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Banking on Burnett

Yankees gave the right-hander too big of a contract
12/13/2008 1:41 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com

It's not likely the Yankees will go after first baseman Mark Teixeira after signing starter A.J. Burnett to a long-term deal. (AP)
The Yankees have now cornered the market on starters with initials for names, having signed A.J. Burnett to go with CC Sabathia. All they need to do now is acquire B.J. Ryan from the Blue Jays and J.D. Drew from the Red Sox, then replace some of the Joe DiMaggio quotes in the clubhouse area with some excerpts from J.D. Salinger. Instead of, "I want to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee," there could be signs saying, "An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's," or, "It's no fun to be yellow." Or maybe this from A.R. Ammons: "I attended the burial of all my rosy feelings: I preformed the rites, simple and decisive."

Seems like a good line for a pitcher to rehearse before taking the mound. Even better, they could intimidate them with three initials and this challenge from W.E.B. DuBois: "Liberty trains for liberty. Responsibility is the first step in responsibility." Alternatively, they could shrink it down to one initial and go with O. Henry's iconic, "It couldn't have happened anywhere but little old New York."

Indeed, little old New York was the only place where a pitcher with Burnett's history of injury and inconsistency would have netted a guaranteed five-year contract. Burnett, who will turn 32 in January, has put up a strong 3.78 ERA over the last five seasons, but he's only made it to 30 starts in two of them. In his most recent season, his ERA was above average but unimpressive at 4.07, a figure which breaks down to a 4.96 ERA in the first half of the season and 2.86 in the second half. Thus, the Yankees have agreed to pony up $82.5 million based in large part on the last 94.1 innings of Burnett's career.

Comparisons to Carl Pavano are inevitable and to some degree appropriate. The Yankees are taking a huge risk in signing a pitcher who has, in a Major League career going back to 1999, pitched 200 innings just three times. He most recently surpassed the 200-inning mark in this season, when he pitched 221.1 innings, easily his career high. He threw over 3,600 pitches, or about 400 more than he had thrown in any other season. The Blue Jays rolled up the pitcher's odometer; the Yankees will pay for what's left in the tank. The chances that Burnett will complete even the majority of this five-year deal in good working order seems remote. If you were cynical, you might suspect that signing Burnett was Brian Cashman's backdoor method of working Phil Hughes back into the rotation while simultaneously pleasing his ownership with another big-dollar signing, because someone will inevitably be picking up missed starts from Burnett and it might as well be Hughes or Ian Kennedy.

That said, the comparisons to Carl Pavano are overblown in two ways: first, no pitcher should have his work ethic impugned with a comparison to Pavano until proven guilty. Second, Pavano had no upside. None. Zero. If Pavano had been healthy for the last three years, the Yankees would have gotten, at best, very average, journeyman work. That's at best — Pavano had had just one season in his career in which he had been both healthy and good, and that season, the one that suckered the Yankees in, was 2005, when Pavano had been very lucky on balls in play, with batters hitting only .285 when they made contact. We know — have known since somewhere around the turn of the century — that for most pitchers, when they allow a .285 average on balls in play in a league that hit .300 when making contact, that's not good pitching, that's good luck, and luck nearly always reverts. The Yankees never, never, never should have treated Pavano as more than a fifth starter worthy of fifth starter's wages.

Burnett is different. Burnett has real stuff and can be dominant. It's not just about who is standing behind him, but how many batters he can send back to the dugout with their bats still in their hands. That doesn't mean that Burnett isn't a risk, but that unlike Pavano he may reward the gamble.

In all, though, the Burnett deal seems like a reach at an annual value of $16.5 million, especially since the Yankees have claimed that they cannot afford to pursue Mark Teixeira, the desperately needed star first baseman. Twenty-nine in April, Teixeira will be a viable, productive player for at least the duration of the Burnett contract if not longer, with a much smaller chance of extended time on the disabled list. In a time of limited resources for even the Yankees, they should have parked their money where they had the greatest certainty of it doing them some good. Buying A.J. seems about as safe a bet as buying GM.

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Wednesday, December 11: Posted at 11:50 p.m. EST

MIKE CAMERON REVISITED
A quick reprise of some words on Mike Cameron from October 23:

Cameron is a low-average hitter with decent selectivity, some power, and a great many strikeouts. He continues to be a good fit in center, if no longer the Gold Glover he used to be. As always, the question with any player of his vintage is, "How long will he be able to stay at his present level?" which in this case would be something like .250/.325/.440. Once again, we must offer this caveat: those numbers are distinctly in the Eh Zone (adjacent to the Twilight Zone, though Rod Serling only went there for later episodes of "Night Gallery"), but the Eh Zone is an upgrade on the Melky Zone, or, as George Harrison once sang, the Sour Melk Sea. "Better" is not the same as "good."

Cameron's last two seasons, the most recent of which included a suspension for failing a banned stimulant test, were intriguingly consistent. Here he is against left-handers in 2007 and 2008:

2007: .294/.404/.510 2008: .282/.397/.555

You're thinking, "Gee whiz, Fonz! That's pretty good," right? Let's move on to the rates against right-handers.

2007: .222/.316/.413 2008: .231/.309/.452

Hrm. Not so good ... Everything about Cameron shouts, "Beware! Player in decline!"

A couple of weeks later, I noted:

In a bad luck year, or a year in which age takes hold, Cameron could very easily slide to a below-.300 OBP. And suddenly, having gotten rid of Melky, you're dealing with his OBP again.

My conclusion in October:

Everything about Cameron shouts, "Beware! Player in decline!" He had a difficult time getting more than a one-year deal last winter. If the Yankees blow him away with two years, they're going to get burned, if not in year one than definitely in year two, though year one has the distinct odor of possible bust as well.

I would argue that if Brett Gadrner hits as he did during his second stint with the Yankees (August 15 on), .294/.333/.412 with eight steals in nine attempts, the Yankees will be in good shape next year given the defensive bonus they should also reap from his range. If Gardner hits only as well as he did in September, .283/.321/.377, they will basically be getting what they got from Melky in his good days, plus speed. It's not great, but you can live with it given good defense and the thought that Gardner will build with experience and reach greater heights further on, say, .295/.390/.410. Remember, Gardner is a more selective hitter than he showed in the majors this year, and these .320, .330 on-base percentages are a little low.

What the Yankees seem to be missing here is that if they upgrade in right field, they can worry less about bringing in someone expensive to play center. An outfielder-DH in the Adam Dunn mode, combined with reasonable performance from Gardner, would do far more for the team than Cameron plus an Abreu return, or Cameron plus Nady. You can make book right now on a Damon-Cameron-Nady outfield being both defensively bland and offensively subpar. This is a formula for another year of mediocre offense and thousands of words wasted on why the Yankees aren't "clutch" when they just don't have the runners on base to be heroic.

The Yankees need to keep thinking outside of the box — their box. The box they're standing in right now is the 1980s box, the box of indiscriminate application of superior financial resources. It leads to big contracts for the likes of Dave Collins, not to championship rings. They had the right idea last year. They didn't get good results for a variety of reasons, but that doesn't mean they were wrong, just that sometimes you have to tinker with a plan before you get it right.

Six weeks later, I stand by that. Another point: earlier today, Cliff Corcoran pointed out that Jim Edmonds is still available, and he won't cost the Yankees anything but money. If you take his Cubs numbers (.256/.369/.568) as something he'll be capable of revisiting at 39, then you have the makings of a pretty good center-field platoon (with someone), one that would almost certainly out-produce Cameron. Edmonds would allow Cabrera to be traded for something else of value, if there's a market for him beyond Milwaukee, or for that matter, a more valuable Brewer — not an expensive old guy they're trying to get rid of.

As for Melky, it's ironic that he might go to the Brewers, because he's basically Rick Manning, a good defensive outfielder who had a 1500-game Major League career despite doing almost nothing with the bat after his second Major League season. He spent the 4 1/2 years of his career with the Brewers, coming over just after they went to the 1982 World Series and did his best to impede them from going back. He succeeded. Melky's timing is uncannily similar.

FAT, BEARDED YANKEES GUY WITH TWO SKINNY GUYS
I dropped by Bronx Banter Breakdown today at the studios of that other local sports network to talk CC Sabathia with Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran.

Note that I got a self-deprecating "fat guy" joke in there. I think I need to hire a personal trainer to come to my house. Any trainers out there want to shrink me at a discount rate in exchange for frequent endorsements on a well-read baseball blog?

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Wednesday, December 10: Posted at 5:07 p.m. EST

AS WE GO UP WE GO DOWN
Down in the comments, longtime reader/frequent commenter Louis writes:

If, in addition to CC, the Yankees sign two more big name FA pitchers without further upgrading the offense/defense, they're going to resemble the 2008 Blue Jays: great pitching, mediocre offense (though the Jays were a much better fielding team). That's probably not going to be good enough in the AL East next year.

I have been wanting to make that point about the Blue Jays and their league-leading 3.77 runs per game allowed for awhile, but somehow keep bypassing it, and I thank Louis for reminding me. The Jays scored just 4.41 runs per game The Yankees were almost half a run better, plating 4.87 runners a game. "Better" isn't "best;" the Yankees ranked only seventh in the league in runs per game.

The question for next year, insofar as any potential Blue Jayism goes, is if the Yankees offense gets better, worse, or stays the same. Brian Cashman is on record as saying "Better." He bases this on getting a full season out of Jorge Posada; a fixed Robby Cano; a divorced A-Rod; a healthy Matsui. Is he correct? With all respect, probably not:

Posada is a year older and very probably won't be up to his old 140-game workloads. Whereas almost anything Posada is likely to do will be an improvement on Jose Molina, giving one-fifth or more of the starts behind the plate to Mr. Career .237/.276/.339 is potentially devastating. And if Posada's shoulder isn't what it used to be and he can't catch, look out.

Alex Rodriguez hit at about his career levels last year. Sure, he was well down from 2007, but 2007 was not his typical year. Maybe a more relaxed, Maddona-ified A-Rod will hit better in the clutch, but that adds fewer runs than you might thing.

If Matsui is healthy, he should be reasonably productive at DH, but the Yankees actually did quite well at DH last year thanks to Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi. Overall, Yankees DHs hit .282/.378/.461. Matsui is a career .295/.371/.478 hitter and he's 35. He's not likely to give the Yankees a whole lot more than they got last year.

Cashman is probably right about Cano, but we haven't even gotten to the other aspects of the offense: Johnny Damon will probably lose some production. No one knows what the team will get out of center field. Xavier Nady in right field is a likely step backwards of around 20 runs. Nick Swisher could put first base on a par with what it got last season (.246/.349/.460) or even a little more assuming the return to form we all figure is coming.

So what does that all add up to? Without playing with projected numbers (which I did in a previous entry), it seems like there might be something less than short of a decisive improvement. As for the defense, it's where it was, and that ain't good. Figure that if the Yankees want to win 98 games next year, and scoring remains constant or just ticks up a little bit, they would still have to saw nearly 80 runs allowed off of this year's total. Sabathia replaces Mike Mussina plus (because he pitches further into games) some bullpen innings. Add a healthy Chien-Ming Wang, a full year of Joba Chamberlain, and about 40 starts from pitchers (whoever they are) who should be better than Sidney Ponson, Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, and Carl Pavano... It seems doable, but if offense slips, look out. Things will go backwards as they go forward.

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Wednesday, December 10: Posted at 12:32 p.m. EST

According to rumors widely circulating at this hour, the Yankees have bagged their big man, reaching a preliminary agreement with CC Sabathia on a seven-year, $160 million contract. If the story is true, the Yankees have acquired the heaviest pitcher in team history, or at least the heaviest since Jumbo Brown last titled the Yankee Stadium mound back in 1936, through his age-35 season.

There is no doubt the Yankees are a better team now than they were yesterday; Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in the business and becomes the left-handed ace the Yankees have been missing for some years. While the Yankees should not expect to receive anything close to the 1.65 ERA-run that Sabathia gave the Brewers this fall, some form of what Sabathia did for the Indians over the last five seasons — durability, excellent control, a strong strikeout rate, and an ERA somewhere in the mid-3.00s — should be in the cards.

Now the requisite "but:" All of that requires health, and the Yankees are entering unknown territory when it comes to Sabathia. Over the last two years he's thrown over 500 innings (regular season and playoffs) and faced well over 2,000 batters. Under normal circumstances, when it comes to that kind of workload, a physical breakdown wouldn't be a question of "if," but "when." The two main complications are that "when" remains undefined (Tuesday? July? July of 2010?) and, perhaps more significantly, we have no idea if a pitcher built like the Incredible Hulk is subject to the same rules that affect everyone else.

Meanwhile, there are reportedly offers out to other pitchers, more questionable pitchers — Derek Lowe, a groundballer going on 36 who the Yankees aren't capable of supporting defensively, and A.J. Burnett, a pitcher who is good sometimes and is hurt often. Mark Teixeira seems a good bet to go to the Red Sox, where he will improve an already very good club for years. The Yankees will go through the winter having gotten exactly what they wanted, but I can't help but feel, as I have written throughout this offseason, that the real problems of offense and defense are being neglected.

More to come as details emerge.

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Tuesday, December 10: Posted at 5:40 p.m. EST

ARE THINGS HAPPENING?
No confirmation from any of the cats on scene as of yet, but there has been a hot rumor going about that CC Sabathia has turned down the Yankees. And in the time it took me to type that sentence, the indefatigable Ken Rosenthal debunked it. So nothing has changed. Sabathia floats just out of reach like a great pitching dirigible.

In other news, Yankee-for-a-moment Mike Lamb is off the market, heading back to the Brewers for utility work after a miserable year mostly spent with the Twins. The impact there should be minimal, unless Milwaukee is going to get out of the Bill Hall-at-third business, which they probably should. Hall hit .174/.242/.316 against right-handers last year, and though there was clearly some bad luck involved with that (no one hits .219 on balls in play), but he had moderately good luck against righties the year before and still batted only .247/.305/.408 against them. Lamb is a lamb, but it wouldn't take much of a bounce-back for him to exceed those rates; he's a career .281/.336/.422 hitter against righties-no big deal, but given where the Brewers are coming from, they might take it.

Mark Loretta, the occasionally useful multi-position reserve heads to Joe Torre-land for a year, there to supply a little batting average-driven production off the bench. Loretta doesn't have much pop, but he's amazingly consistent. Check out his rates over the last four years:

2005 .280/.360/.347 (Padres)
2006 .285/.345/.361 (Red Sox)
2007 .287/.352/.372 (Astros)
2008 .280/.350/.383 (Astros)

Anyone want to bet that the Dodgers will get something within five points of .284/.351/ .364 from Loretta in 2009? Anyone want to bet that Torre anoints Loretta the new Miguel Cairo and plays him all too often, doing counterproductive things like spotting him at first against lefties?

The Dodgers also re-upped Casey Blake for three years, which they will probably regret sooner than later. Blake is a fun, scrappy player, but his tools are limited enough that if he slips even a little there isn't going to be much production left to hang your hat on. Nor is he the world's greatest fielder. The Dodgers have nailed him down for his age-35 through age-37 seasons. Blake is a .265/.335/.451 career hitter. He hit .251/.313/.460 for the Dodgers this year. That was more than they had been getting, but it's not something a team should plan to get. The deal is a good one for the Twins, the Dodgers' principle rivals for Blake, as they have some players in the system who could probably do nearly as well if given the chance.

Finally, the Mets signed K-Rod, Francisco Rodriguez. The single-season saves leader was signed to a three-year, $37 million deal, with a vesting option for year four. Rodriguez was obviously quite good in 2008, but he was only the third-best closer in the biz-Brad Lidge and Mariano Rivera were quite a bit better, Rodriguez's record-breaking work coming with a high volume of opportunities as well as excellence. In fact, and here's what should make Mets fans a bit nervous about the deal, as good as Rodriguez was, he was off quite a bit from his terrific 2006. He set a career low in strikeout rate, and it's not as if he changed his approach, as his walks remained right where they were in 2007. The Mets desperately needed help at the business end of the bullpen, and all things being equal he just bought the best closer available-but maybe all things aren't equal. At least he's only on the hook for three years-if Rodriguez's arm does go pop, it will all be over relatively quickly. The only really terrible outcome is if it happens in 2009-the Mets desperately need to have a good year after two crushing fadeouts. And one other matter: they ain't done. You've got to get the ball to K-Rod, and that means reliable set-up relievers. The Mets don't have those either.

KUBEK TO THE HALL
Not for his injury-shortened playing career-though his 1957, OF-3B-SS Rookie of the Year season, engineered by a restless Casey Stengel, is one of those neat-o testaments to staying above replacement level that is the manager's legacy to us-but for his broadcasting career. Kubek was wonderfully acerbic, averse to tarting up his broadcasts with homerism. His Ford Frick award (putting him in the so-called "Broadcasters Wing") is well deserved. It's hard to believe that it has been almost 15 years since he last called a Yankees game.

MORE FROM ME
I try to do something fun with Commerce Secretaries at Wholesome Reading, with more to come. Plus, updates here as events warrant (please!).

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Monday, December 9: Posted at 3:37 p.m. EST

WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO BREAK...
...And hoping it's not a leg or a Faberge Egg (Hey, A-Rod, how far can you hit this priceless work of art?) but a deal. So far it seems that there has been a little gabbing but not much deal-making out Vegas way. In fact, even some of the gabbing hasn't happened, as reports of Team A talking to Team B about Players X and Y are quickly debunked by one of the general managers in question. "Haven't seen him," he might say. "Not yet." Or, "Sure, we talked, but only about some very remote Dominican Summer League guys whom you've never heard of, and frankly, neither have I."

Thus far, Brian Cashman has had a chat with CC Sabathia, one that seems to have gone better than Gene Michael's with Greg Maddux under similar conditions in 1992. Michael brought theatre tickets. Maddux wanted Nintendo games. A bond was not established. Meanwhile, we have two Detroit deals going down. The Tigers picked up a good field/no-hit catcher in Gerald Laird, who isn't going to help them all that much — compare and contrast: Laird's .248 career EqA to Brandon Inge's .250 and the two catchers' virtually equal caught-stealing percentages. Inge's reluctance to catch may have forced the move on the Tigers, but that leaves them the problem of what to do with Inge, a very nice fielder at the hot corner who doesn't hit enough (.235/.310/.408 over the last three seasons) to justify a daily place in the lineup. Inge would be worth something in a platoon role against lefties with additional time as a defensive sub, though probably not as much as the $12.9 million still due on his contract.

In return, the Rangers received two pitchers, one of whom is just 17 and thus so far away as to be a shot in the dark, and another, Guillermo Moscoso, a likely reliever who has put up some very nice strikeout numbers in the Minors. We can't know for sure what will happen, but a good rule of thumb (one in operation here at the PB) is that all trades where the selling team receives only pitching prospects should be judged guilty until proven innocent. In eight of 10 cases, the arms fall off, the pitchers don't progress or both, and they come to nothing. Position players are always more projectable than pitchers, and if you want certainty, you've got to get one. Again, that doesn't mean that the trade won't be a real winner for the Rangers, but that the odds are against it.

The Tigers also have reportedly signed punchless shortstop Adam Everett, a career .246/.298/.355 hitter. If the Tigers' infield is really going to be composed of Miguel Cabrera, Placido Polanco, Inge, and Everett, plus Laird at catcher, it's going to be a very long year in Detroit, and that's without considering the implosion of the automobile companies. No matter what the outfield produces, there's just not enough offense there to start a fire.

ON A MORE EXCITING FRONT...
There's another Yankee in the Hall of Fame. Joe "Flash" Gordon isn't around to enjoy his enshrinement, but the Veterans corrected a major oversight by recognizing the slick-fielding slugger of the 1940s. If it seems as if I'm eliding his qualifications, it's only because I've written about them so many times, going back to the very beginnings of my writing career. Gordon's Hall of Fame case is one of the first things I was ever paid to write about. Suffice it to say that he was a terrific glove and a slugger at his position, and of the 18 second basemen in the Hall of Fame, the only clearly superior players are (in no particular order) Joe Morgan, Jackie Robinson, Eddie Collins, and Rogers Hornsby. You can argue with that assessment, and no doubt some of you will, but you'll find that even if you want to slip in a Nap Lajoie or Charlie Gehringer ahead of Gordon, he doesn't sink too far.

UPDATES
...As events warrant.

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Various and sundry updates at Wholesome Reading, including psychology's impact on the economy. Warning! Politics!

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Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Blog appears daily on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel, and "Mind Game," the story of the Red Sox' 2004 championship, and "Baseball Between the Numbers," from the authors of Baseball Prospectus, are now available at Amazon.com. More Steve is available on YESNetwork.com in the Pinstriped Bible, and the Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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