The Yankees still CAN buy the World Series

After yet another disappointing first-round playoff ouster, the Yankees suddenly have faced the most difficult offseason decision-making process in baseball. Their choices:

1.) Re-up Joe Torre, or pick a new manager from among three highly regarded applicants.
2.) Enter the ring with Alex Rodriguez and Scott Boras, or take a pass.
3.) Protect their precious young prospects, or trade them and go for broke in ’08.
4.) Pony up for new assets on the free-agent market, or rein in spending to a level below the luxury tax threshold.
5.) Retain the services of the aging old guard—Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte—or symbolically usher in a new era of post-George Steinbrenner Yankee baseball.

Of course, questions one and two already have been answered, and they couldn’t have been answered any better. Torre was offered more than twice the annual salary of the next highest-paid manager, and deemed the offer an insult. A-Rod was equally unflattered by the team’s extension offers, and clearly didn’t want to be a Yankee anymore anyway, simplifying that decision.

I think the team is the better for both decisions. They had the unique opportunity to replace Torre, who has at most a few seasons left in the tank, with the brightest managerial candidate in baseball, a man who is batting 1.000 at winning Manager of the Year awards. Had they acquiesced to Torre and offered a multi-year deal, Joe Girardi likely would have taken an attractive head post elsewhere, and they would’ve lost him forever.

Re-upping Torre, who clearly is burnt out already, would have wasted more than $5 million, a potential exhaustion-based retirement midseason in ’09, and the eventual turnover to Don Mattingly, who still would have no managing experience.

Instead, with the 43-year-old Girardi (who will make about a third of what Torre made last year), the Bombers may have their managerial situation solved for the next decade or more. This way, Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees’ brass can create the next managerial icon instead of having annual power struggles with the previous one.

The decision to hire Girardi was further validated by what happened in the aftermath. Clearly inferior to Girardi in terms of resume and experience, Mattingly’s greatest selling point was his apparent lifelong, undying loyalty to the Yankees … and yet, the day the Girardi decision became public, Mattingly’s camp announced that he wouldn’t consider staying a part of the Yankee coaching staff.

I hope for Torre’s and Mattingly’s sake that they don’t follow Grady Little as Scapegoats Nos. 2 and 3 respectively in Los Angeles in the wake of Ned Coletti’s past, present and future missteps. Both—especially Torre—deserve better.

As for A-Rod, it was never a great fit, even this year as his numbers soared to new heights. If all is right with the world and both parties accurately recognize a perfect match when they see one, he’s destined to become an Angel, where he’ll help the Halos become the third virtual lock for an AL playoff berth in ’08, joining Boston and Cleveland.

That leads us back to the Yankees, and their quest to become not only the fourth entrant into next year’s ALDS, but also the next World Series winner. To get there, they’ll have to prove to be better than the Tigers in the regular season and win two difficult series against two of the three AL juggernauts. (Of course they’ll have to pummel the I-AA champ in the World Series too, but that’s hardly the biggest hurdle at this point.)

How well the Yankees answer questions 3, 4 and 5 from above will go a long way in determining whether they can return to the winner’s circle in ’08 and beyond.

Step 1: Trade Melky Cabrera, Wilson Betemit, Shelley Duncan and Darrell Rasner for Johan Santana.

This package might not get it done, especially if Coletti decides he wants to win the A-Rod sweepstakes and simultaneously sell off the Dodgers’ prize jewels to make a desperate run at the playoffs in ’08. This actually wouldn’t be a bad idea from Coletti’s perspective—long-term health of the franchise be damned—since his job is probably on the line. Bottom line, if the Dodgers decide they want Santana, they’ll get him, because Coletti will give up more than Cashman will—and kudos to Cashman for his discipline.

But if the Dodgers aren’t involved in the bidding, the Twins may find this is the best package they’ll get. It doesn’t include either of the two names who would get Terry Ryan begging for his old job back—Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy—but a deeper look reveals how many holes the Twins can fill with this trade:

*Cabrera fills the void left by Torii Hunter in free agency and can provide good defense and a .750-.775 OPS in center field.
*Betemit provides much-needed pop at third base and mercifully ends the Nick Punto era.
*Shelley Duncan fills the Twins’ never-ending black hole at DH with—you heard it here first—25-30 homers as next year’s Jack Cust. Yeah, he’ll strike out 150 times too, but the .500 SLG will be worth it.
*Rasner replaces Carlos Silva in the rotation and admirably fills the fifth starter role for years to come.

Sure, none of these four guys are marquee names … but the Twins are smart enough that they don’t worry much about that stuff. They can’t afford to, and besides, they already have Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer to be franchise faces. What they need is to plug a lot of holes with league-average production on the cheap. Strangely, the Yankees, of all teams, are the perfect team to help them.

Here’s what the Twins do see in that package: nearly 20 total cost-controlled years among those four players, in exchange for one year of Johan Santana, who has undeniably already peaked.

Another factor in this deal is that the draft picks Santana would yield if the Twins held onto him through next season would be less valuable to the Twins than to most teams, because of how the Twins draft. Philosophically, the Twins loathe drafting high-ceiling, high-risk players who command the biggest signing bonuses. Look no further than this year’s questionable decision to draft and sign lightly regarded Ben Revere late in the first round for a paltry $750,000.

It’s unlikely that the Twins would be able to turn the draft picks they’d receive as compensation for Santana into a star-quality player, because they often don’t draft with that goal in mind, even in the first round. They want a low-risk pick who is likely to justify their minimal investment.

That’s why the Twins, perhaps more than most teams, would be enticed by four cost-controlled, low-ceiling, MLB-ready regulars who wouldn’t require the additonal expense of signing bonuses or minor league grooming, as Santana’s compensation draft picks would.

Now look at the benefits of this deal from the Yankee side:

*They avoid giving up Hughes or Kennedy, which is critical because the upside of both players is still relatively unknown, and an ace pitcher is the hardest commodity to acquire. As the Yankees have found out the hard way with Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown and others, a pitcher is usually past his prime by the time he reaches the open market. Money will always be able to buy the Yankees productive hitters in their 30s, but in today’s economy the mid-to-late-20s elite starter is virtually unbuyable…

*…which is what makes Santana—even for one year—more valuable than he appears on the surface. No, he’s not as unhittable as he was two years ago. But he’s still one of the five best starters in the game. The Yankees’ biggest hurdle the past few years has been getting out of the five-game Divisonal Series; how much more confident would they be if they had Santana throwing games one and five, instead of Chien-Ming Wang?

We just watched a playoff in which Josh Beckett showed the value of having one of the game’s best starters on your team. If C.C. Sabathia was as good as Beckett, there would’ve been a parade in Cleveland a few days ago. Swap Beckett with Wang, and perhaps that parade is in New York. But Beckett isn’t on the trading block, and neither are Roy Halladay or Jake Peavy. Only one of the game’s top five starters is. If the Yankees have Santana throwing two of the five ALCS games, regardless of their opponent, I like their odds.

*They get to audition Santana in New York, and/or sign him to a favorable long-term extension before he hits free agency. Either way, the team wins. If the Yankees don’t sign him to an extension, they get to find out if he is a good fit in New York in a one-year trial run, before making a disastrous $100 million mistake in free agency and finding out the hard way that their ace pitcher is miserable riding in taxis and seeing his name in gossip columns. They offer him arbitration and still get the draft picks, which are more valuable to the Yankees because they can afford to draft high-ceiling, top-dollar talent.

On the other hand, if the Yankees do sign him to an extension upon acquiring him, they get a discount by keeping him off the open market (see the case of Zito v. Zambrano, ’07). It would be hard for Santana to leave five years, $100 million sitting on the table, even if it is $30-40 million less than he could get on the open market. Even the best pitcher knows he’s only one pitch away from never being the same again.

*The final benefit for the Yankees: They really don’t have to give up anything they can’t buy elsewhere. No offense to Melky Cabrera, but a cost-controlled .750 OPS in center field just isn’t as valuable to the Yankees as it is to most teams.

Step 2: Re-sign Posada and Rivera, and persuade Pettitte to exercise his $16 million option.

It’s pretty simple: After these three guys choke on their corn flakes while reading about the Santana trade in The Times on the morning after, they’ll know the Yankees have no intentions of trifling with their twilight years. You could put a blank check in front of Posada and Rivera at that point and they’d fill in a figure similar to the overtures other teams were making, maybe even slightly less. They’ve earned it. And once they’re on board, Pettitte—who provided the Yanks with their best postseason pitching performance this year—won’t be far behind.

Step 3: Sign Andruw Jones to a five-year, $95 million free-agent contract. This would cap the Yankees’ offseason with three Type A/B free agents.

(Quoting a little-known rule: “If 39-62 players qualify as Type A and B free agents, no team may sign more than three, with the limits increasing accordingly for higher totals.”)

By my count, 47 players qualify as either Type A or B free agents this offseason, which means that the Yankees can sign three. Thus, they should use their financial power to sign the three they should want most—Posada and Rivera, and Andruw Jones.

As for the $95 million figure, sure, it sounds absurd for a guy coming off a terrible year, but ask yourself this: When was the last time you weren’t surprised by the value of the headline deals during the Hot Stove season? Every year people think salaries can’t inflate further and every year they exceed expectations.

There’s a lot to like about Jones, especially compared to the rest of the free agent outfield class: He’s a type B free agent, so the Yankees won’t lose their first-round pick (and in fact they may get two, thanks to A-Rod bolting), there’s no concern about how his numbers will translate (as with Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome), there’s no concern about his inflated home stats in a launching pad or his reckless style of play (Aaron Rowand), there’s no blatant reason for PED concern (Mike Cameron), and he’s slightly younger than all of them.

A free agent’s perceived value is inordinately tied to his most recent-year performance, and Jones’ one-year dive will make him one of this year’s best free agent bargains in the long run. He’s a terrific defender, he’s posted a 50-homer season, and his tremendous raw athleticism (he became a fixture in the bigs at a much younger age than Rowand, for example) leads me to believe he’s a much better bet to hang on to his skills into his mid- and even late-30s than Rowand or any other available free agent.

The rebuttal to an Andruw Jones signing would be, “But the Yanks already had a crowded outfield. Why spend money there, when they have a more glaring need at third base and need pitching help?”

To me, this thinking represents a fundamental error that most teams make in assessing the free agent market (and the Yankees are perhaps the only team with the resources to exploit it annually):

Due to the scarcity of quality resources on the free agent market, it is less important what the team’s needs are than where the actual talent exists.

This means that a wealthy team like the Yankees should always target the position of greatest depth in free agency, even if that doesn’t coincide with the team’s immediate need. This year, the position of greatest depth is the outfield, and therefore, that position is likely to yield some of the better values and production. Those teams that feel forced to address their third-base needs via the free agent market will be held hostage by the A-Rod and Mike Lowell sweepstakes, and they’ll both be grossly overpaid.

For a creative thinker, it’s too simple to say that the Yankees already have a full outfield. What they have is a very tradeable asset—Cabrera—and the money to make a sound investment when they replace him via free agency.

The Yankees haven’t leveraged their financial resources this way nearly enough. They’ve often invested in the pitching market even when it was painfully thin (Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright), they’ve only passively pursued the biggest prizes because they didn’t have tremendous need at the position (Vladimir Guerrero—how much of a bargain did he end up being?), they’ve occasionally settled for second-best (Kei Igawa instead of Dice-K), and worst , they’ve given out no-trade clauses to their free agents like they were Halloween candy. That made the team unable to eat some salary and acquire prospects for Pavano, Jason Giambi and, eventually, Hideki Matsui.

If the Yankees never offered no-trade clauses, and the baseball economy stayed strong, they could use their money to create a nearly unstoppable cycle: a.) Make sound choices on a few free agents each year and offer them multi-year deals, b.) trade those players for prospects during the last year of their deals for prospects (as they did with Gary Sheffield), when other teams can swallow the one-year hit to help them make a run for the playoffs, and c.) trade the prospects—the game’s most liquid asset—for whatever needs the team has in a given year.

This would be the ultimate leveraging of the Yankees’ wealth, but because of all the no-trade clauses on their roster, they haven’t been able to enact it. This is unfortunate for them, especially now, because teams have a need and desire for the one-year rentals the Yankees could constantly be offering.

Step 4: Face reality and accept that Johnny Damon is the game’s highest-paid fourth outfielder

This is the next evolution of the game, and it’s happening already: The richest teams will have a few $8-12 million a year backups. Isn’t it kind of weird that every year, the Yankees have the wealthiest team, and yet always have a few guys like Miguel Cairo? Teams will pay starters seemingly anything, but even the wealthiest organizations seem loathe to pay top dollar for quality backups.

This leads to political decisions, where the highest-paid guy always ends up getting the playing time, because if he’s riding the bench, it makes the general manager look bad. It’s as if it’s Little League all over again, and because Timmy’s mom works the Snack Shack every week, he’s playing six innings. It amazes me that these petty salary politics sometimes override common sense in a business where small decisions can have multi-million dollar ramifications for every team each year.

Making a basketball analogy, if it’s OK for Adonal Foyle to make $10 million a year and never see the floor, what’s so bad about having Johnny Damon at $12 million coming off the bench and getting 400-450 at-bats?

It would be a mistake to let politics play into the construction of the Yankees’ starting outfield in ’08. Yes, Damon is making starting outfielder money. But the team needs to be honest about what he’ll provide and fill its three starting outfield slots with guys who are better bets to have an OPS higher than Damon next year—Matsui, Andruw Jones and Bobby Abreu.

Step 5: Trade several mid-level prospects to acquire Richie Sexson and Jack Wilson, swallowing all their salaries

This is another example of the Yankees using their financial leverage to acquire talent without giving up key players. The Mariners would welcome the salary relief and Sexson would be annointed the Yankees’ starting first baseman heading into the season. A contract-year drive and the guarantee that he’d see strikes in the potent Yankee lineup would help him enjoy a renaissance.

Thanks to his second-half surge, Wilson would come at slightly steeper price, but he’s also not going to be part of a playoff team in Pittsburgh anytime soon, and the new management already has shown a willingness to trade veterans for younger assets. As for Wilson’s role—well, that leads me to the heresy I intentionally left for the end of this article so that people would at least read this far ….

Step 6: Move Derek Jeter to third base, and install Wilson as the Yankees’ starting shortstop.

Blasphemous! Impossible!

Well, maybe to the first … but no to the second. The moment Team A-Rod announced his opt-out, it was a given that whoever manned the hot corner in the Bronx next year was going to be an offensive downgrade. So why not at least use it as an opportunity to improve the defense?

Moving Jeter to third and Wilson to short is likely to improve the left side of the Yankees’ infield significantly. Jeter was one of the worst defensive shortstops in the American League this year, and he won’t get any better as he reaches age 35 in 2010, the final year of his contract.

Do Yankees fans want him to retire a Yankee? Undoubtedly. Far different sentiment for him than for A-Rod.

Will Jeter able to play shortstop effectively until he does retire, in, say, eight or 10 years? Absolutely not.

Inevitably, this seemingly blasphemous move—displacing Derek Jeter—is bound to happen at some point. The circumstances surrounding A-Rod’s departure give Cashman the perfect opportunity to make this transition now, and save Jeter’s ego in the process. It’s not hard to imagine reading this quote from Yankees’ brass: “Derek is such an unselfish player, a true champion—we had the opportunity to acquire a player who could play shortstop, and since Alex left us high and dry, Derek volunteered to unselfishly fill the void.”

Jeter’s bat will still play at third for the foreseeable future, and third base will help mask his range deficiencies. Wilson strikes me as the gritty type of player who will respond well to playing in New York and become a fan favorite, while playing stellar defense and maintaining league-average offense for the position. That’s all New York’s offensive juggernaut needs from him. He’s already dealt with the pressure of being the highest-paid player on his team in Pittsburgh; he’ll fit right in with the Yankees, who have a few players who held that role on their former teams.

Step 7: Filling in the Gaps

The previous moves lead to the following potential R-L-R lineup:

Jeter 3B
Abreu RF
Jones CF
Matsui LF
Posada C
Giambi DH
Sexson 1B
Cano 2B
J. Wilson SS

Having Damon as the fourth outfielder provides all kinds of additional lineup flexibility. As for the final three members of the bench, remember that the Yankees can’t sign any more Type A or B free agents, but that doesn’t prevent the team from nabbing these three, none of whom has A or B status:

Mike Lamb (3B-1B), Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez (MIF, OF) and Jose Molina (C).

Again, I see this as a look into what the future will be for the wealthiest teams—signing multi-million dollar backups. None of these three players would cost any draft picks, and they practically would ensure that the Yankees would have one of the best benches in the American League. This could represent the all-important difference between, say, 91 wins and 94 wins. Those three crucial wins justify a $30 million outlay those three,. And there’s the added assurance that a replacement-level, Cairo-type player would never be soaking up at-bats if one of the regulars went down.

As for the pitching staff, the addition of Santana might be enough to make the Yankees feel comfortable leaving Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen—where he might end up being sorely needed. On their own, a relief corps of Rivera, Edwar Ramirez, Chris Britton, Brian Bruney and Kyle Farnsworth won’t strike fear into any team’s heart, but Chamberlain would change the complexion of that group entirely.

If I had my way, that leaves an Opening Day rotation of Santana-Wang-Pettitte-Mike Mussina-Pavano, with the immortal Igawa in long relief.

Notice two glaring omissions? Perhaps it’s the penny-pinching A’s fan in me, but I’m using the flexibility of Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy‘s option years to leave them in Triple-A to open the season, knowing they’ll be up with the big club eventually in ’08. A lot of good baseball fans would wonder why anyone in their right mind would do this, and our own sharp Jeff Sackmann has the answer here .

Basically, if the Yankees open the year with Hughes and Kennedy in the rotation, there’s no place to put Pavano or Mussina, because they can refuse to be sent down. But if Hughes and Kennedy begin the year in Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, they can become the team’s sixth and seventh starters, ready to fill in for any of the five starting pitchers when injury occurs.

Sackmann has written at length about the importance of sixth and seventh starters over the course of the season. Every team needs them, but few teams adequately budget for that need. Die-hard Yankees fans who weathered 20-plus starts from Sean Henn/Chase Wright/Matt DeSalvo/Igawa/Rasner last year know what I’m referring to.

In a much-rosier scenario next year, those injury-replacement starts could go to Hughes and Kennedy.

(To the bewilderment of many pundits, the Twins used exactly this play with Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Matt Garza last year. They never believed that either Ortiz or Ponson was better than Garza; they simply knew that if they could ride Ortiz and Ponson for a few months, they’d cost Garza just enough service-time days to ensure cost control over him for another full year. Pretty sneaky, huh? That anecdote might make it easier for fans to understand why many players seek every last dollar when they finally get the chance in free agency.).

The Outlook

This team won’t score as many runs as the ’07 version did. But it won’t need to, and it’ll be much better built for the playoffs. It’s also probably going to be a mentally tougher team, exactly what Girardi would want—winning lots of close games, which is great preparation for the tests the playoffs will bring. If any shortcomings do arise, there’s so much starting pitching depth that not only will the team not need a midseason Roger Clemens burst, but it’ll even be able to hold Wang over other teams’ heads as the big, cost-controlled prize of the trading deadline.

The infield and outfield defense will be much better, without creating any replacement-level holes in the lineup. And a playoff rotation of Santana-Pettitte-Hughes-Wang or Chamberlain-Santana has a great chance of winning a five-game series.

As for the ’08-’09 offseason, the Yanks could shed a staggering $90 million in payroll from Sexson, Giambi, Pettitte, Abreu, Mussina, Pavano and Farnsworth coming off the books. Next offseason, it’d be wise to leave the DH open long-term for Posada’s eventual hibernation there, but that wouldn’t preclude the Yankees from chasing Mark Teixeira to replace Sexson at first base. Chamberlain would have to move the starting rotation for ’09, joining an ultra-talented, relatively cheap staff led by Santana-Hughes-Kennedy-Wang, with Tyler Clippard as the sixth starter.

Losing Chamberlain from the bullpen would be a tough blow to the relief corps, but the new Yankees blueprint calls for pursuing only what is bountiful on the free agent market, and next offseason that will be bona fide relievers. Joe Nathan becomes the heir apparent to Rivera, and either K-Rod or Rafael Soriano completes the three-player heist along with Teixeira to ensure yet another World Series contender on paper.

The nature of being the Yankees is having countless options, thanks to their resources. This offseason they could instead trade for Miguel Cabrera, make a play for Mike Lowell, move Cano to third base or Chamberlain to the rotation, stand pat or go for broke, or go literally dozens of different directions in between. I’ve proposed only one approach, and it’s certainly not guaranteed to work.

But if I saw that team on the field next April, it would be my World Series favorite. That’s all a front office can hope for when the offseason is complete.

References & Resources
Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus. Simply the best. His column archive is an education in itself for a burgeoning baseball fan.
David Pinto of Baseball Musings. David has a statistical encyclopedia of baseball knowledge stored in his Harvard-educated brain.
Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors. The hardest-working man on the Internet.
Keith Law of ESPN.com. A unique, extremely well-written window into the eyes and mind of a scout. Some writers join the 800-pound gorilla and get to write all their columns from their Barcalounger; Keith still drives eight hours to the Area Code Games in the summer, and tells readers who to watch for in the future. It’s appreciated.

I’ve never had the privilege of meeting any of these four men, but I know that all four are must-read writers, and classy people, and that if anyone wanted to learn more about baseball, their column archives would be a great place to start.

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