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The Hot Stove League: A Story of Moving Parts

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Let’s start this earlier in the week:

  • On the signing of Jacoby Ellsbury, Neyer wrote that “[i]f you’re a fan of any other American League East team, you should be exceptionally happy.”  While I’m not a fan of another AL East team I am an honorary one as a Yankee hater, and…I dunno.  The way I’d look at is that the Yankees were 1)outscored by 21 runs last year and weren’t even that good, and 2)gave regular playing time to one position player who will be under 30 this year, and that was Eduardo Nunez, who isn’t a major league hitter and isn’t even a AAA shortstop.   Even accounting for their injuries this is, in other words, an old and not-very-impressive team almost entirely bereft of young talent.  If the current structure of the game in which most under-30 elite players don’t hit the free agent market continues, it’s very likely that by 2017 the possibility of overpaying Ellsbury will be the least of the Yankee’s problems.  Unless they start showing an ability to identify and develop young talent they haven’t shown in a long time, they’re probably looking at Stump Merrill II: Electric Boogaloo later in the decade anyway.  So the way I see it is the only question is whether the crash is preceded by mediocrity or whether the Yankees can patch together some postseason teams before things fall apart.
  • In terms of the Ellsbury contract, it’s not terrible given what should be the short-term goals of the franchise.  He’s hard to evaluate because of his injury issues and his performance swings.  Leaving aside the partial seasons, he’s had one great season (2011), one very good one  (last year), and two OK ones (2008/9).  He is, in other words, a high-upside, high-risk gamble: if he can stay healthy and his performs at a level between 2011 and 2013, the contract will work for the period when the Yankees need it to work.  But that’s not a given, and I’d like the move more if the Yankees didn’t already have a plus centerfielder.
  • So I saw it the was that NoMaas sees it: given that the Yankees are putting off rebuilding, they need to make an all-out push for 2014 and 2015.  Ellsbury is certainly a much better gamble than Granderson, but if they lost Cano they’d really just be treading water.
  • Of course, they were then blown out of the water by Seattle on Cano.  Although the contract would make more sense for the Yankees than it did for Seattle — we’ll get back to that — I can’t blame the Yankees for not matching the offer in isolation.  But, nonetheless, Cano is a better player than Ellsbury, and even if we assume that McCann (a huge upgrade over the nothing the Yankees got out of the position last year) and a full year from Teixeira make up for that gap plus the losses of Pettite and Rivera, that still really just leaves them as another .500ish team trying to get lucky, with a team age that makes counting on luck pretty dicey.
  • Cashman immediately reacted by signing Beltran.  How much does this help the Yankees? It’s unclear to me.  I love Beltran, as most readers know, and since I’m rooting for him to go to Cooperstown I like what going to the bandbox in the Bronx will do for his raw stats.  He makes the team better. But it doesn’t really address the loss of Cano since it adds to a pileup at the left end of the defensive spectrum, giving the Yankees now two old guys who still have life in their bats (Beltran much more so than Soriano, of course) but can’t actually play the outfield.  I’m not sure what the Yankees will do about this.  One alternative would be to move Gardner to left and flip Beltran and Soriano between RF and DH, properly making Ichiro! a 5th outfielder and properly releasing the absolutely useless Wells.  That’s not a bad situation, although it does choke off the DH position that the Yankees could use to give one of their other fading old guys a day or three quasi-off.   Alternatively, they could move Garnder (one of their few players with any trade value) to try  to patch up the gaping wound in the middle infield and live with gruesome defense in both OF corners most nights.  It’s therefore hard to evaluate the singing until we see what happens, but it strikes me now as not unreasonable but sort of beside the point.
  • And the same goes for the decision to sign Ellsbury rather than Cano, I suppose. If they get Tanaka, if they sign Infante to play second and he has a good year, if they can stay relatively healthy despite being an old team…they could be a playoff team.  But it seems to me that a lot has to go right, and if they don’t get Tanaka it seems unlikely that they will have done enough.
  • Let’s turn to the Mariners.  As I said yesterday, it’s not a good contract.  Cano is a truly great player — an excellent hitter and a good defender at a talent-scarce position, he’s been one of the best 3 players in the league two years running, he’s unusually durable and consistent, and he’s still in the suburbs of his prime.  He’s already accomplished more than several Hall of Fame second basemen by age 30.  Players that good don’t the free agent market that much anymore.  And in the right context I can live with the “overpaying” involved in dead years at the end of the contract — baseball doesn’t have a hard cap and flags fly forever.   The problem for the Mariners, though, is that they aren’t the right context.  Cano is a major addition, but the team is still a complete mess.  The outfield remains dubious offensively and a train wreck defensively, and Seager is the only other decent infielder although Smoak did take a step forward last year and could be at least decent.  King Felix and Iwakuma make an outstanding front-end but there’s very little behind it.  The Mariners were 100 runs from .500 last year — even if some of the young “talent” finally steps forward and they continue to push by trading for Price and find some major league outfielders — it’s very hard to see this turning around while Cano is still a top-quality second baseman.  There are situations where I could live with “overpaying” for Cano, but this isn’t one of them.  His contract will almost certainly be an albatross before the Mariners can contend.

…Keri is more optimistic from a Mariner perspective. I do endorse this strongly: “their goal is to win the World Series, not the dollars-per-WAR championship.”

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