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The Yankees have quite a bit of holes to fill this offseason. Simply put their hitting last year was abysmal (partially due to injuries, but also some guys aging) and their starting pitching had so many injuries that they relied much too much on Sidney Ponson. Their fielding has sunk to a really poor level as well. And to top it off, they don’t have a real centerfielder now that Johnny Damon only has the health and range for left field. So, what should the Yankees do this offseason?
The Yankees should pursue C.C. Sabathia and pursue him hard, which is the approach they’ve taken. It’s rare to have a lefty starter that good available on the free agent market, let alone one who is in his prime at 28 years old. Now I know that the attrition rate for pitchers is high, but C.C. has stayed very healthy in his career. To help, he can use his large body to generate his velocity, rather than needing absolutely perfect, but violent-looking mechanics.
Furthermore, he increased his strikeout rate, carried a very good walk rate, decreased his home run rate (unlike that other lefty that was traded last offseason.. cough JOHAN SANTANA cough) and has not gotten incredibly lucky, as evidenced by his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) being right around league average.
We are dealing with one of the top pitchers of our generation, one who would’ve won a Cy Young this year if he was not traded midseason. Also, Sabathia is one of the rare power pitchers that gets more groundballs than flyballs. Simply put, there’s no reason for the Yankees not to pursue him. Six years might be a little bit much, but that would leave him at 34 at the end of the contract, where he would likely still be a very good pitcher.
So that’s one slot in the rotation down, and Chein Ming-Wang and Joba Chamberlain are the other two definites to return. So what to do about the final two rotation spots? Well if Mike Mussina is willing to keep pitching, I think it’s almost definite that the Yankees should bring him back. He made the Jamie Moyer transition last year and looked very good in doing so. If Mussina decides to head into the sunset without doubt as to whether he’d played too long, the Yankees should bring back Andy Pettitte.
For the last starting pitching slot, I think the Yankees should attempt to sign Ben Sheets to a one-year deal. Yes, he’s very injury prone, even moreso than A.J. Burnett. But, Sheets has a better track record of quality pitching than Burnett and might be more willing to take a one-year deal to rehab his image. This also keeps a rotation spot open for next year for Phil Hughes. Given that Joba will have innings limits and Sheets is unlikely to be healthy all year, Hughes will still be able to get major league work in during the 2008 season, as well.
I don’t like A.J. Burnett as an option since he’s going to want multiple years and the Yankees don’t need another injury prone player under a multi-year contract. I’d prefer Derek Lowe to Burnett for health reasons. However, with Boras as his agent, Lowe is likely to want a multi-year deal as well, which blocks Hughes for next year.
The next area is relief pitching and no signings or trades will need to be done in my opinion. The Yankees have tons of options, the real choice is which of those players make the major league roster. Mariano Rivera and Damaso Marte are definites, given their contracts. The rest of the bullpen will be chosen from these options: Brian Bruney, David Robertson, Phil Coke, Jose Veras, Dan Giese, Scott Patterson, Humberto Sanchez (unless the team decides to convert him back to starting), Alfredo Aceves, Edwar Ramirez, Mark Melancon and J. Brent Cox. It’s very refreshing to see actual solid relievers in there instead of guys like Kyle Farnsworth or LaTroy Hawkins.
I prefer an 11-man pitching staff to a 12-man one, which means there’s four spots left to fight for. I would classify Bruney as a definite given the improvement he showed last year. Phil Coke gives the team a lot of versatility as a second lefty in the bullpen and one who can pitch multiple innings.
So now we have two spots left to decide from. Jose Veras was shaky at times last year, but he pitched above average, so he should be in. Finally, given that they’re only going to have six relievers, another pitcher that can pitch multiple innings would be valuable, and Dan Giese pitched really well out of the bullpen as a long reliever, so I would take him. If the Yankees were to go with 12 pitchers, I’d argue that they should give Mark Melancon and his impressive college and minor league closing track record a chance over Edwar Ramirez.
Now we come to the fun part. The offense/defense. The acquisition of Nick Swisher last week was a solid one, especially when you consider that the largest piece they gave up was Wilson Betemit. I don’t agree with Cashman in putting Swisher at first. Sure, he’ll be a slight upgrade over Giambi if he rebounds as expected and after factoring improved defense, but given the lack of solid right fielders available, I think the Yankees would be better off moving Swisher to right. Without a doubt, the Yankees should sign Mark Teixeira. He is a very good offensive first baseman and very good defensively as well. That combination would make him a massive upgrade over Jason Giambi.
Also, this would all mean the Yankees don’t retain Bobby Abreu, a move that I think needs to be done. Abreu wants multiple years and given his age, I think that is a very unwise signing. Also, according to many play by play fielding metrics, including David Pinto’s PMR, Mitchel G. Lichtman’s UZR and others, Bobby Abreu was one of the worst right fielders last year. So Swisher would be a solid upgrade defensively over even though he would be a downgrade offensively. And Swisher would be able to replace Abreu’s plate discipline.
I would give the centerfield job to Brett Gardner. He has a better ability to judge pitches than Melky Cabrera, and adds a speed dimension on the basepaths. I wouldn’t start him every game. I would do some sort of rotation with Damon, Xavier Nady, Gardner and Swisher to get them a large amount of playing time and since Hideki Matsui is the DH, but has bad knees, they’ll get chances to be the DH, as well, getting each over 400 plate appearances. Given that the likelihood of finding a deal to send Matsui elsewhere is low, I think the Yankees are best off with an arrangement of that sort.
As for the rest of the team, Robinson Cano should not be traded unless it nets them a centerfielder who can hit. If that happens, then signing Orlando Hudson would be a solid and not too expensive move. However, given the emergence of Austin Jackson at AA last year, I think the Yankees should not block up center field. So now we have the following players on the team: Jorge Posada, Jose Molina, Teixeira, Cano, Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Swisher, Gardner, Damon, Nady and Matsui. That’s 11 right there. Cody Random will very likely be back as the utility infielder after stealing that role away from Betemit last year at the end.
So now we’re at 12 and have two spots to fill. Given that Gardner, Damon and Matsui are lefties, I think the Yankees want a hitter who can play some outfield who is a right handed hitter. Another former Brewer, Gabe Kapler could fill that role very well and would be low cost. Finally, another infielder might make sense, and for that, I’m thinking someone with good defensive prowess for the left side of the infield. Perhaps if Omar Vizquel is willing to accept a backup role, he certainly still has the ability to play defense above average. Otherwise, I’m not too sure, but it’s not a position that will matter much given the amount the starters would play. If they go with 12 pitchers, the 14th position player would be an afterthought.
All in all, I feel these moves would give the Yankees much better flexibility and improve them for the long term, as well. The pitching would be better, the offense would be younger, the defense would be improved in both the infield and outfield. Most of all, this is a team that could compete in the AL East.