Preparing for the new season

In the early minutes of Super Bowl XLV, we caught a glimpse of Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez some popcorn in one of Cowboys Stadium’s luxury boxes*, a subtle reminder that baseball season is on the horizon. Football season is over while basketball and hockey are in their versions of the dogs days of summer, but equipment trucks across the country are now en route to Spring Training facilities in Florida and Arizona. Pitchers and catchers are due to report in just a week, position players a week after that.

Today, Monday, is the last Monday we’ll have to experience without some form of baseball until November. Pitchers and catchers reporting isn’t terribly exciting, but it’s comforting to know that the process of a new season is beginning. Photos of bullpen sessions and reports from batting practice will soon follow, and battles for the few open jobs on the Yankees’ roster will begin to take shape. Robbie Cano will rake and rake and rake, CC Sabathia will treat innings like Michael Cera’s character in Juno treated orange Tic-Tacs, and A-Rod will get caught doing something awkward on camera (he’s already one-for-one in 2011). Some young kid will step up and wow you in Spring Training while another falls back and disappoints. Those are the rites of baseball season, as is this final boring week before camp.

If you’re reading this site, then chances are the game consumes your daily routine nine months out of the year, if not more. This week is the last without baseball for a long time, so enjoy it.

* Don’t hate, you know you’d switch lives with him in a heartbeat.

Open Thread: Super Sunday

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

So, who do you all have today? I’m thinking the Steelers, though for no particular reason. Picking football games isn’t exactly my forte. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:29pm ET and can be seen on FOX, and be sure to chat about it here.

Pitching Options, Part 23094.5

One positive Saunders brings to New York: Phil Hughes hair. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

It’s seems like we’ve been doing this forever, looking at vaguely mediocre (sometimes downright bad) pitchers and trying to come up with legit reasons that these guys actually deserve a spot on the team. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m really, really getting tired of this. If Cashman (or anyone else on the Yankees) could just pull a fifth starter out of his closet right about now, I think we’d all really appreciate it. Personally, I wouldn’t even be mad at him for holding out this long. He was just waiting until he was sure he needed to break the emergency glass. So that’s what he meant about preaching patience.

Sadly, this doesn’t look like the case, so it’s back to the depressing reality that if you’re still on the market right now, you’re not very good at all. Rosenthal reported the Yankees are tossing around names of some possible lefties. Stephen’s already covered the Padres, so I thought I’d look beyond of the pitcher-friendly walls of Petco Park and see what else is out there. Luckily, I don’t have to move away from the west to find other possibilities.

Perhaps Joe Saunders? Saunders was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 1999 but didn’t sign, and the Angels nabbed him in 2002 as 12th overall pick. He did well in the minors, although he missed all of 2003 with a shoulder injury between his low A and high A stints. By 2005, he was pitching in AAA, and spent three years bouncing between AAA and the big club, making 13 starts for the Angels in 2006 and 18 in 2007. In 2008, he finally broke into the Opening Day Angels rotation and rewarded the Angels by throwing nearly 200 IP with a 3.41 ERA and a 4.36 FIP, along with a career-low 1.212 WHIP. His 2009, sadly, was not half as impressive, seeing an increase in his ERA, FIP, and BB/9, with a drop in strikeouts. When he performed at his 2009 and not 2008 levels in 2010, the Angels traded him to Arizona for Dan Haren. Saunders’ short stint in Arizona helped his numbers (especially his K/BB, which went from 1.45 to 2.63), but it’s hard to say how much of that was from a whole new crop of batters unfamiliar with him and how much was actual improvement on his part.

Even with Saunders’ All-Star 2008, his numbers have remained fairly consistent. He’s picked up between four and five strikeouts and two to three walks per nine IP each year. What concerns me is the 43.7% of groundballs he got in 2010, a huge decrease from his earlier numbers. Also, Saunders has been moving to progressively more and more hitter-friendly parks, so we’d be looking at an even bigger growth of his HR/FB% if the man was pitching in the bandboxes that the Yankees play most of their games in. The only thing Saunders gives us for sure besides these average-to-mediocre numbers is innings – since his shoulder injury in 2003, the lowest IP he’s thrown so far is 186.

Maybe there’s someone better floating around on the west coast?  Gio Gonzalez, for one, is perfectly accustomed to being moved around. He was drafted by the White Sox in the first round (38th overall), but was traded to the Phillies as a player to be named later when the ChiSox picked up Jim Thome. The Phillies than traded him back to the White Sox for Freddy Garcia, and the Sox sent him away again, this time to the A’s with Ryan Sweeney for Nick Swisher.

As a Bay Area resident, I saw this guy throw a couple of games, and to my non-statistical eyes, he looked good. 2010 was Gonzo’s first full season, and he didn’t disappoint, starting over thirty games with an ERA of 3.23 and a FIP of 3.78. His problem is and has always been his walks: his career-low BB/9 is 4.1, which certainly isn’t anything to be happy about, and it came with his career-low K/9 of 7.7, a huge decrease from his 2009 total of 10 k/9. There’s also the problem of the cost: the A’s could conceivably ask for plenty for Gonzales, who has potential and many years of team control left even if he’s still trying to get a handle on throwing strikes at a major league level.

These guys both line up as solid ‘mehs,’ for the coveted position of fifth starter of the Yankees. They’re coming from weak divisions into the AL East, which is always a cause for concern. Not only that, but even assuming that both pitchers find their best stuff, there’s no denying the obvious: their stuff is just not that good. Baseball, please come back so we can stop writing about all these mediocre possibilities we don’t really want. Thank you.

Well…Would You? (The Cano Breakdown)

Yeah...I'm going to go ahead and take that number three spot now, um-kay?(AP Photo/John Heller)

Yesterday, I raised a hypothetical scenario in which a straight-up Matt Cain for Robinson Cano swap was offered to Brian Cashman by Giants G.M. Brian Sabean. In doing so, I ducked some flying tomatoes and analyzed Cain’s statistical body of work thus far, which reveals him to be an excellent National League pitcher and a prototypical workhorse – but not an elite hurler. On many Major League teams (I have it at 15), Cain’s an opening day starter. But on a team that boasts Timmy the Freak and two other pitchers with 133 and 136 ERA+, he’s just part of the machine. In a roundabout way, I also mentioned in yesterday’s post why I didn’t present a Cano for Lincecum, Cano for Josh Johnson, or Cano for Felix scenario. Simply put, those pitchers would likely require more than Robbie in exchange for a top-five-in-all-of-baseball ace. Then again, maybe not.

So far, the overwhelming consensus among RAB readers is that the Giants would need to give more to make a Cain for Cano trade even moderately feasible. Far more. Some even went as far as to insist that they wouldn’t trade Cano at this stage of his career for the best pitcher on the planet. Personally, I would trade my all-world 147 WAR mother for King Felix and, being a die-hard, lifelong Yankees fan raised in the Bronx, she would grudgingly approve. With an accumulated 24.2 WAR and outstanding peripherals for his first six seasons, Felix, at age 24, is presumed to be on the cusp of emerging as a once-in-a-generation pitcher. Is this hyperbole? I think so. But his trends portend inevitable greatness and the durability required to ultimately produce a Hall of Fame body of work.

In comparison, Robinson Cano is an elite middle-infielder and possibly the best second baseman in baseball right now. There’s obviously huge value in that. But some of his perceived inconsistencies also preclude him from being included among the collection of modern-era greats like Kent, Biggio, Alomar, Sandberg, Carew, and Morgan – which may or may not be fair. While it’s true that Cano’s already at least as good as Ryno and Biggio were at similar stages of their respective careers, longevity will determine whether or not he belongs in the bling-and-grit-encrusted penthouse of the all-time-all-world second basemen’s club.

Point being? Demanding Felix for Cano isn’t all that crazy after all.

But let’s slog ahead with the Cain-for-Cano proposal anyway and see if it would even remotely make sense from the Yankees’ standpoint. Which means this time, it’s Cano’s turn to go under the microscope.

First, to reiterate: A Matt Cain acquisition would change the entire complexion of the Yankees’ rotation, one that is in dire need of stability. Phil Hughes is coming off his most labor-intensive season to date, Sergio Mitre is replacement-level, Ivan Nova looks depressed about something, and A.J. Burnett is an enigma whom I’d argue could, in fact, be worse in 2011. With Cain, the starting five instantly goes from “C.C. and Phil and where are my pills?” to a rotation that can match blows with Boston, Tampa, Texas, Toronto, and the always annoying L.A. Angels. Again, Matty Cain’s not a shutdown, smackdown, show-pony ace. We know this. But did we know this?

In case you’ve misplaced your magnifying glass, Matt Cain’s purple line of consistent very goodness is not far removed from C.C. Sabathia’s crimson line of utter domination. In fact, take away Cain’s 2006, and you have very similar pitchers (at least in terms of ERA+). Looking at the graph, one could also deduce that the great Tim Lincecum is a spectacularly hot mess of inconsistency. Food for thought.

But, as many of you have already noted, giving up Cano at this stage of his career for a non-elite starting pitcher could very well be the height of insanity. At 27, Robbie posted career highs in wOBA (.389), OPS+ (142) and WAR (6.1), finishing third in the final AL MVP race. In 2010, he additionally posted an increased UZR of -0.6 (up from a Steve Saxian -11.2 in ’08) and an on-base-percentage of .381, further dispelling the schadenfreude brigade, who had seemingly taken perverse joy in his defensive ineptitude and lack of plate discipline. That Robbie also plays a premium defensive position (and elegantly so) that doesn’t historically generate impressive power numbers only adds to his overall value.

Dealing Cano also presents the obvious conundrum of trying to fill a void just created. The Yankees would have no in-house replacement for him, unless you consider replacement level (Ramiro Pena) adequate. Even with his auspicious debut at Double-A Trenton last year in which he posted a .900 OPS in limited time, David Adams won’t be ready for quite a while. And as for free agent second basemen, the best of the remaining crop is the consistently mediocre Willy Aybar, who nonetheless sputtered to an abysmal -.18 “meh” rating last year (82 OPS+ ).

If Cashman did accept the Sabean proposal, he’d be doing so with an eye on the 2012 free agent market, which will include premium second basemen Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks. Obviously, neither player would completely fill the void in production left by Cano, but Weeks’ 125 OPS+ and plus-defense would ease the pain and force me to buy his T-shirt.

The ability to acquire Weeks or Phillips for nothing more than big money and a top draft pick who may or may not spiral into a dark abyss in his third year of minor league ball underscores a critical trend: Position players and relievers – even elite ones – are viewed as largely fungible. As great as Robbie is, there will always be another second baseman around the bend who can at least approximate his level of production. In contrast, top-shelf free agent pitchers are going the way of Starry Night mouse pads. Cliff Lee’s mega-deal with the Phillies notwithstanding, the dearth of this past off-season’s starting pitcher options included league average slop-servers Jon Garland, Vincente Padilla, Javy Vazquez and Carl Pavano – any of whom would get chewed to bits in the AL East. Also, if you think you have a strong enough constitution, have a glance at the 2012 free agent list as further evidence of what the future of free agent starting pitching options looks like.

Finally, there’s one more thing to consider: As great a player as Robinson Cano has become, when plotted on a graph, his yearly offensive output in his first six seasons resembles a Charlie Brown T-shirt.

Extraplating from this, there’s a very real chance that Cano regresses to his mean in 2011, which would still provide outstanding output of around 120 OPS+ and 3 WAR. I suppose one could also make the case that his freakish 2011 campaign is merely the beginning of a path to other-worldly dominance, which I find possible and desirable but not bloody likely. Either way, I wouldn’t do the deal. Not for Matt Cain (whom I still find to be criminally undervalued) and perhaps not even for Lincecum. Cano is young, durable, and when in one of his grooves, utterly ferocious. Perhaps a year ago, I make this deal. But now that Robbie’s also mastered the art of plate discipline, he may be poised to seize the torch from both A-Rod and Teixeira as the most dangerous hitter on the team.

Still, if the Yankees plan on seriously competing for the playoffs in 2011, they simply cannot go without another stalwart arm in the rotation. Cashman knows this, which is why such an offering would give him more pause than most of us would like to think.

Weighing Wade LeBlanc

On Friday morning, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Yankees had considered a bevy of left-handed trade targets. The list ranged from ugly (Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir) to mildly intriguing (Wade LeBlanc, Clayton Richard and Gio Gonzalez). Yesterday I examined Clayton Richard; today the target is Richard’s teammate Wade LeBlanc.

Wade LeBlanc has always been a Padre, drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Alabama. Like Clayton Richard, LeBlanc spent a half season in A ball after being drafted, averaging an ERA of 3.02, a strikeout rate of 7.9/9 and a walk rate of 2.7/9. The following year he opened at High A Lake Elsinore. Over 92 innings he put together a very impressive stat line: 2.64 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 5.29 K/BB ratio. The Padres responded by moving him to Double A, where his ERA bumped up to 3.45 over 57.1 innings. His strikeout rate stayed high (8.6/9), but his walk rate was elevated slightly to 3.0 BB/9. All told, LeBlanc’s first full season as a minor league starter was very successful.

In 2008 LeBlanc was promoted to AAA and saw a divergence of results and peripherals. On one hand, his ERA ballooned to 5.32 over 138.2 innings. However, LeBlanc also managed to bolster his strikeout rate to 9.02/9 and maintain a very good walk rate of 2.73 BB/9. The obvious culprit to explain his high ERA is his BABIP, but his mark was only .304. Perhaps a below average strand rate (64.3%) was part of the reason. Regardless, the Padres promoted LeBlanc to the bigs as a September callup and he made five starts before the end of the year. The results weren’t pretty, but LeBlanc was really just getting his feet wet for the first time.

The following year LeBlanc returned to AAA. He posted a 3.87 ERA over 121 innings, but his strike rate was far lower than it was in 2008 at 7.07 K/9, but he did keep his walk rate low at 2.31 BB/9. LeBlanc saw some midseason action at the MLB level, but it wasn’t until September again of that year that he got consistent time in the Padres’ rotation. He put together a total of 46.1 innings of 3.85 ERA ball, and finished the year strong with a 7 inning, 2 hit, 1 walk, 0 run and 8 strikeout performance against the San Francisco Giants.

Last year LeBlanc spent all but 10 innings in the Padres’ rotation, hurling 146 innings of 4.25 ERA ball in 25 starts. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story: LeBlanc’s FIP was 4.80 and his peripherals were worse than his minor league pedigree: 6.78 K/9, 3.14 BB/9. This performance was worth precisely 0.0 fWAR for the Padres; fortunately for them, he was making close to the league minimum.

LeBlanc is a soft-tossing lefty. Over the course of his career his fastball has averaged 86.1 mph. In 2010 this mark was 86.6 mph, good for 8th slowest amongst pitchers with at least 140 innings on the year. LeBlanc’s ability to succeed at the major league level is no doubt related to his quality changeup, a pitch he threw over 27% of the time in 2010. He does throw a cutter and a curveball with less regularity, but his changeup is obviously his best pitch. According to Texas Leagers, he got a swing and a miss on 17.7% of his changeups, the highest mark of all his pitches.

Any discussion of Wade LeBlanc would be incomplete if it did not examine his drastic home/away splits, data which will no doubt put the nail in the coffin of his desirability as a trade target for most Yankees fans. In his career, he’s made 18 starts in Petco and has a K/BB ratio of 2.24. Opponents OPS .695 against him. He’s made 22 starts away from Petco, and the numbers are drastically different: a 1.47 K/BB ratio and an incredible 0.922 OPS against. In Petco, Wade LeBlanc turns opponents into a bunch of Jorge Cantus and Yuniesky Betancourts. Away from Petco, opponents turn into a bunch of Matt Hollidays and Jayson Werths. It is a very drastic difference, and while it is a relatively small sample of data it is nevertheless a red flag.

Like with Clayton Richard, the Padres have no particular reason to part with Wade LeBlanc unless the Yankees were to offer them something of value. LeBlanc isn’t eligible for arbitration until the 2013 season, and is under team control through the 2016 year. He’s abundantly cheap, and a good back-end option in the rotation for the Padres. For the Yankees LeBlanc may have more strikeout upside than Richards, but his fly-ball tendencies and soft-tossing ways make him a tentative fit. There seems to be no good reason to give up any premium prospect to acquire LeBlanc from the Padres, and without quality in return the Padres seem likely to just hang on to him. Count this another trade target DOA.

Open Thread: Mike Lamb

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Aaron Boone’s knee injury during the 2003-2004 offseason had a major impact on the Yankees, most notably because it opened the door for Alex Rodriguez‘s arrival in New York. It also had an impact on Mike Lamb. Not long after Boone’s injury, the Yanks swung a deal with the Rangers to acquire Lamb, an up-and-down third baseman stuck behind then All-Star Hank Blalock. He was set to be the team’s everyday guy at the hot corner in 2004, but less than two weeks later he was again a man without a position following the A-Rod trade.

The Yankees acquired Lamb seven years ago today, then traded him to the Astros just a month later. He never played a game for the Yankees outside of Spring Training, but that year he posted a .365 wOBA in 312 plate appearances for Houston. Lamb spent four pretty productive years with the Astros (.342 wOBA in 1,436 PA, 5.3 WAR), but he’s nothing more than an afterthought in Yankee history*.

Here’s the open thread for the evening. The Islanders are the only local team in action, so yeah, go out and have fun.

* Just for the sake of completeness, the prospect the Yankees sent to Texas (RHP Jose Garcia) never made it out of Double-A, and the prospect they received from Houston (RHP Juan DeLeon) never made it out of Single-A.

So…Would You? (Part I)

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Imagine this:

It’s March 27th, three days before the official end of Spring Training, and after a turbulent offseason, the atmosphere around Steinbrenner Field has been mercifully uneventful – even a shade optimistic. Save for some minor scrapes and bruises, everyone on the 25-man has, at some point over the past four weeks, uttered a  version of being in the best shape of his life to a herd of restive beat writers. Only this time, it’s not merely a cliché: Alex is healthy and spry; Jeter, who gives his best blue steel on the cover of S.I.’s new Baseball Preview alongside the headline “Something to Prove,” has streamlined his swing; Gardner’s wrist is pain-free and is proving to be a non-issue at bat and in the field.

There are other encouraging signs. Robbie Cano is emerging as a polished, poised, vocal leader; and Rafael Soriano claims he doesn’t care about amassing saves or basking in adulation because what he’s always wanted most was to a.) play for the New York Yankees and b.) win a World Series ring. Even Bartolo Colon appears rejuvenated: Without the benefit of slimming in-season pinstripes, Colon has nevertheless looked svelte and focused in limited appearances, and has even caught on video sharing a post-intra-squad sprint with Mo Rivera. Cleveland will enjoy having him back.

Still, as the Yankees prepare to head north, the back end of the starting rotation remains stubbornly in flux. As unsettled as it was in early February, Colon, Sergio Mitre, and Freddy Garcia have proven to be exactly who we thought they were. Unless a major move happens within the next week, the Yankees will start the 2011 season with their worst rotation since the days when Live Strong bracelets and Sidney Ponson jokes were all the fashion.

Yet Cashman seems to be holding firm to his maddeningly Buddhist mantra of “wait and see.” The market, he says, will “develop” during the season. It’s frustrating from a fan’s perspective but also the most prudent stratagem at the moment. With the Pettitte retirement creating a back-end of the rotation that rivals the Pirates in cumulative WAR and star appeal, competing G.M.’s can smell angst sweat wafting from Tampa. Cash is right: now’s not the time to mortgage the farm for the Brian Moehlers and Miguel Batistas of the world.

But then the text comes:

Cash, it’s Sabean. You need a horse, I need a Cano. Cain for Robbie, straight-up.

What about Freddy Sanchez?

Let me worry about Freddy. He’s a survivor.

And there you’d have it: what we’ve been clamoring for ever since Cliff Lee took his decoys and double-barrels with him to Philly. Finally, a young, polished, durable number two to slot right between C.C. and Hughes for at least the next two seasons.

Just as we had halfway convinced ourselves that there were worse things in this world than a straight-as-a-string 84 MPH Freddie Garcia fastball (there aren’t), just as we were preparing to settle for the likes of Joe Blanton or the loping cadaver of Kevin Millwood, Brian Sabean swoops in to rescue us from The Summer of Meat. But like any trade that benefits both teams, it will burn like acid. The Yankees would be acquiring the 26-year-old Cain at the expense of losing arguably their most potent offensive force in the prime of his career.

So here’s the question: If he were granted the autonomy to do so (and there’s no guarantee of that), would Brian Cashman go through with this deal? Moreover, should he? Refusing to close on a Johan Santana trade in the winter of ’08 put into full relief Cashman’s dogma of “not paying twice” for a desired player, regardless of how good he is. But that was before Cliff Lee became available last July, mid-pennant-race – and before the Yankees had a single trade chip that could yield a pitcher of Lee’s caliber.

On the one hand, Matt Cain is a bona fide stopper. Arguably among the top 20 pitchers in the game, he’s the definitive workhorse, averaging 210 IP since his rookie campaign in 2006 and topping out at 223.1 this past season. This is no small feat, considering how rarely young pitchers are given opportunities to pitch through late-inning, high leverage conditions. And yet, Cain doesn’t seem to show any of the telltale signatures of the Verducci effect. In fact, he turned in yet another superb all-around season in 2010, posting a 130 ERA+, 7.3 H/9 and a Halladay-like 1.084 WHIP. Which makes him better than Joe Saunders.

As good as Cain is, he has yet to enter the pantheon of excellence occupied by the game’s truly dominant aces. A close look at Cain’s career stats reveals some minor eyebrow-raisers among his peripherals: above-average fly ball tendencies – always a concern in Yankee Stadium – and a curiously elevated xFIP, that was recently challenged in a fascinating piece over at Paapfly.com.

Still, there are no major warning signals that color Cain’s long-term performance outlook. He’s just not elite, which is fine. Not being a shutdown ace is the one quality that could render him even remotely attainable on the trade market. Trade market untouchables Josh Johnson, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Halladay, and Sabathia are all superior to Cain – though not by much. In fact, Cain’s career 126 ERA+ ranks him ninth among all active pitchers, ahead of Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter, and Zack Greinke. Also, it bears repeating: Cain’s still only 26. His most productive years may be yet to come.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll turn my attention to Robbie Cano and his overall value before attempting to determine whether or not the Yankees would benefit from such a trade. In the meantime, if you were Cashman, would you?