Thursday, November 02, 2006

New York Yankees 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 97-65, Won AL East, Lost ALDS

Pythagorean record: 95-67

Key free agents: Mike Mussina (team option), Jaret Wright (player option), Craig Wilson, Octavio Dotel, Ron Villone, Bernie Williams

Plan for 2007: DO NOT TRADE ALEX RODRIGUEZ, and be realistic with your playoff expectations

The Yankees suffered another disappointing season (read: anything but a World Series win) in 2006, entering the playoffs as the heavy favorites to win it all, then exiting six days later, having lost three straight to the underdog Tigers, including two embarrassing blowouts.

Immediately after their season ended, all sorts of radical “solutions” were proposed. Before the Yankees team plane had landed in New York, a report emerged that Joe Torre was out as manager, to be replaced by Lou Piniella. Alex Rodriguez has been rumored to be headed everywhere from Chicago to Anaheim. The Yankees picked up Gary Sheffield’s option—much to Sheff’s chagrin—ostensibly to trade him, but perhaps to make him their everyday first baseman in 2007.

In the eye of the hurricane of activity, the most important thing for George Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman to understand is that the MLB playoffs are, by and large, a crapshoot. Because of the variance involved in a short baseball series, and especially three short series, the best team entering the playoffs will win it all less than 30% of the time. Consider that even a team that’s a heavy 2-1 favorite in every series will win just (2/3)*(2/3)*(2/3) = 29% of the time. The Yankee organization and its fans had their expectations raised by a run of four championships in five years. At the end of the 2000 season, some speculated that Derek Jeter would run out of fingers to hold World Series rings before his career ended.

Let’s take a look at another permutation of results of the Yankees’ 12 playoff appearances from 1995-2006:

Year
Actual

Adjusted

1995
1996
1997
1998
1999
20
00
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006

Lost ALDS
Won WS
Lost ALDS
Swept WS
Swept WS
Won WS
Lost WS
Lost ALDS
Lost WS
Lost ALCS
Lost ALDS
Lost ALDS

Lost ALDS
Won WS
Lost ALDS
Lost WS
Lost ALCS
Swept WS
Lost ALDS
Won WS
Lost ALDS
Lost WS
Lost ALDS
Won WS

In real life, the Yankees had a dynastic run from 1996-2000 and have failed to meet expectations every year from 2001-06. In our permutation, they made it to the World Series every other year, and never went more than three years without winning one. Either way, in 12 years the Yankees have made the playoffs 12 times with 11 division titles. They have made it to the World Series six times with four wins and two sweeps. These are all excellent results, the best run of extended success for any team in the modern era.

The Yankees staff needs to treat the team like our adjusted example. No one should complain about advancing to the World Series “only” six times in 12 years, or winning “only” four of those. The Yankees were easily the most talented team in baseball in 2006, and they should enter 2007 in the same position. It’s not necessary to make a massive overhaul to what is already the best team in baseball. In particular, trading Alex Rodriguez is not going to solve their problems. All it will accomplish is giving away one of the top five players in baseball for less than his market value.

For all the talk of players who “can’t handle” playing in New York, plenty of marquee acquisitions have failed in their new surroundings in other cities. No one claims that Adrian Beltre can’t handle the pressure of the Pacific Northwest, or that Jeff Weaver couldn’t deal with the crowds in Anaheim in 2006. People cite this “phenomenon” for several reasons:

- If a person looks for a specific pattern, he is more likely to observe it. If someone tells you the number 23 tends to turn up in movies a lot, you’ll notice that number a lot more than you ordinarily would.
- The Yankees sign more premier free agents than any other team, and free agents are generally past their prime and likely to decline in value substantially during the life of the contract.
- The Yankees and their fans put more expectations on their free agents than any other team.
- Chuck Knoblauch and Ed Whitson were particularly notable examples of this “effect”. People forget Whitson took more than two years to regain his effectiveness after leaving the Yankees.
- The Yankees often target players whose performance in the year before his signing was widely out of line with past results and future expectations. Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Kyle Farnsworth are three recent examples.

Assuming they keep A-Rod around, what can the Yankees do to improve their chances of returning to the World Series? Not much. There aren’t many positions for the Bombers to upgrade, and once they’re in the playoffs, any offseason moves will only improve their chances of winning it all by a percentage point or two.

That said, there are a few things that will help:

  • Assemble a good bench.
The 2005 Yankees had virtually no bench, and this weakness was exposed. In 2006, they got great work out of Melky Cabrera and added Craig Wilson at the deadline, though he was ineffective in pinstripes. They also retained some players of little value, such as Nick Green, Andy Phillips, and Aaron Guiel. With the Yankee roster very old and injury-prone, a good bench will be critical when the inevitable injuries hit in 2007.

  • Bring back Mike Mussina and sign another top strikeout pitcher, preferably Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Mussina isn’t worth the $15.5 million difference between his $17M option and $1.5M buyout—especially after factoring in luxury tax—but the best place for the Yankees to upgrade is with power starters, and the market is short on them past Moose, Matsuzaka, and Jason Schmidt. Matsuzaka makes a particularly appealing signing for the Yankees because his posting fee, which could top $30 million, is not included in the team payroll for luxury tax calculations. If Philip Hughes continues to develop, he could be the power ace the Yankees need, but they will correctly be careful with him this year, as his future is too valuable.

Despite Chien-Ming Wang’s great 2006, it is unprecedented for a modern pitcher to continue succeeding with such a low strikeout rate, so the Yankees should plan on some regression. While Randy Johnson’s ERA should be under 5.00 this year, he is clearly no longer an ace. Between Pavano’s injuries and ineffectiveness, the Yankees can’t really count on anything from him at this point. A playoff rotation of Matsuzaka-Mussina-Wang-Johnson/Hughes looks much better than Wang-Johnson-Hughes-Wright.

  • Improve the back end of the bullpen.
Though Mariano Rivera continues to dominate, the current Yankees lack an eighth-inning man as reliable as Tom Gordon, Jeff Nelson or Mike Stanton. Kyle Farnsworth was supposed to be that guy, until he remembered that he only pitches well in odd-numbered years. Scott Proctor was their best middle reliever in 2006, but he also had ERAs of 5.40 in 2004 and 6.04 in 2005. Mike Myers will be 38 and also has a spotty track record, with a 5.70 ERA as recently as 2003.

Bringing back Octavio Dotel is a risk well worth taking. Other free agent options include Eric Gagne, Chad Bradford, Justin Speier, Arthur Rhodes, David Riske, and Jamie Walker. All are risky investments, but the Yankees have no choice, as they don’t have a deep enough farm system to trade for a top reliever.

They should also consider some outside-the-box thinking; perhaps a conversion to relief could be the cure for what ails Kerry Wood, Wade Miller, or Jesse Foppert. It’s possible one of them could follow the Jason Isringhausen career path.

Whatever the Yankees choose, they should enter the 2007 season as the favorites to win the AL East. If they get back to the playoffs, they need to remember that there’s at least a 70% chance it will end in disappointment. If the organization and its fans set their expectations on that level, they won’t be disappointed.

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