Kuroda “now definitely willing” to pitch on the East Coast

Via David Waldstein, Hiroki Kuroda is “now definitely willing” to pitch for a team on the East Coast. His preference for the West Coast is no secret, but the Dodgers’ effectively slammed the door on his return by signing both Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang. He’s reportedly seeking $12-13M a year, which the Yankees see as a tough fit financially according to Joel Sherman.

Obviously the price has to be right, but Kuroda makes a ton of sense for the Yankees given their rotation questions. He shouldn’t require a long-term deal at age 36 (37 in February) and is a true power pitcher with three offerings (91-95 heat, slider, splitter). As Waldstein mentions, the Yankees might have a bit of advantage in Russell Martin, who caught Kuroda for the first three years of his MLB career and presumably knows the right-hander well.

Imagining David Robertson as a starter

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The question comes up frequently, but we’ve yet to explore the possibility fully. The Yankees still seek a starter for their 2012 rotation, and there doesn’t appear to be much available on the market. While they have five starters in name, plus a few young backup plans, adding another mid- to upper-rotation arm will only help them in their quest to win the AL East and more. As many have asked, might David Robertson make sense in that role?

Why tackle this now? For starters, the Winter Meetings are going slowly for the Yankees, and things don’t figure to pick up. Maybe the Yankees have something on the horizon, but if they do it will come as a surprise to everyone. Meanwhile, we still enjoy exploring all reasonable avenues of improving the team. Also, Marc Normandin of Over the Monster recently wrote about Daniel Bard as a starter. That created the opportunity to piggyback some of the great work he did there.

While Marc’s work on Bard inspired this article, Bard might not provide the best comparable for Robertson. After all, Bard started game for UNC before turning pro, and then spent his first minor league season in the rotation. He’s been a reliever ever since, but at least he has a history of starting games. Robertson, on the other hand, has no such history. The last time he started a game was in 2005 when he was still hurling for Alabama. Since then he’s been used exclusively in relief. This makes him a bit more like Alexi Ogando, who had no starting experience prior to 2011. Then again, he had little pitching experience at all.

One big consideration in making a move is the translation between starter and reliever. That is, a pitcher will likely pitch better in relief for a number of reasons. Tom Tango applies what he calls the Rule of 17 for estimating these translations. Essentially, there are three factors that change by 17 percent when moving between the rotation and bullpen: strikeouts per PA, BABIP, and home runs per contact rate. What catches the eye, and what works to Robertson’s great benefit, is that walk rate doesn’t change much at all. He can’t really afford to walk more hitters than he already does — his almost 90 percent strand rate greatly aided his 2011 campaign — so any change in transition to the rotation would not be welcome. But if it remains flat, perhaps he can make it work.

If we use only Robertson’s 2011 season, clearly he’d look superb as a starter; his results were off the charts, both in terms of peripherals and results. There’s only a minuscule chance he can approach those numbers again in relief. Still, he did have two quality seasons in 2009 and 2010, following a rough rookie campaign in 2008. If we add up all his innings, though, he’s at 202 for his career. Since that’s a full season, it might be best to apply the Rule of 17 to his career stats and see what we get.

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There are a few caveats to attend here. First, Tango’s study encompassed all pitchers. Some performed better than this baseline, some performed worse. It’s tough to know where Robertson will fall on that curve. It’s unlikely, for example, that he’d have a .373 BABIP as a starter. Even though pitchers do have a degree of control over the types of contact they induce, .373 seems out of line for anyone. This is all part of the great unknown of this whole experiment.

Also a factor: Robertson’s discernible improvement in 2011. It wasn’t just in the results. Robertson added about a mile per hour to his fastball. This played a large role in his heightened strikeout rate, as did the “sneaky fast” nature of his fastball; that is, it gets on top of hitters faster than they might expect, thanks to his extended stride. There is a chance, then, that some of his improvement could be real, and could make his expected numbers look even prettier.

The one thing that could hold back Robertson is his repertoire. While he does have two quality pitches in his fastball and curveball, he doesn’t quite have that third pitch. He’s used a cutter, which has been effective at times. He also uses a changeup, but not at all frequently. He’d have to drastically increase its usage in the rotation. It’s not that using his changeup more frequently is out of the question; he really doesn’t have a chance to use a third pitch in the bullpen, after all. It’s that the third pitch adds another level of uncertainty to the conversion.

Finally, we have the issue of innings. Last year Robertson threw 66.2 innings, his highest total as a major leaguer. His previous high came all the way back in 2006, when he threw 82.2 innings combined between Alabama and the Cape Cod League. This is where a comparison with Ogando might work. In 2010 he threw about 75 innings between the minors and majors before making the jump to 169 innings in 2011. He did tire down the stretch, too. The Yankees couldn’t expect more than that from Robertson. It’s also unknown how Ogando will rebound from this increase in workload. He didn’t hurt himself in 2011, but there is still risk in the following year. Fatigue leads to poor mechanics, and poor mechanics can lead to injury, both in the present and in the future. The Yankees probably don’t want to take that risk with one of their best bullpen arms.

There certainly exists a case for converting Robertson to a starter. He took a significant step forward in 2011, and there’s a chance that his talents could play up well when throwing six, seven, or eight innings an outing. There are, unfortunately, a significant number of unknowns, uncertainties, and risks that go along with such a conversion. The Yankees are aware of these, I’m sure, and I don’t doubt that they’ve mulled the possibility, if only casually. It’s not a terrible idea in theory, but everything would have to break the Yankees way for it to work out. It’s understandable, then, if they wish to keep things as they currently stand. Robertson is plenty fine in his current role.

Report: Nats have asked Yankees about Gardner

Via MASN, the Nationals have asked the Yankees about the availability of Brett Gardner, but were rebuffed. Washington has been looking for a long-term center fielder/leadoff type, a role Gardner fills perfectly. The problem is they don’t have any decent pitching to offer the Yankees since Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are presumably off limits. John Lannan and Ross Detwiler are nothing worth getting excited over, nor are they an upgrade over what the Yankees already have stashed in Triple-A.

A Role Reversal

(Matthew Emmons/US Presswire)

It’s been a slow offseason for the Yankees, but the same can’t be said for the Marlins. Not only did they change their name from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins, but they also redesigned their uniforms* and have a brand new ballpark set to open next season. That park is going to be filled with new players too; the Marlins have already signed Heath Bell and agreed to terms with Jose Reyes, and recent reports indicate that they’ve offered Albert Pujols a ten-year (!) contract. Obviously, these aren’t your grandfather’s older brother’s Marlins anymore.

* Are they ugly? Yes. Is everyone talking about them? Also yes. No such thing as bad publicity.

Usually it’s the Yankees falling all over themselves to acquire big name players in the offseason while the Marlins sit on the sidelines, but the exact opposite is happening this winter. It’s kinda neat, actually. It’s fun watching big name players change teams, especially when the Yankees aren’t the ones taking the risk. Bell is a reliever, Reyes has had hamstring problems, and a ten-year contract is scary no matter who gets it. These are some bold but risky moves, if nothing else.

Of course the Marlins have a history of doing this sort of thing. They acquired Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, and Cliff Floyd (among others) leading up to the 1997 season, then won the World Series. Mission accomplished. A massive fire-sale followed, but they won their championship, so the plan worked. You can quibble with how they did it if you want, but a ring is a ring.

We’ve been spoiled by sustained success here in New York, but pretty much every other club operates in cycles. Three or four good years followed by three or four bad years, something like that. Retool, rebuild, then make another run and hope you get lucky. It’s easy for me to say from where I sit, but I do think a lot of clubs get a little too caught up in building for the future and not living in the moment, so to speak. The Rays are a pretty good example, they’ve got a great team right now and have gone to the playoffs in each of the last two years, but they didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline. Last year they needed an extra starter (Jamie Shields was awful and both Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann were banged up in the second half), and this past year they needed an extra bat. Instead of making a move that might have put them over the top, they stood pat. Is it better to shoot for success two or three or four years down the road, or to go for it all right now? I can see the argument for both sides.

Anyway, the Marlins are clearly going for it all right now. Bell, Reyes, and potentially Pujols are joining a club with a solid foundation in place, led by Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Mike Stanton, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, and Logan Morrison. The Yankees seem content with what they have, or at least they’re not rushing out to make any major upgrades just yet. It’s certain different than what they’ve done in years past and what the Marlins are doing right now.

Lefty reliever on the agenda, but not a priority

Gonna have to wait a bit, Mike. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The Yankees have wasted more money on left-handed relievers over the last few years than I care to count, most due to injury (Damaso Marte, Pedro Feliciano) but some also due to ineffectiveness (Kei Igawa, Mike Myers). Boone Logan was essentially thrown into the (second) ill-fated Javy Vazquez trade, but he’s emerged as the team’s best southpaw reliever since Mike Stanton’s first go-around in the Bronx. The team obviously values a quality lefty bullpen arm, which Brian Cashman readily acknowledged yesterday. It’s just not a top priority at the moment.

“I would like to get another lefty, but I don’t think any of you here should focus on how I’m going to do that, because I don’t anticipate that whatsoever,” said Cashman to reporters following his arrival at the Winter Meetings. “Is it on the wish list? It is. If anybody tells you that we’re focused on any left-handed reliever, they’re lying.”

The Yankees have already inked Mike O’Connor — who has crushed left-handed batters in Triple-A — to a minor league contract. We know they have some level of interest in Mike Gonzalez, who comes with the added benefit of being a very close personal friend of Rafael Soriano‘s. The hard-throwing Matt Thornton is on the market, but he’s rather expensive and there’s almost no doubt the White Sox have already gotten the best years of his career. The rest of the lefty specialist free agent market is generally unappealing.

Cashman made it clear that improving the starting rotation is at the very top of their wish list, but he’s also made it clear they value a lefty reliever. It’s good to see them putting it on the back burner though, lefty specialists are just too difficult to predict. It comes with the territory of making your living by going from one small sample to the next. Logan is far from perfect but generally solid, and it helps that the Yankees can rely on David Robertson, Soriano, and a when-healthy Joba Chamberlain to get left-handers out in the late innings as well.

Bench will wait as Yanks focus on pitching

Still nothin'. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I don’t know for sure, but I have to think Brian Cashman was the last General Manager to arrive at the Winter Meetings this year. He checked into the Hilton Anatole at about 4pm local time on Monday, a sign that GMs don’t need to huddle in one place to get things done and that the Yankees don’t have any pressing business at the moment. They’re not seriously engaged with any of the major free agents, at least not publicly, and the smaller stuff — meaning the bench and various depth players for Triple-A — will wait until later.

“The focus on the front of the winter has mostly been on higher end type things so that can reinforce our pitching,” said Cashman to reporters after arriving. “I have to watch our payroll, so I can’t spend a lot on the smaller stuff right now — even though they’re important players — that kind of restricts me from doing something that might come along that’s still a bit bigger, or a lot bigger. That’s why I’m making sure I exploit all the various potential pitching acquisitions, both on the free agent and trade market. When I get a strong enough feel for how that’s going to go or not go, then I’ll focus on the bench.”

Those hundred or so words boil down to “we’re going to keep our options open.” Andruw Jones is a great fit for the bench, but he’s also not the most irreplaceable player in the world. Rather than re-sign him for $3M or so right now, the Yankees are going to wait to see if a solution to their more pressing need — the rotation — comes along first. Once they get a little deeper into the offseason, they’ll figure out if Jones fits into their budget. He didn’t agree to terms with the Yankees until January 17th last winter following a 2010 season that was very similar to his 2011 season, so there’s no rush.

“I’m not down here to sit back and order room service for four days and be content,” added Cashman while continuing to acknowledge that he’s not optimistic about getting something done this week. “I’m going to keep trying, but I just don’t want to be stupid. Obviously if we do something, I want it to be something we feel really good about. I’m not going to do something just to do something because that’s what you do at this time of year.”

Not being optimistic about something and not being prepared are two totally different things. I don’t think the Yankees will get anything done down here, but if something worthwhile comes along, I believe they’re ready to pounce quickly. We’ve seen it in the recent past — most notably with the second Javy Vazquez trade and the Cliff Lee non-trade — the Yankees tend to take care of business very quickly. There aren’t weeks of rumors, these things happen overnight. The bench is important, but it can wait until the pitching picture clears up.