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Keefe To The City: State Of The Yankees, Winter Meetings Edition

Yankees General manager Brian Cashman (credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Yankees General manager Brian Cashman (credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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By Neil Keefe
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The Marlins and Angels stole the show at the Winter Meetings as the Mets and Cardinals let it be stolen from them.

Two teams lost franchise players this week with Jose Reyes leaving the mess that is the Mets for the Marlins, and Albert Pujols left behind two championships and three MVPs and the chance to be the face of the Cardinals forever for more money from the Angels. It’s days like this that make me thankful Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have always been Yankees and always will be.

(I’m also thankful that the Yankees have more money than any other team and will never be outbid on their own players.)

The last time I talked to WFAN Yankees beat reporter Sweeny Murti (also known as The Voice of Reason) was right after New York’s elimination from the postseason. But with the Winter Meetings taking place and the offseason in full swing, it only made sense to pick up the red phone at my place labeled “The Voice of Reason” (it’s kept in a box like bullpen phones) and ask Sweeny to participate in an epic email discussion throughout the Winter Meetings to talk about his time in Dallas and the state of the Yankees. Sweeny once again agreed to participate though I’m sure he immediately regretted it.

Keefe: The last time we talked was Oct. 10. That was eight weeks ago. Since then, the Cardinals won the World Series thanks to Lance “The Dance” Berkman saving the season in Game 6, and fully cementing the idea that he mailed it in in 2010 and upon realizing his abilities had become an embarrassment, rededicated himself to the game. He hit 31 home runs with a .301/.412/.547 line in the regular season, and then hit .423 in the World Series. No big deal. And don’t worry, I’m not bitter or anything…

Now you’re in Dallas (where the weather forecast has been as miserable as it has been here in New York City) for the Winter Meetings, and before the meetings could even really get going, Jose Reyes signed with the Marlins, leaving a gaping hole in the Mets lineup and creating chaos on the phone lines in the Citi Field ticket offices on Monday morning with angry Mets fans calling to cancel their season ticket packages. I made sure to call my dad on Monday morning and thank him for being a Yankees fan and for raising me as a Yankees fan following this latest Mets debacle.

Before we get started, and we have a lot to talk about, and we might not even talk about A.J. Burnett (I’m not lying), how about giving some insight to the Winter Meetings and what goes on for this hyped week? What’s your usual day/routine/process at the Winter Meetings? Is there as much waiting around in hotel lobbies and staking out elevators as Twitter makes it seem? Are you playing solitaire as we speak?

Murti: The Winter Meetings is basically the Standing Around World Championships. Bring good shoes and drink lots of coffee. The meetings are an exercise in patience. Things happen at a slow pace most times, but when they happen you have to be ready to move.

I spend most of my day wandering through the lobbies talking to baseball and media types alike, exchanging pleasantries and trying to gain any bits of information that can be found. The stories usually advance incrementally, so the newest tidbits are what keep you going.

Most of the general managers spend time trying to avoid the media, so I find it quite humorous that the main bar in the Anatole is called “Media.” There is another bar here called “Gossip,” but I found very little of that going on there.

There is time to unwind at night, but you always have to be ready for a conversation that could help you get some info. There is some fear in going to sleep because if you retire too soon, you might miss a story.

Overall, it’s fun to be in an environment where nearly every important person in the game is right here, but it’s also an exhausting four-day affair that you look forward to ending so you can go back to some sort of normal way of work and life.

Keefe: Brian Cashman arrived at the Winter Meetings on Monday night and his entrance was reported on Twitter by Bryan Hoch as being flanked by Jean Afterman and Billy Eppler, and all I could envision were the doors to the hotel lobby flying open and smoke and fog slowly fading to the three of them standing there with their hands on their hips, and everyone in the room thinking, “Oh no, the Yankees are here.”

As exciting as the Winter Meetings can be with the idea that maybe a significant free agent will sign like Jose Reyes did, or maybe a blockbuster trade will be constructed, it seems like the Winter Meetings are more of a letdown than anything. Cashman always says the same thing at the meetings about how he doesn’t expect the Yankees to do anything and how he’s “engaged” and that he’s “talked to a lot of clubs about a lot of concepts” and that he’s “conveyed players that he’s interested in” and that “finding matches are incredibly impossible.” You could probably just stay home in New York, and give the same report on WFAN that you used last year or in 2003.

I don’t expect Cashman to do anything at this point in the offseason since he’s right that the price on certain potential trade candidates is a little ridiculous right now. Jon Heyman reported a couple of days ago that the White Sox wanted Manny Banuelos and Jesus Montero in a deal for John Danks. And while I’m a big fan of Gio Gonzalez and would love for him to be holding a press conference at Yankee Stadium this holiday season, I’m sure Billy Beane wouldn’t mind picking apart the Yankees’ farm system for his young lefty.

We spend a lot of time talking about starting pitching and rightfully so, because well, starting pitching is what wins. Right now the Yankees are looking at the same rotation (minus Bartolo Colon) that they had in 2010 — the rotation that wasn’t good enough to get out of the ALDS against the Tigers. And yes, you could say the Yankees were one big hit away from winning Game 2 or Game 3 or Game 5, but that hit never came, and they lost.

After CC Sabathia, the Yankees are gambling, that Phil Hughes won’t have to go to “fat camp” during spring training and rebound from his awful 2011; A.J. Burnett will be more like he was in 2009 and less like he was in 2010 and 2011; Ivan Nova will continue to progress at the major league level and produce another 16-win season; Freddy Garcia will be reliable and as healthy in 2011 as he was in 2010. That’s a lot of gambling for a team that will need to beat out the Red Sox, who will be hungry to avenge the best September in baseball history, the Rays, who seem to grow great starting pitchers on tree in Tampa Bay and the Blue Jays, who look to be on the rise and expected to be a contender in 2012.

Sadly, Cliff Lee isn’t a free agent this winter, and I know it’s too early for me to ask you who the Yankees might get, but it’s not too early to ask you if you think they have to make a trade or sign someone from the free-agent pool?

Murti: I think you have to stop living in a world where you think the season starts tomorrow and the World Series starts next week. The fact is the Yankees are in better shape than most teams at this stage. The Yankees have a majority of a team that won 97 games coming back. I agree they need more pitching, but you have to stop thinking they didn’t win the World Series this year because of their pitching. They didn’t hit well enough against the Tigers. I know you keep trying to protest the results and get the series played over again, but you’ve got to let it go.

Let’s try this … you be Matt Damon and I’ll be Robin Williams. “Neil, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

The Winter Meetings have become slow-moving exercises rather than trade marathons of the past. Brian Cashman told us that the days of general managers getting drunk and making deals by writing on cocktail napkins are over. There is too much money at stake in any deal and teams are protective of their cheapest assets – minor league prospects. The Winter Meetings can still be productive, but gone are the days of multiple six-player trades.

The Yankees question marks you refer to don’t all have to be answered negatively. Phil Hughes is not the first pitcher who followed a good year with a bad one. There is reason to be excited, yet cautious about a full season of Ivan Nova. There is reason to believe in the consistency of Freddy Garcia. And nobody has secured a better free agent pitcher this offseason than CC Sabathia. A.J. Burnett … wait … you promised me you wouldn’t bring his name up this time!

The Yankees pitching staff is in better shape than the Red Sox today. The Yankees can field a five-man rotation and they have an All-Star setup man and the GOAT for a closer. Take a deep breath and realize that the Yankees have more tweaking to do than building.

That said, I think a rotation upgrade would make everybody feel better. I like Gio Gonzalez or Chad Billingsley as trade possibilities, and I would prefer Mark Buehrle only on a two-year deal or three-year deal. Otherwise, let’s let Banuelos, Betances, Phelps, Warren and Hector Noesi make their way towards the big leagues and you’ll see the Yankees have been growing pitchers on a tree just like Tampa Bay. (Let’s save that player development lesson for another time, unless you’d prefer the Yankees to finish in last place several years in a row and cut their payroll to $20 or $30 million like Tampa Bay did.)

I don’t dislike CJ Wilson as a pitcher, I just think that, given the choice, he isn’t a wise investment over five or six years at $15 million or more per season.

Keefe: “It’s not your fault.”

“I know.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know.”

“It’s not…”

“I know, I know.”

I heard you tell Joe and Evan that people are tending to look at the “What ifs” about the Yankees rotation in a negative way (like I did in the previous email) instead of the “what ifs” in a positive way like “What if Phil Hughes wins 18 games again like he did in 2010 and if A.J. Burnett does the same like he did in 2008 with the Blue Jays?” I think the reason people tend to look at in a negative way because crazy things happen over the course of 162 games, and sometimes Chien-Ming Wang gets hurt running the bases, Andy Pettitte has the worst season of his career, and you end up having Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner making up 40 percent of your rotation for the entire second half. And then when you have a season like the Yankees had last year with a rookie winning 16 games, Bartolo Colon pitching more than he has since 2005 and Freddy Garcia turning reinventing himself to become the Game 3 starter in the playoffs, you don’t envision it happening once, let alone two years in a row.

I would be all for a trade for Gonzalez or Billingsley, but I love the idea of Buehrle on the Yankees. He’s a winner, he’s a lefty, he has pitched 201-plus innings in all 11 of his full major league seasons (he led the league in innings pitched in 2004 and 2005) and he was 13-9 with a 3.59 ERA last season for a bad White Sox team.

As for Wilson, I don’t think giving him the five-year deal or six-year deal at $15 million-plus per season is a good idea (he can thank Burnett and John Lackey for that), but I’m not completely against them signing him as some Yankees fans are. Sure, he struggled in the postseason, but he’s better than every Yankees starter not named CC Sabathia. We just agreed on a lot of things. Let me take a minute to let this soak in.

The bench is certainly an area where Brian Cashman has thrived the past few seasons after struggling to build a bench that anyone could feel confident about in the event of an injury or emergency for several years. This season the Yankees have a few decisions to make regarding Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones and what the backup catching situation will look like.

Murti: Chavez and Jones are good possibilities to return I think, but there is no urgency to fill those bench roles. Those are not the types of players that fly off the board.

The Yankees will give Eduardo Nunez a chance to play a larger utility role including time at short, third, and outfield. Nunez is an exciting player that needs to get more at-bats.

The Yankees may also have Japanese shortstop Hiriyiki Nakajima as a utility man. The Yanks won bidding rights for him through the posting process and see him as a potential bench player too.

The Yankees will continue to rely on their bench more and more as their stars age. But they aren’t there to play every day either. The Yanks will still new big, healthy years from Jeter, A-Rod, Cano, Teixeira and Granderson.

Keefe: Now that Mark Buehrle is sadly off the board, and the Yankees have won the bidding for Nakajima (but haven’t actually signed him), are we getting closer to the Yankees trade of a starting pitcher that I have been eagerly anticipating since the night that Cliff Lee broke my heart? I’m still waiting for some sort of closure from the Yankees failing to get him at the 2010 deadline and then failing again to get him at this time last year. (I still have that sad songs playlist saved on iTunes.)

I ask if we are getting closer because with Nakajima in the mix, that means that it’s more likely that Brian Cashman will part with the immortal Eduardo Nunez that every other team is in love with. Despite Nunez’s horrible fielding (apparently Nakajima isn’t exactly a Gold Glover either from reports about him), I do believe that he will be a strong major leaguer since Cashman and the Yankees are high on him, and he seems to be on the wish list of every team that tries to make a deal with the Yankees.

We keep hearing about everyone’s gut feelings about the Yankees and Cashman quietly waiting for the right time to make a move like they have in just about every offseason outside of last year. I want Gio Gonzalez on the Yankees and I want him on the Yankees bad, but I don’t know if I would put Jesus Montero in a package for him like some are willing to do.

Do you have this same gut feeling that everyone is talking about when it comes to the Yankees possibly making a trade, and is Gonzalez the level of pitcher that would be worth giving up Montero?

Murti: Buehrle would have been nice, but it shouldn’t make you want to pull out that playlist. Save that for another day. Buehrle at four years was probably too much for the Yanks.

Don’t get your hopes up on Nakajima either. Let’s just see what he is. There is a chance the Yankees don’t even sign him, and there is a chance they trade him. Either way, I think Nunez is a valuable piece for the Yankees. He can fill a hole for them now, and if he’s traded maybe he does become part of a package that brings back a top pitcher.

I think Gonzalez is a good target too, but it will take more than just Montero to get him and that’s probably a big reason why that deal hasn’t happened yet. I spoke to a member of the A’s organization here who told me they expect multiple top prospects in return for a 26-year old left-hander who throws 200 innings and can’t become a free agent until after the 2015 season.

Keefe: After coming in second place in a lot of free agency battles over the last few years, the Angels put the cherry on top of these Winter Meetings by signing Albert Pujols to a reported 10-year deal worth $250 million (or possibly more according to Jon Heyman) with a full no-trade clause. I guess that makes up for a lot of missed opportunities at these meetings in the last year or two for them.

Is it me or is this the craziest the Winter Meetings have been in a long, long time? To think that all of this happened without the Yankees signing a big name or unloading a handful of prospects for one just shows the difference in philosophy within the organization now compared to when you first started covering them in 2001. I guess that goes for all of baseball since prospects are no held on to more than they were in the 2000s when free agency was out of control and moves were being made for aging veterans still putting up big numbers thanks to some “enhancers.

So, Sweeny, this is where we go our separate ways once again, as the New York Football Giants need my attention this Sunday in a must-win game against the Cowboys to keep the season alive and keep Tom Coughlin’s coaching career alive. Since it’s almost Christmas that means it’s only a matter of time before the calendar turns and we’re talking about 2012 and you’re packing your bags for sunny Florida while I try to battle the freezing New York City temperatures and winds.

But before then, I’m still holding out hope that Brian Cashman will deliver me a Christmas present like he did three years ago with CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and then again in 2009 with a championship.

(And maybe just maybe for a stocking stuffer he will make a deal to move to Boone Logan. What? You think we could talk for this long and not bring up Boone Logan?)

Murti: It never stops to amaze me, Neil, how you are the kid who seems to like the presents under your tree until you visit your friend’s house and wonder why you didn’t get the presents he got instead. You have actually put yourself in a position where you envy the Marlins and the Angels, when you forget that they are only trying to get to a place where the Yankees have already been.

Brian Cashman wrapped up the meetings Thursday morning by telling us there were plenty of deals he could have made, but they would have been at silly prices that would have had us all calling him stupid. You may want to do so anyway, so I guess he can’t win, but deals are becoming harder to make because everybody values their players a great deal and it takes an awfully long time to bring asking prices down. Maybe there will be a deal at some point, but the Yankees aren’t in desperation mode.

But these meetings did entertain us. It shouldn’t matter what the Yankees did or didn’t do here. These meetings were ruled by two teams that we didn’t have a clue would be so aggressive when this offseason started, and it’s fun to see.

Neil, in the words of Elvis Costello, I hope you can find some level of “peace, love and understanding in this holiday season.” Yes, spring training will be here before you know it, and I can’t wait for you to pepper me with questions about how the 25th man on the team is somehow turning the Yankees into a last-place team.

Bah Humbug to you too!

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

Follow Sweeny on Twitter @YankeesWFAN

Yankees fans: Are you OK with the Yankees’ inactivity in Dallas? Be heard in the comments below…