So…Would You? (Part I)

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Imagine this:

It’s March 27th, three days before the official end of Spring Training, and after a turbulent offseason, the atmosphere around Steinbrenner Field has been mercifully uneventful – even a shade optimistic. Save for some minor scrapes and bruises, everyone on the 25-man has, at some point over the past four weeks, uttered a  version of being in the best shape of his life to a herd of restive beat writers. Only this time, it’s not merely a cliché: Alex is healthy and spry; Jeter, who gives his best blue steel on the cover of S.I.’s new Baseball Preview alongside the headline “Something to Prove,” has streamlined his swing; Gardner’s wrist is pain-free and is proving to be a non-issue at bat and in the field.

There are other encouraging signs. Robbie Cano is emerging as a polished, poised, vocal leader; and Rafael Soriano claims he doesn’t care about amassing saves or basking in adulation because what he’s always wanted most was to a.) play for the New York Yankees and b.) win a World Series ring. Even Bartolo Colon appears rejuvenated: Without the benefit of slimming in-season pinstripes, Colon has nevertheless looked svelte and focused in limited appearances, and has even caught on video sharing a post-intra-squad sprint with Mo Rivera. Cleveland will enjoy having him back.

Still, as the Yankees prepare to head north, the back end of the starting rotation remains stubbornly in flux. As unsettled as it was in early February, Colon, Sergio Mitre, and Freddy Garcia have proven to be exactly who we thought they were. Unless a major move happens within the next week, the Yankees will start the 2011 season with their worst rotation since the days when Live Strong bracelets and Sidney Ponson jokes were all the fashion.

Yet Cashman seems to be holding firm to his maddeningly Buddhist mantra of “wait and see.” The market, he says, will “develop” during the season. It’s frustrating from a fan’s perspective but also the most prudent stratagem at the moment. With the Pettitte retirement creating a back-end of the rotation that rivals the Pirates in cumulative WAR and star appeal, competing G.M.’s can smell angst sweat wafting from Tampa. Cash is right: now’s not the time to mortgage the farm for the Brian Moehlers and Miguel Batistas of the world.

But then the text comes:

Cash, it’s Sabean. You need a horse, I need a Cano. Cain for Robbie, straight-up.

What about Freddy Sanchez?

Let me worry about Freddy. He’s a survivor.

And there you’d have it: what we’ve been clamoring for ever since Cliff Lee took his decoys and double-barrels with him to Philly. Finally, a young, polished, durable number two to slot right between C.C. and Hughes for at least the next two seasons.

Just as we had halfway convinced ourselves that there were worse things in this world than a straight-as-a-string 84 MPH Freddie Garcia fastball (there aren’t), just as we were preparing to settle for the likes of Joe Blanton or the loping cadaver of Kevin Millwood, Brian Sabean swoops in to rescue us from The Summer of Meat. But like any trade that benefits both teams, it will burn like acid. The Yankees would be acquiring the 26-year-old Cain at the expense of losing arguably their most potent offensive force in the prime of his career.

So here’s the question: If he were granted the autonomy to do so (and there’s no guarantee of that), would Brian Cashman go through with this deal? Moreover, should he? Refusing to close on a Johan Santana trade in the winter of ’08 put into full relief Cashman’s dogma of “not paying twice” for a desired player, regardless of how good he is. But that was before Cliff Lee became available last July, mid-pennant-race – and before the Yankees had a single trade chip that could yield a pitcher of Lee’s caliber.

On the one hand, Matt Cain is a bona fide stopper. Arguably among the top 20 pitchers in the game, he’s the definitive workhorse, averaging 210 IP since his rookie campaign in 2006 and topping out at 223.1 this past season. This is no small feat, considering how rarely young pitchers are given opportunities to pitch through late-inning, high leverage conditions. And yet, Cain doesn’t seem to show any of the telltale signatures of the Verducci effect. In fact, he turned in yet another superb all-around season in 2010, posting a 130 ERA+, 7.3 H/9 and a Halladay-like 1.084 WHIP. Which makes him better than Joe Saunders.

As good as Cain is, he has yet to enter the pantheon of excellence occupied by the game’s truly dominant aces. A close look at Cain’s career stats reveals some minor eyebrow-raisers among his peripherals: above-average fly ball tendencies – always a concern in Yankee Stadium – and a curiously elevated xFIP, that was recently challenged in a fascinating piece over at Paapfly.com.

Still, there are no major warning signals that color Cain’s long-term performance outlook. He’s just not elite, which is fine. Not being a shutdown ace is the one quality that could render him even remotely attainable on the trade market. Trade market untouchables Josh Johnson, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Halladay, and Sabathia are all superior to Cain – though not by much. In fact, Cain’s career 126 ERA+ ranks him ninth among all active pitchers, ahead of Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter, and Zack Greinke. Also, it bears repeating: Cain’s still only 26. His most productive years may be yet to come.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll turn my attention to Robbie Cano and his overall value before attempting to determine whether or not the Yankees would benefit from such a trade. In the meantime, if you were Cashman, would you?

Considering Clayton Richard

Now that Andy Pettitte has made his retirement official, the Yankees are going to be linked with starting pitcher free agents and trade targets from now until conceivably the end of August. For rumor-junkies this is the only pleasant thing about the Yankee rotation being the baseball version of Two and a Half Men. On Friday morning, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Yankees had considered a bevy of left-handed trade targets. The list ranged from ugly (Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir) to mildly intriguing (Wade LeBlanc, Clayton Richard and Gio Gonzalez). We’ll start with Richard.

Clayton Richard was an eighth-round pick by the White Sox in the 2005 draft. After spending a half-season in A ball he spent his first full season in 2006 by splitting time between Low A and High A. The results were modest: he threw 119 innings of 3.85 ERA ball with a low strikeout rate (5.0/9) and an average walk rate (2.6/9). The most interesting aspect to his 06 season was how hittable he was, as he yielded over 11 hits per nine innings. In 2007 he repeated his season in High A ball. He lowered his ERA slightly to 3.63 and his hit rate to 8.9/9. However, his strikeout rate stayed stuck in the Joe Saunders zone (5.0/9) and his walk rate actually got worse, rising to 3.3/9.  The best takeaway from the season was his high innings total, 161.1 innings.

In 2008 Richard was promoted to AA and responded positively. The best sign was improved control, and as he lowered his rate to 1.7 BB/9. His hit rate again dropped, but this might be related to an unusually low BABIP of .238. Richard was promoted midseason to AAA and found the environment to his liking. Here he was able to drop his walk rate again, to a microscopic 0.8 BB/9, while while bumping his strikeout rate to 6.8/9. It was a small sample (44 innings), and Richard was 24 years old at the time, but his 2.45 ERA and 8.25 K/BB ratio were impressive nonetheless.

The White Sox promoted Richard to the major league team in 2008 and the results were very similar to his 2006 season in A ball: very hittable (11.5 H/9) with modest peripherals (5.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9). Richard appeared three times in relief and started eight times, and ended the year with an ERA of 6.04 and a FIP of 4.07. Richard only pitched 15 innings more than he had in 2007, but it’s still at least possible that he was fatigued after a long season.

2009 represented Richard’s first full-season major league debut, with mixed results. He began the season pitching out the bullpen for the White Sox. He totaled 16 innings in 12 appearances, striking out 10 and walking 5, good for a 4.41 FIP. On May 12 he transitioned to the rotation and got pretty similar results: 72 innings of 4.73 ERA ball, a 6.99 K/9 and a 3.99 BB/9. Richard was then traded to the Padres as a part of the Jake Peavy deal, and found the confines of Petco Park to be a bit more hospitable. He pitched 64 innings of 4.08 ERA ball with 48 strikeouts and 38 walks. If you remove two blowups on August 27 against the Braves and September 7 against the Giants (combined 6.1 innings and 12 ER), the numbers are even better: 65.1 innings of 3.58 ERA ball with a 6.5 K/9 and a 5.2 BB/9. It’s worth noting though that the lion’s share of these starts came in September, meaning that the opposing lineups may not have been their strongest. It also shows that even when getting decent results, Richard was still struggling with control. His walk rate was simply too high.

Richard entered 2010 with a spot in the rotation for the rebuilding San Diego Padres. By conventional measures his season was a success: he went 14-9 with a 3.75 ERA. There were plenty of positive signs about Richard’s year: he pitched over 200 innings for the first time in his career, and he managed to keep his strikeout rate relatively high by his standards (6.8) while attempting to keep the walks at bay (3.5 BB/9). His year was worth 2.3 fWAR to the Padres.

Richard is a big lefty, standing in a 6’5″ and 240 pounds. He generates a decent amount of groundballs but it would be inaccurate to describe him as a groundball artist. He features a fastball in the low-90s and leans on it heavily, mixing in sliders and changeups as his two complementary offspeed pitches and occasionally dropping a show-me curveball. Richard used to pitch with a low 3/4 arm angle when he was with the White Sox. At some point he altered it and now pitches more over the top, but it’s difficult to locate some hard information on when exactly he made the change, which would enable us to track whether the alteration resulted in an improvement in results. For what it’s worth, Keith Law was more bullish on Richard now that he made the change.

All said, Richard’s greatest asset isn’t the fact that he throws left-handed, gets a fair amount of groundballs and has an acceptable K/BB ratio. His greatest asset is his cost. Richard will make a little over $420,000 in 2011, and should see a bump into the $1-2M range in 2012, meaning that he won’t be “expensive” for the Padres until 2013 at the earliest. For this reason, it seems unlikely that San Diego would be interested in moving him. The Padres are in the midst of rebuilding, having dealt Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for Pedro Clemens and other prospects, kicking the contention can down the road several years. If they were to deal Richard now they’d probably be looking for prospects who could make an impact in 2012 or 2013.

The easiest matches for the Yankees in the trade market are going to be with teams looking to cut cost. While Richard would be useful as a back of the rotation option for the Yankees, he has good value to the Padres for the next three years. A match between the two teams seems unlikely. Richard might be attractive if the Padres were giving him away in a salary dump, but the idea of giving up decent prospects in return for him is simply unappealing. Now if the Padres want to discuss Mat Latos, that’s a different story.

Friends & Enemies: Andy Pettitte Splits

Generic Andy Photo. My last generic Andy photo ever? Sob. (AP Photo/Andy King)

Your critical analysis will have to wait another few hours, because I am personally still in mourning over Andy Pettitte. Yes, I know he’s not dead, but the man has been pitching since I was seven years old. When I was eight, he was the best pitcher in baseball, period. This was confirmed by something better than a statistic: my grandma told me so. Anyway, it’s kind of a stupid emotional thing for me. Instead, I thought I’d focus on the batters who are glad to see Andy go and some who would have liked him to stick around instead. It’s hard to say why hitters do well against specific pitchers. If you can hit one soft-tossing lefty, why not all the other ones in the league? Oh well. Baseball, being hard to predict, I guess.

Sad to See Him Go

Manny Ramirez

There’s no two ways about it: Manny had Andy’s number. Those years in Boston gave him lots of plate appearances to do as much damage as he possibly could, too. In 104 PAs, Manny hit .391/.452/.652, with an OPS of 1.104. He leads all hitters in damage against Andy Pettitte in three categories: hits (36), doubles (9) and RBIs (23), while striking out only eight times. He follows only Carlos Peña in home runs (5, to Peña’s 6), and only Frank Thomas in walks (10 to Thomas’ 11). He was intentionally walked twice. With his declining power, he needs a little more Andy Pettitte in his life. But if we have to suffer without him, so do you, Manny.

AP Photo/Ted Warren

Magglio Ordoñez

Despite a smaller sample size attributed to his AL Central habitat plus injuries, Ordoñez did fine for himself against our crafty lefty. In 42 plate appearances, he whipped up an impressive 1.050 SLG complete with two homers, six RBIs, and a triple. His best year against Pettitte was 2000, in which he tacked up a double, a triple, and two walks (one intentional).

Carlos Peña

It always surprises me when I hear people who bat .196 sign for $10M. Perhaps the Cubs are signing him specifically for interleague? Peña tops the Pettitte home run list with six, as well as holding the record for highest SLG (an impressive .875) and fourth in OPS (1.301). On top of this, man is tied with three others for the triples-against-Pettitte champion crown with two. In 2007, Peña went 4-for-8 with two home runs, which probably explains the 2.100 OPS. Don’t you just love the absurd numbers a tiny sample size can create?

The San Francisco Giants

Congratulations Giants, you are the only major league team that Pettitte has never beaten. In three games, Pettitte gave up a grand total of 11 ER and had a WHIP of 1.582, going 0-3. Most of his bad Giants numbers stem from one particularly nasty start during his Astros tenure, in which he pitched a little over five innings and gave up six runs and eleven hits.

On the other hand…

Happy to See Him Go

Alex Gonzalez

In 62 appearances, Gonzalez only managed a downright pathetic OPS of .404. This might have something to do with the fact he struck out fifteen times (24%) and hit into four double plays. He did manage a home run and four RBIs, but generally, going 8-for-58 is not advised if you’re actually trying to win anything. If you’re trying to make Andy Pettitte look good, of course, then these numbers’ll do rather well. Not sure if this was Gonzales’ intention, though.

Darin Erstad

.184/.184/.204 with a .388 OPS, combined 16 strikeouts and no walks in 49 appearances. Ow.

The Baltimore Orioles

"So what if he beat me in one stupid game?" (AP Photo/Erik Lesser)

Admittedly, the Orioles have been making everyone look good for the past ten years except themselves, so it’s not that much of a surprise that Andy is 27-6 against them for his career. He’s maintained a career 3.52 ERA against them and racked up nearly 150 strikeouts in about 250 innings, good for a 5 k/9 and a 1.64 K/BB. Not spectacular, but it did well for him, for sure. That’s our Andy.

John Smoltz

We will not have to listen to another postseason of Smoltz biting the inside of his mouth as he talks about Pettitte’s playoff prowess. You’d think the guy took a hard playoff loss to Andy at some point in his career. Jeez.

Yankees bringing Eric Chavez to camp

Via Sweeny Murti, the Yankees are bringing infielder Eric Chavez to camp as a non-roster invitee. If it makes you feel better, just call it a minor league contract, same difference. In case you missed it, they added Ronnie Belliard on a similar deal earlier tonight.

Chavez, of course, hasn’t been healthy in years, battling back, elbow, neck, and shoulder injuries. He was awesome back in the day, with double-digit UZR‘s at third and wOBA‘s in the .380’s, but that was a long time ago. He’s a lefty bat and it’s a zero risk move, why the hell not. Hannah wrote more about him just last weekend.

Fun fact: Chavez has the fourth highest WAR (35.8) of any player never to appear in an All-Star Game.

Open Thread: Jon Lieber

(AP Photo/Ed Betz)

Given the current state of the Yankees rotation, I guess it’s only fitting that today is the eight year anniversary of the John Lieber signing, a move similar to the recent scrap heap signings of Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Just a season removed from 21 wins and a 4.23 FIP with the Cubs, Lieber was in the process of rehabbing from Tommy John surgery when the Yankees inked him to a two-year contract knowing he’d miss the entire 2003 season. He was worth the wait though, because Lieber provided 176.2 quality innings in 2004, pitching to a 3.71 FIP with just 16 unintentional walks (0.82 uIBB/9). He also gave the team some strong starts in the postseason before signing a big fat deal with the Phillies and eventually hurting his arm again. Every once in a while one of these reclamation guys will work out, hopefully one of them does in 2011.

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The Devils, Knicks, and Nets are all in action, but you should go out, it is Friday night.

Yankees sign Ronnie Belliard to minor league deal

Via Enrique Rojas, the Yankees have signed infielder Enrique Rojas Ronnie Belliard to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. He’ll earn $825,000 if he makes the team.

Mini-Manny suited up for the Dodgers last year, posting a .276 wOBA in 185 plate appearances. He’s a season removed from a .339 wOBA and two seasons removed from a .369 wOBA, so he can hit a little. He spent plenty of time at first, second, and third over the last few years with basically average UZR scores (±1), so he provides a little bit of versatility as well. Hey, minor league contract? Zero complaints here. Let Eduamiro Penunez earn its job.

Ex-Gov. Paterson forks over $62K World Series fine

So much for putting up a fight. After vowing to challenge the charge that he owed $62,125 in fines due to an ethics violating stemming from 2009 World Series tickets, former New York Gov. David Paterson has paid the fine, the Daily News reported today. Paterson, who could still face a criminal investigation for perjury, violated ethics regs by accepting five free tickets to Game 1 of the 2009 World Series, and the fine is the largest ever levied by New York’s Public Integrity Commission. “This closes the case,” Walter Ayres, the commission’s spokesperson, said. “We imposed a penalty, he paid it. There is nothing else to say.”