Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Randy Johnson Press Conference Roundup 

Randy Johnson's introductory press conference yesterday afternoon was a hoot (particularly in comparison to Carl Pavano's bore-a-thon). The sight of the 6'10" pitcher standing next to mighty mite Brian Cashman looked like a special effects shot from Lord of the Rings or Big Fish. Also, I'm continually fascinated by Johnson's resemblence to the late Frank Zappa. Johnson is also an unintentionally entertaining speaker. A straight shooter with a deep, quasi-Canadian accent (despite his being from central California), Johnson's speech is littered with lazy gramatical errors and pronunciations (he dropped a handfull of "udder"s among udders). What's more, he seems to have a solid vocabulary but is prone to stumble into linguistical traps. Among my favorites from yesterday afternoon: "I hope to do bigger things on the field than off the field to create your attention"; "do the things that I've been doing with the Diamondbacks, my prior years, and also Seattle"; "I'm very gracious to be affiliated with the Diamondbacks"; "I'm just a piece of the puzzle here, I'm not the whole pitcher by any means."

Randy was also confronted yet again by CBS's Duke Castiglione, the reporter who beseiged him on his way to his physical on Monday. Castiglione unwittingly did his best to make Johnson look like a class act by belaboring the petty incident despite Johnson's repeated apologies and attempts to make good.

In speaking about the forces that motivated his trade to the Yankees, Johnson dropped another winner ("what I agreed upon with Jerry Colangelo was something that I agreed upon") and also provided the most informative quote of the day: "I don't feel like there's any drop in production that would indicate that I should have to give back 50 percent of my salary in order to stay there [in Arizona] beyond this year." Fifty percent of Johnson's salary is $8 million. Javy Vazquez is set to make an average of $11.5 million over the next three years and the Yankees sent $9 million to Arizona in the deal. That makes Javy a $8.5 million-per-year pitcher. Bingo.

Lastly, Johnson boldy predicted that he "will have at least 35 starts here." Which is considerably optimistic considering the fact that Johnson has made 35 starts in a season just four times and never made more, and that Andy Pettitte (in 1997) was the only Yankee pitcher since Tommy John in 1980 to make 35 starts. Let's hope he didn't mean 35 starts over his three seasons with the team. Beyond that Johnson said, "I will pitch a lot of very good games here. I can tell you right now I'll probably lose at least one game, two games this year. I'm not going to go undefeated." So that solves that mystery.

posted by Cliff at 7:29 PM

Monday, January 10, 2005

Getting Randy 

Three and a half weeks ago I was watching ESPN Classic's "Cheap Seats" (a show that's quickly growing on me) and looking forward to a rare good night's sleep amid the holiday rush when the ticker at the bottom of the screen reported a three-team trade between the Yankees, Dodgers and Diamondbacks. The Yankees were to send Javier Vazquez and the two top prospects in their organization--catcher Dioner Navarro and third-baseman Eric Duncan--to the Dodgers and received Randy Johnson in return from the Diamondbacks. So much for that good night's sleep. I was up late that night breaking down the trade for the BRB, but, always wary of unconfirmed transaction reports, I resisted posting my reaction only to watch with bemusement as the trade slowly disintegrated (largely because of reason #4).

Two weeks later, another unofficial deal was reported, this one a straight-up trade between the Yankees and Diamondbacks with Vazquez, Navarro and LHP Brad Halsey going to Arizona in exchange for the Big Unit. Again, I hesitated to post my analysis, in part because of the various hurdles that still needed to be cleared for the deal to be finalized (Johnson waiving his no-trade, Bud Selig approving the deal, the Yankees working out a contract extension for Johnson, and physicals all around), and in part because I was off to San Francisco for a week to visit an old friend.

When I returned on Friday, the first three hurdles had been cleared, with Johnson, who is set to earn $16 million in 2005, re-upping with the Yanks for the same annual salary in 2006 and 2007 via a two-year, $32-million extension. But it wasn't until yesterday that Johnson finally took, and passed, his physical (though not without incident). Thus the time has finally come. Cannibalizing my original post from December 17, here's my take:

The initial report of the trade hit me like a punch to the gut. It was bad enough that the Yankees were giving up on a 29-year-old pitcher who had pitched like an ace for four and a half seasons because of a mere three months of poor pitching, but the fact that they were throwing in two of their best young players (which is the case in both versions of the trade) was another thing altogether. Were they crazy? Did they forget that Javy Vazquez was an All-Star last year because of these first-half numbers: 3.57 ERA, 10-5, 7.21 K/9, 2.43 BB/9? Did his 3.65 ERA, 8.22 K/9, 2.10 BB/9 and 13 complete games over the previous four seasons no longer have any meaning? Was it really necessary for them to trade Vazquez along with the organization's two top prospects for a 41-year-old with a bad knee who was set to earn $16 million in 2005 and would likely require as much if not more for two more years before he'd approve the trade?

I didn't think so.

Then I looked at Johnson's numbers.

Randy Johnson joined the Arizona Diamondbacks as a free agent at age 35. He pitched six seasons in Arizona during which the BOB averaged a 104.7 park factor. Leaving out his subpar 2003 season--in which surgery on his right knee limited him to a "disappointing" 110 ERA+ and 9.73 K/9 (against 2.13 BB/9, the lowest walk-rate of his career to that point) in 18 starts--Johnson accomplished all of the following in each of his five full seasons in Arizona:

more than 10 K/9
fewer than 3 BB/9
at least 4.5 K/BB
at least 170 ERA+
at least 50 RSAA (Runs Saved Against Average)
at least 19 neutral wins
at least 245 IP
at least 290 strikeouts (320 or more Ks in four of those five seasons)
7.13 or fewer H/9 (fewer than 7 H/9 in four of those five seasons)

This is not evidence of former greatness. These are stats that Randy Johnson posted in 2004.

Rolling back the clock just a bit, consider that Johnson's four-year streak (1999-2002) with a minimum 50 RSAA is only one of two such runs since Cy Young did it five straight years in the 1890s (the other was Lefty Grove from 1929-32). One can only assume that, had his knee not required surgery in 2003 he would have posted six straight 50+ RSAA seasons, tying him with Kid Nichols for the longest such streak in the history of the game. Of course, if that were the case, the streak would still be active.

And that's the point. The Yankees haven't added a player who was once an All-Star, World Series MVP, Cy Young Award Winner and the best pitcher in the game. They've added a player who was at worst in a dead heat with Johan Santana as the best pitcher in the game last year. Randy Johnson is more than an ace, he's a difference maker.

Consider this: In the team's 102 seasons, a Yankee starter has turned in a 50 RSAA season just four times (Ron Guidry in '78, Lefty Gomez in '34 and '37, and Jack Chesbro in '04). Johnson has done it in five of his last six seasons and a total of seven times in his career. What the Yankees have done is acquire a pitcher who not only can, but is actually likely to post one of the ten if not five greatest seasons by a Yankee starter ever.

Yes, Johnson is 41 years old, but he's shown no sign of slowing down. Remember that Nolan Ryan, an inferior pitcher (just one 30+ RSAA season in his career) with a similar career path, posted a 138 ERA+ while striking out 203 men at age 44, and that Roger Clemens, who is more than a year older than Johnson, posted a 145 ERA+ while striking out 218 men this past season. And, yes, Johnson's right knee conjures up memories of Andre Dawson as he's had all the cartilage removed and has to receive lubricant injections before every start. But, frankly, that doesn't really bother me. Johnson was easily the best pitcher in the NL last year pitching on that knee, which is on his plant leg, not his push leg. What's more, Johnson doesn't rely on his legs the way fellow aging fireballers Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling do. Rather, he uses his height and long arms to sling-shot the ball to the plate using an upright delivery. Both Vazquez's and Johnson's contracts last through 2007 and I believe that, despite Johnson's age and knee problems, it is not only possible, but actually likely that he will out-perform Javy Vazquez over those three seasons.

Of course that's where this issue becomes muddled. Vazquez will earn an average of $11.5 million for the next three years, while Johnson will earn $16 million per season. The Yankees also sent an additional $9 million to the Diamondbacks to ease the strain of Vazquez's contract, effectively boosting Johnson's annual pricetag to $19 million, $7.5 million per year more than Vazquez would have cost the Yankees. And then there are the prospects.

In evaluating this portion of the deal, I found a February 2004 passage from Fabian McNally's late-lamented Minor Yankee Blog to be of some solace. Quothe Fabian:
One of the cardinal sins of following prospects is to become too excited or sure of one prospect because there is a very high attrition rate in this field, few of the can't miss guys actually hit. Another of the major don'ts is to make too big of a deal about a player who has not had much experience, it's like the sample size rule of prospects.
That being said, Halsey and Navarro both cracked the big-league roster last year, thus we have a better idea of how they project than we do Eric Duncan (who could turn out to be anything from Kevin Maas to Mike Schmidt).

Halsey I had hoped would be the first Yankee prospect to stick in the rotation since fellow lefty Andy Pettitte, here's what I wrote in my Dream Team post (tidied up slightly):
This team needs to develop its young pitchers and the Earl Weaver method of giving a young starter a year in the pen is one proven way to do that. Halsey, who turns 24 in February, is the Yankees best candidate for this sort of thing and has the minor league K/BB ratio (3.29) that suggest he could be another Ted Lilly (K/BB ratio being the stat sabermatricians consider the best predictor of future success in minor league pitchers). For those not paying attention, Lilly, who had a minor league K/BB ratio of 3.36, was tenth among pitchers in the AL in VORP this year. Added advantage: like Lilly, Halesy's a lefty. He also had an extreme split during his eight game stint with the Yankees this year, which could make him an effective second LOOGY when needed (such as against the Ortiz/Nixon Red Sox).
Of course, the Yankees failed to get a primary LOOGY this offseason, but that's another post altogether.

Including Halsey in the deal means that in a few years the two pitchers they sent to Arizona in the deal could very well be an ace under 35 and a solid mid-rotation lefty under 30. That hurts. And we haven't even mentioned Navarro, the Yankees top prospect according to Baseball America.

Dioner Navarro, who will turn 21 next month, has posted a career minor league line of .277/.354/.402 (.260) after four years in the Yankee system. He was projected as Jorge Posada's successor behind the plate prior to a concern over his decreased slugging in 2004. After putting up a respectable .470-ish SLG in single and double-A in 2003, Navarro lost more than 100 points off his slugging in his 2004 season split between double-A Trenton and the triple-A Columbus Clippers. Still, were he to have rediscovered his power stroke in Columbus this year, he'd have been perfectly set-up to take over for Posada. After having Navarro spend all of 2005 in Columbus and back up Jorge in 2006, the Yankees would have been able to make a decision on Posada's 2007 option with Navarro having had 100-odd major league at-bats under his belt. Assuming the Yankees either picked up the option for Jorge's age-35 season, or worked out a less expensive contract extension, Navarro could have split the catching duties with Jorge in '07 and taken over as the starter in '08 at age 24.

This scenario seemed all the more likely when one made note of Posada's career path and occasionally underwhelming early slugging numbers, particularly in his first year at triple-A, and the fact that Navarro is three years ahead of Jorgy's pace. But the Yankees are not a team that tends to (or frequently needs to) look that far down the road (although Victor Martinez won't be a free agent until 2009). After all, there is no guarantee that Navarro is going to pan out. Despite his "Pugito" nickname, he may yet turn into the second coming of Einar Diaz (though we might find out a bit sooner now that he'll be battling for a starting job this year in L.A., where he will be sent by the Diamondbacks as part of a package for Shawn Green).

And that's what this trade ultimately comes down to. The Yankees have sent the future packing in an attempt to guarantee themselves a championship in 2005 (in a broader sense, the Yankees traded Halsey, Navarro, Juan Rivera, Randy Choate and Nick Johnson and cash for Randy Johnson). And that's how this trade must ultimately be judged. The addition of Johnson puts the Yankees closer to that elusive 27th World's Championship than any other player in baseball would have (after all, Barry Bonds can't pitch). Should Johnson deliver a championship to the Bronx by 2007, the trade must be seen as a success. Otherwise, barring the complete collapse of all three of the players they sent to Arizona, it must be seen as a costly failure, something that just might come to describe the Yankees as a whole before too long. But I'll save that for my next post.

posted by Cliff at 10:05 PM

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