"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Cashing In

This past Friday, the Yankees avoided an arbitration hearing with Shawn Chacon by signing the right-hander to a $3.6 million contract that split the difference between the offers made by the player and the club. With that, they cleaned their offseason slate. With pitchers and catchers due to report on Thursday and my slate similarly clean (a couple of book projects, a foray into homeownership, the resulting move, and some key wedding planning having conspired with a slow offseason to keep me away from this space far more that I would have liked since the end of the ALDS), I thought this would be a good opportunity to review the Yankees’ offseason moves. I’ll follow this up on Thursday by projecting the team’s opening day roster and taking a look at the various and sundry players the Yankees will have in camp this spring.

The Yankees were at a crossroads last October. Thanks to the remnants of a dynasty that came to an end a half-decade ago and the financial wherewithal to supplement those pieces (Jeter, Rivera, Posada) with an all-star squad of veterans (Mussina, Giambi, Sheffield, Rodriguez, Johnson), the Yankees had reached the postseason for a staggering eleventh consecutive season. But due in part to the lack of harmony and foresight in the front office, the team had gone home without a Championship in each of the last five of those seasons. On the heels of the absolutely abysmal offseason that followed the 2004 campaign—highlighted by the commitment of a combined $57.95 million to Carl Pavano, Jared Wright and Tony Womack—Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman, with less than a week left on his contract, gave the team an ultimatum. If the Yankees refused to run all baseball operations decisions through him, he’d sign with another team that would.

To their credit, the Yankees relented, re-signing Cashman to a three-year, $5.5 million deal and giving him authority over all player transactions. As Cashman’s in-season infusion of talented youngsters via the promotions of second baseman Robinson Cano and pitcher Chien-Ming Wang suggested, it was exactly what the team needed.

At long last freed from the foolish and impulsive moves made by the team’s vilified Tampa contingent, Cashman took a good look at his team and properly recognized that, while the infield was solid-to-excellent and the starting rotation was, if loaded with question marks, at least well-populated, the outfield, bullpen and bench needed to be completely restocked.

The first order of business was the outfield. With Bernie Williams’ 2006 option declined, Hideki Matsui’s contract set to expire, and Jason Giambi installed at first base—as well he should be by anyone who’s ever seen his splits—the Yankees had nothing more than Gary Sheffield and Bubba Crosby to populate the three outfield spots and designated hitter.

Because of a clause in Matsui’s contract that would have forced the Yankees to release him on November 16, thus preventing them from re-signing him before May 15 due to baseball’s transaction rules (see bottom), Cashman’s first job was to sign Matsui.

Given the available alternatives, inking Matsui was a no-brainer, though the price and length of his contract could easily have turned a move Cashman had to make into one he shouldn’t have. Matsui will be 32-years old in June and his production was all over the map in 2005. When he’s locked in, as he was for the majority of the 2004 season (.298/.390/.522), Matsui can be one of the most productive hitters in the league. But when he’s off balance, as he was for most of 2003 (.287/.353/.435) and long stretches of 2006, including the ALDS (.200/.273/.400), he’s an absolute out machine. Committing to such a player past his 35th birthday should only be done in the most extreme of circumstances.

Fortunately for Cashman, he was able to keep Matsui’s deal to four years, $52 million. The four years will keep Matsui in pinstripes just four months past his 35th birthday, and the $52 million is offset by the revenue Matsui generates for the club through merchandising and television licensing in his home country of Japan as well as increased the revenue brought in by Japanese fans in the States. A three-year deal would have been preferable, but to Cashman’s credit, he used nearly every minute of his negotiating time to get as close to the ideal contract as he could, finally signing Matsui on the evening of the 15th.

With Matsui tied up, Cashman turned his attention to two players I strongly advocated in this space: free agent Brian Giles and Phillies center fielder Jason Michaels. Unfortunately, he was unable to land either. Giles resigned with San Diego for three years, $30 million, clearly having used the Yankees, as is so often the case, to improve the offer from the only team he ever honestly considered. As for Michaels, with the Yankees clearly desperate for a center fielder, the Phillies insisted on Chien-Ming Wang in return, a demand which Cashman wisely refused to meet.

With the outfield situation having stalled, Cashman turned his attention to cleaning house. Having earlier declined the option of the now 38-year-old Tino Martinez—who, outside of a thrilling power surge in May, was of little use at the plate or in the field in 2005—Cashman denied arbitration offers to a laundry list of liabilities from the previous season (Brown, Sierra, Flaherty, Embree, Lawton, Sanchez) and dumped the catastrophic and positionless Tony Womack on the lame duck front office of the Reds for a pair of potentially useful youngsters.

Having improved his club by five wins simply by deleting this sub-replacement level dreck, Cashmen held the line at replacement level by replacing Flaherty with catcher Kelly Stinnett, who has just one negative WARP total in his twelve-year career (that coming in a 14-game stint a decade ago). Stinnett, in addition to being something other than a production vacuum, also has previous experience catching the Big Diva, Randy Johnson (more on that potential pairing on Thursday).

The Stinnett signing was a solid move in and of itself. With Dioner Navarro set to assume the starting job in the real Los Angeles, the Yankee system is positively barren when it comes to catchers not named Posada. A reliable career back-up type such as Stinnett who could bounce between Columbus and the majors as injury and flexibility demand is exactly the sort of player the Yankees needed. Unfortunately, Cashman considered the Stinnett signing the final, rather than first, step in fixing his catching situation. Despite repeated overtures from Mike Piazza’s agents, Cashman refused to ink the aging Hall of Famer to take the DH-half of an 80/20 catcher/DH split with the 34-year-old Posada. Piazza wound up joining Giles in San Diego for a one-year deal worth $2 million with an $8 million mutual option for 2007 ($750,000 buyout), while the atrocious Wil Nieves (.289/.312/.395 in Columbus in 2005) remains the Yankees third-string catcher.

Out in the bullpen, Tom Gordon decided he wanted to return to closing and signed with Philadelphia for $18 million over three years. Having been rebuffed by their sore-armed, 38-year-old set-up ace and refusing to enter the ludicrous bidding for the services of free agent closers Billy Wagner ($43 million/4 years from the Mets) and B.J. Ryan ($47 million/5 years from Toronto), the Yankees gave Gordon’s money to Kyle Farnsworth, a potentially dominant reliever nearly a decade Gordon’s junior.

Questions abound about Farnsworth’s mental make-up. Can he handle New York? Will he implode in the postseason? My impression is that his brash demeanor and ten-cent head won’t be bothered by the big bad city one bit. As for his potential to melt down in key spots (career 7.36 postseason ERA), one must consider Tom Gordon’s postseason legacy, which includes a 7.32 career ERA, a key role in surrendering the 2004 ALCS to the Red Sox, and rumors of him vomiting from nervousness in the bullpen during that series (rumors, I should point out, he’s since denied).

With Rivera and Farnsworth forming the head, Cashman built the body of his bullpen by signing lefty submariner Mike Myers, trading double-A lefty Ben Julianel for 36-year-old lefty swing man and New Jersey native Ron Villone, and picking up the $1.5 million option on sore-armed Torre pet (which, come to think of it, is redundant) Tanyon Sturtze. I found the picking up of Sturtze’s option to be extremely puzzling given his shoulder woes and still unimpressive track record (despite moments of dominance, he’s only had two monthly ERAs below 4.00 while with the Yankees). It’s only slightly more difficult to believe that he’d have demanded $1.5 million on the open market than it is to believe that he’ll be of much use out of the pen in 2006.

I’m less bothered by the other two moves, though I’m far from enthusiastic about either. Myers is a classic LOOGY: killer against lefties, killed by righties. He’ll have his uses, especially against his former Red Sox teammates David Ortiz and Trot Nixon, but they’ll be brief and far between. Villone, meanwhile, gives Torre another lefty in the pen to keep him from being too precious about deploying Myers and also serves as a long man and emergency starter. That said, it’s telling that the Julianel-for-Villone trade undoes the age advantage gained by swapping Gordon out for Farnsworth.

Despite what Steven Goldman might tell you, Julianel was not a prospect (a good interview, yes, a prospect, no). Julianel walked 5.13 men per nine innings as a 25 year old in double-A last year. Given the organization’s low tolerance for pitching walks and reluctance to deploy their home-grown relievers at the big league level, the Marlins might just as well have handed Villone to the Yanks for free. The problem is that Villone is not necessarily worth much more than that. He has some walk issues of his own (4.77 BB/9 career), just turned 36, and is very rarely above average.

Sadly, the Villone acquisition is merely another example of the Yankees’ reluctance to fill their bullpen from within. In recent years, both Colter Bean and Jason Anderson have turned in remarkable relief seasons for the Clippers, but have combined for less than eight big league innings for the Yankees in the past two seasons. I’ll take a closer look at some of the Yankees’ minor league relievers on Thursday, but, regardless of Julianel’s poor projection, it’s discouraging to see the Yankees block potentially useful minor leaguers with a never-was innings eater such as Villone, especially after having already re-upped Sturtze, a pitcher who meets the same description but throws with the other hand.

The presence of Sturtze, Villone and Myers will likely do little beyond increasing the degree to which Farnsworth’s right shoulder is Torre-ized in 2006. That said, between Christmas and New Years, Cashman pulled off a stealth move of sorts that could prove to be the key to the Yankee pen in the coming season. On December 28, Cashman inked injured set-up ace Octavio Dotel to an incentive-laden one-year deal at a base salary of $2 million.

As a member of the A’s, Dotel shut himself down in mid-May 2005 due to extreme pain in his pitching elbow, then underwent elective Tommy John surgery on June 6. According to Baseball Prospectus injury guru and fellow Toastmaster Will Carroll, Dotel’s elbow ligament was not completely torn (which is why he had to elect to have the surgery against his doctors’ advice). Thus, instead of replacing a torn ligament, he simply had an overlay surgery. According to Will, the rehab time for overlay Tommy John is significantly shorter than for proper ligament-replacement surgery (the latter being about twelve months).

Dotel is said to be aiming for a return on opening day, but is expected to start the season on the disabled list. Still, his DL stint could simply be part of an extended spring training that could have him back in action early in the season. If the 32-year-old Dotel is indeed able to return to the dominating form he showed for four and a half seasons in Houston, he alone could give the Yankee pen the depth it would need to allow Myers and company to drop down into appropriate levels of disuse (or better yet, give the Yankees the opportunity to dump Sturtze or Villone in favor of someone out of Columbus).

With the pen full, Cashman returned to the outfield, where his delay and the approaching dealine for players who had rejected their teams’ arbitration offers greatly reduced the demands of former rival Johnny Damon and his agent Scott Boras. Damon and Boras began the offseason seeking a seven-year deal which would have taken Damon through his age-38 season. They were met with silence. Having failed to show much interest in Damon to that point, Cashman swept in just before Christmas and inked Damon to a four-year deal worth $52 million.

Damon’s contract adds up to the same combination of dollars and years that Cashman had given to Hideki Matsui to begin the offseason, but it will likely prove to have been better spent on the returning left fielder than on the new center fielder. To begin with, while Damon is only seven months Matsui’s senior, he plays a position much more dependent on youth and speed. What’s more, it’s not actually his natural position. Having spent significant time in the corner pastures in Kansas City and Oakland, Damon spent just one season as a full-time center fielder prior to signing with Boston before the 2002 season. He emerged as an excellent defender in center in 2003 and 2004, but experienced a disconcerting drop-off in 2005, falling below average with a 97 Rate. A fact made all the more distressing given the approach of his mid-30s and his famously weak throwing arm.

Even more distressing is the degree to which Damon’s success over the past four seasons has been a product of his home park. As a member of the Red Sox, Damon hit .310/.383/.442 in Fenway and .281/.342/.440 everywhere else. The biggest cause for concern there is the forty-point drop in on-base percentage (due in large part to a 30 point drop in batting average). Not that .342 is terrible, but it’s not worth $13 million a year for a player who could easily replicate Bernie Williams drastic decline over the life of his contract (Bernie’s big fall came at age 34, the age Damon will be in the third year of his four-year deal). Note that even in Matsui’s disappointing 2003 season, he posted an OBP of .353.

For the immediate future, Damon should be a staggering improvement over what the Yankees had in center last year (which was some combination of the ghost of Bernie—.249/.321/.367—and various Womack-like substances), though it’s almost a sure thing that the Yankees, despite playing possum, still overpaid and overcommitted, and very well may find that they’ve failed to improve their outfield defense much at all.

To make matters worse, Cashman preceded the Damon deal by resigning Williams himself to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. In this case it’s not the length or size of the contract, but the mere fact that it exists. Outside of the odd walk, the dulcet tones of his smooth-jazz guitar, and his winning personality, Williams has absolutely nothing left to offer a major league baseball club, let alone a perennial pennant contender such as the Yankees.

Worst of all, Williams could very easily be given the bulk of the team’s DH at-bats at the expense of the perpetually overlooked Andy Phillips, who will turn 29 soon after the season starts (so that’s what Cashman and Torre meant by “the Ruben Sierra role”). Similarly, Williams and the wildly overrated (at least by net-savvy Yankee fans) Bubba Crosby are the only back-ups expected to make the opening day roster behind the trio of thirty-somethings that make up the Yankee outfield.

To that underwhelming bench (which also includes the afore mentioned Stinnett), Cashman added Yankee retread Miguel Cairo, who revealed his solid 2004 season to be a fluke with an abysmal season as a Met in 2005 (.251/.296/.324) that tellingly bore greater resemblance to his career numbers (.270/.318/.364) than to his stint in pinstripes (.292/.346/.417).

Amid those moves were various smaller transactions, the effects of which upon the Yankees’ projected opening day roster remain to be seen. I’ll take a look at those moves on Thursday via player comments on the fifteen least familiar members of the Yankees 40-man roster and the 23 non-roster invitees to spring training.

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