Find an upgrade over Wilson Betemit at third base:
Assemble a bullpen:
Fill out the bench:
The Yankees have made a three-year, $45-million offer to Mariano Rivera. With an average annual salary of $15 million, the deal would make Rivera far and away the game's best-paid closer. (Billy Wagner will make $10.5 million in 2008 and 2009, B.J. Ryan will make $10 million in each of the next three seasons. No other closer has an eight-digit salary.)
With the team waiting for Rivera to accept and for Andy Pettitte (serving as Roger Clemens understudy in this winter's production of Hamlet) to make a final decision about playing next year, the time has come for the Yankees to turn their attention to third base.
If the 2008 season started today, the Yankee lineup would have Bobby Abreu in right field, Derek Jeter at shortstop, Robinson Cano at second base, and Jorge Posada catching, of course. Melky Cabrera would be the center fielder while Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui would share time in left field and at DH, with Matsui, who is having surgery on his right knee today, getting the bulk of the time at DH. That would make Jason Giambi the primary first baseman with Shelley Duncan filling in against lefties at first and in right field as needed, and Andy Phillips available as a defensive replacement and second platoon bat at first base. Phillips could also serve as platoon relief for Wilson Betemit, who would be the primary third baseman.
Brian Cashman's assignment at the hot corner is thus finding an upgrade over Betemit or, at bare minimum, a superior platoon partner than Phillips to spell Betemit against lefties. In either case, Cashman should be looking for a right-handed bat. The Yankee lineup as constructed above is contains five lefties (Damon, Abreu, Cano, Matsui, Giambi) and two switch hitters with career OPSs below .700 from the right side (Cabrera and Betemit). That leaves Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada to carry the bulk of the weight against lefties, forcing Joe Girardi to resort to Shelley Duncan and Andy Phillips for additional right-handed fire power.
With the Yankees having closed the door on Alex Rodriguez (or, more accurately, Alex Rodriguez having failed to take the Yankees seriously when they said they would close the door if he opted out), there remains just one righty-hitting free agent first baseman who would indeed represent an upgrade over Betemit. That, of course, is Mike Lowell. Though the Red Sox failed to re-sign Lowell prior to his becoming available to other teams yesterday, it still seems that Lowell will most likely return to Boston. Still, now that he's out there to be had, the Yankees would be foolish not to entertain the idea. Much has been made of Lowell's troubling home/road split in 2007, but few have bothered to note that he was much better on the road in 2006 (.310/.352/.514 against a mere .260/.327/.436 at Fenway), or that he had several strong seasons while playing half his games in the Marlins' pitching-friendly home park. Given the dearth of free agent alternatives, I'm not terribly inclined to fret about Lowell's 2007 splits.
Of greater concern is the fact that he is seeking a four-year deal, which is one reason why he hasn't re-upped with the Sox as of yet (Boston is holding firm at three years). Lowell is reportedly looking for the same sort of 4-year/$52-million contract that the Yankees have recently given to Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Jorge Posada. If he can't get that four-year deal by going elsewhere, I'd expect him to go back to Boston on a three-year contract, which means it's four years or bust as far as a contract offer from the Yankees goes. Is Lowell worth it?
To begin with, he's older than Matsui and less than five months younger than Damon, both of whom only have two years left on their four-year deals, and both of whom were slowed by nagging injuries in 2007. It's also important to note that, while Lowell is a strong asset, he is not a dominating player. He's a contact hitter, which is good because he's only struck out 80 or more times once in his career, but bad because his on-base skills are modest and more dependent on his batting average than the typical Yankee hitter. Similarly, his power is fairly modest. He's topped 24 homers just twice and his career slugging percentage is .468. In fact, the Yankee Lowell most represents at the plate is Johnny Damon. Just swing him around to the right side, and give him ten more homers a year in place of all those stolen bases. Lowell's greatest asset, however, is his glove. Fret all you want about his swing being made for Fenway, or about the dreadful season he had in 2005 that he said was due to a crisis of confidence, his glove never waivers.
After Lowell, the only righty-hitting free agent third basemen are the washed up Tony Batista and Jeff Cirillo (neither of whom is likely to play in 2008 for anyone), Pedro Feliz (career .252/.288/.433), and Rodriguez's predecessor Aaron Boone. There are no real gems in next year's crop of free-agent third basemen either (Chipper Jones' option for 2009 can vest automatically, and one assumes that if Hank Blalock comes back strong enough from surgery the Rangers will pick up his optionJoe Crede is discussed below). With that in mind, I could see overpaying a bit for Lowell, though I would try to talk him down to a $10- or $11-million annual salary. Mike Lowell for $40 million over four years? Yeah, I think I'd do that.
As for those other four righties, Feliz can pick 'em, but even so that dismal .288 on-base percentage means he doesn't even meet the bare-minimum requirement of being a meaningful improvement over Andy Phillips as a potential platoon partner for Betemit. Boone's a similar case with more OBP, but less glove. That means if not Lowell, then a trade.
Three potential targets are eliminated right away by virtue of their being not only left-handed hitters, but lefties with steep platoon splits. Eric Chavez has seen his career stalled out in his late 20s, in part due to injuries, and in part due to a supposedly apathetic approach to self-improvement. Given his past glories, multiple Gold Gloves, and wily general manager, he's sure to be far too costly both in terms of the quality of players Billy Beane would demand in a trade, and the $37 million left on his contract. Arizona's Chad Tracy and Kansas City's Mark Teahen haven't gotten much attention in the third-base market, though they should. Tracy was Wally Pipped by Mark Reynolds last year, and with the younger, cheaper, more highly touted Conor Jackson at first base, Tracy's the odd man out in the Arizona infield. That said, Old Man Tracy won't turn 28 until late May and is a career .288/.348/.468 hitter. Teahen had a break out year at third base for the Royals in 2006 before being bumped to the outfield by überprospect Alex Gordon last year. Part of the A's Moneyball draft in 2002, Teahen is just 26 and a solid on-base threat. On the downside, both get more significant boosts from their home parks than Lowell gets from Fenway, and still the power Teahen showed in '06 went missing last year. For the Yankees purposes, none of these three lefties need apply.
Moving on to the righties, Garrett Atkins of the Rockies is one name that frequently popps up as Colorado has Ian Stewart ready to take over at third. Though Atkins looks like a great get on the surface, he's a butcher in the field and, like Tracy and Teahen, has even more troubling splits than Lowell. On his career, Atkins OPS is 146 points lower outside of Coors Field. To make matters worse, in 2007, both Atkins' OPS on the road and against lefty pitching was below .800. Of course, in 2006, Atkins tremendous breakout season, he hit very well on the road, but that's the only time he's done so in his career, and, with just three full seasons under his belt, the soon-to-be 28-year-old Atkins hasn't provided enough evidence to assure a team such as the Yankees that he could put up similar numbers outside of Denver. The end result is a large gap between that what the Rockies are sellinga third baseman with consecutive 20-homer, 110-RBI, .300-average seasons who played on the team with the best fielding percentage in major league historyand what the Yankees might be gettingperhaps a .280/.350/.430 hitter who plays third base like an aspiring first baseman.
Another name that surfaces a lot is that of the White Sox's Joe Crede. Crede could likely be had for much less than Atkins as Crede is coming off a dismal season cut short by back surgery and his replacement, Josh Fields, has already established himself in the bigs, hitting a very Crede-like .244/.308/.480 with 23 homers in 100 games in 2007, whereas Colorado's Stewart has had just 43 big league at-bats. By now you've already had two alarms go off: back surgery?.308 OBP? There's the rub. Crede's a career .259/.305/.446 hitter, which means he's typically been less productive than even the diminished version of Atkins. Crede is, however, a legitimately spectacular defender. Of course, his back surgery throws that into question, but we said the same about Doug Mientkiewicz coming into the 2007 season, and the older and more fragile Minky flashed his leather just fine at first base for the Yanks this year. If Crede could be had cheaply enough, he would be, at worst, a fine platoon partner for Betemit. Given that he'll be entering his walk year, earned nearly $5 million in 2007 (though that could go down in arbitration this winter), has already become obsolete on his own team, and is coming off a major surgery, I can't imagine the White Sox would be able to demand too much for him. The White Sox also make good trading partners for the Yankees because they don't have any gaping holes in their starting rotation and are thus less likely to demand any of the Yankees top young arms. Then again, the Sox could use a center fielder, so they might try to snag Melky. It almost goes without saying, but one year of Joe Crede is not nearly worth surrendering Melky Cabrera's future, though it might be worth a marginal relief pitcher or two.
The Reds' Edwin Encarnacion has also been discussed in the rumor mill, but the Reds wouldn't be unloading Encarnacion because they have some one younger and potentially better in their system. They'd be getting rid of him because he's a problematic fielder who has frustrated management with occasionally indifferent play. Sound attractive? What if I told you he too gets a mighty boost from his home ballpark? Moving on . . .
So there's this guy named Miguel Cabrera. Joe Girardi managed him in 2006. Seems Cabrera is the best young hitter in the game, has gotten an undeservedly poor reputation in the field, and after a season in which he totally let himself go and still hit .320/.401/.565, the 24-year-old Cabrera has decided to whip himself into shape for the 2008 season. Sound interesting? To put it simply, any opportunity to acquire a player of his ability at this stage in his career (he'll be 25 in April) should be taken very seriously. Cabrera is the sort of hitter who can fall out of bed and get a hit, but he absolutely creamolishes lefties (.316/.423/.578 career) and, despite his reputation, he's an above average defensive third baseman. You read that right. Looking at Dave Pinto's Probalistic Model of Range for third basemen in 2006 (Pinto hasn't posted 2007 yet), Cabrera is nearly dead center on the list, comfortably into the positive and just two notches below Chavez (Crede, incidentally, is way out in front, while Atkins and Encarnacion are well into the negative, curiously right below Wilson Betemit and Alex Rodriguez's dismal 2006 defensive performance). Those numbers are backed up by Baseball Prospectus's less reliable Rate stat. Cabrera's fielding may have slipped with the weight he put on this past season, but put him back under Joe Girardi's guidance, surround him with positive influences such as Tony Peña, Jorge Posada, and his countryman Bobby Abreu, and put him his first real pennant race since he was a 20-year-old rookie, and he could easily blossom into the best player in baseball.
The only real question is how much can the Yankees afford to give up for Cabrera. The way I see it, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Robinson Cano (fortunately the Fish have the keystone covered with Dan Uggla) should be untouchable regardless of the return (Johan Santana included), but I'd give up just about anyone else to get Cabrera, who would be under team control for three more seasons (albeit at very steep arbitration prices, he made $7.4 million in 2007). Cabrera's so good that, given his age and his price, he could actually represent an upgrade over Alex Rodriguez over the next three seasons and, even if his defense takes an irreparable fall, he hits well enough to be among the best in the game at first base or in an outfield corner, all of which will be positions of need for the Yankees in 2009 and beyond.
Thus my third-base wishlist is looks like this: 1) Cabrera for anyone but Joba, Hughes, or Cano; 2) Lowell for something in the area of $40m/4yrs, 3) Crede on the cheap. It could be that none of those three players can be had at those prices. If so, the Yanks should resign themselves to helping Wilson Betemit realize his potential while trolling the non-tenders for someone like Morgan Ensberg who could challenge Phillips for the job as Betemit's platoon partner.
While we're talking about the infield, I'll wrap up with a quick word on first base. With Jason Giambi finally in the last year of his contract (the Yankees will most surely buy out his $22 million option for 2009 even at the steep $5 million buyout price), it appears the Yankees are willing to stick him at first base and see what they can get out of him. Sure, they'll suffer on defense, but with Phillips, Duncan, and possibly Betemit available for late-game replacements, it seems worth the gamble to try to get one more monster season out of the Giambino. Remember, he hit .253/.413/.558 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs just last year, and he's had an OPS+ of 148 or higher in five of his seven season in pinstripes. With no need to keep him healthy for 2009, the Yankees might as well wring every last hit out of him this year, and prior to last year's injury-addled season, he's always hit significantly better when he plays the field. If he breaks down and they have to turn to Duncan and Phillips with more regularity, so be it. Maybe lefty-swinging Juan Miranda (who hit .265/.352/.480 at Trenton this year and is currently tearing up the Arizona Fall League to the tune of .295/.423/.551) will be ready to help out by then, or maybe the Braves will be looking to unload Mark Teixeira at the deadline. Giambi's upside is worth the gamble. Heck, they've come this far with the guy.