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Plant A Tree
2008-01-24 08:21
by Cliff Corcoran
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Entering the new year, the Yankees had four arbitration-eligible players on their 40-man roster. Of the four, the two who will see the largest increase in salary this year are second baseman Robinson Cano and starter Chien-Ming Wang. Even if they are awarded the salaries they requested ($4.55 million and $4.6 million, respectively) Cano and Wang will continue to be bargains considering their contributions on the field.

Reliever Brian Bruney requested just $845,000 while the Yankees offered $640,000, a $205,000 difference that, in the big picture of the Yankees' team payroll, is little more than petty cash. The Yankees should be thinking seriously about signing Cano and Wang to long-term contracts to control their salaries over the ensuing two years of arbitration and to delay their arrival on the free agent market (reportedly both players are interested in making long-term commitments to the team). Bruney, however, is dangerously close to pricing himself off the team, not because he's so terribly expensive, but because his primary value over the past two seasons was that he was a player earning the league minimum who was obtained at no cost to the team. Bruney has pitched well for the Yankees at times, but entering his age-26 season, and with the team essentially holding open auditions for what will now be less expensive relievers, he'll have to step up his game this year or the very thing that made him valuable in the first place--the fungibility of relief performance and the ability of teams to obtain solid relief contributions from replacement-level acquisitions--will make him expendable, possibly even before the year is out.

The Yankees most compelling arbitration case, however, is that of infielder Wilson Betemit. Betemit and the Yankees have already settled their case, with Betemit signing a one-year deal for $1.165 million, but what makes Betemit's case so interesting is that unlike the team's other three arb-eligible players, Betemit's future is much more difficult to discern. Cano and Wang are already stars and are headed for eight-figure paydays be they in the Bronx or elsewhere. Bruney is a marginal reliever who will either establish himself as a go-to journeyman or fade from the major league scene. Betemit, however, is a former top prospect locked into a reserve role, but who still retains some promise of emerging as a starter. The problem is that Cano, Wang, and Bruney could all fulfill their potential in pinstripes, but Betemit can't.

Betemit is blocked at third base, his natural position, by the largest contract in baseball history, at his original position, shortstop, by the immovable icon that is Derek Jeter (whose lifespan at short is a whole other issue, but one that seems unlikely to be addressed by the team in time to help Betemit), and at the keystone by fellow arbitration case Cano. He'll get his chances this year at first base, but limiting a player like Betemit who can play all around the infield to first base is a considerable misallocation of resources, as it both reduces the player's value while simultaneously increasing the offensive standard against which his value is measured.

The irony is that if Betemit were to serve as little more than a utility infielder this year, he'd be hard pressed to get much more of a raise when arbitration rolls around again a year from now and thus would still be a good value given his price, power bat, and versatility. However, if he fulfills the Yankees' best hopes for him this year by earning a share of the starts at first base while experiencing a spike in production because he's properly used as a lefty-hitting platoon player (a switch-hitter his career marks are .268/.347/.464 batting left and .232/.281/.353 batting right), when arbitration comes around next year he could price himself off the team, particularly if the Yankees block him at first base by signing Mark Teixeira or Adam Dunn, as they should.

What's strange is that the latter scenario, in which Betemit plays his way off the team by proving too valuable to keep, would be the best for Betemit, who at age 26 still has time to establish himself as starting third baseman in the major leagues (though one gets the sense that he's likely to be the sort of player who would start for a second-division team but ride pine for a contender), but it would likely send the Yanks back to the good-field/no-hit barrel, where their current best hope for a 2009 replacement for Betemit is former Diamondback prospect Alberto Gonzalez, a career .278/.329/.383 hitter in the minor leagues. It's something of a lose-lose situation for the Yankees, which is an odd way to look at the best reserve infielder they've had in recent memory.

Random Facts Department: Even if he loses his arbitration case, Cano will become the most expensive second baseman the Yankees have had since Chuck Knoblauch earned $6 million to play the position in 2000. Alfonso Soriano earned $800,000 in his final year in pinstripes. Miguel Cairo's top Yankee contract was for $1 million, and that was to serve as Cano's backup in 2006. The only other second baseman the Yankees have paid seven figures for this century was Tony Womack, who was paid $2 million in 2005 (you can't say he "earned" it), but spent most of the year in the outfield.

Comments
2008-01-24 09:59:53
1.   Shaun P
Great article, Cliff. The Betemit conundrum is going to be tricky to solve. But it got me thinking about one possible solution . . .

2008 is Jeter's age-34 season*. He shouldn't play SS forever. If his poor defense last year was due to decline, not injury issues, the sooner he's not playing SS full time, the better. (2009?) This would open a spot for Betemit. But then where does Jeter play?

C, RF, 3B, and 2B out; they aren't feasible. CF is, but I'd be worried he'd get hurt playing CF for the first time at 35. I can't think of anyone else who's made the switch to CF that late in their career.

That leaves LF and 1B. LF might be the same as CF - doable, but risky. 1B . . . maybe the Yanks' priority for next offseason should be to find a big bat for DH, and leave 1B open for Jeter.

*FWIW, Mantle's last year in the OF was his age-34 season, 1966. The situations are different, but he's the last Yankee Icon™ to switch positions late career.

**Let's say the Yanks sign Tex. He's a stellar 1B, but can anyone see Jeter moving from SS to DH? Me neither. Does this mean Dunn might be the better option next year?

2008-01-24 10:23:22
2.   mehmattski
1 Craig Biggio immediately comes to mind. Baseball Prospectus says that he played about 36 games worth of CF early in his career (in 1989, 1990, and 1991)... but then didn't play CF again until very late in his career- 146 games in 2003 (at age 38) and 64 games in 2004.

CF may have been a good option for Jeter three or four years ago, but I agree that he'll slow down so much that there will definitely be better options there. Jeter at 1B seems like the best option. This will be one of the most interesting developments over the next three years in Yankee Land.

2008-01-24 10:24:30
3.   JL25and3
Cliff, if I understand the rules correctly, Wang and Cano both have three years of arbitration left, not two. Super Twos may be eligible for arbitration, but Super Fives dont get to be free agents.

That might make a little difference in the calculations for long-term contracts.

Still, I don't see why they'd lowball Cano after giving 2 yrs/$4M for a Molina.

2008-01-24 10:44:52
4.   OldYanksFan
Cano for 4 years and $30m?
And just where is Chuck?
Torre schlepping the Dodgers to China?
Mags on Steroids?
Jose blackmailing him?
The ChiSox looking to spend MORE money.. on Colon?

Anybody got the recipe for 'Twice Cooked Pork'?

2008-01-24 10:56:17
5.   ny2ca2dc
Hat tip River Ave Blues, but per Rosenthal, the boys are going to lock up Cano!

http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/7715482?MSNHPHMA

"The Yankees, locking up one of their young stars, are on the verge of signing second baseman Robinson Cano to a four-year, $30 million contract, according to major-league sources.

The deal, which would take Cano through his arbitration years, also is expected to include club options that would enable the Yankees to buy out one or two years of free agency.""

2008-01-24 11:02:02
6.   Shaun P
5 Incredible. I never thought I'd see this day. I think its safe to say that Hal and Cashman are on the same page (at least in terms of money spent).

2 I can't believe I forgot Biggio. D'oh.

2008-01-24 11:04:26
7.   OldYanksFan
2 3 Right on about Jeter. Not only is 1B really the only place for him to play, with his skills/talents with fielding popups, taking/making cutoff throws, his 'fleet footedness' compared to Giambi, Shelly and (God forbid) Jorge, and his experience fielding grounders, he may actually make a decent 1Bman.

And correct, he is not enought of a batting force (especially as he ages) for a DH (and really, Matsui might not be either).

And correct, the Yankees MUST make this decision THIS year, so they know if they go after Tex or not.

I remeber laughing when the Sox ditched a still effective bat in Nomar and got a not hit/great glove SS. But the last laugh was on me. Plugging SS really helped that team, and I think it will help ours.

And lastly, for the next few years (3 or 4)we may not be able to afford a full time DH. Jeter will need some rest, even a 1st base. Jorge definitely needs to see time at DH. Maybe we give ARod a few games at DH. we need this guys to last 10 years, right? If we get a fulltime DH, there will not be that much NET gain if it means sitting Matsui, Jeter, Posada and ARod.

I mean we know AGoz is not much of a bat, but the reports on his D is stellar. If we keep Jeter, Posada and ARod more effective by 'resting' them in the DH slot it may balance off AGon's bat a bit. Payroll comes down and we have a very flexible team.

And we always have the option of getting a Tulo type or a Tex type if it doesn't work. However, I was very effected by a statement I read (somewhere... BP, HBT?) to the effect that 'great pitching is much more a product of defense that most people think'.

And (double) lastly, while I like Matsui, he really is not in the mold of the 'new' Yankees. He's only got 2 years left, but I wonder if next year some team may be attracted (for 2009) to a 1 year/$13m (relatively cheap) contract. Is Ajax good for 2009? Just a thought.

2008-01-24 11:05:13
8.   OldYanksFan
oops... that 1 and 2
2008-01-24 11:58:36
9.   JL25and3
7 Matsui is money in the bank; he puts up the same numbers every year. Why are people always trying to trade him?

And I still seriously question whether he'd waive his NTC.

2008-01-24 12:30:37
10.   williamnyy23
7 While I agree that Jeter is a not a good defensive SS, he still has tremendous value at that position because of his bat. Everyone rushing to move him to another position needs to take that into account. I also don't agree that there is a parallel to what the Red Sox did what Nomar. Garciaparra was dealt partly because he and management had developed a contentious relationship. I also don't think the Nomar deal pushed the Red Sox over the hump. Clearly, since Nomar, the Red Sox have been unable to settle the SS position (another lesson worth noting).

As for Matsui, I agree with 9 . Godzilla is a consistent .850-.900 OPS, which would make him a perfect DH and ideally in the mold of an either an "old" or "new" Yankee.

What, by the way, is a "new" Yankee?

2008-01-24 13:03:30
11.   Shaun P
10 I agree on Jeter's bat, which is why I approached 1 from the perspective of opening a spot for Betemit IF Jeter is too hurt to play SS anymore, or his defense declines to the point that he shouldn't be allowed to play SS anymore.

His glovework would have to be really bad to significantly decrease the value of his bat at SS. But by some defensive metrics, his glove was that bad last year. IIRC, one metric (don't remember which) had Jeter at -44 runs on defense (I could be wrong). BP had his VORP (also measured in runs) at 53.5. If I'm remembering properly then, by these measures Jeter was worth all of 9.5 runs, or a single win (1 win approx equal to 10 runs) in 2007.

Maybe that's just due to injuries. Maybe that metric is full of crap, or I remember it wrongly. But is it possible? Yes.

2008-01-24 20:40:16
12.   Sonya Hennys Tutu
Ummmmmm, who is the last arbitration eligible player we locked up as we are now doing with Cano?
2008-01-25 06:14:50
13.   OldYanksFan
Where is everyone?

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