Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The 2008 New York Yankees

If you believe, as I do, that the Yankees have little to no hope of making the playoffs this year, then it's time to focus on improving the team for next year and beyond. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA-adjusted playoff odds give the Yankees a 20 percent chance of getting in to the dance either as a division winner or (more likely) Wild Card. With all due respect to Mr. PECOTA, I think that's a little on the high side.

The Red Sox aren't collapsing — their starting pitching is too strong and consistent, the back end of their bullpen is phenomenal, and they don't have the gaping wounds in their collective psyche that would have haunted them before 2004.

The Tigers and Indians both look strong too, and unlikely to let an 8.5-game lead slip away. The Tigers are much better than they were last year, with Sheffield and a resurrected Magglio Ordonez mashing, and Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander holding strong as the tentpoles of the rotation. Cleveland has a solid roster top-to-bottom, led by unheralded (if crooked-capped) ace C.C. Sabathia. Their two best hitters, Hafner and Sizemore, underperformed in the first half, if anything. The starting pitching is a bit suspect after Sabathia, and Sweaty Joe Borowski (and his 5.35 ERA) is one of the worst closers in baseball, but this is still too good a team to lose a big second-half lead. I hope I'm wrong. But I'm not.

Meanwhile, our tortured antiheroes, the Yankees themselves, prepare to mount a late surge to push back the insurgents and take the land that's rightfully theirs. Sadly, many of the problems that plagued them in the first half won't magically disappear because we want them to:

-Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens are all nearing the end of their careers, and all are capable of solid-to-great performances. But old pitchers and consistency don't go hand-in-hand.

-Phil Hughes can't be relied on to stay healthy, despite recent encouraging developments.

-Even with the Erubiel Durazo signing, the Yanks are shaky at best at the cold corner. Durazo hasn't slugged above .406 at any level since 2004, and Miguel Cairo and Andy Phillips are still in the picture. It's an ugly fucking picture.

-Johnny Damon's body is being used as a host by Bernie William's vengeful spirit. This has caused Damon, and his pain-addled carcass, to post the following OPS's by month this season: .678, .777, .619, .584.

-I'm not sure if anyone has noticed, but a rotting corpse is currently backing up Jorge Posada.

-The bullpen and bench remain absolute war-stricken disaster zones.

-Joe Torre still has his finger on the button.

So...yeah. The playoffs would be an amazing achievement for a team this poorly constructed, this poorly managed, and this snake-bitten (literally...nothing's been the same since the 2001 W.S. loss to the Diamondbacks). I don't think they're getting there. And if they don't, I don't care if they win 80 games or 93 games. Leave the moral victories to cute little teams like the Mariners and the Giants.

If the Yankees can find a way to improve their future at the trading deadline, they have a responsibility to act. Unless they can pull a game-changing, potentially illegal Bobby Abreu-type trade to drastically improve their chances this year, they should be looking forward and letting the '07 team die a quiet, peaceful death. Small moves and band-aids at this point won't be enough to save the current season.

But is there anything available that will help the '08 team? Let's assume that the Yankees don't go nuclear, and they re-sign Posada and Rivera after the season. That means the roster next year won't start off looking that much different from this year's underachievers:

C Posada
1B ???
2B Cano
SS Jeter
3B ARod? (player option to walk)
LF Matsui
CF Damon/Cabrera
RF Abreu? ($18 million club option)
DH Giambi/Damon (It should be a legally sanctioned state holiday when the 2009 season ends and Giambi's albatross of a contract is finally off the books)

Say goodbye to: Minky, Miguel Cairo.

Now how about the pitching?

SP Wang
SP Hughes
SP Pettitte? ($16 million player option)
SP Mussina
SP Igawa (signed through 2011!)
RP Farnsworth
RP The Great Rivera

Say goodbye to: Mike Myers, Luis Vizcaino, Ron Villone.

The smart money says Pettitte stays. ARod will test the market. And the Yankees will let Abreu walk. So there are holes to fill at 1B, RF, possibly 3B, possibly SP, and of course the always woeful bullpen and bench.

At this trading deadline, there are a couple different options for the Yankees. Remember, this is an extremely weak free agent class coming up. In areas where the Yankees need help, Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Jermaine Dye, Eric Gagne, Freddy Garcia, Luis Gonzalez, Mike Lowell, Ichiro and Carlos Zambrano are the highlights, such as they are.

The Yankees can sell off, loading up on prospects and adding to the good, young pitching that is the organization's most salient current strength. They can attempt to acquire a long-term solution at a weak position by trading for a player (think Mark Teixeira) soon to be a free agent and then signing him long-term. Or they can attempt to make small moves, fixing problems like backup catcher now, rather than wait until the off-season when there will be other priorities. (Certainly, Brian Cashman hasn't shown any predilection for dealing with the bench in off-seasons past.)

Their most tradeable asset is clearly Alex Rodriguez, assuming he waives his no-trade clause. He's the best positional player in baseball. A contending team trading for him would receive a huge second-half boost and a potential leg up on signing him in the off-season. But it's unclear what kind of haul the Yankees could expect in return for what amounts to a half-season rental. The Nationals pulled Alfonso Soriano off the market last year in a similar situation because they couldn't get the level of prospects they were seeking. ARod's a better player than ASor, but Soriano was in the midst of a career year.

The Yankees could probably get one blue-chip prospect for ARod, a legitimate stud, particularly if they sought a position player like the Tigers' Cameron Maybin or one of the Angels' stock of young hitting talent. They could also probably get a collection of young B+ arms. I doubt they could get a blue-chipper plus a legitimate current major leaguer of value. Young talent is too valuable in today's market.

If they do trade ARod, the pressing problem becomes what to do at third base. There are no good answers on the free agent market. No one is coming quickly in the farm system. ARod's production is near impossible to replace. For that reason, the Yankees should not deal the troubled slugger, but instead pursue him aggressively in the off-season and sign him to an extension. In the later years of that contract, he won't be worth the money he'll make. But for the next 3-4 years, the Yankees need ARod at third if they're going to content.

So how about dealing for Teixeira? Andruw Jones? Dye? Jones and Dye have been abysmal this year, and Kenny Williams seems to ask for unreasonable trades. Mark Buehrle for Phil Hughes? Give me a fucking break, Kenny. Go sign another Darin Erstad.

That leaves Teixeira, who might not fetch too much in return given his post-2008 free agency, and the Rangers' desperate straits. But the Yanks would need to give up some of their good, young pitching to get him. the package would likely start with Joba Chamberlain. That's too steep a price to pay for a 27-year-old first baseman with a career .903 OPS? I honestly don't know.

Unfortunately, the Yankees hands are tied by a lot of their current contracts. And they have a large number of holes to fill without the benefit of a good free agent class. They'll need to give up something to get something. Teixeira is a proven talent, and young pitching fails more likely than it succeeds. Given that the Yankees will also need a right fielder and possibly a third baseman, I'd try to make the deal.

There are no quick fixes coming in the Bronx, that much is clear. The system's young pitching is probably the solution, but unless some of the arms are used in trades, that solution might be three years away.