Friday, October 4, 2013

An Analysis of Joe Girardi's Suitors in the 2013 Off-Season

Hey Joe, where you goin' with that contract in hand?

If you are Joe Girardi, how do you approach the upcoming off-season? There are plenty of options at hand for the long-time Yankee, who managed the team to their most recent World Series championship in 2009.

Do you re-up with your longtime team that is about to go into a rebuilding period sans three of their illustrious Core Four (Pettitte, Posada, Rivera) and without many prospects to replace them, and Jeter on his last legs (literally)? Do you go to the perpetual "loveable" losers, with prospects out the wazoo and a chance at a playoff spot in 2-3 years? Do you go to the team with the superstar first baseman, talented rotation, and one of the three to five best closers in the game? Or, do you go to the other long-time losers, the ones with two big-name young phenoms and a revitalized $126,000,000 man, and hope to do a significantly better job than Davey Johnson?

Quite frankly, it's a matter of opinion about his best landing spot, but I see little argument aside from loyalty that would explain why re-signing in New York would be a better decision for Girardi's career than the other potential landing spots.

If Girardi is focused on his career, my guess would be that Washington would be priority number one. The franchise possesses too much talent to be mired in mediocrity as they have been this season. All they need is a little improvement in the bullpen (as is the case with almost every team) and perhaps an outfielder or utility infielder that they could possibly get by trading Danny Espinosa. Such a move would then allow Anthony Rendon to be at 2nd and slide to 3rd when Ryan Zimmerman gets a day off. Or maybe they go stir-crazy and sign Robinson Cano for $300,000,000 in a manner similar to when they threw all that money at Jayson Werth as a means of making a statement, that statement being that Washington is a desirable landing spot for free agents. Ted Lerner is loaded and not getting any younger, and he wants that title. Signing Cano and Girardi would be quite a shot across the bow to the NL East and the rest of the league.

Yet at the same time, I see an argument for Cincinnati now that Dusty Baker is finally out of the picture. That team also has a lot of talent, and Baker failed to properly utilize it. Girardi could do better than Baker in that sense. That rotation is great, even if they (likely) let Bronson Arroyo walk. Next year they'll have Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani, and perhaps top prospect Robert Stephenson too. They've got Aroldis Chapman at the back end with a recovering (and still very fat and erratic) Jon Broxton. They've got the fastest man in the game, Billy Hamilton, along with Jay Bruce in the outfield, and perhaps another outfielder other than Ryan Ludwick as well, depending on how they approach free agency (and assuming they do not attempt to splurge and re-sign Shin-Soo Choo, who stands to make quite a pretty penny in free agency). They've got the best first baseman in the game, Joey Votto. They've got a reliable 2nd baseman in Brandon Philips. They could stand to upgrade shortstop and 3rd base, but Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier aren't exactly scrubs either. A little bullpen improvement and some bench players and you've got one hell of a team, primed and ready to get past the divisional round of the playoffs.

Which brings us to the Chicago Cubs, perhaps the #2 choice for Girardi regardless of who the #1 team may be. Recall that after the then-Florida, now-Miami Marlins fired Joe Girardi (dumb move then, still a dumb move now) the first suitors were the Cubs, before Girardi chose New York to succeed long-time manager Joe Torre in 2008. The Cubs have a lot of money to throw at a big-name manager, and again, a lot of talent. But, I would argue they also have more headaches.

Starlin Castro is regressing more and more each year offensively and defensively. He is the definition of a lackadaisical player; whether that has to do with his innate style of play or whether it is merely his surroundings and the strain of losing combined with the security of a big pay-day already in tow remains to be seen. Anthony Rizzo is very talented and still only 24 but he needs to up his batting average and OBP. Darwin Barney is perhaps the next Brendan Ryan, a player who is outstanding with the leather but cannot hit to save his life. After a 2012 season where his glove was good enough to outshine his below-league-average bat, Barney took another major step back offensively in 2013, posting a 51 wRC+ (that is, his bat was 49% below league average for the year). They have a hole at the back end of their bullpen that was caused by the injury to Kyuji Fujikawa, who should miss most of 2014, and the trade of the erratic Carlos Marmol. Previously shored up by Kevin Gregg, the position should be up for grabs in spring training if another veteran (Fernando Rodney? Grant Balfour? Frank Francisco?) isn't brought in to hold the closer's role.

The Cubs have many oft-frustrating players (top pitcher Jeff Samardzija, as well as fellow pitchers Edwin Jackson, Jake Arrieta, and Carlos Villanueva), many players whose potential has dimmed in the past few seasons and have become reclamation projects (Brett Jackson, Daniel Bard, Josh Vitters, et al) for varying reasons. That is a lot for any manager to balance; combine that with the stress of being highly-paid to manage a popular team that hasn't seen the playoffs in years and hasn't seen a World Series win since Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States and there is reason for concern if Girardi takes the position.

Nonetheless, Girardi has strong ties to the Cubbies, who drafted him in 1986; Girardi would play seven seasons in two different stints for the team after winning three titles with the Yankees from 1996 through 1999. Aside from this factoid, the team has a lot of financial flexibility that the Yankees lack, are willing to pay him as well or nearly as well as the Yankees, and have a wealth of prospects that will be coming through the pipelines in the next two to three seasons (something that can not be said for New York). First base prospect Dan Vogelbach, 1B/3B prospect Mike Olt, infield prospects Christian Villanueva (2B/3B) and Arismendy Alcantara (2B), ultra-prospect shortstop Javier Baez, ultra-prospect outfielder Albert Almora, power-hitting third base prospect Kris Bryant, Cuban outfield prospect Jorge Soler, and pitching prospects CJ Edwards, Neil Ramirez, Kyle Hendricks, Arodys Vizcaino, and Pierce Johnson. Catching prospect Welington Castillo is already up, and while he will spend the off-season rehabbing from knee surgery, he possesses a quality bat and is very good defensively. They also have 2013 surprise player Junior Lake on the roster, who performed admirably in his call-up from the minors.

Beyond this, trading Darwin Barney and/or Starlin Castro would allow the team to acquire more pitching both in the rotation and the bullpen; one thing that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are quite good at is maximizing the value of players they seek to trade, and striking when the iron is hot. This is evidenced through the deals they made in trading Andrew Cashner for Rizzo, and trading Matt Garza for CJ Edwards, Mike Olt, and Neil Ramirez.

This situation can be contrasted with the Yankees, the front-runner for Girardi's services. The team will have some payroll flexibility coming into 2014 (Granderson and Cano are free agents, Rivera and Pettitte's salaries are off the books now, and Jeter has one year remaining on his contract) but cannot patch all the holes on their team in free agency. Their best starter, CC Sabathia, just had a career-worst season across the board and struggled for the second straight year with his velocity. Declining velocity after the age of 30 is not something that one usually recovers, so unless Sabathia can learn to pitch with a little more finesse, the remaining three years on his contract (which runs through 2016) could be troubling.

They are saddled with the salary of Alex Rodriguez, who will serve a suspension of 211 games or less depending on the outcome of his stand-off with Major League Baseball. They are saddled with the salary of the admittedly-overpaid Mark Teixeira, who missed most of the season after wrist surgery, an injury which often saps the power of a hitter. Power and fielding are Teixeira's last remaining calling cards since his batting average has dipped further and further since leaving Texas, and if the power in his bat disappears, his contract will become even more difficult to deal with. This is coupled with a front office that desires to push their payroll back under the luxury tax threshold of $189,000,000. The Yankees are a team with a lot of needs, and no sure answers in the minor leagues nor in free agency. That is a tough job for any manager, and could possibly put Girardi on the hot seat within a year of re-signing if he does indeed decide to spend a few more years in the Bronx Zoo.

There are a litany of question marks for this team (Can Sabathia rebound? Who will pitch beyond CC, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda? Will Pineda come back to anything resembling his rookie season? Can Austin Romine recover to meet his prospect ranking? Can Soriano and Ichiro play well enough to make a decent outfield for the 2014 Yankees with Brett Gardner in Center Field?  What will they do with Vernon Wells? And so on and so forth) and there will be at least one, if not two or three, seasons of mediocre records and dwindling interest in the team if Girardi chooses to re-sign as the Yankees skipper. Where he will decide to ultimately manage is anyone's guess, but logic (and intuition) would dictate that it is less likely to be in New York than in Cincinnati, Washington, or Chicago.

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