Thursday, December 13, 2007

Waiting on Mr. Mitchell

It's T-minus one hour before the George Mitchell steroid press conference. I swear, MLB must have scheduled this thing specifically to interfere with my writing schedule, since I'm on deadline for three different projects, two of them baseball. A few short-form reactions to recent news:

1) The Yanks Sign LaTroy Hawkins:

I'd have been much more psyched about this a few years ago than I am now. I'd always imagined LaTroy to be a strikeout guy, but if you look it up, he's pretty weak in that aspect, and getting worse. Still, with Joba in the rotation, Kyle Farnsworth being sucky and limited, and Luis Vizcaino leaving us for greener pastures, Joe Girardi is going to need a setup guy that he's comfortable going to in the eighth. I like the fact that this is only a one-year deal.

2) Carl Pavano asked to take a minor league deal:

This one was reported as a done deal over the weekend, before Can't Pitch Carl balked. The move would've allowed the Yanks to clear space on the 40-man, while somehow still getting insurance to pay for part of Pavano's salary, meanwhile Pavano would have had someplace to rehab. This made too much sense to ever happen. It would mean that Carl would have to do something that actually benefits the Yankees--can you imagine that? I swear, if this guy blew his brains out, the bullet would still manage to hit a vital member of the Yankees' team.

3) Yanks Say Good-bye to Andy Phillips, Darrell Rasner, Matt DeSalvo, T.J. Beam, and Bronson Sardinha:

Phillips was released just before the Rule 5 draft, to make room for Jose Molina. Rasner, Beam, DeSalvo, and Sardinha were non-tendered last night to make room for the Yanks' returning free agents. The only one of these that's a surprise is Sardinha, since it looked like the team was warming up to him last season, putting him on the playoff roster. The others were arms who'd been passed on the depth chart, and Phillips, who never showed the power he'd need to be a backup corner infield guy.

4) Kuhn to the Hall, Miller on the Outside Looking In

Marvin Miller should have gotten into the Hall of Fame when the Veteran's Committee vote was expanded to all living Hall-of-Famers a few years back. That group, dominated by the same veteran ballplayers who enjoyed big salaries and pensions as a result of Miller's advocacy on their behalf, couldn't get its act together to get the job done, one of the single greatest acts of ingratitude that you'll see, ever. This year, with the keys to the gates of Cooperstown given to baseball management types, Miller never stood a chance. That his nemesis, the late Commissioner Kuhn, was voted in while Miller was rejected was as direct a snub as you'll see.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Option B

"Beeeeeware the Pavano!"

A ghostly voice woke me in the night. The radiator in the bedroom was going full-blast, and I woke up in a sweat, as if I had a fever. Carl Pavano? Where?

After looking around and making sure that Can't Pitch Carl wasn't in the bedroom, threatening myself and La Chiquita with grievous bodily harm. I settled back down for some rest. What the heck was that about?

"Beware the Paavaaaaanoooooo!"

I woke back up, peeved. What Pavano? And why did the ghostly voice think that moaning out a different word in the sentence would make me more likely to heed its call? I mean, for the first time in three years, I was finally over my Pavano issues--Carl had his Tommy John surgery in June, and it seemed like the timing of that was so that the Yankees could ensure he'd never again pitch in a Yankee uniform (since even people with normal healing times usually take more than 15 months to come back from ligament replacement). The Yanks would keep him on the roster, get back whatever they could in insurance money, and then we could put one of the worst free agent signings ever behind us, forever.

"Beware the..."

I swear, if I found that ghostly voice I was gonna bust him upside the head. What damn...

Oh! And then I got it: this was about the Johan Santana non-deal.

The Yankees now swear up and down that they won't pursue Santana. After Hank Steinbrenner's ultimatum--the kind of peevish complaint guaranteed to inspire rebellion, if not veiled accusations of tampering--the Yankees and Twins were unable to settle on a third prospect in the great Santana hunt of 2007. The Bronx Bombers' main rivals (in this and seemingly everything else), the Red Sox, seem to have also struck out in the short term. The Yanks are saying all the right thing about sticking with their youth movement on the mound. But even if the Melky and Hughes for Santana deal is off the table, there's still danger lurking in the weeds.

It's Option B, better known as Oakland A's pitcher Danny Haren. Or as my mind has been thinking about him since the ghostly visitation...the Pavano.

I know that's not quite a fair comparison. Haren's a really good pitcher, who's been extraordinarily resilient over the last three years:

2005 Dan Haren 24 14 12 217 6.76 1.13 5.2
2006 Dan Haren 25 14 13 223 7.1 1.11 5.3
2007 Dan Haren 26 15 9 222.7 7.76 1.30 6.3

(Yes, I've written this blog for four years, and I still can't figure out how to make a table look good. Sorry.)

But then again, Pavano was also a pretty good pitcher in the couple of years before he choked us under a veil of tears joined the Yankees:

2003 Carl Pavano 27 12 13 201 5.96 1.02 5.2
2004 Carl Pavano 28 18 8 222.3 5.63 1.42 7

He was really good. He just wasn't the best available. That year, the offseason after the 2004 ALCS disaster, the best starter available was Pedro Martinez, late of the Red Sox. The Mets picked him up, and the Yankees settled for the next best thing, Pavano. There were things to commend Pavano over Martinez. Martinez had known health issues, and was older. If you'd asked who was the safer bet to receive a four-year deal, Pavano from ages 29-32 or Pedro from ages 33-36, you'd probably answer, the young guy without arm trouble. Still, even if Pedro doesn't pitch another inning at Shea, you'd have to say that the Mets got more mileage out of the $53 million they gave Martinez than the Yanks got out of the $40 million they gave Pavano.

Back to Haren. Billy Beane is a smart guy. He has a very good young pitcher, Haren, signed to a nice, below-market contract ($9.5 MM over the next two years, $6.75 MM club option for 2010). Why would he want to trade away a guy like this?

It's because of the market that Johan Santana has created. Santana isn't just a good pitcher, he's the best pitcher. A lot of people have supposedly been scared off by Santana's reported contract demands, but there's a hunger for what he brings to the table. He's not just a #1 pitcher, he's the #1 pitcher. The ace of aces. Only a handful of hurlers can claim to be in his company--Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt, C.C. Sabathia, maybe Justin Verlander--and none of those guys have his performance record. Haren isn't part of that group, he's in the next group, which includes young guys like Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Chien Ming Wang, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, and a few others,* who are close to that elite level but just fall short, or haven't yet proven they can do it consistently enough to be one of those "once in a generation" type pitchers. Like Martinez, Clemens, and Randy Johnson were in their respective primes. Like Santana is now.

When a pitcher like Santana is available, guys you've long considered untouchable become...touchable. If you have to surrender a Phil Hughes, or Jon Lester, or Clay Buchholz, or Clayton Kershaw, you grit your teeth and do it. Those guys may have the potential to become the next Santana or Peavy or Beckett, but there's value in knowing that you have someone who's already made it to that level, who's survived grind of operating at as an ace year in and year out.

So if Beane is making Haren available, it's because he hopes to let the Twins do the hard work, loosening GM's fingers off their best prospects as everyone vies to get the best pitcher in baseball. And then, once everyone's gotten used to the idea that Hughes isn't untouchable, that Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury can be had, then Beane can sweep in and market Haren, as the best pitcher available not named Santana. And it's not that hard to talk yourself into this idea: Haren's pretty good, and his contract is small-market friendly, and for all I know he's super-kind to children and animals. But he's not Johan Santana--he's just the next best thing.

Forget Pavano, which is pretty much a fighting word in any Yankee fan's vocabulary. Last year, the best pitcher available was Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Yanks were outbid, handily, on the posting fee for the best talent out there, but they settled for Option B--Kei Igawa. Last year, the Yanks paid about $30 million (the posting fee plus Igawa-san's salary) for Dr. Kei to pitch more innings in the minors (77 1/3) than in the majors (67 2/3). Sometimes the best move is not to make a move at all.

[* NOTE: Before anyone complains about that list of second-tier #1 pitchers, I'm not counting guys who are on the wrong side of 30. Many of them--John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, A.J. Burnett, Roy Halladay--can be just as good as any of the guys I've listed, but likely wouldn't have the same trade value.]

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Emptying the Clip

I've got a bad feeling about this. No, I haven't heard any news about Johan Santana, but I did hear about the trade that the Yanks made yesterday--Tyler Clippard gets dealt to the hyperactive Washington Nationals (seriously, can we get Jim Bowden a sedative, or else just keep him away from sugar?) for righthanded reliever Jonathan Albaladejo. I might be overreacting, but I wonder if this is the first domino falling in a cycle where the Yanks unload a good deal of their cache of young pitchers.

Not that Albaladejo's an old man. He just turned 25, which makes him about 2 1/2 years older than Clippard. He turned in a nice 14 or so inning stint with Washington, and I've seen a Nationals blogger (Jon at the Nationals Report) say he has an "electric fastball and a tough makeup." I saw him in the Caribbean Series in February and wasn't impressed by his heat or his poise. Here's what I wrote at the time:
  • Jonathan Albaladejo is not as advanced as Castro. At 23 [sic], he’s only gotten as high as AA in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He’s 6’5” with a big frame. Sunday night it didn’t look like his fastball was as big as he is (my kingdom for a radar gun!). He got ahead in the count well enough, but showed a tendency to nibble afterward.
  • Two on, none out in the bottom of the first: Miguel Tejada got to a one ball, two strike count and then had a batting helmet crisis. After trying on every helmet in the Dominican dugout, Tejada came back to fill the count, which provoked a conference on the mound. Albaladejo looked so serious and tentative it was like he was playing chess with Death. Death won, Tejada walked, and another conference on the mound ensued.
Now, I'm not a scout, and you absolutely, positively should never base an opinion on seeing a player just once. For all I know, that was the worst game of his career. The thing is, before last season Clippard was a top-five prospect with the Yanks; while Albaladejo was picked up as a minor league free agent out of the Pirates organization last season. So, in short, the Yanks have surrendered something of value for a guy they could have picked up for free less than twelve months earlier. I'll miss Clippard, and hope I'm wrong about Albaladejo.

In sunnier news, Project P46 turned out to be a rousing success. According to reports, Andy Pettitte is returning to the Bronx for one more go, and reportedly, the outpouring of fan support was one reason why. Thanks to Steve Lombardi for thinking it up, and thanks to everyone who participated.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Hank Ultimatum

It's been a year of ultimatums in the Yankees organization:

If you don't give us extensions before opening day, we'll become free agents!
--Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada to Brian Cashman

If you opt out, we won't re-sign you!
--Cashman to Alex Rodriguez

If you don't win the Division Series, you're history!
--George Steinbrenner to Joe Torre

Unless you start the bidding at $350 million over ten years, he's opting out!
--Scott Boras to the Yankees, re: Alex Rodriguez

If you don't offer me more than one year, I'm gone!
--Torre to the Yankee brain trust

Some of the ultimata (that's the alternate plural, per Websters) proved to be for real--Rivera and Posada did each dip a toe in free agency, although it doesn't look like they got serious with anyone but the Yanks; Torre did actually leave when the Yanks' one-year "paycut, with performance bonuses" deal turned out to be final--others less so. Despite the Old Boss's stern warning, Torre was offered a contract--albeit one designed to be rejected. Despite all the posturing by both sides of the A-Rod Opt-Out drama, Alex opted out, but (thanks to a little advice from the Oracle of Omaha) negotiated a deal to return for less than the promised $350 million. So for all the threats of definitive action, the record in 2007 has been a mixed bag.

Now, the latest ultimatum comes from Hank Steinbrenner to the Minnesota Twins. If he's to be believed, Johan Santana will be a Yankee tomorrow, or the Yanks won't trade for him, period. He claims that the Yanks have a fair offer on the table--reportedly Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, and one pick from the Yanks' column B of prospects (e.g., no Joba Chamberlain, no Ian Kennedy)--and that if a deal can't be worked out on Monday, the Yanks move on. In an unrelated, but connected story, Santana's told the Twins that he won't agree to be traded during the season, giving new Minnesota GM Bill Smith deadlines to deal with.

I've been shy about talking up the Yankees' pursuit of Santana because it's one of those situations that's all speculation, no news. If I had to give odds, I'd say they still favor Johan Santana starting the season as a Minnesota Twin--as I pointed out last week at Baseball Prospectus, two draft picks (which is what the Twins would get for losing Santana as a free agent) can be a pretty substantial return, often better than one gets from an ill-considered trade. All told, in situations like these, it's often true that no one knows anything, and you wind up wasting a lot of time for something that never comes to fruition.

Now, thanks to Hank layin' down the law, we're likely to have some news--real news--on this issue by Monday night...maybe.

As far as the deal on the table's fair. I'd be heartbroken to see Hughes go, and I'm a huge fan of the Melkman--despite the fact that he often has weeks where he looks like absolutely doesn't belong in the majors. Nonetheless, if the package is Hughes, Melky, and Chris Britton (or Alberto Gonzalez, or Juan Miranda) then I think you have to pull the trigger, not because Hughes and Melky are chickenfeed, but because it's Johan Friggin' Santana, the best pitcher in baseball over the last four years, a lefthanded stud who's still on the correct side of 30.

Keep in mind, I've never heard anybody refer to the alternative as "Danny Friggin' Haren." The first time that happens, it might not be a sign of admiration. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Aside from the Yankees' role in the Santana saga possibly coming to a head; the Hank Ultimatum is important as the final, definitive proclamation that Hank--not Hal, not any of the Steinbrenner sons-in-law--is the Boss, Part II. The Decider. The Big Cheese. Numero Uno Honcho.

Boss II is definitely doing a formidable impression of the elder Steinbrenner, complete with threats and bluster and hokey-sounding proclamations about what "the Yankees" should or should not do. Is Brian Cashman still involved in the Yanks' decision making? Heck, I need reassurance that Cashman's still alive. I halfway suspect that when Pete Abraham puts up audio from Cash's next presser at the winter meetings, the Yankees' GM is going to be mispronouncing words like someone in a hostage tape.