Patience & Roster Margins

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The Yankees have a top-heavy roster in terms of payroll, but no longer in terms of talent. A few years ago the club was loaded with high-priced superstars that carried the majority of load with little depth, forcing the team to scratch and claw for bench help, bullpen fodder, and depth pieces. The Yankees still rely on those high-priced superstars to lead the way, but now they have depth in all forms — quality veterans and kids in Triple-A. The payroll hasn’t changed all that much in recent years, but the roster construction certainly has.

All those high-priced stars typically make it difficult for the Yankees to add reserve players via free agency because no one wants to sit on the bench or rot in the bullpen while the big money guys play as much as possible. That’s why they’ve had to swing trades for Wilson Betemit and Enrique Wilson types in the past. That has changed a bit in the last year or two, and we’ve actually seen some quality veteran players take less money and smaller roles to come to New York, perhaps in an effort to win a ring. As a result, the Yankees can now afford to be patient during the offseason and add players on favorable terms.

“We were able to take advantage of the month of January in terms of value in the back end of the free agent market,” said Brian Cashman recently. “Plus, the wishes of certain people to come to camp with the Yankees was a factor. I always remember a ways back when that wasn’t the case — when it was hard to get players to come here — so we can now be patient with the free agent market.”

The Yankees brought in a number of players on below-market contracts this offseason, getting serious value on the margins of the roster. Freddy Garcia returned for one year and $4M, a bargain compared to similar free agent hurlers like Bruce Chen (2/10), Aaron Harang (2/12), Tsuyoshi Wada (2/8.15), and Chris Capuano (2/10). Andruw Jones came back for just $2M while Juan Rivera and Ryan Ludwick got $4.5M and $2.5M, respectively. Bill Hall, Dewayne Wise, and Clay Rapada took minor league pacts from the Yankees even though they probably could have gotten more of an opportunity elsewhere. Andy Pettitte‘s deal could be the bargain signing of the offseason.

Patience is no fun for us fans, especially since we’re so used to loud offseasons and constant rumors. It’s easy to misconstrue patience for cheapness and negligence, but every April there’s a championship-caliber club on the field. There will still be aggressive pursuits of big-name free agents in the future, but the Yankees have put themselves in a position to let second and third tier free agents come to them to fill miscellaneous roster holes later in the offseason. It’s easier said than done of course, especially since those types of free agents tend to be more volatile than the established everyday guys.

“I know it looks good now,” cautioned Cashman, “but I’ve come to learn that whatever makes sense over the winter doesn’t necessarily transfer itself into the regular season.”

Andy’s impact on Freddy

"This blows." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The most exciting minor league signing in Yankees history (or at least recent history) has some far-reaching implications, as Andy Pettitte‘s return further crowds and already crowded rotation and trickles down into the Triple-A pitching staff. The Yankees brought Pettitte back simply because they couldn’t say no, as a non-guaranteed $2.5M contract for a pitcher of Andy’s caliber is too good to pass up even if he is closing in on his 40th birthday. There’s no such thing as too much pitching depth, as they say.

Freddy Garcia was already at a disadvantage in camp, having to compete with younger pitchers for too few rotation spots despite doing nothing to lose his job over the offseason. The fifth starter competition is reportedly rigged in Phil Hughes‘ favor, and now Freddy has to look over his shoulder as Pettitte’s eventual return to the rotation draws closer as well. It’s not at all fair, but it does come with the territory. That doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it.

“I don’t really care,” said Garcia when asked about Pettitte’s return over the weekend, throwing his hands up. “That’s their decision. I’m here to pitch and that’s what I want to do … I don’t know [if the signing is good for the team] man. Ask the people. I don’t know. I guess.”

The Yankees can’t trade Garcia without his consent until June 15th because he signed as a Major League free agent this winter, but the veteran right-hander has not requested a trade according to Marc Carig. He still intends to compete for a rotation spot, which is great to hear. Freddy might be disappointed by Pettitte’s return — and he has every right to be — but it doesn’t seems like he’s going to go about his business any differently. He’s already let it be known that he’s willing to work out of the bullpen, what more can the guy do?

For now, the Pettitte signing doesn’t change anything. He won’t be ready in time to start the season, so the Yankees still have six starters for five spots at the moment. I can’t remember the last time the team made it through the month of April without one starter either getting hurt or being a total disappointment, so my money is still on Garcia being in the rotation at some point. How long he remains there is another matter entirely. Freddy’s made a fortune in this game and already has his World Series ring, and when you’ve been around the game as long as he has, you know how quickly situations can change. “You play with the Yankees, nothing surprises you.”

Minor Notes: Bichette, Austin, Ravel, Heathcott

The minor league season actually starts before the Major League season this year, though by just one day. Usually the bush leagues kick off like, two weeks after the big boys. Not sure what’s up with that. Anyway, here are some interesting minor league notes courtesy of Chad Jennings

  • VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman confirmed that Dante Bichette Jr. will start this season with Low-A Charleston. He’s skipping right over Short Season Staten Island. Tyler Austin will be there as well, and he’s going to play right field while Bichette gets the hot corner. I prefer that to having them share third and DH or something.
  • That Charleston team figures to be stacked, by the way. Bichette, Austin, Mason Williams, Cito Culver, Angelo Gumbs, Jose Campos, Bryan Mitchell, Ben Gamel, Evan DeLuca, and Matt Tracy should all be there. Gary Sanchez could be back for an encore as well.
  • “He’s going to be ready close to the start of the season … He came back unbelievably fast,” said Newman of Ravel Santana. The outfielder will head to SI once the season starts in June.
  • Remember when Slade Heathcott said his latest shoulder surgery will keep him out until May? He was being optimistic. Newman says he’ll be back in June. Sucks.
  • Jeremy Bleich is throwing bullpen sessions following the shoulder procedure that cost him most of 2010 and all of 2011. I have to think we’ll see him in a game at some point, assuming the surgically repaired wing holds up.

Open Thread: 3/19 Camp Non-Notes

The Yankees enjoyed the first of two scheduled Spring Training off-days today, so there’s nothing new to report from camp. The banged up bodies of David Robertson (foot), Robinson Cano (hand), Derek Jeter (calf), Nick Swisher (groin), Russell Martin (groin), and Freddy Garcia (hand) all get some much-needed rest less than three weeks before Opening Day. Andy Pettitte will officially arrive in camp tomorrow, so that’s pretty exciting. Otherwise, today was just a day to take a breather.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Rangers, Devils, and Nets are playing tonight, plus MLB Network will be airing a game a little later on. Talk about whatever you like here, go nuts.

Projecting Andy Pettitte

As exciting as it was to hear the news about Andy Pettitte‘s return, it’s very fair to wonder just what exactly he’ll be able to offer the Yankees once he’s ready to go.  We won’t know the answer to that until he actually gets on a mound in real game situations, but Dan Syzmborski put his ZiPS system to work in the meantime (Insider req’d). ZiPS projects a 4.45 ERA and 1.5 WAR for Pettitte in 125.1 IP this year, accounting for the fact that he missed a full year but was above average before retiring. That’s basically a league average hurler, a bargain at the $2.5M price. For a seventh starter, that’s not bad at all.

Standard disclaimer: Projections are not predictions, just an estimate of current talent level.

Sorting out the rotation, now and later

The good news is that the Yankees have two and a half weeks to sort the final three spots in the starting rotation. The bad news is — really, there is no bad news. The difficult news, if it can even be called that, is that they don’t have a spot for everyone. Right from the start someone is getting traded, optioned to the minors, or sent to the bullpen. Then, a few weeks later, assuming Andy Pettitte‘s comeback goes according to plan and schedule, they’ll have to make another similar move.

Given the guys on the roster, the Yanks could move in a number of directions. They face a few restrictions, but few enough that they can both populate their rotation with five high-quality arms and retain depth. They might even find upgrades in other spots along the way.

Unmovable objects

While it was seen as meaningless banter when he said it, Joe Girardi did reveal a truth when he talked about his rotation earlier this spring. In discussing his starters, he said that only CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda were guaranteed spots. Yeah right, people said in reaction. As though they’re going to send Ivan Nova or Michael Pineda to the bullpen or to the minors. Yet right now the possibility of just such a move has increased.

Without reading too far into Girardi’s statement, he did make one thing clear: Sabathia and Kuroda are unmovable. Kuroda secured a no-trade clause when he signed on with the Yankees. Given his desire to stay in LA last season, despite having no prayer of making the postseason, there is a close to zero chances that he waives it at any point this season. He committed to New York, and given everything we’ve heard about him, he intends to honor that commitment. Sabathia, of course, is the team’s ace and is essentially irreplaceable. We don’t need to forget about the idea of moving him, because it was never there in the first place.

Options remaining

If the Yankees would like to retain their depth, they could take advantage of the three pitchers on staff who have minor league options. Phil Hughes, Michael Pineda, and Ivan Nova can head to AAA if the Yankees feel that is the best course of action. Chances are, however, that AAA isn’t the best option for these guys, for a number of reasons.

1. A full AAA rotation. The Yankees already have D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos in the AAA rotation. There have long been talks of Mitchell and Betances going to the bullpen, but it appears the Yankees would prefer for that move to come of necessity. Optioning one of the big leaguers to AAA would mean bumping someone at AAA, which causes a chain reaction across the organization.

2. The AAA road show. As we know, the AAA Yankees — the Empire State Yankees — will have no home turf this year. They will essentially be a traveling roadshow. That makes life a bit tougher, and it might make them think twice before optioning one of their more highly regarded pitchers. Then again, they do plan to have Betances and Banuelos travel all season, so perhaps it’s not that big a deal. In any case, it seems like an unideal situation to force someone into.

Along with those two general points, each pitcher has something going himself. It seems unlikely the Yankees would trade their up-and-coming slugger, and 2012 full-time DH, for a guy they’re going to stash in AAA. Last year Nova was one of the Yankees’ more reliable starters, and even earned the call in Game 2 of the ALDS. Finally, how silly would it look if the Yankees optioned Hughes to AAA a month after Brian Cashman referred to him as a “top-of-the-rotation starter”?

To the bullpen

Before the Pettitte news broke, it was pretty much assumed that the Yankees would move the odd man out of the rotation into the bullpen. From the start of the spring it appeared that Freddy Garcia would head that way, since the Yankees want to continue giving Phil Hughes chances in the rotation. Since Pettitte won’t be back to start the season, the Yankees could simply continue on this path and table their decision until Pettitte forces the issue.

Trade winds

Eventually the Yankees will have to make another rotation decision. Once Pettitte is ready, someone will get bumped. By that point, things might work themselves out. Someone might get hurt, someone might pitch horribly, whatever. That would give them a chance to shuffle things around and make room for Pettitte in the rotation.

Still, the Yanks could decide to get out in front of this issue and make a trade now to keep the picture a bit clearer. Chances are Garcia would agree to a trade — they need his permission if they want to trade him before June 15th. Otherwise, would they trade Nova for the right package? Hughes? It seems as though it’s Garcia or bust when it comes to a trade. That lessens the chance that one will happen.

All of this is predicated on the idea that Pettitte will indeed come back in good form. There is always the chance that he does not, which is why the Yanks might want to avoid the trade route. Then again, they do have considerable depth in the minors, so losing Garcia might not hurt that much, even if Pettitte does not return.

Looking at it from a wider angle, there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. The Yankees can proceed as normal through the final weeks of spring training. Pettitte only complicates things a bit further down the road. Maybe this increases the chances the Yankees look to trade someone, but for right not it’s unlikely that they do anything too drastic. Seven starters for five spots seems like excess, but that can chance in a heartbeat. Despite possible complications, the Yanks are in a great spot right now.

The Raul Ibanez Problem

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, I wrote this post tearing into Marcus Thames for his poor Spring Training as well as the Yankees for counting on him as their primary lefty masher heading into the season. He looked old and slow in camp, then went on to exceed every expectation during the regular season by producing a .365 wOBA in 237 plate appearances, which was far more playing time than he was supposed to receive. Thames had history on his side and the Yankees stuck with him despite the ugly Spring Training numbers, and their patience was rewarded.

A similar scenario is playing out this spring with Raul Ibanez, who has been awful with the bat (a single, a double, and two walks in 33 plate appearances) and is showing signs of being toast. There are obvious differences between he and the 2010 version of Thames, specifically age (39 vs. 33), handedness (left vs. right), role (DH vs. OF), and price ($1.1M vs. minor league deal), but otherwise things are pretty similar. History says Ibanez will hit right-handed pitchers in the long run, but the short-term has been ugly and uninspiring. It’s real easy to envision the guy carrying this performance over into the regular season and becoming a bit of a problem for the Yankees.

I haven’t watched many of Ibanez’s at-bats this spring only because I usually don’t pay much attention to any hitters in March. I’m a pitching guy so I watch the arms but don’t focus on the bats. I’ve seen a few people say that Ibanez hasn’t hit anything hard all month and I’m inclined to believe them only because I haven’t been paying attention. It’s a bad sign if true, but at the same time I still have a hard time putting stock into any Spring Training performance. We’ve seen too many guys hit the snot out of the ball in March and go back into hibernation during the regular season, and vice versa.

I can’t imagine many of us had high expectations for Ibanez when the signing was announced, but that would have been true regardless of who they brought in to DH. All of the quality bat-only guys were off the market by the time Jesus Montero was traded away, so the Yankees were stuck picking from a group of old, declining players. True Yankee™ Johnny Damon wasn’t guaranteed to perform any better even though he probably made a little more sense. If they have to cut Ibanez at some point, they’ll do it. Simple as that. He’ll get some time to prove himself, and if he doesn’t they’ll find someone else. The Yankees survived a below average DH situation last year, and they have more than enough firepower to do it again.