"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Cleaning House

As I write this, Becky is furiously wrapping gifts after a long day of holiday shopping. I myself finished (and started) my shopping yesterday, though I still have to do my wrapping and send out my half of the cards. At work, our accounts department is besieged by requests from authors desperate to get their checks before the new year for tax purposes, and the rest of us are working to tie up loose ends before before the office shuts down (or the transit system does, whichever comes first).

Things are no different in Yankeeland as the past two days have brought a pair of deadlines forcing certain personnel moves. Yesterday was the deadline for free agents offered arbitration to decline or accept their team’s offer. As expected, all three players the Yankees offered arbitration–Bernie Williams, Al Leiter and Ramiro Mendoza–declined. Mendoza, who would have had very little to gain by accepting arbitration coming off a year of injury rehab played under a minor-league contract, signed another minor league deal with the Yankees and will again be a non-roster invitee to spring training in 2006. Unlike last year when he was unable to play until August, however, Mendoza will be expected to compete for the final spot in the bullpen this upcoming spring.

That Leiter and Williams declined arbitration is much more significant news for the Yankees. Even though both were likely offered arbitration with the understanding that they would decline it, had either had a last-second change of heart, the Yankees would have been on the hook for a multi-million dollar one-year deal with a player with very little chance of earning such a salary (given the 20 percent maximum pay cut, Leiter would have been guaranteed a minimum of $5.6 million for 2006, Williams $9.6 million). With Williams and Leiter having declined arbitration, the Yankees now have until January 8 to re-sign either if they so desire, otherwise they will lose the right to sign them until May 1.

Word has it that the Yankees are still trying to bang out a one-year deal with Williams, with $2 million being the currently rumored price tag. That would be a $10 million pay cut for Bernie, but would also be a half-million more than Ruben Sierra earned last year to fill the same role. Sierra was not only useless as a part-time DH/pinch-hitter in 2005 (posting a WARP2 of zero), but was overpaid even by the standards of his 2004 season (Tony Clark, who had an almost perfectly identical 2004 to Sierra’s, but with the added advantage of being able to contribute on defense, signed for half as much with Arizona prior to 2005). Bernie posted a .255 EQA last year (compared to the .262 mark posted by Sierra in 2004) and has suffered a steep decline in two of his last three seasons. There is no reason to believe that he will be able to contribute anything more than the occasional pinch-hit walk to the Yankees in 2006. Much as it pains me to say so, and not just because it might get me stabbed by the woman wielding scissors to my left, I do not think the Yankees should resign Bernie Williams at any price.

Speaking of erstwhile centerfielders, today is non-tender day, the day that teams must decide whether or not to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible non-free agents. As a result, there will be a flood of new free agents available once the thirty major league teams announce the names of the players whom to whom they are not tendering contracts. The non-tender list is predominantly composed of replacement level talent, but every year a few more desirable players slip into the mix because they simply no longer fit into their current team’s plans at their expected arbitration-decided price tag. Last year David Eckstein and Alex Cora slipped loose in the wake of the Orlando Cabrera and Jeff Kent signings. In 2002, the Twins just couldn’t bear the thought of paying David Ortiz seven figures when they already had Doug Mientkiewicz at first base (and, uh, Matt LeCroy at DH?). This year, the most compelling names rumored to finish the day without an arbitration offer, at least as far as the Yankees are concerned, are Corey Patterson, Hee Seop Choi and Russell Branyan.

Patterson, who has received a great deal of support in comments, is an average defensive center fielder whose free swinging even Dusty Baker found objectionable. A tools player with very little knowledge of the strike zone, Patterson is compelling because of his combination of raw ability (speed? check, power? check), his defensive position, and the fact that he won’t turn 27 until August. However, after showing a marked improvement in his walk rate in 2004 (to a still-dismal one every 15 plate appearances), Patterson had a disaster season in 2006 that saw the Cubs send him down to triple-A for a month mid-season. There’s still hope that he can rebound to build on his 2004 performance in 2005, but it’s also worth noting that Patterson’s injury-shortened 2003 was even better than his ’04, meaning he’s actually experiencing a sustained decline in his mid-20s, a bad sign for a player whose skill set doesn’t suggest a reversal of that pattern and who has lost the faith of the organization that drafted him. It’s also worth nothing that Patterson’s availability would be the result of his being replaced by Juan Pierre, a player the Yankees should have and did find undesirable. All of which is to say that, while Patterson would certainly be worth a minor league deal, such a contract should not prevent the Yankees from continuing their efforts to pry Jason Michaels free from Philadelphia, even if Michaels has proven to be something less than Mr. Perfect himself.

Russell Branyan is very much Patterson’s opposite. A corner infielder who can also play some corner outfield, Branyan is a lead-footed Three True Outcomes superstar. Branyan has walked, homered or struckout in 53 percent of his career plate appearances, a major league record for players who have come to the plate more than one thousand times. It’s the strikeouts which might motivate his non-tender (80 in 242 PAs in 2005), but the walks and the homers are why the Yankees might want to consider picking him up should he become available. A career .553 slugger in the minors, Branyan has homered at a rate of 33 dingers per 600 PA in the majors, while his already solid walk rate improved to one every 6 PA in 2005. Branyan would work quite nicely as the left-handed half of a DH platoon with the similarly-skilled, but opposite-handed Andy Phillips (who is only 16 months Branyan’s junior), leaving the non-starter to serve as a corner utility man/pinch-hitter.

Of course the non-tender jackpot would be Choi. A lefty-hitting first baseman long adored by the sabermetric community for his combination of power and patience, Choi is entering his age-27 season, and could finally have his long-awaited break out season were he to take regular aim at the short porch in Yankee Stadium in the role prescribed for the older Branyan above (minus the off-day utility ability, but with a much higher upside). After being jerked around by the Cubs for two seasons, Choi looked to be having his break-out season with the Marlins in 2004, hitting .270/.388/.495 through the trading deadline, only to collapse upon arriving in LA, leading to another season of being jerked in and out of the line-up in 2005. Choi, who earned just $351,500 in 2005, could be available because of the recent signing of Nomar Garciaparra to man first for the Dodgers, and would make a mighty fine consolation prize for the Yankees.

As for the players about whom the Yankees must decide today, Shawn Chacon is a no-brainer to be offered arbitration. Aaron Small, having earned the league minimum last year, is similarly a no-brainer, though as the Yankee pen continues to fill up, I’m more and more tempted to say that the Yankees should use Small in a deal for Michaels, assuming of course that the Phillies, who reportedly want a major league starter in return, aren’t interested in Wright or would require too much cash to take Pavano.

That just leaves Wayne Franklin, who, though he was likely to be non-tendered anyway, is more expendable than ever given the recent acquisitions of lefty swing man Ron Villone and LOOGY Mike Myers. Similarly, given the suddenly crowded lefty situation in the Yankee pen, it seems increasingly unlikely that Al Leiter will sign a minor league deal to try to win a LOOGY spot in spring training, and thus will likely retire. If only the same could be said for poor Bernie.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver