THE REBELS FORAY INTO THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN
The New York Yankees won’t admit it of course. But the Red Sox victorious bid of $51.1 million for the negotiating rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka dealt the Yankees a mortal blow. Not only had the Yankees targeted the Seibu Lions’ pitcher as the cornerstone of their annual off-season remodeling; they actually began planning for the acquisition over a year ago. The Yankees anticipated the strapped Lions would ransom Japanball’s crown-jewel before he absconded in 2008 via free-agency and charged Assistant GM Jean Afterman with arranging the preliminaries. Evidently, during the last 12 months, Afterman has done little else. The Yankees, reportedly, dispatched her to Japan last year to appear at Matsuzaka’s starts, to oversee his scouting, to apprehend their baseball league’s esoteric posting system, and to reinforce the Yankees’ overall operation in the Pacific Rim. (The latter’s overhaul actually began in August with the firing of vice president of international scouting Lin Garrett and Pacific Rim scout John Cox.)
The Yankees’ inflated bid of $26 million for the consolation prize, Kei Igawa, a pitcher scouts estimate to be no better than a 4th starter in the U.S., only attests to how much losing Matsuzaka must have rankled them. The Igawa sum bears Steinbrenner’s reactionary trademark. Behind it, imagine King George decreeing an Edict of Tamp-a: “I don’t care how much it costs. I don’t care if he’s lamer than the Fat Toad. DO NOT LOSE AGAIN.”
The largesse meted out for Matusaka and Igawa underlines an added irony. While needy Japanese franchises liquidate two of their greatest national treasures to ravenous Americans, only 15 years ago the roles were inverted and it was the profligate Japanese who were buying up a debt-ridden America’s treasured assets and resources. In 1992, a Japanese company even tried to buy the Seattle Mariners, awakening that old American bugaboo, the Yellow Peril. Opposition only dissipated after Nintendo agreed to confine their stake to a minority interest.
RE-ARMING THE EMPIRE
Still, few could fault the Yankees, or Afterman herself, for that matter, for the unavoidable hazards and extravagant sums a blind auction invites or for failing to anticipate the Red Sox’s unprecedentedly exorbitant bid. The question is can and will the Yankees respond. Notwithstanding league-leading run production from their lineup the last three season, a feckless starting rotation has plagued the Yankees and by in large, has accounted for their failure to reach the World Series. And following their disappointing post-season defeats, each off-season they've attempted to acquire pitchers to redress the deficiency. Alas, not a one has proved equal to the task. To illustrate, from the starting pitchers the Yankees have obtained since 2002-- Jose Contreras, Jeff Weaver, Kevin Brown, Javier Vasquez, Esteban Loiza, Carl Pavano, Jared Wright, and Randy Johnson— the team has gotten a single win. (Vasquez in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, in which surrendered 4 runs in 4.1 innings) In fact, since Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Yankee starters, in the post-season, are 2-7 with a 5.73 ERA and 0-3 with a 10.38 ERA when facing elimination.
With this off-season's weak crop of free-agent pitchers, the burden of securing this chronic Achilles Heel would have presented the Yankees front-office with a daunting challenge regardless. But factor in two consecutive first round defeats; a beleaguered, nearly fired manager in his contract’s final year; an aged, erratic rotation composed of a 43-year-old undergoing major back surgery, a 38 year-old who is 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA in his last three post-seasons starts, a cipher who in April ’07 will not have pitched a regular season inning in 22 months, a 40 million-dollar foreign import whose performance no one can gauge definitively, and a 26-yr-old with a reconstructed rotator cuff who pitched 230 innings last year--- factor in these imponderable and the Yankees’ principal shortcoming looks less like a minor, exposed weakness at the outer reaches of an Empire’s extremities than a conspicuous pregnability in the soft, bare underbelly. And now, add to this weakness losing Matsuzaka besides-- their best hope for dramatically improving their rotation-- to their fiercest rival no less and the Yankees’ vulnerability suddenly appears less ominous than dire. Compare the current opening-day starters the Yankees project for the 2007 season: (1) Wang; (2) Mussina; (3) Johnson, assuming he can recover by then, but Karstens or Rasner perhaps; (4) Pavano; and (5) Igawa with the Red Sox likely arsenal of: (1) Schilling; (2) Matsuzaka; (3) Papelbon; (4) Beckett; and (5) Wakefield/Lester/Clement. (The Yankees’ rotation actually suffers by comparison to the Blue Jays’ 1-2-3 of Halliday, Burnett, and Chacin, let alone to the Red Sox’s.)
Of course, as the infamous fall of “Murderers’ Row Plus Cano” instructs, the games aren’t played on paper. Matsuzaka could turn out to be the Red Sox’s version of Jose Contreras or Hideki Irabu; while Igawa could exceed expectations , transcending with gumption and craftiness what he lacks in stuff. What's more, Jonathan Papelbon’s dominance as a closer may not translate into consistency as a starter. Or Curt Schilling may show the wear of age. Or Josh Beckett may confirm that he in the AL East he is no better than the pitcher with the 5.01 ERA he posted in 2006. But don’t count on it. Even if Matsuzaka doesn’t achieve the dominance the Red Sox last $75+ million dollar pitching investment, Pedro Martinez, parlayed into the Red Sox’s first World championship in 86 years; even if Matsuzaka’s performance more closely resembles that of a 3rd starter than an ace; even if they trade Manny Ramirez and they anoint the unproven Craig Hansen their closer-- even then, the team that won more games than the Yankees through August last year and still totalled 86 wins, despite a freakish rash of injuries that decimated their pitching staff and their lineup. (Neither Lester, Papelbon, Wakefield, or Clement pitched past September 1st; while Ramirez, Ortiz, Varitek, Crisp, and Nixon all spent significant amounts of time on the bench or on the DL) If Papelbon and Matsuzaka only provide them 8 to 12 more wins than last season's counterparts, Kyle Snyder and Julian Taverez, they alone will, catapul the Red Sox into contenders for the AL East crown. (Whether the Red Sox can find someone to parallel Papelbon's dominance as a closer will determine how many of those 8 to 12 potential wins Boston's bullpen, in turn, surrenders.)
What seems so strange, so uncharacteristic, so alarming, is less that the Yankees have not retaliated by signing a major free-agent pitcher (or acquired one via trade) than that they, thus far, seem content not to. With the Red Sox dramatically improving their pitching rotation and the Yankees at least a year away from their pitching prospects fully ripening and handling a full season’s workload, ‘07 doesn’t seem like the ideal year for the front-office to adopt a fiscal restraint plan. Perhaps one should take Cashman’s current profession of satisfaction with his pitching rotation no more seriously than his insistence last year that Bubba Crosby was the Yankees future center-fielder. Perhaps Cashman harbors some grand master plan to land a premiere starter that only awaits the right moment to emerge. Still, the reports that the very free-agent pitcher the Yankees covet most has expressed more interest in the warmth of the Texas hearth to the heat of the Bronx klieg lights is worrisome. And however much Andy Pettitte stirs nostalgia for a glorious Yankee past he nonetheless turns 35 in June. At best, Pettitte is not the same pitcher the Yankees foolishly allowed to sign with Houston three years ago; at worse, his better days are behind him.
The Yankees also can pretend Scott Proctor will evolve into an effective starter after he pitched 100+ innings in relief and has undergone two MRI’s this off-season, after complaining of elbow pain. They further can pretend that they can plug Karstens or Rasner into the starting rotation in April and elevate Philip Hughes and/or Humberto Sanchez mid-season or that beneath Kei Igawa’s average stuff lies the guile and mettle of an ace. And it’s true anyone of the foregoing could acquit themselves of Jared Wright’s role as a fifth starter, if not markedly exceed his showing. But all the optimistic boosterism can’t conceal that the Yankees starter were sixth last year in the AL in ERA and their bullpen, eighth. Nor more dramatically, can it conceal gaping void at the rotation’s front-end.
Mike Mussina is no longer a 2nd starter nor is Randy Johnson, even healthy, and where Carl Pavano figures, even if he manages to pitch 150+ innings, is anyone’s guess. Although if you extrapolate from Pavano’s 100 innings in 2005, his statistics uncannily resemble the performance in the AL East of another starter from the 2003 Florida Marlins’ championship rotation. In 2005 Pavano pitched 100 innings for the Yankees, went 4-6, with a 4.77 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, surrendering 17HRs. While in 2006 Josh Beckett pitched 204 innings for the Red Sox, went 16-11, with a 5.01 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, yielding 36 HRs. When doubled, the latter almost equals the former. In other words, a Pavano who actually completes a full season is still no better than a 3rd starter and perhaps better suited as a 4th starter. Another cautionary note: while the Yankees expect Chien-Ming Wang to duplicate his success last year and to seal his coronation as the Yankees’ ace, further circumspection is warranted. Chien Ming Wang, remember, underwent rotator-cuff surgery in 2001; spent two months on the DL in ‘05 with related shoulder soreness; and threw 230 innings last year, 115 innings more than the year previous. A total that should unnerve the Yankees.
As Tom Verducci recently observed on SI.com, in his article “Follies of Youth,” young pitchers who exceed the innings they pitched the previous season by 30 or more usually suffer injury and/or underachieve the following season.
"When I've looked at major league pitchers 25-and-younger who were pushed 30 or more innings beyond their previous season (or, in cases such as injury-shortened years, their previous pro high), I've been amazed how often those pitchers broke down with a serious injury the next season or took a major step backward in their development…For example, let's look at the Year-After Effect for the Class of 2005, the young pitchers who were pushed beyond the 30-inning threshold that season: Matt Cain (+33.1 innings at age 20), Francisco Liriano (+34.2 at 21), Gustavo Chacin (+35.2 at 24), Zach Duke (+44.1 at 22), Scott Kazmir (+51.2 at 21) and Paul Maholm (+98.1 at 23). Liriano (elbow), Chacin (elbow) and Kazmir (shoulder) all suffered significant injuries. Cain (+1.82), Duke (+2.66) and Maholm (+2.58) all saw dramatic rises in their ERAs… Even breakout young stars took a step back because of the YAE, such as Kevin Millwood (+78.1 in 1999), Dontrelle Willis (+52 in 2003), Horatio Ramirez (+34 in 2003) and Mark Prior (+67 in 2003)… The bottom line: a dramatic increase in innings on a young pitcher elevates the risk of injury or a setback to their development.”
All this means that the Yankees, under the best case scenario, are set to enter next season with a ‘1’ starter, two ‘3’ starters, and a 4th. The yawning void still remains the second spot; where the Yankees need a pitcher who can approximate the AL Champions' second starter, Kenny Rogers’, numbers last year. (Finding someone of Liriano’s caliber would be too much to expect.) In 2006, Rogers pitched 204 innings, went 17-8, with a 3.84 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP. (Or if you regard Rogers as the Tigers’ ace and Verlander their 2nd starter, then the Yankees need a 2nd starter who can throw 186 innings, go 17-9, with a 3.63 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP.
USE THE FORCE, CASH-MAN
The problem is that the most readily obtainable pitcher fitting this profile is the very one the Yankees don’t want or more accurately, don’t wish to pay-- Barry Zito. Over the last two years Zito has averaged 225 innings, a 3.84 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 15 Wins on A’s teams that scored 4.76 runs per game, 6th in the AL, and 9th in the AL in ’05 and ’06 respectively. (The Yankees, by comparison scored 5.47 runs per game in ’05 and 5.74 rpg in ’06.) From Zito’s numbers the last two years, one can extrapolate ’07 season totals almost identical to those Rogers posted in 2006. (Extrapolating from Zito’s career statistics would project an even better season in ‘07.)
To be sure, the financial hardship other teams have courted by signing 30-year-old pitchers to long-term contracts-- Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton come immediately to mind-- would suggest the Yankees should shun one who demands seven years, even if he only turns 29 this May. But a five year contract for a healthy reliable pitcher who consistently throws 200 innings each year is another matter entirely. Is Zito worth paying between $15 million and $18 million a year for five years? Maybe not in the abstact, no. But the market isn't calibrated in the abstract. And in a buying frenzy where Randy Wolf and Adam Eaton command $8 million annually; Gil Meche and Ted Lilly $10-11 million; and 34-yr-old Jason Schmidt, almost $16 mil. So before dismissing a five year, $18 million per offer to Zito, consider how much the Yankees paid Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina in both ‘05 and ‘06: $16 and $17 million, respectively, both years. (This year the Yankees’ Doddering Duo will earn $16 and $11.5 million, respectively.) However, after ’07 the Yankees have Johnson’s $16 million to reallocate and after ’08, Mussina’s 11.5 million and Pavano’s 10 million as well. Under such circumstances, a 5-year, 90 million dollar contract for Zito that is back-loaded to reflect the payroll flexibility the Yankees gain after ’08 strikes one neither as wasteful nor myopic. In fact, it would mean that as of the ’09 season, the Yankees would owe a financial committment to ONLY one 10 million-plus pitcher. (Wang won’t be a free agent before 2010 nor will any of the prospects the organization promotes in the interim. )
YES play-by-play man, Michael Kaye, an otherwise astute baseball commentator, albeit one prone to strident and dogmatic prejudices, has pronounced Zito unworthy of the 2nd starter mantle and $17 million-dollar-a-year salary. Kaye adduces (i) Zito’s ineptitude in Game 1 of the ’06 ALCS (conveniently diminishing the comparative weight of the gem Zito pitched in Game 1 of the ALDS against Johann Santana); and (ii) his historically mediocre outings against the Yankees, during both the regular and post-seasons. But Zito’s career post-season totals actually belie Kaye's judgment.
• In the postseason Zito is 4-3 over 44.3 innings, with a 3.25 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. (Before faltering in last years’ ALCS, Zito’s post-season statistics were even better: 4-2 over 40.67 innings, with a 2.43 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP.)
Compare Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson’s career post-season statistics.
• Mussina: 7-8 over 135 innings, with a 3.40 ERA and 1.08 WHIP
• Johnson: 7-9 over 121 innings, with a 3.50 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP
Zito’s career post-season numbers, then, rival either’s. It’s more informative however to weigh Zito’s recent post-season performance against the Doddering Duo’s recent post-season numbers. And here, it is not even close.
• As a Yankee, Randy Johnson, post-season stats are 0-1 over 13 innings with a 6.92 ERA and a 1.77 WHIP
• During the same period, Mussina is 1-2 over 15.3 innings with a 5.29 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP
• As a Yankee, Mussina, in the post-season is 5-6 over 92.3 innings with a 3.80 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.)
Like Johnson’s, in other words, Mussina’s post-season numbers have regressed as he’s aged. Which is a further reason why Zito’s relative youth is so appealing; 200 innings doesn't exhaust a 30-year-old nearly as much as a 40-year-old, come October.
‘TWO’ ARMS, ‘TWO ARMS’: THE RED SOX ARE COMING
George King, The New York Post’s Yankee beat reporter, can fantasize to his heart’s content about a deal for Dontrelle Willis—a fantasy wherein Humberto Sanchez and Melky Cabrera represent the Yankees greatest sacrifices. (See “Yan-Kei,” November 29, 2006.) It’s a bracing fantasy, but alas, not one likely to be realized this side of consciousness. The Marlins have affirmed, repeatedly, they do not intend to trade Willis. What’s more, five or six teams, beginning with the Dodgers, Angels, and Tigers, have more and better prospects to offer. Either of the Yankee pitchers the Marlins would exact, on the other hand, Hughes or Wang, are the very two players the Yankees cannot afford to relinquish under any circumstances.
A more prudent and feasible option is Mark Buehrle. Of course, one has to wonder how earnest White Sox GM Kenny Williams was earlier this off-season when he announced his readiness to trade one or more of his starting pitchers to open a slot for Brandon McCarthy, especially after he traded Freddy Garcia. His sincerity may very well have been conditioned upon the Yankees receptivity to trading A-Rod; and fortunately, the Yankees aren’t. Still, Buehrle earns $9.5 million in ’07 and is entering the final year of his contract. And the White Sox may not have the resources or the desire to re-sign Buehrle if he expects a contract equivalent to the one Zito will sign shortly.
Why should Yankees pursue Buehrle? Well, first of all he is 27-year-old lefty, who like Zito has pitched over 200 innings each of the last six seasons. And secondly, Buehrle boasts career statistics every bit the rival of Zito’s. In fact, the two pitchers’ numbers, uncannily, mirror each other.
• Zito: 102-43 W-L, over 1,430.3 innings, with a 3.55 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Opposing hitters facing him have a .235BA and .311OBA. Zito averages 6.90 Ks per game.
• Buerhrle: 97-66 W-L; over 1,428 innings, a 3.83 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.
Opposing hitters facing him have a .268BA and .312. Buehrle average 5.22 Ks per game.It is true Buehrle had a lousy season last year. He was 12-13 with a 4.99 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. However through June of ’06 he was 9-4 with a 3.22ERA. His July numbers were indeed truly abysmal: for the month, Buehrle went 0-5 with an 11.45 ERA. And if you ignore July for a moment as an anomaly, his statistics for the year are 12-8 W-L with a 4.00 ERA, not awe-inspiring, of course, but much closer to his career averages. In fact, other than 2003 when Buehrle had another unrepresentative, if hardly awful, season, going 14-14 with a 4.13 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, Buehrle’s other seasons have to win over even the most skeptical critic.
• 2001: 16-8 with a 3.29 ERA, 1.07 WHIP
• 2002: 19-12 with a 3.58 ERA. 1.24 WHIP
• 2003: another anomalous year, 14-14, a 4.14 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
• 2004: 16-10 with a 3.89 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
• 2005: the championship year, 16-9, a 3.13ERA, 1.18 WHIP
And while Buehrle only has pitched about half the post-season innings Zito has, Buehrle‘s statistics also impress. In October, Buehrle is 2-0 over 23.66 innings, with a 3.42 ERA and 0.97 WHIP.
Apart from the obvious problem of convincing the White Sox to part with Buehrle is the added one that Yankees would have to sacrifice valuable players in return. (For this reason alone, signing Zito via free-agency ranks the superior option.) Buehrle shouldn’t command the king’s ransom Dontrelle Willis would. Unlike Willis, Buehrle pitched poorly last year, and in ’07, enters his contract’s final year. On the other hand, this complicates a trade for the White Sox pitcher as well. Do the Yankees want to surrender premiere players for a pitcher who could defect at year’s end via free-agency? And if not, would Buehrle agree to a long-term extension? And if so, how much cheaper would he prove than Zito? Can the Yankees sign him for markedly less in the wake of a sub-par season? (It might behoove the Yankees accordingly, to pursue Buehrle now, before Zito signs, allowing the Yankees to set the market, rather than Zito to do so.) Would the White Sox even allow the Yankees to negotiate with Buehrle before the teams finalized a trade? And what would the White Sox want in return anyway?
Well, the areas the White Sox, evidently, wish to reconfigure are the bullpen, center-field and 3rd base. Ken Williams, evidently, is eager to promote, 3B prospect, Josh Fields and as a consequence, has flirted this off-season with trading Joe Crede. Yet The White Sox don’t have the luxury of remaking the other two areas with players from inside the organization, and the White Sox center-field position and middle-relief beg improvement. Brian Anderson hardly filled Aaron Rowand’s shoes in center field last year. What’s more, the White Sox’s bullpen could use a few capable arms to complement closer, Bobby Jenks. In fact, Neil Cotts’ recent departure only exacerbates an already suspect middle-relief corp.
Accordingly, were I Cashman I would offer, with some regret, but offer I would, Scott Proctor, and one of the following three prospects: Eric Duncan, J.B Cox, or Kevin Whelan. With the stipulation, of course, that the White Sox permit the Yankees to negotiate a long-term contract extension with Buehrle; and Buehrle, in turn, accepts. Would the offer suffice? Probably not, but it might offer enough to pique the White Sox’s interest and to foster further discussions.
With the addition of one pitcher, the Yankees’ rotation would rise from mediocre to formidable, if not exactly exceptional, overnight. A second-starter of Zito or Buehrle’s caliber would displace Mussina and Johnson to the third and fourth slots respectively, where their numbers equal, if not surpass, their divisional counterparts. Mussina, at 38, may have difficulty matching the likes of Daisuke Matusaka, AJ Burnett, Justin Verlander, or John Lackey. There’s no reason he wouldn’t outperform Josh Beckett, Gustavo Chacin, Nate Robertson or John Gardner however. The same principle applies to the Big Unit. The Yankees would reap a number of ancillary benefits as well.
First and foremost, it ensures them against catastrophe should Randy Johnson or Carl Pavano not recover from injury to pitch an entire season. (Although, in Johnson’s case, he might benefit from beginning his season in May or June, as Roger Clemens did last year.) With this loss of either Johnson or Pavano, the fifth slot would open for Igawa, Karstens, Rasner, or Hughes. And in so doing, it would alleviate the pressure and strain these rookies otherwise would face if the Yankees had to depend upon them through an entire season. Witness what happened last year when injuries constrained the Red Sox to thrust rookies John Lester and Craig Hansen prematurely into integral roles during a playoff race.
Secondly, it allows the Yankees to keep Scott Proctor in the bullpen to anchor the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. That the Yankees would consider weakening an already suspect bullpen with such a move may indicate that Cashman is more attuned to the deficiencies in his starting rotation than his public statements grant. (Last season, the Yankees ranked sixth in the AL in starters' ERA and eighth in the AL in bullpen ERA)
Though Farnsworth showed flourishes of greatness last season, he hardly inspired confidence as a set-up man-- not with a back prone to incapacitate him suddenly and a fastball whose speed and potency plummets when he appears on consecutive days. And Mariano Rivera’s idle September, healing from elbow tendonitis, only dramatized how desperately the Yankees need a set-up man with the constitution and stuff to close an occasional 9th inning. Such a set-up man would enable the Yankees to confine Rivera to less than 70 innings per season, to eliminate his three-plus-out saves, to prolong his career and to groom his potential successor. Whether Bruney can play this role is an open question. However, one thing is certain. Bruney only strengthens the bullpen and represents an improvement over last year’s staff if Proctor remains a reliever. Because with an aging pitching staff unlikely to give the Yankees more than the 6.0 innings per start Mussina, Johnson, Wang, and Wright averaged in 2006, either Bruney or Farnsworth will have to fulfill Proctor’s role as the 7th inning specialist, squandering the added depth Bruney otherwise would confer. This also means that if the Yankees sincerely intend for Proctor to revert to the starting role the organization once envisioned for him, Cashman will have to reinforce the Yankees middle relief from within or through trade from without.