Monday, February 22, 2010

Yanks Break Self-Imposed Rules, Sign Chan Ho Park

The most prominent and overarching storyline of the Yankees offseason to this point has been their desire to stay under their predetermined but officially undisclosed budget. Particularly when it came to picking an option to reinforce left field, it was the primary concern. In acquiring South Korean right hander Chan Ho Park for $1.2M plus $300,000 in incentives, the Yanks have demonstrated that their adherence to their magic number wasn't simply dogmatic. The same goes for their practice of building their bullpen out of the minor leagues.

As was the case when Mark Teixeira was signed last year - although obviously to a far lesser extent - Brian Cashman decided that Chan Ho Park was worth lobbying the ownership to spend extra for. Park rejected a $3.25M offer to stay with the Phillies midway through the offseason and watched his price fall steadily until, apparently, the Yankees couldn't afford not to sign him.

Park began 2009 as a starter for the Phillies, struggled and was ultimately bumped to the bullpen after a particularly dismal 1 1/3 inning, 5 run effort against the Nationals in mid-May. Once transitioned to the 'pen, he was extremely useful for the Phils, pitching more than one inning in 13 of his 38 appearances and compiling a 2.52 ERA over 50 innings in relief. Park blew Game 2 of the NLCS against the Dodgers but was otherwise very effective in the postseason as well, particularly against the Yanks in the World Series (3.1 IP, 0 ER).

Prior to the move, it seemed like the Yankees were essentially set in the bullpen with Rivera, Hughes/Chamberlain, Robertson, Aceves, Marte, and some combination of Gaudin/Mitre/Logan/Melancon. Given the Major League deal to Park, it's likely that he makes the team out of Spring Training. Consequently, the Yanks may decide to trade Gaudin and his $2.95M salary, as he could be more valuable to a team in need of a 5th starter than one who would employ him primarily as a mop-up man. They could also decide to stash the loser of the much ballyhooed Hughes-Chamberlain Battle in Scranton to start the season, although Joel Sherman doesn't think that is very likely.

Of course, the Yankees are going to catch some flak for this because of the emphasis they've continued to place on the budget. But Brain Cashman isn't a politician. He doesn't need to get re-elected or appease his constituents, so it doesn't matter that he deviated slightly from a previously stated plan (or two). In the end, it's not about sticking to the stated goals; it's about making the team better.

All told, the signing does seem likely to make the Yankees better. During an offseason in which many teams were more than willing to pay good relief pitchers far more than they deserved, Cashman and Co. found a relative bargain. You can question whether or not the signing was really necessary - or worth exceeding the budget for - given that the bullpen was already in good shape, but it's hard to argue that this isn't a good value for the Yanks.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today

Good morning Fackers. Believe or not, I was planning on running this post this morning even before last night's Team USA win over Team Canada in Vancouver. Last night's game was certainly an upset. But personally, I don't believe it's as big of an upset as many are making it out to be. Either way, it's certainly not half the upset as the one that took place in Lake Placid, NY thirty years ago today.

This is the fourth Winter Olympics featuring NHL players, and the fifth featuring professional players. Hockey wise, we're so far removed from the 1980 Miracle on Ice, that it's easy to lose sight of just how massive an upset that game was.

The Soviet team was easily the greatest assemblage of hockey talent on the face of the planet in February of 1980. With the Iron Curtain still firmly in place, the NHL was still nearly a decade away from importing its first Russian talents. The Soviet National Team featured the best players of - at worst - the second most hockey-crazed nation on the face of the planet. They trained and played with, literally, military precision. They had gone 3-4-1 against the NHL's best Canadians in the 1972 Summit Series, dominated lesser WHA talent 4-1-3 in the '74 Summit Series, and more recently had gone 2-1 with a +5 goal differential against a squad of NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup. For all intents and purposes, the Soviets were a professional All-Star team competing in an amateur tournament.

On the flip side, Team USA was an assemblage of American collegiate talent led by University of Minnesota head coach Herb Brooks. Brooks was the final player cut from the 1960 US squad, a team that went on to win gold in Squaw Valley. Heading into the 1980 Games, that was the final time the Soviet didn't win men's Olympic gold. Brooks' captain was former BU Terrier Mike Eruzione, the team's oldest player at 25, who was three years removed from his collegiate days and toiling in the minors at the IHL level before joining the Olympic squad. Less than two weeks prior to the Miracle on Ice, the Soviets had crushed Team USA 10-3 in the final pre-Olympic warm up.

Something similar was expected on the evening of February 22, 1980, part of the round robin medal round. Instead, on the strength of a goal from Eruzione that proved to be the game winner, the US beat the Russians 4-3. A win against Finland in their next game clinched the gold.

As I compose this post, the post game coverage on MSNBC is declaring last night's game the biggest upset since the Miracle on Ice. It's not even close. It's not even in the neighborhood. The forty skaters to take the ice last night are all high caliber NHL players. Not all are superstars, but all are professionals playing in the best league in the world. Yes, the Canadian roster is absolutely stacked. Yes, perhaps maybe just three or four of the US players could crack the Canadian line up. But in a short tournament - hell even on any given night in the NHL - anything can happen. For a pumped up Team USA to come out and beat Team Canada last night is an upset, and is impressive. But, without even considering the socio-political climate of 1980, last night's game is worlds away from the Miracle on Ice.

That said, yesterday was a great day for hockey. The Big Six all paired up in a trio of good match ups: Eastern European powers Russian and the Czech Republic in the afternoon, the Battle of North America in the evening, and Sweden and Finland in a Scandinavian Showdown for the night cap. We'll see all of them again in the medal round.

As nice as it was to see the US win last night, I was hopeful they would save their upset for the medal round. Canada and Russia are loaded, and with both teams being upset this week, I don't know how good the chances are that they both lose again before it's all said and done. As exciting as it was to see the Swiss push Canada in to the brink in a shootout loss on Thursday, part of me was relieved that Canada pulled it out, postponing their upset for another day.

Still, who knows what will happen over the remainder of the tournament. Perhaps the US can recapture a bit of the Miracle from 30 years ago. Their roster features two defensemen with ties to the 1980 team. Ryan Suter is the son of 1980's defenseman Bob Suter, and my former classmate at Boston College, Brooks Orpik, is named after the coach of the '80 team. Come this time next week we'll know if this is their time. I'm going to enjoy watching it all unfold.