussina had to learn to throw like the soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer, it sounds easier when said from a distance and a “Why’s he doing it and you’re not?” than it is to implement.

No matter how it’s quantified, this Yankees team is reliant on the past production of these veteran players without the money that was there in the past to cover for them if they don’t deliver.

The fans aren’t going to want to hear about the “future.” They’re going to want Cashman and the Steinbrenners to do something. But given their inaction thus far in the winter of 2012-2013, it doesn’t look as if they’re going to with anyone significant.

This time, they don’t have a prior year’s championship to use as a shield. The Yankees were subject to a broom at the hands of the Tigers. That’s not a particularly coveted memory. In fact, it might have been a portent of what’s to come, except worse.

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