Mar
18

2013 Season Preview: The Aces

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Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

The term “ace” gets thrown around far too liberally these days. Technically every team has an ace in the sense that someone has to start Opening Day, but very few pitchers are true, bonafide number one starters. Those are the guys who provide both quality and quantity — they take the ball every five days and pitch deep into the game. Just as importantly, they do it every single year. It’s possible for a pitcher to have an ace-like year in any given season (coughEstebanLoiazacough), but the guys who do it year after year stand out from the pack. Those are the true aces.

The Horse
CC Sabathia is a true ace. Despite two DL stints — including the first arm injury of his career — the 32-year-old still rattled off his sixth consecutive year of 200+ innings with a sub-3.40 ERA in 2012. The number of other big leaguers who have done that: zero. Raise the bar to a sub-3.60 ERA and it’s still zero. Sabathia was the difference in the ALDS against the Orioles, allowing just three runs in an LDS round record 17.2 innings. That’s an 8.2-inning start in Game One and a complete-game in Game Five. The Yankees and Orioles played five very tight games, but the difference was Sabathia shoving it in the first and last games of the series.

Going into 2013, CC is more of a question mark than he has been at any other point as a Yankee. He had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow in late-October, which slowed his pace in Spring Training ever so slightly. The good news is Sabathia has been throwing with no complications or pain or even unexpected soreness in recent weeks, so he remains on target to start Opening Day. That said, his fastball velocity did drop more than one mile an hour from 2012 to 2013. It’s a concern because of his age and all the mileage on his arm, if nothing else.

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Despite the DL stints and reduced fastball, Sabathia was excellent last season — 3.38 ERA and 3.31 FIP — so excellent that his strikeout (8.87 K/9 and 23.7 K%) and walk (1.98 BB/9 and 5.3 BB%) rates were the second best of his career behind his monster 2008 campaign with the Indians and Brewers. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild came to New York with a reputation for increasing strikeout rates and reducing walk rates, and sure enough Sabathia has posted a 8.79 K/9 (23.5 K%) and a 2.16 BB/9 (5.8 BB%) during his two years under Rothschild after managing a 7.59 K/9 (20.6 K%) and 2.71 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) during his first two years in pinstripes. One year is a fluke but two years are a trend, as they say.

The Yankees have internally discussed scaling back Sabathia’s workload going forward in an effort to keep him healthy and just fresher late into the season. That could mean treating him as a 200-inning pitcher rather than a 230-inning pitcher — one fewer inning per start, basically — but that’s much easier said than done. Sabathia is, by his own admission, a rhythm pitcher who is at his best with more work, not less. Finding the balance between lightening the overall workload and remaining super-effective will be difficult.

Either way, Sabathia is a benefit of the doubt guy. I assume he’ll remain a workhorse of the first order and highly effective until he isn’t. The elbow surgery and reduced velocity are red flags, but they have yet to manifest themselves in a meaningful way. I still expect CC to strike out a ton of batters in his 200-something innings while keeping his ERA under 3.50. He’s been doing it nearly a decade now and I’m not going to doubt him. At some point Sabathia will decline, but I don’t expect it to happen just yet.

Knocking on the Door
There are only a handful of minor league prospects who project as future aces — don’t confuse ace stuff with being a projected ace — and the Yankees don’t have any of them, especially not at the Triple-A level. The only pitcher who is slated to open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation with ace-caliber stuff is Dellin Betances, who lacks everything else a pitcher needs to be an ace: command, durability, etc. Brian Cashman already acknowledged the club will start the 24-year-old Betances in the Triple-A rotation despite his miserable season a year ago, but this is his final minor league option year and I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to move the big right-hander into the bullpen if he doesn’t show improvement within the first few weeks of the season.

The Top Prospect
The Bombers have a farm system that is top heavy in position players — the top five prospects on my preseason top 30 list were all position players — especially since their best pitching prospects all seem to be coming off injury. The best combination of ace-caliber stuff and command in the system belongs to 22-year-old Manny Banuelos, who will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. His command started to waver in 2011 though, maybe due to the elbow problem.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Right-hander Jose Campos lacks a defined breaking ball while right-hander Ty Hensley lacks command in addition to having basically zero professional experience. Righty Bryan Mitchell has nasty stuff, missing bats with a mid-90s fastballs and a knockout curveball, but he lacks command as well. Perhaps the best current ace package in the system belongs to 23-year-old Jose Ramirez, who is organization’s consistently hardest thrower with a swing-and-miss changeup and a promising slider. That said, he’s battled arm injuries and command throughout his five-year career. The Yankees don’t have a minor league pitcher who clear projects as an ace, but Ramirez is probably the closest. He’s a long way from that ceiling, however. A very long way.

The Deep Sleeper
The Yankees were very, very patient when it came to signing soon-to-be 22-year-old Rafael DePaula. They originally agreed to sign him for $500k back in November 2010, but it wasn’t until March 2012 that the right-hander was approved for a visa and the contract became official. Because he wasn’t allowed to play in actual games while waiting for his visa, DePaula lost a lot of crucial development time these last two years. With command of a mid-90s fastball and low-80s curveball, he’s the best bet in the organization to emerge with the “future ace” label over the next 12 months. DePaula figures to start with High-A Tampa this year, but the Yankees could opt to hold him back with Low-A Charleston given the lack of experience.

* * *

Sabathia is one of the game’s ten best pitchers and pretty clearly the second most important Yankee heading into the 2013 season. He’s truly irreplaceable. The Bombers don’t have any clear-cut ace-caliber pitching prospects in the minors — just a collection of guys with good stuff or good command or good health, but not all three. It’s a problem going going forward given the team’s plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 (and beyond), so they’ll have to get creative to pull it off. Either that or hope for good luck.

Categories : Players
  • turk

    …here’s hoping c.c. stays off the dl this year…he’s under a lot of pressure…

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Pineda was always intended to slot right behind CC for the next thousand years. Realizing how long a road there is to recapture that, I’m surprised it didn’t get a tiny bit of lip service above.

    I’ll give Manny an extra elbow ligament, just to make he comes back extra-strong.

    • jjyank

      True that. As long as the shot may be, it does exist. Pineda is often the forgotten man among Yankee fans. Maybe we’re all just setting low expectations for ourselves in the event that he’s a shell of his former self. But other guys have come back just fine from that surgery, so we’ll see.

      • TomH

        I seem to recall reading here that it was true that, as you say, “other guys have come back just fine from that surgery….”–but not many others. For example, not nearly as many as come back from TJ surgery. If I’m correct in this memory, it may account for why Pineda is “the forgotten man among Yankee fans”: no sense getting too expectant when the odds may be agin his returning to top form.

        • jjyank

          Fair enough. IIRC, Anibal Sanchez, Clemens, and Schilling all had the same surgery Pineda had, and he was younger than them as well. I get not getting too expectant, but I wouldn’t forget about him completely.

          • Manny’s BanWagon

            He’s actually a lot closer to getting on the field that Banuelos and had a higher ceiling when both were healthy though the labral surgery is not as consistently successful as TJS.

            I’m cautiously optimistic he’s still gonna turn out to be a 2nd or 3rd starter.

            • jjyank

              Agreed. I think “cautiously optimistic” describes my attitude as well. Will he succeed CC as the next true ace? Probably not, but I am (cautiously) optimistic that he can be a #2 or #3 type guy, yeah.

              • LK

                I think we won’t know anything about what Pineda might become until he gets far enough along to where we start seeing radar gun readings. I do remember hearing that he had a small tear in his labrum, which makes me hopeful that he has a chance to come all the way back.

                • jjyank

                  Yeah, I think the surgery ended up being less invasive than originally anticipated. Silver linings.

          • Robinson Tilapia

            This isn’t meant to nitpick on Mike at the least, but the article does reference Rafael DePaula and Bryan Mitchell, who are probably, at this point, far longer shots at becoming top-of-the-rotation MLB pitchers than Michael Pineda is. Us bringing him up down here is certainly fair game.

            BTW, the Yankees really need to do something about the Bryan Mitchell/Brett Marshall thing. They’re too similar. They really should consider taking the Vince McMahn approach and simply asking Mitchell to change his first name to “Garrison,” “Dolph,” or just go by “Mitch Bryan.” Much easier for all of us.

            • jjyank

              That one is easy for me. My brother’s name is Bryan, so the “y” spelling always sticks out to me as easy to distinguish :)

              Although if he went with “Garrison”, batters could yell “Suck my balls, Mr. Garrison.” every time they get a hit. Might be worth it for the entertainment value.

              • Robinson Tilapia

                Asking the late Lance Cade to go by “Garrison Cade” because Lance Storm was still around was probably the cruelest thing Vince McMahon has ever asked anyone to do, other than vote his wife into congress.

    • dalelama

      Actually as Pineda was only with us for a few months before his injury was revealed the “always intended” is quite hyperbolic.

  • Eddard

    It’s not a problem going forward. Pitching is a strength. CC still has a few years of ace quality pitching left in him. One injury in 4 years doesn’t concern me. You can’t compare his 200 inning seasons to other pitchers because he’s proven to be bigger and more durable than anyone else. Nova, Hughes and Phelps are young pitchers who will need to step up this season and help to replace Andy and Hiroki next season. There won’t be any money left to go out and get a top flight starter.

    • dalelama

      C’mon let’s face it…Sabathia isn’t really an ace. His ERA for the last two ALDS’s is about 9. The guy is more of a workhorse as opposed to an ace.

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

        His ERA for the last two ALDS’s is 3.08.

  • JonS

    Question, if you lowered the IP of your query to 170IP, would that change anything?

    • Eddard

      That might be a better query. I do think Verlander has 6 consecutive 200+ inning seasons. King Felix is very close. Cain has done it. Young pitchers like Price don’t have 6 seasons yet. Older pitchers 35+ aren’t as likely to be aces and throw that many innings so you’re only looking at a select group.

      • Get Phelps Up

        Verlander didn’t have a sub 3.40 ERA until 2010.

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

      Still only Sabathia if it’s 170+ IP and a sub-3.40 ERA.

      http://www.baseball-reference......i?id=MZTw5

  • LiterallyFigurative

    The key to the future is the Nova/Phelps/Pineda/Banuelos quartet.

    Figuring CC and a #2 pitcher (Hughes/FA), the Yanks would then be able to fill the rest of the rotation pretty cheaply. That’ll help in the $189M plan.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      “The key to the future … ”

      As we know it today. Things could change quite a bit between now and “the future”, whenever that may be. I do tend to agree with your comment. Should those 4 step up/become dependable, quality starters, then yes, they Yankees should be in good shape from a SP perspective.

  • Manny’s BanWagon

    CC has been worth every cent so far. His excellent performance on the field is only exceeded by the class he shows both on the off the field

    • jjyank

      Absolutely. So far, he’s gotta be the best big FA signing since Moose, right? Maybe Giambi as well. But he’s been a great investment thus far. Keep on keepin’ on, CC.

      • Manny’s BanWagon

        He’s been better than Giambi who had that atrocious -WAR season in his 3rd year as a Yankee.

        He’s been about as good as Mussina, who probably was the best FA signing by the Yankees in the last 30+ years.

        • jjyank

          I’m assuming that Giambi is getting knocked pretty hard by WAR in the fielding department. He also didn’t hit great in 2004, but he had some absolute monster seasons as well. 2002, 2005, 2006, specifically. I don’t think he was a better signing than Moose, and assuming CC doesn’t fall off the rails, him either. I do think his tenure as a Yankee is under appreciated by some though. Aside from 2004, his lowest wRC+ as a Yankee was 111 in 2007, and his second lowest (in 7 seasons) was 131 in 2008. Not bad for the victory lap portion of a contract.

          • LK

            Giambi always hit well, but between the injuries/defense/baserunning his contract was more OK than great. When it comes to free agents though, OK contracts are better than most. He’s underrated by most (almost all?) of the fanbase, but not in the same class as Moose or CC (so far) in my opinion.

            • jjyank

              It looks like injuries were only a real issue in 2004 and 2007 with 80 and 83 games played, respectively. The other 5 years of the contract his minimum was 139, which isn’t bad at all. Obviously the Yankees signed him knowing that he was a poor baserunner/defender, so when I think of the contract parallel to the expectations when it was signed, I’m not thinking that this those are huge detractors. If someone with Tex’s defensive reputation all of a sudden started sucking on defense, I would put more weight on it, I think.

              But agreed, he’s not in the same class as Moose and CC in terms of FA signings. But he was still a really, really good one. If he’s in the top 3 of major FA signings in the last couple of decades, that’s pretty awesome.

              • LK

                I would agree for the most part. While they knew his defense wouldn’t be a plus, I doubt they envisioned him being unplayable at 1B by the end of the contract. Relative to other 9-figure deals, Giambi’s still ends up looking pretty good though.

      • aluis

        Johnny Damon begs to differ!!!

    • dalelama

      You conveniently forget his post season mediocrity.

  • marko

    How is Pindeda not considered “knocking on the door”?

    • trr

      It’s too easy to forget about him isn’t it? I guess because it’s hard to envision his role for 2013 yet. For 2014 and beyond, how can it be anything other than (at least) a solid #2 or #3 starter?

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

      Well he’s going to miss half the season and may never throw another fastball over 90 mph, for starters.

      • Guns

        I sighed.

      • Barry

        “may never throw another fastball over 90 mph, for starters.”

        Seems overly pessimistic to me buddy.

        Spending time with dalelama? (I kid, I kid.)

        • Robinson Tilapia

          It’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

          More likely, though:

          Michael Pineda becomes a top-of-the-rotation starter
          Dellin Betances becomes a top-of-the-rotation starter

          GO!

          • LK

            With Pineda, you’re basically asking what the chances are that he recovers from labrum surgery AND learns a decent change-up. With Betances, you’re asking what the chances are that a miracle occurs.

          • jjyank

            I’d put my money on Pineda. Even though it was pre-surgery, he at least has MLB success under his belt.

          • Barry

            Betances will be Scranton’s first perpetual Ace since Kei Igawa.

        • dalelama

          Glad to see my accurate interpretation of reality is having an impact despite the polyannish influence of the homers stuck in their mother’s basement.

      • Herby

        So much for your top prospect status.

      • SMK

        I’m not much of a gambling man, but I’d comfortably wager $1k that Pineda throws 90+ mph at some point in the future.

      • trr

        Mike, that’s really taking a pessimistic view…He’s still young enough to rebound from this injury and still develop better command or add aditional pitches to his repertoire

  • mark

    When you say: “raise the bar…” to 3.60 ERA, don’t you mean lower the bar?

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

      Pffft, technicalities.

  • http://riveravenueblues Mississippi Doc

    Everybody should be at the best cautiously optimistic: remember the Killer Bees.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mattpat11 Matt DiBari

    I honestly thought three runs in ALDS seemed high. Gun to my head, I would have said one or two runs in two games. That’s how great he was.