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.

The Pitching Backup Plans

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

If you haven’t headed over to our Depth Chart page in a while, you might not have noticed that as of right now, the Yankees currently sport a five-man pitching rotation of…

  1. CC Sabathia
  2. Phil Hughes
  3. Ivan Nova
  4. David Phelps
  5. Adam Warren

If you’re optimistic, you can say Michael Pineda will take Warren’s spot sometime in June. If not, then I don’t know what to tell you. Either way, that’s not a championship-caliber rotation. The Yankees have some work to do this winter, and for the most part I think the pitching plan involves waiting for Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte to declare their love of pinstripes and sign nice little one-year deals to rejoin the team in 2013. That would be ideal.

What if that doesn’t happen though? It doesn’t take much effort to envision a scenario in which Kuroda decides to return to Japan and Pettitte decides to stay home with the wife and kids. The Yankees would really be in a bad spot if that happened because … well … look at that rotation above. Luckily this free agent class offers some solid rotation options, so the Yankees would have plenty of alternatives if things don’t go according to plan. Some of those options are better fits than others, however.

Zack Greinke
The undisputed best pitcher on the market, Greinke is probably looking at a contract worth $120M+ across five or six years. Matt Cain type of money. Fair or not, the Yankees are concerned about how the 29-year-old would fit in New York though. Greinke met with Brian Cashman face-to-face during the 2010 Winter Meetings in an effort to convince him that he wanted to pitch in the Big Apple, but no dice. Cashman wasn’t having any of it. There isn’t a team in baseball that couldn’t use a pitcher of this caliber in their rotation, but the combination of asking price and other concerns make Greinke almost a non-option for the Yankees.

Dan Haren
There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t want their team to take a one-year flier on Haren this offseason. He’s been an ace-caliber pitcher for the last half-decade or so and he’s still relatively young (turned 32 in September), which is all you could ask for from a free agent. That said, there are major red flags here. Haren has battled back trouble through the years and they caused him to hit the DL for the first time in his career this season, plus his fastball velocity has been declining for years.

The Angels were trying to trade Haren before having to make a decision about his option last Friday, but ultimately they came up with nothing and had to decline the net $12M deal ($15.5M option with a $3.5M buyout). The combination of the Cubs pulling out of the Haren-for-Carlos Marmol trade talks and the fact that no other club made a viable trade offer makes me think his medicals are looking pretty grim. You also have to look at it this way: if Haren is looking for a one-year, “re-establish my value” contract, why would he come to New York? A fly ball heavy pitcher in a small stadium in the AL East is no way to rebuild value. The Yankees should look into him because of his track record, but I don’t see Haren as a slam dunk no-brainer they should go all out to sign. Lots of risk here.

(Pool/Getty)

Anibal Sanchez
I’m a pretty big Anibal Sanchez fan and I consider him the best non-Greinke free agent pitching option this winter. He offers the best combination of youth (28), performance (3.70 ERA and 3.40 FIP since 2010), and durability (major shoulder surgery in 2008, but 195+ innings in each of the last three years). Sanchez made a brief cameo in the AL this season following his trade to the Tigers and he handled himself well, plus he impressed in his three postseason starts. Not the sexiest name but a rock solid pitcher. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about an appropriate contract, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a team gets an aggressive and offers the A.J. Burnett/John Lackey contract (five years and $82.5M). I highly doubt the Yankees would offer that much, but Sanchez would be my first target if Pettitte and Kuroda decline to come back.

Edwin Jackson
Keith Law said it best this weekend: “It’s time to accept that this is almost certainly what Jackson is going to be. He looks like an ace, holding mid-90s velocity or better for 100 pitches, but just turned in another season of good-not-great performance, this time entirely in the National League.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all, especially at age 29 and with his track record of durability (180+ innings in five straight years). I’m just not expecting Jackson to get any better even though he’s yet to hit 30. He would be my number two target behind Sanchez if Kuroda and Pettitte don’t come back, number three if Haren’s back checks out okay.

Kyle Lohse & Ryan Dempster
Lohse is going to get a significant contract this winter, maybe the biggest behind Greinke, but I wouldn’t touch either him or Dempster unless they’re willing to come real cheap. They’re two guys who have had most (all?) of their success in the NL and don’t operate with much margin for error. It’s also worth noting that Lohse received a qualifying offer from the Cardinals and would require draft pick compensation. Solid pitchers for sure, but not guys I would consider impact additions for the Yankees.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Jeremy Guthrie, Brandon McCarthy & Shaun Marcum
All three have their warts, but all three have some kind of track record of success in the AL. Guthrie is probably the safest bet while McCarthy is both the riskiest (very long injury history) and has the highest upside. Marcum’s kind of the in the middle. I prefer any of those three to Lohse and Dempster and would consider them solid additions on one-year contracts. Anything more than that is really pushing it.

Because he doesn’t really fit anywhere else, I’m going to mention Carlos Villanueva here. I’m a big fan (perhaps too big), but I like him best as a sixth starter/swingman. I wouldn’t want the Yankees to sign him with the idea of him making 30 starts and throwing 200 innings. I can’t see how anyone could expect him to do that in 2013.

Francisco Liriano, Joe Blanton, Joe Saunders, Scott Feldman & Roberto Hernandez
I wouldn’t trust any of these guys with a starting spot, at least not right out of the chute in Spring Training. To be honest, Liriano is the only one who is remotely intriguing to me. He’s still on the right side of 30 and has a year of ace-caliber performance in the not-too-distant past to his credit (2010). I consider guys like Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, Scott Baker, Kevin Correia, Dustin Moseley, and Jason Marquis to be minor league contract only options for the Yankees. This is the bottom of the pitching barrel right here, but thankfully there are plenty of other options out there.

Report: Soria willing to setup for Yankees

Via Andrew Marchand: Right-hander Joakim Soria is willing to pitch as a setup man for the Yankees just so he could have an opportunity to play with Mariano Rivera, his idol. “If the Yankees call, we will be all ears,” said Soria’s agent, who has heard from eight teams so far. “If there is a fit, Joakim would be elated to work with Mo. He would close everywhere except there.”

Soria, 28, missed all of last season with his second Tommy John surgery, but was one of the game’s very best relievers prior to that. Marchand says the Yankees have not yet contacted Soria’s camp, but that’s not unusual this early in the offseason. New York has had on-and-off trade interest in the former Royals closer through the years and they were going to take him in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft before Kansas City beat them to the punch, so I imagine a phone call will occur at some point. The Yankees need relief help and landing Soria on a one-year, incentive-laden deal with an option for 2014 and the promise that he’s first in line to take over as closer following Rivera’s retirement would be a fantastic get.

Monday Night Open Thread

(REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

If you’re looking for some quality and thought-provoking Monday night reading, I highly recommend this piece by Cliff Corcoran. Cliff, as you probably know, is a long-time Yankees blogger who currently plies his trade at SI.com, and within the piece he discusses becoming a lapsed Yankees fan. I agree with some of his points and disagree with others, but I can definitely relate to the piece and found it interesting. Make sure you check it out, I think it’s a must-read for any Yankees fan these days.

Once you’re done with that, use this as your open thread. The Monday Night Football game is the Eagles at the Saints, plus there’s various NBA action going on as well. I know the election is coming up, but please keep politics out of the thread. There are other places to discuss that stuff. Thanks in advance.