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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Damon's Arrival: Cashman's Turnabout?

The centerfield hole brought an opportunity for the Yankees to get younger, cheaper, and more flexible at a position that demands athleticism. Instead, they spent $13 million on one 32-year-old centerfielder. But, I'm OK with the Damon signing. I would have much preferred that the Yankees spend that $13 million elsewhere, but Damon is a good pickup nonetheless. It's a bit odd seeing him in pinstripes, but I don't hate Damon, and I'll embrace him as our centerfielder like I embraced Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens before him. It's just that this seemed like a great opportunity to show the world that the Yankees were a team in the midst of a change. Spending $13 million on another All-Star means the Yankees are a team that refuses to change.

But... I'm OK with Damon for three reasons: (1) the Matsui Deal - identical in length and dollar amount to the Damon deal, with Matsui being only 7 months younger. If Matsui deserves $13m, Damon probably does as well (more important position, more speed, bats leadoff). (2) the New Lineup - maybe Jeter should still lead off, but either way this is one of the deadliest lineups assembled in some time - 1-6 is an absolute pitcher's nightmare, and 7-9 contains one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, the active Yankee hits leader, and the 2005 Rookie of the Year runner-up. (3) It hurts the Sox - even though they save on Damon's salary, his departure still creates a hole at another important position at a time when it will only get tougher for Boston to trade for help.

On the other hand, my biggest problem with the signing is that I was really beginning to like - no, love - the way the Yankees were being put together. Cashman seemed focused on bringing depth to the team instead of all-stars (see: Bullpen). If nothing else, a Yankee team with Bubba, Michaels, Patterson, or Reed in center and a deep bench would have been a very fun team to watch and follow. This team feels like all the others since The Dyanasty - stacked and one-dimensionally boring. A Yankee team that spends for depth rather than top-quality would leave the door wide open for the farm system to finally start helping out, instead of serving as trade-bait. Young players are always more fun to watch.

As a Yankee fan, I don't get the opportunity to follow young players that often, and I really thought this would be the year the Yankees start getting younger. That's what worries me most about this deal - it puts in my head the idea that the Yankees will never get younger - that their payroll means that they will just buy every 32 year old All-Star on the market before they give their own kids a chance; that the farm system exists just as a factory for trade chips; that the Robby Cano Story was a complete fluke and the only way the Yankees will ever infuse young talent is if they were forced by the hand of God (or the incredibly ineffective bat of Tony Womack).

I've put a great deal of trust in Brian Cashman - I've defended his every move because it's seemed like he's always acted with a grand "New Yankee Philosophy" in mind. A philosophy I am (was?) very excited about. Although he should still be commended for not selling the farm, what's the point of keeping the farm if you're just going to buy every superstar that's available? I'm not going to flip on Cash over one move, but if this Damon deal is just a sign of things to come, I might have to stop wearing my "Cashman #98" jersey t-shirt...

Greatest Christmas present EVER.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Shave and a Haircut, $52 Million

Just when you (me) were really beginning to believe every word from Brian Cashman - the Yanks aren't looking for splashy moves - they go reel in the splashy move of splashy moves this winter. Bubba Crosby won't be patrolling centerfield this spring for the Yanks, no, it will be the very Steinbrenner-esque choice of Johnny Damon.

Let me say right from the start that this definitely makes the Yankees a better team. Beyond that, I'm not sure what to think.

I was pretty angered by the signing - a complete reversal in philosophy by Cashman - before reading this account of the midnight dealings by Buster Olney. That helped ease the pain somewhat. The deal wasn't so much of a Steinbrenner directive ("I want HIM and I don't care what it takes.") as it was a last-ditch/take-it-or-leave-it/final-offer kind of thing where the Yankees decided to put Damon to a decision and then, if they got rejected, move on to other options. To Damon, the choice became clear(er) - the Yankees were pushing hard (4-yrs, $52m - a full $3m/yr better than Boston's offer) while the Red Sox were busy coming up with Plan B's (Jeremy Reed) - the Yankees wanted him more. And so the Yankees got him.

I have to say a good part of me is disappointed - I was becoming very excited to see what Bubba could do with a starting job. Looking back, it was pretty foolish - the Yanks would have never started the year with Bubba in center. Going the Bubba route likely would have meant adding a second centerfielder, which would have provided some great insight to how the new Yankee philosophy was working. Now, I'm beginning to doubt that such a new philosophy actually exists. Are we still in the free-wheeling Steinbucks days? Or is Brian Cashman really interested in changing the way this team operates? The answer isn't as clear as it was yesterday.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Yanks Add Second Lefty

Just a day after finalizing a 2-year $2.4 million contract with lefty specialist Mike Myers, the Yankees made a deal for the Marlins' lefty Ron Villone for minor league pitcher Ben Julianel. Villone was acquired by the Marlins last summer from the Mariners at the deadline for pitchers Yorman Bazardo and Mike Flannery. The Yankees had been very interested in dealing for Villone then, but missed out because Bazardo was one of the Marlins top pitching prospects. Julianel, on the other hand, was available to anyone who wanted him just a week ago in the Rule 5 draft, but went unclaimed. Seems like a steal for the Yanks.

The trade of Villone likely marks the end of the Marlins' fire sale, not because they have decided to stop, but because they've run out of players to trade (assuming they don't go crazy and deal off Willis & Cabrera).

For the Yanks, Villone provides a solid lefty who isn't incapable of pitching against righties. Joe Torre has always had issues in dealing with lefty specialists in his pen, often leaving them in to face righties. Myers fits the bill as the kind of guy you don't want facing righties. Villone is capable of serving as a swing-man/long-reliever if needed. His addition should help formalize the bullpen roles to fit the players' specific abilities. Villone's addition also likely means neither Al Leiter nor prospect Matt Smith will be in the Yankees' immediate bullpen plans.

It's currently unclear whether this trade means that Cashman is done adding to the bullpen. With Rivera, Farnsworth, Myers, Villone, Sturtze, Small, Proctor, and Wright slated for possible bullpen roles, there doesn't seem to be room for an additional arm. As it stands now, one or two of Wright, Proctor, Small, and Sturtze will not make the 25-man roster.

Villone 2005:
vs. LHB - .222/.326/.256 (117 AB)
vs. RHB - .258/.370/.408 (120 AB)

Myers 2005:
vs. LHB - .158/.198/.211 (95 AB)
vs. RHB - .385/.510/.641 (39 AB)

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Cashman Isn't Buying...

And I think it's angering some of you out there, but not me. I understand that it's hard for long-time Yankee fans to accept the fact that their team isn't the one doling out the 5-year $55 million contracts, but that's a good thing. Big contracts are big trouble, especially when the free agent market is as thin as this winter's. The trade market is therefore highly competitive, and as such, teams are demanding big packages for their trades (Cashman must be sick of teams requesting Cano & Wang). There hasn't been a deal that's gone down or a free agent that's been signed that makes me regret the Yankee's non-action.

If Cashman can sign another reliever to join Myers and Farnsworth (someone like Julian Tavarez or Roberto Hernandez) and make a deal for a centerfielder to split time with Bubba Crosby (Jason Michaels would be perfect - so perfect that he'd win the job outright by June), then turn his attention to the bench (Bernie will be back, along with maybe Nomar or Miguel Cairo?), the Yanks will have exactly what they need without spending the ridiculous amounts of money (and prospects) that they usually do. The added flexibility of small contracts and cheap players means that in a pinch, the team could be improved with deadline trades, and more than that, the team would also be set up for the future (the future - a strange concept for Yankee fans). The Yanks will be able to make moves over the next few years as more big contracts come off the books and better free agents (and prospects like Cox, Cabrera, Duncan, and Hughes) become available to improve the team.

To hammer in my point here's a little trip down memory lane - an excerpt from Contrary to Popular Belief... a post I made in mid-July:

So Cashman has two options: (1) Plug Along, Stay Afloat, Ride the Wave, Struggle Through, Gut It Out... etc. Keep bringing in your Tim Reddings and Aaron Smalls and maybe make a small deal here or there for a Chacon or a Leiter and just wait for the reinforcements coming off the DL.
OR
(2) Trade the 5 chips (and it will likely have to be all of them) for the one or two "perfect" acquisitions who will play for the Yankees through 2005, maybe take them to the playoffs and then leave for greener pastures in 2006.

The deal with option 1 is simple - the Yankees keep the small but promising farm intact and look to the future without entirely giving up on the present. This is what real baseball teams with real payrolls and real farm systems do. Now that the wonderful fantasy land ride that is the Yankees of 96-04 has come to an end, its about time they start acting like a real professional baseball organization instead of a mercenary camp for the old and expensive. With some luck and healthier arms they might just make the playoffs, too.

Option 2 is the same old story. Hughes, Duncan and Wang (though he can't be traded while on the DL) are shipped for a new starter like Burnett, while Cabrera and Cano are dealt for a guy like Cameron. The Yankees panic and give in to the crazy demands of the pre-deadline trade market. The result? Yankees get the Wild Card, lose in the ALCS to Boston, and head into next year struggling to re-sign Burnett and find that they can't acquire anyone in a trade because they have no trade bait to fall back on any more. Instead of the fantasy ride coming to a stop and turning around, it crashes through a wall and everyone is thrown 300 feet to their deaths.

On that note, I would like to thank Brian Cashman for choosing Option 1, and for continuing to choose Option 1. It's good to see that the Yankees are becoming a real professional baseball organization.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Farnsworth Deal Stalls as Gordon Leaves NY

*** Farnsworth Deal is Official - 3-years, $17 million ***

With Tom Gordon signing a 3-year $18-million deal with the Phillies, the market for Kyle Farnsworth has suddenly expanded, apparently stalling the fireballer's reported deal with the Yankees. The Rangers have added themselves to the Farnsworth hunt and have made an offer that is "competitive" with the Yankees' reported offer in the neighborhood of 3-years and $17 million. Like the Yanks, the Rangers already have an established closer (Francisco Cordero) and are pursuing Farnsworth as a setup man. Nonetheless, most still expect Farnsworth to end up in New York as planned, and the current stall is only an attempt to get a few extra dollars from the notoriously generous Yankees.

For the conspiracy theorists, there's an alternative explanation for the stalling. Two years ago, the Yankees delayed the signing of Gary Sheffield beyond the arbitration deadline so they wouldn't have to give up a top draft pick to the Braves, something that had angered Atlanta GM John Schuerholz. His recent statement that Farnsworth is joining the Yankees may be an attempt to force the Yankees to sign him before the Dec. 7th arbitration deadline. In response, the sudden stall in the negotiations may be a ploy by the Yankees to create a reason for waiting until Dec. 8th.

Like most things, there's probably a good amount of truth to both sides of the story.

*** Turns out there wasn't much truth to either - the deal was done before the deadline, and Farnsworth didn't get any extra money ***

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Yanks Finally Get Active

After a few weeks of waiting and watching, the Yankees have apparently made their first moves of this offseason. The only official move made by the Yanks was to sign a backup catcher, Kelly Stinnett, to a one-year, $650,000 deal. The as-of-yet unofficial move is the signing of Kyle Farnsworth as Mariano Rivera's setup man. According to two Atlanta sources, Farnsworth has told the Braves he will not return as their closer, and will instead sign with the Yankees. Rumors have the deal as either 3-years $15-17 million, or 4-years $24 million. With BJ Ryan (5-yr, $47m) off the market, the Yankees heavily pursued Farnsworth, an on-and-off closer who boasts a fastball that tops out at 100 mph. There has never been a question that Farnsworth has the stuff needed to be dominant, but many often question the mental aspects of his game. Head case or not, Farnsworth gives the Yanks the strikeout machine their bullpen has lacked (he's averaged more than a K per inning for the last few years).

It seems as though the Yankees are also still trying to sign former setup man Tom Gordon, who is seeking a three-year deal. The Yanks will not budge on their two-year offer, and if the Farnsworth signing is true, signing Gordon will only be more difficult. Adding Farnsworth not only increases Gordon's market, but it makes it far less likely that Gordon (who wants to close) will return to the Yankees to share the setup role that has been solely his for the last two years. Nonetheless, the Yankees seem like they want Farnsworth and Gordon.

Stinnett is a solid backup - good defensively, and a decent upgrade offensively over John Flaherty. Some believe that Stinnett also gives the Yankees a certain special kind of experience - Randy Johnson experience. Stinnett caught Johnson when both were Diamondbacks in 1999-2000. Signing Stinnett, never really a first-string catcher, sends the message that the Yankees are not going to try to seriously limit Posada's playing time in an effort to avoid the incentive that will give Posada an additional contract year if he catches 81 games in 2006. If the Yankees are still concerned with that possibility, they will have to trade Posada for another starting catcher, a very unlikely scenario.

Although there is nothing substantial to report, the Yanks are also still active in pursuing a lefty specialist - either Joey Eischen, Mike Myers, or Ricardo Rincon. Cashman will apparently try to solve the bullpen problem first, as the centerfield market is very thin - making early trade costs too high. He has asked the Phillies about Jason Michaels, but talks quickly died when GM Pat Gillick wanted Chien-Ming Wang in return.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Struggling to Plug the Holes: Bench

Although the holes in the Yankees bench will be put on the back burner until the more important issues in center and the bullpen are resolved, there are some pretty interesting options facing the Yankees bench in 2006.

First Base. Tino Martinez will not be back, in fact he'll probably retire. He won't be able to get more than a defensive replacement job from anyone else and he sees no point in taking such a job from anyone other than the Yankees. Brian Cashman sounds completely ready to have Giambi play first most of the time, and hand the backup job to Andy Phillips. The Yanks have expended all their minor league options on Phillips (just like they have with Crosby) and will be forced to either keep him on the ML roster or trade/release him. That, and a desire to cut spending, are big reasons for the Yankees decision to give the job to Phillips, a 28-year old near rookie who's never inspired enough confidence offensively to be considered more than an emergency infielder. But like Crosby, he's young(er), cheap, and has the support of the coaching staff (especially Torre & Mattingly).

Catcher. Contractual obligations will play a large role in who the Yankees get to back up Jorge Posada. They are not looking for another year of John Flaherty, despite his work with Randy Johnson. If Posada catches 81 games in 2006, it will make the 2007 team option ($12 million) a guaranteed year, and add a 2008 player option. Basically, if Posada catches 81 games in 2006, they will be stuck with an aging catcher deep in decline for three more years, and they'll be paying him as much as Matsui. As such, they'll be looking for a backup who is capable of starting games. Bengie Molina might be asking too much, but a likely answer is Todd Pratt, or acquiring someone in a trade.

Designated Hitter. The DH spot will likely be a bit of a revolving door for the 2006 Yankees. Giambi will certainly get his share of DH at-bats, likely against good lefties where Phillips will be more apt to get starts. Lefties could also force Bubba Crosby out of the lineup, especially if the Yankees can get a capable bat to play center on occasion (Giles, Encarnacion, J. Jones, J. Michaels). Should they get one of those, the "normal" lineup could then allow Sheffield, Matsui, and possibly Posada to rotate in the DH spot, while Giles/Enc/Michaels man rightfield with Bubba in center. The Yankees could also re-sign Bernie Williams to take some DH at-bats while serving as a reserve outfielder.

Reserve Infield/Outfield. Tony Womack's offensive performance was so bad last year that he will have to keep his pinch-runner status because he can't be traded - no one wants him. He could also serve as a backup to Robinson Cano or return to the outfield in an emergency. If Cashman's All-Columbus bench trend continues, look for Felix Escalona to see some time as a backup to Jeter and A-Rod. Columbus lacks a serious contender for reserve outfield work, unless Melky Cabrera, Kevin Thompson, Bronson Sardinha, or Kevin Reese suddenly become MLB-ready by March. The free agent market also lacks a cheap-but-effective OF/DH type that the Yankees have had in Ruben Sierra. The hope here is that Bernie finishes his career in pinstripes, playing the Ruben role for the next few years.