2012 Season Preview: Building Blocks

Does Zimmerman's extension help us gauge one for Cano?
A Sign of the Catcher Contract Apocalypse

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

There is no such thing as rebuilding with the Yankees. They’re perpetually retooling, attempting to integrate young players into the roster while contending for the World Series every year. That’s much easier said that done, obviously.

Heading into 2012, the Yankees have a nice little collection of young players on the roster, including three with just one full big league season under their belt. Two of the three will be in the starting rotation while the third will see action off the bench and as an injury replacement, but they’re all very young and have a chance to assume very important roles with the team in the near future. The ages listed below are as of April 6th, otherwise known as Opening Day…

Michael Pineda, 23
The Yankees didn’t trade Jesus Montero (and Hector Noesi) to the Mariners just to improve their chances of winning in 2012, the move was geared towards improving their chances over the next half-decade. Pineda turned 23 the week of the trade and already has an above average big league season to his credit. He struck out more than a batter per inning last summer (9.11 K/9 and 24.9 K%) despite the lack of a quality changeup, a problem he has worked to correct with pitching coach Larry Rothschild early in camp.

They Yankees didn’t just acquire any ol’ young pitcher in Pineda. The CC Sabathia-sized right-hander combines high-octane stuff with surprisingly strong command (2.89 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%), hitting the mitt with his mid-90’s heat and wipe-out slider pitch after pitch. He’s not a finished product, but no one is at age 23. Pineda is starting from an extremely high baseline and still has plenty of room for growth, giving him scary upside and ace potential even in the rugged AL East. With five more years of team control remaining, the Yankees expect Pineda to form a dominant and historically large one-two punch with Sabathia for years to come.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Ivan Nova, 25
While Pineda was cutting his teeth with the Mariners last season, Nova was busy stepping up his game and serving as Sabathia’s running mate in the second half. A midseason demotion to Triple-A was largely undeserved but may have been the best thing that happened to him, as he improved his slider and gained enough confidence in the pitch to rely on it as his go-to weapon late in the season. Combined with his usual helping of ground balls, the right-hander exceeded all expectations in 2011.

Now that the curtain has been lifted on 2012, Nova will be counted on to not only repeat last year’s performance, but improve upon it. His walk rate (3.10 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) is fine, though the Yankees would surely like to see him beef up the strikeout total (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) going forward while maintaining his ground ball rate (52.7%). Like Pineda, Nova isn’t a finished product, but he is a bit more refined in the sense that he uses three pitches regularly (fastball, slider, curve) while working in the occasional fourth offering (changeup). With another five years to go before free agency, Nova has a chance to develop into that rock solid, mid-rotation workhorse that takes the ball every five days and gives the team quality outings each time out. With any luck, he’ll become more.

Eduardo Nunez, 24
It’s not easy to crack the Yankees roster as a young infielder, with a bench role being the only realistic way of making the team. Nunez got that chance last year and performed fairly well compared to most utility infielders, producing a .313 wOBA and a 92 wRC+ in 338 plate appearances. When Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez went down with injuries for weeks at the time, Nunez stepped in and hit .281/.333/.401 across two months. His offensive game revolves around putting the ball in play (10.9 K%) and stealing bases (22-for-28), two traits that suit a bench player.

While there is no star potential here, the offensive bar at shortstop is very low — league average at the position was a .303 wOBA and an 88 wRC+ in 2011. If Nunez can tighten up his throwing and become a passable defender at short, he’s by far the best in-house replacement candidate for Jeter. If that doesn’t happen, he can still be a viable part-timer as the two players on the left side of the infield continue on the path towards the glue factory.

* * *

The Yankees have a number of other players that appear to have long-term places on the roster — Robinson Cano, David Robertson, Brett Gardner, etc. — but none of them are under contractual control through 2016 like Pineda, Nova, and Nunez. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are friendly reminders that these things can veer off course, since both of those guys looked to have long-term roles with the team as recently as last spring. Now they’re question marks, question marks just two years away from free agency.

As always, the farm system has a chance to supply the Yankees will more long-term building blocks. Austin Romine and Manny Banuelos could spend the next six years as a battery if things break right, and 40-man roster guys like Dellin Betances, George Kontos, and Zoilo Almonte could force their way into the picture as well. Pineda and Nova are very clearly the future of the Yankees rotation at the moment, and Nunez’s importance to the club is dependent on the healthy of Jeter and A-Rod. Those guys may not form the next core of the Yankees when it’s all said and done, but they will be given every opportunity to assuming important roles on the team going forward.

Does Zimmerman's extension help us gauge one for Cano?
A Sign of the Catcher Contract Apocalypse
  • Paul VuvuZuvella

    Geez, is that Glue Factory the one in Cooperstown ?

  • CJ

    Good piece. Yankees success really comes down to Pineda, Nova and Nunez. Dominican Dandies. Add ARod and Hughes and there’s your story for 2012. The rest of the team is remarkably consistent.

    • Rich in NJ

      I don’t see Nunez as being that important to their success. If that happens, it’s a bonus.

      • Soriano Is A Liar

        Agreed. Nunez could be a big help in certain situations, but I wouldn’t rate him one of the three most important players on the team.

      • CJ

        No Nunez is not nearly as important as Pineda or Nova. My point is that he could still improve significantly as opposed to players you know what to expect. Also, I think ARod will have to DH and Nunez will play more than ibanez or jones.

    • Jesse

      What about Jeter? Do you see him keeping up what he did after he came off the DL?

  • http://www.twitter.com/vinnyscafuto Vinny Scafuto

    Is it fair to say that Pineda is what Joba should have been? High octane fastball with a wipeout slider and questionable changeup?

    • AndrewYF

      No, Pindea was a better prospect than Joba ever was. Much better control, and a better ability to pitch deep into games.

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

        No way, Joba was a much better prospect. Four pitches, used three of them heavily as a starter. The pitching deep into games thing has more to do with the ALW vs ALE and the Yankees moronic handling of him.

        • caldr62np

          Agree with Mike. There’s also the fact that he was never allowed to build up his arm. 88 minor league innings just doesn’t cut it unless you continue as a starter in the bigs to build up innings, and then start the next year on an innings limit. Dude wasn’t even allowed to start for a complete minor league season before he was put in the bullpen. Pineda had 404.1 minor league innings. Seatle wasn’t desperate to win. That shoulder injury didn’t help. He was dominating as a starter before that. Joba was a victim of the win-now-at-all-costs mentality. He was so good they refused to shut him down after he got hurt, start him again in the minors. Joba had a 3.61 ERA on August 1st in 2008, then he starts getting hit around because he was going 7, 8, 9 days between starts so they decide he can’t be a starter. What other team does that? Any other team (even the Red Sox with Bucholz), gives a 21-22 year old with 2 lethal pitches, plus 1 really good pitch, plus one decent to good pitch (depending on the day) at least 3 years to figure it out. If he’s not cutting it in the bigs, send him down to work things out. They really screwed him up.

          • Steve (different one)

            The comparison to Pineda is apples and oranges. You are comparing minor league innings for an IFA signed as a teenager to a pitcher coming out of college as a junior.

            I’m not saying Joba was developed properly, but the comparison is kindof meaningless.

        • http://www.thewebsitemarketingagency.com Staten Island

          This made me cry a little bit.

  • Dan 2

    Nice angle and a good piece. Adding the goal of getting to $189 mil just highlights the importance of these young and relatively inexpensive players of the future.

  • Havok9120

    “Nova has a chance to develop into that rock solid, mid-rotation workhorse that takes the ball every five days and gives the team quality outings each time out.”

    Andy Pettitte? Andy Pettitte.

    I’d take that Any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

    • Steve (different one)

      I think you are way underselling Pettitte here. Pettitte has a borderline case for the Hall of Fame. If Nova is 75% of Pettitte, it would be a huge coup.

  • viridiana

    Excellent piece.

  • pat

    I’m still very nervous about Nova’s elbow. I know he was cleared to throw by doctors, but anytime you hear “forearm strain” it almost always ends poorly. Throw in the fact that he was throwing more sliders the end of last year than at any other point in his career and to me it seems like a recipe for disaster. I really, really, wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up needing TJ at some point this year.

  • JD


    It is remarkable that for certain prospects we all stretch to believe in the upside, through an act of faqith almost, while for others we require constant proof. Such was the case for Hughes versus Nova last year. Your stubborn anti-Nunez take has been long in the works, but I think it is pretty obviosus that Nunez is already an above-average SS and promises to be much more. Last year only 8 hit for .280 or more and just 10 ht more than 12 HRs. Last year, despite sporadic playing time, Nunez hit .265 and projected to hit about 9 HRs. He is 24. It is very likely that he will develop 12-15 HR power and hit over .280. That, my friend, is a very good player. You have been wrong on this kid all along.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/joshfortunatus joshfortunatus

      Nunez’s 2011

      fWAR = -0.6
      WARP = 0.4
      rWAR = -0.8

      Nice try, JD.

      • JD

        300 ABs. He is 24 and improves each year. Has not played at one position consistently. Hit .281 when he did.

        Mike, you were wrong about this guy just as you were on Nova. The Yankees know what they have. The season will prove it. Remember the handle because I will be reminding you quite often.

        • http://yankeeanalysts.com Matt Imbrogno

          Maybe you’ll be right, but I just can’t see it. His MiL numbers suggest nothing special, and watching him is downright painful at times.

          For someone his age, and with his experience, he shouldn’t be so raw in the field. It also seems like he just has absolutely no approach at the plate; if it’s close, he’s hacking. His swing gets him some line drives when he runs into fastballs, but it’s so long and loopy, especially for someone with so little power output. This is definitely going to hurt him when he faces pitchers with big velocity.

          This isn’t to say he’s not serviceable, because right now, he’s perfect for the Yankees in that he’s cheap and can stand at any of the IF positions (minus 1B) and can play OF in a pinch, but I just don’t see much more than that.

        • thenamestsam

          And what about his defense? Noticeably you didn’t mention that. Slightly above average offense + horrific defense =/= above-average player. Can he get there? I think he can since really only a simple skill – accurate throwing – stands in his way, but he’s certainly not there now, which is what you said.

        • https://twitter.com/#!/joshfortunatus joshfortunatus

          Fine. Double the ABs and he still doesn’t come close to even an average SS. Like Imbrogno said, his MiLB numbers just don’t scream above average and he’s not good enough on defense.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      but I think it is pretty obviosus that Nunez is already an above-average SS and promises to be much more.

      I don’t agree with that at all. He has a lot of work to do on defense, and his offense doesn’t make up for it right now.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/joshfortunatus joshfortunatus

    Unfortunate middle name for “he who cannot keep his helmet on.”


  • Robinson Tilapia

    Mr. Burgundy, you have a massive erection.

  • mike

    yeesh….kinda depressing where the only position player in they near future is Nunez, and the up-side is that we should be happy the bar isn’t set high for that position..

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      That’s fine though. Position players are much safer bets in free agency than pitchers.

    • JobaWockeeZ

      For better or worse the infield is set for a long while. Outfield is pretty set though a good corner outfield prospect would be nice.

      And no don’t say Mason Williams, or Ravel Santana or Ramon Flores when all need 3 years from being considered to play on the team.

    • Soriano Is A Liar

      Plus Romine too. He’s not the most exciting prospect but from everything I’ve read his floor is a decent, cheap MLB catcher. Maybe he doesn’t have the star power, but that’s valuable.

  • Johnny O

    Mike do you still see Nunez as trade bait? Wouldn’t Yanks still have him for two years after Jeter’s contract (and option) expire? I’d think 200-300 ABs the next three years, plus full time SS for two years is definitely worth keepin him around for. His arbitration numbers shouldn’t be huge either because he’ll be a backup.

    • http://yankeeanalysts.com Matt Imbrogno

      I don’t think you can count on Nunez as trade bait because he doesn’t have surefire upside that’ll net you anything great in a trade. He’s probably worth more to the Yankees than he is to other teams since all he’s doing is backing up. He’s definitely not good enough to start somewhere full time (maybe for a real bad team) and isn’t young/upside heavy enough to put him in AAA and season him a bit more.

      • jsbrendog

        he’ll end up like andy fox, clay bellinger, and all of those guys, despite being more talented. he will be on the team and play a role while he is cheap and either be a toss in to a trade and go do it somewhere else or most likely vanish when he hits free agency.

        • Ted Nelson

          Bellinger wasn’t really a SS and had a career OPS+ of 57. Andy Fox had some good seasons after leaving NY, but he was a career OPS+ 73 guy. Nunez has been at 82 (53 PAs) and 84 (338 PAs) and is younger than either of those guys were when they made their MLB debuts.

      • Ted Nelson

        I think you’re overly pessimistic on Nunez. That he wasn’t a starter at 23 doesn’t mean he can’t become one. What exactly is “surefire upside?” Pretty sure that’s a contradiction. If Nunez can cut his errors down to the point where he’s “bad” defensively instead of “terrible” or “horrendous” the range, arm, and bat are there.

        The rumors we heard earlier in the off-season were specifically that the Braves did want him, and felt that even if his throwing doesn’t improve his bat will play in the OF.

        I think people can criticize his throwing all they want and say his offense was just ok in 2011, but I don’t understand your insistence that he doesn’t have upside. Struggling as a rookie is pretty much par for the course. It’s a matter of whether he can improve, and I certainly think he has the tools. The throwing is a big concern, certainly.

        • jsbrendog

          the braves were overpaying alex gonzalez to play ss. of course rthey want someone who can do what he does,posssibly better, for 1/8th the price. nothing shocking there. they don’t want him because he is so great.

          • Ted Nelson

            Where did I say that Nunez is great? Having upside to be a starter and being great are not even close to the same thing.

            • LiterallyFigurative

              Only past or future MVP candidates can sit on the Yankee bench.

              (Didn’t you get the memo?)

      • Johnny O

        Apparently Cashman turned down the Cliff Lee deal when they demanded Nunez be included. I know he’s not a headliner, but he’s definitely a valuable chip.

  • LiterallyFigurative

    These three, as well as Romine will play significant roles in the next few years of Yankee baseball.

    The 2014, $189M threshold is a huge barrier to all teams, even the Yankees, as they try to cut spending where they can and still win.

    Pineda and Nova, if they can take steps forward, will save the Yanks from having to give top dollar to a Grienke or Hamels or Cain. They may still be in on them, but won’t feel pressured to give CC-like salaries to a frontline starter.

    Nunez’ value is to be the backup at SS and 3B. He’s not Derek or Nomar, but he’s certainly a major league caliber player. His throwing got better as the year went on, and he catches the ball. He’s got speed and can be a decent hitter. Refining his approach is a must, but that comes with time and being around the Yankee legends is a plus.

    Romine might not be Posada or Montero with the bat, but seems like he can be solid offensively and really good defensively and calling games. His continued development can save the Yanks from spending $10M+ on Russell Martin.

    These young player’s development affects their long-term planning at not only their positions, but Robby Cano and Granderson as well. By not having to spend 23 mil on a Hamels and 10 Mil on Martin or Arizona’s Montero, the savings could be used to re-up Cano and Granderson at what will surely be market rates. Nunez’ development could allow the Yanks to have Derek DH or play a corner OF spot in 2014.

    Big thing for the Yanks is their next batch of impact position prospects aren’t going to be here before 2014, making Cano and Granderson huge priorities.