Open Thread: Mike Lowell

Every GM has a “the one that got away” story if they’ve been on the job long enough, and Mike Lowell is that guy for Brian Cashman. It was the 1998-1999 offseason and the Yankees had just won 114 games and their second World Championship in three years, but more importantly Scott Brosius just wrapped up a .300/.371/.472 inaugural campaign in pinstripes. He signed a fat new three-year contract after the season, rendering Lowell useless. Thirteen years ago today, Cashman traded the 24-year-old third baseman to the Marlins for a trio of pitching prospects: Todd Noel, Mark Johnson, and Ed Yarnall.

Noel was the 17th overall pick in the 1996 draft and had been traded to the Marlins for Felix Heredia (hah!) at the 1998 trade deadline. He started the 1999 season with High-A Tampa, then blew out his arm and was never heard from again. Johnson was the 19th overall pick in the 1996 draft, and had been traded to Florida before the 1998 season as part of the package for Moises Alou. He opened the 1999 season in Double-A, got hurt, then got drafted by the Tigers in the Rule 5 Draft after the season. He threw 24 ineffective innings for Detroit in 2000, got released after the season, then bounced around the minors until 2005.

Yarnall was the real prize in the trade, or at least he was supposed to be. The Mets drafted him in the third round of the 1996 draft, then traded him to the Marlins in May of 1998 as part of the package for Mike Piazza. Baseball America had rated him the 60th best prospect in the game before the season. Yarnall spent most of the 1999 season in Triple-A, though he did get called in July and then again in September. Baseball America again ranked him as one of the 100 best prospects in the game before the 2000 season (55th overall). He opened that year in Triple-A, went up-and-down a few times, then was traded to the Reds as part of the package for Denny Beagle in July. Yarnall pitched in Japan in 2001 and 2002, then spent a few years bouncing around in Triple-A before calling it quits after 2007. All 20 of his big league innings came in pinstripes.

As you know, Lowell went on to have a long and very productive career, helping the Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series and then winning another ring with the 2007 Red Sox. All told, he hit .279/.342/.464 with 223 homers in his 13 big league seasons, with all but eight of his 1,601 career games being played in something other than a Yankees uniform (he went 4-for-15 during a September call-up in 1998). Cashman routinely calls it his worst trade, and it’s hard to disagree considering how much value Lowell produced and how little they got back from Yarnall, Johnson, and Noel.

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Here’s your open thread for the night. The Rangers and Nets are both playing, but talk about whatever you like. Enjoy.

Yankees outright Kevin Whelan to Triple-A

Via Anthony McCarron, the Yankees have outrighted Kevin Whelan to Triple-A Scranton.. He was designated for assignment last week to make room on the 40-man roster for Hiroki Kuroda, but no team claimed him off waivers. Whelan will remain in the organization, and at the moment I have him penciled in as SWB’s closer, the job he held last year. As you probably know, he’s the last remaining piece of the Gary Sheffield trade from way back when.

The Greedy Yankees

It seems that people are thinking further and further ahead these days. It’s one thing to get emails about the upcoming free agent class while the Yankees fight for a playoff spot. But emails asking about the 2013 and 2014 free agent classes? It seems a bit far reaching. But you know what? Let’s run with it. Here are the official RAB recommendations for whom the Yankees should sign in the upcoming free agent classes.

2013: Cole Hamels and Miguel Montero

Adding Hamels to a rotation that already includes CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda would create, well, something that resembles what they have going on in Philadelphia. He’s clearly the best pitcher on the free agent market. His career numbers, in fact, closely resemble CC Sabathia’s at the time the latter hit free agency. With one more year similar to 2010 and 2011, Hamels will also have comparable numbers in the three years leading up to free agency. To say that he should get money somewhere near the Sabathia range is no exaggeration.

The Yanks might also need a catcher, since Russell Martin qualifies for free agency once 2012 ends. A boatload of other catchers become free agents as well. They’d do well enough to bring back Martin, but as Mike noted yesterday, Miguel Montero brings a bat to go with his defense. He’d fit well behind the plate for the Yankees, and would give them some more time to develop Gary Sanchez.

There remains a hole in right field, but with Hamels creating something of a pitching surplus, the Yanks can afford to move some arms in order to pick up a new right fielder via a trade. Or just re-sign Nick Swisher. Either way, it’s not a huge concern.

Total estimated outlay: $170 million.

2014: Jacoby Ellsbury/Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Ryan Zimmerman, Tim Lincecum

Austerity shmausterity. Granderson and Cano fill obvious needs, but if the Yanks can’t agree with Granderson they can go younger and snag Ellsbury, which also helps because they’re taking him away from the Sox. Also, by 2014 it’ll be easier to move A-Rod to DH. Zimmerman represents a fine replacement — certainly better than the other third baseman free agent, David Wright.

Total estimated outlay: $440 million.

2015: Felix Hernandez/Justin Verlander/Clayton Kershaw/Jon Lester, Hanley Ramirez

By 2015 the Yankees will have Sabathia, Pineda, Hamels, and Lincecum under contract, so they only have room for one more pitcher in the rotation. That means they’ll have to choose carefully from among these deserving suitors. Kershaw will be the youngest at the time, so he’s the first target. There’s nothing really wrong with the other guys, though.

Also by 2015, Derek Jeter will have retired. His player option covers 2014, but by 2015 the Yanks will have a hole at shortstop. Hanley will probably be itching to move back there by then. Who knows if he can still play it by that point, but who cares? It’s not like the Yankees have realized stellar shortstop defense for the past, oh, decade or so.

2016: Neftali Feliz, Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton, maybe Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera would be nice, but with Zimmerman, A-Rod, and Teixeira still under contract there just might not be room. Then again, Teixeira will have only one year left on his deal, so maybe they’ll just eat that $23 or so million so they can add Cabrera to play first and DH.

While they’ll have Granderson or Ellsbury for center field, they’ll do well to move either one to left field in order to accommodate McCutchen. That’ll make for some superb outfield defense. Add Justin Upton to the equation, and it’s a powerful and rangy outfield.

Feliz will be just 28 for the 2016 season, so signing him makes enough sense. Michael Pineda will be entering his final year of arbitration, so the Yankees can just trade him for a bullpen arm and then re-sign him the following off-season. Or they can just let his fastball play up in the bullpen.

There you have it. Here’s the Yankees projected 2016 lineup:

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
2. Curtis Granderson/Jacoby Ellsbury, LF
3. Justin Upton, RF
4. Robinson Cano, 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
6. Hanley Ramirez, SS
7. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
8. Alex Rodriguez/Mark Teixeira, DH
9. Miguel Montero, C

SP1: Clayton Kershaw
SP2: Tim Lincecum
SP3: CC Sabathia
SP4: Cole Hamels
SP5: Neftali Feliz

Closer: Michael Pineda
Setup: David Robertson

I thought about extending this to 2017 as well, but that would just be ridiculous.

The Future of the Front Office

Billy Eppler shuns your camera lens. (Barton Silverman/The New York Times)

It barely registered as more than a blip on the radar, but the Yankees made a rather significant move yesterday. The club added former Cubs GM Jim Hendry as a special assignment scout, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Pro scouting director Billy Eppler was promoted to assistant GM, a move with some pretty significant long-term implications. Rather than explain why all over again, I’ll point you to what I wrote last June

When I look at the Yankees front office, one thing really stands out to me: there’s no obvious, in-house candidate to replace [GM Brian Cashman]. I’m guessing that’s by design, because why would Cashman want competition from the inside? He’s made himself that much more valuable to the franchise by making sure no one emerges as a potential replacement. From a business perspective, it’s brilliant. Assistant GM Jean Afterman reportedly specializes in contracts and negotiations, not necessarily baseball operations. Scouting directors Billy Eppler (pro) and Damon Oppenheimer (amateur) don’t have any kind of GM’ing experience, even at the assistant level. The closest thing the Yankees have had to a potential in-house GM alternative during Cashman’s tenure (at least recently) was Kevin Towers, who served as a special advisor in 2010 before taking the Diamondbacks GM job over the winter.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because when you look around the league, this is something pretty unique to the Yankees. Just to use the Red Sox as an example (since apparently they’re the measuring stick for everything the Yankees do), their official site lists something like eight assistants (with various titles) to GM Theo Epstein, including one former GM in Allard Baird (Royals). If Epstein leaves for whatever reason, AGM Ben Cherington could step in and the team wouldn’t miss a beat. In fact, he and current Padres GM Jed Hoyer served as co-GMs when Epstein briefly left the club in December of 2005, and the duo actually brokered the Hanley Ramirez-Josh Beckett trade in Epstein’s short absence. I just don’t see how that kind of seamless transition would occur with the Yankees.

Eppler has run the pro scouting department since Cashman created it in 2005, and prior to that he worked as a scout for the Yankees, Padres, and Rockies. He pitched at UConn once upon a time, but a shoulder injury ended his playing career before he had a chance to go pro. Joe Torre (and Tom Verducci) referred to him as a “stats guru” in The Yankee Years, but Eppler says that’s not the case.

“Is Billy a stats guy? No, and I joke with him about it,” said Bill Schmidt — the Rockies’ VP of Scouting — to Tyler Kepner in 2009. “But does he use it as a tool? We all do. Billy is a well-rounded scout, and any well-rounded scout is going to look at stats.”

Eppler’s promotion to assistant GM appears to be step one of creating the seamless transition that I talked about in June. He’s been in the mix for both the Padres’ and Angels’ GM positions in recent years, and reportedly was the runner-up to Jerry Dipoto for the job in Anaheim earlier this offseason. I’m sure other clubs have expressed interest in him in other capacities as well, we just don’t know about it. Cashman and former Yankees GM Gene Michael (currently an advisor to Cashman) have touted Eppler as a future GM in the past, and right now it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before some team hires him for that role. Yesterday’s promotion is an indication that that team may end up being the Yankees.

Cashman is about to enter his 14th year as GM of the Yankees, and tenures of that length are pretty unheard of when it comes to baseball executives. He signed his fourth straight three-year contract back in November, so he’ll be around for a 15th and 16th season as well. What happens after that? We really don’t know. Cashman is still relatively young (45 in July), so he has plenty of GM years left ahead of him, at least in theory. The Steinbrenners love him and the team continues to win, so that side of it doesn’t figure to be an issue. Maybe another three-year contract is in the cards, but I get the sense that the next three years will be spent grooming Eppler to take over following the 2014 season.

Now, I don’t think Cashman will be fired or shown the door at that time, though it’s certainly possible, of course. It does come with the territory. I think it’s more likely that he’ll be promoted, however, perhaps to some kind of chairperson/team president capacity with Eppler stepping in as GM. It’s pretty much the same thing the Indians did a year or two ago, when long-time GM Mark Shapiro became team president and long-time assistant GM Chris Antonetti replaced him. That was the plan for years, and the Yankees could be setting themselves up for a similar kind of transition. Nice and easy, we’ll barely even notice.

I don’t have any kind of hard evidence to back this up obviously, it’s just a thought more than anything. Cashman’s been doing this GM thing for a long time now, and a promotion to a higher position is the natural order of things. Eppler is a valuable asset that other teams clearly have interest in, and that interest only figures to increase over the next few years. Rather than lose him to another club (which could still happen), they Yankees have put him in a position to potentially succeed Cashman and become the next GM. For the first time in Cashman’s tenure, there’s something resembling a line of succession in place.

Prospect Profile: Zach Nuding

(Photo Credit: William Brooks via Examiner.com)

Zach Nuding | RHP

Background
A Texas kid from Haltom City — just outside of Dallas — Nuding wasn’t much of a pro prospect coming out of high school. He went undrafted after graduating in 2008, then joining the upstart baseball program at Weatherford College, a two-year school. Nuding served as the Coyotes closer as a freshman, then played in the Texas Collegiate League during the summer. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 37th round of the 2009 draft, but did not sign and returned to school for another year.

As a sophomore in 2010, Nuding established himself as the best pro prospect on the staff. He moved into the rotation and appeared in 16 games, striking out 65 with 35 walks in 78 IP. He led all starters with a 2.19 ERA, then again pitched in the Texas Collegiate League after the season. Baseball America (subs. req’d) considered Nuding the 37th best prospect in Texas prior to the 2010 draft, and the Yankees made him their 30th round pick, the 925th overall selection. He signed relatively late for $265k — after the Yankees got a longer look at him in summer ball — foregoing his commitment to Texas Tech.

[Read more…]

The best pitches in the Yankees rotation

(Sabathia by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty; Pineda by Leon Halip/Getty)

Inspired by the excellent Red Sox blog Over the Monster, today I’m going to take a look at which Yankees starting pitchers throws the “best” pitch among each pitch category. As there are a variety of factors involved in determining a given pitch’s overall effectiveness, “best” in this instance is going to be subjective. In the interest of simplicity, I’m ranking the hurlers by their respective Whiff rates, as the ability to generate a swing-and-miss is probably the most transparent indication of pure stuff.

All of the data in the tables you’ll see below is from the 2011 season, and should be mostly self-explanatory. I’ll be the first to admit that a one-year sample is less-than-ideal, but I tried to run a three-year search and TexasLeaguers.com didn’t take to that request too kindly. The columns headed by “w” and “w/100″ are the pitch type’s linear weights (representing the total runs that a pitcher has saved using that pitch) and linear weights per 100 pitches (the amount of runs that pitcher saved with their fastball over the course of 100 fastballs thrown), which provide some level of insight into a pitch’s relative level of effectiveness but should not be analyzed in isolation, as they are subject to the whims of both sequencing and BABIP.

Four-Seam Fastball

And right off the bat we have a prime example of the problems one can encounter with pitch type linear weights. If you sorted this table by wFF, Phil Hughes would come out on top. How on earth is that possible, you are likely asking yourself. I’m not entirely sure myself, as I don’t think anyone that saw Hughes pitch last year thought much of his fastball. However, he did get some people out, and presumably the vast majority of those outs came via his four-seamer, because, as you’ll see later on in this post, everything else he threw last season was pretty awful, at least by pitch type linear weights. Lending further credence to this notion is the fact that Hughes yielded a .282 BABIP on ground balls on his heater, compared to a .360 BABIP on ground balls on the curve, .444 on the cutter and .556 on his changeup.

As far as Whiff% goes, it should be quite heartening to see that the Yankees’ two newest rotation acquisitions outperformed everyone else in the rotation by a rather substantial margin. While both will likely see a decrease in their Whiff rates with the move to the AL East, at least they’re starting from a high baseline.

Slider

We know Ivan Nova threw a slider more than 3.9% of the time last season and so this table is a bit misleading. However, the pitch did become one of the keys to his improved second-half performance, and so there may be a case to be made for Nova having one of the better sliders on the team. Of course, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia might have something to say about that. In any event, the Yankees’ front four in the rotation all boast pretty big-time sliders; bad news for opposing lineups.

Sinker/Two-Seam Fastball

While Pineda probably threw some two-seamers last season, I’d surmise that some of his four-seamers may have been misclassified, as a 10.6% Whiff% rate on a two-seamer/sinker is pretty damn high when you consider league average is 5.0%-5.4%. Not to mention the fact that the player with the best wFT/100 in MLB last season (Doug Fister), had a 5.4% Whiff% on his two-seamer. Sabathia probably has the best sinker on the team, although Kuroda is in that conversation as well if he can get his GB% back above 45%.

Changeup

It should surprise no one that Sweaty Freddy had the best changeup on the team given his slow-slower-slowest approach, although Sabathia’s is also pretty great. No one else in the rotation has a particularly effective one, although Burnett’s did generate a slightly above-average Whiff% last year. Surprisingly, despite a rather diverse arsenal, Hiroki Kuroda is the only starter on the team that doesn’t throw a change at all. However,  in his case he presumably partially makes up for it with his splitter, which can function like a hard change.

Curveball

No surprises here; Burnett’s curve is the only thing keeping him away from the glue factory, but as everyone knows you can’t get very far with one working pitch. Nova’s curve is probably best described as a work-in-progress; while there were times in the second half that Phil Hughes looked like he was employing a harder (and more effective) curve and other times where his curve looked terrible. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about Hughes needing to improve his curveball to become an effective Major League starter.

Cutter


Still not sure how Hughes’ cutter went from well above-average (11% Whiff% in 2009; 11.5% Whiff% in 2010) to nonexistent last season. No one on the team really employs the cutter with any regularity.

Split-Fingered Fastball

The splitter is a fun pitch that Yankee fans don’t get to see too often, and this coming season we may have two members of the rotation featuring one (albeit in very different forms). Prior to Freddy Garcia, the last Yankee starter I can think of off the top of my head that threw one is Roger Clemens (Ed. Note: Jose Contreras threw a forkball, which is kinda like a splitter but slower). Per linear weights, neither Freddy nor Kuroda fared all that well with their splitters last season, but they still generated plenty of whiffs with the pitch.

So who boasts the best pitch in the Yankee rotation? Probably either Sabathia, with his heater or slider, or Pineda and his heater. I certainly wouldn’t argue against any of those three.

Yanks’ slugger proposes bunting to beat the shift

By all accounts, Mark Teixeira had a disappointing 2011 for the Yankees. After a stellar 2009 when he hit .292/.383/.565, Teixeira had a down year in 2010 with a .256/.365/.481 line. His slugging rebounded slightly to .494 last year but he hit .248 with a .341 OBP. At age 31, in his offensive peak, Teixeira shouldn’t see his numbers declining so drastically.

To make matters worse, Teixeira exhibited some drastic splits. Against right-handed pitchers as a left-handed batter, Teixeira hit .224/.325/.453 in 464 plate appearances, and it seemed as though he had been programmed for pop-ups. In an effort seemingly to blast home runs over the short right field wall, Teixeira got under too many pitches. Watching him hit left-handed grew painful.

Over the course of the season, Yankee fans grew frustrated with Teixeira. Why would he keep batting lefty? Why wouldn’t he do something to change his approach? Why wouldn’t he — gasp — bunt against the shift?

Now, I can’t stand this idea. Mark Teixeira was brought in to hit home runs and play a solid first base. He wasn’t brought in to bunt, and the Yanks shouldn’t be messing with his swing after a disappointing season. Still, Teixeira is seemingly open to the idea. Pete Caldera was at the Thurman Munson Awards Dinner on Tuesday night when the Yanks’ $180 million man started talking.

“I’ve been so against it my entire career, [but] I might lay down some bunts. If I can lay down a few bunts, beat the shift a little more the other way, then I’m right where I need to be,” he said. “Maybe I’ll lay down 20 bunts in spring and see what happens. If I’m 1-for-20, maybe I’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”

On the one hand, I like the idea of beating the shift now and then. On the other hand, the idea of Mark Teixeira bunting fills me with sheer unavoidable dread. In theory, it seems like a decent enough idea, but this is a baseball player who admitted he hadn’t bunted since high school, 14 years ago.

Teixeira had a .239 BABIP last year. That could indicate that he was largely unlucky or that could indicate that he was simply hitting too many ground balls or pop ups. He still blasted 39 home runs, and that’s why the Yanks have him. In January, it might be fun to suggest bunting. In April, he should be up there swinging away, in search of a more productive season. The bunting can stay at home.