You could almost taste it. Cliff Lee was going to sign, Andy was going to come back, Hughes would take a step forward, the bullpen would stay healthy and the Yankees would have one of the most dominant pitching staffs in baseball and march towards a 100-win season. It sounds idealistic in retrospect, but at certain junctures this winter it didn’t seem all that far off. Of course, it didn’t quite play out that way. Cliff Lee signed up for the inferior transit system and culture of Philadelphia, Andy retired, and Hughes got hurt and took half of the bullpen with him. And then something funny happened. Brian Cashman made a bunch of little moves, earning screams from the haters, and a lot of them actually worked. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but in 2011 the new market inefficiency has been whatever Cashman says it is.
In the bullpen, Cashman picked up Luis Ayala on a minor-league deal, and while Ayala did make a brief trip to the disabled list in April he’s pitched very well out of the pen. He’s given the Yankees 22.2 innings, giving up 19 hits, 8 walks and striking out 18. He’s getting groundballs at a very nice rate, almost 50%, and he has an ERA of 1.25. Even though his BABIP is relatively normal he has a super-high strand rate and a lower HR/FB ratio, which means his xFIP of 3.77 is likely more predictive of his future performance than his ERA. Regardless, he’s been a useful cog for the team so far nonetheless. The other surprising reliever has been Cory Wade, profiled extensively by Mike here. As Mike noted, he has obvious limitations but he’s a very nice minor league depth move at this time of the year. He’s found his way to the major league roster and he’s pitched perfectly so far, allowing no hits over 3 innings and striking out 3.
In the rotation the hot story right now is Brian Gordon, who pitched 5.1 innings of two run ball against Texas on Thursday, walking three and striking out three. Some wanted Hector Noesi to take this spot, but the organization didn’t feel that he was able to provide the necessary length for a starter given that he has been pitching in relief. Others wanted one of David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell or Adam Warren didn’t get the opportunity to start the major league level. In a piece reviewing Gordon’s performance at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe quoted his fellow Pinstriped Bible author Steven Goldman as getting quite upset about this, saying, “The only possible message is that they will never be good enough, that the Yankees are so deeply suspicious of their own prospects that they would rather take someone else’s trash over their own treasure.” Yet as Jaffe so aptly noted, this isn’t the only possible message the organization is sending the young bucks:
The glass-half-full take on Gordon’s addition is that at no cost, Cashman alertly added another arm to the organizational larder at a time when the Yankees have two starters and two key relievers on the disabled list, with zero guarantee that Colon, Phil Hughes, and Rafael Soriano will be effective and bulletproof the rest of the way
The other two scrap heap rotation pickups are obvious. The first is Freddy Garcia. Despite the fact that he always seems on the verge of getting lit up, Freddy Garcia has been an entirely serviceable fifth starter for the Yankees this year. He has a strikeout rate of 6.38/9 and a walk rate of 3.25/9 to go along with his ERA of 3.63. He doesn’t get a lot of fly balls, and so he lives and dies by his ability to command the ball well and command it low in the zone. He’s managed to throw 72 innings for the Yankees so far this year, and he threw 157 for the White Sox last year, so Sweaty Freddy may be able to keep chugging along all summer long.
And of course there’s Bartolo Colon, arguably the best pitcher on the Yankees until he got hurt. That isn’t meant as disrespect to staff ace CC Sabathia, but it’s remarkable how similar their lines have been. Sabathia has a 3.28 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 3.50 xFIP, a 2.89 K/BB ratio and a 47.3 GB%, whereas Colon has a 3.10 ERA, a 3.34 FIP, a 2.99 xFIP, a 4.00 K/BB ratio and a 47.3 GB%. Colon has struck out more than a batter per nine innings more than Sabathia, but Sabathia has an obvious edge on innings over Colon. But whether or not he compares favorably to Sabathia only demonstrates how spectacular Colon has been on the year. For $900,000 the Yankees have gotten some of the best pitching in baseball this year. To say that he’s exceeded expectations is an understatement. He’s been the $2 scratch-off ticket that wins you a cool grand.
After an offseason that saw the Yankees throw yet another gigantic contract at yet another highly regarded free agent, only to see him go elsewhere, Brian Cashman has shown a remarkable ability to create and preserve depth in the rotation and the bullpen by picking up starters on the cheap and snatching other extraneous pitchers off the lower rungs of the depth charts of other teams. 2011 is a season in which a lot could have gone wrong so far. At times it feels like this team is walking a high wire. But it’s also a season in which a lot of what Brian Cashman has touched has turned to gold. It’s true that you don’t count on these things lasting forever. Is Cory Wade really a shutdown reliever? Is Brian Gordon anything but an organizational arm capable of filling in for a few starts? Will Sweaty Freddy’s stream of junkballs really baffle hitters for another hundred and forty innings? It doesn’t seem likely, and that’s why it’s good to hear that the front office isn’t resting on its laurels and counting on the current crew to take them into October. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that the contributions of the cast-offs have proven vital to this team’s early season success.