Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sorting It All Out

I wanted to keep some continuity and go with the Class A Charleston River Dogs article I had for today. But, as it turns out, the more I read on the message boards, the more I got to thinking about what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks. Surely a few things will unfold, most notably the Johnny Damon escapades. But of all the possible outcomes, which benefit the Yankees the most?

It seems that everyone is in panic mode following the Winter Meetings, at which Brian Cashman didn’t land the center fielder the Yankees need. However, the level of “need” for a center fielder is possibly the most hotly contested issue for Yankees fans. Some feel that starting the season with Bubba is the way to go, since he’s cheap and wouldn’t require sacrificing players. Others feel that Bubba will be a huge bust and that the Yankees had better act now, lest they have the same gaping hole in center as last year.

In reality, the Yankees don’t need to do much to upgrade in center field. As I have mentioned before, Bernie Williams was the fifteenth best outfielder in the American League, which only hosts 14 teams. Despite this performance, the Yankees still have one of the most potent offenses in the league. So at the bare minimum, the Yankees have to replace a guy who hit .249/.321/.367 and plays terrible defense.

Can Bubba handle that? Personally, I think he can. It’s a given at this point that Crosby covers more ground than Bernie, and even though his arm isn’t great, it still trumps Bernie’s brand of lollipops. And in the offensive category, I fully believe that Bubba can at least match Bernie’s marks from last year. Don Mattingly was pulling hard for Bubba last year, working with him and talking him up to Joe Torre, eventually leading Torre to use Crosby a bit more. And when he did, Bubba started to hit a little.

There is no doubt in my mind that as I type this, Bubba is working his ass off to improve his swing. He knows that there is a distinct possibility that he’ll be the starter on Opening Day, and I doubt he’d just let this winter pass without making strides to improve. Of course, I don’t know Bubba personally, so I cannot attest to his workout regimen. But I do know that there is no excuse for him to not bust his ass this off-season.

Still, I’m sure Cashman doesn’t particularly want to begin the season with Bubba in center. Obviously he’d like to add Johnny Damon, but until his price tag drops to a reasonable salary for a shorter number of years, I firmly believe Cashman will stay away. Plus, there is always the possibility that Damon is merely using the Yanks as a bargaining chip with the Red Sox, who say they won’t budge from their four-year, $40 million offer. And quite honestly, I don’t think Damon is worth much more.

Another possibility is Seattle CFer Jeremy Reed, who was reportedly offered to the Yanks along with reliever J.J. Putz for Carl Pavano. Cashman has said of late that he wishes to hang onto Carl, as he could provide some punch to the starting rotation, and at the very least means more depth. It would seem that to deal Pavano, another team would have to ante-up significantly, and considering his injury-shortened 2005 and questions about his true ability, it’s unlikely that another team will swoop in with a considerable offer.

The question here is simple: is Reed a significant upgrade over Crosby AND Pavano? Because in essence, the move for Reed moves Pavs out of the rotation and Bubba out of center field, which in turn would push our buddy J-Wright back into the fold, barring the signing of Kevin Millwood (unlikely) or Jarrod Washburn (more probable than Millwood, but still unlikely).

Bubba and Pavano or Reed and Wright? As much as I like Jeremy Reed’s upside, I find it difficult to pick the latter option. If Vegas had odds on pitcher injuries, it would be about 5:2 that Wright will go down before mid-May with shoulder troubles. After him, the only starter left would be Aaron Small, a guy who 1) could be valuable out of the bullpen this year and 2) shouldn’t be relied on as a starter. We all love what he did down the stretch, but the team can’t count on that for next year. Relegating him to bullpen work/spot starts is the ideal situation.

Speaking of Small, he could be a bit more attractive to the Phillies now, who have traded Vincente Padilla to the Rangers for the infamous PTBNL. Mr. PTBNL likely won’t be throwing pitches for the Phils this year, and thus they could use a versatile option like Small, someone who can start and work out of the bullpen. It’s unlikely that the Phillies would take Small straight up for Michaels, since they know that Michaels is a decent commodity. Sturtze could be added to this package, or it could be Sean Henn, though I’d be very reluctant to sacrifice Henn and Small for Michaels.

Another option/rumor making its rounds with Yankees fans (most notably B-Man over at RLYW) is signing Juan Encarnacion AND Jacque Jones for a RF platoon, sending Sheffield to DH the bulk of the time. Trading Pavano for Reed would be a nice complement to this scenario, since the cost of Encarnacion and Jones would be offset by the fiscal relief of dealing Pavano. It would also keep Giambi at first base more often, where his numbers are vastly superior to his DH marks. Still, he’d have to DH at least a day a week, maybe two, which would put Sheff back in right field. This turns Encarnacion and Jones into bench players, which solves another problem: the thin bench.

The monkey wrench here is that Jones probably wants a full-time gig, not a platoon role (for which he is much better suited), and Encarnacion might not be warm to the idea, either. But the Yankees offer something that a team like the Royals – who have an offer on the table for Jones – just cannot: the perennial possibility of winning it all. There are few consistent winners like the Yankees, which is always attractive to free agents. Many players would accept more money and less playing time in New York rather than sign on to play full time in Detroit or Kansas City. Jones has said he’d rather play for a contender than sign with the Royals, so there’s a possibility there.

While this scenario sounds pretty out there, it makes plenty of sense when you consider the depth it adds to the lineup. Then again, at the same time it thins out the pitching staff. It is highly unlikely that the Yankees would sign Jones, Encarnacion, AND Millwood or Washburn, so that would mean J-Wright starting (which in turn means Small starts for a significant portion of the season).

This situation could also become a reality if the Yankees decide to keep Pavano and Crosby, which would keep the depth in the lineup as well as depth in the pitching. So once again, I find a scenario in which it makes more sense to keep Bubba and Pavano. This sucks. I’ve been on the “trade Pavano!” bandwagon since that article surfaced that he wanted out (I was on the fence, but that was the clincher). And now I’m advocating his residency?

Finally, I’ve become decisive about an issue: keep Pavano, keep Bubba. I know it’s going to be difficult to say “no, I think we should go with Bubba,” every time someone mentions a trade for a center fielder, but the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s the right move.

A more prominent option for the Yankees is Nomar Garciaparra. That’s been the talk of the tabloids of late, which means it’s probably a load of caca. While Nomar wouldn’t be a terrible option at first base, the deal doesn’t make much sense for either side. The other teams seeking him – the Indians, Dodgers, and Orioles most notably – would play him at a position he’s played before, shortstop or third base. The Yankees, however, would be signing him to play neither of those natural positions of his, but rather first base, right field, and of course DH.

While bench depth should be a priority for the Yankees, Nomar just might not be the answer. Chances are he’d take time away from Giambi at first, which we all know is a bad idea (if you’ve looked at his DH/1B splits). And this whole thing with Nomar in the outfield is really starting to scare me. I mean, this is a guy who has gone down with some serious lower body injuries of late. Imagine him sprinting for a deep fly ball in the right-center field gap. Can you say Griffey?

To solve the first base problem, I’ll revert back to what I said at the beginning of the off-season and sign Travis Lee. Of course, as with most of the free-agents, I don’t know what his demands are as far as playing time. But I figure he’ll play as much as Tino did this year, which isn’t a terrible amount of PT (348 PA). If anything, maybe he wants to prove himself after missing most of 2004 and subsequently being shown the door.

In the outfield, the Jones-Encarnacion platoon seems reasonable enough, but what about Jay Payton? He can play any outfield position, solving the problem of a center fielder and a guy to give Sheff time at DH. This also means that Bubba will see at least some time in center for which to make his case. And once Bernie re-ups for 2006 (he will, I’m tellin’ ya), the Yanks have five outfielders. Add Cairo to the mix, and the team just might be complete.

Catchers
Posada, Stinnett

Infielders
Giambi, Lee, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, Cairo

Outfielders
Matsui, Crosby, Payton, Sheff, Bernie

Starting Five
Johnson, Mussina, Pavano, Chacon, Wang

Bullpen
Rivera, Farnsworth, Sturtze, Small, Wright, Myers, Proctor/Bean

Does that look like an AL East title to you? All the better, it’s actually realistic. And it will all be done with an off-season spending total of roughly $26 million (when you factor in raises like Matui’s, what Chacon will get in arbitration, etc.). And that may seem like a hefty sum, but it is less than the total of Kevin Brown’s and Bernie Williams’s contracts.