Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A New Beginning

Things have started to settle in for the Yankees as the offseason picture is coming to a slowdown. Major moves, major money, and a serious commitment to winning now. What a difference a year makes. No one in the Steinbrenner family can stomach "not winning", which is basically a way to say "losing" without actually attaching it to the Yankee brand.

Adding C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira and the payroll associated with those names, has put a lot of pressure on the other teams in the league during a time of global financial downturn. Uncertainty over the state of the economy has made more than a few teams gun shy in the free agent market, but the Yankees are set up to spend in any environment. Particularly important here is the notion that the Yankees are actually saving money on the 2009 budget, despite these signings, thanks to jettisoning Mussina, Pettitte, Giambi, Pavano, and Abreu. Their replacements are Sabathia, Burnett, Teixeira, and some combination of Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher. I would say that the Yanks have upgraded everywhere except perhaps RF, but the Moneyball strategy would suggest that a player who can't be replaced by another player can always be replaced by two players of lesser dollar value, platooning for equivalent production. I think that's where Cashman went with that position...wisely, I might add.

Over the last few years, this moment in Yankee history was at the front of my mind and now that it's upon us, it looks as good as I thought it might. Next offseason will complete the retooling of the club, and I think we'll likely see the end of Matsui and Damon. That aging, noodle-armed platoon makes a fair lump of cash and it's not unreasonable to expect that we can sign a single, younger player to fill LF that will total less than the 25-ish million that the two aforementioned players cost us now.

The Red Sox have a lot of holes in their rotation and on the field now, and I would suggest that they are dangerously close to dropping back into 3rd place in the division as they were some years ago. The Rays are tough and young and have a tremendous farm system. They are here to stay. The Yankees are aging, but have bolstered a flawed lineup and built a rotation that should compete for years to come. The Sox have Beckett and Matsuzaka, but follow them with Bucholz, Lester, Penny, and Wakefield. That looks fairly similar to our own 2008 rotation with Wang, Pettitte, Mussina, Hughes, and Kennedy at the start of the year. Without Manny in the middle of the order, the Sox are relying on a lot of 2nd tier guys to produce for their mediocre rotation. I don't think it's a winning environment. How will Pedroia, Papi, Bay, Youkilis, Lowell, Drew, and the younger fill-ins do enough to help out the good, but not great pitching staff? Their problem is the decline of Varitek and the inability to do anything effective with the other "up the middle" positions.

Are the Yankees finished? Is there anything in the works with Melky? Is the bullpen locked up? Is there one more free agent in the ether? Manny? That would be overkill, no? I know it's not popular among smarter Yankee fans, but I would almost just love to see it to thumb my nose at the Sox and let him eat them alive in pinstripes. May cooler heads prevail.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Oh Say Can You C.C.

The New York Post is reporting that C.C. Sabathia has signed the big money deal with the Yankees that was on the table for some time. A lot of speculation about whether he would sign the deal or not was bounced around for a few weeks, and I declined to chime in on it. The deal is apparently done now, so I have a few things to say.

1. The Yankees are Back

Having a guy like C.C. Sabathia at the front of the rotation is just what the doctor ordered. He's big, durable, dominant, lefty, and mature. Putting him in front of Wang and Joba is going to look very good, and opens the door for another signing that I like to dream about....

2. LeBron James to the Knicks

I don't think there's much doubt that LeBron is going to play at MSG in two years, but this may have sealed it. The two men played in Cleveland at the same time and are apparently close. This makes me cry like a baby to think about...

3. A Reorganization of the Everyday Players is in the Works

I think the financial investment we've seen in Sabathia may be a prelude to some moves with the everday players. I don't know exactly what moves may be in the works, but I would guess that we're not done with 1B. 2B may be up in the air, if we move Cano. Centerfield will not be the domain of any of the men who played the position in 2008. Matsui could be gone. Would anyone take Damon? There are things a-brewing in Yankeeland. I hope to stay on top of all of them from here on out. The 2009 season has officially begun.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Canyon Reborn

Hello. My name is Mike Plugh. You might remember me from such blogs as Matsuzaka Watch and Darvish Watch. Perhaps you might remember me from such websites as Baseball Prospectus. As you might notice, the last entry at this venerable institution of Yankees commentary was sometime at the start of the past season. I owe you an explanation.

I'm a resident of two continents. I bridge the divide in real geography as well as metaphorically, via my family life. The past year has been an adventure of life between Japan and the United States. It's included a whirlwind Masters degree at Fordham University in the Bronx and employment at Akita International University in northern Japan. Mid-July saw the birth of my second child, a daughter, in Akita and the demands of each of these things kept me from my passion for baseball. Oh, and there was that pesky little election thing that I was involved in. I've restricted much of my blogging to my politics and media site Communicative Action for the past year. As an active member of Democrats Abroad Japan and a Media Ecologist, I've had my hands full with progressive, netroots activism and a deeper, more committed career in media scholarship.

I'm hoping to make a PhD my next adventure in this journey, perhaps as soon as Fall 2009, but there should be just enough room for my Yankee alter ego at this point to squeeze in at least one more offseason and run at the pennant. For those of you new to my work, please bookmark me or subscribe to my RSS feed. For those of you returning to the Canyon of Heroes perspective, thanks for your loyalty and support. The blog will need a little airing out from the mothballs and will require a few upgrades here and there to reflect my Web 2.0 sensibilities, but jump on board for the ride now while the getting is good. Now to some baseball...

My layoff at COH was actually very well timed. My passion for the Yankees waned slightly at the start of the last season and my expectations were similarly low. More than anything else, the team reminded me of the last years of the Ewing era at Madison Square Garden where nostalgia masked some very real problems and the promise of a few young faces gave us a false sense of our own potential. My busy schedule combined with this pessimissm about the team made it easy to go cold turkey on blogging, even while I kept my eyes on the team all season long. Here's a little sense of why I felt that way, and how I feel right now as a new season's cycle is upon us.

Last season the club put Jason Giambi, Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Kyle Farnsworth, and a few others on the field every night. None of those players spelled any sort of promise to me. As it turned out, Mussina surprised everyone to turn in one of his finest seasons and a cherry on the sundae of his career with 20 wins. Outside that magical feat there was little to celebrate from any of the other cast of characters. I saw that coming, frankly, and when I connected the dots to the age creeping up on Jeter, Posada, and Abreu I didn't like what I saw. It was one year too many with that core group.

The Johan Santana situation was a bit complicated last offseason. I've long been an advocate for laying off the free agent players with big price tags unless they are of the very elite at their positions. We're talking HOF credentials. Santana is in that class, but it required a trade of our young pitching to acquire him and I don't really support that philosophy. We face a C.C. Sabathia expenditure this offseason that rivals in dollars what we would have spent on Santana, although there have to be a few questions about whether he will ultimately be in the same class long term. There is the issue of his weight of course, but his big success, his prime years, have come after his 25th birthday and there have only been two years worth of performance to go by in judging him. I'll get into my feelings about this move in a moment.

If you keep shuffling the same pieces around hoping to get a different result, it seems you are pursuing a foolish strategy. Giambi at DH. Giambi at first. Matsui in left. Matsui at DH. Johnny Damon in left. Johnny Damon at DH. Flexibility is one thing, trying to jam the same broken down pieces into a lineup is another.

This offseason has the potential to be one of renewal. The permission to blow things up was given as the team lost it's last chance at a championship in the old stadium. The new stadium is here, and with it a new era dawns....sort of. There is still Jeter, A-Rod, Matsui, Damon, Posada, Cano, Melky, and Mariano to name a few. The renewal of the Yankees is still far from in full swing. Getting better is something we can do. Getting younger is also doable. Doing both at the same time is a tougher task and one that will require a big outlay of cash. Our farm system isn't nearly good enough to pay immediate dividends on that front, but the demands of a rabid fan base, a cranky ownership, and tradition almost force the club to pursue every means to win.

Being a Milwaukee Brewers fan or a Tampa Bay Rays fan is an exercise in patience. They stink, they draft, they develop, and they get a fleeting 5 or 6 years of success to live by. Yankee fans want the whole thing every season. We're a greedy and unforgiving bunch. The joy of a Phillies championship in a city decades removed from any sort of championship is a foreign concept for us. Some of us approaching middle age lived through the long, dry years of Yankee mediocrity and can appreciate the current commitment to winning. The joy of it is a bit compromised now, I must say. Sure, it's a happy affair when your team wins it all, but it feels much better when it comes after a period of down times. The definition of "overcoming the odds" for the Yankees is not winning 100 games and fizzling out in the ALDS. That's the definition of being "spoiled."

The aforementioned Brewers put together Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and others. The Rays have Crawford, Longoria, Upton, and now Price. The Phillies managed to string together Howard, and Utley, and Rollins to go with Hamels. We look to buy our way into the playoffs with only a sideways glance at our young players, Cano and Hughes and Joba, as contributors to the larger picture. Now, we're going to dump the old and bring in the new. Out is the $100 million Jason Giambi experiment that ultimately only amounted to a few exciting moments and a lot of ties to the steroid era. Out is Mike Mussina, in all likelihood, who represented the good but never great pitching staff that took over post Clemens, Key, Cone. Out may be Abreu, who was a good Yankee and a model of the modern baseball philosophy that's rightly or wrongly attributed to Billy Beane's "Moneyball." The right field short porch will probably whisper, "Goodbye Bobby. I hardly knew ye."

In might be C.C. Sabathia and his strong, young left arm. In is Nick Swisher, a Bobby Abreu pretender with the versatility to play first base if needed. Teixeira? Burnett? Manny? Who else is coming in on the white horse to save the day? If only it was the proverbial "man on a white horse" that the Yankees needed. There is A-Rod, after all.

Can the Yankees be better? With their resources, yes. Can the Yankees be exciting? If lots of offense and overwhelming star power is your thing, again, yes. If making the playoffs every year, championship or no, is acceptable, then yes. As a long time fan of the sport, and the Yankees, I long for a bit of perspective on what it means to win it all. I won't throw back the banners or the memories of the tickertape parades, if they come again, but I liked it a bit better when it was Charlie Hayes clutching the last out at third for some odd reason. I'm not a Scott Brosius apologist, but I was satisfied with his rise from mediocrity to contribute to a great season in 1998. I enjoyed Joe Girardi and Paul O'Neill, who were great Yankees if not great players. The satisfaction of winning doesn't come from winning at all costs, but rather winning despite the odds. That's why the world could fall in love with the Rays. The excitement built over time and their tremendous feat was a tribute to a long-suffering franchise who finally got it right.

Okay, now that my little cathartic speech about winning in some kind of ideal, pure fashion is over, back to Yankee world. Thank God we have an ownership that understands how to generate revenue via its geographical advantages. The Red Sox finally got that right a few years back and have turned their franchise into the model club of the sport. We are in the position to put money back into the team and will do so again this year. Dropping the older, dead weight is the beginning to a fresh start. Understanding the right kind of players to bring in with big money is the trick. C.C. Sabathia is a good place to start, and to start by overspending to avoid getting caught out on the cheap. Pairing Sabathia with Wang and Joba makes us super tough. A strong #4 would put us in a position to compete with any team out there. Is it Hughes? Hard to say. He can certainly be #5. I don't think that we need to go crazy with Derek Lowe or A.J. Burnett to find that #4 guy. It's not worth it.

I also think that spending big on the offense is unnecessary. Swisher is a good start at a decent price. Keep Cano. Don't give up on him yet. He has something, if he can tap into it for a full season. Find someone young to sit behind Posada and develop him. Easier said than done. Don't blow the wad on a first baseman if Teixeira isn't coming. Let Damon and Matsui ride out their contracts unless you can unload them on someone. I'd only spend on Manny if I were going to dish out big cash on an outfielder, but I don't think it's intriguing as it would be in my opinion. The Yankees can spend less, score a little less, play better defense, pitch MUCH better, and win. What's more, we can win it all without the Giambi's and Matsui's and Damon's and the high priced position players that we've tried to plug in over recent years. If we stick with our veterans, add Teixeira and Sabathia, isn't that enough? Can't we spend the next two years phasing out the guys that are on the big decline and replace them with the lower priced players that produce 80% of the big names, but play hard, play good defense, and inject a little life into the process.

My last word here may be blaspheme to Yankee fans and I may lose some of you in the process, but I don't care if the Yankees win big every season. I like it when they win. I want to win more and more championships. I want to stop the Red Sox at all costs. But...if we don't win....okay. That's the very nature of competition. There is no winning without losing. The two define each other. It's how you win and how you lose that determine the satisfaction or sting in the end. Winning by outspending everyone and stacking a lineup of big names is less satisfying poetically. Likewise, losing under the same circumstances is correspondingly unpoetic. It's rather pathetic actually. When Moose spit the bit against Detroit a couple of years ago in the ALDS, some Yankee fans lost it, and rightly so. The "greatest lineup ever assembled" went cold and the pitching was exposed for what it was...aging and never dominant. The loss produced a kind of cotton-mouth effect that really carried over into last season and was never alleviated at any point.

So, I'd rather fight hard and lose with some fulfillment of the Homeric hero poem than by playing the role of the once leading man turned B-actor. I'd love to win either way, but doing so can only truly be satisfying for this Yankee fan if it happens as a result of a Tampa Bay Rays-style commitment to developing draft picks, or by putting together a group of complimentary pieces that includes solid guys that don't attract the spotlight to go with the A-Rods in the middle of the lineup. When I say solid guys, by the way, I don't mean sucky guys with guts. I mean...ugh...Kevin Youkilis. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth but it illustrates the kind of professional ballplayer that does the things that win games (no errors, plus .400 OBP, occasional power) without making headlines or drawing the $200 million salary. When a guy like that wins, and in the process kills his rival, it feels so, so good for his fans and hurts all the more for his enemies. That's poetic justice and that's what we've been missing for a while. The mythological. The poetic. The compelling story that makes the 162 game season an epic rather than a grind or a tabloid-to-tabloid living that frustrates as much as intrigues.

Join me this season to follow this story and hopefully we can piece together the essence of what satisfies us most about being fans of a storied franchise. The story.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Trade Matsui?

I don't get around here to post very often, so this may go completely unnoticed, but I want to remind Yankee fans that a very large number of loud voices screamed to trade Hideki Matsui this offseason, with Noah Lowry one of the main figures at the other end of the equation. I called those people hoping for this trade nuts, and here we have a note that tells the story best:

Noah Lowry - SP - Giants
Giants transferred LHP Noah Lowry from the 15-day to the 60-day disabled list.
Lowry has already missed 60 days. He's out indefinitely after a setback with his surgically repaired forearm, but the hope is that he'll resume playing catch within a week or so.
May. 31 - 12:33 a.m. ET

Plus, Hideki Matsui is batting .339/.414/.495 and has been a rock in the middle of the lineup while Posada, Jeter, and A-Rod have all missed time. Where would we be right now without Godzilla? I'm just asking?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Superman Returns

Friday, April 25, 2008

Who Are These Yankees?

The same question might be asked of the Orioles, Tigers, Indians, Mariners, Marlins, Dodgers, and Padres to start. The open to the season has produced a strange imbalance in the Force. Teams that have been perennial division leaders have underperformed and a number of exciting clubs have overperformed to begin the year. This isn't unique to the 2008 season, but the annual surprises always....well.....surprise.

With that bit of convoluted logic, I want to look at the Yankees slow start and talk about a few interesting things that may slip below the mainstream radar (or not).

1. The Bench

When was the last time we've had this kind of bench. Morgan Ensberg has played very well at both 1st and 3rd, and has produced nicely at the bottom of the order. Bengie Molina did a fantastic job filling in for Jorge before he was hurt and then Chad Moeller stepped in without missing a beat. Gonzalez actually outplayed Jeter while he was in the lineup and in the field, mainly thanks to a slow start and an injury to the Captain, but who thought you'd get a temporary upgrade during that stretch? So far, so good. I'm liking Cash Money's work here.

2. The Young Guns

Everyone knew that Hughes and Kennedy would have their ups and downs this season, but who figured that all the downs would come at the start of the season? I'm not so surprised by Kennedy's struggles since he's really only getting his feet wet, but Phil Hughes pitched in a playoff game last season, and pitched very very well. He almost threw a no hitter against the Texas Rangers in hitter-friendly Arlington. Is he trying too hard to impress? Is he feeling the pressure? He threw more first pitch strikes in his abbreviated start yesterday, which is a good sign, but he'll need 4-5 quality starts to pull his ERA out of the cellar. He is the most important player on this club in 2008 and he needs to get it going. I have some faith that he will, since his promotions have always resulted in a rough patch before he adjusts and dominates. Maybe breaking Spring Training with the big boys was a bigger transition than we thought.

3. Cano's Woes

How does Robbie Cano go from 60 to zero in 2 seconds? He was awful to start 2007 and now he's repeating himself. In fairness, he's had very good at bats lately and has stung the ball for a few loud outs. He'll crank it up soon. I think he must play poorly in cold weather, which he has to work out before October.

4. Giambi is Toast

I thought the Spring might prove me wrong, but we all see what Jason Giambi is now. He's a .230 hitter with a great eye and a gut full of TNT. He's basically Dave Kingman with more walks. That's not an awful thing, but it's not something I want on my club. Especially a club that has a $200 million budget. I can't wait until he's out the door at the end of the year. I don't know if the Yankees plan to go after Mark Texeira, knowing that Boras is his agent, but I'd take a decent glove with 20 home run power and a .280/.370/.475 batting line for half the price. I'm thinking of a Youkilis, Garko, Casey Kotchman type player. Somewhere in that range. Maybe that's easier said than done, but those players were all minor leaguers at one point and there have to be more growing somewhere.

5. Aging

Damon, Giambi, Abreu, Matsui, Posada, Mussina, Pettitte, Mariano

Those players are all getting up there, although some have been good and some have been bad. Giambi and Mussina are off the books in the off season, so I have no worries. Posada and Mariano are locked up for awhile and I have no beef. Damon and Matsui will open the new Stadium with the team, but you have to wonder if they'll be around any longer than that. I'd give Matsui even odds, but Damon is a lock to be gone. Abreu is an intriguing case. He's still good, but you don't want to sign him to anything more than a year this off season, if you don't have to. His decline might be offset by a good eye, but he's no spring chicken and you have some talented outfielders in the system eyeing an opportunity. If he takes a one year deal, I think the Yankees jump on resigning him. If he takes a two year deal, they probably do it. Anything more, and I have to say, "No!"

This is an issue for the 2008 season because our minor leagues may have some answers to the voids in the lineup coming soon. Obviously Montero is mashing in the lower levels and should step in for Posada if he can play any kind of defense behind the plate. Jackson, Tabata, and Gardner will be showing off for Damon/Matsui/Abreu's spots. We might see some of the bullpen futures up with the Yankees as the season progresses. Will we see Juan Miranda?

The face of the team is slowly changing, and there will be a lot more focus on the youngsters if the team is mired in mediocrity as long as they were last season. A youth movement has started since camp broke, but it might explode if the aged vets don't get their asses in gear.