Mood Music - This Year by The Mountain Goats
They actually did it. They traded Jesus Montero for a pitcher. Of course they did. I thought that there was a good chance that Montero wouldn't be traded, at least not right away, given how he looked in September, but such is life. If the Yankees traded Montero for Clayton Kershaw, Matt Moore, Andrew McCutchen, and the space shuttle, it would still suck to lose him. You could make the argument (and I would) that the Yankees were better off with their newly acquired young talent and interstellar capabilities, but it's always going to sting to lose someone who can mash like Montero.
But if he were traded, you knew that it would be for a pitcher. On the surface that seems reasonable, with the Yankees biggest weakness being in the starting rotation. But, are they better in the long run now that they've upgraded their starting rotation and downgraded their lineup? Was the reasoning behind the deal sound? Most people seem to think so, and I understand why; Michael Pineda is 22 years old, fresh off of a very impressive rookie season, and his right arm is a bolt of lightning. There is every reason to be excited about what he'll bring to the team.
But, to me, the deal seems a lot like robbing Peter to pay Paul, with the plan of robbing Paul later to pay back Peter, while really trying to avoid paying either one. That probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense, so take the jump.
I'll say it simply and up-front in the hope that everything that I say afterward will be seen in its proper light: Starting pitching is really important. There's really no debating that point. The two players with the greatest impact on the outcome of any game are the two starting pitchers. Where I do draw the line, however, is where I often do. Methodologies and statements that are believed just because they're common, not because there's any real proof or tangible evidence.
Good pitching beats good hitting, starting pitching wins in October, you can never have too much pitching.
Spare me. Definitive statements like that are at best an oversimplification of a complicated game and at worst flat-out wrong. Here are the last ten World Series winners, with their respective AL or NL ranks in a few categories:
This isn't the most scientific analysis that I've ever done, but I can say with confidence that there is no pattern. There is no championship blueprint, and certainly not one that includes the best pitching rotation winning it all or good pitching beating good hitting. In just the last six years, the World Series has been won by: a good offense carrying bad pitching (2011 Cardinals), good pitching carrying a bad offense (2010 Giants), a team that excelled at both (2009 Yankees, 2007 Red Sox), and a team that was bad at both (2006 Cardinals).
*For reference, the 2011 Yankees ranked 2nd in the AL in runs scored, 4th in ERA, 4th in starting pitcher fWAR, and 5th in starting pitcher ERA, meaning that they would have rated as an average to above average World Series winner last year.
With an ever expanding playoff pool, the variance is only going to increase and the correlation between winning the World Series and any specific attribute will only decrease. The goal of the Yankees, then, should not be to improve their starting pitching, but to improve the quality of their team as a whole, with better starting pitching being one way that they can do that.
A common theme was that the Yankees got supremely lucky to milk 7.8 fWAR out of the combination of Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Ivan Nova. They did. They had no right to expect that amount of production from those three and have no right to expect equal performance in 2012. Nova has the best chance, and could even presumably improve; Freddy Garcia is another year older and another year removed from the incredibly good deed that led to his first half karma (or so I presume); Bartolo Colon is an Oakland Athletic.
However, after signing Hiroki Kuroda, you could make the case that a rotation of Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Garcia, and any kind of production from the Hughes/Burnett monster could be expected to approximate the 2011 results. Even with some regression across the board, it's not a disastrous five starters to begin the season with.
However, if the Yankees are serious about making it to the $189MM mark by 2014*, they were much better positioned to augment a struggling starting rotation than a struggling offense. Assuming that payroll constrictions prevent the Yankees from making a big splash with a free agent like Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, (2013) or Matt Cain (2013), the main cogs of the team for the next few years are already in place.
*It's tough to dismiss the notion that this is posturing, but the financial boon that the team would get for doing this is so overwhelming that I don't have much doubt that the powers that be are going to at least give it a serious shot.
With the bloated contracts in place that create most of the difficulties for the team, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which talent is going to be added that is not on the cheap. The best and easiest way to get value at a discount is through the minor league pipeline. Unfortunately, while the starting pitchers in the system with the potential to impact the major leagues in the next few years are myriad, the impact hitter in the system was Jesus Montero. The strength of our farm system has for years been pitchers and Jesus Montero, now it's just pitchers.
Now that Montero is gone, what minor league bat is on the horizon of contributing? Gary Sanchez is 19 years old and hit .256/.335/.485 in A ball, while allowing 26 passed balls in 60 games behind the plate. Mason Williams has even further to go. Brandon Laird had a .288 OBP in Scranton this year. Maybe someone comes out of nowhere, but without Montero, the likelihood of the Yankees farm system providing an impact bat just nosedived.
Nick Swisher and Russell Martin are free agents after this coming season; we have one more option year for Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano. The outfielders in the system are particularly dismal. Can we afford to let any of them walk? Can we afford to resign them all?
Having Montero gives the Yankees both some leverage against Martin and a way to limit the wear and tear that has been the bane of his career. If Montero can provide catching defense that is anything better than catastrophic, the lineup flexibility is enhanced greatly while adding another good hitter. With an aging team that includes entrenched and declining players like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Mark Teixeira for the foreseeable future, is there any doubt that offensive production is going to decline? Montero was the best counter-acting force that the Yankees had and now he's been traded so that the Yankees could have seven starting pitchers.
Which leads me to the "you can never have too much pitching" thing. Of course you can. Barring injury, what is the plan for the rotation? Dumping A.J. Burnett while swallowing 75% of his contract? Sending Phil Hughes to the pen to be the fifth right handed option behind Rivera, Roberston, Soriano, and Chamberlain? Trading Hughes at the lowest his value has ever been? Sending Ivan Nova or Phil Hughes to AAA? Freddy Garcia cannot be traded until June. Show me any of these options (and remember that we need to do two of them) that does not represent waste and inefficiency.
To get through a season, teams almost always need around ten starting pitchers. The last five years the Yankees have used nine, eight, nine, thirteen, and fourteen starters. Injuries can cause a lot of turnover and the back end of any rotation has the potential to become a revolving door. You need extra starters, but you can't carry seven at once. The last five years, the Yankees seventh starter has made two, seven, seven, nine, and six starts, with every one of them also being used out of the bullpen.
Jumping between AAA and the majors while making some spot starts and assorted bullpen appearances is a perfect job for Adam Warren and David Phelps. It's criminally wasteful to subject Ivan Nova and, to a lesser extent, Phil Hughes to that. And yet, if the season started tomorrow, the smart money would be on A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia both being in the rotation because there's really nothing else to do with them.
To me, it just seems like the thought process was "the Yankees scored a lot of runs in 2011 so there's no reason to be concerned about the offense. The Yankees don't have that fabled number two starter." With important offensive pieces that are either aging right before our eyes or a year or two from free agency and without much to be excited about in the minors, there is a big reason to be concerned about our offense in the coming years.
There's another shoe to drop, and my advice is this: Don't get too attached to those pitching prospects. Before long, they're going to be moved for a bat, probably an outfielder. And it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Yankees come away ahead after trading away Jesus Montero and then shopping for a bat to replace him.