Sunday, December 31, 2006
Derek Jeter -- A: Just an amazing performance. I try to grade tough, which is why no A+ for the Captain. The lack of that extra-credit plus isn't an indictment of Jeter's leadership, for failing to embrace Alex Rodriguez or for any other reason. Outlook for 2007: Another performance like this would be a miracle, but here's hoping he comes close. Although I don't put much stock in clubhouse chemistry (usually it's an after-the-fact thing that accompanies winning) I think Jeter's biggest challenge--if he really is the "leader" on this ballclub--might be to end the nostalgia culture that consumes the Yanks' press and a few of the remaining players from the glory days. Despite the fact that Cashman is trying his best to re-build the 2001 Yanks' starting rotation, the championship Yankees of 1996-2000 are gone, and someone needs to make the "Paul O'Neill's not coming through that door!" speech to convince everybody to stop looking towards the past and just play in the present, with the players at hand.
[The best thing about the "Paul O'Neill's not coming through that door!" speech is that since O'Neill works for the YES Network, he would probably choose precisely that moment to walk into the clubhouse. You know, "Hey, guys! Why's the door closed? Anybody want to get Chinese food after the game? Why's everyone so quiet?"]
Robinson Cano -- A-: Went from being a middling infield prospect to being a guy who's in the batting race in the last week, over the course of just over a year and a half. Only deduction to his grade comes for time missed with a hamstring injury. In the second half awards we didn't give out, Cano would have been a strong contender for best hitter of the half, with a .365/.380/.635 performance and 11 homers after the All-Star Break. Outlook: Hitting .342 means you're guaranteed a place in the Yankee lineup--just not necessarily in the top five spots. That's how good this offense is.
Jorge Posada -- A-: Usual, rock-solid year with the bat, with bonuses for dramatically improving his throwing, and doing so at an age when many catchers are looking at the end of the road. Outlook: How long can Jorge keep this up? If there's more performance like this from Posada, the Yanks are going to have to look hard at another contract extension. If not, they'd better hope that the Johnson trade we all keep hearing about brings them a catcher that's not too far away from being major league-ready (Miguel Montero, anyone?).
Bobby Abreu -- A-: Hit .330 as a Yankee, with 10 steals and a beatiful OBP; good enough to chase Gary Sheffield out of town. The only downside was the fact that he struck out in one fifth of his plate appearances. Outlook: A lot of people criticized his effort in Philly, he seemed a man reborn when injected into the middle of a pennant race. Will he be able to maintain that energy level now that he's starting the season in pinstripes?
Johnny Damon -- B+: Gave the Yanks almost exactly what was expected of him--good teammate, better centerfielder than the incumbent, good hitting in tight spots. His performance against Boston in that August five-game series was almost worth taking on his contract, all on its own. Actually had the second-most homers (13) of any Yankee in the second half. Outlook: The big question is, will the nagging injuries continue, or was a lot of that fluky bad luck?
Melky Cabrera -- B+: One example of how we grade on a curve, sometimes. Is Melky the sixth-best player the Yanks had? Did he have the sixth-best season? No, but he definitely made some exciting moves in '06--picking up a spot in the Yankee lineup at the tender age of 21--which brings us the hope that he could mirror Cano's unexpected success as a sophomore. Outlook: Sadly, Cabrera's blocked by the all-lefty outfield (Matsui/Damon/Abreu) so the big challenge will be to find him playing time. I hope Melky's working on his D in center, because he's at his most valuable if he's filling in at all three outfield spots. I suppose it's being sentimental, but I really hope he's not traded.
Jason Giambi -- B: Wrist injury caused him to fall off big-time in the second half--he only hit 10 homers after the break. The term irony could be defined in the fact that some of the same writers who refuse to vote for Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame due to his suspected steroid use, are now hailing Giambi as a team leader for calling out A-Rod in Sports Illustrated. Outlook: Looks like the team's finally convinced that he should DH full-time; we'll have to see if the change improves the Giambino's health and performance.
Hideki Matsui -- B: Hit .396 after coming back from the DL, with a few homers to tell us that his bat's intact. Still it was only 43 AB. One indication that fate laughs at our plans is that Matsui sat out from Japan's winning WBC team to keep himself in top condition for the Yankees, then missed most of the season with a freak injury. Outlook: One of the more interesting suggestions I've heard (I'm sorry, I don't remember where) was the idea of moving Matsui to first base, to get more playing time for Melky in the outfield. It's something that should absolutely be tried in Spring Training--this team needs all the flexibility it can get, and Matsui's the slowest afoot of all the Yanks' outfielders. If anyone's capable of learning first base well in a short time, I would expect that it's Matsui.
Alex Rodriguez -- B: What hasn't been written about the trials of Alex, yet? One of the projects I've been working on this winter has to do with him, so I'm not going to repeat that analysis. A-Rod had a fine second half--leading all Yankees in homers (16) and RBI. Outlook: Could we start again, please? Forget all the "batting eighth against the Tigers" trouble, the SI article, all that crap? On the field, the biggest challenges for Rodriguez are his defense, which was shockingly unreliable, and his strikeouts. The question is, are those problems physical or mental?
Gary Sheffield -- B-: The Iron Sheff left town on a sour note, fumbling around first base and not hitting well at all in his late-season comeback. I'm sad to see him go, but the trade that sent him to Detroit sent a couple of strong messages to the world: 1) the Yankees are rebuilding the farm system, and 2) Brian Cashman's in control, here. Outlook: Traded to a rival in the AL, Sheffield could really come back to haunt the Yanks in '07. He's always been fueled by anger, and I'm sure that throughout the year we're going to hear about ways that the Yankees "disrespected" Sheffield--that's just the way he motivates himself.
Bernie Williams -- B-: I confess, I overgraded Williams at mid-season, giving him a B despite his .323 on base percentage. He hit better in the second half, perhaps because he was used more against lefties than he had been before Melky Cabrera got cemented in place. Outlook: I'd rather he quit, just because I think the Yanks' bench needs something different, and because I'd rather not see him in another team's uni. If that's selfish, so be it.
Aaron Guiel -- C: Decent glove, low batting average, but a little bit of pop. That's a good description for a utility outfielder--sadly, the Yanks are stocked in the outfield going forward. Outlook: Could be the fourth or fifth outfielder for 20 or so teams. [UPDATE: But as pointed out by BubbaFan in the comments, Guiel's headed out to Japan to play for the Yakult Swallows.]
Nick Green -- C-: Small sample, but he outhit Andy Phillips and Craig Wilson, while backing up the skill positions in the infield. That's about all you ask of your utilityman. Outlook: Last seen looking for a job at the Winter Meetings. We wish him good luck. The Yanks could do worse than offer him another minor league deal.
Andy Phillips -- D+: Coughed up his big chance. He should bear some responsibility for the fact that he didn't perform when given the opportunity; he's blameless for the fact that he was kept in the minors for so long. Outlook: Fair or not, he's 30 now, and pressed up against the bad side of the defensive spectrum. There's nothing to indicate that he'll hit enough to justify a roster space--he may be the Yanks' best defensive first baseman, but it's not like he's Keith Hernandez with the mitt, either. The sick thing is, after taking all this time to convince the Yanks to give him some playing time, now Joe Torre is familiar with him--this means he'll get more chances than he could back when he was a younger, better hitter.
Craig Wilson -- D: This grade only covers Wilson's time in pinstripes. Had a shot at playing time in the postseason; instead, he made Gary Sheffield a viable option at first base. That's ugly. Outlook: Wilson's New York stint may have killed what used to be his considerable value. Well, that and the former catcher's tendency to get injured. Now a free agent, will likely sign somewhere well below market.
Miguel Cairo-- D-: He was just plain bad. Once upon a time the Yankees could afford to have no-hit defensively limited utility infielders. Not any more. Outlook: All told, probably re-signs with the Yankees, despite his limitations. I just hope he gets a minor league deal.
Kelly Stinnett-- F: The Bombers don't expect much from Posada's backups--look at John Flaherty, fer Heaven's sake--but Stinnett failed to satisfy even those meager requirements, and was released in late July. Outlook: As long as it's somewhere else, I don't much care.
Bubba Crosby -- F: Like Phillips, Crosby had a big chance to establish himself, a chance that passed him by in favor of Cabrera. Despite the failing grade, Crosby's a guy I thank for the memories, and wish well, so long as he isn't standing in the Bombers' way. Outlook: Was signed away from the organization by the Reds, he could have some opportunities given Ken Griffey's always-injured status.
Incompletes: Kevin Thompson (shows promise, could do a decent job as a fifth outfielder), Sal Fasano (couldn't even hit as well as Stinett--or most pitchers), Terence Long (a really, really, bad idea), Kevin Reece (how does he get a shot with Thompson in the organization?), Andy Cannizaro and Wil Nieves (we barely knew either of ye).
Thursday, December 28, 2006
In other news, Barry Zito--rumored to be on the Yanks' radar after they started trying to trade Randy Johnson--has reached an agreement with the San Francisco Giants on a seven-year, $126 million contract. Numbers like those are the reason that I wasn't too keen on the Yanks getting into the Zito bidding. Daisuke Matsuzaka really looks like a bargain now, as does just about anyone who signed a multiyear deal prior to the 2006 season.
My favorite winter league team, the Licey Tigers, have gotten off to a bad start in the Dominican Winter League's preliminary round robin playoffs, losing their first two games against the two teams that they ended up tied with at the end of the season, the Giants and the Eagles. Once again, the games aren't being shown on cable by Time Warner. There's still time--this round robin lasts about three weeks. In addition to the Time Warner Cable snailmail address I gave you before, there's a way to request winter league action from your cable/satellite provider through ESPN Deportes's website (yes, it's in Spanish, but if you click on "haz click aqui" on the banner in the upper righthand corner, you get a dialogue box which you can then request be shown in English).
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Turns out that there seems to be some smoke to these rumors, with word that while Johnson didn't demand a trade, a recent family tragedy caused him to mention to Brian Cashman how important living close to his family is to him. Cashman apparently took that as an indication that Johnson would waive his no-trade clause for a deal closer to Johnson's family in Arizona and California, so he started working the phones. And to my surprise, it seems that a number of West Coast teams are interested in taking a run at Randy.
Now, all of this is very much at the rumor stage, and the names of teams--much less players--being bandied around is shadowy. The most concrete one seems to involve the San Diego Padres and their elite middle man, Scott Linebrink. Linebrink's someone the Yanks have liked in the past; the Pads are a contender who could use a high-level starter. But this doesn't make sense in the larger picture--the Yanks have half a dozen righty middle relievers right now, with a few others on the horizon. What they lack is starting pitching, position player prospects, and a firstbaseman who can both field and rake. Another team supposedly in the mix, the Arizona Diamondbacks, have supposedly said that none of their young firstbasemen or top outfield prospects are available in a Johnson deal.
...And so that's the rub. Yankee fans don't trust Johnson to be good (much less great) in 2007, but trading him is a "cents-on-the-dollar" proposition. Complicating this are analyses like this one by Nate Silver on Prospectus's Unfiltered. Here's the money quote:
I’ve got news for you: the Yankees might not be trading their #4; they might be trading their #1. Johnson’s ERA PECOTAs out at 3.52, which is the best in the Yankee rotation by some margin. You can take that PECOTA with a certain grain of salt because it’s so hard to find appropriate comparables for Johnson. But the names that PECOTA does come up with — Roger Clemens foremost among them — are a reminder that you shouldn’t bet against a great pitcher until you absolutely have to.Now, PECOTA's often smarter than I am, so it's possible Nate's program is just seeing something I don't. But I think it's extremely unlikely that Johnson shaves nearly a run and a half off his 2006 ERA (a perfect 5.00) in 2007. He just hasn't looked that good over the last two years. But if there is something to PECOTA's analysis, then Silver's right: the Yanks can't dump Johnson for little to no return. I'm also pretty scared by the idea that the front office would use the money saved on Johnson as an excuse to open up the vault for Barry Zito on a 100+ million, 5+ year contract.
But, on the other hand, is there anyone who doubts that Johnson needs a change of scenery, and that the Yankees need a change of personnel? Twice the Big Unit has faltered in the playoffs, showing none of the dominance that the Yanks were expecting when he was picked up two years ago. You can't have a big star like him on the roster and not rely on him when it counts--even if he's been ineffective, even if he has a back problem that will require surgery. Maybe in Arizona, or San Diego, or wherever, his back will suddenly be sound, his bone-on-bone knee will stop aching, and he won't have mysterious shoulder pain. Maybe, back in the National League, he'll be an intimidator again. I just don't think any of these things will happen for the Yankees.
So here's to the guys who run the D'backs and Padres being big fans of PECOTA, and the Yankees getting a fair bit of swag for the Big Unit. The farm system is pretty low on position player prospects, and we could still use a firstbaseman. I hope Brian Cashman can make something happen.
At least we don't have to worry about Shea Hillebrand joining the Yankees now.
It's official: Kei Igawa gets a 5 year, $20 million contract.
After an appeals court ruled that they could be presented to a Grand Jury, it looks like the positive steroids test results from 2003--the year that MLB had confidential survey testing to see if a full steroid testing program should be put in place--are going to be made public in the foreseeable future. Sounds like fun...
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Bat Boy: My True Life Adventures Coming of Age with the New York Yankees, by Matthew McGough -- This one's great because it's a decent fit for people at all levels of baseball fandom, from the baseball novice to the lifer, and for kids as well as adults. Matt's a bit young to have written a memoir, but this one's unflinchingly honest, and it gives you a good look at life behind the scenes in the Show--and a small peek of the high school I attended, to boot.
The Numbers Game, by Alan Schwarz -- Lots of people, when they hear about my baseball writing, ask, "Well, how did you get into that?" Alan Schwarz's history of baseball fans' obsession with the numbers gives perhaps the best answer to that question ever committed to paper. Schwarz's narrative is a great introduction to the concepts that I and so many others spend so much time and effort obsessing about; it's also a great read.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis -- Perhaps the most controversial baseball book since Ball Four, Lewis's book shook the foundations of the game and launched a thousand mainstream sportswriter articles--many of them horrifically misinformed. The book's about Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, and his team's efforts to stay competitive despite having only a fraction of the financial resources of the Yankees or Red Sox (among many others). No, this is not the definitive tome on how to run a baseball team that some have made it out to be, but the level of detail Lewis brings to describing the operation of the A's front office is just spellbinding.
Baseball Between the Numbers, by the Baseball Prospectus Team -- I'm not part of the team on this book, so I feel comfortable recommending it. BBTN, as we call it, is a single-volume collection of many of the key concepts of baseball analysis, presented in a straightforward fashion. It's a must-have for the hardcore baseball fan.
Stepping Up: the Story of Baseball All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights, by Alex Belth -- Great bio of an overlooked player, and probably one of the more courageous stands taken by any person involved with the game. Every time a Gil Meche or Juan Pierre gets big money in free agency, they should send a thank-you card to Marvin Miller, and order a bouquet to be delivered to Curt Flood's gravesite, and honor two of the men who made it possible.
Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero, by David Maraniss -- the book that--along with a question on BP's intenal mailing list--motivated this list. I haven't even finished it yet, but I feel compelled to recommend it. Roberto Clemente is one of the Hall of Famers that so many fans don't "get"--his numbers were good, but not amazing, and it's not like he was the first Latino, or even the first black Latino, to play in the major leagues. This book does a lot to explain why there are people out there agitating that his number 21 should be retired throughout baseball, like Jackie Robinson's number was.
When Darryl Strawberry tells you you should embrace a teammate who isn't fitting in, remember that he's not only a veteran of multiple world champions, but also a guy who's spent time in jail. You can't take that sort of advice lightly.
Meanwhile, this is the time of year that the Yankees play Not-So-Secret Santa to the rest of their major league competitors, by coughing up their luxury tax dollars to the tune of $26 million. Do the other team owners leave out cookies and milk for Steinbrenner Claus? I think not.
So to all of you out there, have a merry and a happy! See you with some light posting next week!
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
I'm throwing this topic out for suggestions: does anyone know a decent bar in New York where you can catch winter league action? Does anyone have winter league resources or stories they want to share?
Getting to enjoy or even follow winter baseball can be a challenge. The official minor league baseball site, for example, will list a minor leaguer’s current winter league stats on his player page, and will list the day’s games on the site’s scoreboard–but there are no links for winter league teams, standings, or boxscores, aside from the Arizona Fall League. Baseball America, which used to be the resource for winter league info in the pre-Internet days, now only has coverage of the Arizona and Hawaiian leagues in its “Winter” section, ignoring the latin american leagues, so far.
Despite the fact that MLB.tv carried last year’s Caribbean World Series, MLBAM isn’t carrying video of any Winter League action, so far (the exceptions being the Arizona Fall League’s championship game, and the MLB/Japan exhibitions last month). If your cable or satellite provider carries ESPN Deportes, you’re in luck–they regularly carry Dominican, Venezuelan and Mexican Winter League games. Sadly, Deportes hasn’t reached the level of ubiquity of the Worldwide Leader’s other offerings, and is not carried by a large number of cable systems, even in areas with big Hispanic populations–like New York freakin’ City.
Frustrated in my efforts to find baseball action on the ‘net or the tube, I started looking forward to my upcoming trip to Puerto Rico. Sadly, it’s harder to get information on the Puerto Rican Winter League than it is to discover the Pentagon’s top-secret war plans. I’m both bilingual and more than a little bit obsessive-compulsive, so I eventually found a website that sells tickets, but you have to wonder if a lot of sports fans looking for an easy baseball fix wouldn’t just throw up their hands when a couple of simple google searches won’t reveal updated team websites or ticket information.
Monday, December 18, 2006
Looking for more lefties, the big rumor out there is that Melky Cabrera leaves town, in exchange for Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez, possibly in a three-way with Atlanta. I'd be really sad to see Melky go, for reasons both emotional (Cabrera has endeared himself to Yankee fans with his passionate style of play) and rational (the Yankees jave a fair number of relievers but don't have many young, major league ready position players; trading Cabrera would thin out the Yanks' outfield, leaving no safety net in case one of the starting three gets injured). Also--even though I don't put much stock in these assessments, but lots of fans and media seem to believe that nothing else matters--I seem to recall a fair amount of chatter in Pittsburgh questioning Gonzalez's toughness and ability to handle pressure. We'll leave this one alone, for now.
There's a scene in Robert Deniro's directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, where Chazz Palminteri, playing a local mob boss, steps into a bar that's paying him protection, where a bunch of bikers have been busting up the joint. Palminteri asks the bikers to go; when they refuse, he goes to the front door and locks it, announcing to the bikers "Now youse can't leave." That's the first, word-association type thing that popped into my head when I read this story, about a rumor that Randy Johnson is looking for a trade. Forget for a moment that this story is probably B.S. , fact is that the idea of Johnson requesting a trade is risible beyond belief. So let's see: you force the Arizona Diamondbacks to trade you to a contender; you leverage a big extension from the Yankees; then you proceed to have two of the worst seasons of your career, and help torpedo the team in consecutive Division Series; oh, and you injure your back requiring surgery that makes you iffy for the 2007 season...and now you want a trade?
I'm sorry, Randy, but now youse can't leave. Youse got next to no trade value, and a huge salary of which the Yanks would have to eat a whole bunch, just to accommodate such a request. No thanks.
By the way, I love the Cashman quote from that article, which almost perfectly hangs Johnson out to dry, while still denying the rumor: "He hasn't called me officially and asked me to trade him, no." Leaving open the possibilities of informal trade requests by means other than a personal phone call.
Changing gears, I'm going into baseball withdrawal this winter, and I only see one cure: winter league baseball, preferably from the Dominican Winter League. ESPN Deportes carries Dominican League action, but I'm once again shocked to find that Time Warner Cable, the cable carrier which serves possibly the largest Dominican enclave in the U.S.--the community in Washington Heights and Upper Manhattan--doesn't carry ESPN Deportes. They carry literally dozens of channels on their digital television service that no one watches, and a whole block of channels--the 800s--in Spanish, including the baseball-free Fox Sports en Espanol. But they can't be bothered to bring Dominican League action to arvid baseball fans.
In order to request a channel be added to Time Warner's lineup, you have to send snailmail to one of their VPs. Requests by email, which I've already made, are not entertained. So I'm going to ask any of you out there who are Time Warner New York subscribers to join me in putting pen to paper and investing $0.39 worth of postage to let people know that you care about baseball, and that you want more of it on TV. Send all letters to:
VP Programming, New Business Development
Time Warner Cable
120 E. 23rd Street, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10010
The usual rules of letter-writing campaigns apply: be polite, be brief and be clear about what you're asking for--in this case, that ESPN Deportes be carried by Time Warner Cable throughout New York City, specifically for the value of its Winter League baseball programming. It's a good deed, a way of making your voice heard as a baseball fan, and a way of keeping me from slipping into the usual withdrawal symptoms (depression, catatonia) that follow whenever I don't get enough baseball in my diet. If none of that's persuasive, think of this as your Christmas present to baseball fans throughout the five boroughs (but specifically, for my sake, Manhattan).
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Putting Out the Welcome D-Mat: After it sounded like Scott Boras, agent for Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, had drawn a line in the sand around his client getting $100 million in compensation, reports are now that a deal's been done, with Matsuzaka getting almost half of that on a five-year deal. The word is that D-Mat and agent are on a flight to the East Coast for a physical, and Sox fans are actually watching the plane's progress, cross-country. As a baseball fan, I hope that Matsuzaka's the next Roy Oswalt; as a Yankee fan, I say two words: Hideki Irabu.
Watching Boras fold like this has been a traumatic experience. I guess there are no more heroes anymore.
Bye-Bye Aaron Guiel: Last night was the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to the arb-eligible players under their control. For the Yankees, that meant saying good-bye to outfielder Aaron Guiel. We hardly knew ye, but the Yanks are currently stacked with outfielders, given a starting trio of lefthanded hitters Bobby Abreu/Johnny Damon/Hideki Matsui, and fourth outfielder switch-hitter Melky Cabrera. Guiel, a lefty bat, didn't quite fit in in a scheme where you'd probably want a good righthanded bat if you're going to carry five outfielders.
Phelps Profiled: Speaking of righthanded bats, Marc Normandin at Baseball Prospectus has an in-depth look at Josh Phelps, the Rule 5 Yankee. A taste:
The Yankees more than likely did not pick up a player who is going to slug .500 in the majors over the course of a full season, but Phelps can still contribute. He seems to have regained some of his plate patience, walking in 7.2 percent of all plate appearances for Toledo, and he mashed left-handers to the tune of .322/.382/.638 in 152 at-bats this past year − .294/.358/.502 in his major league career − something Jason Giambi has not been able to do exceptionally well from 2004-2006.
Frivolities Gallore: Most mashups have been disappointing, since the big Shining-as-family-comedy trailer that got the current craze going, but this one, where Toy Story 2 meets Requiem for a Dream, is too funny for words (WARNING: contains language inappropriate for children).
Monday, December 11, 2006
- Andy Pettitte's two years and $32 million is the exact size of the extension the Yanks gave Randy Johnson, when he came to the Bronx. It's a shame the Yanks didn't get Johnson to agree to a secret handshake agreement that he wouldn't exercise his option for that second year if injured.
- I don't remember stories like this one about sexual assault allegations around the Yankees back in 2001. Was this actually reported then?
- Word is that the Cardinals are looking at picking up Carl Pavano, but would like to wade through the first few volumes of his medical records, first (hat tip to Repoz at BTF). While any opportunity to dump PavaNO! would be welcome, the fact is that if the Yanks pick up even a fraction of the money (and I assume they'd have to pick up some salary) Pavano could be a perfect fit for St. Louis and pitching coach Dave Duncan. Duncan seems to love veteran reclamation projects, particularly the ones who can throw the ball over the plate and make batters put the ball in play--see Jeff Weaver if you're not sure what I'm talking about.
- In other news, the Yanks have reportedly signed lefty-hittin OF/1B Juan Miranda, a Cuban defector, to a four-year, $2 million deal. Miranda, supposedly 23, doesn't seem to have played during the last two years, since he escaped Cuba by raft. We don't know much about Miranda, but presumably he won't be ready for the Show straight off and should start the season in the minors. The last time I looked, his Cuban numbers were comparable to another cuban defector's, Kendry Morales's. But I wonder what on Earth took so long for this kid to sign if he's actually got the goods.
- If Miranda's the real deal--huge friggin' "if"--he could work his way into the first base conversation that currently involves Andy Phillips, Josh Phelps, and free agents Shea Hillebrand and/or Dougie Spellingerror. The short-order rundown: Phillips hasn't proven himself, despite getting a decent shot this summer; Phelps has an intriguing bat but the quality of his glove is unknown; Hillebrand's a bellyacher with an overrated bat, pass, please; Mientkiewicz's whole appeal is his glove, and there is some indication that he's not what he once was with the leather--BP's stats show him trending down the last three years, but zone-rating based metrics like Chris Dial's say he's still the shizzle. Since the emphases are on getting a righthanded bat and/or someone with better glovework than Jason Giambi's, Phelps and Mientkiewicz would be good choices (but then you're burning three roster spots on first base/DH, only).
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Andy comes back three years later, having posted a 37-26 record with the Astros, 520.7 innings of 3.38 ERA ball, in a hard home stadium for lefty pitchers (Minute Maid Field has an inviting short porch in left field). It broke down this way: in 2004, Pettitte pitched less than half a season, troubled by elbow problems; in 2005, he was a CyYoung candidate, 17-9, 2.39 ERA; in 2006, a mediore 14-13 with a 4.20 ERA--Pettitte's control slipped and his walks doubled from last year to this year. Looking at these numbers from the Yankees' perspective, you have to remember that Pettitte was playing in an easier league without a DH, even though he was pitching in a bandbox.
Still, when we look at the Yanks' 2 year, $32 million deal with Pettitte--sure, the deal is technically for one year, but you have to count that player option as guaranteed money, unless Andy decides to leave it on the table--the important thing is to look at the market in which it was made. Sure, $16 million is a lot to pay for a pitcher, and some may say, better had the Yanks paid that premium in 2003 than in 2006. Still, you have to like Pettitte at 2 years and $32 million more than giving Ted Lilly the Pavano Contract (4/$40M) or Gil Meche the Darren Dreifort Contract (5/$55M). Not only is the Yanks' exposure smaller with Pettitte, he's the devil you know, personality-wise, injury issues-wise, and performance-wise.
And all of that comes without mentioning Andy's not-so-little friend. I predict now that Roger Clemens will be sitting on the sidelines as the season starts, like Mifune in Yojimbo (I don't remember if they re-did that scene with Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars). Rather than sign with any team that offers the most money, Clemens can just wait to see how the little things shake out--you know, how does Randy Johnson look after back surgery, and whatnot. And it could mean big money for him.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
So the Yanks' pickup is Josh Phelps--yes, the cover boy of Baseball Prospectus 2003. Phelps is a DH/first baseman, a righthanded hitter with lots of power who never really has gotten a proper chance. Phelps's career numbers: .268/.336/.473 with 57 homers in about 1,300 major league plate appearances. In a nine-year minor league career, he has an impressive .236 isolated power (that's slugging percentage minus batting average). Everything points to this guy being able to rake, at least a better than Andy Phillips.
The best thing is, Phelps might obviate the Yanks' desire for Richie Sexon--this off-season's scary Yankee rumor. Sexon's clearly a better hitter than Phelps, but he's also 3 1/2 years older and about $11 million more expensive. Phelps also will not cost the Yanks anything in terms of talent in trade. The big questions are, can Phelps field at first base or even (gasp!) catcher well enough to make him a worthwhile guy to have on the roster? After all, if you're carrying around Phelps as a righthanded DH and Phillips as a defensive sub at first, you're really wasting a roster spot.
I first heard about Phelps's acquisition from Brother Joe through Baseball Prospectus's newest feature, the BP:Unfiltered blog. The blog is an opportunity for BP's writers (including, eventually, me) to share quick thoughts with the public. Best of all, it's free.
Friday, December 01, 2006
But then, we started getting some bad indications about The Fountain. The trailer looked kind of hokey and confusing. Then there were reports of critics at the Venice film festival booing the closing credits. The film opened very small, grossing only $5 million in its opening weekend.
I had to see it anyway, and I'm glad I did.
The story is best explained in reverse order of its three storylines--in the 26th century, Tom (Jackman) is voyaging through space to a distant nebula, in a transparent orb occupied by him and an ancient tree; he is haunted by the ghost of Izzi (Weisz), a 21st Century woman, whose husband Tommy is a cancer researcher who has been making progress through use of a mysterious botanical specimen from the jungles of Guatemala; meanwhile, Izzi is writing a book set in the 16th Century about Tomas (Jackman, again), a conquistador who is sent by Queen Isabela (you guessed it, Weisz again) of Spain to New Spain--what we know as South and Central America--to find the Tree of Life referenced in the Book of Genesis.
The three storylines cohere very closely to each other (unlike, say, Babel), turning essentially, into one man's battle against Death. You see, in the present day storyline Izzi is dying of a tumor, and in Izzi's book, Isabela is threatened by the Grand Inquisitor, who believes her to be a heretic. In both situations the men are fighting to save the lives of women they love. Future Tom's motivations are more obscure, at first--he mainly seems to enjoy practicing Tai Chi in front of a starry backdrop, and levitating in the lotus position. But he, too, is driven toward a goal set on salvation.
If the Tai Chi and lotus position sound pretentious, you've chanced upon one of the issues some might have with this movie. I think one of the reasons the Venice critics were disappointed is because this film is so...sincere. One of the signature characteristics of Aronofsky's other movies was a detachment from his subject matter. In Requiem, for example, one storyline follows the descent of a senior citizen (Ellen Burstyn, who has a smaller role in The Fountain) into drug addiction and madness. Where more sentimental directors would have played that situation for melodrama--Aronofsky set it to music. In The Fountain, the longing and grief of the characters come at us raw, without any detachment at all. This has all led to speculation that love has softened Aronofsky up--he's engaged to and has a child with Weisz--and weakened his vision.
But if you can get past the fact that this film wears its emotions on its sleeve, you're treated to a visual spectacle in the tradition of Stanley Kubrik's 2001--a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, and a critique of our society's phobia about death. Very highly recommended.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Those are the positives. Igawa reportedly posted for $26 million; or roughly half of what the Red Sox paid to secure Daisuke Matsuzaka's negotiating rights. But Matsuzaka was considered one of those special talents--the guys who are all the way on the righthand side of the bell curve: a Roger Clemens, or Pedro Martinez, or Johan Santana. They're worth a premium. Igawa isn't considered half the talent that Matsuzaka is, even if he has enough talent to be a top performer in Japan. The scouting description of Igawa's pitches: high 80s-low 90s fastball (looks like he throws both a four-seamer and a two-seamer), plus change, average slider, curve he only shows to lefties--this is not an incredibly rare combination. Sure, there's more to pitching than velocity, and the assesment of Igawa is based mainly on his appearance in the MLB/Japan All-Star matchup earlier this month--an exhibition in which Igawa pitched after a six-week layoff.
The comparison I've seen most often is David Wells, but wells never profiled as a big strikeout guy, and Igawa doesn't look to have David's pinpoint control. Say the fact, no one comes to mind that really resembles him--you don't see many lefties get big strikeout numbers who can't crank the fastball into the 90s, and most of the successful lefties starters don't throw up in the zone as much as Igawa does. Pitchers that came to mind when I was watching him were guys like Doug Davis, Jim Abbott, or maybe Andy Pettitte.
Anyway, the Yanks' high bid for Igawa sounds like a "me, too" move, after the Red Sox won the bidding on Matsuzaka. They've now got the second-best pitcher available, but a guy who is probably not in the first-best pitcher's league, and they've paid as much to get these negotiating rights as most people figured that Matsuzaka's negotiating rights would go for. It could be that this is the new market for pitching--contracts are getting more expensive, so it's worth more to acquire exclusive rights to negotiate with a given player.
Or it could be that the Yanks are higher on Igawa than the scouting report would suggest--in the 2004 Baseball Prospectus annual, Clay Davenport translated Igawa's performance to a 4.08 ERA--comparable to the 3.93 translated ERA he got for Matsuzaka. Still, even that comparison saw Matsuzaka as one baserunner per nine innings and one strikeout per nine better than Igawa--and the trend lines have diverged substantially since then.
The last option is that the Yanks panicked, were purely in a defensive mode, put back on their heels after misjudging the market for Matsuzaka by some $20 million. This makes some sense, but it's important to remember that this money is not worth the same to the Yankees as it is to other teams because of the luxury tax. Since for every dollar of salary the Yankees pick up, they have to pay $0.40 to the Major League Central Fund, every non-taxable dollar the Yankees spend on player acquisitions is really only worth about $0.71. So that $26 million posting feeis the same as a $18.6 million contract expenditure for the Yankees--this is closer in line with the Mets' reported bid of $15 million (the Mets are unlikely to have to pay any luxury tax this season, so they don't get a discount). The Yanks expect to sign Igawa for far less than the eight figure-per-year salary Scott Boras is looking to get D-Mat--some are reporting it could be as little as $4.5 million per season over four years. Under those terms, the Yankees' outlay would be in line with a four-year, $31 million contract.
So the key is to keep expectations low. Despite his nickname, we're not looking at a Dwight Gooden-type phenom, here. The hope is a competent back-of-the-rotation starter, someone who can give you innings. Someone better than Ted Lilly. Because if we get our hopes farther up than that, Igawa might need to show his second nickname: Iron Nerves.
- You'll notice I wasn't talking about the Yankees receiving a kickback from Hanshin. That's because major league baseball has carefully spelled out that there's no kickbacks allowed. Now, the fact that kickbacks aren't allowed doesn't stop it from happening in a number of other real-world industries and contexts, but for now, we'll take MLB at its word and hope that the Yanks and Red Sox don't try to cheat on their posting bids.
- Speaking of the Red Sox, I'm quoted in Maury Brown's Biz of Baseball website with regard to the negotiation strategy of Scott Boras. Here's a link, and here's a blurb:
My contention is that it is in the Lions' best interest to get this deal done. It also is in Scott Boras’ best interest, as well, as this year sees a shallow free agency pool, and the aforementioned spike in salary figures. Next off-season sees a far deeper pool of talent, and it may well be that the giddy nature of owners, coupled with clubs like the Cubs driving values up, dissipating. Sending Matsuzaka back to the Lions would be embarrassing for Matsuzaka, and would bring up all kinds of questions about the entire posting process.
That is a case if Boras is just thinking of the Matsuzaka deal in a vacuum.
Derek Jacques, another one of my Baseball Prospectus colleagues plays devil’s advocate when it comes to Boras. It may be that Barry Zito, another Boras client, fits into the equation, as well.
Jacques counters my point by saying:I don't know if it's in Boras's best interests to make this fly. Boras's M.O. has been to use his clients to set new salary standards--which then benefit his other clients, and by association, his bottom line. He's done this to the point of occasionally sacrificing a particular client rather than missing an opportunity to set the market. I presume it wouldn't fit into this strategy if part of Matsuzaka's compensation were hidden through Seibu--if he takes a below-market bid on Matsuzaka, he can't use that contract to get the Mets to bid up on Barry Zito. It might be better for Boras if Matsuzaka hits the free agent market next off-season, so he can get a bidding war going without the posting fee complicating things.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Complaining that a movie called "Babel" is confusing should be some kind of irony. What's stranger still, is that the confusion has nothing to do with the plot, which is fairly straightforward. A couple of Moroccan kids, trying out a new rifle, accidentally shoot an American tourist (Cate Blanchett). The tourist and her husband (Brad Pitt) have left their kids in the care of a Mexican nanny. Their emergency means that they're counting on the nanny to miss her son's wedding in Mexico, so that she can take care of their kids. In Japan, a deaf-mute teen is angry about her mother's death, and anxious about the fact that she's still a virgin.
If one of these things doesn't seem like the others, you see where this is going. I must be getting old, because ten years ago I absolutely never would have objected to a cute Japanese nymphomaniac being gratuitously tossed into a movie. But in Babel, the Tokyo-set storyline really belongs in another film. It’s visually impressive and sometimes insightful, but it doesn’t really match the other storylines, despite paying lip service to the themes of language barriers and cultural misunderstanding.
Actually, that’s a little bit backwards. It’s the other segments that are paying lip service to the miscommunication theme announced in the title and in the advertising. Even though Pitt and Blanchett are strangers in Morocco, their lack of language skills never really impacts upon their plight—there is at least one native in their group who speaks English pretty well, and is willing to translate and help. Similarly, the Mexican Nanny speaks English fairly well, as does her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal of The Science of Sleep), and the tourists’ kids seem to understand their nanny regardless of whether she’s speaking English or Spanish. Meanwhile, the Moroccan goatherds who started the whole mess don’t face any language barrier at all—just the brutal local law enforcement officials, who seem eager to prove to the world that the tourists were attacked by bandits, not terrorists. Only Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese girl, has difficulty communicating with the world around her as the main reason for her problems.
The Moroccan kids are undone by a childish mistake. The American tourists have the phenomenal bad luck of getting shot by a stray bullet while in the middle of nowhere. Other characters demonstrate a complete lack of sense by cavalierly crossing the US/Mexico border even though they're illegal, and driving through an American border checkpoint while drunk and possibly armed, and...I could say more, but then I'd be in spoilers territory. Let's just say that if the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and the screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, were not both from Mexico, they might come under some fire for the stupidity of their Mexican characters.
Arriaga's script is horribly uneven. There are good moments, such as a scene between Pitt and Blanchett where the conversation takes place almost completely in unfinished sentences and awkward pauses. It's beautifully written and acted, the dialogue coming in fragments as much because they have long-standing issues between them as because they've stopped listening to each other. But in other places, Arriaga's plot just doesn't make sense. Sure, it sounds topical that the U.S. would blame terrorism and create an international incident over an accidental shooting in a Muslim country, but the story wants us to believe that the same day that Blanchett's character has been shot, the U.S. has taken control of the roads in Morocco. I know we're an overbearing, empirialist superpower, and Morocco's a small, poor country, but it would take more than a few hours to stage an invasion, even if we thought Brad Pitt's life might be in danger.
Inarritu's direction makes up for some of this. The film is shot beautifully, and has long stretches with little or no dialogue. When Inarritu's busy showing us how people live, it's a whole lot easier to suspend disbelief. The wedding in Mexico is breathtaking, as are the mountains of Morocco, and just about every one of the scenes set in Japan. But even with these beautiful visual touches, the intercutting of the storylines breaks up each story's rhythm. Things will be building to crisis in one storyline, and then that storyline will be put on the backburner, until you've almost forgotten it, eliminating all the urgency and tension that had built up. Imagine throwing scenes from Lost in Translation into the TV show 24, as a season-long storyline. That's how jarring it is.
Despite all that, this movie is recommended, for its ambition, if nothing else. The performances are solid all around, and Rinko Kikuchi, the young woman who plays Chieko, is amazing. I spent a fair share of time with hearing impaired and deaf teens, and Ms. Kikuchi's performance is flawless. I wish I could say the same for Babel.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
The question the Filmspotting hosts had is that the black and white segment looked interesting, while the color action sequences looked like more of the same from a franchise that has become stuck in a rut of flavorless, unbelievable, over-the-top action. It was not promising to learn that this new Bond would be directed by Martin Campbell, director of the previous Bond's debut, 1995's GoldenEye. GoldenEye was the very image of Bond mediocrity--not an unpleasant film, but rather safe and generic. So what was it going to be: a new direction for Bond or more of the same?
The answer, happily, is a new direction for our favorite British spy. Casino Royale does a Batman Begins to the Bond franchise, re-starting it, showing an origin story of sorts, and bringing the franchise away from camp and toward a more realistic focus. The plot of Casino Royale is simple. There's a criminal called Le Chifre who's a financier for terrorist organizations. He winds up owing his clients a ton of money, so he organizes a high-stakes (like, $10 million per head) poker tournament to make the money back. The new Double-O agent, James Bond, is sent out to make sure Le Chifre loses the tournament, so that the Brits can squeeze him for information on his terrorist contacts.
That's it. There are no death rays or invisible cars in this film--not even the old laser beam-in-a-watch. When this Bond takes a beatdown--or, even more surprisingly, when he kills someone--there's copious blood and a lot of dry cleaning involved. Not to mention fewer one-liners.
This all works with Craig in the lead, for all the same reasons that so many folks thought casting Craig was a disaster. Craig's face, handsome, but craggy and worn even at the age of thirty-eight, reflects the fact that many of the things Bond does aren't pretty. He's the first Bond since Sean Connery whose presence could really be considered menacing. At the same time, Craig's face is expressive enough that he can show the newbie awkwardness with which Bond first dons his signature tux or registers his first kill. Oh, and the guy's cut like a piece of granite, which helps sell those fight scenes.
His supporting cast is a mixed bag. Eva Green is terrific as the first Bond girl ever to have a realistic reaction to someone being killed in front of her eyes. Dame Judi Dench is predictably gruff as M, the only cast member from previous films to reprise her role in Casino. However, Mads Mikkelsen doesn't really register as Le Chifre--a stony poker face is requisite in poker, I suppose, but not such a big advantage in acting.
As much as I enjoyed Casino Royale, it wasn't perfect. There are some serious pacing problems for the film, which is nearly two and a half hours long. As Brother T says, it suffered from Return of the King's problem, where the movie looked like it was over, then started up again, three or four times. The action sequences, some of which were innovative and exciting, often ran a bit too long.
But the length of the film is somewhat justified by all the exposition they pack in between those action sequences. The main body of the movie is based around the poker tournament, the development of the relationship between Craig's Bond and Green's Vesper Lynd, and lots and lots of talking. It was great to see a Bond film in which they actually bother to develop characters, and I'm happy to say that the most tense sequence in any Bond film in at least a decade has absolutely nothing to do with guns, explosives or fighting. That's pretty cool, and well worth a few slow spots in the film.
Recommended, highly recommended if you're a Bond fan. A few random notes:
- Since it is a vital part of any James Bond film, I have to remark that the opening credits sequence was very disappointing. The playing-card motif looked like something out of the 60's, just without the comforting silhouttes of nude women. Chris Cornell's theme song was just bland, the most forgettable entry since Sheryl Crow's song for Tomorrow Never Dies. Why doesn't someone just put Portishead on retainer for this job? They can't possibly do a worse job...
- It's nice that someone remembered that James Bond is supposed to be a spy. During the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan tenures, the character morphed into a paramilitary man of action, who didn't seem to have much use for snooping around in other people's affairs, preferring to stick with violence and extreme sports.
- Martin Campbell has one of the stranger resumes I've ever seen for a director. It includes one movie--a 1991 made-for-cable effort called Cast a Deadly Spell--which I absolutely love, and another--1988's Criminal Law--which is one of the most befuddling and disjointed disasters I've ever seen (Gary Oldman's performance in Criminal Law is so over-the-top that the film is a so-bad-it's-good classic). He directed some of the best episodes of one of the best TV series ever (in season one of Homicide: Life on the Street), as well as some middling, but reasonably enjoyable, action films like the Mask of Zorro and No Escape. The guy was all over the place.
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Welcome to baseball's no-man's land. Thanksgiving week is usually baseball's quiet time, with things picking up again during the winter meetings (even though those have been quieter than usual the last few years). So we're looking at a quiet week, with the possibility of no real baseball news--and particularly no Yankees news, since there aren't any free agents the Yanks are clearly courting right now. I have a few film reviews stored up, so we'll start seeing those this week (reviews of Babel and Casino Royale should be up in the next 24 hours), and I'll start gearing up for a look back at the season (and forward to 2007). Otherwise, things should be rather quiet...but you never know.
So, here's a quick rundown of the scant news pickings for the week:
Anthony McCarron in the Daily News has a profile of the Yankees' new hitting coach, Kevin Long. Interesting side note from this article is that Long apparently has an existing relationship with Alex Rodriguez. This seems to follow my theory of Mattingly's bench coach assignment being more a matter of being kicked upstairs rather than a true promotion. I also wonder how much authority Long is going to have as long as the prior hitting coach--unlike Long, a former major league star--is still on the coaching roster.
You knew Derek Jeter would land on his feet. I guess it's easier to take an MVP loss when you can console yourself in the arms of Jessica Biel. And yes, if Biel wants to make out at an exhibit of religious artifacts--or during Schindler's List, the Passion of the Christ, or An Inconvenient Truth, for that matter--you make out. No questions asked.
Speaking of the MVP vote, it seems like BWAA as a whole has patched over this dead news cycle by defending themselves and their brethren from accusations of stupidity on the Jeter/Morneau vote (and to a much lesser extent on the Pujols/Howard vote). In the New York Post, Mike Vaccaro argues that Jeter is the victim of a Bronx Bias, which is an idea that has some merit. So long as Jeter's surrounded by eight-figure salaries and all-stars, folks who believe that there's an "East Coast Bias" will always have an excuse not to recognize his accomplishments.
Lightning rod Joe Cowley (no relation to the onetime Yankees pitcher of the same name) has made himself a household name for not only dropping Jeter to the sixth spot on his ballot and excluding Joe Mauer altogether, but he also gave gave A.J. Pierzynski a 10th place vote. This has, of course, led to radio appearances across the country (like this one, with Mike and the Mad Dog, hat tip to Baseball Primer) for Cowley to engage in "debate" over his choice. Cowley, a White Sox beat writer who had already had his award voting priviliges suspended once before (for making a Chicago "homer" ballot in 2003) uses his ballot to suck up to players who gave him good quotes (as, apparently, Pierzynski did) and gets to be a conversation piece for national discussion. I guess that's the way that obscure jerks like Cowley become bigger jerks like Jay Mariotti.
All of this--the articles, the radio appearances, even the outraged reaction of geeks like me on the Internets--is the point of the BWAA voting on awards. Morneau doesn't get voted in because the writers are stupid or lazy. He gets voted in because it's boring if everyone agrees who the MVP is. By making dingbat, contrarian decisions, the voters create more opportunities to bloviate about why those contrarian positions were right or wrong. There was a movie a few years ago called "Our Brand is Crisis," about James Carville and other American political consultants working on a presidential campaign in Bolivia. The BWAA's motto should be "Our Brand is Controversy."
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
I allowed myself to get carried away in that last one. It just seemed like we'd hit on the right conditions for Jeter to win the league's top prize--first place team; Jeter the clear best player on the Yankees; second-best player in the league (Minnesota's Joe Mauer) having a couple of fellow candidates on his squad, to split up the vote (RBI machine Justin Morneau and Supernatural Johan Santana); middle-order mashers like David Ortiz and Travis Hafner being out of contention pretty early in the year. There hadn't been a season before this one where the Captain had this clear a shot at the award.
Yeah, that turned out to be wrong. The AL MVP results came in about an hour ago, and the writers snubbed the Captain in favor of Morneau, by a narrow 320-306 point margin. In terms of first place votes, Morneau was clearly the consensus pick, receiving 15 out of a possible 28, and no votes below 4th place. Jeter got 12 first place votes, 14 second place votes, one fourth-place vote and one sixth-place vote. The other first place vote that went to neither Jeter nor Morneau went to Morneau's teammate, AL Cy Young winner Santana.
The writers made a mistake, here. I could understand if Mauer won the award--he was the best hitter on the Twins; I could understand if Ortiz won the award, since he was probably the best hitter in the league, overall (the AL's best hitter, Cleveland DH Travis Hafner, suffered an injury-shortened season and a victory-challenged ballclub). Santana getting the nod would have burned a little--visions of the 1986 Clemens/Mattingly controversy in the air--but no one doubted that Santana (like Clemens 20 years ago) was at least the dominant pitcher in the league, by a wide margin.
Morneau is by all indications a nice guy. The first Canadian MVP winner (I think). He's someone I touted and stuck with on my fantasy team even when he was struggling to hit .200 in April. But he wasn't even the best player on his own team! Sure, the Twins came back to win the AL Central, and Morneau was a huge part of that resurgence, but remember: part of the reason they had to make a big comeback was because Morneau was killing the team early in the year. Morneau gets credited for the comeback, but not for the initial disappoinment.
I'm tempted to pull out the statistical measures--all the silly-sounding stats like WARP, VORP, EqA, and such--to show that Jeter deserved the award, and that Morneau was far from the next-most deserving candidate. But in a world where mainstream sportswriters would likely dismiss me as a stats-geek, I need to just point out that the MVP voters come off as the ones who are statistics-obsessed: they're simply obsessed with old-school statistics like RBI and home runs. Look back at the way they vote, and for all their talk of character and leadership and most valuable to their team, you'll see the "experts" are just a bunch of guys who look at homers and RBI.
Derek Jeter played a tougher position than Justin Morneau, on a better team. He hit better than Morneau did, just with fewer homers and ribbies. That's because he's a different kind of player than Morneau is, a kind of player who doesn't win the MVP award.
- Given today's results, can we put to rest the legend of the East Coast bias? With bias like this, who needs enemies?
- Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, the angle that's going to play out is that Jeter's "failure to support" Alex Rodriguez cost Jeter the MVP. Y'know, 'cause a leader supports his teammates. We have yet to see the end of the fallout from September's Sports Illustrated hatchet piece on Rodriguez. Unless someone finds a way to defuse this bomb, Jeter and A-Rod will go into 2007 with more reason to resent each other than ever.
- This should really be its own column, but Mike Mussina is reportedly back in the fold, accepting a two-year $23 million contract to come back to the Yanks. Good timing, too, since the Mets are reportedly close to losing Tom Glavine, and might be trolling the avenues soon looking for more pitching. With the free agent market going crazy this winter, Mussina's deal seems fair in light of his 2006 performance.
- In other news, Scott Proctor is being considered a candidate for the rotation. On the one hand, the Yankees have picked up a lot of righthanded middle relievers, which would free Proctor up for the rotation. On the other hand, this smells of a bluff by Cashman, which I will hereafter term a "Bubba" after Cashman's claims last winter that Bubba Crosby would be the Yankees' centerfielder in 2006. An example of usage: "The idea that Andy Phillips will be the starting first baseman in 2007 is a classic Bubba."
- The Cubs sign Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year $136 million contract, and I wonder: does Jim Hendry realize that Soriano's birth year is 1976, not 1978 as it was when he first came up to the majors? The Cubs are betting that Soriano's going to be worth eight figures in 2014, at the age of 39; meanwhile, Hendry must be betting that he'll no longer be the GM of the Cubs when this contract starts to be a problem.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
- Even though Leyland was the prohibitive favorite to win the award, his margin of victory over second place finisher Jim Gardenhire was less than Girardi's was in the National League. Some voters must have been swayed by Leyland's team's collapse down the stretch, which saw Gardenhire's Twins pass Detroit for the division lead on the final day of the season. Some folks complain about the shifting standards ("Sure he was the best player, but was he the most valuable to his team?") for the MVP award, but the Manager of the year is just as nebulous. Leyland was favored both because his Tigers team was excellent this year, and because the team wasn't expected to be anywhere near this good. But to some, it didn't make sense to give the award to Leyland over the man who passed him on the last day of the season--despite the fact that the Twins were considered a much better bet to win the Central last season, and indeed were one of the most disappointing teams in the game prior to their resurgence in the second half.
- In the National League, the guy that Girardi whomped was also someone who finished ahead of him in his own division--far ahead of him. There have always been whispers that Willie Randolph is, as a manager, an angry, bitter guy. Whenever the cameras showed Randolph during the playoffs, La Chiquita always remarked about how upset he looked, regardless of the score. This perception, if true, is a big contrast to how I remember Willie as a player--I seem to recall him as one of the smilingest guys around. If he was bitter before, I'm sure that losing the Manager of the Year to a guy whose team finished three games under .500, and 19 games behind his, will certainly give him something to be bitter about. Willie did an excellent job this season, and fell victim to the hyperbole about how bad the Marlins were supposed to be this season (some commentators had them pegged to be the worst team ever before the season).
- Getting to Girardi, the interesting thing here is that the reigning NL Manager of the Year will start the season as a studio personality for the YES Network. He won the award despite a very low-class anti-marketing campaign against him by his former boss, Jeff Loria. When Girardi and Loria had their falling-out at midseason, Loria had people leaking to the press moves that Girardi had wanted to make but was overruled by the front office--every time in situations where the player Girardi would have benched or sent to the minors was successful, or the player Girardi favored was not. They tried to get the idea out there that the Marlins won in spite of Girardi, rather than because of him--and that message seems to have been recognized for what it was, sour grapes from a twit intent on firing his manager as soon as possible.
- I can't recall a manager of the year, or even any top finisher, getting canned before he received his award. In a year in which no manager was fired in-season, not only is Girardi Manager of the Year without a team, but the guy who finished in third place in the AL was fired after the season (Ken Macha, formerly of the A's) the fourth place finisher was apparently this close to getting fired (our own Joe Torre) and the third place finisher in the NL left his team to go manage a division rival (Bruce Bochy, formerly of the Padres and now of the San Francisco Giants). That's a lot of upheaval for one year.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Daisuke Matsuzaka has posted, and if you're a Yankee fan, you're not going to like where.
The Red Sox won the blind bidding for the Japanese ace with a whopping bid of $51 million. To put this in context, when Ichiro Suzuki was posted by the Oryx Blue Wave before the 2001 season, the winning bid was $13 million. The rumors going into the posting process on Matsuzaka was that the bidding would likely exceed $20 million, perhaps go as high as $30 million.
No one dreamed of a $51 million bid, because--if you take the bid process seriously--posting at that figure would make it virtually impossible to make a deal with Matsuzaka, who's a Scott Boras client. Let's say you stretched the barriers for a pitcher deal, and gave Matsuzaka six years (there's no indication that Boras is actually looking for a deal that long, given that his client is only 26), that's like tacking $8.5 million to each year of the deal. So signing a guy for $10 million per year over six years--Carl Pavano money--becomes paying a guy $18.5 million per year over those six seasons--Roger Clemens money. And $10 million per season is a low figure given Matsuzaka's expectation.
Matsuzaka figures by every account to be the real deal, but we're still talking about a guy who hasn't thrown a single pitch in the big leagues, who has had elbow trouble in the past, and who has thrown a lot of pitches per start over the past few years. A $100 million is a lot of money to risk, even for the Red Sox.
You'll notice above the modifier I put on the financials analysis, "if you take the bid process seriously". Something stinks about the Red Sox bid, and there are a couple of loopholes to how the bid process working, that might tell us where the stink is coming from. First, is the possibility of a kickback of a large portion of the posting fee back to the Red Sox as they negotiate with Matsuzaka. Rumor is that back in 2000, the Mariners paid only a fraction of Ichiro's posting fee, per a side deal with Oryx. Kickbacks make sense for the Japanese team because they get no part of the posting fee if the posted player doesn't sign with the top bidder. So it makes sense, if the U.S. club needs money to make a deal with the player work out, that the Japanese team figures that 50% or 30% of the posting fee is better than getting nothing.
Still, kickbacks make a mockery of the bidding process, and I'd imagine that some of the other bidders--including the one in the Bronx--will take some care to make sure the Sox actually pay every penny of that posting bid, and get none of it back.
The other key issue, is something I mentioned above. If the winning bidder doesn't agree to a deal with Matsuzaka in 30 days, they lose nothing. From the Red Sox point of view, Matsuzaka presented two problems: a) the Sox need starting pitching, so they're interested in him, and b) the Yankees need starting pitching, so the Sox are interested in the Yankees not getting him. If you think about it in that context, the Red Sox almost had no alternative but to put in a crazy, huge bid, like they did.
The only way the Red Sox could be sure that Matsuzaka doesn't wind up in pinstripes is by winning the bidding. If some other team won, they might sign Matsuzaka and trade him to the Yanks for prospects plus the posting cash. By overbidding, the Red Sox make sure that they have, at the very least, blocked the Yankees. If Matsuzaka accepts a lowball offer, or Seibu comes up with a good enough kickback, the Sox get the big-shot pitcher of this off-season; if not, they lose nothing, and keep the Yankees from being able to negotiate with him.
Good faith negotiation is purely optional. It stinks, but it's the smart play.
Jaret Wright For the Birds
Since last we spoke, the Yankees ended their two-year association with Jaret Wright, eating the $4 million sunk cost they would have had to pay had they voided his contract, and sending Wright to the Orioles for yet another young righthanded reliever.
This time, the Yanks get Chris Britton, a rookie in 2006 who turns 24 in December. Britton had a pretty good season for the Orioles--3.35 ERA in 53 2/3 innings, with 10.6 adjusted runs prevented on the season. For context, that ARP number would have been third on the Yankee staff in 2006, behind Mariano Rivera (25.4) and Scott Proctor (21.3).
Nice job by the Yanks turning up something in return for Wright, a free agent mistake when he was signed away from the Braves in December, 2004. Wright re-joins O's pitching coach, Leo Mazzone--for whom he had his best season--and Baltimore gets a limited pitcher at a pretty nice price of $3 million. This could be a win-win all around.
Mets Shea Good-bye
The Mets announced yesterday that their new ballpark's naming rights had been sold to Citigroup, so the Metropolitans will play their future games at CitiField. If the new ballpark isn't an aesthetic upgrade on the Mets' current digs, or if there's a few losing seasons by the home team, CitiField could lend itself to some unfortunate and profane derivations.
I'm glad that--for the moment, at least--the Yanks have avoided all of this naming rights nonsense. Yes, it's a revenue stream, but one that's made so many ballparks generic--I sometimes have a hard time differentiating Petco from Safeco, PNC from PacBell, Great American from Comerica and U.S. Cellular. So far, the Yanks haven't gone for that revenue source, perhaps because the Yankee brand is so valuable to them.
Shea Stadium, named after William Shea, attorney, sports enthusiast, and political operator, was part of the Mets' history, going so far as threatening to start a third major league in order to prevail upon the National League and convince it to expand. Something will be lost when the Stadium bearing his name is given back to the giant parking lot in Flushing Meadow. Not because the building itself was any great shakes--in my humble opinion, Shea Stadium's ugly, warehouselike, and more than a little run down. It'll be a shame because one more distinctive thing about the Mets will have gone generic, the same way that the Mets' network, SNY, has a name you'd have a hard time picking out of a lineup.
Friday, November 10, 2006
The guys acquired, are all righthanded pitchers, and two of them made last years Baseball America list of Detroit's top prospects. Humberto Sanchez, the #6 guy on that list, will be 24 next season. He was awesome at AA last season 5-3, 1.76 ERA, 86 K in 71 2/3 innings; then held his own at AAA, 5-3, 3.86 ERA, 43 K in 51 1/3 IP. Part of his performance drop as a Mud Hen has to do with the forearm/elbow strain that ended Sanchez's season in August. He's a big guy, for whom conditioning is a concern--but he has big-time stuff.
Kevin Wheelan, the #10 guy on BA's list, is a late convert to pitching, moving over from catcher when he was in college at Texas A & M. He'll be 23 in January, and he spent 2006 in high-A ball. Wheelan's been used as a minor league closer, and his repetoire consists of a mid-90s fastball and a wicked split finger. This season, he attempted to integrate a slider into the mix. Wheelan had a 2.67 ERA and 27 saves in the FSL, striking out 69 and walking 29 in 54 innings. The walks are deceptive--in the first half of the season, he had a wild streak in which he walked 20 in 22 1/3 innings, which skewed his season totals.
Anthony Claggett's another minor league reliever, sporting a 0.91 ERA in the Midwest League. Claggett's stuff is supposed to be average, but accentuated by a "deceptive" delivery. Not sure what that means, but his numbers show a substantial platoon split.
Suddenly, it seems, the Yankees are swimming in young pitching. Baseball America's list of top Yankees prospects was released this week, and eight of the top ten were righthanded pitchers (in order: Philip Hughes, Dellin Betances, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Chris Garcia, Tyler Clippard, J. Brent Cox, and Mark Melancon). Add some of the fringier Yanks prospects, like Jeff Karstens, Darrell Rasner, Jeff Marquez, Matt DeSalvo, Jose Veras and Steven White, and that's a lot of arms that the Yanks are holding in reserve. The rule of pitching prospects is "quality in quantity." Some of these guys are sure to fall by the wayside--among Wheedon, Melancon, Cox, Veras, and Brian Bruney, not all of them can possibly be "the heir to Mariano Rivera." But having depth increases the chance that one of them will pan out to step into those (HUGE!) shoes.
Right now, Hughes, Sanchez, and Clippard should make for a great AAA rotation, with Cox as their closer, in Scranton's first year of affiliation with the Yanks. At Trenton, we might see Wheelan and Claggett battling it out for relief innings in the bullpen, while the Yankees' second bumper crop, 2006 draftee starters Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy and closer Mark Melancon team up with 2004 high school draftee Chris Garcia at Tampa, and local product Dellin Betances follows at Charleston or perhaps even in the short-season league at Staten Island.
Sanchez, Wheelan and Claggett are a fine haul to bring back in return for Sheffield, a guy who'd lost his role on this team, had campaigned to be made a free agent, and whose contractual issues figured to be a distraction going forward. Despite some strong rhetoric earlier, I'll be a little sad to watch Sheff go. For all the side issues he brought to the table, he was a great hitter, never an easy out, and--despite his whininess--a consumate professional. Looking back at the 2004 and 2005 Yankees, if you had one at bat--say, man on second, one run down with two outs in the bottom of the ninth--was there any Yankee you'd rather have at the plate than Sheffield?
So I'm not so happy that Sheffield stays in the AL, and particularly not that he goes to a dangerous contender, the team that knocked the Yanks out of the playoffs this season. Still, given that the alternative was letting Sheffield go to the highest bidder for no return at all, I'm glad this deal is done. I'd really be wishing Sheff the best with his new team, if it weren't for the fact that the Yanks will be facing him, frequently and possibly in the playoffs again.
[Yeah, I know, I better hope La Chiquita doesn't read this entry...]
What I can say is vaya con Dios, Gary. It was a pleasure having you on my favorite team.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Apologies for dredging up old news from last week, but Derek Jeter earned his third straight American League Gold Glove at shortstop--joining the other nine guys above as the only fellows to win three in a row in the 50-year history of the Gold Glove award. Let's put it another way: Jeter now has more gold gloves than Cal Ripken. Or Maury Wills. Or Alex Rodriguez.
For the first eight seasons of his career, most fielding statistics had Jeter as the one of, if not the, worst shortstops out there. The data--most of it, at least--says that over the last three seasons, Jeter has improved dramatically from his previous defensive level. That "dramatic improvement," was from horrible to average, perhaps a bit above. None of the metrics I've seen have actually placed Jeter as the best shortstop in the AL, or even in the top three, for the last three seasons.
Jeter, always a test case for the sabermetric point-of-view of defense, now takes things to the next level. All the other names in that first paragraph have legacies as elite defenders. When people look back at Jeter's defense, will they put Jeter on that same pedestal? Or will folks remember the ugly defensive early-career performance described by the stats? If it's the latter, will the gold gloves be at all relevant to future generations of baseball fans?
Those are not rhetorical questions. Feel free to speak up in the comments.
In other news, the Yankees are reported to be mulling a repurchase of 40% of the Houston Astros' pitching rotation, for one last pinstriped hurrah. It's an enticing idea, but I thought collusion rules were initially put in place to prevent a couple of players from coordinating their actions in signing with a team (for those who don't know, the collusion rules were a reaction to a joint holdout by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale some forty years ago).?
Gary Sheffield gave the Yankees a list of places to which he'd rather be traded. Nice idea, Gary, better than "you trade for me and there will be trouble." But a bit irrelevant.
Let's put it this way. Lots of people I know make up these imaginary lists of "freebies"--that is, famous-type folks that their significant other would allow them to have a fling with if the opportunity were available. So, for example, the guy agrees that his wife could hook up with Brad Pitt if he came a-knockin' on the door, while the wife gives her husband the green light to get a little somethin'-somethin' from Jessica Alba, should they happen to be locked in an elevator together, or somesuch. The whole thing works because it's a ludicrous fantasy--presumably Salma Hayek doesn't go around the country looking up all the guys (and heck, probably at least some girls) that have put her on their lists. She doesn't care.
The Yanks shouldn't care about what's on Gary Sheffield's list. Gary would accept a trade to the White Sox? That's nice. You say the Royals are offering Alex Gordon? Get used to scenic Kaufman Stadium, Gary!
[By the way, lest I start getting hatemail from the Midwest Sabermetric Mafia, not serious about Gordon. I'd happily take Billy Butler in his stead. OK, ok, seriously, Andrew Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos would be plenty, for sure.]
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Most of the news coverage has been focused on what Mattingly being appointed bench coach says about the Yankee line of succession. It's a fuzzy position--even fuzzy by coaching standards--but the bench coach is considered a consiglieri to the manager, a strategic assistant, the guy who manages the team if the manager gets ejected. As such, the bench coach position is considered by some a place where bright young managerial prospects go to apprentice, particularly if they're high-profile types who likely aren't willing to go manage in the bus leagues for a few seasons. More on this in a moment.
I can't remember when the "bench coach" came into vogue...I really don't remember anyone holding that position with the Yankees prior to "the Gerbil" Don Zimmer. Zim wasn't really someone looking for a managerial job at that point, and his managerial style was a good contrast to that of the manager, Joe Torre--much more openly temperamental than Torre, a more aggressive field manager, more outspoken. It often seemed like they worked the umpires together, with Torre playing good cop to Zimmer's bad cop. If Joe was the calm father figure of the Yankee clubhouse, ol' Popeye was the crazy uncle your mother disapproves of you hanging out with. He and Joe were a good match.
Since Zimmer was forced out by Steinbrenner, we haven't seen such a match again. In 2004, Willie Randolph took over after a tempestuous tenure as third base coach and primary media-anointed manager-in-waiting. I say Willie's time coaching third was tempestuous because of the gale force turbulence Randolph created with his constantly-windmilling arm. Randolph had the good fortune that no matter how many baserunners he sent to their doom, it didn't seem to cost the Yankees that many games when it counted. Still, Willie didn't seem to light the world on fire in the bench coach job, and it was around this time the rumors started that Don Mattingly was the preferred successor to Torre. After Randolph went off to the Mets, former catcher/broadcaster Joe Girardi took over the bench coach job. This inspired to a lot of talk about what a great manager Girardi would make some day, but didn't otherwise seem to have a big impact on the way the Yankees were managed or played on the field.
When Girardi went to the Marlins (and, indeed, did a good job managing there) Mazzili was brought on, perhaps in the hope that having another "wartime consiglieri" with managing experience would bring back some of that Don Zimmer magic. No dice. Mazz may have had the "vocal" and "temperamental" stuff down, but he didn't have Zim's strategic brain, or his 1,500+ games of managerial experience.
So now Mazzilli goes, and is replaced by Mattingly. I don't know where this is going to help the ballclub much, other than giving Mattingly some more manager-type experience. Torre, Zimmer, and former pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre were of a different generation from the fellows who have come after. When Zimmer came to Torre with advice, he was coming from the perspective of someone who was playing the game when Torre was just starting high school, and who had more managerial success than Torre had in his pre-Yankees days. That's bringing something to the table. If Mattingly has suggestions, will it play out the same way? Will Mattingly, always a quiet leader during his playing days, even speak up if he has any suggestions? The mind boggles.
And while this has been termed a "promotion," you have to wonder if Mattingly's new role isn't a tacit criticism of the job he did in his old role, as hitting coach for the team that just got shut down in the playoffs, rather than as an endorsement of his managerial bonafides. The Yanks hit well during the Mattingly's tenure, and he does get credit for the development of Robbie Cano and Melky Cabrera. Still, by and large Donnie Baseball had a huge crop of baseball talent to work with, and Mattingly certainly didn't seem able to reach the Yankees' key player, Alex Rodriguez, this season. Whoever the new batting coach is, that's job number one (job number two being to work on the continued development of Cabrera, and job number three being to make sure the coffee in the dugout is always fresh; OK, so I made one of those up).
This is a story to keep an eye on in Spring Training.