Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Trade Fair: All’s Wells for Yankees

The Yankees, by most accounts, had a tremendous offseason. After finishing out of the money for the first time since Bill Clinton’s first summer in office, the organization went on a $423 million spending spree which netted Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. In addition, GM Brian Cashman traded for power hitter Nick Swisher.

Despite all the fun Cashman has had playing with the Steinbrenners’ money, his job is not finished. The Yankees still have several holes, the largest of which is in the middle of their outfield. In fact, if Spring Training started tomorrow, manager Joe Girardi would be faced with the daunting task of determining who from the motley crew of Brett Gardner, Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera will patrol center field.

Frankly put, none of the three has any business logging significant time in center for a contending team. Gardner’s a gifted fielder who can fly, but he was overmatched in 127 big league at bats last year to the tune of .228/.283/.299.

Damon can still hit, as evidenced by his .303/.375/.461 effort in 2008, but chronic leg and ankle problems make his durability a big question mark. Plus, his popgun arm makes him a natural fit in left field.

Cabrera regressed significantly at the plate in ’08 and most scouts agree that his ceiling is that of a fourth outfielder.

As a result, the Yankees’ lack of a viable center fielder combined with the Blue Jays’ dubious financial situation (discussed below) paves the way for an intriguing intra-divisional blockbuster in which New York sends outfielder Xavier Nady, young starter Ian Kennedy and prospect Austin Jackson north of the border in exchange for center fielder Vernon Wells.

Let’s first dissect how this trade impacts the Yankees. In Wells, 30, Cashman has the opportunity to acquire one of baseball’s best all-round center fielders still in his prime. He’s a three-time Gold Glove winner, whose excellent instincts and cannon arm compensate for average speed.

Wells’ superb defense notwithstanding, it’s on offense where the Yankees would really reap the benefits of adding the two-time All-Star to the mix. While the addition of Teixeira will certainly instill fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers, that alone won’t completely offset the loss of free agents Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu – two sluggers who have career OPS’ in excess of .900.

While Wells is not an on-base machine in the mold of a Giambi or Abreu, he’s a legitimate 30 homer threat (he’s hit 28 or more home runs in three separate seasons) who can hit for a high average while making consistent contact. He’d represent a huge upgrade over either Gardner or Cabrera and would be a perfect fit to hit in the five-hole behind Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.

Wells’ contract also works for the Yankees. Although he’s owed $117 million through 2014, he’s due to earn “only” $10 million in 2009. Assuming Nady makes $6 million next season (he’s arbitration eligible for the last time in ’09), adding the incremental $4 million to the payroll would still enable Cashman to meet his goal of having an ‘09 payroll lower than last season’s.

Wells’ salary does rise dramatically over $20 million in 2010 and beyond, but it’s important to note that Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon and their combined ‘09 pay of $26 million, all are eligible to come off the books after next season.

Earlier we alluded to the perilous financial straits the Blue Jays could find themselves in going forward. This is true for two reasons. First, the Canadian dollar has depreciated by over 20% against the greenback (a troubling development for Toronto since the ball club derives a majority of its revenue in the local currency). Second, team owner Ted Rogers passed away in December, creating a power vacuum at the top and much speculation that the team will be sold.

Given the economic plight the Jays might eventually find themselves in, trading Wells and the $117 million he’s owed is not out of the question. However, this trade is about more than simple dollars and cents as Nady, Kennedy and Jackson are all capable of making significant contributions.

Nady is coming off an impressive .305/.357/.510 campaign and entering his walk year. And if history is any indication, he should be primed for another big season and therefore able to easily match Wells’ .839 OPS from a year ago. Nady would slide comfortably into right field and enable Alexis Rios to move to center, his natural position.

By acquiring Kennedy, the Blue Jays would be adding to an already-impressive stable of young arms, which includes the likes of Shawn Marcum, Dustin McGowan, Jesse Litsch, Brett Cecil, and David Purcey. This is not insignificant given the fact that EVERY other team in the A.L. East – even the Orioles -- boasts a plethora of young, power pitching.

This trade would not just benefit Toronto in the long run, however. With the recent defection of A.J. Burnett (to the Yankees, no less) and injuries to Marcum and McGowan, the addition of Kennedy would provide the Jays with much needed pitching depth for 2009. Also, it’s important to note that Kennedy isn’t arbitration eligible until after the 2010 season.

Though Kennedy’s ’08 could be considered a lost year (0-4, 8.17), let’s not forget that he just turned 25 and his career WHIP and K:BB ratio in the minors are a world class 0.97 and 3.5:1, respectively. Perhaps all the laid back Californian needs to kick start his career is an escape from the New York pressure cooker.

Jackson, the final piece of the Jays’ haul, has a skill set that is eerily reminiscent of Wells’ about a decade ago. Like Wells, his ability to take excellent routes to the ball and strong arm make up for speed that’s maybe a tick above average. While his home run power hasn’t yet manifested itself, his bat speed and crisp stroke suggest that he should be good for at least 20 dingers a year once he fills out and adds strength. All in all, Jackson would be an ideal long-term replacement for Wells and fit perfectly between Rios and Travis Snider in Toronto’s outfield of the future.

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