Monday, December 28, 2009

Time for Yanks, Damon to get on same page

In the eighties, it was all about "Who Shot J.R.?".

In the nineties, we had O.J. and A.C. cruising down the 405 in the white Bronco.

In the aughts 2000s 00s, Snookie's sucker-punch on Jersey Shore appeared to be the clear front-runner for this decade's defining TV moment.

But that was before Johnny Damon appeared as guest host of WWE's Monday Night Raw.

As a service to you, the reader, here are five quick bullet points on last week's WWE debut for the two-time World Series champion:

- The ring announcer kicked off the telecast by introducing Damon, who appeared from behind the curtain and did his patented Bleacher Creature Pointing Thing to his left and right before making his way to the ring. In a stunning lack of effort by whoever was in charge of selecting his entrance music, "Centerfield" by John Fogerty blared on the PA.

- Damon did a brief, scripted, and excruciatingly uncomfortable monologue in which he was booed lustily by the Tampa crowd. He was clearly nervous and flubbed several words. Dick Clark now is better than Johnny Damon on the mic.

- Over the course of two hours, Damon was joined by WWE talent in several backstage skits, generally helping to forward current plotlines. As is apparently the case with all guest hosts, Damon was given power to "book" matches. I found this highly improbable.

- At one point, Damon said, "That's a real home run of an idea." Seriously.

- He was sexually assailed by an 86-year-old female wrestler.

It was a surreal experience to say the least, and the whole event reminded me how much I enjoy me some Johnny Damon.

It also reminded me how close this guy is from walking out the door.

Here's the thing Damon needs to realize. Being a Yankee is the best possible fit for him. He has a ballpark perfectly attuned to his strengths. He's in the largest media market that provides the best platform for his charitable endeavors. He's adored by the fanbase. The team's spring training facility is located in his hometown.

At 36, it makes little sense for him to start over in a new city. And besides, no matter what he does from here on out, his baseball legacy is already set in stone. He's the first truly notable player since Babe Ruth to help lead both the Red Sox and the Yankees to championships. That's not a bad way to be remembered, and it's not worth tainting over a chance to play for the Washington Nationals.

And while it makes a ton of sense for Damon to return to the Yankees, it's clearly in the Yankees' best interest to bring back their left fielder as well.

Nick Johnson is currently projected as Damon's replacement in the No. 2 hole, an idea that makes a certain modicum of sense when you factor in Johnson's sparkling on-base percentage. But Johnson is also one hamstring strain away from being legally obligated have the word "FRAGILE" stamped on his forehead for eternity.

If I were Joe Girardi, I'd feel much more comfortable having my table-setter be Damon, a player who has had more than 600 plate appearances in each of his last 12 seasons. Johnson can make that claim just once in his eight-year career.

And sure, Damon throws a bit like a girl, and yes, his production grounded to a halt in September before he pulled it together for the playoffs. But he was a big part of the blood and guts of the '09 Yankees. Trade away Phil Coke, Brian Bruney, and Melky Cabrera and I'm still confident that the soul of the team remains intact. You let Damon walk, I think a big piece of what made this team different than the ones that preceded it will walk away, too.

"I'm not sure where I'll be next year," Damon said during one of his Raw skits, "but Johnny Damon will be fine."

Let's hope "fine" means he'll be in Yankee pinstripes. Now that's a home run of an idea.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yankees unafraid to mess with a good thing

I must admit, I didn't foresee the Yankees being so busy this offseason.

They are the World Series champions, after all. Unless you're the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals , this means you already are an excellent team. You've proven this, because, um, you won the World Series.

The logical line of thought is to attempt to bring back the team in its entirety. This is the If-It-Ain't-Broke-Don't-Fix-It mentality. It ensures you don't disrupt team chemistry and it serves as a reward to a team that did exactly what you asked it to do.

That's often not a good enough reason for general managers, however. In this modern day free-agent landscape, it's very rare to see a team come back in one piece from one season to the next, regardless of success in the prior year.

Enter the New York Yankees.

If Brian Cashman wanted to bring back the same team in 2010, he could have. Retaining Johnny Damon would've been the only real challenge, and when you're the Yankees, a few extra million dollars can be found in Hank Steinbrenner's cigarette money junk drawer.

Clearly though, the organization felt reinforcements needed to be made. It's noble that Cashman and company would take this risk, but only time will tell if it will be regarded as keen foresight or self-sabotage.

River & Sunset broke down the Yankees' winter meetings activity here. Below we'll take a look at the moves of the past two weeks.


RHP Chien-Ming Wang filed for free agency

Because Wang made $5 million in 2009, the largest pay reduction the Yankees could offer him if they tendered a contract would be 20 percent, or $4 million. With the uncertainty that surrounds the snake-bitten right-hander at this point, guaranteeing that much money would be foolish, even for the Yankees.

The underlying factor here is that the organization was clearly never in love with Wang. New York seemingly rushed him back to the mound in '09, hung him out to dry with a ludicrous time table following his foot injury in '08, and bitterly fought with him in arbitration when he was a young 19-game winner in '07. Considering the Yankees' fanboy adulation of Joba and Hughes, it's downright strange how much they took Wang for granted.

Wang can still technically re-sign with the Yankees as a unrestricted free agent. But if you were him, would you?


Signed free agent 1B Nick Johnson to one year, $5.5 million deal

Back in the late 90s, I worked with a guy who talked about Nick Johnson for entire lunch breaks. It actually got creepy after awhile; I thought about alerting Columbus Clippers security when he came to work one morning with what he claimed was a lock of Nick The Stick's hair.

Johnson was a fast-riser in the Yanks' farm system back then, and he appeared to be a natural link to Don Mattingly—a homegrown first base talent with a great glove, patient approach and smooth left-handed stroke. Tino Martinez's successor seemed to be waiting in the wings.

But Johnson never could stay on the field for the Yankees, which became a reoccuring trend for his entire career. He's 31 now, visibly overweight, and reasonably could be injuring himself as you read this.

Yes, he's still an on-base machine (an unreal .429 OBP in '09), and sure, his swing at Yankee Stadium can produce 20+ homers if he gets 500 at-bats. But what are the chances he gets those 500 at-bats? Johnson has had nine stints on the disabled list in his career. If the Yankees view Johnson as the potential replacement for Damon in the two-hole, what is the plan for the two or so months Johnson will inevitably be forced out of the lineup by injury?

Of course, the spector of Hideki Matsui hangs over everything here. Matsui, we were led to believe, wasn't in the picture for 2010 because he was strictly a DH and the Yankees were determined to keep that slot flexible for their veteran core this season. So what does it tell you when they bring in a player who will be used for little else than DH purposes this season?

If you look closer, there are layers to this onion. It's very possible that the "flexible" DH slot plan was a smoke screen for the Yankees' true thoughts on Matsui, who they believed was lucky to make it through 2009 without his knees turning into dust.

It will be interesting to see if it will be Johnson or Matsui who puts together the better season in 2010. It will be perhaps more interesting to see who spends more time on the disabled list.


Atlanta Braves traded LHP Boone Logan and RHP Javier Vazquez to New York Yankees for cash, RHP Arodys Vizcaino, CF Melky Cabrera and LHP Michael Dunn.

It's a deal that has been perceived as a heist for the Yankees by some, and a disaster waiting to happen by others.

Those in the latter camp look at Vazquez and can only see the guy who threw the BP fastball to Damon in Game 7 of The Series That Shall Not Be Named. I understand that, since I went into a catatonic shock myself as I watched from the upper deck that night.

But the truth is, Vazquez has quietly been one of baseball's most consistent pitchers for the past decade. In the nine years that sandwiched Vazquez's 2004 season in New York, the right-hander threw 202+ innings with 179+ strikeouts in each campaign.

Vazquez, 33, was 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA in 32 starts for Atlanta this past season, allowing 181 hits while striking out 238 in 219 1/3 innings. He finished fourth in the voting for the NL Cy Young Award.

The numbers are obviously inflated by virtue of pitching in the National League. But the Yankees don't need Vazquez to be a Cy Young candidate (though it'd be nice). All they really want is a dependable middle-of-the-rotation starter who can slot behind Andy Pettitte and ahead of Hughes. At this stage of the offseason, getting a pitcher with Vazquez's credentials was a steal for the Yankees.

The real tragedy of this deal is we have to say goodbye to the lovable teddy bear we know as Melky Cabrera. His bromance with Robinson Cano was well-documented around these parts, and it will be sad to see the Melk Man take his glow sticks out of the Boogie Down.

In all seriousness, though, Cabrera was a solid Yankee who got the most out of a limited amount of talent. The trade for Curtis Granderson put the writing on the wall, and now he'll get a fresh start with the Braves.

Say this for Melky: He stayed in the picture. Every time the Yankees tried to bury him, he refused to go quietly. They banished him to the minors in '08, then tried to take away his starting job in '09, and it never mattered. He always made it back. It's a level of resiliency that will continue to serve him well in the next phase of his career.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus .

Friday, December 11, 2009

Yanks take care of business at winter meetings

This year's winter meetings seemed to be a lot more active than last year's, didn't they?

This may have had a lot to do with location.

In 2008, the event was held in Vegas. This surely presently all sorts of obstacles in terms of getting actual work done.

I'm not sure Scott Boras ever ducked out of Spearmint Rhino long enough to hold his annual messianic press conference. And then there were the rumors about the Hendricks brothers, a young redhead and a snapper fish.

I don't even want to know what Brian Cashman did to try to satiate his bottomless secular appetite.

This year, the meetings shifted from Las Vegas to Indianapolis, which, in terms of a scenery change, is the equivalent of moving from ... well ... Las Vegas to Indianapolis.

I have nothing against Indianapolis, mind you. It's the midwest's third-largest city after all (thanks Wikipedia!), not to mention the humble host of Star Wars Celebration convention II and III!

And don't forget about the Indy 500, which (I believe) is a bi-annual competitive eating contest. Go Kobayashi!

ANYWAY, what I'm trying to say is that there wasn't much to do in Indianapolis this week other than sign or trade professional baseball players.

And that's exactly what your New York Yankees did.

Last year, the Yankees made the biggest splash of the Vegas meetings when they signed CC Sabathia. The Yanks were in the thick of things again this year.

Let's take a closer look at what Bomber business went down this week in beautiful Manningapolis.

I'll break it down in order of importance:

Signed free agent LHP Andy Pettitte to one-year, $11.75 million deal

Who knows where the Yankees would've been if Pettitte didn't turn back the clock in 2009?

Last winter, New York essentially brought back the veteran as a $5 million insurance policy. But when Joba Chamberlain struggled and Chien-Ming Wang became a ghoulish spectacle, Pettitte was asked to be much more. By the time the postseason concluded, the 37-year-old had delivered his club 18 wins, including the clinchers in the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series.

That is what you call "stepping up".

The starting rotation remains a question mark, particularly in the back end, but re-signing Pettitte was a big piece of the puzzle. Bringing back the staff security blanket was an essential move for Cashman.

Detroit Tigers traded RHP Edwin Jackson to Arizona Diamondbacks; New York Yankees traded RHP Ian Kennedy to Arizona Diamondbacks; Arizona Diamondbacks traded Daniel Schlereth and RHP Max Scherzer to Detroit Tigers; New York Yankees traded CF Austin Jackson and LHP Phil Coke to Detroit Tigers and Detroit Tigers traded CF Curtis Granderson to New York Yankees.

To simplify the clutter above, let's just call this "The Granderson Trade", or perhaps "The Day Melky's Glow Sticks Died".

The deal makes sense for all three teams. The outfield was a relative weak point for the Yankees in 2009, shoddy corner defense sandwiching the high-effort, middling production tandem of Melky and Brett Gardner in center.

The Tigers, meanwhile, had made it clear they were looking to get younger and cut payroll. The Yankees made a natural dancing partner.

I don't really care what the hell the Diamondbacks do, but Edwin Jackson is tall and throws fast.

The biggest departure for the Yankees is Jackson, which the club had groomed as its next big homegrown talent. He had a solid season with Triple-A Scranton, batting .300 with four homers, 65 RBI and 24 steals in 504 at-bats.

I wish the best to Kennedy, a once promising prospect who can't seem to get upright. Coke, meanwhile, is the type of middle reliever who is always two bad months away from a weekend arc-ball league. He'll always have that ring, though.

I was once a huge Granderson guy, but his numbers the past two seasons do scare me. His batting average in 2009 was a whopping 53 points below his '07 mark (.302 to .249), while his splits against left-handers sunk 76 points from '08 to '09 (.259 to .183).

Is it weird that Granderson, 28, would go into a two-year decline in what are typically known as a player's prime seasons? Well...yeah. But Jim Leyland also smoked enough cigarettes in that time to make Nat King Cole blush, so maybe we'll just mark this off as a second-hand smoke issue.

Bottom line here is that taking on Granderson is well worth the risk. The Yankees acquired a dynamic former All-Star who can hit for power, steal bases, and pick it in center. That's a rare commodity in this game.

SeƱor Cashman is on fire.

Traded Brian Bruney to Washington Nationals for Jamie Hoffmann

Let's give a big River & Sunset send-off to Mr. Bruney, whose taken his Nu-Metal-inspired tattoos and bad haircuts to Obamaland.

This is good news for the 27-year-old, who will now enjoy the benefit of disappointing just 12,000 home fans instead of his usual 46,000.

Bruney was always a curious case. All summer, I tried to convince my dad that the right-hander was one mechanical adjustment away from being a lockdown setup man. But Bruney never could get it together, unable to find consistency after elbow soreness led to back-to-back early trips to the DL. When Phil Hughes emerged as the Eighth-Inning Guy, Bruney disappeared faster than a latter-day Kelsey Grammer sitcom.

Call me stubborn, but I still think Bruney has the ability to succeed at the big league level. I wouldn't be surprised to see him flourish with the heinous Nationals, becoming a under-the-radar holds machine for your fantasy team in 2010.

It's equally possible, however, that he'll be what he's always been, an up-and-down middle reliever with durability issues. You can't lose to much sleep cutting ties with that.

Hoffmann was the first pick of Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. He was in the Dodgers' organization. He's a right-handed outfielder who can hit lefties. The Yankees could use one of those, and Cashman said Hoffmann will get a chance to break camp with the parent club.

I may try to Willie "Mays" Hayes it here and grab that spot in Tampa myself. Unfortunately, I can't hit righties or lefties. Big character guy though.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Catching up with a gleeful Yankee Universe

Good news for people who like their Yankees blogs served extra rare (of course, I refer to both the content's figurative juiciness and the blog's relative uniqueness). Two meanings ... rare ... it's a homonym. Forget it.

What I'm trying to say is that the offices of River & Sunset are back in business after a month-long hiatus.

We apologize for our absence. We would've loved to provide wall-to-wall coverage of Mike Dunn's winter ball progress, but for us, November was all about basking in the glow of the Yankees' 27th World Series championship.

So what's transpired over the 26 days since our last post? It's bullet time:

  • Nov. 10: Brian Cashman says the roles of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes are undefined, and that they'll enter spring training as "starters trained to relieve". Cashman then excuses himself to watch the third act of the 1990 film, Home Alone, in an attempt to find new ways to booby-trap the pitchers.
  • Nov. 11: Freddy Guzman and Josh Towers elect to enter free agency, ending their time in pinstripes. The stock market crashes and the streets are engulfed by riots. One fan unsuccessfully attempts to get store credit at Modell's on his personalized No. 47 Guzman jersey.
  • Nov. 13: Arn Tellem, the agent representing Hideki Matsui, calls the World Series MVP "ageless" in a story on the The Huffington Post. Hideki Matsui's knees respond by calling a press conference to refute the statement. Unfortunately, the comments were drowned out by the knees' constant screams of agony.
  • Nov. 14: Joe Torre says that watching the Yankees celebrate their World Series win was "surreal". You know what else is surreal? A bloated and cash-famished Paul Sorvino playing the former Yankees manager in the 1997 made-for-TV classic, Joe Torre: Curveballs Along The Way. The movie was on something called The Hallmark Channel at 2 a.m. the night of Thanksgiving. Yes, I watched the whole thing, and yes, that's maybe the ninth time I've referenced this obscure movie in the 18 months I've been writing this blog. Deal with it.
  • Nov. 15: Rumors swirl that the Yankees are interested in acquiring Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson, who was awesome ... three years ago. You know who else was awesome three years ago? Lindsay Lohan. Things change.
  • Nov. 17: Royals right-hander Zack Greinke is the runaway winner of the AL Cy Young award, with Yankees ace CC Sabathia finishing a distant fourth. Sabathia responds to the perceived slight by eating his neighbor's dog.
  • Nov. 18: Angels manager Mike Scioscia is the runaway winner of the AL Manager of the Year award, with Yankees skipper Joe Girardi finishing a distant third. Girardi responds to the perceived slight by attempting to re-create another car accident scene in which he appears to be the hero. This leads to a marked decline in Tiger Woods' quality of life.
  • Nov. 23: Twins catcher Joe Mauer easily wins the AL MVP, with Mark Teixiera and Derek Jeter finishing second and third, respectively. Jeter could not be reached for comment, as he was making love in a super-impressive way to Minka Kelly. Teixeira, a robot incapable of human emotion, remains in storage at the Yankees' Tampa headquarters.
  • Nov. 25: Shelley Duncan declares free agency, ending his entertaining run with the Yankees. The folk hero of 2007 becomes a mortal lock to hit 26 home runs and strike out 160 times for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010.
  • Nov. 27: Bob Sheppard officially retires. The 99-year-old was known as "The Voice Of The Yankees" from 1950-2007. He says that he has yet to visit the new stadium, but hopes to soon. I suggest Bob tries the nachos, which can be found on the main level rotunda on the first-base side. Freaking amazing.
  • Nov. 27: Don Mattingly is one of 26 players on the ballot for inclusion in the Baseball Hall Of Fame's 2010 class. Inevitably, Mattingly will fail to earn induction, proving once again that, while there may be a God, he certainly has a cruel sense of humor.
  • Nov. 30: Derek Jeter is named SI's Sportsman of the Year for 2009. Jeter could not be reached for comment, as he was with Minka Kelly at a pool hall, doing that really cool A.C. Slater move where you lean over the hot chick and help her guide the billiard stick.
  • Dec. 1: The New York Jets, desperate to teach rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez how to successfully execute a hook slide, phone the Yankees for help, who, in turn, send none other than Joe Girardi for a one-hour tutorial. The move makes two things clear: 1) Girardi is now fully embracing the celebrity aspect of managing the New York Yankees, a concept that Joe Torre once reveled in. 2) The Jets again are exposed as a clueless organization, unable to get even the simplest of tasks right. Why have a member of your coaching staff or, hell, a fellow quarterback teach your franchise player how to slide when you can get a baseball manager! (DISGRUNTLED JETS FAN ALERT!!! DISGRUNTLED JETS FAN ALERT!!!)

That should get you up to speed. The Yankees are the Yankees, which means they'll certainly be an active presence at the winter meetings set to kick off next week. Bookmark River & Sunset for continued coverage as we head toward 2010.

Dan Hanzus writes the Yankees blog River & Sunset and can be reached via e-mail at Follow Dan on Twitter at danhanzus.