Options for the final bench spot

Aside from the whole starting pitching thing, the Yankees don’t have many needs left to address this offseason. The Andruw Jones pick up gave them that all important right-handed hitting outfielder, and the bullpen has been shored up and then some. Assuming the team rolls with a seven man bullpen, they’ll have four bench spots to play with and three of them are already accounted for. Jones is the fourth outfielder, Frankie Cervelli is the backup catcher, and either Eduardo Nunez or Ramiro Pena will be the reserve infielder. That last spot could do to a number of players already in-house, like Nunez/Pena, Greg Golson, Kevin Russo, Colin Curtis, or even Jordan Parraz.

If the Yankees honestly feel that Nunez can be an everyday big leaguer like they’ve been saying for the last year, then they should let him play everyday in Triple-A. Sitting on the bench behind that infield all season won’t do a damn thing for his development. That should make Pena the default utility infielder. Golson would bring speed and defense, Russo versatility, while neither Curtis or Parraz have a real standout tool. We’re talking about the 24th or 25th man on the roster, so whoever fills that last bench spot won’t make or break the season. That doesn’t mean the Yanks can’t improve the position, though.

The free agent market is pretty barren these days, so we’re really digging for scraps here. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few players that can help the Yankees though, so let’s look at two…

Augie Augie Augie, Oi Oi Oi! (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Augie Ojeda
Two things stand out about Ojeda: he’s a fantastic defensive player with gobs of experience at the three non-first base infield spots, and he’s a switch-hitting bat control freak, swinging and missing just 4.9% of the time in his career. Although his 2010 campaign was dreadful (.220 wOBA), a concern at age 34, he posted no worse than a .340 OBP from 2007 through 2009, drawing more walks (73) than strikeouts (65) in 713 plate appearances with the Diamondbacks. Ojeda has like, negative power (career .078 ISO) and little basestealing prowess (just seven steals and a 63.6% success rate in 503 career games), but that’s why he’s a bench player. Essentially a better version of Pena, Ojeda’s going to have to hope some team believes his 2010 performance was a 92 plate appearance fluke and not the sign of age-related decline.

And he pitches! (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Joe Inglett
Perhaps my standard for bench players is too low, because Inglett strikes me as a pretty useful player despite his continued unemployment. Over the last three years, a span of 644 plate appearances and 247 games played with the Blue Jays and Brewers, Inglett’s walked in 7.9% of his trips to the plate, including 9.4% last year. His overall power output is blah (career .111 ISO), but he swings from the left side and is an above average hitter against righties (career .336 wOBA vs. RHP). Add in a little speed (13 steals, 91.3% success rate last few years) and a bunch of versatility (lots of experience at second, third, and the corner outfield spots), and Inglett makes for a half-decent bench piece.

* * *

Let’s not forget Willy Aybar and Felipe Lopez, both of whom I’ve written about this offseason. Since Jones, Cervelli, and Nunez are all right-handed hitters (Pena’s a switch-hitter, but the hitter part is being generous), I’m thinking it would be nice to add a lefty batter for no other reason than to have some diversity. All of these guys fit the bill, and I actually like the switch-hitting Aybar the best. He’d give the Yankees some pop from both sides of the plate and a little versatility, plus he’s familiar with the AL East. Inglett makes a smidgen of sense in a limited role, Lopez moreso.

Either way, we’re talking about the last man on the roster, and the Yankees can afford to splurge a little on that spot. The hard part, as always, will be convincing a free agent bench player to sign with a team featuring the kind of regular lineup the Yankees have.

Note: I originally had Jorge Cantu and Andy LaRoche included in this post, but of course they had to sign with the Padres and Athletics last night, respectively. See anyone on the free agent list worth discussing? Cristian Guzman? Ronnie Belliard? Meh.

The days of Jack Clark in pinstripes

Once upon a time, before the Internet, before Twitter, before beat writers with blogs and fans with blogs, before MLB Trade Rumors and even Mike and The Mad Dog, Jack Clark was a member of the Yankees. Now, I personally don’t remember much about Clark’s one-year tenure in the Bronx because I was five and baseball was a thing I watched during the summer and not a 365-day obsession. But Clark holds a special place in my heart because his Starting Lineup figurine was one of the first of my collection.

In a way, Jack Clark is the poster child for strange Yankee moves in the late 1980s. Clark made his debut in 1975 as a 19-year-old rookie for the Giants, and he was supposed to be the Next Big Thing. He spent 13 years in the NL and hit .276/.372/.487 with 229 home runs and seemed to hit free agency at both the right and the wrong time.

For Clark, the winter of 1987/1988 was the right time because of his production. While ankle ligament injuries limited his playing time toward the end of 1987, he finished the season third in the NL MVP race and hit .286 with a league-leading .459 on-base percentage and .597 slugging. He belted 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in just 131 games. It was though the wrong time because of collision. Owners were colluded to keep prices down, and only the Yankees, with a popular incumbent first baseman, offered Clark a multi-year deal.

The NL Champion Cardinals tried to keep Clark, but the Yankees, who careened from player to player in the late 1980s, moved quickly. He a two-year, $3-million with up to $1 million in performance bonuses and vowed to stay healthy. Notably, the deal came together quickly and with few rumors. No mystery teams were involved, and the Yanks had their hitter.

With Clark on board, the Yankees had certainly spent their riches. The team, with its average salary of $718,670, had the highest payroll in the game, but the fans were skeptical. In reactions to the signing, one wondered if Clark could pitch and another said the Yanks signed the wrong Jack. They needed Morris’ arm and got Clark’s bat.

From the start, it was an odd fit. Yankee Stadium was ill-suited to a right-handed power hitter, and even though the Yanks claimed Clark’s arrival had nothing to do with it, the team moved in the left field fences in 1988. Those dimensions, whether thanks to Jack Clark or not, are still with us today at the new Yankee Stadium. Still, he struggled in the Bronx. Clark hit .242/.381/.433 with 27 home runs in 150 games and struck out 141 while drawing 113 walks.

Yet, more importantly, Clark was unhappy. He didn’t like being the DH, and when the Yanks ill-advisedly traded Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps, Clark didn’t like getting shuffled around in the outfield. He wanted his set role, and he wanted to return to the National League. So he quietly requested a trade, and the Boss seemed happy to oblige.

After obtaining first place as late as July 27, the Yanks slipped to fifth before the season was over, and before October was out, Clark found himself en route to the Padres. The Yanks received Lance McCullers, Jimmy Jones and Stanley Jefferson from San Diego, and the three of them amounted to not much else.

After leaving New York, Clark played two years in San Diego and two in Boston before calling it quits. He posted a .396 OBP over his final four seasons and could still get on base even as his power and health diminished. He ran into financial troubles after his career ended and has bounced around organized baseball since then. His Starting Lineup figure still rests in a shoe box in a closet at my parents’ place, and his time in New York, embedded in the outfield dimensions or not, still stands as a testament to a time when the Yankees had no plan.

Open Thread: Ace

Ewww. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

If you’re reading this site, then there’s little doubt you’re aware of the job Al Aceves did for the Yankees in 2009. He gave the team whatever they needed each time he was called upon, and was probably their most important reliever behind Mariano Rivera. Today’s a bit of an anniversary for Ace, who signed his first professional contract and joined the Blue Jays’ organization ten years ago today. He was 19 at the time. After a year in their system, the Jays sold his rights to the Yucatan Leones of the Mexican League, where he played for the next six seasons before hooking on with the Yanks. As I wrote on Friday, there hasn’t been any update to Aceves’ status this winter since he broke his collarbone in December, but he’ll find a job soon enough. He’s too good not to.

Anyways, here is your open thread for the night. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all playing, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Talk about whatever, enjoy.

Baseball’s Golden Age

I ran across this little number in my Google Reader today, courtesy of Rebecca Glass. It’s a map of baseball’s geography before expansion and the game headed west towards the Pacific, but I’m sure you already figured that out. Anyway, I thought it was pretty cool so I figured I’d pass it along. I love seeing all the New York teams and logos through the years.

(Image via Bill Sports Maps)

The RAB Radio Show: January 24, 2010

Two big moves went down on Friday that will affect the AL East. First, the Rays signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Second, the Blue Jays traded Vernon Wells for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. Mike and I break down what it means for the Yankees.

We also touch on the pitching topics we’ve discussed today, particularly Mike’s not about Mitre. He’s not the best option, of course, but remember, the Yankees need the depth wherever they can find it. David Phelps is nice, but he’s much nicer if he’s the guy coming up to spot start in May, not the guy who’s pitching on April 5.

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Is it possible that Mitre really is the best option?

They should let him grow facial hair. Maybe that'll work. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Wanna play a game? Let’s play a game…

Pitcher A: 4.61 K/9, 3.12 uIBB/9, 1.31 HR/9, 37.3% GB, 5.44 xFIP

Pitcher B: 4.83 K/9, 2.67 uIBB/9, 1.17 HR/9, 50.9% GB, 4.34 xFIP

Pitcher C: 5.89 K/9, 3.11 uIBB/9, 1.32 HR/9, 44.7% GB, 4.74 xFIP

Pitcher D: 5.10 K/9, 2.29 uIBB/9, 1.32 HR/9, 40.7% GB, 4.59 xFIP

Four pitchers, all of whom have been connected to the Yankees this offseason at one point or another. Pitcher C probably looks the most enticing since he has the highest strikeout rate and the second highest ground ball rate, but he also has the highest walk rate (for all intents and purposes anyway, a 0.01 uIBB/9 difference is one walk every 900 IP) and second highest xFIP. Pitcher A looks like a guy you’d avoid at all costs, and Pitcher D is interesting enough, but only when compared to the other three guys listed. Pitcher B boasts the best ground ball (by far) and xFIP, plus a mighty fine walk rate. The strikeout rate is ugly, but at least he makes up for it somewhat with his performance in the other categories.

You’ve probably figured it out by now, but Pitcher B is Sergio Mitre. Pitcher A is Armando Galarraga, Pitcher C is Jeremy Bonderman, and Pitcher D is Freddy Garcia. Those are 2010 stats and yes Mitre was used primarily in relief last season, but none of those other guys pitched in the AL East. The point of his largely irrelevant exercise is to show that all of these guys suck just as much as the others, but Mitre has one thing on all of them: the dude gets ground balls.

Strikeouts are without a doubt the preferred method of retiring batters, but if you can’t do that consistently the next best skill is the ability to generate ground balls. Grounders never turn into homeruns (without defensive miscues, anyway), and in fact big league hitters managed just a .241 wOBA (.020 ISO) on ground balls last season. Compare that to a .329 wOBA (.361 ISO) on fly balls and a .737 wOBA (.248 ISO) on line drives. Mitre has been a sinkerballer his entire career, and last year’s 50.9% ground ball rate is actually well below his career mark of 58.7%. Since 2003 (his first season), that 58.7% ground ball rate is the seventh best in baseball (min. 400 IP), trailing only noted sinkerball specialists Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, Chien-Ming Wang, Tim Hudson, Fausto Carmona, and Jake Westbrook. Chad Qualls is a full percentage point behind Serg for eighth place.

And since I know you’re wondering, Mitre has a 16.5% line drive rate in his career (17.0% in 2010), which (believe it not) is the fourth lowest in baseball over the last seven seasons (again, min. 400 IP). The only guys ahead of him are Carmona, J.C. Romero, and some guy named Mariano Rivera. A ton of ground balls and a limited number of line drives are two traits you want in any pitcher, and you know what? Mitre has them, moreso than most other pitchers, and perhaps those traits will be even more prevalent as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery.

I’m not trying to defend Mitre as the fifth starter, because I certainly don’t want to see him out there 25+ times next season, but he simply might be the best option compared to the other dreck that’s out there. I still want the Yankees to bring in another pitcher (preferably Kevin Millwood at this point) just to have someone else that can compete for the job and for added depth, but with any luck the fifth starter won’t be needed much early in the season anyway. Sergio’s ground balls might be more helpful than chasing random free agent pitchers for one extra strikeout for every 10 or so innings pitched.

Mailbag: Scott Kazmir

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Tucker, Tom, and Kevin write, paraphrased: Is there any chance the Yanks try and acquire Scott Kazmir?

The idea of acquiring Scott Kazmir is nothing new. Mike and I talked about Kazmir at length on the radio show this month. But, since many of you don’t listen to the RAB Radio Show (we won’t hold it against you), it might be time to present this on the main page. After all, we received these three emails between the times when I went to bed last night and I woke up this morning, so it’s a decently hot issue.

The Angels made a splash this weekend when they traded Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera for Vernon Wells and his contract. The Angels will receive just $5 million in salary relief from the Blue Jays, meaning their payroll became bloated pretty quickly. It already stands at almost $130 million, and that’s without Jered Weaver’s arbitration figure. Might the Angels, then, want to offset some of the salary they took on by trading one of their more outrageous contracts?

Per the extension he signed with the Rays in 2008, Kazmir is slated to earn $12 million this year, with a $13.5 million club option for 2012. Any club would decline that option and pay the $2.5 million buyout, so to trade for Kazmir would be to take on $14.5 million for one season. The Yankees might make a business out of taking on bad contracts, but I don’t think even they would pay Kazmir nearly $15 million for one season. If the Angels were to trade him, then, they’d have to pick up a part of the tab.

In some ways, Kazmir has progressed similarly to Johan Santana, though he wasn’t nearly as good at his peak, and his been much worse trough his decline. His peak came in 2007, when he struck out 10.41 per nine and had a 3.48 ERA against a 3.45 FIP and 3.79 xFIP. It all lined up. He wasn’t a groundball machine, but kept his rate over 40 percent. This helped him limit home runs, which helped him a lot, because he doesn’t have a pristine walk rate. But then in 2008 his strikeout rate dipped, his walk and home run rates spiked, and his ground ball rate dropped all the way to 30 percent. His ERA still looked nice, 3.49, but his FIP and xFIP figures both jumped over 4.00. His FIP was the most troubling, at 4.37.

Since then his peripherals have caught up to him. He began the 2009 season in horrific fashion, a 7.69 ERA and just 45.2 IP in nine starts. A thigh strain landed him on the DL. While he was better upon his return, he still wasn’t very good: a 4.68 ERA in his next 11 starts, though he pitched nearly six innings per start, nearly an inning more than he had pitched in his first nine starts. The Rays then cut their losses and traded him to the Angels, where he performed quite a bit better in his final six starts. But even then, his strikeout totals were low.

Last year, for the third straight season, Kazmir finished with around 150 IP (he hit it on the head last year). Yet it was even worse than 2009. His strikeout rate dropped to 5.58 per nine, his walk rate jumped to 4.74 per nine, and he allowed 1.5 homers per nine. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all closer to 6.00 than 5.00. There wasn’t a saving grace period, either, as there was in 2009. Kazmir was terrible or injured wire-to-wire. To the injuries, he hit the DL twice, missing a total of 42 days with shoulder issues. After his return his ERA was a bit better, 4.37, but he struck out just 33 in 57.2 innings while walking 30.

For parts of four seasons Kazmir worked through the AL East with aplomb. He had shiny strikeout rates, low ERAs, and decent innings totals. But by 2008 he was showing signs of decline, and in the past two seasons they’ve come to pass. He’ll always be an attractive name because of his past success, but that recalls a pitcher who, by nearly every indication, no longer exists. Sure, as a flier — a mid-level prospect for Kazmir and salary relief — he might be worth a sniff. But after taking on Vernon Wells’s contract, I fail to see why the Angels would pay Kazmir to pitch elsewhere. They’re better off keeping him and seeing if he can help them. It’s not as though they’re going to get anything useful in return.

So far today we’ve hit on two scrap-heap trade candidates. At 1:30 Mike will wrap it up.