Thursday, December 4, 2008

CASH AND BURN; RINSE AND REPEAT

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the hallmark of a “first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Well then, by Fitzgerald’s measure, Brian Cashman belongs among the great geniuses of modern baseball. Witness the contradictions.

In 2007’s off-season, deprecating costly, long-term contracts for pitchers, Cashman spurns a deal for Johan Santana, champions young, farm-grown starters, and entrusts 40% of his rotation to two rookies. In 2008’s, the GM offers CC Sabathia a 6-year contract commensurate to Santana’s, pursues two more 30-plus free-agent starters demanding 4-year deal besides, and announces that his two rookie prodigies, Hughes and Kennedy, now have to prove themselves in AAA.

Just this September, the GM can conclude an anemic lineup, down 180 runs scored from one year ago, bedevils the Yankees. By November, the GM can jettison two of his most productive hitters, Abreu and Giambi, and forswear Mark Teixeira, the one free-agent most equipped to compensate.

One April Cashman can risk his rotation to youth, inexperience, and innings caps because the offense is supposed to compensate. The next April, Cashman can risk his lineup to age, skill regression, and two 35-year old veterans rebounding from major injuries (Posada and Matsui) because the formidable high-priced, re-engineered rotation he envisions supposedly will ensure success.

One minute the Yankees GM is lavishing $6 million more dollars and committing two more years to Damaso Marte, a middle-reliever, a notoriously unreliable commodity. The next minute the Yankees GM won’t offer arbitration to one of his most consistent, durable, and productive hitters in Bobby Abreu because he fears having to pay him over one year $6 million more dollars than he’s worth. Yet the contradictions continue. For he’s, at once, binding the organization to rebuilding its farm system all the while, in forsaking compensatory draft picks, squandering his most fertile opportunity for doing so.

Is there a method to Cashman’s madness, a key to the apparent contradiction, a long-range plan? Not one, evidently, to which he’s either willing or seemingly able to adhere. To the contrary, the impression the Yankees Front-Office creates is of frantic, ad hoc, remedial reaction. Each off-season the Front-Office adopts a new recipe but without first learning the lesson the prior year’s failure exposed. A recipe best described as follows: Trial. Error. Abandonment…. Reaction. Overcompensation. Failure…. Rinse and Repeat.

2008 FOLLIES REVISITED: YOUNG PITCHING
Of course, consistency in the face of error constitutes its own kind of madness. And to Cashman’s credit, he’s currently trying to rectify the critical error in judgment he made last year by forgoing Santana and exposing 40% of his rotation to the inconsistency, innings caps, and injury-risks of rookie starters—an error that derailed the Yankees 2008 season.

Last year, to recall, Cashman calculated that the team’s prolific lineup would hedge against a rotation anchored by two rookies under 23. A hypothesis more sound in theory than practice. The Twins, after all, followed this very formula. In ’08, they finished 3rd in the AL in Runs Scored and their rotation of Blackburn, Slowey, and Perkins, all in their first full season, accounted for over 50% of the team’s starts. And the team found itself in September playing a one game playoff for the division title.

However, Minnesota isn’t New York. The Twins pitchers benefited from low expectations. In contrast, the clamor in the Bronx to demote Hughes started in April, even before he disclosed the rib injury. And the Scranton bus arrived for Kennedy soon thereafter. Not without cause, however. By May 1st, in the 12 games Hughes and Kennedy had started, they’d combined for a 9.16 ERA in 46 innings, and the Yankees went 2-10. The Yankees were 12-5 otherwise in April, and 14-15 in total. And from this middling performance, over the easy part of their schedule, the team never recovered.

THE OFF-SEASON: THE ERROR OF OVERCOMPENSATION
Last year’s error, however, has instigated this off-season’s ill-considered knee-jerk reflex. Overcompensating for one deficiency now risks incurring its inverse. A rotation constituted of youth, inexperience, and fragility in 2008 will have wrought in 2009 a lineup composed of diminished power, infirm veterans, and fading stars.

The plan for 2009, reportedly, contemplates as follows. Cashman hopes to leverage $80 million dollars in expiring contracts by signing two among Sabathia, Burnett, and Lowe, and re-signing Pettitte at a lower salary. If successful, his rotation would consist of Wang, Pettitte, two free agents, and Joba, the 5th starter, confined to approximately 130 innings. As such, Scranton would provide in Hughes, Aceves, and Kennedy a ready stable of arms to bolster the Bronx rotation when fatigue, injuries, or innings limits exact their toll, as they invariably will, and require reinforcements.

All well and good, except for the caveat. Signing two of Sabathia, Burnett, and Lowe, according to Cashman, would preclude a third for Teixeira. And with the departure of Abreu now all but certain, the Yankees need Teixeira as badly as they do Sabathia.

For as Cashman himself conceded just two months ago, the lineup’s regression in Runs Scored, On-Base Percentage, and RISP average in 2008 accounted as much for the Yankees’ finishing in 3rd place as did their injury-decimated rotation. But thus far rather than remedying the problem, Cashman has seen fit to exacerbate it.

He’s disposed of two of his most productive and patient hitters. Giambi and Abreu ranked 2nd and 3rd in OPS+ at 128 and 120, respectively, and led the team in pitches per plate appearance at 4.3. Meanwhile, the acquisition of Nick Swisher mitigates their loss but hardly compensates for it. For all Swisher’s youth, proficiency in drawing walks and pitches per plate, his career OPS+ is only 112. And in the 3 of his 5 major league season, his OPS+ didn’t exceed 101; that is, the league average.

THE MIRROR IMAGE FALLACY: 2009’s INADEQUATE LINEUP

For some reason, Cashman imagines that without Abreu, Giambi, or hitter of Teixeira’s caliber, his lineup nonetheless will be sufficiently formidable to contend in the AL East. His projection ostensibly depends on (i) Matsui and Posada fully recuperating and recapturing their 2007 seasons; (ii) Cano, A-Rod, and Swisher, all rebounding from sub-par 2008s; (iii) Damon and Nady reproducing their prolific 2008 stats and not reverting to their mediocre 2007 numbers; and finally, (iv) his revamped pitching rotation affecting a dramatic improvement over its last two incarnations in performance and stability.

The irony is that the GM’s plan for 2009 rests on assumptions no less tenuous or speculative than his plan for 2008. Actually, the associated risks of depending on Hughes and Kennedy’s in 2008 mirror the associated risks of relying on Posada and Matsui in 2009. The one is the converse of the other. The youth, inexperience, and fragility of Hughes and Kennedy made their performances as impossible to predict as age, injury, and skill regression now cloud the futures of Posada’s and Matsui’s.

Posada, after all, will be a 38-year-old catcher in August, a position notorious for the precipitous fall in productivity its players undergo as they age. (Mike Piazza, recall, didn’t last beyond the age of 38.) More problematic still, Posada is recuperating from a torn labrum, about as dire an injury to catchers’ and pitchers’ career as exists in the age of modern medicine. To compound the unknown, this is the second time in Posada’s career has had surgery for the injury. How can the Yankees expect Posada, at 38, and recovering from injury no less, to equal his career averages, let alone reprise the unprecedentedly productive season he had in 2007?

Expecting Matsui to reproduce his 123 OPS+ suffers from the same willfully blind optimism. Matsui is no youngster either. He turns 35 in March, and among the Yankees’ cohort of over-33 players, Matsui has aged least gracefully. Perhaps, his consecutive game streak in Japan has worn him down. Whatever the reason, the chronically arthritic knees he suffers from has robbed him of mobility, precipitated two separate operations on them last year, and subjects him to an ongoing risk of swelling. (His two operations last year only addressed its effect; the arthritis itself is incurable.) Matsui was a notorious streaky hitter to begin with. It’s doubtful he can go an entire season without the pain or swelling impairing his swing.

Now, Cashman, it’s true, can project greater productivity from A-Rod and Cano in 2009. But that’s only half the picture. The other half assumes what they add, Damon, Nady and perhaps, even Jeter won’t subtract by contributing less than last year. Damon’s OPS+ was 118 last year. His career average is 103; and in 2007, it was 97. The Yankees should expect a regression accordingly. Same applies to Nady, whose OPS + was 128 last year (105 with the Yankees), 107 in 2007, and 108 for his career.

As for Jeter, his OPS+ in 2008 dropped 18 points below his career average, 120 (career), 102 (2008). But then again, how much offensive improvement can the Yankees expect from a 35 year old short-stop?

Then too, as their roster is currently constituted, the Yankees don’t have a genuine three hitter. The three-hole is a critical position in any lineup, but especially in the Yankees’ because the player precedes A-Rod, a guess hitter, who depends on disciplined hitters like Abreu and Teixeira in front of him to work counts and to expose a pitcher’s full repertoire.

TREADING WATER IN THE AL EAST

Of course, Cashman’s new model stresses pitching and defense. Never mind that the above lineup only upgrades his outfield’s defense and Posada’s return may diminish it behind the plate. Never mind because signing two premiere starters, Cashman contends, supposedly will buy in runs allowed what he sacrifices in runs scored.

Once again, though, the Yankee GM’s model excludes too many unseemly details that qualify it. First it scants the competition. In past off-seasons, merely keeping pace with the Red Sox was enough because the Yankees still could make the playoffs finishing behind them. The emergence of the Rays, however, means that the Yankees, by keeping pace, fall behind. It isn’t merely six wins—the six wins separating Boston and the Bronx last year-- the Yankees have to gain. It is six wins over and above their constantly improving competition.

The addition of David Price to the Rays rotation, even under innings caps, and a left-handed bat either to DH—possibly, Jason Giambi-- or to play right-field will only further strengthen a team that was 8-wins better than the Yankees last year. And the Red Sox will do likewise by signing Mark Teixeira and trading Lowell, as they hope, and/or by fortifying their bullpen, with Ramon Ramirez’s acquisition and/or that of another free-agent reliever.

Unfortunately, the current Yankees’ lineup for 2009, listed below, examined through the prism of age and injury, pales before any the team has fielded in recent memory. Compare it, by contrast, to their two AL East rivals’ projected lineups.

To excel the Rays and Sox, the Yankees need to improve in every facet then, not just their starting pitching. In fact improving the pitching while neglecting the offense—a lineup that now has to contend with either Gardner or Melky in CF-- offers a prescription less for surpassing the Rays and Red Sox than for emulating the Blue Jays or for worse, disaster.

Recall: the Blue Jays finished 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the entire AL the last two seasons in Runs Allowed, 610 in 2008, 699 in 2007. However, they won 83 games in ’07 and 86 games in ’08, largely because of a deficient lineup. They scored 753 in ’07 (10th in the AL) and 714 in ’08 (11th in the AL). Below, I list the Yankees totals, for comparison, and their league rank.


The table illustrates, first of all, that the Yankees sustained the greatest change either team experienced over the last two seasons in both aggregate numbers and rank, and their lineup accounted for it, not their pitching staff.

Secondly, the Jays’ failure to improve by more than 3 wins from ’07 to ’08 despite yielding 90 less runs illustrates the peril of neglecting your offense. The Jays’ static lineup, ranking about the same over the two seasons, vitiated whatever comparative advantage in the AL East their pitching gained them.

Do the Yankees really want to emulate the Jays in this regard? That’s the risk they run by letting their lineup founder, however dramatically they augment their pitching staff.

Then, too, would signing Sabathia and Burnett automatically improve the rotation as much as we’d like to believe? Don't forget, replacing Mussina's season last year won't be easy. Wang can only hope to duplicate Mussina’s 2008. Innings caps, moreover, will again confine Joba to about 130 innings. And, finally, consider, too, which incarnation of Andy Pettite, if he returns, would the Yankees receive in 2009, the 2007 or the 2008 version. All of which reinforces why the Yankees need to improve their offense, along with their pitching. Bolstering the latter alone is fraught with too much risk, and in and of itself is unlikely to gain them another 6-7 wins.

Cashman's recent intimation that they can't afford to do both-- in the year they open a Stadium recent figures estimate will garner them, at minimun, an additional $200 million in revenue-- is risible. Actually, with $80 million dollars in contracts expiring, were the team to sign Sabathia ($25 million) and Teixeira ($21 million) and re-sign Pettitte at ($10-12) the total still wouldn't consume the windfall. What's more, after 2009, Damon’s, Matsui’s, and Nady’s contracts, totaling another $35 million, expire as well.

Finally, if the Yankees are committed to re-allocating some portion of that $80 million anyway, isn’t a $21 million a year investment in a 28-year-old first baseman a sounder investment than $15 or $16 million for a fragile 32-year old Burnett or an aging 36-year-old Lowe?

All of which begs the question: in Brian Cashman, do the Yankees have a first-rate intelligence and a second-rate General Manager.

5 comments:

Scott said...

hey,
Just happened across your blog. I can't say I completely disagree with your opinion, but your math is way off in your OPS+ analysis chart. I'm not even sure if you can actually total a teams collective OPS+ numbers but if so, you'll see the yanks actually rank second behind the sox there with 999 OPS+ as a team. Factor in your rediculous assumption that gardner's small sample size should ACTUALLY account for his career number and I think you find the yanks even or greater than the sox.

Mark Serio said...

Nice work. We're at a point where Cash's flaws are obvious. The scary part is that Hal hasn't figured him out yet.

Louis said...

Yeah, Scott's correct, it appears as if you missed Cano in the total somehow. I am not thrilled with the Yanks line-up going into next year, but dropping hteir OPS+ by more than 10% isn't a fair way to make a comparison. (your totals for the Sox and Rays were spot on)

Matthew S Schweber said...

Hey guys, thanks for reading; Mark to you, in particular, for the post on your blog. (I wondered why someone other than my mother had commented.)

Scott and Louis, thanks. Math's never been my forte. I'm going to have to emend the chart to add the 109 points I inadvertently omitted.

The 55 OPS+ figure for Gardner stems from too small a sampling size, I concede, to represent a definitive figure. But that's just the point. We can't predict how Gardner will perform over the course of the season and the faith the Yankees have invested in him mirrors the wanton gamble they took last year with Hughes and Kennedy.

In the Bronx crucible where the pressure to win never relents, the Yankees need to nurture their rookies, to shield them where possible, and to grant them sufficient space to mature and to grow.

For a pitcher like Hughes or Kennedy, that means alloting him the 5th spot in a rotation that's otherwise staffed with reliable veterans. (The Yankees error last year was in granting both of them spots simultaneously.)

For a position player like Gardner, this means starting him when his bat is least likely to pose a liability. The Yankees could risk a nine hitter in CF with a .300-.330 OBA when their lineup scored 968 runs, as in 2007. Last year, by contrast, they couldn't afford the offensive albatross Melky amouted to in CF, even though they waited until August to act.

The lineup the Yankees plan to field in 2009-- with Posada and Matsui ostensibly supposed to compensate for the loss of Giambi and Abreu-- can afford a risk like Gardner even less.

Bmore20 said...

Cashman has beeen gettting back to what we did in the 90's to win!!!!.....the Farm System

http://fanzak.com/fzrants/Stop_Blaming_YankeesLook_in_the_Mirror