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Just How Much of an Upgrade Are CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett?

In 2008, the Yankees were 7th in the AL in runs scored, 8th in ERA, and 25th in baseball in defensive efficiency. So how do the Yankees choose to solve these problems? By throwing $250 million at the top two free agent starters on the market.

Don’t get me wrong: Sabathia and Burnett are excellent pitchers, and as lucrative as their two deals are, I don’t necessarily think they’re terrible deals for the Yankees. Unlike just about every other team, the Yankees can afford to overpay players, both in terms of AAV and years. If Burnett or Sabathia get hurt, the Yankees will still be able to make other moves to improve their teams, so neither contract is likely to be crippling. And if healthy, both men are excellent pitchers. The thing is, the Yankees pitching was already pretty good, and the Burnett/Sabathia combo may not be quite the upgrade that many Yankee fans think.

In 2008, the Yankees received 448 innings from the trio of Mike Mussina, Darrell Rasner, and Sidney Ponson, none of whom will return in 2009. These three combined to give up 219 runs, good for a 4.39 ERA. Let’s charitably assume that Sabathia and Burnett can cover these 448 innings between the two of them next season (let’s give 248 innings to Sabathia and 200 innings to Burnett). Obviously, this is somewhat optimistic, as it’s likely that both pitchers won’t quite reach these innings totals, but let’s run with it.

Marcel predicts Sabathia to have a 3.22 ERA next season, and Burnett to have a 3.97 ERA. If this holds true, that means that Sabathia would allow 89 runs over 248 innings and Burnett would allow 88 runs over 200 innings. Thus, in the 448 innings between them, Burnett and Sabathia would allow 177 runs combined.

As you recall, Mussina, Rasner, and Ponson allowed 219 runs in the same amount of innings last season. Thus, Sabathia and Burnett would qualify as a 42-run upgrade, or approximately four wins. Remember, we’re assuming that Sabathia and Burnett are able to total 448 innings between them, an unlikely assumption.

Rather, it’s more likely that some of those innings will have to go to the bullpen, which is collectively as not as good as Burnett and Sabathia. However, even a charitable assumption nets the Yankees only four marginal wins over Mussina/Rasner/Ponson.

Of course, this is somewhat unfair: Mussina will not return in 2009 no matter what, and if they Yankees didn’t sign Sabathia or Burnett, they would likely have to give his innings to an inferior pitcher. But the point remains: as good as Burnett and Sabathia are, they’re only a four-win upgrade over the pitchers they’re replacing, because the Yankees pitching staff in 2008 wasn’t that bad. Four wins is no small amount – especially for a team like the Yankees that will probably be fighting for their playoff lives – but it’s probably less of an upgrade than many Yankee fans, and perhaps the front office themselves, believe.

The Yankees pitching should be even better thanks to a full season from Chien-Ming Wang and perhaps Joba Chamberlain. However, none of this changes the fact that their offense is average and their defense is awful. If anything, we can expect their offense to be worse next season: yes, Posada will be back, they’ve acquired Swisher, and we can expect some improvement from Robinson Cano. However, losing Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi will be a big blow, Johnny Damon is probably going to regress, and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter will be a year older. Furthermore, their team defense is still in shambles (although adding Mike Cameron would be a huge boost).

If only there was a free agent available who could improve the Yankees offense and defense at the same time. Ideally, this guy would be a switch-hitter with patience and power, as well as an established track record of excellence. It would be nice if he was relatively young – say, 28 or so – and be athletic enough so as to probably age well. Alas, there is no one like that available.

Oh wait – yes there is. Even with the additions of Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees should sign Mark Teixeira. Adding him to this team would take them from contenders to favorites, now and in the future. Their offense and defense would both be a lot better right away, and the Yankees would have, on paper, the very best team in baseball. Adding Sabathia and Burnett is a nice start to the offseason, but it won’t be complete unless they add Teixeira as well.