I have to hand it to Brian Cashman. For the past week, both before and after the Yankees' acquisition of Damaso Marte, I've been going on about how the Yankees didn't need another relief pitcher. It was a total waste of resources, so I argued, to trade for a reliever when the bullpen was already stacked, excelling, and backed up by major league ready reinforcements at triple-A. So what does Cashman do? He goes out and trades from that strength to fill the biggest hole on the ballclub by acquiring a legitimate starting catcher.
By now you've surely heard about the deal that has sent Kyle Farnsworth back to the Tigers for Ivan Rodriguez, but think of it this way: Daniel McCutchen, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, and Jose Tabata for Xavier Nady and Ivan Rodriguez. Suddenly that deal with Pittsburgh looks a whole lot better, doesn't it?
Marte now replaces Farnsworth in the bullpen straight up, which has several benefits. First: no more Kyle Farnsworth. As well as Farnsworth had been pitching (2.84 ERA, 21 K in 19 IP since June 1 with a hidden no-hitter--9 IP, 0 H, 5 BB, 10 K--from June 27 to July 22), his home run rate on the season is still 2.23 HR/9, and he's always a meatball or two away from both disaster and a return to his unreliable ways of all but the last two months of his Yankee career. To that end, the Yankees are selling high, which is what they should be doing with an inconsistent veteran like Farnsworth. If Farnsworth leaves any legacy as a Yankee, it might be that he finally got hot at exactly the right time. Second, removing Farnsworth increases the chances of Joe Girardi using Marte properly--that is, as a full-fledged set-up man who pitches for a full inning or more--rather than creating more work for his other relievers by using Marte as a LOOGY. Finally, replacing Farnsworth with Marte increases the variety of the relief corps. Both Farnsworth and seventh-inning guy Jose Veras are right-handers who throw straight cheese and sharp sliders. Replacing Farnsworth with the lefty Marte gives opponents yet another type of pitcher to contend with in addition to Veras, changeup specialist Edwar Ramirez, curveballer David Robertson, Dan Giese and his softer fastball/slider mix, and whomever winds up taking Chad Moeller's spot on the roster tomorrow (then again, Brian Bruney is another straight cheese and sliders guy, but better to have two of those guys than three).
The final accounting on the Marte-Farnsworth substitution also works out pretty well. Their season numbers:
Farns: 3.65 ERA (113 ERA+), 44 IP, 43 K, 17 BB, 11 HR, 0 BS, 2 L
Marte: 3.67 ERA (114 ERA+), 49 IP, 51 K, 17 BB, 4 HR, 2 BS, 0 L
While Marte's 5.56 ERA since June 28 is something of a concern, he hasn't had a full-season ERA above 3.80 since 2001, unlike Farnsworth, who's had a full-season ERA below 4.26 only twice in that span.
Counting that swap as a wash or a mild upgrade, we get to the nut of the trade, which is Tabata and the three 25-year-old triple-A starters for Nady and Rodriguez. As already discussed, Tabata is a big gamble for both sender and receiver, but is looking like a bust. Karstens is dead weight, a right-handed Randy Keisler. Ohlendorf had bounced between starting and relieving twice in his year and a half in the Yankee organization and hadn't stuck in either role. That just left McCutchen as a potential loss, a near-ready replacement for Sidney Ponson or Darrell Rasner who had the potential to stick in the rotation for 2009. Of course, there are more where he came from, even if he did appear to be the next in line.
For that package, the Yankees upgraded the two weakest spots in their lineup. When the deadline rumors really started to heat up, I wrote that the Yankees biggest need was a bat. My hope was that the Yankees would go after a big bopper to fill one of those two holes in the lineup and compensate for the other. Nady is not that hitter, and thus his acquisition was a disappointment, at least to me. Again, here's where Cashman got tricky. Rather than dealing for one big bopper, he dealt for two roughly league-average players who could well be even better than that. Thus, rather than replacing one weak spot with a star and enduring the replacement-level performance at the other, he's upgraded both spots equally, and thus improved the overall strength of the lineup.
That's not to oversell Rodriguez or Nady, who has yet to get a hit in a non-blowout as a Yankee. Rodriguez hasn't been a plus hitter since 2004, his first season in Detroit, but look at what he's replacing: Jose Molina is hitting .229/.279/.307 on the season. Take out his initial run of success in early April before he pulled his hamstring at Fenway, and Molina's line is .201/.263/.252. The average AL catcher is hitting .263/.327/.396 this season (numbers surely brought down by Molina and Jason Varitek's dismal season). Compared to all of that, Rodriguez joins the Yankees hitting .295/.338/.417. Putting a real hitter in that spot, one with still impressive defensive skills, is a tremendous upgrade.
While I was dubious about Nady's ability to bring his hot hitting over to the American League (a doubt Nady has yet to silence), I have a much better feeling about Rodriguez. He may be a future Hall of Famer on his last legs and a 36-year-old catcher like the one that went under the knife yesterday, but he's having his best season since 2004, and strikes me as the sort of player who will rise to the challenge of playing in New York, particularly given the opportunity to literally replace his old rival Jorge Posada. Then again, I had a statistical basis for doubting Nady (his poor inter-league showing and statistical resemblance to Craig Wilson). I have no such "proof" regarding Rodriguez, who hasn't performed especially well at the plate in the postseason, nor in his career at Yankee Stadium (though he hasn't stunk up the joint either).
Still, Rodriguez and Nady patch two major holes at the end of the Yankee lineup, which is now both longer and more balanced:
L - Johnny Damon (DH)
R - Derek Jeter (SS)
L - Bobby Abreu (RF)
R - Alex Rodriguez (3B)
L - Jason Giambi (1B)
L - Robinson Cano (2B)
R - Xavier Nady (LF)
R - Ivan Rodriguez (C)
S - Melky Cabrera (CF)
Since his pitch-hitting appearance in Houston on June 14, Robinson Cano has hit .355/.376/.546. That means that, with the acquisitions of Nady and Rodriguez, the only consistently weak spot in the Yankee lineup is ninth-place hitter Melky Cabrera, whose .289/.304/.333 line since the All-Star break is roughly equivalent to his season averages, and far below the average AL center fielder's .269/.332/.412.
In other news, Cashman pulled another slick move by not only getting a warm body for LaTroy Hawkins, but one with some actual potential. Don't ask me why the Astros agreed to it, but for Hawkins, who had been designated for assignment and would have been available on waivers shortly, Houston has sent the Yankees Sally League infielder Matt Cusick. A former UCLA teammate of Ian Kennedy's, Cusick was drafted in 2007 and is in his first full season of pro ball at age 22. Cusick has split his time between second and third base this season (though he's reportedly useless at shortstop), and check out this career line from his 154 minor league games: .293/.384/.451, 78 walks, 67 Ks, 37 doubles, 10 triples, 11 homers, 13 steals in 15 attempts, and 7 sacrifice hits. That's about as well-rounded an offensive game as you could ask for from second base prospect. Of course, Cusick is doing all this in A-ball, and for college hitters, it's the jump to double-A is the real test, but it's quite a nice something to get for the nothing of a DFAed veteran who was all but sure to refuse a minor league assignment.
I was dubious at first, but it's been a good week for Brian Cashman, and he still has a few hours left before the non-waiver trading deadline . . .