One of the many reasons I love baseball more than any other sport is the strategy. Not that there isn't strategy in other sports, but constant-action games such as basketball, hockey, soccer and tennis don't provide moments of stasis in which the viewer can think along with the coach or the players. Football comes close, with the breaks between downs giving fans a chance to contemplate a run versus a pass, how to manage the clock, or what to do on forth down (which is why it's my second favorite sport), but the playbooks are top secret and I can't remember ever hearing a football fan scream in anguish "agh! They should have run a reverse there!" To oversimplify somewhat, it seems the only time football fans truly get to make the call is when the coach is deciding to kick or not to kick.
Baseball is different. The tuned in fan can call pitches, advise the batter on what to look for and whether or not to swing, position the fielders, send or hold the baserunners, get a reliever warmed up, make a pitching change or send in a pinch hitter or runner, issue an intentional walk, even choose where a fielder should throw a batted ball. It's a game of constant contemplation, strategy, logic, discussion, and argument, which is exactly why it appeals so strongly to scholars and writers.
The offseason is no different. Take for example the events of last night and today. On their face, the arbitration deadline and the Rule 5 draft couldn't be more boring, but when one considers the strategy involved in each, they suddenly become extremely compelling for the hardcore baseball fan.
Let's look at the arbitration deadline first. Teams had until midnight last night to offer arbitration to their eligible free agents or lose the ability to re-sign them until May 1, a full month into the 2006 season. Given that statement alone, one would be tempted to say that teams should always offer their free agents arbitration so as to keep their options open. But it's not that simple.
Once a team offers a player arbitration, the player must decide by December 19 to accept or reject it. If the player rejects it, the team is still has three weeks (until January 8) to resign the player if it so desires. If the player accepts arbitration, however, the team is required to sign the player to a one-year deal at a salary decided by an independent arbiter that is no less than 20 percent of their salary from the previous season.1 Thus, the threat of an undesired or previously overpaid free agent accepting arbitration eliminates the "offer arbitration to everybody" strategy.
Given the threat of a player accepting arbitration, one is tempted to say that teams should offer arbitration only to the free agents they plan to resign. But there is still more to this. When another team signs a free agent away from his former club, the new team is required to compensate the former team with draft picks2 in the upcoming amateur draft if and only if the former team offered the player arbitration. Teams do not receive compensatory draft picks for players not offered arbitration.
As the Yankees seem to have finally learned, one cannot sustain a winning ballclub without inexpensive homegrown talent acquired via the annual amateur draft. Thus, compensatory draft picks are extremely valuable. Oakland's Billy Beane figured this out years ago and developed a habit of trading for players in their walk year with the intention of offering them arbitration but not resigning them, thus loading up on draft picks, several of which were used on some of the younger players who arrived last year to form the backbone of what just might be the next great A's team (see also: Cleveland Indians).
Thus, when making its arbitration decisions, a team must get inside the heads of its free agents and their player agents, much like a hitter must get inside the head of a pitcher, to accurately gauge whether or not the player will be tempted to accept arbitration rather than test the market, and must also accurately gauge the market to determine whether or not a player determined to test the market will find the market wanting and return to his former team, hat in hand. In recent years the Braves and Phillies guessed incorrectly when offering arbitration to Greg Maddux and Placido Polanco respectively, both of whom wound up accepting arbitration much to their team's dismay (the latter after being criminally undervalued by the Yankees among others).
Then there's the rare situation in which the player and team have an under the table agreement that the player will not accept arbitration if the team is willing to offer it to extend the negotiating period. That appears to be the case with Bernie Williams and the Yankees, as Bernie was one of three players the Yankees offered arbitration at the deadline last night. The other two were Al Leiter--whom Brian Cashman has said he would be interested in retaining on a minor league or incentive-laden deal with an eye toward using him as a LOOGY in 2006--and Ramiro Mendoza.
Mendoza is an interesting case. A non-roster invitee to spring training last year, Mendoza was signed by the Yankees despite the fact that they knew he'd have to sit out the first half of the year following rotator cuff surgery, then spend a couple months in the minors getting back into game shape. Indeed, Mendoza didn't throw a pitch in competition until August 5. He then allowed just one earned run in 17 innings across ten appearances for the Gulf Coast Yankees and Columbus Clippers in August, earning a September call-up. Mendoza made his first major league appearance of 2005 against the Mariners on September 1, facing five batters, two of whom scored on a two-out Jose Lopez home run (hint: one of them was Jose Lopez). That was also Mendoza's last appearance in 2005. Coming off a season like that, Mendoza poses no threat should he accept arbitration, though it is surprising to see that, after refusing to give him a second chance in 2005--albeit during an intense pennant race--the Yankees have an interest in retaining him for 2006. If Mendoza does re-sign it would likely be another minor league deal.
None of the three players the Yankees have offered arbitration is a type-A free agents (players in the top 30 percent of Elias's rankings2 who thus net their former teams two draft picks, as opposed to the solitary picks awarded teams who lose type-B and C free agents who make up the next 30 percent of the Elias rankings). The Yankees only had three such free agents this winter: Tom Gordon, Matt Lawton and Mark Bellhorn. The Yankees will receive two picks from the Phillies for Gordon, who was signed before the Yankees had a chance to offer him arbitration (which they likely would have done as they had hoped to re-sign him). Lawton, however, was too big a risk to offer arbitration as he is coming of a season in which he earned $7.75 million and thus would have had a minimum salary of $6.2 million had he accepted the Yankees' arbitration offer, which, given his poor second half performance and impending steroid suspension, he was very likely to do. Bellhorn, who earned $2.75 million last year was a less obvious call. His is likely a case in which the additional cost of two draft picks might have scared other teams away from signing him, resulting in his accepting the Yankees' offer and the Yanks thus owing him a minimum of $2.2 million for 2006 when they had no interest in retaining him at any price.
For his part, Leiter earned $7 million in 2005, but is also seriously contemplating retirement and thus likely also agreed to decline arbitration should he and the Yankees fail to come to an agreement on a low-cost contract by December 19.
With all of that out of the way, we may now join the Yankees in saying a fond farewell to the rest of their free agents, whom you can now find in the "Recently Departed" section at the bottom of the sidebar. Among those who will plague us no more: Kevin Brown, Alan Embree, John Flaherty, Felix Rodriguez and, miraculously, Ruben Sierra. Pardon me while I pause to bask in the glory of their departures.
[bask . . . bask . . . bask]
That brings us back to Bernie. Brian Cashman, who to my delight really does seem to be running things this winter, has said that he'd be interested in bringing Bernie back in what has been termed "a Ruben Sierra role." From MLB.com:
"I see there's a role, I see his willingness to stay," Cashman said. "So while I can't say he's going to return for another year, he's going to have the opportunity to say yes or no."
Williams made more than $12 million in 2005, so he would have to take a significant pay cut to return to the Yankees next season. Sierra earned $1.5 million last season, and the Yankees would likely try to sign Williams in that same range.
"We've defined the role; now we have to define the economics of it," Cashman said. "This is a signal that we're both agreeing that, at some point, we'd like to get something done. There's a willingness and a hope to try to get something done and bring him back for one more year, assuming we can work out the economics for both sides that make sense. . . . There's a lot that goes into this decision. Bernie means a lot to this franchise, and he's given a lot to this franchise. Someone like him, you make sure you take the extra time and care as you walk through the process. That's all we're doing."
While I'm glad that Bernie's Yankee career didn't come to an end with a cold shoulder at the arbitration deadline, I hope Cashman takes the extra negotiating time he's bought himself to talk Bernie into retirement. There's a case to be made that Bernie Williams was the sixth greatest Yankee position player of all time, if not the sixth greatest Yankee of all time, but he is no longer an asset to this or any other ballclub. Consider this:
Quick, which is Bernie Williams' 2005 season and which is Kelly Stinnett's career line?
Stinnett is just barely acceptable as a back-up catcher earning $650,000 and in line for about 140 at-bats. Bernie is a poor defensive outfielder/DH, never mind that any contract he'd agree to would likely be for at least $2 million or that Joe Torre is liable to give him a minimum of 250 at-bats. Bernie deserves a proper send off, but part of that requires recognition on the part of both Williams and the Yankees that his continuing to play would be a disservice to both parties.
Rule 5 (Not Rule V)
There's a different sort of strategy involved in the Rule 5 draft. Though it took more than a decade to evolve into a recognizable form and has undergone many rule revisions since, the Rule 5 draft, originally designed to prevent independent minor league teams from hording talent and now serving the purpose of preventing major league teams from hording talent in their affiliated minor league systems, has existed in one form or another since 1892.
In its current form, the draft allows teams with available space on their major league 40-man rosters (the Yankees, for example, have four empty spots at the moment) to draft minor leaguers with a certain amount of experience3 who are not on their franchise's major-league 40-man roster. There is a small fee that a selected player's new team must pay his former franchise (currently $50,000), but the real catch to the Rule 5 draft is that drafted players must spend the entirety of the ensuing season on their new team's 25-man major league roster (though exceptions are made for stints on the disabled list). If a team wants to demote a Rule 5 pick, they must first offer the player back to their original team at half price ($25,000).
As a result, the majority of Rule 5 picks are made by weaker teams who can afford to spend roster spots on players who may not be major league ready but could prove to be valuable in the near future as part of a rebuilding effort. Recent examples include the Tigers' Chris Shelton, who would have been a Rookie of the Year candidate this past season if not for the Rule 5 requirement that robbed him of his eligibility in 2004, and Johan Santana, who, amazingly, was drafted from the Astros by the Marlins, who then flipped him to the Twins the same day for Jared Camp and cash.
Of course, those are special cases and, along with Roberto Clemente, George Bell, two of a very small group of impact players who changed teams via Rule 5. Last year's big Rule 5 splash was Andy Sisco, selected out of the Cubs organization by the Royals, with whom he made a successful jump from A-ball to the majors and from starting to short relief.
Because they are constantly in contention, and thus need to make the most of every roster spot, the Yankees usually don't bother making Rule 5 selections (though that doesn't stop them from employing the Enrique Wilsons and Tony Womacks of the world).4 Rather the Yankees usually look at the draft from the other side, making sure to protect their eligible players who are most likely to be selected by adding them to the 40-man roster when rosters are frozen in late November.5
Indeed, when the major league and minor league reserve lists were filed on November 19, there were five new names on the Yankees' 40-man roster. Here's a quick look at these new faces, some of whom may just pass through the Bronx in 2006:
Kevin Thompson A speedy center fielder, the 26-year-old Thompson cracked triple-A for the first time this past July after tearing up double-A to the tune of .329/.432/.565 in 313 at-bats. While that's encouraging news for a team in desperate need of a center fielder, Thompson has shown a career-long trend of needing two cracks at each new level before catching up with the league. Indeed he hit just .249/.335/.359 in his 209 at-bats with the Clippers last year. What's more, he actually spent the bulk of three seasons in Trenton before mastering double-A (though his .281/.362/.444 in his second double-A season wasn't awful and his continued improvement in his third season there was very encouraging). Still, he doesn't project to make any sort of impact at the major league level before 2007, at which point he'll be 27 years old.
Matt DeSalvo A slight right-handed starter, the 25-year-old DeSalvo is the Yankees dark horse pitching prospect. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003, DeSalvo continues to be overlooked because, much like Colter Bean, he doesn't throw hard. All he does is get guys out. Here's his composite minor league line from three seasons split between single and double-A:
If DeSalvo has a weakness it's that he walks too many guys, which could be trouble for a pitcher who relies on location and deception. That said, it's interesting to note that when his walk rate has dipped, his strikeout rate has dipped along with it, suggesting that his stuff just moves so much that it's hard to keep in the zone. DeSalvo, who's not dissimilar from Chien-Ming Wang in terms of confidence and his ability to keep the ball down in the zone, would seem to be the next in line for any openings that might be created in the major league rotation. (see also Steven Goldman's interviews with DeSalvo, his Trenton pitching coach Dave Eiland, and teammate Ben Julianel here)
Jeffrey Karstens Another right-handed starter, the 23-year-old Karstens spent all of 2005 in the Trenton rotation alongside DeSalvo. Unlike DeSalvo, however, there's not a lot of reason to get excited about Karstens. Only one thing sticks out out his stat line. Fortunately, it's the most important: his K/BB ratio. At 3.54 in 375 minor league innings and 3.50 in double-A in 2005, Karstens K/BB is promising, but until he can post an ERA below 4.00 in a full-season league, there won't be much reason to get excited.
Matt Smith Not to be confused with the 6' 5" reliever in the White Sox organization who goes by the same name but is right-handed and ten months his senior, this 6' 5" lefty relieving Matt Smith finally showed improvement after being moved to the bullpen in his fourth season in double-A, earning a late-June promotion to Columbus, where he continued to excel, posting a 2.60 ERA and striking out 10.73 per 9 IP in 25 relief appearances. Smith's control is an issue, however, as he walked 4.23 per 9 IP in Trenton and has a 4.60 BB/9 on his minor league career. Also of concern is the fact that Smith got lit up in the Arizona Fall League in October.
Anyone lobbying for Smith to start 2006 as a part of the Yankee bullpen should consider the following: Smith and Jason Anderson were born six days apart. Both were drafted by the Yankees in 2000. Both began their minor league careers as starters before converting to the bullpen (though Anderson switched in 2002). Both pitched in relief for the Clippers in 2005. Here are their lines:
490 2/3 IP
*Smith's 2003 season appears to be missing from the Baseball Cube's stats
T.J. Beam A 25-year-old righty drafted out of the University of Mississippi in 2003, Beam has yet to pitch above A-ball, but that's about to change. Moved to the bullpen in 2005, he dominated the Sally League and pitched admirably with single-A Tampa, striking out 27 men in 17 1/3 innings. He then went to town on the Arizona Fall League, posting a 10:1 K/BB ratio and a 1.53 ERA in eleven appearances. It seems Beam has finally found his calling. He should start 2006 in double-A and could find himself in the Bronx before September if he continues to dominate.
* * *
1. "The exception here is that if a player won an arbitration award the prior year that resulted in a 50% or greater salary increase, there is no maximum paycut allowed in the proposal. A player with a non-guaranteed contract or an arbitration award may be released up until the 15th day of spring training with 30 days' pay or from the 16th day of spring training until the opening of the season with 45 days' pay. When a player is claimed on waivers, the new team takes on the contract." (Source)
2. The secondary condition for receiving compensatory draft picks is that the player lost to free agency rank in the top 60 percent of a statistical list compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau. The number and location of the picks is subject to another series of rules, all of which are explained as clearly as is possible by Baseball Prospectus's Thomas Gorman (yes that's his real name) here.
3. Players are eligible if this is the third Rule 5 draft of their major league career and they signed their first professional contract after their 19th birthday, or if this is the fourth Rule 5 draft of their major league career and they signed their first professional contract before their 19th birthday. A good primer on Rule 5 can be found here
4. Technically this is inaccurate. In addition to the major league Rule 5 draft there are triple-A and double-A stages to the Rule 5 draft, and the Yankees have indeed been known to make selections in those portions, but as Alan Schwarz notes, those stages almost never produce major league players and are used simply to fill out minor league rosters. Felix Escalona was a minor league Rule 5 pick going from the Astros' organization to the Giants' organization in 2001, but has never appeared in the majors for either.
5. The catch here is that once a player is added to the 40-man roster, their three-year option period begins. Players are eligible to be optioned to the minor leagues only during the first three seasons after they were first added to the 40-man roster. In the fourth season, they must clear waivers in order to be sent down. Bubba Crosby, Jorge DePaula and Jason Anderson will all be out of options when the 2006 season begins.