While much of the media focus has been on New York’s pursuit of C.C. Sabathia, the Yankees took the unusual step this week of not offering arbitration to both Bobby Abreu, last season’s starting right fielder, and starting pitcher Andy Pettitte.
The choice potentially weakens New York in two ways. First, should Abreu and Pettitte now sign elsewhere, the Yankees do not receive the two draft picks apiece they’d have been entitled to had they offered arbitration to both players. But more immediately, it creates two holes on the team that will be difficult to fill absent a multiyear deal for a less-talented replacement.
The Pettitte decision is a puzzle. He returned from retirement talk to play for the Yankees in 2008, and showed superficial signs of decline, with an ERA increasing from 4.05 in 2007 to 4.54 in 2008. But a closer look indicates that Pettitte was right in line with where he’s been since 2005. His walk rate improved, his strikeout rate remained nearly the same, and so did his home run rate.
Had the Yankees offered Pettitte arbitration, the minimum return, had Pettitte refused the offer, would have been those two draft picks. For a team not afraid to offer far more than the recommended amount by Major League Baseball, that means losing two chances to get top-flight talents anywhere in the draft. But the bigger question is just how to replace Pettitte.
Of the free agents likely to pitch as well or better than Pettitte in 2009, not one of them is likely to accept a one-year contract. Take A.J. Burnett, for example—a pitcher who has pitched more than 200 innings once in the past three years, and posted just a 105 ERA+ in 2008—who has received multiple offers of a four-year contract with a fifth-year option. It appears the first team to go to a guaranteed fifth year for Burnett will win the dubious prize of counting on him for the next half-decade. And it isn’t clear he’s a better bet than Pettitte for 2009, let alone beyond next season.
Derek Lowe, who is only a year younger than Pettitte, appears headed for a four-year deal as well. The best pitchers who would likely get one-year deals in this market, meanwhile, include Brad Penny (2008 ERA: 6.27) and Pedro Martinez (2008 ERA: 5.61). Even Odalis Perez, a journeyman who isn’t close to Pettitte’s ability, is likely to get two years based upon a competent 2008.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have made a similar trade in short-term quality by jettisoning Bobby Abreu. The outfielder will be 35 on Opening Day 2009, and has settled into remarkable post-peak consistency, hitting between .283 and .297 each of the past four years, with on-base percentages of .369 and .371 in 2007-2008, and slugging between .445 and .474 between 2005-2008.
But it appears the Yankees want to clear right field for Xavier Nady, which in theory is a good idea—replacing one of New York’s numerous older players with a younger model. Still, for 2009, it isn’t clear Nady will be better than Abreu, and Nady will be 30 next year—far from a young player to build around.
Nady’s unwillingness to take many walks has led to a mediocre on-base percentage throughout his career. His lifetime OPS+ is 108, and only topped 107 last season. Even 2008 was largely influenced by a 144 mark with Pittsburgh—once he hit New York, he posted a 105, right in line with his career norms. Abreu, meanwhile, put up a 120, and hasn’t been below 114 since he began playing regularly in 1998.
The decision also leaves New York short-handed on the bench, a problem when likely DH Hideki Matsui is coming off of two knee surgeries in less than a year, Johnny Damon is 35, and the starting center fielder is still TBA. The Yankees relied on plenty of older offensive players in 2008, with diminishing returns, but managed in large part because they had not only Damon, Nady and Matsui, but also Abreu and Jason Giambi to play the outfield or DH. Recently acquired Nick Swisher can fill in, but it would appear he’ll be slated to start at first base.
Obviously, the Yankees are not finished shopping yet, and will add both a bat to replace Abreu and likely an arm to replace Pettitte. But to merely approach either in quality, New York will have to spring for multiyear deals, which will probably cost them draft picks they won’t recoup from the Pettitte/Abreu losses.
The Yankees may have saved themselves some money in arbitration. But they cost themselves more, both in 2009 and beyond.