Tuesday night's Red Sox win made it official: The Yankees will miss the 2008 playoffs, making this the first season in the Division Series era in which 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 86-71 mark in the toughest division in baseball history, that record understates their performance. At right are the best teams in baseball by third-order record:
No, the Yankees aren't a bad team, and in fact, they would probably have won four of the other five divisions in baseball, something you could say for the top four teams in the AL East. It's important that they not overreact to missing the postseason, which 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 86-71 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. GM 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 to the ball. However, he took a huge step backward at the plate this season, 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 liability on offense, and his defense doesn't begin to make up for poor offense. Cano and Cabrera were worth 13.6 wins above replacement a year ago. This season 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. 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 off-season.
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 basically nil, 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. Damon's limited time in center 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 will likely need to get their playing time.
The Yankees thus find themselves in a terrible bind on offense: 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. Phil 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 fewer 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. Pettitte and Mussina have provided 65 starts of above-average pitching, and while the price is high ($28 million), the length of the 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 relative certainty if not upside.
The risks on the market are far too great to justify the costs. Sabathia, 28, has thrown a ton of pitches over 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 recommended course of action:
Sign Mark Teixeira. With Jason Giambi's contract expiring (he has a $22 million option that's likely to be bought out for $5 million), the Yankees don't have a first baseman in place for '09. Teixeira is the most complete position player on the market, bringing power and OBP from both sides of the plate and strong defense. Most contracts for players on the left side of the defensive spectrum are bad ideas, but Teixeira's age (29 in April), durability (one DL stint in his career) and performance level make him worth the risk. The Yankees' cash position means they can meet or exceed any offer to Teixeira, and using him to replace Giambi ($21 million in 2008) means that signing him would be nearly cost-neutral while improving the team's first-base play by two wins. Signing Teixeira would be consistent with the Yankees' approach to free agency prior to the Carl Pavano signing: getting the best free agent on the market, while staying out of the overpriced middle. This, and not Sabathia, is the key move of the off-season. There is no free agent like Teixeira.
Bring back Bobby Abreu, on your terms. Abreu's approach at the plate is valuable to a team that doesn't work the count as well as it might. Unfortunately, he's another aging corner outfielder (he'll be 35 next year) with defensive issues. If you can sign him for, say, two years and a vesting option, it would be worth the investment; anything longer than that is probably too risky. There are not many right fielders on this roster or in the market, and Xavier Nady is not an everyday player -- you need a lefty partner for him.
Avoid the free-agent pitchers. Only Sabathia has the kind of track record that might warrant the contracts that the available starters will be getting this winter. As good as he's been the last two seasons, there's an enormous amount of risk involved in signing a pitcher who has been worked like a dray horse of late, and who carries a lot of weight. It works for him now, but will it work for him in 2012? With the expectation that he'll get a seven-year deal for upwards of $23 million a season, that's the critical question. Once you set Sabathia aside, the rest of the class is easy to dismiss. Sheets and Burnett simply don't have the track records to warrant five-year commitments, and Dempster and Perez have three good years between them. These guys are the Pavanos and Jaret Wrights of this off-season. Let someone else make those mistakes.
Put Joba Chamberlain in the rotation and leave him alone. Chamberlain didn't get hurt because he was used as a starter, and the idea that he should be a reliever is misguided. He was a starter his whole career until the Yankees needed bullpen help in the summer of 2007 and alighted on him as a solution. They have to stop diminishing his value by turning him into a 75-inning contributor in moderate-leverage situations. Let him prepare this winter for 32 starts, and then turn him loose on the AL.
Re-sign Mussina or Pettitte. Try and get some kind of Yankee discount on one of these two, both of whom have quietly been anchors this year. Even if Mussina were to regress to his 2007 level, he'd still be worth a deal comparable to what he's coming off of, a two-year, $15 million commitment. As with the signings of Rivera and Posada last winter, it's probably worth it to the Yankees to use their cash to overpay slightly for some certainty. You're buying 60 starts over two years of league-average baseball without having to risk what that might become in years three through seven. This enables the Yankees to work in the young pitchers behind them in the rotation.
Pick up Carl Pavano's option. It seems like a ridiculous idea, but Pavano's late-season performance has shown him to be a reasonable back-end option for a big-league rotation. You can laugh, but if he hits the market, some team will give him a two-year contract just off of the last month of work. The Yankees can pay $13 million -- $11 million marginal considering the $2 million buyout -- and have a fifth or sixth (insurance) starter in place for 2009, one who will be better than Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner. This is, again, a situation where the Yankees can use their deep pockets to overpay in the short term as opposed to committing more money to an uncertain future.
Don't touch the bullpen. Resist the temptation to use the available money on the 2009 equivalents of Kyle Farnsworth or Chris Hammond. The Yankees have a plethora of live arms who can help them control games in front of Rivera, and they just keep coming: both Alfredo Aceves and Phil Coke have, in just the last few weeks, put themselves in position to be key contributors out of the pen in 2008. The best bullpens are homegrown and inexpensive, and the Yankees can have that by just leaving theirs alone.
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
2B: Cano, Betemit
CF: Cabrera, Chavez
RF: Abreu, Nady
SP: Wang, Chamberlain, Mussina, Hughes, Kennedy, Pavano
RP: Rivera, Ramirez, Veras, Coke, Aceves, Giese