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Cashman goes into Winter Meetings with a lot on his plate

With Russell Martin going to the Pirates, Brian Cashman's winter list got a little bit longer

With Russell Martin going to the Pirates, Brian Cashman’s winter list got a little bit longer

When the Yankees ended their 2012 season with an ALCS loss to the Tigers, the pieces that the Yankees have to pick up again seemed legitimately small. They knew they were going to have to sign Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera to contracts. They knew they had to wait for Andy Pettitte’s decision on whether or not he would return in 2013–which came quickly this year. They knew they were going to have to replace the right fielder since Nick Swisher most likely won’t come back next season. They also knew that they were going to have to re-sign Russell Martin to another contract to play behind the plate in the Bronx. Well, as of last night Brian Cashman’s list got a little bit longer.

Although he was able to re-sign closer Mariano Rivera to a 1 year, $10 Million contract, he let another player get away–Russell Martin. The offseason plan has always been to take care of starting pitching first before going off and extending contracts to other players. Apparently, Russell Martin couldn’t wait for that, signing a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates for 2 years and $17 Million, rejoining ex-Yankee A.J Burnett in the process. This leaves Brian Cashman heading into the Winter Meetings on Monday with no catcher and no right fielder, two moves that he has to fill up before Spring Training.

With Martin gone from the Yankees, heading to Pittsburgh there are two legitimate catchers on the free agent market that are still available: A.J Pierzynski and Mike Napoli. Although the Yankees aren’t reportedly targeting either catchers, at this point they don’t have much of a choice.

Last season if Martin had ever gotten hurt, Francisco Cervelli would have been the starting catcher. Now that Martin is gone, that looks to be the case with Chris Stewart at backup and Austin Romine as an emergency choice. As much as I like Cervelli (he’s a big fan favorite), he’s not a power hitter. The same goes for Chris Stewart. Although Stewart is an amazing defensive catcher, he doesn’t have the pop in his bat.

Brian Cashman believes that the answer to the catcher situation could possibly already be on the team, but with players like Cervelli, Stewart, Romine and new Yankee (who is currently in the process of clearing waivers) Eli Whiteside, I don’t see a legitimate starting catcher in the Yankees organization. 2014 is a year away Cashman. Time to take out your wallet and make a deal for someone for this year, no matter what it takes.

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AL is Loaded

Despite the National League winning the last two championships, the American League has always been considered the dominant league. That gap has widened even further this offseason. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, two of the NL’s biggest slugger’s, have gone over to the AL and will make the competition ever fiercer. Also, the Yankees got what most people would consider a number two starter in Michael Pineda to further bolster the team that led the AL in wins last year.  There are likely six teams that will fight for four playoff spots, without considering a surprise team cropping up.  With the addition of the second wild card team winning the division will be of utmost importance for the Yankees.

The battle for the Yankees to get into the playoff will probably come down to five teams for three spots as I see the Tigers as a virtual lock to win the AL Central. They won it by 15 games last year and that was without Prince Fielder. In fact if you asked me right now I would say they are the team to beat in the entire AL. I know they will have issues on defense, but when Fielder and Miguel Cabrera hit over .310, with about 35 HR’s, and about 115 RBI each it will not matter as much. They also have a very nice top of the rotation in Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Max Scherzer and a very good back end of the bullpen.

The Yankees will in all likelihood be battling the Rays, Red Sox, Rangers, and Angels for the other 3 playoff spots. Right now I would consider the Yankees the favorite in the AL East.  They won it last year with 97 wins and improved more than the Red Sox or the Rays did with the addition of Michael Pineda. I would consider the Rays a close 2nd and the Red Sox 3rd. The Sox have issues all over the diamond right now. Their outfield is a mess right now as Carl Crawford might not be ready to start the year and they still have a hole in RF, even though they signed Cody Ross.  I do not understand them replacing Marco Scutaro with Mike Aviles at SS. They still have issues at the backend of the rotation as nobody knows how Daniel Bard will transform to the rotation.  Their backend of the bullpen is also completely new and will have to prove themselves. Meanwhile, the Rays might have the best rotation in MLB and I like the acquisition of Carlos Pena to provide more power to their offense.  But, the Yankees definitely have the edge over the Rays in offense and bullpen and they are not that far off in the rotation, which I think puts them over the top.                                

If the Yankees were to not win the AL East they will face a stiff competition for the wild card spots and not just from the AL East. Whoever doesn’t win the AL West between the Angels and Rangers will be battling for the wild card spots. The Angels greatly improved themselves with the additions of C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols. They also have one of the best rotations in the MLB led by Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson, and Ervin Santana.  The Rangers have one of the best offenses in MLB led by Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre, and Elvis Andrus. Yu Darvish will try to replace Wilson in the rotation and Neftali Feliz will make an interesting jump to the rotation. Both of these teams are legitimate threats to the Yankees.

As you can see the AL will be an absolute dogfight this year with all of these talented teams. All of this is subject to change of course with injuries and trades. You also know their will be a surprise team that will compete who I did not talk about. The Yankees have their work cut out for them in the AL this year, but if they play to their potential they should not have much of a problem.

Pineda allows Yanks to spend on offense in future

Pineda gripping the changeup he must develop (used via creative commons license)

By now, the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero trade has been dissected from every angle.  But lost in the aftermath of Friday’s atom-bomb dropped by Brian Cashman is the effect this deal will have on the Yankees future beyond the upcoming 2012 season and the change in philosophy it signifies. The popular belief prior to the deal was that the team would try to get through this season with the pitching they had, maybe adding a veteran on a 1-year deal, then try to play their hand in the big 2013 market for Free Agent Pitching.  Is that still a viable strategy?

I believe the trade of Montero for Pineda denotes a change in Cashman’s philosophy of paying top dollar for FA pitchers.  He sees the trend in MLB with teams locking up their good young starters – and he knows his own track record of signing FA pitchers has been dubious with the one exception being the $161M deal for CC Sabathia. But Cash knows he doesn’t have the long-term flexibility to risk $100M+ deals on pitchers even if they do reach the open market.

Whether Pineda instantly becomes a formidable pitcher or struggles in his sophomore year, the Yankees are invested in him for the long haul.  The nucleus of CC, Nova & Pineda will be what they build around with Banuelos & Betances ready to contribute in 2013. Barring trades, they will also have 1 more year of AJ Burnett & Phil Hughes next season so unless there is a major breakdown, I don’t see the Yankees allocating their resources on a high-priced Free Agent starter.

With the emphasis on pitching and the search for a viable frontline starter for the last 2 years, the future of the offense has been neglected.  The core of the team is aging and they will have to endure some lean years with an old ARod & Jeter in the lineup.  Jesus Montero was supposed to be the one to equalize that.  We all saw him as an eventual middle of the order bat that would hit for average and power.  With virtually no potential impact bats in the system above A-ball, there is little help from within coming in the next 2-3 years.  That is where Cashman will spend his money in the coming years.

So where will the Yankees have openings and what will be on the market?  After 2012, Swisher and Russell Martin will be Free Agents, so there will likely be openings at C, RF & DH.  There is also the possibility that ARod takes over a good chunk of the DH duties so the team may look at potential 3B.

With Austin Romine MLB-ready and JR Murphy & Gary Sanchez right behind him, I doubt the Yanks will be in the market for a Catcher.  Martin could be brought back but if Romine shows he’s ready, I think they’ll go with him and let Martin walk.  There will be one very attractive FA Catcher available in lefty swinging , 28-yr old Miquel Montero. Miquel hit .282/.351/.469/.820 in 2011 and led an impressive Arizona pitching staff.

There is also an older version of Jesus Montero on the market.  Mike Napoli crushed the AL in 2011 to the tune of a .320/.414/.631/1.045 clip while catching 65 games and playing 1B/DH for 50 games.  He’ll only be 30 in 2013 and could play the role that Jesus was going to play as back-up Catcher, primary DH and middle of the order run producer.  This would leave the DH spot open for 50-65 games for ARod while Napoli caught and might be the perfect way to break in a young Austin Romine at Catcher in 2013.  We’ll soon find out whether Texas will add Yu Darvish and/or Prince Fielder to the mix but even if they don’t they have the FA of Josh Hamilton in 2013 so they may not attempt to re-sign Napoli.  It’s difficult to determine what he’d cost in FA without seeing if he’ll repeat his dominating 2011 but I’d say he best profiles with Victor Martinez who signed a 4yr-$50M deal prior to 2011.  If Napoli has a another big year and can show some durability, he may be a player for the Yanks to consider.

The options in RF include Josh Hamilton (32), Andre Ethier (31), Carlos Quentin (30), Delmon Young (27), Melky Cabrera (28), Nick Swisher (32) & Ichiro Suzuki (39).  While Hamilton is the elite player of the group, I don’t think the Yanks will lay out the big money needed for a 32-yr old that has played more than 133 games only once (2008).  I like Ethier as a lefty hitter who hits for average and power and a 4 year deal would only put him at 34 in the final year.  He’d be looking at similar money as Swisher (3-4 yrs @$11-12M)

However, with the goal to get under the Luxury Tax threshold in 2014, I don’t see Cashman giving out a long-term deal unless he really likes a player and he has a lot of prime years left.   The DH possibilities are plentiful every year and it’s easy to find all types of DH’s on 1-yr deals.  David Ortiz will be on the market again next year at age 38 so maybe the Yanks put in a big 1-yr offer to steal him.

Next years FA third base crop has absolutely nothing to offer so if ARod needs to DH they will have to find a 3B from within (Laird or Nunez?) or trade for one.  I like lefty hitters Chase Headley & Daniel Murphy.  Both are young players in their primes who hit for average and would be a good compliment to the rest of the lineup.  They have both also been discussed in trade rumors this Winter. Headley will be in his final arbitration year in 2013 so it’s likely SD will look to move his salary with several promising young 3B behind him.  The Mets have David Wright at 3B and have Murphy playing out of position at 2B.  Both players also offer the flexibility to play other positions, 1B, corner OF and in Murphy’s case 2B.

It’s futile to look at who is available beyond 2013 since so many teams sign their young players to extensions nowadays.  But one thing is clear, with the impressive young pitching the Yanks have assembled behind CC, they no longer have to lay down huge chunks of money on risky FA pitching.  More often than not, big money FA contracts for pitchers do not work out.  By Cashman trading his big young offensive chip for a big young pitcher, he is electing to spend his future money on offense – which is generally far less risky and easier to project.  When I first heard of the trade I didn’t like it.  Montero is going to be a big hitter but it will be easier to find a bat of his caliber on the FA/trade market than it will be to find a pitcher of Pineda’s ilk.  The last 2-3 years of searching for pitching has taught him that.

So going into 2013, Cashman should have room for one significant contract. Anymore than that and there’d be no chance to stay under $189M with Cano & Granderson as FAs in 2014.  Who would you look to sign for the offense in 2013?

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