As I type this, my commuter train is rolling slowly past Riverfront Stadium, the home of the Newark Bears. The field and stands are covered in a thin layer of snow. There are trucks on the field, likely carrying workers there to prevent the snow from killing the sod, and thus there are some lights on in the park that give the field a cozy yellow glow. During the summer I often roll past the stadium as the players are taking batting practice or even as a game is starting. From my seat in the train, I can see the scoreboard, though I usually don't have my glasses on and thus can't read the name of the Bears player at bat. A couple of years ago, I used to look through the crack in the wall between the left field corner and the stands along the third base line and catch a glimpse of Rickey himself in his purple pinstripes accessorized with dark shades, his elongated outfielder's glove twitching at his thigh waiting to snatch a fly ball out of the air. Tonight, while the outfield wall remains covered in advertisements, the scoreboard is dark and there's not single a blade of grass visible through the snow.
Tonight I'm taking the train a few stops past my usual departure point because my mom has invited Becky and me over for dinner. In about an hour or so I'll be stuffing my face with roast beef and brown gravy, home made mashed potatoes, biscuits and something green (to create the illusion of a healthy meal). Nothing like home cookin' on a snowy winter's day to compensate for the sight of a ballpark in hibernation.
Fortunately, while the fields on which they play may be in mid-winter slumber, the teams themselves are keeping busy by cooking up a feast of their own. Be they collecting hard-throwing nuts or coveting a choice cut of meat, the hot stove has come to a boil. I think it's about time I sink my teeth into this offseason's first few courses.
It may not be the most exciting dish, but it's always good to start a big meal with a nice salad. It may not be as exciting as the main course, but you need to eat your greens.
Backup catchers are as backup catchers do. The promise of watching Kelly Stinnett start 30 to 40 games next year may not sell a single season ticket package, but someone has to don the tools of ignorance when Jorge needs a rest. Stinnett is not the most exciting choice, but the Yankees could have done worse. They could have re-upped John Flaherty.
Flaherty, who will most likely retire now that the Yankees have moved on, turned 38 in October and hit .165/.252/.206 in 138 plate appearances in 2005. While Stinnett is just two years younger, he'd have to work awfully hard to hurt the Yankees in the back-up catcher's role any more than Flaherty did last year. In the last quarter century, only 11 catchers with fewer than 200 plate appearances have been more runs below average for their position (per RCAP) in a given season than Flaherty was last year. Only five of them (Steve Lake in 1985, Scott Hemond 1995, Mark Parent 1997, Kevin Cash 2003, and Scott Servais 2000) did it in fewer trips to the plate than Flaherty did in 2005.
When the Yankees re-signed Flaherty for a third tour as Posada's caddy a little more than a year ago, I commented on the fact that, while his uncharacteristic slugging percentages made him mildly valuable in 2003 and 2004 (combined .461 SLG in 251 PA), his paltry on-base numbers (combined .291 to go with a present-day career mark of .290) were insufficient for a player who was required to start at least 30 games and, ideally, given the statistical evidence that Posada's bat cooled in September and the postseason due to the fatigue of catching 130 games, 40 or more.
While at first glance Stinnett my not appear to be a tremendous improvement over the 2003-4 version of Flaherty, he does offer a solid 30 extra points of on-base percentage. Prior to an abnormally productive 20 games in 2004 (a season that was cut short by Tommy John surgery), Stinnett had a .319 career on-base percentage. Last year, he posted a .317 mark with the Diamondbacks. The OBP of the average catcher over the course of Stinnett's career has been .327. Similarly, Stinnett's career slugging (.390) is not a far cry from the catching average of .404 during his 12 big league seasons and comfortably above Flaherty's career .377 mark.
So while it's true that Kelly Stinnett may be just another aging back-up catcher off the backstop assembly line, he should be a improvement over not just the walking-dead 2005 version of John Flaherty, but the 2003 and 2004 editions as well.
In addition, there's a solid chance that Stinnett will wind up replacing Flaherty as Randy Johnson's personal catcher as he caught Johnson as a member of the Diamondbacks in the Big Unit's first two years in Arizona. According to Off The Façade, Stinnett caught six of Johnson's 35 starts in 1999. Randy went 4-1 in those starts, so the next year Stinnett caught 16 of Johnson's 35 starts, though that year the Big Unit had far more success pitching to the D-Back's primary catcher Damian Miller (13-2 vs. 6-5 with Stinnett).
There was a lot of grumbling and hand wringing about Flaherty being Johnson's personal catcher this past season, but think about it this way: Because of the rigors of the catching position, the backup catcher is going to have to start about 30 games a year. Since the secondary effect of those starts (the first being to give the starting catcher a much needed day off) is a decrease in the potency of the team's offense, wouldn't it make the most sense to give the backup those starts when the team's best pitcher is on the mound and the chances of winning a low-scoring contest are highest? Sure makes sense to me. To that end, I welcome the idea of Stinnett becoming Johnson's personal catcher in 2006. The only caveat being that Joe Torre should start Johnson and Posada together a few times down the stretch so that Posada can catch Johnson throughout the playoffs (should the Yankees make it for the twelfth straight year) when there is no need, nor any excuse, to put anything other than one's best offense on the field in every single game.
The Yankees signed Stinnett to a one-year deal worth $650,000. Stinnett made $500,000 each of the last two years and Flaherty made between $750,000 and $800,000 during each of his three seasons in that ugly pinstriped hockey mask (and, yes, Stinnett wears the hockey-style mask as well). That's pennies saved and a small enough investment to allow the Yankees to swoop down and snap up Mike Piazza. Why Piazza? Well, when the Yankees were chasing that rainbow named Brian Giles, it seemed to me to make perfect sense to have Giles and Sheffield split the right field and DH jobs while a sprightlier fielder roamed center. But now that Giles is out of the picture, Sheffield appears to be destined for another season of full-time field work, thus the DH spot is wide open. Wouldn't it be grand to fill that spot with some 130 games of Mikey Pizza, who could double as a far superior offensive alternate behind the plate? Sure Piazza is a shadow of his former self at the plate, but that former self cast quite a shadow. With the burden of catching 100 games lifted from his shoulders and given the opportunity to play his home games in something other than an extreme pitchers park, I don't see why Piazza couldn't provide the Yankees with something in the neighborhood of .270/.360/.480 with, say, 27 homers.
Not only does the Stinnett deal not prevent the Yankees from adding Piazza, even with Piazza on the roster, it would still make sense to hold on to Stinnett during the regular season. With Piazza and Posada (who could DH when Piazza's behind the plate) as the team's only catchers, the Yanks would lose the DH if they wanted to pinch-run for Jorge or rest him in a blow-out. Thus the need for the bargain basement Stinnett. That said, if the Yankees did go the Piazza route, there would be no excuse, barring injury, for ever starting Stinnett. Speaking of injury, though Posada has proven to be remarkably durable thus far (knock wood), as he approaches his mid-30s, the risk the Yankees are taking by having nothing better than Jelly Stinherty behind door number two, increases greatly. Having Piazza around, though he's been far less durable than Posada, would, at least for one season, correct for the loss of Dioner Navarro, who by all rights should have been a valuable 60-start backup for the Yankees this year.
Next on our menu is our appetizer, a set-up dish, if you will, for the main course. After two spectacular seasons, Tom Gordon decided he wanted to close, and he decided he wanted to do it on a three year contract. I'll miss Flash. His value to the last two Yankee teams has often gone overlookedconsider this aggregate line from his two Yankee seasons: 159 G, 170 1/3 IP, 115 H, 165 K, 52 BB, 13 HR, 2.38 ERAbut given his injury history, the recent arrival of his 38th birthday, the fact that he surpassed his pre-Yankee career high in games pitched in both of his seasons in New York, and, I'm sorry to say, his postseason stage fright, I can't say I'm disappointed that he's gone.
Gordon for $18/3 fills the Phillie shoes of the 34-year-old Billy Wagner, who signed with the Mets for $43/4, which sounds downright thrifty compared to the absurd $47/5 the Blue Jays doled out to B.J. Ryan based on two strong peak-age seasons. With those key players off the board, the Yankees spent their relief roll on 29-year-old Kyle Farnsworth. A righty fireballer who has been known to hit triple digits on the radar gun, body slam rivalpitchers, and melt down at inopportunetimes in the postseason.
As per his reputation, Farnsworth is a strikeout machine. While he's struck out just over one man per inning on his career, in 2001 and 2003-2005 combined his K/9 is 11.11. The year I left out, 2002, was the one injury shortened season of his seven-year major league career. That year, an early-April stress-fracture in his foot cost Farnsworth two months and, after his return from the DL, his effectiveness, resulting in an ugly 7.33 ERA. Since then, he's averaged nearly 74 appearances per year with a cumulative ERA of 3.38. Consider the following cumulative line from his last three seasons: 213 IP, 164 H, 257 K, 96 BB, 21 HR. Yes, he walks too many men (4.06 per 9IP over the last three years), and he does give up the occasional homer, but he makes up for it by simply blowing every one else away. Remembering that Gordon was also prone to the inopportune homer and postseason jitters, I don't see why Farnsworth wouldn't serve as an adequate replacement. Looking forward, it's also quite nice to consider the fact that Kyle is eight and a half years Tommy's junior. Besides which, Gordon's career BB/9 through his age-29 season was 4.48. Since then it's been 3.19. I'm just sayin' . . .
By the way, any one preparing to jump all over Farnsworth should he struggle out of the gate next year needs to read James Click's study of reliever consistency over at Baseball Prospectus, which concludes, among other things, that "relievers are nearly twice as unpredictable as starting pitchers" and that "in any given season, over a third of relievers will have an FRA more than 1.46 runs more or less than their previous three year average."
Sometimes you just have to roll the dice on an appetizer. That's easier to do when you're confident about your choice of entrée, which the Yankees certainly are when they order up another helping of Mo Rivera. The Yankees also ordered up another four servings of Hideki Matsui this year. Matsui, who ranked fifth among major league left fielders in VORP in 2005, will be 35 when his new contract expires. Given that his presence brings with it a tremendous revenue stream from the Far East and the Asian-American community, I can't even complain about his $13 million annual salary. Re-upping Matsui was the right thing to do and $52/4 is a perfectly acceptable price.
As for what to get for dessert, might I suggest a slice of Jason Michaels for center field? Michaels has hit .291/.380/.442 (.285 EQA) in 941 career plate appearances, posted a 113 Rate in center last year after three league average defensive seasons, still earns just six figures, and is just three months older than Bubba Crosby. Michaels is also caught between Aaron Rowand and Shane Victorino in Philadelphia, and would seem to be available on the cheap. Hmmm, wasn't it just a year ago that the Phillies had a young unwanted player of undervalued ability who would have effectively and inexpensively filled a glaring hole in the Yankee line-up? Can anyone remember how that one turned out? I seem to have suppressed the memory.
Program note: Today is the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to their declared free agents lest they lose the right to sign them until May 1. Looking at the list of Yankee free agents on the sidebar, I would expect the Yankees to offer arbitration to Bernie, of course, and perhaps Al Leiter, who may yet return as a LOOGY but will just as likely retire. To be honest, however, I can't think of a good reason for them to offer arbitration to any of them, with the possible exception of Russ Johnson, who I still think could make a valuable utility man given the Yankees' organizational infield depth chart. Of course, Johnson is a minor league free agent, so he's playing under different rules. Finally, as has become an annual tradition, when it is announced that the Yankees have offered arbitration to Ruben Sierra, the cries of despair you hear in the distance will be mine.