Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Defending Your Title With The Team That Won It

One thing that has really been fantastic about this off-season is that the Yankees are not resting on winning the 2009 World Series. Logic that I do not understand is "it was good enough last year, so it will be good enough next year". This is especially true when sensible options to improve your club present themselves at reasonable costs. One caveat is that after a championship there is definitely less pressure to make certain moves. And that is all well and good. That doesn't mean you just sit on your team unless that really is the absolute best option for the next season. Where you can improve, you should improve.

At the same time, there is something to be said to keeping a championship team together to the greatest extent possible. Another thing that is rightly reinforced in "The Yankee Years" is that baseball is a team sport. This should be obvious but we often forget or choose to compartmentalize the game into a series of events happening individually. Just not the case. The lineup is the most obvious place where the team element matters. Certain players protect others and impact their ability to succeed. The same goes for batting in a certain spot in the lineup. In the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen guys feed off of each other. There are also chemistry concerns. Baseball is a 162 game season and there is a lot that goes on during that time both on and off the field. You need players, coaches, and everyone involved with the team on board. Baseball is not simply a game of going to the plate four times by yourself, getting a bunch of balls hit to you by yourself, and pitching by yourself.

With that in mind, the Yankees have taken a winner and turned over 33% of the everyday lineup, 20% of the rotation, and assorted bullpen parts. The rotation aspect doesn't come in to play here because they needed a pitcher, got a really good one in Javier Vazquez, and there wasn't a contributor from 2009 jettisoned to make room for the Vazquez. The bullpen element doesn't come in at all because that is the most interchanging of the three parts of the game, and the Yankees in particular have had success in the bullpen by making it as fluid as they need to. Melky Cabrera, one of the regulars not returning, was used to get Vazquez which has been a move widely praised, so it is difficult to argue not doing that deal. You can't necessarily return every player from a championship club, especially when there is an opportunity to improve.

However, Nick Johnson directly replaced Hideki Matsui, at the same price for the same amount of years. At best, these two players are a wash talent wise. Nothing against Nick Johnson who I think is a very nice player, I personally prefer Matsui. Not only is he a better hitter in my opinion, but he's a better fit for our lineup (he bats 5 and the Yankees don't really have a 5 hitter, where as Johnson is a #2 or bottom of the order guy and the Yankees have both of those), but he does a tremendous job protecting Rodriguez, has a great swing for Yankee Stadium, and is a big game player with a penchant for the clutch. Even putting that aside, if they are pretty close to a wash talent wise, why not bring back the guy who has done it for you? Who was huge in 2009? Who has become a big part of the Yankees? I understand there are concerns. Matsui has bad knees and is getting older, and you want to let a player go before he starts to seriously decline rather than holding him while he does. But Nick Johnson, despite being younger, may be even more injury prone. And again the simple fact that Matsui was a big part of what the Yankees did last year should be enough to keep it consistent for another year.

Curtis Granderson is essentially replacing Johnny Damon and Brett Gardner is essentially replacing Melky Cabrera. The Granderson deal was a good one in my eyes, and if given the choice between Granderson and Damon moving forward I'd take Granderson. The Vazquez deal was a good one as well. Even with this said, the Yankees are still losing two big contributors to the championship team. Damon obviously had a huge year and a big playoffs, and while Melky isn't the offensive player Matsui or Damon are, was big in the clutch, brought a lot of energy, and just found ways to make plays. Going back to this being a team game, that stuff matters, and Melky's teammates were always complimenting him on his energy and ability to make stuff happen.

When you break it down, the only move the Yankees really could have gone the other way on in my opinion is Matsui over Johnson. You'd like to bring the team that won it back but sometimes it isn't what makes the most sense. Still, you'd like to bring the same team back. While you may be bettering yourselves production wise or on paper, you risk losing intangibles that are critical to winning. The Yankees clearly had something special last year. They were a great team but there was that little extra, both on and off the field, that they just seemed to have as a team. Right from Spring Training they seemed to have a lot of chemistry, and I'm a believer that translates onto the field (late inning comebacks, anybody?) Turning over as much of the lineup as they have, you wonder how difficult it will be to regain that? It helps that they seem to have brought in a lot of similarly strong character guys. It also helps that there is still a big core of key players returning. It would also help if Johnny Damon re-signed, which at this point I think the Yankees should just do. Hopefully it works out. Either way, it would have been nice to see them defend the title with almost all of the guys who won it for them last year. It was a special season, and when you make substantial changes - even when those changes are largely sound ones - you don't know how much that is going to impact creating that special atmosphere again the following season. You may not re-create it even if you keep it consistent, but at least you know it's a formula that can work. The Yankees won't know that in 2010 until the season is over.

16 comments:

Ross Kaplan said...

Pat I agree with most of what you're saying. Most of Cashman's offseason moves have been great, but his unwillingness to negotiate with Damon and Hairston and replacing Johnson with Matsui really befuddles me. At this point in time, this is a team that has arguably the best rotation in the league and what was a fantastic offense has only improved by replacing Melky in center with Granderson. But I just don't understand how a team with the payroll the Yankees have can justify starting Gardner. I love the guy off the bench or even platooning, but I just don't see him as a very good everyday player. Maybe Bronx can assuage my fears.

Patrick said...

ross -

johnson over matsui is confusing to me as well. not because i don't think johnson, with his on base skills and ability to work pitchers, is valuable - i very much do. it's just that i think matsui is better, even all considered, and is also a better fit for our lineup. but even with all that considered, i'd keep matsui just based on the fact that he was here last year and johnson wasn't assuming they were close to a wash production wise. keep it consistent as much as you can.

as far as granderson/gardner - damon/melky, it's basically a lateral move all considered on both sides of the baseball. maybe a slight edge one way or the other depending on how guys perform going forward. which is more than fine. but if there is a chance to upgrade in left field, they should really do that. not just because of concerns about gardner as an everyday player one way or the other. but because there is no depth in the OF right now, and gardner is so useful as a 4th OF off the bench. getting another bat to at least platoon in left not only guards against gardner not being able to play everyday, but also gives them more flexibility and depth even if he does.

i'm sure they are going to do something in left. it just makes too much sense with the prices some of these guys are at in this market.

Anonymous said...

PF

I still haven't heard one legitimate reason why the Yankees didn't sign Matt Holliday. They had a void in left and he would have filled it better than anyone on the market. It's very unlike the Yankees to have an obvious need and an obvious fit and not spend the money to make it happen. You live on the New York beat, what have you heard? There has to be something going on here more than the money. Is it a Boras thing? Was there something about Holliday they didn't like? Let me know what you think.

--the Gunn

the gm at work said...

Slow offseason. We're talking about how sad it is to replace an ancient left fielder with a good (but different) player who has a much better chance of making it through a full baseball season. You're making this sound like Bernie Williams, when it very clearly is not.

As far as the number 5 hitter/number 2 hitter thing goes, it's common baseball knowledge that a guy who has a good OBP and does nothing else makes for a great middle-of-the-order hitter. You guys get all caught up in evaluating players by stats like home runs and RBIs, but the Red Sox don't do things that way. JD Drew had the second-highest OPS of all AL outfielders.

Ross Kaplan said...

Forget Holliday, there's no good reason for the Yankees to not sign Damon to a short term deal. Granderson/Gardner ain't bad, but Granderson/Gardner/Damon is that much better.

PF said...

gunn -

i think the reasons are probably three-fold.

first, matt holliday signed for 7/$120. that's over 17 per. when you add up rodriguez for 27, cc and teixeira for 23, jeter for 20, burnett for 16, rivera for 15, posada for 13, and pettitte for 11 (all approximately), that's 148 million. add holliday to that, assuming he'd sign with the yankees for what he did with the cardinals, that's $165 million. the idea that the yankees' pockets are totally limitless, at least in terms of what they think makes good business sense, has been clearly disproved in recent years. after jumping payroll from $93 million in 2000 to $208 million in 2005, the yankees were at 195, 190, 209, and 201 million 2006-2009. this seems to be where they want to be, and are already at the high 190s for 2010. so if they were going to add to that, if they even can, it would only be for a special situation i think.

that leads us to point two. matt holliday is an excellent player. i don't think he's cc sabathia or mark teixeira. if he was, maybe the yankees make an exception. but i'm just not sure they thought he was good enough to go above and beyond for on a seven year commitment when a key concern for every team, no matter what you think financially, is roster flexibility. the yankees get 25 guys just like everybody else. if you're locking up too many spots for too many years, you get yourselves into tricky situations. just look at the yankees in the mid-2000s. they had to scratch and claw to make the playoffs in a lot of those years, mostly because they were dealing with so many aging players that they couldn't do anything with. right now the yankees are pretty well set up in that regard. but if you just keep adding and adding, before you know it you have rodriguez, teixeira, sabathia, maybe jeter, holliday, and whoever else they may also want to add in the next few years in their late 30s or early 40s for a ton of money all at the same time. then you have to expand payroll even further if you want to make up for potential underperformances by these guys relative to their money at that time (if they are underperforming, which is no guarantee but at least possible), and you also have less places to put these fresh players.

third, and also related, i think there are players in upcoming free agent classes the yankees prefer to matt holliday in terms of a fit for the way the yankees are currently constructed. a guy like carl crawford comes to mind. it's easier to find middle of the order guys than it is dynamic players like crawford. is it always a risk to pass on something in the present for something that may not even be available in the future? of course. but the yankees passed on santana with their eyes on sabathia, and that worked out in a huge way. have to take risks to play.

this is the stuff that is being said around here regarding passing on holliday (and bay).

Anonymous said...

PF

Appreciate the insight. I guess from a Sox fans perspective it's always surprising when the Yankees don't get THE guy on the free agent market. Not saying it wasn't the right move to not get Holliday, just saying it was surprising.

For the record, I don't think that either Bay or Holliday are franchise guys. They are secondary guys. Which are still very valuable. But again, this is why I think they are more valuable to the Yankees than to most teams. For instance, the Sox don't have a franchise bat. They just don't. So adding another secondary guy is helpful, but it doesn't really solidify anything.

Conversely, the Yankees have a classic franchise guy batting third and classic franchise guy batting fourth. You get a perfect secondary bat in the fifth spot and the line-up just looks perfect.

But, as you said, there are better free agent classes coming up. It should be interesting to see who is available in November (especially when a guy like Felix Hernandez gets locked up long term) and where they all go.

--the Gunn

the gm at work said...

Pat,

Do you think Crawford is the reason Damon isn't signing?

PF said...

gunn -

your point about the lineups really resonates. i really think you're right on point there. what the yankees really could is a second tier bat because they already have two franchise bats. in a vacuum holliday would be a good fit in that regard. not in a vacuum, i think hideki matsui is a good fit in that regard (he's not quite holliday, but he's not that far off either playing half his games in yankee stadium). which was a main point of this post.

also agree that the red sox need a premium bat. i know they are all over pitching and defense as their philosophy on how they are going to win. while that is all well and good, just getting one franchise bat makes that philosophy play up even further than whatever it already will.

if guys don't get extended, next winter could be wild in terms of talent available.

PF said...

gm -

please elaborate. i'm interested by that question.

the gm at work said...

You'd think that the team would probably be interested in retaining Damon, right? And the guy is clearly holding out because he wants a relatively-lucrative, multi-year deal. Even a two-year deal over which we had an argument about the word "reasonable" didn't work between the two parties because the Yankees didn't want it, NOT because Damon didn't want it. With Johnson now in place as a LF/DH type (how long is this deal for, btw?), perhaps the club doesn't want two LF/DH types with Crawford's free agency pending. Because you can't just bench John F. Damon or Nick Johnson. You can, however, just bench or trade Brett Gardner (sorry Bronx) upon acquiring a guy like Crawford.

What else can be stopping the team from signing Damon?

If the Red Sox were really targeting defense and pitching, why did they kick the tires on Holliday and/or Bay? I think the Red Sox were targeting the same thing that every other team was targeting, but suck at negotiations and "pitching and defense" is spin. Just like how "second-highest OPS" is spin that makes the arrogant general manager look less stupid for his unconscionable signing on 12/6/06.

the gm at work said...

In other words, with its lineup, NY can suck it up for a year with Brett Gardner in left field if they're going to make a huge push for Crawford.

PF said...

even if damon can get a multi-year deal (which i'm not sure he can) the yankees could still sign him (let's say for 2 years), because johnson is on a one year deal. so damon plays left for 2010, then shifts to DH in 2011 if the yankees get crawford. i don't think the yankees will go above one year, and i don't know that damon can get above one year in this market. one a one year deal, he is even more attractive. either way, i'm not sure damon and a potential future FA are linked because the current DH (johnson, who can't play left field really by the way) is on a one year deal, but it is possible. at this stage it will be really, really interesting to see what damon ends up with and where.

your points on the red sox are interesting. their offer to bay certainly seems to indicate otherwise as you said, although everything is a balance. once they became concerned about bay's knees, maybe their weren't any other options they really liked from an offensive standpoint (how serious were they about holliday?), so decided to focus on defense instead. this makes some sense. they also swapped ellsbury and cameron, which is incredibly smart and lends itself to their emphasis on defense. ellsbury has been bad, above average, and horrendous in his three years in center field. in left field in 2008, he posted the best defensive mark of his career and played it at an elite level. he's also been better in right than center, so he may just be suited more for the corners. cameron is obviously excellent in center. beltre is a great defender and scutaro is very good. and there has been a lot of buzz surrounding defense as the new obp, or becoming what obp used to be. that is an inefficient market that can be exploited. so the red sox may very well be moving in this direction.

from the bronx said...

Ross,

Gardner has always taken his time adjusting to new levels, but I think we can all agree he did a tremendous job after his slow first month and before his hand injury. In May/June, he was .330/.427/.510 with only 10k's in 117 plate appearances. that is really, really good, especially for a rookie playing CF at a +17 UZR/150 clip.

after he broke his hand, he wasn't the same player. it looked to me like he was back to flipping the bat through the zone, possibly because he had lost strength while on the disabled list.

hopefully, he will show up to camp healthy and fit and be back to driving the baseball, which we've seen him do for stretches of time in the past. my argument has always been that he had far more upside than anyone had ever given him credit for and i think he's shown already that when he puts it together his game translates extremely well. it is just a matter of him staying healthy and getting the at bats.

from the bronx said...

gm,
no need to apologize for preferring a guy like crawford over someone completely unproven like gardner. my only issue with a signing like that is i am starting to get more than a little bit sick of buying the best talent in the league while fleecing new york taxpayers during a recession. the yankees are not being good citizens right now, and i would prefer to see them try to win with the guys in their system for a change if they are going to insist on pricing me out of the Stadium and not paying taxes.

the gm at work said...

cameron is obviously excellent in center. beltre is a great defender and scutaro is very good. and there has been a lot of buzz surrounding defense as the new obp, or becoming what obp used to be. that is an inefficient market that can be exploited. so the red sox may very well be moving in this direction.

Pat, I'm glad you mentioned that. Please refer to my post "I'm Clint Eastwood In His Mid Twenties" from Monday, December 14, 2009. The whole "defense is the new OBP" thing was followed by the original Moneyball team themselves (Oakland) in the last several seasons. Their records in the last three years have been 75-87, 75-86, and 76-86.

The Red Sox are punting the season. Not even the self-congratulating, arrogant, smug Starbucks drinker in the corner office at Fenway Park can deny that.