“What a mix we have goin’ on for the last two innings.
Sitting alone upstairs, owner Gary Wheeler…reportedly has already sold his ball club, the Tigers, to the corporate group in the box to his left.
Now an unconfirmed report beginning to ripple the water…that the corporate’s first business…would be to trade Billy Chapel when the season is over.
So as so often happens in a ball game, there are so many other undercurrents; so many more things that meet the eye.” – Vin Scully in “For Love of the Game” (1999)
The biggest move the Yankees made last off-season was the signing of Rafael Soriano – and some might argue that it wasn’t even a big signing at all. Aside from that and maybe the minor acquisition of Russell Martin, the Yankees who are normally alive during the winter meetings were basically dormant.
The same can be said about this off-season, thus far.
Baseball’s winter meetings kicked off this past Monday in Dallas and there has not been much to report on as far as the Bronx Bombers are concerned. The Yankee brass has not yet signed or agreed to terms with any of the top free agents.
It doesn’t mean they haven’t tried however, winning the bidding to first negotiate with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. The 29-year-old middle infielder possesses a lifetime batting average .302 with 149 career home runs, 664 RBIs, and has stolen 134 bases in his career in the Far East.
How that will translate in the United States remains to be seen – as does whether or not the Yankees will sign him. Sources at the meetings said the Yankees may not even land him, despite winning the right to talk with him before any other team.
I mean really, what’s the point of signing him anyway? Unless they believe Nakajima is Derek Jeter’s heir, then why negotiate with him and attempt to sign him in the first place, especially when starting pitching is more vital to the Yankees than another infielder.
If they do sign him, it could mean the end of Eduardo Nunez’s Yankee tenure, one way or another. They could potentially package Nunez in a trade for a starter, then utilize Nakajima as a backup infielder.
Speaking of starting pitching, Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson are both off the market, as they have signed lucrative deals with the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Buehrle followed his former manager Ozzie Guillen to South Beach for a contract worth four years and $58 million.
Meanwhile Wilson left the Texas Rangers for the Angels, a division rival. I suppose five years and $77.5 million will make him a richer and happier man – along with having Albert Pujols as a new teammate.
Pujols is coming off statistically his worst season: 147 games played, 37 home runs, 99 RBIs, and a .299 batting average. He is probably the only player in baseball who could call that his worst season, because any average player would kill for that kind of “off year.”
Yet he recovered with a remarkable postseason; five homers, 16 RBIs, .356 BA, and his second World Series ring. And after all that, “Phat Albert” took his talents to the west coast.
It surprised me, considering Pujols is basically the face of the Cardinals’ organization. He will probably be considered a legend in St. Louis for years to come, despite his abrupt and rather unceremonious departure. He now has the opportunity to make himself a legendary name in Anaheim.
Remember: Reggie Jackson’s number is retired in both New York and Oakland.
But I digress; back to the subject at hand: the Yankees and starting pitching. They may have lost out on Buehrle and Wilson but the Bombers may have one last chance to make a splash and sign a big ticket free agent starter:
The 25-year-old phenom holds a professional record of 93-38 with an ERA of 1.99, and has collected several accolades in Japan including the Pacific League MVP twice (’07, ’09).
Last year I interviewed Brian Sweeney, a former Seattle Mariners reliever who played with Darvish in Japan on the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Sweeney called Darvish “a classy individual” and “an excellent player.”
Any team could always use a classy and excellent player. He’ll most likely fit in wherever he lands.
ESPN insider Buster Olney reported earlier today that the Yankees feel “lukewarm” about bidding on Darvish. Rightfully so, considering the Yankees have had bad luck with highly-regarded Japanese starting pitchers in the past.
Hideki Irabu was thought to be a one of the best hurlers in the Far East, having led the Pacific League in wins (15) in 1994 and ERA in 1995 (2.53) and 1996 (2.40). He also led the PL in strikeouts in 1995 and 1996 (239 in ‘95 and 167 in ‘96).
Those league-leading numbers didn’t help him when he went 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in the U.S. – and those nice stats were far from everyone’s mind when then-Yankee owner George Steinbrenner called Irabu a “Fat, p***y toad.”
Kei Igawa was another pitcher the Yanks had on their radar and eventually signed for five years and $20 million. They had such high aspirations for him, taking his numbers in Japan into account: 86-60, a 3.14 ERA, and 1,174 Ks.
His overall numbers at the MLB level in the U.S., dating back to when the Yanks signed him prior to 2007: 2-4, 6.66 ERA and just 53 strikeouts.
Igawa obviously did not turn out to be what the Yankees had hoped for. In the eyes of most Yankee fans, the team spent $20 million for two wins and a minor league starter.
That being said, anyone can understand the Yanks’ reluctance to go after another Japanese starter in Darvish. If the Bombers do go after him and he happens to land in the Bronx he will be expected to accomplish a lot. Maybe not 20 wins in his first season, but a convincing winning record and a low ERA are not out of the question.
And that can be said of whatever team he goes to, not just if he goes to the Yanks.
We probably won’t know for a long time where Darvish will go – and we’ll have to wait even longer to find out if he lives up to the hype.
I don’t usually agree with people associated with the Red Sox – very rarely does that ever happen. But Boston manager-turned-baseball analyst Terry Francona said probably the smartest thing an analyst can say about the winners and losers of the winter meetings:
“Winning the winter meetings doesn’t mean winning the pennant.”
Francona should know that better than anyone. Looking at last year, the Red Sox won big at the winter meetings and didn’t even make the postseason, suffering a gigantic September collapse.
The Red Sox spent a fortune and signed big ticket free agent after big ticket free agent, only to choke worse than Mama Cass did on that…ham sandwich.
Bottom line: on paper does not win ballgames. I hope the Angels and Marlins both understand that.
As for the Yankees: they have a chance to make a splash – and even a chance to make a blockbuster trade – before they head to Spring Training.
But at least for now, like last year, all is quiet on the Yankee front.