Open Thread: GM Meetings

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Baseball’s annual GM Meetings kick off tomorrow in California and run through Friday, but don’t expect a crazy amount of hot stove news. The meetings are held primary to discuss various issues around the league, but GMs will meet with agents — Ken Davidoff and George King report that Brian Cashman will likely meet with Larry Reynolds this week, the agent for Torii Hunter and B.J. Upton — and each other to touch base in advance of the rest of the offseason. Three winters ago the groundwork for the Curtis Granderson three-team trade was laid at the GM Meetings even though the deal wasn’t completed for another month. It’s the first real event of the offseason, but it usually doesn’t yield much excitement.

Here is your open thread for the evening. There’s not much sports going on these days, just miscellaneous NBA action. I know the election was today, but please let’s curb the politics talk. There are plenty of places to discuss that stuff and a baseball site isn’t one of them. Thanks in advance. Enjoy the night.

Yankees claim Josh Spence off waivers from Padres

The Yankees have claimed left-handed reliever Josh Spence off waivers from the Padres, the team announced. Earlier this evening they claimed right-hander David Herndon off waivers from the Blue Jays.

Spence, 24, has pitched to a 3.15 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 40 innings for San Diego over the last two seasons. He’s an extreme fly ball guy (33.0% grounders) and an extreme soft-tosser (mid-80s fastball, mid-70s curveball) with a funky arm angle, but he’s held left-handers to a .222 wOBA with a 26.7 K% as a big leaguer. He’s another Clay Rapada, for all intents and purposes. Spence has at least one minor league option left, maybe even two.

Yankees claim David Herndon off waivers from Blue Jays

Via MLBTR: The Yankees have claimed right-handed reliever David Herndon off waivers from the Blue Jays. The 27-year-old had Tommy John surgery in June and won’t return until the middle of next season.

Herndon has been a solid middle reliever for the Phillies over the last three years, pitching to a 3.85 ERA (4.27 FIP) in 117 innings. He’s a ground ball guy (44.3%) with unspectacular walk (3.23 BB/9 and 8.3 BB%) and strikeout (5.85 K/9 and 15.0 K%) rates. Philadelphia plucked him from the Angels in the 2009 Rule 5 Draft, and from what I can tell he has at least one and possibly two minor league options remaining. Extra bullpen depth is never a bad thing.

Ramiro Pena headlines crop of minor league free agents

Baseball America published their annual list of the offseason’s minor league free agents today, a collection of 549 total players. Here are the players the Yankees are losing to the open market…

RHP: Jason Bulger (AAA), Kelvin Castro (R), Manny Delcarmen (AAA), Grant Duff (AA), John Maine (AAA), Ronny Marte (HiA), Jon Meloan (AAA), Tim Norton (AAA), Ramon Ortiz (AAA), Kevin Whelan (AAA)
LHP: Lee Hyde (AA), Mike O’Connor (AAA), Josh Romanski (AA)
C: Jose Gil (AAA), Gustavo Molina (AAA), Craig Tatum (AAA)
3B: Kevin Russo (AAA)
SS: Doug Bernier (AAA), Walter Ibarra (AA), Ramiro Pena (AAA)
OF: Edwin Beard (SS), Cole Garner (AAA)

Pena, who has spent parts of the last four seasons in New York, headlines the crop of mostly older, veteran players. Losing the three Triple-A catchers is part of the reason why the Yankees claimed Eli Whiteside yesterday. Someone needs to sit on the bench and be the backup in Scranton. Whelan and Russo had very brief stints with the Yankees a few years ago, and Garner made some noise early in Spring Training this year. Duff and Norton have already transitioned to coaching within the organization.

The Yankees already re-signed four would-be minor league free agents to new minor league contracts a few weeks ago, most notably lefty Juan Cedeno and outfielder Abe Almonte. Andrew Brackman (Reds) is the most notable former Yankees farmhand cut lose by another team.

What Went Wrong: April Hughes (and more!)

(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees got what amounted to 191.1 league average innings from Phil Hughes in 2012, solid mid-rotation production behind CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and (at times) Andy Pettitte. It was certainly a bumpy right though, as Hughes battled through a miserable April and extreme homer problems throughout the summer.

April
It’s easy to forget that Phil was the team’s best pitcher in Spring Training and the Yankees rewarded him with the third spot in the rotation ahead of Ivan Nova. Hughes held the Rays to two runs in 4.2 innings in his first start of the season, the only time in April in which he would allow fewer than four runs. He completed five innings just once that month, twice allowing six runs in a start.

After those four April starts, Hughes owned a 7.88 ERA (6.53 FIP) in 16 innings and hitters had tagged him for a .329/.395/.658 batting line (.444 wOBA). You can even carry it over to his first start in May, when he surrendered four runs in 5.2 innings against the Orioles. Through his first five starts of the season, it was a 7.48 ERA (6.14 FIP) and a .298/.365/.617 batting line against. It was ugly. Ugly enough that many fans (myself included) wanted the Yankees to stick Phil back in the bullpen where he’d had his greatest success as a big leaguer. The team stuck with him though, and they were rewarded with 27 strong starts to close out the season.

The Homers
My goodness, where there a lot of homers this season. The Yankees hit a ton of ’em and their pitching staff also gave up a ton of ’em. They ranked fourth in the Majors with 190 homers allowed, eight more than the previous franchise record set in 2004. It wasn’t just a Yankee Stadium thing either; they allowed the sixth most homers on the road this season (96).

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Hughes was the team’s biggest long ball culprit by far. He ranked second in the big leagues in homers allowed (35) and homer rate (1.65 HR/9), both behind the recently-traded Ervin Santana. Because he’s such an extreme fly ball pitcher (just 32.4% grounders), his HR/FB was a modest 12.4%, lower than Nova, Kuroda, and Sabathia. The fly balls allowed Hughes to enjoy a relatively low BABIP (.286), and when you combine that with his low walk rate (2.16 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%), you get an awful lot of solo homers (23 of 35). I suppose that’s the silver lining.

As expected, Hughes did give up a ton more homers at home (2.01 HR/9) than on the road (1.26 HR/9) this year even though his ERA was considerably lower in the Bronx (3.74 vs. 4.76). What was really surprising was how much he struggled against right-handed batters (.394 wOBA) compared to lefties (.270 wOBA). That’s the complete opposite of his career track record and is mostly BABIP (.238 vs. .340) and HR/FB (7.5% vs. 17.6%) related. Anecdotally, he seemed to struggled when coming in on righties, often catching too much of the plate. Since this is a one-year thing and not a trend, we should expect the right-left stuff to correct both ways. He’ll probably perform worse against lefties and better against righties going forward.

* * *

Hughes opened the season by allowing at least one homer in his first dozen starts, the longest streak to open a season and second longest overall in franchise history. Only once all year did he go two consecutive starts without surrendering a dinger, and that was a three-game streak immediately prior to the All-Star break. Phil owns a career 1.34 HR/9 as a starter (578.2 innings), and the number of pitchers who survive with a homer rate that high long-term is very small. Hughes will be a free agent after next season and that homeritis is something the Yankees will have to be cognizant of when considering a long-term contract, but for now they should be happy that his awful April and homer-prone ways didn’t sink their season.

Scouting The Trade Market: Shin-Soo Choo

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

The Yankees need to bring in a starting-caliber outfielder this winter and while free agency is the easiest way to satisfy that need, it’s not the only way. Brian Cashman has used trades to plug outfield holes three times in the last five years (Xavier Nady, Nick Swisher, and Curtis Granderson) and could very easily do it against this winter. Outside of Swisher, Josh Hamilton, and Torii Hunter, the free agent outfield market really isn’t all that appetizing.

One player who could easily wind up on the trade market this offseason is Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians. Cleveland is in perpetual rebuilding mode and Choo, a Scott Boras client who is unlikely to sign with the team long-term, will be a free agent after next season (MLBTR projects a $7.9M salary for 2013). Reports this summer indicated that GM Chris Antonetti will (again) listen to trade offers for his club’s top outfielder after making contract extension offers “multiple times” in recent years. The 30-year-old appears to be a perfect fit for the Yankees on paper, but let’s dig a little deeper…

The Pros

  • Choo fits the Yankees’ mold of power and patience from the left side. He hit .283/.373/.441 (131 wRC+) this year (131 wRC+ over the last three years as well) with an ISO (.159) and walk rate (10.6%) that were a bit below his career norms (.176 and 11.4%). Progressive Field is one of the most neutral parks in baseball, so he was neither hurt nor helped by his home stadium.
  • Choo can really hit to left field. His 205 wRC+ the other way was the ninth highest in baseball this year and sixth among left-handed hitters. Since 2010, his 194 wRC+ to the opposite field ranks seventh in baseball and fourth among left-handed hitters. Here are his spray charts from 2012 and 2010-2012 so you can see for yourself.
  • In addition to the power and patience, Choo will provide value with his legs. He’s stolen 20+ bases three times in the last four years, including 2012. He’s surprisingly adept at stealing third base as well, making it six times in seven attempts over the last two seasons.
  • Choo has one of the very best outfield arms in baseball, so he’s capable of making throws like this and this. His 30 outfield assists are the seventh most in baseball over the last three years, but more importantly, he’s prevented runners from taking the extra base an above-average 48.2% of the time since 2010.

The Cons

  • Choo is a pure platoon bat. Against left-handers he hit just .199/.318/.286 (78 wRC+) this year and .239/.329/.318 (86 wRC+) over the last three years. His strikeout rate (21.9% overall, 24.8% against lefties) is not awful but it is worse than the league average. He wouldn’t bring any significant contact skills to the offense.
  • Despite the stolen base totals, Choo is basically an average baserunner. He’s gone 55-for-74 in steal attempts the last three years, a solid but not stellar 74.3% success rate. He’s also taken the extra base just 40% of the time during these last three years, for all intents and purposes equal to the 41% league average.
  • The various defensive metrics just hammered Choo this year, bad enough that his three-year stats (-8.9 UZR, -4 DRS, -17 TZ, -0.4 FRAA) are all in the red. He generally graded out as average or better in 2010 and 2011 but apparently was just brutal this year.
  • It’s not the ugliest medical history you’ll find, but Choo is no stranger to the DL. He missed about a week with a hamstring issue this year (related to the poor defensive numbers?), about three months with thumb (surgery required) and oblique problems last year, and most of 2007 and 2008 with elbow problems that eventually required Tommy John surgery.
  • This doesn’t really matter to me, but Choo has never played in the postseason. He was also arrested for DUI in May 2011 and admitted to pressing at the plate afterwards in an attempt to redeem himself. The Yankees value makeup, so who knows how they’ll feel about that. Choo did apologize to his teammates one-by-one and face-to-face following the incident, however.

Cashman and Antonetti have gotten together for a handful of trades in recent years, most notably the Kerry Wood and Austin Kearns swaps. The two teams aren’t division rivals or serious head-to-head competitors, so there shouldn’t be anything superficial like that standing in the way of a potential trade. The Indians are reportedly seeking starting pitching this winter and figure to target a young, controllable starter in any deal involving Choo.

The Josh Willingham and Dan Uggla trades give us a decent framework for a deal involving one year of an above-average but not superstar caliber player. Both Willingham (two prospects) and Uggla (Omar Infante and a prospect) required two pieces in return, one of which was an MLB-ready reliever. The real question is which starter do the Indians want? Ivan Nova? David Phelps? Adam Warren or Brett Marshall? All should be available in the right deal, but given the club’s general lack of starting pitching depth at the moment, I’d be loath to give up Nova or Phelps (plus a second prospect) without getting more than Choo in return. Maybe the Tribe could kick in a second player (or prospect) to even things out.

It’s important to consider that the Yankees already have two left-handed hitting outfielders in Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson, so Choo would give them a third. He definitely needs a platoon partner and you can make a strong case that both Granderson and (moreso) Gardner do as well, so offensively the outfield construction would be far from ideal. I’m sure playing in Yankee Stadium would improve Choo’s output and his arm would be a welcome addition to the defense, but he’d be useless against top AL East pitchers like David Price, Jon Lester, Matt Moore, and Wei-Yin Chen. That has to be a consideration. Choo’s a very good outfield trade target, maybe the best among guys who will be realistically available, but he’s not a perfect fit for the Bombers.

What Went Right: Post-April Phil Hughes

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The 2011 season was a nightmare for Phil Hughes, who battled shoulder and back injuries after logging a (by far) career-high workload the year before. He came into the 2012 season not necessarily as a virtual lock for the rotation, but he definitely had a leg up on Freddy Garcia for one of the final spots behind CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda‘s shoulder injury took care of the rotation logjam and Hughes had himself a rotation spot.

Phil was terrible in April, but we’ll talk about that a little bit later today. Right now we’re going to focus on his season starting in May, when he turned things around and became a key cog in the rotation. It all started in Kansas City, a few days after Mariano Rivera blew out his ACL on the warning track. Hughes put together his best start of the season (to date) against the Royals, striking out seven while allowing three runs in 6.2 innings. It wasn’t great by any means, but compared to April, he looked like Cy Young.

That start against Kansas City was a jumping-off point for Hughes, who followed up with 7.2 innings of one-run ball against the Mariners and five total runs allowed in his next three starts. The Angels pounded Phil in his hometown in his first June start (seven runs in 5.1 innings), but he rebounded to allow just one run in a complete game win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers his next time out. After that win over the Royals, Hughes allowed no more than two earned runs in eight of his next ten starts and in 14 of his next 20 starts to drop his ERA to 4.02 on the season.

At the end of the year, after logging a career-high 191.1 innings in a career-high 32 starts, Phil posted a 4.23 ERA and 4.56 FIP. His strikeout (7.76 K/9 and 20.3 K%) and walk (2.16 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%) rates were both better than the league average, and his 3.59 K/BB ranked tenth among qualified AL starters. From that start against the Royals through the end of the season, Hughes pitched to a 3.82 ERA (4.26 FIP) with 7.53 K/9 (20.0 K%), 2.07 BB/9 (5.5 BB%), and a 3.64 K/BB in 169.2 innings across 27 starts. He threw a strong start against the Orioles in the ALDS before exiting his ALCS start earlier this a back injury to close out the year.

Was Hughes the ace-caliber pitcher he was promised to be during his prospect days? No, of course not. That ship has all but certainly sailed. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a valuable contributor though. Hughes was a rock solid mid-rotation starter for the Yankees this season, especially following his disastrous April. He has two big league seasons as a full-time starter in the AL East under his belt (2010 and 2012) and has been roughly league average both times while making a bit under $4M in the process. He could improve going forward, but what he did in the final five months of the season was enough to help the Yankees win another division title.