Steve Serby’s Q&A with Brian Cashman

Steve Serby’s Q&As are a weekend staple of the NY Post, but today he published an exclusive — and longer than usual — midweek chat with GM Brian Cashman. The two spoke spoke about a number of topics, including the current Yankees team, the Michael Pineda trade, the declining Alex Rodriguez, George Steinbrenner, his relationship with Joe Girardi, and lots more. Make sure you check it out, it’s a quality read.

2012 Draft: Hensley expects decision to come down to the wire

Via David Collier, first rounder Ty Hensley said he expects his decision about whether to sign with the Yankees or attend Ole Miss to come right down to Friday’s 5pm ET deadline. The two sides have already wrapped up negotiations, they’re just waiting on his decision. If Hensley does not sign, the Yankees will receive the 31st overall pick in next year’s draft as compensation, but obviously they’d rather have the player now. One way or another, we’ll have an answer in less than four days.

Scouting The Trade Market: Matt Belisle

The bullpen has been a strength all throughout the Joe Girardi era, but injuries have wreaked havoc on the relief corps in 2012. Mariano Rivera made just nine appearances before suffering a season-ending ACL injury, and then a few days later David Robertson suffered an oblique strain that cost him a month on the DL. With their two best late-game arms out with injury, the Yankees relied heavily on Boone Logan and Cory Wade ahead of backup backup closer Rafael Soriano.

All of that work has thinned out the relief unit even though Robertson has returned. Wade is in Triple-A after allowing 16 runs in his last six innings and Logan leads the league with 43 appearances. He’s allowed a run in each of his last four appearances. The Yankees picked up Chad Qualls to add some depth and until we see Joba Chamberlain and/or David Aardsma on a big league mound, they shouldn’t count on them for anything. New York needs to add a quality reliever to their bullpen, someone to help take the load off Robertson and Soriano. The pace these guys are going at right now puts them at risk for burning out late in the season, something Girardi has done a masterful job of avoiding in recent years.

Trading for relievers is risky business, which is why the Yankees haven’t done much of it in recent years. Kerry Wood worked out well in 2010 and Damaso Marte has his moments in 2008, but otherwise they’ve built their bullpens via internal options and the scrap heap in recent years. Digging up another Wade — last year’s version, not this year’s — is probably not something they count on, so the trade market becomes an undesirable but necessary avenue to add relief depth. Let’s take a look at a personal fave and someone who should be very available since his team is not contending: Matt Belisle of the Rockies.

The Pros

  • A failed starter with the Reds back in the day, the 32-year-old Belisle has quietly become one of the game’s most effective relievers. He’s pitched to a 2.82 ERA and 2.72 FIP since the start of 2010 (1.93 ERA and 2.27 FIP this year) with stellar strikeout (8.07 K/9 and 21.9 K%), walk (1.62 BB/9 and 4.4 BB%), and ground ball (51.7%) rates. Take out the eleven (!) intentional walks and it’s a 3.2% walk rate. That is getting it done.
  • Belisle is a true three-pitch reliever, using a low-90s fastball to setup his mid-80s slider and low-80s curve. The slider is for righties, the curve for both righties and lefties. He’ll also throw a low-90s two-seamer and an upper-80s changeup, but very rarely.
  • Thanks to those two breaking balls, he doesn’t have much of a platoon split. Belisle has held lefties to a .275 wOBA (22.7 K% and 6.9 BB%) and righties to a .294 wOBA (21.4 K% and 2.9 BB%) over the last three years.
  • Belisle is a true workhorse out of the bullpen, throwing 92 innings across 76 appearances in 2010. The Rockies scaled it back to 72 innings across 74 appearances last season, but this year he’s up to 46.2 innings in 43 appearances. He’s tied with Logan (and a few others) for the most appearances in baseball and is third in reliever innings.

The Cons

  • All of those appearances and innings may be catching to Belisle, as his fastball velocity continued to trend downward this season after a slight drop a year ago. He’s also throwing the fastball less frequently than ever before (just 46.9%), perhaps an indication that he’s having trouble getting outs with it.
  • Belisle has a history of knee problems, including a torn ACL back in 2008 and offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus after pitching though it all last season. He’s obviously been healthy enough to rack up all those innings, however.
  • He’s not cheap. Belisle is making $3.775M this year — approximately $1.8M from here on out — and is under contract for $4.1M next season. His contract includes a $4.25M mutual option for 2014 with a $250k buyout. That’s not a ton of money, but he would be the third highest paid reliever on the club behind Rivera and Soriano.

Belisle has a whole lot to offer as a workhorse reliever capable of getting both lefties and righties out. That’s one of the biggest problems with the Yankees bullpen right now, there are so many specialists — Clay Rapada, Cody Eppley, Logan, Qualls — that Girardi has to use two or three of these guys just to get a handful of outs. Belisle’s a guy who has experience pitching in big-time offensive park and won’t require any sort of special treatment as far as matchups go. They could just stick him out there for an inning or two and let him go.

Reports indicate that the Rockies would have to be overwhelmed to trade Belisle, which is unfortunate. Relievers like Matt Capps and Mike Adams were traded at midseason with a year and a half of team control remaining at recent trade deadlines, giving us a pair of decent comparables. Capps fetched Wilson Ramos — an excellent catching prospect at the time — while Adams netted Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin, a pair of Grade-B pitching prospects at Double-A. Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd is probably looking to hit a homerun like the Athletics did when they traded Andrew Bailey for Josh Reddick and others.

The Yankees have the pieces to swing a deal and Belisle appears to be a damn good fit, but again, trading for relievers is always risky because they have a tendency to suck for no apparent reason and without warning. If Belisle comes in and pulls a 2007 Eric Gagne, whoever trades for him will be stuck with him at a team unfriendly salary in 2013. The upside is that he comes in an dominates and is around next year, providing some protection should Soriano opt-out of his deal after the season. There’s an obvious need for another quality reliever in the bullpen, it’s just a question of whether the Yankees want to shore it up via trade or continue to do what they’ve been doing for the last few years and finding answers on the cheap.

Midseason Review: Exceeding Expectations

During the next few days we’ll take some time to review the first half of the season and look at which Yankees are meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, and falling short of expectations. What else is the All-Star break good for?

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Any time a team in any sport wins a championship or even sits in first place for a prolonged period of time, there’s always a few players on their rosters exceeding expectations. Talent can only take you so far, it’s those unexpected contributions that push one team ahead of the rest. The Yankees have the best record in baseball and comfortable lead atop the AL East, and as you’d expect they have some players on their roster doing more than expected.

Rafael Soriano
When Mariano Rivera crumbled to the ground in Kansas City, all of Yankeeland held their collective breath. The worst case scenario played out — Rivera had torn his ACL and is expected to miss the rest of the season — and New York was suddenly without the one undisputed advantage they had over every team. No matter who they faced, regular season or playoffs or whatever, the Yankees have always had the advantage in the ninth inning thanks to Mo.

Replacing Rivera’s brutal effectiveness is impossible, but the Bombers had the pieces in-house to get by. David Robertson got the first crack at the closer’s job but almost immediately hit the disabled list with an oblique strain. That’s when Soriano, the 2010 AL saves champ who signed on as a setup man prior to last season, stepped in. Since Rivera and Robertson hit the DL, Soriano’s pitched to a 1.25 ERA (2.00 FIP) in 21.2 innings while going 20-for-21 in save chances. He’s allowed just three runs total during that time and has held hitters to a .210/.273/.272 batting line. Soriano has avoided the disabled list and after a rocky first season in pinstripes, he’s settled into a crucial role for the team. He’s not Mariano, but my goodness has he been effective as his replacement.

(AP PhotoPeter Morgan)

Phil Hughes
When the season opened, it was more of the same from Hughes. He allowed 22 runs in his first five starts (21.2 IP) and batters were tagging him for a .298/.365/.617 batting line. After a second-half fade in 2010 and a disastrous 2011 season, it seemed that the Phil’s days as a starter were number.

The Yankees stuck with him though, and Hughes has rewarded them by pitching to a 3.46 ERA (3.91 FIP) in his last dozen starts. Only thrice in that span did he allow more than three earned runs in a start, only four times more than two earned runs. His strikeout (8.31 K/9 and 21.5 K%) and walk (2.08 BB/9 and 5.4 BB%) numbers are so good that he’s actually fourth in the league among qualified starters with a 4.00 K/BB. The only guys ahead of him are Colby Lewis (7.50), Justin Verlander (4.27), and Jake Peavy (4.15). That’s pretty great.

Hughes still has a homerun problem — fourth in the league with 19 allowed (1.72 HR/9) — but that’s just going to be who he is. He’s a fly ball pitcher (just 33.7% grounders), but because he walks so few the majority of them has been solo shots. Only six of those 19 homers have come with men on base, and five of those six were two-run shots. The Yankees have remained patient with Phil and he’s rewarded them in the first half by (finally) becoming a solid and sometimes dominant starter.

Raul Ibanez
Considering his age (40), his performance last year (.245/.289/.419), and his Spring Training showing (.150/.190/.333), it was very easy to write Ibanez off as a non-factor just before Opening Day. Rather than burn out and get released by June 1st like we all expected, Raul was the team’s most reliable hitter for the first six or seven weeks of the year and has settled in as a very nice weapon against righties — .250/.311/.484 vs. RHP — in the lower third of the lineup.

Furthermore, Ibanez has had to step in for the injured Brett Gardner and has effectively been the everyday left fielder for the last three months or so. He’s started 45 of the team’s 85 games in the outfield and has only been the DH a dozen times. That’s hard to believe. Ibanez has certainly had his share of lol-worthy moments on defense, but just being able to step in and play everyday while maintaining a reasonable level of offense is far more than we could have expected. Raul was supposed to flame out and have the Yankees hunting for a new DH at the deadline, but he’s instead provided very real impact.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Eric Chavez & Dewayne Wise
The bench has been one of the team’s strengths this year, thanks in large part to Chavez. He had an okay year in 2011 while missing lots of time due to injury, but this year he’s stayed on the field — minus a seven-day concussion hiatus — and legitimately mashed. Chavez owns a .282/.336/.504 batting line with seven homers already, two more dingers than he hit from 2008-2011. Gardner’s injury has forced him into the lineup a little more than expected, but he’s produced both at the plate and in the field. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Chavez has been one of the biggest surprises of the season so far.

The trickle down effect of Gardner’s injury is quite substantial; it forced Ibanez into the outfield, Chavez into a healthy amount of at-bats, and it brought Dewayne Wise up from Triple-A. The team’s fourth outfielder has 13 hits in 50 at-bats, but two are doubles, one’s a triple, and three (!) are homers. He’s also six-for-six in stole base chances. With the Yankees struggling to score runs and having lost six of their previous seven games, Wise laid down a perfect bunt hit against the Royals to load the bases and ignite a game-winning rally on May 22nd. They won the game and have won 30 of 42 since. Dewayne Wise’s bunt turned the season around. Okay, maybe not. But he’s been awesome.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

David Phelps & Cody Eppley
The Yankees went into camp with six starters for five spots, but Michael Pineda‘s injury opened the door for Freddy Garcia to return to the rotation. It also created a competition for the final bullpen spot, a spot Phelps won in Spring Training. He shined in six long relief appearances before taking Garcia’s place in the rotation, at least until Andy Pettitte showed up. Phelps returned to the bullpen and has since bounced back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A, mostly notably striking out eight in 4.1 innings in a spot start last Wednesday.

Overall, Phelps has pitched to a 3.05 ERA (4.37 FIP) in 41.1 innings, striking out a ton of batters (9.15 K/9 and 23.6 K%) while doing a respectable job in the walk (3.70 BB/9 and 9.6 BB%) and ground ball (43.8%) departments for an AL East rookie. He generated buzz in Spring Training with improved velocity and it carried over into the season, to point where he not only looks like he can get big league hitters out, he looks like a potential long-term starting pitcher.

Joining Phelps in the bullpen has been Eppley, who the Yankees plucked off waivers from the Rangers back in April. He assumed a regular spot on the roster once Rivera got hurt and he’s seized the opportunity by pitching his way into Joe Girardi‘s late-game mix. The sinker-slider sidearm guy has pitched to a 2.70 ERA (3.84 FIP) in 23.1 innings, holding right-handers to a .226/.298/.308 batting line. Eppley’s 65.2% ground ball rate is the fifth highest in the baseball (min. 20 IP). The Yankees do as good a job of find useful arms in unusual places as anyone, and they’ve dug up another good one in Eppley.

Joba strikes out two in first minor league rehab appearance

Update (10:55 a.m.): Thirteen months after blowing out his elbow and four months after dislocating his ankle, right-hander Joba Chamberlain appeared in his first minor league rehab game this morning. Pitching for the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League Yankees, he allowed an unearned run while striking out two in a hitless and walkless inning of work. Two errors by the third baseman and a passed ball allowed the run to score. Hooray, rookie ball defense. According to reports, he threw 23 pitches and topped out at 97 with the fastball.

The appearance officially kicks off Chamberlain’s 30-day rehab clock, meaning the latest he can be activated off the DL is August 9th. That’s assuming everything goes as planned, which is hardly a safe bet. Joba will probably take the next two or three days off before making his next appearance, which could last two innings.

Getting our hopes up for Rivera’s return in 2012

The headline of Joel Sherman’s latest column says it all. “Doc: Rivera could pitch in 2012.” Surely this is just the NY Post headline writers making too much of an innocuous quote, right? After all, not only did Rivera tear his ACL, but he also had to wait a month before undergoing surgery to repair it. How could he possibly pitch this year?

As it turns out, delaying the surgery might have actually accelerated Rivera’s recovery time. His rehab doctor, Dr. Keith Pyne, says that the work Rivera put in prior to the surgery has made a difference. That preparation has put him in a better position during his rehab.

Another revelation: Rivera didn’t fully tear his ACL. He’ll have a shorter recovery time from a partial tear than a full one, so it’s tough to make comparisons to others who have experienced full tears. And, apparently, Rivera tore the ACL on the “correct” knee. Since there’s more torque on the landing leg in a pitching delivery, recovery can be quicker for push leg injuries.

At this point I have little original to add. The idea of Mo coming back to pitch in 2012 was unfathomable just yesterday. But now we have Rivera’s rehab doctor extensively on the record talking about his advanced recovery and how he could actually throw a baseball for the Yankees this year. It certainly feels like a tease, but with Rivera you never know.

As Pyne himself says: “I would put my money on Mo.”

Phelps strikes out 11 in return to Double-A

RHP John Brebbia was named the Low-A South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week after throwing six scoreless innings of relief.

Double-A Trenton (3-0 win over Portland)
LF Jose Pirela: 3-3, 2 R, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 1 CS, 1 HBP — seven homers in 49 games this year after hitting just eight in 128 games last year … he’s up to .324/.395/.511 with nearly as many walks (17) as strikeouts (24) on the season
2B David Adams, RF Zoilo Almonte & CF Melky Mesa: all 1-4 — Zoilo doubled, stole two bases, and struck out … Mesa whiffed twice
1B Luke Murton, DH Neil Medchill & SS Yadil Mujica: all 0-3 — Murton walked and whiffed … Mujica struck out
C J.R. Murphy: 0-4, 2 K — still hitless with Trenton, though it’s only been four games
3B Rob Segedin: 1-3, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI — the solo homer was his first hit for the Thunder
RHP David Phelps: 6.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 7/1 GB/FB — 62 of 94 pitches were strikes (66%) … that’s what happens when you stick a big leaguer in Double-A … the most important thing is the pitch count, he’s fully stretched out now and ready to start whenever the team needs him
RHP Danny Farquhar: 2.1 IP, zeroes, 3 K, 1/2 GB/FB — 20 of 31 pitches were strikes (65%) … pretty stellar relief work right there

[Read more…]