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Steve S.

Feb 142011

Decision, decisions..

Yankee GM Brian Cashman had some choice words for Joba Chamberlain as pitchers and catchers reported to camp. The NY Post has the details:

“Anybody who has [minor league] options is not a lock for anything,” Cashman said when asked by The Post if the 25-year-old was a roster-spot lock. “Any player with options has to re-earn everything. You earn more or you earn less — New York or Scranton [Triple-A]. I fully expect Joba to be in our bullpen. If not, he would have worked his way out of it.

(snip)

Now, Chamberlain, who has three minor league options left, will be fighting for a spot in the pen.

“We won’t decide, he will decide his role,” Cashman said. “Players always dictate [by their performances].”

That is certainly true of all of their young pitchers, but you don’t hear Brian saying these things about Dave Robertson or Ivan Nova. Reports that he showed up in camp this year heavier than last may have been the impetus for these comments, but the Yankee brass has long made a habit of trying to light a fire under Joba for the entire time he’s been with the club. Draft watchers will recall Joba was 300 pounds as a teen in his first year of college, so from day 1 he’s a player who’s been tagged as needing guidance and motivation. When your 46 year old manager is in better shape than a 25 year old player, on a team like the Yankees with their expectations, one can understand why this issue is raised. Whether it’s Chris Britton, Jon Albaladejo or Joba Chamberlain, bad-bodied pitchers seem to always have their glass half empty under this regime.

But how realistic are these threats? Given the fact that Joba’s role has been subjugated to low leverage middle relief, I would take them very seriously. He’s as expendable as it gets on a MLB pitching staff. Which leads us to the next possibility, which is trading him. Again, from the NY Post:

Then there is the possibility the Yankees could trade Chamberlain, who agreed to a one-year, $1.4 million contract to avoid going to arbitration this past offseason. It was the first time he was eligible.

“He still has value,” an AL talent evaluator said. “Teams would want him if he is available. It will be interesting to see how the Yankees pitch him in spring-training games and who from other teams is there only to see him.”

He certainly has value, but more as a buy-low candidate or added piece of a deal rather than the centerpiece he would have been in 07-08. The Twins could certainly use some relievers…..

Just wanted to let you folks know I’ll be appearing on Mike Silva’s New York Baseball Digest radio show tonight around 10:30 with a scoop on some big news about this blog. Topics will include the Yankee rotation, the Liriano rumors, and TYU is going to . . . well, you’ll just have to listen to hear the rest.

Guests include Newsday sports reporter Jim Baumbach, who is scheduled to discuss an interview he did with former Mets owner Nelson Doubleday. Mike also has former Yankee and current NJ Bears coach Jim Leyritz booked to appear on his show around 10 PM, in what will be his first local radio appearance since the DWI incident. Now that’s some must-listen radio right there if you ask me. If you’re out on Long Island NY, you can tune in to 1240 WGBB radio, or click this link to hear the show live or as an archived segment.

Sorry for getting away from this series the past week, but the Pettitte retirement and Liriano rumors were breaking news stories that had to be addressed. I’ll wrap this baby up today in advance of some big news Moshe has for our readers starting tomorrow.

2007 Trades and Transactions

November 10, 2006

Traded Gary Sheffield to the Detroit Tigers. Received Kevin Whelan (minors), Anthony Claggett and Humberto Sanchez.

Sign and trade deal with the Tigers for perpetual malcontent Sheffield. Yanks picked up his 07 option after Sheff played little in 2006 due to injury. Turns out he had one good year left, producing 2.7 WAR in his first season with the Tigers. With the acquisition of Bobby Abreu the Yanks had nowhere to play Sheff (he didn’t want to DH) so the alternative was letting him walk as a FA. Claggett pitched just 2.2 awful innings for the Yanks in 09, Whelan never made the show, and the oft-injured Sanchez remained so as a Yankee and was released in November 2009. Cash gets points for creativity, and the three prospects were in all likelihood no better than the one he would have gained had he taken the draft pick.

Grade-Neutral

November 12, 2006

Traded Jaret Wright and cash to the Baltimore Orioles. Received Chris Britton.

Roster spot clearing move for Andy Pettitte, which was largely neutral on both sides. Wright produced 0.0 WAR in his one season with the O’s and was soon out of baseball. Britton was a low leverage reliever who spent most of his time riding the bus from Scranton to NY. Considering that the O’s paid Wright 7 mil for 100K of production, I’ll give Brian credit for getting him off his books.

Grade-Net plus

December 8, 2006

Signed Andy Pettitte as a free agent.

After spending the 04-06 seasons with the Astros, a wrong was righted and Andy was brought back to pinstripes. Easy decision, Astros owner Drayton McLayne didn’t intend to bring Andy (or Roger Clemens) back, and Brian pounced on the opportunity.

Grade-Net plus

December 19, 2006

Purchased Kei Igawa from Hanshin Tigers (Japan Central).

Reaction move to being outmaneuvered and outbid by the Red Sox for Dice-K (which turned out to be a 100 mil mistake by Theo). 40 mil that produced -0.2 in value for a 5 year deal. Utter disaster.

Grade-Net minus

January 8, 2007

Signed Doug Mientkiewicz as a free agent.

First base caddy for Jason Giambi, did a nice job in his one season with the team. Plus defender (+4.0) who surprisingly hit a little (+2.5) as well. Overall produced 0.9 WAR (3.6 mil) for a 1.5 mil salary.

Grade-Net plus

January 9, 2007

Traded Randy Johnson and cash to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Received Alberto Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, Ross Ohlendorf and Luis Vizcaino.

Brian was starting out with two strikes from a negotiating standpoint. Randy wanted out of New York and needed back surgery that projected to keep him out well into the following season. Johnson never quite fit into the Bronx from day one and never produced as anticipated (ERA+ 112 and 90 as Yank/Career 136) though Randy did manage to squeeze out 8.2 WAR over his two seasons with the team. Johnson was good for the D-Backs, producing 5.5 WAR in just 240.2 innings spread out over 2 seasons.  From the Yankee side,

Ross Ohlendorf was given a few chances with the Yanks, produced little and was traded in the Nady-Marte deal with the Pirates. Alberto Gonzalez played little with the team and was subsequently flipped for Jhonny Nunez, who was part of the Nick Swisher deal. Steven Jackson never pitched for the Yanks and was selected off waivers in 2009 by the Pirates. The key to the deal was Vizcaino, who unfortunately became a Torre casualty. He hurt his shoulder by August and was useless thereafter. He left the team as a FA at the end of the season.

Grade-Net minus

May 6, 2007 (Standings)

Signed Roger Clemens as a free agent.

Brian went back to the well with Roger, but should have known from the Randy Johnson experience that pitching in the NL West and AL East are very different endeavors. Roger had little left, producing just 1.8 WAR (7.3 mil) for a whopping 28 mil salary that was pro-rated to about 17.4 mil.

Grade-Net minus

July 21, 2007 (Standings)

Traded Jeff Kennard (minors) to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Received Jose Molina.

Kennard never pitched in the majors, while Molina was a solid if unspectacular backup for the aging Jorge Posada. Nice move by Cash.

Grade-Net plus

July 31, 2007 (Standings)

Traded Scott Proctor to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Received Wilson Betemit.

Betemit was a neutral move for the Yanks, filling a need for a backup infielder at a minimal cost. Proctor was the one that got away for the Dodgers, having sent him to the Yanks in 2004 for a ready for retirement Robin Ventura. But the real upside was when Cashman flipped Betemit as the centerpiece of the Nick Swisher deal.  Proctor had the misfortune of being abused by Joe Torre on two teams. After a good start with the Dodgers in 07 under Grady Little, Scott was horrendous in 08 under Torre and wound up getting TJ surgery soon thereafter.

Grade-Net plus

Total Grades:

Net plus-5

Net minus-3


Whenever discussing the Yankee farm system, talk quickly gravitates to the Killer B’s. Manny Banuelos has been ranked at the head of the pack by most outlets, due to his age, poise, performance and handedness. Dellin ranks 2nd on most lists, with one notable exception. Yesterday, in his must-read recap of the Yankee farm system Mike Axisa ranked Andrew Brackman ahead of Dellin, despite a wide gap between the two in terms of performance. His main reason for the ranking is an oft-repeated tag that gets applied to Dellin, that he just can’t seem to stay healthy.

But is this true? Is his health history really that different than other Yankee prospects who don’t carry the ‘injury prone’ tag? Let’s compare Dellin’s track record and Andrew Brackman and see if this is justified. First, here’s Dellin’s minor league history:

Year                        Age           Tm      Lg   Lev Aff  W  L W-L%  ERA  G GS GF CG SHO SV    IP   H   R  ER HR  BB IBB  SO HBP BK WP   BF  WHIP  H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2006                         18      Yankees    GULF    Rk NYY  0  1 .000 1.16  7  7  0  0   0  0  23.1  14   5   3  1       7  27   1  1  2   90 0.900  5.4  0.4  2.7 10.4  3.86
2007                         19 StatenIsland    NYPL    A- NYY  1  2 .333 3.60  6  6  0  0   0  0  25.0  24  11  10  0      17  29   2  1  3  113 1.640  8.6  0.0  6.1 10.4  1.71
2008                         20      2 Teams   2 Lgs  A-Rk NYY  9  5 .643 3.92 25 24  0  0   0  0 121.2 100  64  53  9  62   0 141  11  3 11  529 1.332  7.4  0.7  4.6 10.4  2.27
2009                         21        Tampa    FLOR    A+ NYY  2  5 .286 5.48 11 11  0  0   0  0  44.1  48  29  27  2  27   0  44   2  0  3  206 1.692  9.7  0.4  5.5  8.9  1.63
2010                         22      2 Teams   2 Lgs A+-AA NYY  8  1 .889 2.11 17 17  0  0   0  0  85.1  53  25  20  4  22   0 108   4  0  6  333 0.879  5.6  0.4  2.3 11.4  4.91
5 Seasons             5 Seasons                      5 Seasons 20 14 .588 3.39 66 65  0  0   0  0 299.2 239 134 113 16 135   0 349  20  5 25 1271 1.248  7.2  0.5  4.1 10.5  2.59

Next, let’s look at Andrew Brackman’s track record in pro ball, including his College days. Here it is:

Year Team Lg Age Lvl Org W L ERA G GS CG SHO GF SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2005 NC State NCAA 19 NCAA - 4 0 2.09 10 7 0 0 0 0 43.0 32 13 10 0 18 43 3 1.16 6.7 0.0 3.8 9.0
2006 NC State NCAA 20 NCAA - 1 3 6.35 7 7 0 0 0 0 28.1 37 25 20 2 19 32 7 1.98 11.8 0.6 6.0 10.2
2007 NC State NCAA 21 NCAA - 6 4 3.81 13 13 1 0 0 0 78.0 78 41 33 7 37 74 12 1.47 9.0 0.8 4.3 8.5
2009 Charleston (Sc) SAL 23 A nyy 2 12 5.91 29 19 0 0 1 0 106.2 106 79 70 8 76 103 26 1.71 8.9 0.7 6.4 8.7
2010 Tampa FSL 24 A+ nyy 5 4 5.10 12 12 0 0 0 0 60.0 67 38 34 5 9 56 6 1.27 10.1 0.8 1.4 8.4
Trenton East 24 AA nyy 5 7 3.01 15 14 0 0 0 0 80.2 77 38 27 3 30 70 6 1.33 8.6 0.3 3.4 7.8
Minor League Totals 12 23 4.77 56 45 0 0 1 0 247 250 155 131 16 115 229 38 1.48 9.10 0.58 4.18 8.3

Why does Brackman escape the “injury prone” tag, yet it gets applied to Dellin? Brackman had a much more severe elbow injury (reconstructive/TJ) than Betances (ligament enhancement). Andrew got a late start in baseball, but looking at his first 5 seasons in professional baseball regardless of age he has logged less innings (247 IP) than Dellin (299 IP) did in his initial five. Not only has Dellin logged more innings, but he’s done so at a younger age. Further, he has dominated the minors in a way that Andrew Brackman has yet to do.  It is encouraging to see Brackman cross the 140 inning threshold, but the only reason why Betances hasn’t done so was the timing of his injury. Dellin missed parts of two seasons with his elbow injury, while Brackman had TJ surgery immediately after signing with the Yanks and missed the entire 2008 campaign.

One final misconception needs to be cleared up about Dellin Betances. From a BP interview last year:

DL: To close, is there anything you’d like people to know about you?

DB: Just one thing: Everybody thinks I was born in Brooklyn, but I was actually born in Washington Heights—my first home. Then I moved to the lower East Side, to downtown Manhattan, so the lower East Side is my home. You’re probably the first one who knows that. I mean, I love Brooklyn. I played in Brooklyn from age 13, I went to high school in Brooklyn, so it’s like my second home, but the lower East Side is where I started playing baseball. That is one thing that everybody should know. 

He’s from Manhattan, not Brooklyn.

Feb 112011

On the heels of the Star-Tribune report that Minnesota Twins ace Francisco Liriano could be available, loads of analysis poured in from every angle. Two pieces really caught my attention, one from Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and another from our buddy Jason Rosenberg’s IATMS site from writer Mark Smith. Here’s the highlights, first up is Mark Smith:

The question now becomes what he’s worth, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to avoid the question. At 9-10 wins over the next few seasons, Liriano will be worth about $50 million dollars, and after we subtract the $4.3 million salary for 2011 and possible $9 million for 2012, we are left with $37 million dollars of surplus value. According to Victor Wang, Jesus Montero ($36.5 million value as a Top 10 hitter) would be an equal swap for two years of Liriano’s services. If the Twins want pitching in return (probable), Manny Banuelos ($15.9 million as Top 11-25 pitcher) and Dellin Betances or Andrew Brackman ($12.1 million as a Top 51-75 pitcher—I’m probably being a little generous there, though not insane) would only be a start with about $7 million left. I realize that will probably start a riot around here, but pitchers are inherently risky because of injury. Yankees prospects are not immune. Another Grade B prospect or a couple C prospects would be necessary to complete the deal. Luckily, the perception of Liriano’s health and the Twins’ willingness to deal him might decrease some of the value needed to bring Liriano to the Big Apple.

As we discussed yesterday, Montero’s not a match unless you get a 3rd team involved. The Twins will want pitching in return, and may see the Killer B’s as guys who could help them out of the bullpen this year. So according to Mark’s numbers, we’re looking at TWO of the Killer B’s plus a B-level positional prospect in an area of need for the Twins. Figure David Adams or Eduardo Nunez.

Next up is Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, who has a very different take:

That leaves Marcum as the closest comparison to Liriano. Like Liriano, Marcum has a history of injury problems but returned to pitch at a high level last year. In fact, their 2010 innings pitched and ERA totals are nearly identical, and this showed in their 2011 contracts – Marcum avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $3.95 million deal, while Liriano got $4.3 million. While Marcum doesn’t throw as hard, they both have knockout secondary pitches which they lean heavily upon.

In return for Marcum, the Blue Jays acquired Brett Lawrie, who Keith Law recently rated as the 37th best prospect in baseball. Position prospects in that range are generally worth about $20-$25 million in value, based on Victor Wang’s research. While the Twins could likely argue that Liriano should be valued at a higher rate than Marcum (teams pay a premium for velocity and strikeouts, both areas where Liriano has a significant edge), I think they’d have a tough time getting significantly more than what Toronto received when they moved a similarly valued pitcher.

In other words, Twins fans can probably stop dreaming of someone like Jesus Montero, as the Yankees would likely balk at that asking price. But if they made Liriano available, the Yankees would be the most obvious suitor, and would likely pay a higher price than any other team. Perhaps they’d be willing to part with Manny Banuelos, who Law ranks as one of the game’s best pitching prospects? That might be enough to satisfy the perceived differences between Liriano and Marcum, but would it be a large enough premium to justify improving one of the Twins main rivals for the American League pennant?

Cameron thinks the top tier prospects won’t be required to get a deal like this done, but two obvious quesions emerge. Will it be worth it for the Twins to deal him? And as Cameron asks, what sort of premium would the Yanks have to pay as a major obstacle to the Twins post season aspirations?

If the Twins weren’t serious contenders for their division and in something of a rebuilding phase, it would make more sense to deal with the Yanks. But strengthening a potential October rival is something that’s got to be hard to sell to your fan base. A deal would have to fill immediate needs with MLB ready talent, so they can argue making the move improves their chances for 2011 while dealing from a position of excess. They need lots of bullpen help, and could use a middle infielder as well. As I discussed yesterday, the Yanks match up well and have good prospects in both areas. The question could come down to how much will Bill Smith want the Yanks to overpay, and how far will Brian Cashman be willing to go. Don’t forget that Bill Smith doesn’t need to make this deal, while Cashman does. Smith is in the driver’s seat here.

I have to figure that Mark Smith’s price tag is the one for the Yankees, while Cameron’s will be the price tag for a NL team. Would you make that first deal? Montero straight up or two Killer B’s+? I know many fans have concerns about Liriano’s health, but having come back fully from TJ last year I feel pretty confident in him going forward. If I’m Brian Cashman, I look to do a Montero-centered deal with a 3rd team involved. Catching is an area of great depth for the Yanks, and high ceiling pitching prospects are the types the Yanks need to hang on to. I doubt anything happens this spring, but if the Yanks feel Russel Martin is back to the player he was a few years ago, dealing Montero will be much easier to swallow.

What do you think? How far would you go for Liriano?

Feb 102011

In a report by Joe Christensen of the Minnesota Star Tribune, it appears the Twins are willing to move the 27 year old lefty, though no timetable has been set. Here’s the story:

With six pitchers vying for five spots in the Twins starting rotation, one possible solution is trading Francisco Liriano. Speaking to team officials recently, I’ve been surprised how open they are to this possibility, but the logic makes sense.

Liriano, 27, can become a free agent after the 2012 season. Coming off a resurgent year, he might never have a higher trade value.

One thing is clear: The Twins don’t plan to sign him long term. Last weekend, they avoided arbitration with a one-year, $4.3 million deal. From what I’ve heard, their long-term talks went nowhere, with Liriano’s camp hinting it wanted a three-year, $39 million contract.

First let’s examine Liriano as a pitcher, then we’ll look at whether the two sides are a match. He has only made 30 starts once in his 5 full seasons in the bigs, and that was last year. Much of that was due to having Tommy John surgery in 2007, and the elbow issues that led to the procedure. He also had a very long road back from the procedure, both in terms of health and effectiveness. He struggled in 2008 and 2009 with both his stuff and control, which isn’t uncommon among TJ patients, as Yankee fans have seen with prospect Andrew Brackman. He also had some arm injuries in the minors. But last year Liriano was all the way back, striking out more than a batter per inning (9.44) with a good walk rate (2.74). When he’s on, he’s one of the best lefties in the game. He features a devastating slider that he fell in love with as a young pitcher, which most likely led to his elbow issues. The 95 MPH fastball we saw as a rookie was all the way back to pre-injury levels last year (94.2 MPH) after being down in 2008 (90.0 MPH) and 2009 (91.5 MPH). He also features a good change up, but the other worldly slider is clearly his best pitch and he relies upon it heavily (threw it 34% last year). He was #2 in all of baseball last year in xFIP, behind only Roy Halladay. When healthy, there’s nothing not to like. He destroys lefties when he’s on, and putting him in Yankee Stadium for his prime years could make him even better.

Before Yankee fans start salivating over trade proposals, remember that Bill Smith is the GM of the Twins. The same GM who demanded a more expensive package from the Yankees for Johan Santana than he wound up getting from the Mets. The Santana deal was a fiasco for the Twins, they wound up trading their best pitcher for virtually nothing. They would have been better off holding on to him and taking the draft picks from a baseball standpoint. Deolis Guerra flamed out in the upper levels of the minors, Carlos Gomez proved he can’t hit and was traded to the Brewers, Philip Humber was mediocre in the upper levels of the minors and horrible in the majors and was released after the 2009 season, and Kevin Mulvey was traded to the D-Backs as a PTBNL in the Rauch deal. All totaled, they got very little value back for one of the best pitchers in baseball. Will Bill Smith be more open to dealing with the Yanks after the Santana experience? Perhaps. But he’s already shown a preference for trading his top pitchers out of the league, and the two situations are also very different in terms of affordability. The Yankees, Mets and Red Sox were the only realistic bidders for Santana, who was making 13 mil with the Twins and looking for a huge extension. Liriano will earn just 4.3 mil this year, has two years of team control left and was only seeking a 3 year, 39 mil extension from the Twins. That will expand the universe of teams who will be bidding for his services dramatically. If there are comparable offers from the Yanks and a NL team, history shows Smith will take the NL package. The Yanks will need to overbid to land Liriano.

That leads us to the next item, do the Yanks and Twins match up? The Yanks are loaded with catchers, but the Twins have Joe Mauer. Many scouts feel Montero’s best position would be 1B, but the Twins have Morneau there. The Yanks are also loaded with pitching, but the impetus for trading Liriano is the fact that the Twins are already 6 deep in starters, with top prospect Kyle Gibson on the way. Smith is known to love speedy outfielders, so Brett Gardner would be an obvious match to platoon with or replace the overpaid and under performing Michael Cuddyer and/or Jason Kubel. The Twins could certainly use some bullpen arms after losing Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier and Ron Mahay to free agency. The Yanks have a stacked bullpen at the MLB level, and some scouts feel one or all of the Killer Bs will end up as relievers. They may want a 2B  as an insurance policy for newly signed Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, having lost Orlando Hudson to free agency. The Yanks have a few interesting candidates (Adams, Nunez) that could possibly fit there. But a Yankee-Twins deal would seem to require peeling players off the MLB roster, which would obviously create holes for the Yanks to fill. Would a 3 team deal do the trick? Maybe. One thing is for sure, early returns show that Twins fans don’t like the idea of trading Liriano, and things like that can impact how a team operates. That will make it harder to do a deal with the universally hated Yankees.

Feb 082011

Pinstripes will have to wait

We all know the Yankees are in desperate need of a 5th starter. Make that 4th starter. Actually, nobody likes AJ Burnett as their #3 …well, you get the point. Some have suggested Andrew Brackman as a possible solution. Brian Cashman has mentioned him as one of the names who will be competing for the 4th/5th starter spot this spring. In a recent post, Mark Smith of IATMS formed a plan where Andrew starts until late in the season and moves to the bullpen later in the year to limit his innings. Sounds good in theory, he has more upside than Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre or Bartolo Colon. Among the group of AAA contenders for a rotation slot of Ivan Nova, David Plelps and Hector Noesi, I think its safe to say Brackman’s ceiling is the highest (and that’s not just because he’s 6’10″). He’s already on the 40 man roster, even had a brief MLB call up late last year, although he didn’t see any game action. Prospect watchers have been saying good things about Andrew. Frank Piliere of MLB Fanhouse was drooling over him in a midseason scouting report last August. In the must read NoMaas interview with BAs John Manuel, he praises Brackman for having “More feel for the breaking ball than anyone in the Yankees system” and “If he decides to commit to a slider, he could have a hellacious pitch” after flashing some 07 Joba-esque 90 MPH sliders in the Eastern League last year.

But he’s not ready yet. Not according to Yankee farm director Mark Newman. Baseball America’s George King recently sat down with him and discussed  Brackman. Two comments really jumped out at me:

“His secondary stuff is good and he is throwing strikes,” Newman said. “We feel confident if he pitches out of the pen. If the changeup develops the way it has been going, we feel he can pitch in the rotation.”

So the Yanks aren’t even sure he’s going to be a starter yet at the big league level, much less be ready for a call up to the show. He’s missing plenty of bats (9.1 career SO/9) so needing the changeup and categorizing him as a MLB ready reliever may indicate the Yanks feel he needs a weapon against MLB lefty batters. He follows:

Asked if the miserable (09) season shook the club’s confidence in Brackman, Newman said it didn’t, but that wasn’t the case for the pitcher.

“He wondered about it,” Newman said. “We tried to reassure him that we understood what he had been through.”

His confidence was down after struggling to return after TJ surgery. He made strides last year, but has yet to really dominate the minors the way his size and stuff would suggest he can. Clearly, he’s not a finished product, and spring training ‘competition’ notwithstanding I don’t see the Yanks breaking camp with him on the 25 man roster. The minors are there for development, and rushing someone who’s not ready will only hurt Brackman and the Yanks long term. If Brackman blows through AAA this year, and shows he’s made the progress the Yanks are looking for, maybe a June call up will be in order. But that needs to happen first before we see the big righty in pinstripes.

Feb 062011

OK, there it is. I said it. Now let’s that have swirl around in our collective Yankee palates for just a moment. Admit it, deep down in the crevices of the hearts of Yankee fans we’ve all given it some thought lately. Andy’s gone. Derek’s getting old. Jorge’s already so old he won’t catch anymore. The Killer Bs are too far away to save us this year. Even the good lord himself showed some troubling trends last year. Bartolo Colon. Freddy Garcia. The Summer of Meat (h/t Brock Cohen). The name of the game is pitching, and the Yanks just don’t have much heading into this year, at least not in most of their rotation unless you’re one of those people who believes AJ Burnett AND Phil Hughes will be better in 2011 than they were in 2010. I’ll give you one, but for both I’ll have to see it to believe it.

Sure, I just painted a pretty grim picture. In any season, there will be a fair share of pleasant surprises. Nobody (except maybe Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi) thought Brett Gardner would be as good as he was last year, and he played most of the season with a bum wrist. In 2009 Phil Hughes went from a struggling starter to a lights out setup man mid season. In 2008 Mike Mussina had one of his best showings as a Yankee, after everyone thought he was done the year before. But while there are always surprises on the upside, there will also always be the unforeseen injury and/or decline in performance that hinders a team as well. Who would have predicted Derek Jeter would have the worst season of his career in 2010 coming off his 2009 campaign? Who would have predicted A-Rod would spend the past two seasons missing a month each year after being a picture of health up to 2008? Maybe Ivan Nova becomes the next Chein Ming Wang. Maybe Russel Martin turns back the clock to the player he was in 07-08. Can you count on either? No.

And what can we really expect out of Derek? His strong 2009 showing made us quickly forget his down 2008, and the downward trend line that was emerging. Joel Sherman addresses this in his column from this morning:

In an attempt to rebound, Jeter underwent a batting boot camp recently with hitting coach Kevin Long to continue alterations to Jeter’s stance and swing that began late last season. Long and the Yanks are confident Jeter will produce better results in 2011. Should he return to the land of .300 hitters, then discussions of the end can be tabled for at least another year. But what if .270 last year was not a blip, but a first step toward .250?

Imagine how grim Jeter’s march to the 74 hits for 3,000 would be. The tension of the negotiations would infiltrate the season as Joe Girardi would be forced to decide if (when?) to drop Jeter toward the bottom of the lineup and possibly even begin to give away some of his playing time, perhaps to prospect Eduardo Nunez.

The return of Jeter’s offense is one way the Yankees can compensate for worrisome starting pitching. But Jeter turns 37 this year, and the only full-time shortstops to excel offensively at that age or older were Luke Appling and Honus Wagner. Jeter can begin showing in spring if he can defy age and history.

Let’s be honest, odds are overwhelmingly against Derek. The Yanks need to pull the baseball equivalent of an inside straight in poker to win the division, and maybe even just to win the Wild Card. Imagine if one of the top 3 Yankee pitchers misses a month (much less the year) with something innocuous like a pulled hamstring running to cover 1B. Worse yet, imagine its CC. Now your rotation becomes AJ-Hughes-Nova-Colon-Mitre for the next 4-6 weeks (hyperventilation bags are located above your seat to the left). You need nearly perfect health from the top 3 starters AND a bounce back year from AJ Burnett to make the Yanks the wild card favorite. Phil Hughes needs to build upon his success from last season, not regress or pitch the same. He enjoyed absurd run support last year that’s unlikely to continue. Let’s also not forget that Phil doesn’t exactly have a spotless health history. AJ has been healthy the past 3 years, but only made 30+ starts in one of his 9 seasons before 2008. Betting on perfect health from any area of your team, especially when it comes to pitching, is the type of wager that only a fool would make.

The Yankee lineup compares favorably to that of the Red Sox, but the two rotations aren’t close. Further, the rest of the division doesn’t feature any easy outs anymore. With the signing of Vladdy and Buck at the helm, you can’t count on the O’s for a nice, fat lopsided divisional record anymore. The Rays certainly took a step back, but added Damon and Manny and are still talented and dangerous enough to figure to be a winning team. The Blue Jays made the move of the offseason unloading Vernon Wells’ contract, and that’s on the heels of unloading the Alex Rios deal last year. The Jays very quietly won 87 games last year, and with their new found added financial flexibility they figure to be able to make the moves that could put them over the top, perhaps as soon as this year’s trade deadline. The projection systems have the Yanks around 90 wins this year, which puts them back in the pack with the rest of baseball’s Wild Card contenders. That’s a dangerous position to be in.

With all this being said, I still think the Yanks have a solid shot at making the playoffs. If the top 3 are pitching well heading into October, or they land a big starter sometime this season, they could look much different in a playoff setting than they do currently. But we as Yankee fans have come to assume October baseball as something of a birthright, and this year has all the markings of a team that could take a step back. That’s nothing new, even in the Yankee dynasty years of the 30s and 40s had their dry spells where they needed to retool. After winning the WS in 1928, from 1929-1946 the Yanks had three 3-year stretches where they didn’t even make the playoffs, finishing 3rd or 4th some years. Those were teams that included players like Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, DiMaggio and Berra. Look through some of those years when they fell short. Or those teams from the 1980s through the mid 90s. When they fell short, just about every year the lineup was there but the pitching wasn’t. Just like 2008, and maybe this season as well.

Feb 062011

(Authors Note: I haven’t ditched the 5 part ‘Assessing Brian Cashman’ series. I’ll return to it on Monday)

Let me say up front I think its rather excessive how many numbers the Yanks have already retired. I’ve weighed in on the topic here in the past, so I’ll simply recap my thoughts quickly to set the stage for this piece. Just because a player is beloved doesn’t mean the team should retire their number. The Yanks assemble teams loaded with great players all the time, there has to be a more objective, team-related standard to apply for what is a team related honor. Placing highly in major categories on the franchise leader boards is a good place to start. For instance, as storied as Reggie Jackson’s run with the Yankees was, including 4 post season visits 3 AL pennants and 2 WS titles, Mr October only played 5 seasons with the Yanks. He’s 6th on the Yankee list in SLG, but 29th in HRs and 43rd in RBIs. Its difficult for me to imagine retiring Reggies number and not that of, say Charlie Keller (18th in HRs, 22nd in RBIs, 8th in SLG, 6 WS rings) or hall of famer Red Ruffing (ace of  7 WS champs and #2 on franchise list in Wins) As beloved as Phil Rizzuto was as an announcer, he wasn’t a great player. You want to retire his microphone for the Yankee museum? Fine. His number as a player? No.

Popularity with the fans is certainly a consideration, despite as seriously as us hard core fans may take the game, it is after all the entertainment business. But retiring a number forever has to go beyond mere popularity. Sal Fasano was a fan fave a few years ago, if the Yanks retire #26 for Sal’s Pals, I just might have to find myself a new hobby.  But I digress. I can understand wanting to recognize historic achievements such as Elston Howard being the first African-American Yankee, or Roger Maris’ magic 1961 campaign. I can understand wanting to recognize the ‘face of the franchise’ from a great era. Don Mattingly was certainly the face of the team from 1984-1995, but it wasn’t a great Yankee era and nobody could argue he was a better overall player than HOF teammate Dave Winfield. Nobody loved Billy Martin more than I did as a kid, but I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument as to why his #1 is retired along side Casey Stengels #37. At best, we seem to have a haphazard standard being applied in these matters. During the momentary love affair we all have with our favorite players, we should caution ourselves to remember that retiring a number is forever. When a kid who’s born today looks at the retired numbers 20 years from now, in the context of the franchise numbers as a whole (and at the time of retirement) will it still make sense? In some prospective cases yes (Derek Jeter) in others (Paul O’Niell) clearly no.

On to Andy. We all know was beloved by most Yankee fans, myself included. He was a rock solid, if unspectacular pitcher on many winning Yankee teams for 13 seasons. He was only considered the ace of his staff one year (1996) and perhaps the forgettable 2008 season as well (though Moose had a big year). As far as the franchise lists go, I’ll run through all the major categories. Andy is #3 in Wins behind only HOFers Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing. He is 44th in ERA. #2 in Games started, #4 in IP. But its the MLB all time post season numbers that argue strongest for Andy.  He is #1 all time in Postseason Wins (19) Games Started (42) and IP (263). From a SABR standpoint, that mostly tells us he a good pitcher who had more opportunities than anyone else, but from the perspective of the Yankee brass, that reflects roughly two decades of winning baseball, which is something they will want to tout loudly to fans and the world.

So lets total this up. I’ll use a variation on my standard Hall of Fame argument for retiring Yankee numbers. For the HOF I generally ask “Can we compose a plaque?” that will be sufficient to put the player in question along side the all time greats. For this exercise, I’ll ask “Can we write an introductory speech?” that will be impressive enough to put him in the pantheon of Yankee immortals such as Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, etc. In Andy’s case, I think the answer is yes.

Feb 042011

It was a seasonally warm 55 degree October night in front of a packed house in Yankee Stadium. Tino Martinez threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and the Yanks honored longtime fan Freddy (‘Freddy Sez’) Schuman before the game, who had died the day before at age 85. The series was tied 1-1, with the Yanks and Rangers splitting the first two games in Arlington. Game 3 of the 2010 ALCS, facing none other than the seemingly unbeatable Cliff Lee. Its about as pressure-packed as a situation can be, one where Andy seemed to find himself in the post season a million times before. Andy was battling back and groin injuries toward the end of the year, as if his aging body was sending him a message, but as a fan you still had confidence he would find a way to get it done. You’ve just seen him do it too many times before.

This time, Andy stumbled out of the gate. He gave up a single to center to Michael Young. Normally, that wouldn’t be much of an issue. But next up was 2010 MVP Josh Hamilton. Andy threw him his trademark pitch, a cut fastball on a 2-1 pitch that Josh deposited deep into the right field stands. It was just the 3rd HR Andy gave up to a left handed batter all season, the other two coming from the Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena.

“It was just a bad pitch by me,” Pettitte said. “At the time, you don’t think that’s going to win the ballgame.”

Andy's final act on the mound, a fist pump celebrating an A-Rod play

A less tough, less experienced pitcher might have let that first inning affect him, but not Andy. Pettitte has more starts (42) and more Wins (19) than any other pitcher in postseason history. He found his rhythm, settled in and retired 15 of the next 16 batters after the Hamilton HR. But the damage was done, and for all intents and purposes you could have turned the game off after the first inning. Cliff Lee was his usual, dominating self facing the Yanks in the post season. In in 8 innings pitched he gave up just 2 hits and a walk while striking out 13.

“Cliff was great tonight, to say the least,” Pettitte said. “He was just outstanding. You can’t say enough about what he did tonight in this ballpark. To be able to do what he did is pretty impressive.”

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Andy Pettitte #46 of the New York Yankees walks back to the dugout at the end of the top of the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers in Game Three of the ALCS during the 2010 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium on October 18, 2010 in New York, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Andy Pettitte Photo: Getty Images, Al Bello / 2010 Getty Images

According to Brian Cashman, after the game was over Andy called him aside and told him “Don’t wait on me” if he had any plans to sign a pitcher this off season. Brian said that struck him as unusual. Andy has gone through an annual soul searching on whether or not to return every winter, but he never said anything like that to him before. It seems Andy knew which way he was leaning long before anyone else did.

He was acknowledged by a standing ovation, and — with the left-hander at age 38 — there is a possibility that it could have been Pettitte’s final Yankee Stadium moment.

“Sitting in the clubhouse, you kind of think about that,” Pettitte said. “But then there’s a lot of baseball to be played. And I feel real good about our team and about the club that we have.”

Recaps of the game the following day in newspapers and websites focused on how dominating Lee was, the way the Yankee bullpen imploded after Andy’s exit, and how impressive the Rangers rookie Closer Neftali Feliz looked. Yet the biggest story of the game, one we didn’t know at the time, was that it final game that Andy Pettitte would ever pitch.

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