The Yankees this year have some obvious and very impressive strengths. Their right-handed power is the best in the game. Sanchez, Judge and Stanton could conceivably combine for 120 or more home runs. The bullpen, despite Betances rough first outing, is also good enough to play well into October. The rotation, while not the best in the game, is nonetheless strong. All this makes it difficult to process the potential weaknesses of this team. This is exacerbated by a New York media climate the turns every journeyman traded to the Yankees, at least at first, into a potential star, and refuses to recognize a hot spring by a second tier prospect for what it really is.
I have a very fond memory of my late brother yelling the news of Boone’s home run to me over the phone. I had called my brother in San Francisco from Batumi, Georgia to get the score because I had no internet access in my shoddy post-Soviet hotel that morning. I am grateful for Boone’s pennant winning blast in 2003 and would love to see him have a few more great Yankee moments. However, less than a week after Boone was appointed manager, it is beginning to feel a bit like a set up.
Jeter is one of the most intriguing of baseball players because for most of his career he has simultaneously been overrated, he is clearly not the greatest player or even the greatest Yankee in history, and underrated. He is not strong on defense, but has not been as bad as many think. Moreover, Jeter's extremely cautious style with the media has led most of the media to cover him as some sort of baseball saint, always ready with a good team oriented quote, respectful of the game and its history and almost never willing to criticize a teammate, or opponent. A minority of fans, however, see this is as a highly choreographed image by Jeter, which of course it is, and decry him for not being genuine.
The Yankees now have a distinct combinations of comparative strengths and weaknesses. On the down side, they have few prospects who are close to being ready to contribute at a major league level, few good young players under team control and several older and less productive, but still well paid players. The Yankees, as is well known, have one enormous structural advantage, their deep financial resources. Opportunities to use this resource are changing, and in some senses, shrinking. There are fewer top level free agents available; and teams seeking to rid themselves of salary during the season are demanding prospects of the kind the Yankees do not have in exchange. Moreover, the latest round of playoff expansion means fewer teams view themselves as out of contention halfway through the season.
In keeping Posey and Cain the Giants are taking a risk, but losing one or both of these potential Hall of Famers just as they may be reaching their best years would also hurt the team. The Giants have won two of the last three World Series after a period of 54 years in which they won exactly six World Series games, and no championships. They have brought a level of excitement about baseball to San Francisco that has never been seen before and are on the cusp of becoming a national, and even international brand, like the Yankees or Red Sox only cooler. Losing Cain would have jeopardized that. Posey, for his part, is one of the very best players on the planet and the face of the franchise. Keeping him is a good baseball move and sends a message to baseball and to Giants fans that the Giants are committed to continuing to field championship calibre teams.
The most intriguing question facing the Yankees is not which of their veterans can come back or who they can acquire to help their chances this year, but what the next decade will look like for the Yankees. Only Cano, Gardner and perhaps Sabathia, are both young and good enough to be around and contributing in five years. The prospects who are expected to arrive in the next few years are solid but unspectacular. Accordingly, the Yankees need to build a team based on some good prospects, a contingent of aging and, due to contracts, largely unmovable veterans, and, of course, the ability to outspend everybody. This last point alone will not be enough to build a winner.
This second World Series win in three years is a fantastic accomplishment for the San Francisco Giants; and it is also an opportunity to reflect on some of the players who were key parts of this win and, in some cases, both World Series wins by taking a brief, if early, look at there Hall of Fame chances. There are four players on the team Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, who have played well enough to establish a chance at being elected to the Hall of Fame.Interestingly, these four players were among the few holdovers from 2010 to be part of the 2012 team. The remaining Giants are either two young or are clearly not on a Hall of Fame path.
Describing a team as boring is subjective, but it is clear that at the halfway point in the season, the Yankees, despite their very good record, have not generated any buzz in New York. Last year fans watched Derek Jeter reach 3,000 hits and saw Mariano Rivera become the all time saves leader. This year they have seen Jeter pass Paul Waner on the hit list while Rafael Soriano has taken over as a good closer, but one about whom few Yankee fans care deeply. It is hard to think of any Yankee games which are even close to as memorable as Santana’s no-hitter, any one of several starts by Dickey, or even some of the early season Yankee-Red Sox games of recent years.
The Yankees inability to find a backup catcher or utility infielder who can contribute with the bat while fielding decently is baffling because by not finding these kinds of players, who are often available and always inexpensive, the Yankees risk seeing a team with a payroll in excess of $200 million fail to make the playoffs because they were unable to solve problems that would have cost, at most, a few million dollars in salary. Given the age of a number of key players, notably Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees have additional reason to need a strong bench, and should have known this before the season started.
The Yankees inability to develop highly touted pitching prospects into quality major league starters is an organizational problem that probably involves scouts, minor league managers and coaches, big league managers and coaches and front office management. Solving this problem will not be easy and probably cannot be done simply by bringing in one pitching guru like the San Francisco Giants’ Dick Tidrow.
Jesus Montero had been burning a hole in the New York Yankees’ pocket for about two years. Although he was a highly touted and anticipated prospect, who did not disappoint when brought up to the big leagues at the end of 2011, Montero had been mentioned in so many trade rumors since mid-2010 that it was no surprise when the Yankees finally pulled the trigger and traded him. It was, however, somewhat surprising that the Yankees managed get in return for Montero, not some highly paid veteran pitcher who was already in the decline phase of his career, or a top flight pitcher poised for free agency at the trade deadline, but Michael Pineda who is only 23 and one of the top young pitchers in the game. While Yankee fans may be sad to see Montero go, and anything can happen particularly with young pitchers, Pineda could be a very valuable contributor to the Yankees for several seasons.
The New York Yankees have been the biggest non-story of the off-season. Not surprisingly, given the role the Yankees play in baseball’s shared consciousness, this non-story has itself become one of the major themes of this off-season. Shortly after the World Series, the Yankees renegotiated a big contract with their ace pitcher CC Sabathia. Since resigning Sabathia, the team has done almost nothing. They have signed Hideki Okajima to a minor league contract, parted ways with longtime catching star Jorge Posada, but made no significant changes to their major league roster.
This year’s World Series will be the second in a row in which neither the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox nor Philadelphia Phillies will be playing. The 2011 payroll for each of these teams was over $160 million; and in the case of the Yankees, well in excess of that number. No other team spent even $140 million on payroll in 2011. The Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals had the 11th and 13th highest payroll, with each spending between $90-$110 million assembling their pennant winning teams.
The question of what active players will eventually get elected to the Hall of Fameis a fun one which can generate numerous articles and even more hours of debate. However, this topic also raises some interesting questions about the Hall of Fame itself and what defines a Hall of Fame ballplayer. Perhaps the most easily overlooked aspect of this discussion has to do with how many active players will end up in Cooperstown.
Cain is, however, an intriguing pitcher from a statistical angle. His career win-loss record is an unimpressive 65-67, but this is largely because during 2007 and 2008, he got very poor run support posting a 15-30 record despite an ERA+ of 120. While Cain has been unlucky in one area, some argue that he has been lucky in others, because he has managed to post a lower ERA than his other numbers, such as walks and strikeouts would suggest. Cain has consistently managed to hold his opponents to a lower BABIP than most pitchers, as when Cain is pitching more batted balls turn into outs than might be generally expected.
While all pitching prospects, presumably, would like to develop into big league pitchers who can have long and productive careers, this is not the goal of the teams who control their future. Bringing pitchers along slowly and carefully is probably the best thing for pitchers, but it may not be the best way to win championships. Baseball history is full of pitchers who burned out early or injured their arm due to overuse at a young age, but for fans and management this is not a tragedy but simply part of the game. Teams should not be oblivious to the risks of overworking a young pitcher. These risks are quite real, but teams should also recognize that sometimes they need to take that risk.
If the Yankees are transitioning into a new era-nobody ever says rebuilding in Yankeeland-the Jeter and Rivera signings make little sense, but that seems to be what the Yankees are doing as they look for young players to handle much of the pitching rotation and perhaps some of the catching. In this context, the simplest explanation for resigning Rivera and Jeter, particularly Jeter, for the numbers the Yankees agreed upon is that the Yankees have let sentiment and their own spin override baseball decisions and that they have gone soft.
Posada and Jeter’s offensive production took a great deal of pressure off of the rest of the Yankee offense during theoe years. The late 1990s are already more than a decade ago, so it is often forgotten that those Yankee teams did not always get great production from what are usually thought of as important offensive positions such as first base, DH and the corner outfield positions. The 1998 team was an extraordinary team with no real weaknesses, but their worst hitter was left fielder Chad Curtis who posted an OPS+ of 90. However, in 1999, the players most often used at DH, LF, RF, 1b and 3b, all posted OPS+ of 110 or lower. These are extraordinarily poor numbers for a World Championship team, especially for one which won 98 regular season games and finished third in the league in runs scored. The 2000 team was similar as none of the players who played those five positions most frequently had an OPS+ of even 100. The offense in 2000, which scored 871 runs, good enough for sixth in the league, came from the catcher, shortstop, centerfielder and a handful of part time players. The 2009 team, however, hit from top to bottom and was the most balanced Yankee offense to win a championship since 1998.
One of the major exploitable market inefficiencies in baseball is that teams pay so heavily for past accomplishments. No team does this more than the Yankees who have evolved into something of a straw man in this debate. The long contract which they gave to Alex Rodriguez means that the team will be playing Rodriguez more than $20 million a year in 2015-2017. Nobody can seriously think Rodriguez will still be an elite player by that time. Even if his current season is viewed as an off-year, it is not realistic to expect him to still be a top star during the last three years of his contract when he will make a total of $61 million.
Nonetheless, Halladay occupies a strange place in the pantheon of great pitchers as his career fell between two generations of great pitchers. He spent the first part of his career in the shadow of the Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez cohort who dominated the game from the late 1980s until the middle of the last decade and were all better pitchers than Halladay. When these pitchers began to retire few years ago, a new group of pitchers including Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez emerged as the top pitchers in the game. Although there is certainly no guarantee that these pitchers will have better careers than Halladay’s, it likely that for much of the duration of his career, Halladay will be not quite as good as at least some of this next generation of stars.