Hot Stove–Grab Your Griddles and Vittles!

I am sure I am not alone when I say that the onset of hot stove season has had me somewhat enthusiastic, in no small part because of the tremendous high on which the Yankees’ season ended with their 27th World Series title.  However, I for one have also been unwilling to surrender myself to hot stove proceedings simply because the ride to the title was such a joyous, exhilarating one that I am still very reluctant to relinquish those good vibes, and perhaps discuss releasing some of those terrific and integral parts to that title, in order to look toward the inevitable future.  Jeez, before writing this post, I went back to the Yankees website to watch replays of various playoff highlights, literally getting goose bumps from A-Rod’s game-tying home run off Joe Nathan with no outs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 2 of the ALDS.  What I loved most–and what I initially missed amidst my own full-throated roar of eternal approval when it happened–was the immediate reaction of the Yankee Stadium crowd, at once and as one yelling “YEAH!” when A-Rod swatted Nathan’s 3-1 fastball down Broadway, for they knew–we all knew–that it was long gone and the game was tied.  How can I be reasonably expected to simply surrender such monstrous, crucial events that we saw this post-season, time after time, on the way to #27?

It isn’t easy, let me tell you.

But since the rest of the baseball world, including the GM’s, seem unwilling to bask in the collective mirth that engulfs us as Yankees fans, I suppose I should sidle forward, if reluctantly, toward some form of analysis of the free agent market, the Yankees’ needs, and what we might reasonably expect in the coming weeks since the Yankees do have needs to meet, questions to answer, and players to bring back or let go.  These are not easy calls, and I think the team will be forced to make some difficult decisions with both returning  and jettisoned players, some that I know that I may not want to see occur.

The first of these difficult decisions, for me, is the LF/DH situation.  Matsui is the main protagonist in this for, despite being a very productive .274/.367, with 29 HR, 80 RBI, and as important as anything, Matsui positively mashed left-handed pitching in 2009–13 HR, 46 RBI, .282/.358 in only 148 PA/131 at-bats this year.  Think about that for a minute, especially since his numbers against righties were good, but in far more at-bats–15 HR, 44 RBI, .271/.370 in 378 PA/325 at-bats this season.  This is crucial for, on the one hand, the Yanks appear to not unwisely have the desire to filter Posada, A-Rod, and Jeter now and them into the DH position to occasionally rest and relieve them of fielding duties, and to extend the productivity of some aging players–and all three mentioned above are or will be over 25 in 2010–to whom the Yanks are committed financially and contractually for 2010 and beyond, including Jeter (make no mistake, he won’t leave or be allowed to after 2010).

Yet on the other hand, look back to the 2008 Yankees for why Matsui’s terrific 2009 is so important.  It isn’t just that Matsui was healthy in 2009, which he was not down the stretch in 2008 due to his bad knees.  It isn’t just that the Yankees should think long and hard before jettisoning such a productive player regardless of the age–Matsui will be 36 in June 2010–and his inability to play the outfield.  And make no mistake, Matsui is not seen as an outfielder any more by GMs, which should curtail his appeal especially to NL teams without the DH, and to others why may desire some flexibility as well.  Unlike what his clever but hyperbolic agent Arn Tellem said, Matsui is far from “ageless,” as his knees can attest.  A crucial point to consider is Matsui’s hammering lefty pitching which, as astute Yankee fans know, killed and stifled Yankee bats in 2008–the team his just .258 against lefties in 2008, tenth in the AL, while they hit .286/.365 in 2009–tied for tops in the AL.  That’s a tremendous difference, and Matsui, who was injured for much of 2008, hit .315 against lefties in shortened duty that year.  He made a big difference in that margin in ’09 as he typically has throughout his career, as did shedding Giambi (.231 versus lefties in ’08) after 2008.

Can they afford to let that productivity, especially against lefties, go?  If they retain him, at what cost and under what terms is it? One lucrative year plus a club option?  Do the Yanks let Matsui dangle while entertaining thoughts of and offers to Holliday, Granderson (not a free agent, but the subject of rumors), Bay, Byrd, and others? Do the Yankees retain Matsui in an expensive but short-term deal to go hard after Crawford, who has spent his entire career in Tampa Bay and whose $10 million option the club picked up for next year, after 2010?  do the Yankees let him go to save the money and pursue pitching, especially Lackey and perhaps Halliday via trade?  Tough call.  My gut says I would like to have Matsui back, but for the short term, maybe for around Abreu money (2 years/$18.2 million, but the second a club option with a buyout).  We’ll see, but good luck replacing Matsui’s money bat, especially against lefties.

JD represents this flip-side of the LH/DH situation for the Yanks.  The Yankees’ left fielder, JD had a strong 2009–24 HR, 82 RBI, 12/12 SB, .282/.365.  While he committed a few poor plays in left this year, dropping a couple balls outright and misplaying a few others, JD still has the speed to cover the deep left center in “new Death Valley,” while also providing considerable power from a corner outfield spot to earn a decent or better contract offer, from New York or another team.  His career numbers for the Yankees remained pretty consistent, impressively so, during his four excellent years in pinstripes–77 HR, 296 RBI, 93/104 SB (though drastically diminished in 2009, in no small part because of his hitting #2, and the preponderant power of the Yanks’ order), .285 in four years, 410 runs in four years.  The guy produced every single year as a Yankee, in good part because of the order in which he hit, but also in good part because of his particular attributes–power/speed combination, high OBP (drawing 64-71 walks in all four years with the Yankees).

However, he is now 36.  How many years do the Yankees commit themselves to a very productive but aging star in JD?  Two years, plus a club option? One year plus an option?  $10-12 million per year?  His agent, Scott Boras, has trumpeted JD’s endurance, not without some reason as this post suggests, while comparing JD’s place among the Yankees to that of Posada and Jeter.  JD has become an important part of the Yankees.  However, does his place with the Yankees in the last four years merit the same contractual consideration that Jeter and Posada, as lifelong Yankees, have received?  This is particularly pertinent when comparing JD to Posada, who received a 4 year/$52.4 million contract after the 2007 season.  While making a strong and somewhat inventive case for his client, Boras ignores or more likely sublimates the particular organizational and market circumstances that shaped Posada’s contract, namely the dearth of available alternatives in 2008 (Lo Duca, anyone?), the Mets’ late involvement in Posada’s negotiations that drove up the price and extended the length of the deal, and Posada’s career year in 2007–/338/.426, 20 HR, 90 RBI. Quite simply, Posada had the Yankees over the proverbial contractual barrel after 2007, especially when word spread about their cross-town rival sniffing after Posada.

JD is not in the same position, nor are the Yanks beholden to JD given the availability of left fielders–the lone bumper free agent crop–after 2009.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not proposing the Yankees run away from either Matsui or JD, both productive players and by all accounts splendid teammates (a big plus with me) on a team that just so happened to win it all in 2009.  But neither the market nor JD’s contributions in and of themselves demands that the Yanks bend over backwards for JD this off-season.  My gut tells me the Yanks play a waiting game with JD also, feeling out Holliday, Bay, and others to drive down the cost of JD in the next two years.

Curtis Granderson has recently been the subject of some speculation, most notably from Joel Sherman of The New York Post, the rest of whose somewhat silly column weighing the Yanks’ taking on bloated salaries of has-beens and retreads from the Tigers.  I like Granderson as a player–he is super fast, a good athletic center fielder, has power, and seems to be a good guy and teammate.  But examining Granderson’s numbers should leave one wary.  He batted .249/.327 in 2009, with 30 homers and 71 RBI, stealing 20/26 bases.  Worse than his low average for a lead-off hitter is his anemic average against lefties in 2009–.183, with 2 homers and a mere 9 RBI in 180 at-bats.  That’s horrible, and a considerably drop-off from his typically decent numbers against lefties.  To compound matters are his unacceptably sky-high strikeout totals–141 in 2007 and 2009, 111 in 2008, and a whopping 174 in 2006.  He seems to have become homer-happy with his swing and, while he has power and, with his speed, loads of potential to belt triples as well–23 in 2007, 13 in 2008, and 9 last year, no doubt suffering somewhat from the K’s and HR’s–he has developed some tendencies as a hitter that simply do not mesh well with the Yankees or their needs.  His low OBP is not a product of not walking, for he drew passes 71 times in 2008 and 72 times last season, but rather his accumulating far too many strikeouts.  I am completely unwilling to trade for Granderson if Austin Jackson were demanded in return for, while Jackson had just four homers in SWB, he is still a developing, talented prospect whom I want to see play to evaluate his ability in New York before dealing him for a talented but, in essence, younger Mike Cameron–power, speed, and defense, but with too low and average and too high strikeout totals.  Unlike Sherman’s assertions and despite his prodigious talents, Granderson is not the “ideal fit” for the Yankees that Sherman labels him.

On the Tigers, Sherman spitballs that any deal for Granderson might snowball into a “blockbuster,” for the Tigers have other players who are good hitters but, with the Tigers looking to shed payroll, are expensive.  More importantly for the Yankees, they have flaws and limitations.  Carlos Guillen is due $26 million over the next two years–Matsui and JD money for the last four seasons–while hitting just .242/.339 with 11 homers and 41 RBI in 81 games last year due to injuries.  In 2008, he hit .286/.276 with 10 homers and 54 RBI in 113 games.  Why would the Yankees deal for a player who would likely be as or more expensive than JD or Matsui, and certainly less productive and less durable?  It simply makes no sense.  Nor would dealing for Magglio Ordonez who, while hitting for a good average (.310 last year despite a very slow start, .317 in 2008, and an AL-high .363 in 2007), he is not going on 36, will make $18 million next year, and has limited mobility in right and on the bases?  That is, why get not only older but also slower?  As a DH, Ordonez would not be bad, for he eats up lefties–.352 last year and .323 for his career.  But he is simply not a player to whom the Yanks should hitch their wagons.  Nor should they acquire such an expensive DH if the team’s plans are to 1.) get younger and more athletic, 2.) if they already have a productive and limited DH, and 3.) if they genuinely plan to have other players DH at times.  Ordonez can play right field, but has far less speed than JD thus limiting the team’s dexterity, and further limits their payroll flexibility.  No thanks.  That goes double for the retreads and injury-plagued pitchers such as Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson (whom I’ve never liked and whose 3 year/$21 million contract I’ve always considered a colossal waste for a mediocre innings eater), and Jeremy Bonderman.

Marlon Byrd is not a bad outfielder for Texas and is a free agent.  His numbers last year were good–20 homers, 89 RBI, /.283/.329.  He can also play all over the outfield.  But he will turn 33 next year, and simply does not draw many walks as his paltry OBP for a good average attests.  I would not throw large money at him.

Matt Holliday will certainly draw interest from the Yankees and other teams, and will garner a huge payday from whatever team signs him–$18+ million/year, likely.  Yet which Holliday will teams get?  Will they get the Holliday who mashed in the thin air of Colorado, the one who did fairly well but not great in a spacious Oakland ballpark for a poor offensive team (11 HR, 54 RBI, .286/.378 in 93 games with Oakland in 2009 before being dealt to St. Louis), or the one who killed it in St. Louis hitting behind Pujols (13 HR, 55 RBI, .353/.419 in just 63 games)?  He is a good outfielder, not great, and not blessed with the kind of speed one would like to see a left fielder have in the spacious Yankee Stadium.  Nor does Jason Bay, who can mash (36 HR, 119 RBI, .267/.384 in 2009) but who has subpar speed at best, making him a far better outfielder in Fenway with the shallow field and big monster wall than he could ever be in Death Valley in Yankee Stadium.

In sum, at least regarding the most attractive outfielders available this year, I cannot help but think that the Yankees might well settle for JD and/or Matsui to continue their roles, especially if they can be had for lucrative but short-term deals.  JD is obviously the LF choice, but who can replace Matsui’s bat–and it will need to be replaced, even and especially if the Yankees use the DH to spell regulars?  Who would fill in for Jeter, Posada, and A-Rod while any is the DH who could come anywhere close to what the Yanks would lose with Matsui?  Good luck with that, and that is a big issue.  Ideally, the Yanks might re-sign JD and/or Matsui to short-term deals–if acceptable, which remains to be seen–and wait on Carl Crawford, whose $10 million option for 2010 the Rays picked up but who becomes a free agent after next season.  His speed atop the Yankees’ order would be the best since Rickey Henderson, he has power, and can easily cover the ground in left center and center with his wheels.  He would be my top choice, but that is contingent upon not being wedded for too long to JD and Matsui.  The Yankees need a good left fielder, but also some payroll flexibility, and that won’t be easy if agents Scott Boras and Arn Tellem for JD and Matsui, respectively, have anything to say about things.

Next up, pitching.  In particular, should the Yankees bring back Pettite?  Should both Joba and Hughes start?  Should the Yankees pursue Lackey?  If so on Lackey, at what cost, A.J. money or C.C. dollars?  What risks does he bring, financially and physically?  Should the Yanks pursue Halliday and, if so, at what cost?

Tell me what you think.

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 9:33 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Stay away from Granderson. The “typically good” numbers against lefties you speak of are an illusion. In 2008, he hit .259/.310 but for his entire career, he hits just .210/.270. Ryan Howard, the poster child for “he can’t hit lefties” (probably because of how good he is against righties) does better than that (.226/.310).

    Another similarity to Howard? Granderson strikes out a ton. 141 times this year, 111 (in fewer games) in 2008, 141 in 2007, and a whopping AL-leading 174 in 2006.

  2. Actually JGS, the phrase I used was “typically decent,” which also entails his power numbers, which unlike his average are decent against lefties in his career. You are right about his low average, .210. Not good and it doesn’t fit in with what the Yanks need.

    On his K’s, see in the post above.

  3. well…that’s what I get for writing comments before finishing the paragraph. Especially when said paragraph perfectly expresses my own opinion on the subject.

    well done, and I apologize

  4. No need to apologize, JGS. I just didn’t want to leave the impression that we were at odds over Granderson, with our positions actually not too far apart on him–talented, good guy, but with some plate problems.

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