Mailbag: Can the 2011 starting rotation be better than 2010’s?

Dumping Javy is a bigger help than you may realize. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Tarik asks: Assuming Pettitte returns, and doing nothing else, couldn’t the Yankees rotation be better than it was last year? I mean, AJ couldn’t possibly be as bad as he was and Nova could very likely turn in a performance better than Vazquez.

I think it’s a long shot that Pettitte will return, probably something like 75-25 in favor of retirement, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that he will in fact return for the 2011 season. That would make the Opening Day rotation CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova. Order isn’t important in this exercise.

Sabathia will again be the ace and there’s very little reason to expect him to not be awesome. Sure, he had minor knee surgery, but he’s also losing weight to alleviate some of the negative impact. Last season’s peripheral stats (7.46 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 0.76 HR/9) were actually his worst since 2005, when he posted a 3.69 FIP (3.54 in 2010). He did make up for it with a 50.7% ground ball rate, and hopefully new pitching coach Larry Rothschild will help bump his strikeout rate up a notch. CC was a 5.1 fWAR pitcher in 2010, and I would expect him to be a five win guy again next year.

Unlike Sabathia, Hughes is (theoretically) on the upswing of his career and it’s reasonable to expect improvement. The two parts of his game he needs to improve the most are his homer rate and overall efficiency. As Joe explained last month, the vast majority of the homer issues came during an eight game stretch in the middle of the season; 48% of the homers he allowed came in just 27% of his starts. Furthermore, 80% of them came at home. That’s not to say Hughes will all of a sudden stop surrendering homers, but there’s reason to expect some improvement.

As for the efficiency thing, his 4.12 pitchers per batter faced in 2010 was tied for the most in baseball with Max Scherzer. It’s impossible to say what becoming more pitch efficient will do for a Hughes’ overall performance, but it could just as easily be bad as it could be good. For our purposes, let’s assume it does nothing. After a 2.4 fWAR season in 2010, Hughes should be able to best that by even a small margin going forward. The one thing that could derail him is injury after a career high workload, so let’s be conservative and call Phil a two win pitcher next year.

Burnett’s a complete enigma, but he was so bad last year (1.3 fWAR) that he almost can’t help get better. His 4.83 FIP was a career worst by a considerable margin, but I would be shocked if he pitches to his 3.93 career FIP next year. Let’s split the difference and call it a 4.38 FIP in 2011, which is still worse than his 2009 effort. That FIP spread across 180 innings will give you 2.4 fWAR according to Sky Kalkman’s WAR calculator, but again let’s be conservative and call it an even two wins.

Things get tricky with Pettitte because he’s older and therefore injury prone, as we saw in 2010. Although he was pretty awesome most of the year, his 3.85 FIP was right in line with what he did in both 2007 and 2008, so it wasn’t an out-of-this-world good performance. Let’s say he tails off a bit and pitches to a 4.15 FIP like he did in 2009, and makes it to the hill for 120 innings. That works out to 1.9 fWAR, but let’s give him the benefit of doubt and again call it an even two wins. Someone will have to fill while Pettitte is on the theoretical disabled list, but let’s just say that whoever takes his spot ends up being is exactly replacement level and adds zero wins to the tally.

We don’t know what to expect out of Nova next year because he’s so young and these guys can be so unpredictable, but I can’t imagine he’ll repeat Javy Vazquez‘s -0.2 fWAR performance. If he does pitch that poorly, the Yanks will simply send him back to the minors and call up Hector Noesi or David Phelps or whoever. Let’s say Nova or the other fifth starter dreck pitches to a 5.00 FIP in 180 innings, or 1.2 fWAR.

Check out the table to the right for the final tally. Surprisingly, the 2011 rotation ain’t half bad compared to the 2010 outfit based on my admittedly half-assed projections. Basically all of the improvement is tied to getting Javy out of there and replacing him with even a below average starter, but a slight rebound from Burnett helps as well. If the Yankees fill in Pettitte’s missing innings with someone better than a replacement level starter, the 2011 staff will only get better.

Now this is where I explain that this is an extremely simplistic and incredibly unscientific look at things, so don’t take it to heart. I repeat, this is an extremely simplistic and incredibly unscientific look at things, so don’t take it to heart. I just did it for fun more than anything because I thought the mailbag question was interesting. I obviously didn’t account for the starts that Sergio Mitre (0.0 fWAR) or Dustin Moseley (-0.4 fWAR) made in 2010, and we can’t ignore that there’s a decent chance of getting less than 120 innings from Andy and also Hughes as well. The Yankees should absolutely go out an get some kind of starter between now and the start of Spring Training, but maybe the concerns about their rotation are being overblown. Crazy, I know.

Mailbag: Chris Capuano

(Morry Gash/AP)

Mark L. writes: Worthwhile to look at [Chris] Capuano?

Yesterday I was looking for an excuse to write about Chris Capuano, and I thank Mark L. for handing it to me. Capuano is an interesting pitcher for a few reasons, though not all of them are good. But given the Yankees’ current pitching situation, they can’t turn away and possibly productive additions.

The first thing many people will want to know after looking at Capuano’s FanGraphs page is why there are no entries for 2008 and 2009. This is the first reason why Capuano is interesting. He spent those two years recovering from Tommy John surgery. That might seem like an inordinate amount of time for recovery; usually we see pitchers come back in 12 to 18 months, and some have made it back quicker. For Capuano, though, it was his second TJ surgery. He did pitch some low-level minor league innings in 2009, but after surgery in May of 2008 his real comeback didn’t begin until 2010.

After about 40 minor league rehab innings, Capuano re-joined the Brewers in early June for a start in Florida. He got lit up pretty bad in 3.2 innings and after that moved to the bullpen. After 15 relief appearances he moved back into the rotation for a final seven starts. Save for the first one they went quite a bit better than his first go-round. All told he had nine starts, which is hardly a sample from which we can draw conclusions. Of those nine starts, only four laster six innings or longer. That makes him a tough candidate for a starting staff. Yet his insistence on being a starter next season was part of the reason why he and the Brewers broke off negotiations.

As expected, Capuano’s numbers were better out of the pen than they were in the rotation. These numbers run the gamut: strikeout rate, walk rate, FIP, xFIP, ERA, WHIP, etc. This is to be expected. Most pitchers’ stuff will play up better in the pen than in the rotation. While that doesn’t mean that all pitchers are destined for the pen, it does mean that some will perform far better in relief than they do as a starter. Given Capuano’s history and his numbers, it appears that he is one of those guys. Unless he doesn’t find a starting gig and relents, I can’t see much of a fit for the Yankees.

My biggest problem with Capuano is his home run rate. In 777.2 career innings he has allowed 110 HR, or 1.27 HR/9. That rate has been fairly consistent from year to year. He combines this with neither a superb strikeout rate, 7.4 per nine, or an outstanding walk rate, 3.02 per nine. Both of those numbers are good, but they’re not enough to overcome the home run rate. This shows up in his peripheral ERAs, a 4.47 career FIP. This does not sound like a guy I want facing the potent offenses of the AL East.

What plays in Capuano’s favor is his handedness. Anyone who throws with his left arm, regardless of how many times that arm has been reconstructed, will get chance after chance. Considering the bevy of left-handed power threats in the AL East, having a few lefties on hand is certainly desirable. The Yankees have already addressed this issue by signing Pedro Feliciano, plus a number of lefties on minor league contracts. Capuano could be another solid addition to the bullpen.

While he does allow home runs to lefties, it’s not nearly to the same degree as to righties. He also strikes out more lefties and walks far fewer. Again, we can turn to his peripheral ERAs to get a good comparison. Against righties he has a career 4.79 FIP, while against lefties he has a 3.23 FIP. If this doesn’t scream lefty reliever I don’t know what does. If he were willing to sign a deal as a reliever, I’d completely advocate this move. But I don’t think that scenario will ever arise.

There are plenty of teams that can afford to gamble on a lefty with some upside. The Pirates, for instance, can likely find a spot for Capuano in the rotation. If he wants to rebuild his value, he’s probably better off heading to bottom dweller and proving himself there. He’d then likely be in line for a bigger contract next winter. He could rebuild some value pitching out of the pen for a first division team, but if that were the case why wouldn’t he just stay in Milwaukee? They’ve built up quite a 2011 team, but they don’t have room in the rotation.

We enjoy exploring all possible free agent options, and I’m glad someone wrote about Capuano (though I’m sure I would have written about him anyway). But at this time it doesn’t appear there’s a match. Capuano wants a starting gig, but that’s not his optimal role on a contender. If for some reason he doesn’t find a gig in a poor team’s rotation and decides he’ll pitch in relief for a first division team, I’d love to see him as another lefty in the Yanks pen. Otherwise, he’s just another guy whom we’ll discuss, but we’ll never see in pinstripes.

Mailbag: Yu Darvish

(AP Photo/Chris Park)

Nigel asks: With the Yankees out on Lee and no premiere pitchers available in the near future, is Yu Darvish the next big time Yankee signing at SP?

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: Darvish is the best pitcher on the planet not currently employed by one of the 30 MLB clubs. He’s crushed the competition in Japan over the last four years, striking out 9.2 batters per nine innings while walking just 2.1 per nine. Opponents have taken him deep just 34 times in 792.1 innings over the last four seasons, or roughly once for every 23.1 IP. Aside from a brief bout with “lower body strains” in 2009, Darvish has been perfectly healthy, throwing no fewer than 200 innings and ten complete games in three of the last four years.

Patrick Newman of the indispensable NPB Tracker wrote a post at FanGraphs this past March explaining why Darvish is the real deal, and that was before the righty put up the best season of his career. I suggest giving that a read before going any further, and when you’re done with that, here’s a video to watch.

Darvish was expected to be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters this offseason, but he decided to delay the move to MLB by a year because of a divorce. I hate to speculate, but you have to think he’s waiting the year because he doesn’t want his future ex-wife to get half of the mega-contract he’s sure to land when he comes stateside. Anyway, Darvish now plans to join MLB after the 2011 season, and so we wait.

We know that the Yankees have scouted him extensively in the past, and of course they’ll have interest when the time comes simply because he’s young (two months younger than Phil Hughes!) and a top flight pitcher. The team’s pitching rotation will change quite a bit between now and next offseason, but that won’t stop them from pursuing a high end arm. It all comes down to price.

Brian Cashman has said that he considers posting fees to be a waste of money (after the Kei Igawa deal, obviously), and they pretty much are because all they buy you is a 30-day exclusive negotiating window. You still end up paying the player very handsomely. Talk of a $70M+ posting fee has been bounced around for years now, but I can’t imagine it’ll go that high. Teams are not oblivious to what’s happened with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has done anything but justify Boston’s $100M+ commitment. The posting fee will certainly be exorbitant, but I’m willing to bet it’s closer to $50M than $70M.

As for a comparable contract, Felix Hernandez’s five-year, $78M deal makes sense. Darvish won’t be a true free agent in the sense that he’ll be able to solicit bids from every team, so that will limit his leverage. That means you’re looking at a $130M or so total investment, something only a handful of teams can afford. Basically the Yankees, Red Sox, probably the Mets ($36.5M coming off the books after 2011, and that’s just three players), Angels, and the Mariners. Maybe a few other clubs get involved, but it’s tough to see.

As good as Darvish is, there’s a ton of risk in acquiring him. His strikeout totals in Japan are very good but not great, and his workload at such a young age is pretty ridiculous. Remember, they pitch once a week in Japan, not in a five-man rotation. That’s a big adjustment that has to be made and should not be overlooked. It’s not like Darvish is Igawa though, he’s is a power pitcher that misses bats and limits homers, so even if the AL East turns him into a 7.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9 guy, he’s essentially Matt Cain going forward. Any team would add that guy to their rotation.

Next winter’s free agent pitching crop is pretty weak, assuming common sense wins out and Adam Wainwright’s option for 2012 kicks in. That alone will make the competition for Darvish pretty stiff. I think the Yankees will submit a competitive bid next winter and make a legit run at acquiring him regardless of happens between now and then, but I would not be at all upset if they lose out on him because some team is trying to make a statement with a huge bid. Of course, if the 2011 seasons turns into a pitching disaster and the Yanks miss the playoffs, all bets are off.

Open Thread: Snowpocalypse 2010

A pedestrian walk down the middle of Clinton St. during a snowstorm. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

So we had ourselves a little bit of a snowstorm here in Tri-State Area yesterday into this morning, eh? I spent most of the morning shoveling out various cars and I’m still stuck at mother’s place for the holiday. It sucks, she won’t let me go back down to the basement. See what I did there? Anyway, hope everyone is safe, it was rather treacherous last night.

Here’s the open thread for the evening. The Saints are in Atlanta, the Isles are playing the Rangers in the Garden, and the Magic are visiting the Nets. Talk about whatever your heart desires.

Food For Thought: Nick Swisher

One thing to remember when looking at the graph, O’Neill didn’t really hit his stride until he joined the Yankees (at age 30) and got a bit of a boost from the short rightfield porch. Paulie had just one season better than 3.0 WAR through age 29 while Swish has exceeded that level four times in his six full seasons. There’s no denying that Swisher was a better player than O’Neill through that age, but I suspect the second half of his career won’t be nearly as good. O’Neill was simply a much better pure hitter in terms of making hard contact. That’s not to say Swish will fall off a cliff, I just don’t expect him to be as productive into his mid-to-late 30’s as O’Neill was. Not many are.

(related graphs)

Mailbag: Getting Soriano and keeping the draft pick

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

theyankeewarrior writes:

Here’s an unlikley scenario that I pulled out of mowhere over Christmas break: The Washington Nationals already have three of the first 34 picks. They don’t have a second rounder. What if the Yankees worked out a sign-and-trade with them for Soriano? The Nationals would only be surrendering the 86th pick for him, and the Yankees could easily make up for that (and some) with a guy like Phelps/Mitchell/Warren, right? This way, the Yankees get to keep their 31st pick in a stacked draft, secure one of the best relievers in MLB for about 4 prime years, and trade from a position of depth (SP/C?). Seems like a decent fit for both sides. What do you think?

This idea reminds me of Juan Cruz’s situation two winters ago. He had pitched very well for the Diamondbacks in 2008 and was labeled a Type A free agent. But, because of his inconsistent track record teams weren’t willing to surrender their first unprotected pick. And so he languished on the free agent market well into February. At one point a sign and trade was discussed, though it was quite a bit different than what is suggested above.

The idea two years ago was that the Diamondbacks would re-sign Cruz and then trade him to another team. They wouldn’t get a draft pick in return, since they re-signed their own player. But they would receive a player, or players, from the team that eventually got Cruz. That package wouldn’t be equal in value to an unprotected pick, or else the the receiving team would have just signed him straight up. But it would provide Arizona something. That situation never developed, though, as Royals GM Dayton Moore bailed out everyone by signing Cruz to a two-year, $6 million contract.

With Soriano the situation is a bit different. He’s clearly a better pitcher than Cruz, and I’m sure that eventually a team will surrender its first unprotected pick in order to sign him. More importantly, in the above scenario the Rays would be getting absolutely screwed. They would lose their best reliever to a division rival and not even get their first unprotected pick. They’d instead get Washington’s first unprotected pick, which, again, will be somewhere around No. 90 once all the free agents sign. If Washington straight up signed Soriano there’s nothing the Rays could do. But if it’s a sign-and-trade I can see the complaint board at the Commissioner’s Office lighting up.

Let’s just pretend for a second that all involved parties approve this. Let’s say the Nats would rather have a AAA player than the 86th pick in the draft. Let’s say that they won’t use Austin Romine, the 90th pick in the 2007 draft, as a reference point. Let’s say that the Commissioner’s Office ignores the Rays legitimate complaints and allows the trade to move forward. Would the Yankees want to sign Soriano at that point?

While draft pick compensation acts as a tax, the removal of that tax does not necessarily make Soriano a better bet. He’s still a relief pitcher with an injury history:

There are downsides to signing Soriano, of course. First, he’s going to command a multi-year, big money contract. We know that relievers are volatile creatures, and while Soriano has been relatively consistent throughout his career, he’s still susceptible to random fluctuations. His health is also somewhat of a concern. After his Tommy John Surgery he missed time in 2008 with further elbow troubles.

There are upsides, of course, not least of which is Soriano’s ability to step in for Mo after the latter retires. But does that potential advantage outweigh the massive risk that is giving four years to a reliever with an injury history? I’m leaning no. The Yankees have plenty of money available this off-season, and I think they should use every penny in order to improve the 2011 team. But when they start adding money to the 2012, 2013, and 2014 payrolls is when I start to get a bit wary. They still have a lot of money committed to those years, and to add potentially dead money to those years will only make things worse.

Removing the draft pick compensation — or at least making it a bit more palatable a sacrifice — definitely makes Soriano a more attractive option for the 2011 bullpen. The Yanks have quite a few question marks with the starting staff, so adding another high quality reliever can help Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild balance everyone’s workload if the bullpen is needed more frequently than in years past. It’s the implications this has for future years that has me leaning no on the issue. I wouldn’t be upset if the Yankees did this, though it sounds like an impossible scenario. But it’s also not a move I would actively pursue.

Mailbag: Andruw Jones

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Seb asks: As I’m from Holland and a huge Yankee fan, I would love to see a fellow Dutchman in pinstripes. Do you think there’s any chance the Yanks will pursue Andruw Jones this offseason? He fits their needs as a fourth outfielder/power bat off the bench. He’s put up some solid power numbers the past two seasons in Texas and Chicago with his splits against lefties looking much better than against righties. He is still a solid defender, definitely better than Thames, and although he might not be the player he used to be.. to me he looks like a pretty good fit for the Yanks. Do you see a spot for him on the 2011 Yankees?

It’s been a long, long time since Jones broke onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 1996, terrorizing the Yankees with a two-homer game in the World Series. Tough to believe that his borderline Hall of Fame career is rapidly coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of helping a big league team in a limited role. The Yankees need a right-handed hitting outfielder, and the still just 33-year-old Jones might be their guy.

Since leaving the Braves as a free agent three seasons ago, he’s bounced from the Dodgers to the Rangers to the White Sox, hitting just .204/.312/.411 (.328 wOBA) with 39 homers along the way. It’s an ugly slash line, no doubt about it, but it masks a rather pronounced platoon split. During that time Jones has hit just .196/.288/.402 (.304 wOBA) against righties but .219/.352/.428 (.344 wOBA) against lefties. If we look at just the last two seasons to remove that horrific 2008 campaign with the Dodgers, we get .215/.310/.477 (.340 wOBA) vs. righties and .234/.369/.463 (.363 wOBA) vs. lefties. Dude can’t hit for average to save his life, but he’ll certainly take his walks and he still hits for a ton of power.

One concern I have is how Jones has tailed off in each of the last two years, something Joe wrote about it at FanGraphs this summer. Andruw dropped off from a .424 wOBA in his first ~110 plate appearances in 2009 to just a .320 wOBA in his final ~220 plate appearances of the season, then the same thing happened in 2010. He had a .427 wOBA in his first ~110 plate appearances, and just .340 in ~220 plate appearances after that. The drop off wasn’t as severe this past season, but it still happened and we can’t ignore it. Jones has been a hot starter in each of the last two years and then he’s been merely average, if not worse after mid-May.

Defensively, Jone is no longer the historically great defender in center that he used to be. In fact, he’s spent more time playing the corners than center over the last three years, and even more time at designated hitter. He’s even dabbled at first base on occasion. His UZR‘s during that time are just okay at best, and we should expect him to get worse going forward, not better. If he’s playing once or twice a week, below average glovework in a corner outfield spot won’t be the end of the world.

Bench players are bench players because they have flaws in their game and aren’t good enough to be starters. Jones’ problem(s) is that he’s struggled against right-handers and hasn’t performed consistently over a full 162 game schedule over the last two years, not to mention that he strikes out a ton (once ever four at-bats in recent years). That last part is to be expected with power hitters, however. The good news is that he should come cheap, really cheap actually. Last year the White Sox paid Jones just $500,000 with another million bucks in incentives, the second straight year he’s settled for a six-figure base salary. The market has exploded this winter, but it still shouldn’t take more than $1.5-2M to sign Jones. And if it does, let someone else pay him.

I still prefer Scott Hairston as the righty outfield bat off the bench, but Andruw isn’t a bad option, probably the second best on the free agent market. The Yankees offered Jones an invitation to Spring Training as a non-roster player two years ago, but he turned them down for a guaranteed deal with the Rangers. If nothing else, that tells us he’s on their radar, and I’m willing to bet they’re at least considering him again this offseason.