Jeter’s Pinstriped Parachute

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A side note of Mariano Rivera’s announcement that he plans to retire at the end of the 2013 season has nothing to do with the accolades and feting he’s receiving as a preface to what will go on during the whole season for his farewell tour. The Yankees flux has gone beyond their age, their lack of significant acquisitions over the winter, the injuries, the talk of whether or not the Steinbrenners are in for the long-term, and the shifting of expectations. Fans are beginning their panic and, as reality sets in that there’s no intention nor desire to replace star players with other star players, the realization is a terror-filled nightmare that the Yankees’ two-decade run with Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and stars surrounding them with “magic” and “tradition” carrying them through all adversity is coming to an end.

It may get worse from here.

The Rivera retirement and likelihood of a down season and missed playoff spot will put Jeter is a position where he has the Yankees organization in a vise to overpay him in 2014-2016 at age 40-42.

The main focus of pending free agents, money and the future has centered around Robinson Cano; the intent and implementation of getting the payroll down to $189 million by 2014; and what to do with Alex Rodriguez’s onerous $114 million remaining on his deal. But it’s been forgotten that Jeter is also eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. He has a player option for 2014 at $8 million. He’s already activated an extra $1.5 million in bonus money for winning the Silver Slugger in 2012. There’s a $3 million buyout. Depending on how he plays in 2013 (there are also bonuses for All-Star/Playoff/World Series MVPs and for finishing in the top six in the MVP voting), the Yankees will owe him a guaranteed $10.5 million or the $3 million buyout.

If Jeter returns to form after his ankle injury, he’s not exercising an option for $10.5 million. He’ll want more money and he’s not forgetting the treatment he received from the Yankees during his last foray into free agency when they essentially told him to leave if he didn’t like the offer they presented. It didn’t escape his notice that GM Brian Cashman sat at the press conference disinterestedly texting and looking supernaturally bored by the proceedings.

Let’s look at the worst possible scenarios for the Yankees and why Jeter’s power in the relationship will rise exponentially as the club’s fortunes fall.

  • The Yankees have a bad year of 85 wins (or fewer) and finish out of the playoffs
  • Cano files for free agency and is making the tour with the Dodgers continually raising the ante, trapping the Yankees in the vacuum of either going far beyond the money and years they wanted to pay or letting their one remaining in-his-prime star leave
  • Pettitte sees how the team is declining and retires
  • Rivera’s departure is official
  • Jeter has a good year and declines his option

What then?

With this avalanche of transition coming down on the organization, Jeter won’t be as conciliatory and agreeable in the contract negotiations as he was after 2010. As competitive and coldblooded as he can be, loyalty and personal preferences won’t factor into the equation. He’ll retaliate for what happened in 2010 and make sure the Yankees have to compensate him on the backend for the perceived disrespect they showed him by lowballing him and daring him to walk away. In the end, they paid him, but it was not smooth and it was certainly not friendly. It was business and Jeter can spin that around and stick it to the organization in an identical fashion to the manner in which they stuck it to him because they can’t withstand the above-listed factors and Jeter openly considering leaving for better pastures with his hometown Tigers, the championship level Giants, or even the Dodgers along with Cano. If he truly wants to play hardball, he could flirt with the Mets or Red Sox!!

While the Yankees are staring into the abyss of another $240 million contract and an extended war with Scott Boras and the Dodgers over Cano, they’ll also have to give Jeter a contract for severance, time-served and a pinstriped parachute because they used every possible means to drag him over the coals in 2010. I’d say something to the tune of an agreement to take a lower base salary in 2014 to help the team get to $189 million, then an extra 2-3 years at a total of $45-60 million would placate Jeter and assuage his bruised feelings.

Jeter wants to be a Yankee for life, but he won’t forget what happened during his last negotiation. He holds the hammer now and you can bet he’s going to slam it down. Hard.

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The Youkilis And Ichiro Signings Fit The 2013 Yankees—And That’s The Problem

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Gone are the days when the Yankees acted decisively, swiftly and, if need be, expensively to fill all their gaping or perceived holes that cost them a World Series the year before. In 2009, when they did win their lone World Series over the past decade, they were still looking for ways in improve by making bold changes in letting World Series MVP Hideki Matsui depart as a free agent, trading away another post-season hero Melky Cabrera, reacquiring Javier Vazquez, and acquiring Curtis Granderson.

Some worked, some wound up being a wash, some were disastrous, but at least they were doing something for the short and long terms and at least they were done in the Yankee fashion of money being no object in the interests of getting better.

The new Yankee template has nothing to do with getting better. It has to do with getting cheaper; spackling over holes because they’re too expensive to repair correctly; dropping nuggets into the media to keep them relevant or provide cover stories (the Josh Hamilton talk and GM Brian Cashman not being allowed to spend money at the winter meetings); and signing players not based on what they can do, but to placate the fans. They created this dynamic with the image of a first class organization and budgetless wheelbarrows full of cash from the Steinbrenners and the World Series or bust concept that anything less than a championship was deemed a failure. Now they’re facing the consequences of that business model and the desire/need to get the payroll down to $189 million by 2014.

Two more short-term signings have been made to fill a hole (Kevin Youkilis) and to make the fans happy (Ichiro Suzuki). Youkilis agreed to a 1-year, $12 million contract and the details of a contract with Ichiro are reportedly being finalized, but he’s returning.

The Youkilis signing makes plenty of sense and fills the chasm created by Alex Rodriguez’s hip surgery and apparent absence until the summer. The Ichiro signing, if it’s done in the interests of him playing regularly, is a bad one. In years past, the Yankees would’ve thanked Ichiro for his help from August onward and moved along with someone younger and better. But they can’t afford anyone better. They can’t trade for a young third baseman like Chase Headley because they no longer have the prospects, so they had to sign Youkilis. They can’t dive into the free agent market for a Hamilton. Agents and players aren’t going straight to the Yankees safe in the knowledge that if the Yankees want the player or are desperate enough, the money will be a secondary issue because it’s plainly and simply there as a matter of course. That world doesn’t exist anymore.

They’re left with this: signing a useful player like Youkilis who doesn’t fit in with the Yankees clubhouse but, as a short-term fill-in, was the best option for their shockingly limited resources. There’s a possibility that Youkilis will either be a toned down version of himself or be advised how to act like a “Yankee” and not a “Red Sox.” This might affect his play on the field moving forward. Bear in mind that Youkilis isn’t the player he was in his Red Sox heyday.

Ichiro on the other hand, became a fan favorite because of his solid play after being acquired from the Mariners in late July. He played his usual solid defense, was a part of the landscape rather than the diva he’d become with the Mariners, and seemed rejuvenated by playing on a contender. None of that means he should’ve been re-signed or that he would’ve been re-signed as a regular contributor if prior Yankees’ incarnations were still the order of the day.

Here are the facts about Ichiro: he’s a declining 39-year-old player who batted .322 with a .340 on-base percentage and a .337 BAbip in 240 plate appearances as a Yankee. Even at the height of his powers, the split between his batting average and OBP has always been quite low because he doesn’t walk. He looked good for the Yankees because the balls he was hitting were finding a spot between the fielders, but in reality he wasn’t much better for the Yankees on the field than he’s been for the Mariners in the past two seasons. He’ll steal a few bases, show good glove work, and maybe have what looks like a good year with the bat. Good doesn’t necessarily mean productive. That’s the player they’re getting and if he’s asked to contribute for 400 at bats, it’s abundantly clear how far the Yankees have fallen in the hot stove competition and are destined to fall when the real competition begins in April of 2013.

They’re trying to save money as an end unto itself expecting the pinstripes and Yankees lore to be enough of an attraction to bring fans to the park no matter the state of the team. The implication of damaging the brand is not without merit. The on-field product will be cheaper, no doubt, but they’ll also be bringing in less money because of a lack of interest. They’re signing veterans past their sell-by date and hoping they have a small spring of baseball life left to “experience” their way into the playoffs. It’s a hard sell and it shows—not in a good way.

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Yankees Have No Interest Or Need For Josh Hamilton, But…

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Buster Olney said the following on Twitter yesterday regarding the “rumor” that the Yankees were considering Josh Hamilton:

If the Yankees ever reversed course and got into the Josh Hamilton talks, it would mean that what they’ve done in last month makes no sense.

He’s 100% right and the baseball people led by Brian Cashman would want nothing—nothing!!!—to do with Hamilton.

Sure he’s talented; sure he’d help them; but the combination of injuries, age, substance abuse issues, and cost make him a ticking time bomb for a team that needs to get younger and is in the process of slashing payroll.

Is this real? Or is it trolling to create a story where none exists and make it appear that the heretofore biggest whale in the sea is considering Hamilton?

There are advantages to everyone (except the Yankees) that the talk—true or not—is floating around that they might make a move on Hamilton. With options limited, the best thing that can happen to a free agent is for the Red Sox and Yankees to both be pursuing him, so his representatives aren’t going to discourage such talk even if the Red Sox’ interest is contingent on Hamilton’s market collapsing and the Yankees are not interested at all.

If the baseball people have their way, they will not go anywhere near Hamilton, but it’s not always the baseball people who have the final say. Ownership led by the Steinbrenners and team president Randy Levine have done an end-around on Cashman in the past, most recently with Rafael Soriano. Cashman loudly and publicly—bordering on insubordinately—protested the deal and repeatedly used it as a hammer to make clear that he didn’t want the reliever. In retrospect, Soriano’s presence wound up being a benefit when the unthinkable injury to Mariano Rivera happened. Soriano took over as the closer and was brilliant.

Because it wound up working, that can only serve to embolden Levine and the Steinbrenners that they sometimes have to overrule their GM in the interests of the Yankees brand. Currently, the Yankees are uncharacteristically quiet on the free agent/trade front; they lost out on players like Jeff Keppinger and Eric Chavez who, in years past would’ve run to the Yankees; Russell Martin left when the Yankees were outbid by the Pirates. The Wall Street Journal said that Cashman wasn’t allowed to make any deals at the winter meetings. The Yankees denied it and the unnamed “official” quoted in the WSJ story sounds eerily reminiscent of the bloviating Levine. Cashman is following an edict to get the payroll down to $189 million by 2014 no matter what and if the Yankees are sticking to that agenda, they’re not able to do as they have in the past and open the checkbook to fill their gaping holes.

What does all this mean?

The young and nouveau Yankees fan has no memory of the time before Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Rivera; before the playoffs were essentially a guarantee; before players wanted to join the Yankees rather than doing so because they offered the most money. That fan cannot fathom players choosing other options. They don’t understand the organization looking so impotent especially when they have needs that supersede wants.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Yankees endured a dead off-season in 1991-1992 when they overpaid for a player they didn’t want or need and had a very limited market in Danny Tartabull. The next year, the Yankees offered the most money for Greg Maddux and felt used when Maddux took less money to go to the Braves. It’s not a new phenomenon that the Yankees are a less-than-preferable destination. The ball got rolling when Cliff Lee decided to go back to the Phillies instead of joining the Yankees and the abuse heaped upon his wife during the ALCS of 2010 certainly didn’t help. Nick Swisher’s open complaints of the fans’ attacking him has warned players as to what they can expect if they don’t perform.

The Yankees are locked in that vacancy of concerns about perception; their multiple weaknesses; age; desire to reduce payroll; player reticence about New York; and fear of irrelevance. Hamilton would function as a bigger name to say, “Hey, the Yankees are still around,” than Soriano did during another quiet off-season in which the GM wanted things to be quiet, but with an exponential cost and potential for disaster.

The Yankees could sign Hamilton because they have the money and the growing desperation. It’s a guarantee that the name has been brought up, not by Cashman, but by the media trolls and by Levine.

The media trolls and schlock sites are what they are, fulfilling their responsibility by accumulating webhits and drawing attention to themselves. They should be brushed to the side and mostly ignored. But Levine is a far more dangerous type of troll to what the Yankees are trying to do. He’s a troll in a position of power to make his delusions a reality. That makes a pursuit of Hamilton a hellish possibility that would expedite the Yankees downfall on and off the field and would be a big mistake for Hamilton himself.

That said, there’s no doubt whatsoever that it could happen.

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Mariano Who?

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Since he’s a totem and losing him to injury was ludicrously referred to as a “tragedy”, it’s baseball blasphemy to say the truth that Mariano Rivera’s loss hasn’t hurt the Yankees at all. Ripping off 10 straight wins against tough competition and Rafael Soriano’s solid performance since taking over as closer has softened the blow to a remarkable degree; so much so that we hardly hear Rivera mentioned anymore as a lament that he’s gone or anything else.

Of course Rivera’s reputation was built on his post-season brilliance; he’s been the best 1-inning short reliever in history; and he’s done it year-in/year-out, but it’s long been said that Rivera is irreplaceable. In the playoffs it’s probably true. He was the difference between the Yankees and their opponents during their championship years. For the most part when they lost it wasn’t because of Rivera even though his high-profile gacks in 2004, 2001 and 1997 cost the Yankees dearly and weren’t entirely his fault. But the idea that a team can find a pitcher to rack up the saves had regularly omitted Rivera as part of that broad-based statement is softened by the Yankees play since Rivera’s been out. Soriano’s shaky post-season work is going to be an issue, but since taking over for Rivera (and David Robertson), Soriano has looked like a different pitcher to the one that complained he couldn’t get used to pitching the eighth inning and then was demoted to the seventh inning. He’s pounding the strike zone, is confident and looks like the pitcher he was with the Rays in 2010—the year he caught the eye of the Steinbrenners and led to him being signed in the first place.

No, Brian Cashman didn’t want Soriano and he didn’t want to surrender the draft choices his signing cost them. Yes, Cashman was right in that instance. But the failure of Robertson following Rivera and that Soriano was available and experienced has solved a potential problem.

Not everyone can close and the Yankees were lucky they had someone who could.

Rivera is the best of his era and one of the best of all time, but that indispensable aura is certainly taking a hit now that the team has moved on without him and is playing better than they did when he was there.

It’s ironic that the player who was seen as the most important for the Yankees’ dynasty—Rivera—has been replaced by one—Soriano—who’d drawn the ire of everyone from the fans to the media to his teammates to the coaches, manager and front office. It doesn’t diminish Rivera’s accomplishments, but it does water down his importance quite a bit.

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The Real Questions with Bobby V and Ben Cherington

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Repeatedly we’re seeing the debate as to whether new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington wanted Bobby Valentine as the Red Sox manager.

Some say yes, he’s on board and is sincere about it.

Some say yes, but are shrugging and rolling their eyes as they say it.

Some say no. Larry Lucchino and John Henry wanted someone who was the polar opposite of Terry Francona; that they wouldn’t tolerate the nonsense that played a part in the club’s collapse in September and began the ball rolling sending Francona and Theo Epstein out of town and opened the door to the shocking hire of Valentine.

The truth is probably closer to the middle.

Did Cherington want Valentine?

No.

But Lucchino wasted no time after the departure of Epstein to step right back into the breach amidst the chaos and fill the vacuum. When the Red Sox won their 2004 championship, Lucchino’s position had been usurped and his influence marginalized by his former protege and eventual nemesis as Epstein won the subsequent power struggle.

With the collapse, the dismissal of Francona and the Epstein departure, the opening was there for Lucchino and he took it.

Is Cherington comfortable with Valentine?

I’m sure he’s rationalized it.

Valentine has a 2-year contract with 2 option years; he’s a qualified and experienced manager who is well-versed in statistics and truly knows the game from both a numerical and scouting point-of-view; he’ll nip any behavioral issues in the bud; if things go wrong, Cherington won’t get the blame as the puppetmaster in the Moneyball tradition of telling the “middle-manager” what to do.

Whereas Epstein would’ve been allowed to hire the man he wanted to hire to replace Francona, Lucchino and ownership stuck to the Red Sox recent historical script of doing the Yankees thing and importing a recognizable name.

It’s been this way for years.

When Epstein was hired and the Red Sox set about altering the culture and strategy, it wasn’t to sign the big name free agents or championship-winning managers for show in a keeping up with the Steinbrenners competition—that’s what got them and other teams in trouble in the first place—but it was done to import players and staff who fit into what they wanted to build logically and intelligently.

Now that they have immobile contracts; a greedy fan base; and an apathetic, comfortable and encroaching core of veterans who took advantage of Francona’s hands-off style. Valentine was the one name who’d drop a bomb in the clubhouse and put a stop to the off-field negativity that harmed their playoff run.

Valentine’s not going to storm in and get in the faces of Josh Beckett and Kevin Youkilis. He’ll try a conciliatory “let’s work together” approach, talk to them like men and then handle it if they step out of line.

You can make the argument for a younger, less stringent manager with a personality that wasn’t going to ruffle the delicacy of the clubhouse hierarchy, but the front office is paying the players to be in shape and behave appropriately as a matter of course; they hired Valentine to implement that desire.

If they hired someone inexperienced who fit into the middle-managing profile and it didn’t work, the Red Sox were staring in the face of a full-blown housecleaning which would’ve relegated them to possibly 3-5 years of missed playoffs and repercussions in revenue, fan response and media vitriol.

It’s easier and cheaper to bring in Valentine and see if he can tweak what’s there than it is to make wholesale roster changes and take someone else’s headaches in exchange for their own. Catering to the whims of the players would’ve made the 2011 problems worse.

Hiring Valentine is not so different from the Moneyball style of field managers except that this middle-manager isn’t going to be intimidated nor is he going to get fired if the players complain about him.

Here’s the big question: Had Epstein stayed, would Bobby Valentine be the Red Sox manager right now?

Universally, the answer will be the same no matter whom you ask.

That answer is no.

And despite assertions that all are in agreement, smiles and glad-handing, that pretty much tells you where Cherington truly stands on the situation as well.

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