Plenty of low-risk options available for DH

The free agent market brims with left-handed hitters who could play the role of part-time DH for the Yankees. The list comprises many household names, and each could provide the Yankees with quality at-bats in a part-time role. Each is also flawed, which is pretty standard for any remaining free agent (Prince Fielder excepting). Yet that could work in the Yankees’ favor. It means the players are likely open to a part-time role, which fits the Yankees’ needs well enough. It also means that they’ll likely fit into the $1 to $2 million budget the Yankees have reportedly set for the DH spot.

Even better: Most, if not all, of these candidates could sign minor league deals. That means all the upside for virtually no risk. Here they are, in the reverse order of preference.

Nick Johnson: Many, if not most, Yankees fans will retch upon seeing this. The last go-round with Johnson ended horribly. He came to the plate just 98 times and hit for extra bases just six times. He did walk a lot, as can be expected, but that’s about all he did. Last year Johnson rehabbed in the Indians system, though he didn’t even crack a .320 OBP at AAA. He also experienced wrist issues, again, earlier in the season. If the Yankees do want to give Johnson another look, it simply has to be in addition to someone else.

Dan Johnson: We all remember the other Johnson from his bottom of the ninth heroics in Game 162 last season. Johnson apparently has a penchant for this type of hit. They do call him The Great Pumpkin, after all, because he comes around once a year and hits a big homer, usually to the Red Sox peril. Problem is, he hasn’t really hit in the majors since 2007. He does clobber AAA, having produced a .445 wOBA in 2010 and a .374 wOBA in 2011. But that apparently doesn’t help his major league performance much. Again, he’s a fine option if there’s someone else ahead of him.

Hideki Matsui: We know that the Yankees have been in contact with Matsui, but they’ve likely been in contact with many other similar players as well. As Mike noted in that brief post, Matsui’s 2011 stunk pretty badly. He was stuck in Oakland, and his slow start did not help his case. At age 38, he could be all but finished in the bigs. But on a minor league deal he could be an interesting option. After all, he did have a decent 2010 season, particularly in the second half. Return him to the familiar confines of Yankee Stadium and limit his at-bats to right-handed pitchers, and he might have one more year left in him.

J.D. Drew: There is no doubt that Drew, now age 36, is in stark decline. After putting up two phenomenal years for the Red Sox in 2008 and 2009 he’s seen his numbers drop in the last two years, and last year particularly. Drew also spent considerable time on the DL last year. A platoon DH role could help mitigate some of that injury risk, but the declining numbers, particularly in terms of power, are a bit disconcerting. He gets bumped to the mid-tier because of his name value, his batting eye, and his ability to play the outfield if necessary. The Yanks would really have to believe that they can get a quality 400 PA out of him if they were to even sign him to a minor league deal.

Casey Kotchman: Last season the Rays signed Kotchman to a minor league deal, and that worked out exceedingly well for them. In 563 PA he produced a 125 wRC+, mainly on the strength of his .378 OBP. At the same time, much of that value came from his .306 batting average, which was almost 40 points higher than his career average. As expected of a left-handed hitter, he did handle righties quite a deal better than lefties, producing a 136 wRC+ against them. But unless Kotchman turned something around for real in 2011, it’s tough to get past his career 102 wRC+ against righties.

Raul Ibanez: There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Ibanez, whose 2012 will be his age-40 season. His numbers took a big dip in 2011, particularly his walk rate. He managed to walk in just 5.7 percent of his PA, his lowest rate since 1998 (when he came to the plate just 103 times). The good news is that he’s one year removed from a pretty decent season, and even in his poor season he hit righties well enough. In 2010 he was even better, with a 116 wRC+ against righties. He’s a risk, for sure, but if the Yankees can keep Ibanez fresh he could whale quite a few homers at Yankee Stadium.

Russell Branyan: This is my official endorsement for Branyan, who is the ideal candidate for a platoon DH role. His career 120 wRC+ against righties looks attractive enough, but it’s his .259 career ISO against righties that looks the most attractive. He’ll strike out his share, but he’ll also launch quite a few bombs — we’ve already seen two mammoth homers of his at Yankee Stadium. While last year was a down year, in 2010 Branyan produced a 137 wRC+ against righties, including 19 homers and 17 doubles in 322 PA. A return to that level, minus all PA against left-handed pitching, makes for an ideal fit. He and Andruw Jones would make a powerful and cost-effective DH platoon.

Again, every player on this list is flawed, some greatly so. Clearly they’d be better off with a more sure things, such as Carlos Pena. But if they really do have a budget of $1 to $2 million for a DH, one or more of these guys might be the way to go. They all have the potential to produce decent to very good numbers against right-handed pitching, which is just what the Yankees seek. That they’d all come on minor league deals makes them even more attractive, since that eliminates almost all of the risk. If the Yankees do not find a true righty-mashing DH, they’d do well enough with a Branyan or an Ibanez.

Introducing Michael Pineda

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The dust is still settling from Friday’s blockbuster trade, which will send Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners in exchange for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. All four players must still take their physicals, a bit of a formality required to make the trade official, and that should happen within a week or so. While all that is going on behind the scenes, let’s take a few minutes to get to know Pineda, the soon-to-be newest member of the Yankees’ starting rotation.

Pineda, who turns 23 tomorrow, grew up in the Dominican Republic and signed with the Mariners in December of 2005 for a measly $35k . He spent the 2006 and 2007 seasons in the Dominican Summer League before coming stateside in 2008. Seattle sent Pineda to Low-A as a 19-year-old that year, and he struck out 128 (8.3 K/9 and 23.2 K%) and walked just 35 (2.3 BB/9 and 6.4 BB%) in 138.1 IP across 21 starts and five relief appearances. After the season, Baseball America dubbed him the team’s tenth best prospect.

Sent to High-A to open 2009, Pineda made just six starts before a sore elbow popped up and the team shut him down for close to three months. He ended up throwing just 47.1 IP that season, striking out 52 (9.9 K/9 and 29.2 K%) while walking just six (1.1 BB/9 and 3.4 BB%). Baseball America still considered him the Mariners’ sixth best prospect that offseason. The 2010 season was Pineda’s coming out party, as he utterly dominated the competition in 139.1 IP split almost evenly between Double and Triple-A. With his now healthy elbow, he whiffed 154 (9.9 K/9 and 26.7 K%) while walking just 34 (2.2 BB/9 and 5.9 BB%), then was ranked as Seattle’s second best prospect and the 16th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. The only pitchers ahead of Pineda on the top 100 list were Julio Teheran, Jeremy Hellickson, Aroldis Chapman, Jameson Taillon, Shelby Miller, and Matt Moore.

Pineda made the Mariners’ Opening Day rotation last year thanks to his strong showing in Spring Training (16 K and 5 BB in 15 IP), and he made the team look really smart. After pitching to a 3.03 ERA with 9.0 K/9 (25.0 K%) and 2.9 BB/9 (8.0 BB%) in 113 IP during the first half, Pineda was named to the AL All-Star Team and threw a perfect third inning with two strikeouts in the actual game. His ERA came back to Earth in the second half (5.12), though his strikeout (9.3 K/9 and 24.6 K%) and walk (2.9 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) numbers didn’t suffer at all in the 58 IP sample. Pineda’s BABIP did correct a bit in the second half (.247 pre-ASG and .286 post-ASG), and the Mariners limited his workload by having him skip a start in early-August and two more in September.

He makes scary faces when pitching. This is a plus. (AP Photo/Lori Shepler)

The numbers sure look great, and the scouting report backs them up. Before the season, Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he throws “a crisp fastball that sits at 93-97 mph and gets as high as 101 with explosive life and occasional heavy sink” and a “quality slider.” They also said he “did a better job of selling his upper-80s changeup with the same arm speed as his fastball, keeping it down and getting hitters to chase it.” The PitchFX data from last season backs up that scouting report, and it’s worth noting that he threw that changeup just 2% of the time to righties and 11% of the time to lefties. That’s the pitch he needs to focus on to reach his substantial ceiling.

Speaking of enormous, that’s the best way to describe Pineda. The kid is listed at 6-foot-7 and 260 lbs. on Seattle’s official site, which is probably how big CC Sabathia was at that age. You can’t help but look at a frame like that and think 230 IP a year, every year. I have to imagine he’s an uncomfortable at-bat as well, this gigantic long-levered guy on the mound unleashing mid-90’s heat. There’s bound to be an intimidation factor in play here. Given his results — held hitters to a .211/.279/.342 batting line last year, righties to .184/.261/.326 — I’m guessing opposing batters were a little antsy in the box.

A few weeks ago Keith Law ranked Pineda as the 20th best player in baseball under the age of 25, the fifth pitcher on the list behind Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, and Brett Anderson. “He has the size and stuff to continue to pitch as he did in 2011,” said KLaw in the write-up, “but improving his changeup, really a show-me offering with virtually no action on it right now, would help him get to ace level.” You’ll hear quite a bit about the changeup in the coming weeks and months, I imagine. It’s the great equalizer, and in fact Brian Cashman told Jim Bowden that he’ll consider the trade a failure if he doesn’t improve the pitch and develop into a top-flight starter.

The Yankees gambled on upside by acquiring Pineda, just like the Mariners gambled on upside by acquiring Montero. Pineda’s power stuff is well suited for the rugged AL East, as is his knack for strikeouts and uncanny ability to limit walks at such a young age despite the huge fastball. We’ve been saying the Yankees should only trade Montero for a young, high-end starter with several years of team control remaining for quite some time now, and that’s exactly what they got in Pineda. He’s not a finished product, but he sure is starting from a high baseline with that electric fastball-slider combo and monstrous build.

The Jorge Vazquez Option

(N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg)

With the rotation questions answered (pending physicals), the attention has shifted to the Yankees’ now vacant DH position. It didn’t take the team long to get in touch with Johnny Damon, Carlos Pena, and Hideki Matsui, but with limited room in the budget they might look for an even cheaper solution. Buster Olney, Bryan Hoch, and Andy Martino each reported over the weekend that the Yankees consider Triple-A masher Jorge Vazquez a potential DH option heading into the season.

As Marc Carig recently explained, the Yankees found Vazquez when Michael Fishman, their in-house stats guru, got a whiff of his impressive stats in the Mexican League. From 2005-2008, the man they call Chato — Spanish for “short and chunky,” according to Carig — hit .352/.405/.698 with an average of 25 homers per year in a league where the season is less than 110 games long. Lee Sigman is the team’s top scout in Mexico, and he swooped in to sign Vazquez after he popped up on the team’s radar.

Unsurprisingly, Vazquez has done nothing but mash during his two and a half years in the organization. He owns a .284/.327/.555 batting line with 63 homers in 261 games between Double and Triple-A, and he goes back to Mexico for winter ball every year and does more of the same. This winter he put up a .330/.397/.618 line with 18 homers in 56 games. In 174 games between the regular season and winter ball, he hit 50 balls out of the park.

“He can hit homers everywhere,” said Ramiro Pena to Carig after playing with Vazquez for a number of years in Mexico. “Everybody down there in Mexico knows Chato … Tremendous power. He makes it look so easy.”

Yankees fans caught a glimpse of Vazquez last Spring Training, when he hit .412/.444/.765 with three homers in 35 plate appearances, including this mammoth blast over the batter’s eye in dead center. He few months prior to that he was named MVP of the Caribbean Series.

“He’s a major-league bat,” said Brian Cashman to Carig. “But he’s blocked more than anything else.”

Being blocked is just a small problem because Vazquez is a true DH without any defensive value, and now that job is wide open. He can stand at first base and receive throws from other infielders as well as fake third base in the way Eric Hinske can, but that’s about the extent of his defensive skills. Playing him in the field is a non-option for a contending team. But like I said, that’s just a small problem. There’s a much bigger one.

As great as Chato’s minor league and winter ball performance has been, and he has really been superb, his plate discipline numbers are a major cause for concern. In his 1,096 plate appearances since signing with the Yankees, Vazquez has struck out 314 times and unintentionally walked just 47 times. That’s a 28.6% strikeout rate and a 4.3% walk rate. The only big leaguer with a 25%+ strikeout rate and a sub-5% walk rate in single season over the last three years was Miguel Olivo (27.6 K% and 3.6 BB%) in 2011, who has the advantage of being a pretty good defensive catcher. JoVa put up those rates in the minors as a defensively challenged first baseman approaching his 30th birthday (he’ll be 30 in March).

The strikeout and walk rates indicate some kind of problem, but we don’t know exactly what it is from here. It could be breaking balls, inside fastballs, first pitch changeups, who knows. Whatever the problem is, it’s resulted in extreme strikeout issues and plate indiscipline. For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects a .235/.275/.449 batting line with 23 homers, 20 walks, and 138 strikeouts given 400+ at-bats next season while CAIRO v0.2 pegs him for a .231/.281/.439 line with 28 homers, 33 walks, and 177 strikeouts in 500+ at-bats. Remember, projections are not predictions, just a reasonable estimate of talent level.

In a recent ESPN Insider-only piece, Kevin Goldstein looked at the concept of Quad-A players like Vazquez, the guys that are too good for Triple-A but not good enough for MLB. He notes that one of the main reasons why these guys are limited is because of an inability to make adjustments, especially when advanced scouts start picking the guy’s game apart. Some players shed the label like Nelson Cruz did, but most aren’t so lucky. Vazquez has very real power, but given that his strikeout rate has gotten worse every year since signing with the Yankees, we have reason to believe he can’t make those necessary adjustments and contribute to the big league team.

Barring something unexpected, we’ll see Chato in Spring Training one way or another. He might be a replacement in the second half of games like last year, or he might be competing for the team’s DH job. Hey, maybe there’s value in having a guy who will sabotage a first pitch fastball hidden in a lineup of patient hitters, but I have a hard time buying that argument. Vazquez has significant flaws both at the plate and in the field, and on top of that he’s not a great fit as a right-handed hitter, assuming they’re looking for someone to split time with Andruw Jones. There’s always a chance something will click and JoVa will figure it out, but I’m not counting on it and neither should the Yankees.

Yanks have been in contact with Hideki Matsui

With their DH job now up for the grab, the Yankees have been in contact with Hideki Matsui according to Jon Heyman. Since they reportedly only have about $2M to spend on a bat, it figures that they’d go for players they know to try to maximize value.

Matsui, now 37, had the worst season of his MLB career in 2011, posting a .306 wOBA and 93 wRC+ with a dozen homers for the Athletics. It wasn’t just the ballpark either, his .313 road wOBA was below average as well. Aside from a ridiculously hot 24 game stretch after the All-Star break (.432/.481/.663), Godzilla was pretty awful last year. Given Matsui’s well-documented knee problems, I’d rather have Johnny Damon assuming similar contracts, but that’s just me.

Josh Norris speaks with Kevin Long

Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long was at the Princeton Charter School this afternoon as part of his series of clinics for children throughout the northeast, and Josh Norris managed to grab him for a short Q&A session beforehand. Long says he’s worked with just about everyone in the regular lineup this offseason, but he also spoke about the work his done with Austin Romine and the since-traded Jesus Montero. Romine has eliminated his leg kick (before, after), which is a point of emphasis for Long. It’s a quick read, so make sure you check it out.

Open Thread: John Flaherty

(Getty Images Photo / Ezra Shaw)

Remember how many bad backup catchers the Yankees went through during the Jorge Posada era? There was Chris Widger, Kelly Stinnett, Wil Nieves, Chris Turner, Todd Greene … I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Posada’s primary backup from 2003-2005 was current YES analyst John Flaherty, who signed with the team on this date nine years ago.

Like most backup backstops, Flaherty was terrible, hitting just .226/.261/.387 with a dozen homers in 389 plate appearances in pinstripes. He’ll always have that big hit though, the walk-off double single to left in the 13th inning against the Red Sox on July 1st, 2004. That’s the game when Derek Jeter flipped into the stands and the Yankees scored two runs in the bottom of the 13th thanks to a rally fueled by Tony Clark, Ruben Sierra, Miguel Cairo, and Flaherty. That hit was easily his most memorable with the team, and also the most memorable by a non-Posada catcher in the last 15 years or so. It was pretty sweet.

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Here is your open thread for the night. The Knicks and Nets already played, so it’s just the Islanders that are in action tonight. Us Time Warner folk still don’t have MSG though. Talk about whatever you like here, anything goes.

Yankees avoid arbitration with Phil Hughes

The Yankees and Phil Hughes have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract for 2012, the team announced. His agent says the deal is worth $3.2M with performance bonuses, so he received just a $500k raise thanks to his disaster season. A repeat of his 2010 effort would have bumped Phil’s salary north of $5M. Hughes was arbitration-eligible for the second time, meaning he’ll go through this again next offseason then qualify for free agency the offseason after that.

Noon ET tomorrow is the deadline for teams and their eligible players to submit arbitration figures, so a bunch of signings will happen in the morning. The Yankees have five more players up for arbitration: Russell Martin, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and Brett Gardner. MLBTR has projected salaries.