Early thoughts on the trade deadline

Best deadline pickup ever. (SI.com)

It’s the middle of May and the season is barely six weeks old, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead to the trade deadline. The Yankees didn’t make a single trade at least year’s deadline despite the assumption that they’d acquire a starting pitcher, but that was the exception and not the rule. They’re always good for a deal or two come late-July and this year figures to be no different.

I don’t think the Yankees have one obvious part of the team in desperate need of an upgrade, but there’s always room for improvement. The recent rash of injuries has potentially¬† created some openings as well. The new playoff system may or may not ramp up activity at the trade deadline; we’re going to have to wait to see just how many teams are legitimately in the race before we know who may be looking to sell and and who’s looking to buy. The smart money is on the Yankees looking to buy, as always.

Let’s run down the parts of the roster that look primed for a potential upgrade via trade, at least at this very moment…

Starting Rotation
The Yankees do still have some rotation depth despite Michael Pineda‘s injury and Freddy Garcia’s awfulness, but the starting staff remains questionable. Phil Hughes has a long way to go before proving reliable and Andy Pettitte is going to be an unknown for at least the next few times out given his age and year-long hiatus. Ivan Nova‘s extra-base hit-prone ways could factor into the decision to add a starter at the deadline as well.

It’s been eight years since the Yankees last traded for a starting pitcher with multiple guaranteed years left on his contract — Kevin Brown was the last — and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. A rental pitcher is likely to be the target if they do look to add a starter, though I suppose a younger guy with several years of team control left is possible as well. I just find that unlikely at this point. Free agents to be like Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Jake Peavy, and Ryan Dempster could all be available and would make sense for any team in need of an arm.

Outfield
A trade for outfield help is dependent entirely on Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury. He recently suffered a setback and could be out anywhere from two-to-four weeks, which will bring us into mid-June. If Gardner gets healthy and comes back like his old self, the Yankees are fine don’t need any outfield help. If this elbow problem lingers, then an outfield upgrade could suddenly become priority number one come July.

Unlike the other positions in this post, outfield figures to be the one area where the Yankees could look to make a long-term addition and not just a rental for the second half. We know all about the 2014 payroll plan and impending free agencies of Nick Swisher (after 2012) and Curtis Granderson (after 2013), which create a need for a cheap, young outfielder. Gardner’s injury could push them into action sooner than expected, but ultimately I think the search for a long-term outfield piece would wait until the offseason.

(AP)

Bullpen
Mariano Rivera‘s injury is the big loss here and it’s created an opening for another late-game reliever. Until we hear otherwise, I think it’s reasonable to expect David Robertson back from his oblique strain relatively soon, but it’s hard (if not foolish) to count on Joba Chamberlain and/or David Aardsma to contribute something in the second half. Those were serious injuries that usually require more than just the 12 months worth of rehab for a pitcher to get back to being himself.

Trading for relievers is as sketchy as it gets because sometimes these guys just suck for no apparent reason and without warning. If the Yankees do make a deal for a reliever at the deadline, I think it would be something along the lines of the 2010 Kerry Wood trade. A salary dump move with mostly insignificant prospects involved.

Bench
Eduardo Nunez‘s defensive problems have landed him back in Triple-A and I don’t think anyone really expects Jayson Nix to be a weapon off the bench. He’s more of a stopgap option. A utility infielder could be high on the trade deadline priority list if Nunez doesn’t show improvement in Triple-A and there figures to be no shortage of candidates. This is just my speculation, but the Rockies are fading fast and Marco Scutaro would make a ton of sense for New York. Again, there’s no evidence that the Yankees are interested in him or that he’s even available, but he would fit perfectly as a utility infielder capable of playing regularly while Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez rest.

Barring injury, Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez provide enough outfield depth. Doesn’t seem like the Yankees will look to add a fourth or fifth outfielder, but again this is contingent on Gardner’s elbow.

* * *

We’ll look at potential trade targets in the coming weeks and I plan to break down the Yankees’ top trade chips at some point, which believe it or not is actually easier said than done. Things are different when Jesus Montero is no longer around and most of the club’s high-upside prospects are in the low minors. Anyway, at this point of the season it appears as though the Yankees’ trade deadline activity will be heavily influenced by the players currently on the DL and how well/quickly they return.

On offensive slumps and frustration

(REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

I don’t know if there’s anything in baseball more frustrating than an underachieving team. If there is, I’m not sure I want to know. The Yankees have underachieved through their first 37 games of the season, but don’t confuse underachieving with being bad. They’ve played okay at best overall, but that’s not what they’re capable of. They haven’t played up to their full potential, specifically the starting pitching last month and the offense this month.

Last night’s 8-1 loss to the Blue Jays marked the eighth time in their last 16 games that the Yankees were held to two runs or less. That’s very hard to swallow. They’ve hit just .258/.323/.425 during those 16 games compared to a .279/.354/.479 performance in their first 21 games of the season. Their strikeout rate has gone up (15.7 K% vs. 18.4 K%) and their walk rate has gone down (10.2 BB% vs. 8.1 BB%) during those two admittedly arbitrary samples. Maybe the only difference between the first 21 games and the last 16 games is Derek Jeter‘s ridiculous hot streak. Who knows?

Is the offense going to come around at some point and start clicking on all (or at least most) cylinders? Yeah probably. It’ll be glorious when it happens but I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. The Yankees appear content to just keep running the same ol’ lineup out there every night and hope that these problems will just correct themselves, which is fine I suppose. I wish they were a little more proactive with making slight changes — dropping Mark Teixeira in the lineup, moving Raul Ibanez and Nick Swisher up, etc. — but there’s value in patience. It’s just tough to expect improvement when no changes are made.

One thing that I do believe is very important right now is getting Curtis Granderson a day off. I don’t mean sometime this weekend or early next week, I’m talking tonight on the turf in Toronto. Granderson’s started every game of the season in center field and he’s stuck in a 5-for-36 rut at the moment (four of those five hits are homers, ironically enough), so let’s get the man off his feet for once. It may help re-ignite his bat or it may not, but I do know that fatigued players are less effective players. A day of rest for Curtis could end up helping the offense in a big way.

There are still 125 games to go this year and that’s great news because the Yankees are going need all the time they can get to figure this thing out. They’re lucky the AL East is so competitive right now because no team has really run away with the division yet. Sitting 3.5 games back in mid-May is nothing, not when there are so many intra-divison games left to play. The Yankees don’t need a shake-up or anything drastic, but they do need to start showing signs of improvement. Talk is cheap; it’s not all that early in the season anymore and the excuses are starting to run out. This is a results town and the results haven’t been there this month.

Shut down again; Yanks fall to Jays, Drabek

Same old story. The Yankees didn’t get a quality outing from their starting pitcher but it didn’t really matter anyway because the offense put up nothing resembling a fight. This was the eighth time in their first 37 games they’ve been held to one run or less, the first time that’s happened since 1990.

Just tip your cap! It's the easy answer. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

Lifeless

The Yankees have scored a total of three runs in their last 18 offensive innings, and two of those three came on a Curtis Granderson homer that a fan may or may not have kept out of Xavier Avery’s glove on Tuesday. The only run they scored against Kyle Drabek — who entered the game with the ninth worst FIP (5.09) out of 118 qualified starters — came when Mark Teixeira‘s ground ball took a funny hop over first baseman Edwin Encarnacion in the sixth. Robinson Cano‘s double down the right field line one batter earlier was the only hard-hit ball I can remember. From the Yankees, that is.

After a run of offensive dominance last week, the Yankees have now scored two runs or fewer in eight of their last 16 games (!). Drabek was behind hitters all night and he didn’t pay at all; in fact he recorded 19 of his 21 outs on the infield. I’m a patient guy, but at some point you have to stop tipping your cap to the opposing starter. Look in the mirror and realize that being offensively noncompetitive for two straight games is your own damn fault.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Consistently Inconsistent

Hiroki Kuroda came into Wednesday’s start having allowed no more than two earned runs in any of his previous four starts, but he instead allowed six or more runs for the third time this year. Like I said, consistently inconsistent. The Blue Jays tagged Kuroda for three homers in five innings, the same number of dingers he allowed in those previous four starts combined. He didn’t pitch well at all but it happens. Hopefully he improves on his 5-to-3 strong start-to-dud start ratio going forward.

Leftovers

(REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

Cano is in the middle of his annual 3-4 game defensive slump, botching the transfer on a routine double play pivot — immediately prior to Encarnacion opening the scoring with a two-run homer — in the second and flubbing a ground ball in the seventh. This is after he made a poor flip to second on a force play in the previous game. Let’s knock that off, mmmkay Robbie?

Downside of Raul Ibanez‘s hot start: Joe Girardi now leaves him in against lefties. He was left in to face a southpaw with men on-base in the late innings for the second time in three games, this time striking out after getting hit by a pitch on Monday. Andruw Jones is on the roster for these exact situations, use him please.

Clay Rapada gave up a homer to the left-handed hitting Kelly Johnson in an otherwise effective outing, but I can’t help but wonder if his roster spot would be better used on a reliever capable of getting both righties and lefties out. It’s tough to carry a true specialist like this with all the injuries. Cody Eppley allowed two dinky singles in 1.2 mop-up innings. He’s got a chance to pitch his way into a role of more importance but I’m not sure if he can do it given his arm slot.

Cano (double and walk), Tex (single and walk), and Ibanez (single) had the only three hits while Alex Rodriguez, Eric Chavez, Russell Martin, and Jayson Nix drew walks. Curtis Granderson and Teixeira were the only players to see more than 16 pitches in their four plate appearances. That’s pretty gross against a starting pitcher who came into the game with the highest percentage of full counts in baseball this year (19% according to YES broadcast).

The Yankees faced Wayne Tolleson’s kid on Tuesday and Doug Drabek’s kid on Wednesday. I can only assume Alvaro Espinosa Jr. will be in Toronto’s lineup on Thursday.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerd score, and ESPN the updated standings.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

The second game of this two-game trip to Toronto will be played Thursday night. Phil Hughes will try to stop the bleeding against the rookie right-hander Drew Hutchinson.

Austin & Sanchez power Charleston to win

Triple-A Empire State (3-1 win over Toledo)
SS Eduardo Nunez: 1-4, 2 K, 1 SB, 2 E (fielding, missed catch) — had more on his rough day earlier
PH-LF Ray Kruml: 1-1 — pinch-hit for Nunez in the eighth for an unknown reason
2B-SS Ramiro Pena: 1-5, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
LF-2B Kevin Russo: 1-2, 1 R, 1 2B, 3 BB — eight walks in his last seven games
DH Steve Pearce: 0-4, 1 R, 1 HBP
RF Cole Garner: 0-4, 1 BB, 3 K — 13 strikeouts in his last seven games
1B Brandon Laird: 1-4, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 K
3B Ronnie Mustelier: 1-3, 1 BB
C Gus Molina: 2-4, 2 RBI, 2 K
CF Colin Curtis: 1-3, 1 BB, 2 K
RHP D.J. Mitchell: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, 9/4 GB/FB — 73 of 115 pitches were strikes (63.5%) … he also pitched a runner off first, and I’m glad they’re letting these older Triple-A guys work a little deeper into games and get that pitch count up
LHP Justin Thomas: 0.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1/0 GB/FB — half of his eight pitches were strikes … first appearances since being claimed off waivers over the weekend
RHP Manny Delcarmen: 0.2 IP, zeroes, 1 K — five pitches, four strikes
RHP Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, zeroes, 3 K — nine of 13 pitches were strikes … 31/7 K/BB in 19.2 IP

[Read more…]

Update: Nunez makes two errors in third Triple-A game

8:40pm: Via Collins, Nunez left the game with a sore thumb. It’s not expected to be a major issue, which is good news.

5:30pm: In his third game for Triple-A Empire State since being send down late last week, Eduardo Nunez made a pair of errors this afternoon. According to Donnie Collins, the first was just a botched routine grounder and the second a missed catch at second base on a stolen base attempt. Nunez has played shortstop all three games and for whatever reason, he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning today.

The Yankees sent Nunez down with hopes that playing regularly will improve his defense, but obviously that’s a process that will take more than three games. I’m worried about his confidence more than anything, and Collins said it appears Nunez is playing as if he’s afraid to make a mistake. I got a similar vibe watching him with the big league team in recent weeks, and again, I hope he doesn’t lose all confidence and develop the yips or something. That would suck. Hopefully he didn’t leave the game with an injury and can get back out there tomorrow to keep working.

Game 37: North of the Border

The Blue Jays have become something of a nuisance in recent years. They’ve improved but not to the point of being a legitimate contender, but they’re just good enough to give the Yankees fits whenever they play. New York is 19-17 against Toronto since the start of the 2010 season, which is far too close to .500 for my liking. Tonight is the first time these two clubs will meet in 2012. Here’s the lineup…

CF Curtis Granderson
RF Nick Swisher
2B Robinson Cano
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
LF Raul Ibanez
DH Eric Chavez
C  Russell Martin
SS Jayson Nix

RHP Hiroki Kuroda

The game is scheduled to start a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Ivan Nova Update: Nova tested his contused right foot and sprained right ankle with some light running today and pitching coach Larry Rothschild confirmed that he will throw his regular side session tomorrow. I suppose we’ll find out if he can make Saturday’s start after that.

As the rotation turns…

(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Starting pitching was supposed to be a strength coming into the season, or at least starting pitching depth was supposed to be a stretch. The Yankees have already used seven different starters this season after using just nine starters last year, and one of those nine was Dellin Betances in the utterly meaningless Game 162. Andy Pettitte‘s return will hopefully solidify things, but Ivan Nova‘s right foot/ankle injury looms and could make things a little hairy in the coming days and weeks.

The starting staff currently ranks 25th in baseball in both ERA (4.93) and FIP (4.55) through 36 team games, reflecting the slow starts by CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia and inconsistent performances by Nova and Hiroki Kuroda. Sabathia has pitched much better of late (last night’s start notwithstanding) and Hughes has shown signings of improving, but Garcia has already been banished to the bullpen. As a result, the starters have performed much better as the season has progressed. Here’s a breakdown of each complete turn through the rotation, so not including last night’s start by Sabathia…

Turn IP Runs/9 K% BB% HR%
1 28.0 5.46 19.0% 9.5% 4.8%
2 29.0 5.90 25.6% 6.2% 3.9%
3 24.2 8.03 17.7% 2.7% 4.4%
4 24.1 8.13 20.0% 7.0% 3.5%
5 31.0 4.07 19.7% 6.3% 4.7%
6 30.2 2.93 20.3% 7.0% 3.9%
7 34.1 3.67 15.6% 7.8% 4.3%

Garcia made four starts before being replaced by David Phelps, but his removal from the rotation is just one reason for the improvement. Hughes got his act together to a certain extent and although Kuroda is still hit or miss, he has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of his last four starts. Getting CC back on track is has obviously been huge as well.

Interestingly enough, the strikeout, walk, and homerun rates really haven’t changed all that much. Sure they fluctuate each turn through the rotation, but they’ve generally sat right around 19%, 7%, and 4%, respectively. The runs (earned and unearned) per nine innings has been way down of late while the innings pitched is up, and that’s not a coincidence. Runs allowed and innings pitched are not mutually exclusive. With an injury-weakened bullpen, the Yankees are going to need as many innings out of their starting staff as possible.

The rotation still has a ways to go before becoming a strength, but at least they’re headed in the right direction. Hughes has to continue doing what he’s done in his last two starts against someone other than the Royals and Mariners, and Nova needs to stop allowing extra-base hits like they’re going out of style. As much as we all love Pettitte, he’s still a big unknown given his age and the long layoff. Progress is definitely being made though, we just need to see some more of it.