September 23, 2008
Barring an apocalyptic turn of events-winning the rest of their games, the last four against the Red Sox, who would have to lose out all the way through a one-game playoff-the Yankees will miss the 2008 playoffs. It will be the first time in the Division Series era that October will kick off without the Bronx Bombers. That's a reason for celebration in many quarters, and a cause for distress in others, but the team's failure to make the postseason inspires one question from everyone: What now?
The key thing to remember is that the 2008 Yankees are not a bad baseball team, and in fact, were MLB to send its top eight teams by merit alone, these Yankees would probably be included. They're tied for eighth in MLB in wins and winning percentage, and when you consider that they've put up their 85-71 mark in the toughest division in baseball history, that record understates their performance. Here are the best teams in baseball by third-order record:
Team W L Red Sox 99.2 56.8 Rays 93.7 61.3 Cubs 90.6 64.4 Blue Jays 88.1 67.9 Yankees 87.1 68.9 Mets 85.1 70.9 White Sox 85.0 70.0 Dodgers 84.5 71.5
No, the Yankees aren't a bad team, and in fact, they'd probably have won four of the other five divisions in baseball, something you could say for all four of the good teams in the AL East. It's important that they not overreact to missing the postseason. Missing the postseason says more about their competitive environment, which included four of the top five teams in baseball, than about the Yankees themselves. (It also, as an aside, makes what the Rays did this year all the more impressive.)
Of course, an 85-71 mark (or 87-69) is still a bit below expectations. The Yankees' failure to reach the mid-90s in wins can be attributed largely to two areas: young players and injuries, with the former the primary reason. Brian Cashman's goal over a period of years has been to lower the payroll and change the roster by letting the products of a suddenly productive farm system play. This was the rationale behind not trading a package of young players for Johan Santana, or making big deals at the trade deadline in 2007. This year, however, the plan backfired because the young players spit the bit.
Center fielder Melky Cabrera is a defensive improvement on late-career Bernie Williams and Johnny Damon, with speed and a strong arm that counter his sometimes questionable routes in center. However, he took a huge step backwards this season at the plate by batting .243/.296/.337. His walk rate slipped, and his ability to put balls in play with authority disappeared. A solidly built 5'10", Cabrera has eight extra-base hits and 10 unintentional walks in his last 241 plate appearances, which is why he spent most of August at Triple-A. Robinson Cano didn't have quite as bad a season, but his .264/.299/.403 line has been a significant dropoff. As a player who doesn't walk much, Cano has to hit .300 to keep from being a problem on offense, and his defense doesn't begin to make up for poor offense. In 2007, Cano and Cabrera were worth 13.6 wins above replacement a year ago. This year, they were worth 6.7. That alone accounts for the gap between the Yankees' expected performance and their actual one.
The other big problem on offense was the injury to Jorge Posada, a torn right rotator cuff that required surgery and limited him to 51 games played. The Yankees replaced him first with Jose Molina, and then Ivan Rodriguez, neither of whom remotely approached Posada's production. All told, the Yankees used five catchers in Posada's stead, and none of them posted a .300 OBP. Their defense was a bit better, but not enough to make up for the extra outs being made.
The Yankees played the 2008 season getting sub-.300 OBPs from three lineup spots. That, more than any other factor, is why they're not going to play past Sunday afternoon. That, more than any other problem, is what they have to address in the offseason.
It won't be easy. The three years remaining on Posada's contract dictate that the team waits for him to rehab and hopes that he can catch at least semi-regularly. Cano now has a contract that pays him $25 million through 2011, and with his trade value gone, he almost has to be back as the second baseman. There are no viable center fielders on the free-agent market; the outfielders that are available are below-average defensively even on the corners and more middle-of-the-lineup types. Johnny Damon's limited time in center field this season has confirmed that he's no longer an option as an everyday player at the position. Signing Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez and sliding Damon to center would give back many of the runs such a signing would create on offense. Additionally, a deal of that nature could exacerbate the logjam at DH, where Posada and Hideki Matsui may need to get their playing time.
The Yankees find themselves in a terrible bind. What they need is OBP up the middle. What they have are flawed players with immovable contracts and significant questions as to what they will produce in 2009, and a market that offers little in the way of solutions.
In the same way that Cano and Cabrera took down the offense this year, with an injury to Posada finishing it off, the pitching suffered because two notable farm products failed to produce. Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy were expected to step in at the back end of the rotation and combine for league-average work, but they instead made 16 starts and allowed 61 runs, averaging less than four innings a start. Chien-Ming Wang played the Posada role, missing half the season with a foot injury suffered running the bases. The great work the team got from Pettitte and Mussina was largely canceled out by the lack of production by the three homegrown starters. Nevertheless, on the whole, the Yankees' run prevention was good enough to win.
The Yankees' failure to score enough runs to win, while allowing about as many runs as expected, is why the predicted off-season emphasis on acquiring pitching is misguided. There's an assumption that the Yankees will sign CC Sabathia and at least one other starting pitcher from the upcoming free-agent pool. However, the lesson of the 2008 Yankees should be that you can build an effective staff without committing $150 million over seven years to any one hurler. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina have provided 65 starts of above-average pitching, and while the price is high ($28 million), the length of commitment is not. Both contracts expire this week, and both provide a guideline as to the kind of deal the Yankees should be looking to make again: short-term, high-dollar deals that provide certainty if not upside.
The risks on the market are far too great to justify the costs. Sabathia has thrown a ton of pitches the last few years and will almost certainly struggle to manage his body as he ages. Ben Sheets and A.J. Burnett have never been able to string multiple healthy and effective seasons together. Ryan Dempster and Oliver Perez have rarely been able to string multiple healthy and effective half-seasons together. There are nothing but land mines out there, and unless you can get one of these pitchers to take a shorter deal with a very high average annual value, the likelihood of a disastrous contract is high. The Yankees have a fair amount of pitching talent already on hand, and do not need to assume the massive risk involved in a market-price contract for one of these pitchers.
Moreover, the Yankee bullpen was surprisingly effective, and while Mariano Rivera made $15 million to pitch the ninth inning, it was the development of Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras, as well as low-profile pickups such as Dan Giese and Brian Bruney, that made the sixth through eighth innings a strength. They don't need to look elsewhere for pitching help, and they certainly don't need to gild the lily with a certain hard-throwing righty better-suited for more work.
So what should the Yankees do this winter? How do they get back to the postseason in 2009 in a way that leverages their assets while avoiding the kind of massive mistakes that kill a team for years to come? Here's the course of action:
This doesn't solve all of the short-term problems, most notably leaving the same hole in center field that existed all year, and assuming calculated risks behind the plate and at second base. The contract status of Posada and Cano make the latter problems intractable; you could conceivably offer Cano in a deal for the Orioles' Brian Roberts, signed through '09, but I'm not sure the Orioles would take on Cano, even though they'd get all the upside in the deal. The only way to solve center field is by taking on a contract, with Gary Matthews Jr., Vernon Wells, and Aaron Rowand all springing to mind. None of those three solve the Yankees' OBP issues, though, and with the contracts involved, giving Cabrera one more shot at the job, with Austin Jackson coming up behind him, seems prudent. In Cabrera's favor is that he's just 24 years old, and is still the best defensive outfielder on the team. Signing an extra outfielder who can play center and bat left-handed-I'll name Endy Chavez for his defensive skills, but you probably want a better bat-would help.
So, were I in charge, this would be your 2009 New York Yankees:
C: Posada, Molina