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The Winter Meetings: A Bronx (and Queens) Tale
by Tony Aubry, BaseballEvolution.com
December 16, 2008

Heading into the Winter Meetings last week, both New York teams had one thing on their respective minds: pitching. The Yankees were in need of starting pitching, while the Mets looked to patch up a leaky bullpen that finished third in the league with a mind-numbing 29 blown saves. As you should know by now, both teams made two major moves to address their needs. The Mets struck first by signing K-Rod, fresh off a 2008 campaign in which he broke the single saves record.

The next morning, my mother woke me up around 7:30 AM with some pleasant news. She had gleefully told me that Sabathia had been signed to a whopping 7-year, 161 million dollar contract. Needless to say, I was very excited. Later that night, The Mets made a move that I did not see coming. They traded for J.J. Putz while giving up Aaron Heilman, Endy Chavez, and minor leaguer Mike Carp in the process of further solidifying their bullpen. On the final day of the meetings, the Yankees went one step further in their attempt to reconstruct their starting rotation. They gave oft-injured A.J. Burnett 5-year, 82.5 million dollar contract. So looking back, which team fared better?

The Mets

In the midst of their second straight collapse of historic proportions, radio hosts and media personnel alike cited the Mets' lack of “guts” and inability to deliver in the “clutch” as the reasons for their failure. While these may have been part of the reason while they failed to make the post-season for a second straight year, the bigger reason was their atrocious bullpen. While healthy, Wagner managed to put up great peripherals, but still blew seven saves. After Wagner went down with a career-threatening elbow injury, the Mets looked to Heilman to become the closer, but were ultimately forced to use a bullpen by committee as all hell broke loose. Fast-forward a few months, and now the Mets could very well have one of the best bullpens after having the worst.

There have been talks of K-Rod declining, and his numbers agree with those talks. Since 2006, his FIP ERA has risen in each of the past three seasons. His K/9 has dropped from 12.8 to 10.3, while his walk rate, which has always been a concern, has risen from 3.6 to 4.5. Another concern of late has been his plummeting velocity. In 2007, his average fastball clocked at 95.5 MPH, while last year, it was 92.87. However, in a recent article, K-Rod claims that the reason for this sudden drop was because he was tinkering with his changeup. He also promises the high velocity we’re all accustomed to seeing. All things considered, this is still going to be an upgrade because the bullpen was just that horrid last season.

The second move, which I believe is nothing short of genius, was the trade for J.J. Putz. I think it was great move because they bought low, after Putz suffered an injury-plagued season.  Not too long ago, Putz was one of the top three closers in baseball. If he's healthy, chances are good that he will serve as the best setup man in the league and as a great insurance plan if K-Rod were to get injured.

In return, the Mets gave up Heilman, who suffered through a terrible season and has become a headache because of his desire to become a starter. They also relinquished Chavez, who is a fourth outfielder at best, and Mike Carp. Carp has shown plate discipline and above average power in A and AA ball. 

Not only did the Mets fix their bullpen by acquiring two very talented relief men, they also got rid of Joe Smith, Scott Schoeneweis, and the aforementioned Heilman, each of whom struggled last season.

The Yankees

While the Mets played the slots, quietly cashing in their chips after a hot a streak rather than after a cool one, the Yankees were the loud, drunken, belligerent type at the black jack table shouting, “hit me!” I’m sure no one was surprised, because for some time now that is the way the Yankees have done business. With the salaries of Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, and Andy Pettitte coming off the books, the Yankees were looking to spend big time. And they did just that.

Their first big signing of the off-season for the Yanks was C.C Sabathia. The acquisition, however, did not come without controversy. Approximately a month before the meetings, the Yankees offered C.C. a 6-year, 140 million dollar contract only to be ignored. As soon as the meeting began, Yankees GM Brian Cashman quickly pounced on the 290-pound lefty, meeting with him twice. They finally reached an agreement on a 7-year, 161 million dollar deal.

Sabathia has the option to opt-out of the contract after the third year, which is a double-edged sword. If C.C flourishes in New York, he very well may opt out for more money, and if he struggles under the scrutiny that New York has to offer, he may flee to California.  The controversy was that Sabathia was reluctant to come to the Bronx, and that the Yankees, being the big bad people that they are, even outbid themselves to coerce Sabathia into signing with them. While it may be true that deep in his heart C.C wanted to stay in California, it’s pure poppycock that the Yankees only outbid themselves. If the Yankees decided to not go after him, the only known deal was Milwaukee’s at $100 million. If you believe that that would have been the only offer on the table, you’re delusional. Had the Yankees not been in the sweepstakes, it’s very possible a team like the Angels would have offered Sabathia a multi-year deal well north of $100 million and no one would have complained.

Two of the main worries have been the long-term commitment and Sabathia's playoff woes. The former could be nullified by the option, and I believe that Sabathia's failures in the post-season have been a bit overblown since he has really only had three bad games, and the last one could have been caused by fatigue.

For the next three seasons, this move is without a doubt a slam-dunk. Since 2004, Sabathia has gone nowhere but up, and since 2006, you could argue that he has been one of the top three or four pitchers.

The next move the Yankees made was to sign A.J. Burnett to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal. When healthy, Burnett can be dominant. His repertoire displays a top-notch fastball that averaged 94.3 MPH, which ranked 4th among starters. To go along with his fastball, he has a devastating curveball with great lateral movement that can freeze right-handed batters. However, staying healthy has been a problem, and when healthy, his stuff has not translated into a sparkling ERA. If you look a bit past ERA we see that his xFIP ERA has consistently been lower than his ERA, and that he has run into a bit of bad luck. In 2006 and 2008, he had a relatively high BABIP, and for the past few seasons, he has pitched his home games in Rogers Center, which inflates HR by 20%.  The BABIP point could become moot since the Yankees defense is horrible, but they lost two of their worst defenders this past off-season in Jason Giambi (-1.8 UZR) and Bobby Abreu (-25.2! UZR). Jeter had one of his better seasons, but still had a negative UZR mark of -.4. Also, after a good defensive season in 2007, Robinson Cano fell off in 2008 by posting a UZR mark of -7.8. Yankee fans should hope that the benching Joe Girardi gave him in September will light a fire under him for the upcoming season. As of now, this deal is very high-risk, high-reward.

The Yankees' signing of Burnett is certainly risky, and one could argue that Sabathia’s weight could be a problem in the very near future. However, it does not appear that the Yankees are done. They offered Pettitte a one-year, $10 million deal, but Jon "Scoop" Heyman of SI.com just reported that an anonymous team just offered him a three-year, 36 million dollar deal. If Pettitte accepts that gift, the Yankees' last resort is Derek Lowe, who has been very solid to say the least over the past four seasons. On the offensive side of the ball, it was reported that if the Yankees don’t land Mark Teixeira, and they probably won’t, they are very interested in Manny Ramirez.

The Mets filled their needs with two relatively low-risk, high-reward moves, and got rid of a few bad pitchers.  As of December 16th, it appears that they have outdone the Yankees by a hair.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Tony resides in Queens, New York and can be reached at tony@baseballevolution.com.

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