Mailbag: Former Yankee farmhands succeeding elsewhere

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Bernie asks: Saw your tweet on Wilton Lopez and thought it might be a good idea for someone to put together a list of players that were drafted or signed by the Yankees but are currently enjoying success with another MLB team.

Bernie’s referring to this tweet, when I said I had no idea that Lopez, the great setup man for the Astros, was the same Wilton Lopez that pitched in the Yankees’ minor league system back in 2004. He actually retired after that year, then talked the Yankees into releasing him off the restricted list a few years later. Lopez then signed with the Padres and spent two years in their minor league system before being claimed off waivers by Houston in April of 2009. His 2010 season featured a 6.72 K/9 with a 55.7% ground ball rate and just four unintentional walks in 67 innings (0.53 uIBB/9), leading to a 2.96 ERA. With Matt Lindstrom gone, Lopez is expected to be Brandon Lyon’s primary setup man next season.

The other obvious player to mention is John Axford, who will start the 2011 season much like he finished the 2010 season: as Milwaukee’s closer. The Yanks signed him as an undrafted free agent after the 2006 draft and used him as a classic organizational arm the next year, assigning him to whichever affiliate needed a fresh arm on a given night. Axford pitched for Triple-A Scranton, High-A Tampa, Low-A Charleston, and Short Season Staten Island in 2007, striking out 9.6 batters per nine but walking 45 in 63 innings. He was released after the season, hooking on with the Brewers for 2008. He spent that year in the minors, and after the season Milwaukee tinkered with his mechanics, most notably raising his arm angle. That led to some increased velocity and earned him a September call-up in 2009. Axford established himself this past season with an 11.79 K/9 and a 3.72 uIBB/9 (2.48 ERA), usurping Trevor Hoffman as closer.

Carlos Monasterios, who the Yankees signed as an international free agent back in 2005, threw 88.1 innings with the Dodgers this past season, striking out just 5.30 batters per nine and unintentionally walking 2.64 (4.38 ERA). He was traded to the Phillies in the Bobby Abreu deal, then the Mets selected him in the 2009 Rule 5 Draft before selling him to the Dodgers for what I hope was some kind of profit. Zach Kroenke (2005 fifth rounder) is another Rule 5 guy, but the Diamondbacks worked out a deal to keep him in the organization this past season. He made a very brief big league cameo this September after the team turned him back into a starter in the minors. He’ll compete for a job in Spring Training.

The Yankees traded Ramon Ramirez to the Rockies for Shawn Chacon after signing him as an international free agent back in 2003. He’s since bounced from the Rockies to the Royals to the Red Sox to the Giants, accumulating a 3.29 ERA in 295.2 big league innings. Manny Acosta was signed as a international free agent back in 1998 before being released in 2003. He caught on the with the Braves, pitched out of their bullpen in parts of three seasons, and finished the 2010 season as one of Jerry Manuel’s better relievers. In 39.2 innings with the Mets, Acosta struck out 42 batters and walked 17 unintentionally, leading to a shiny 2.95 ERA.

Randy Flores (yet another reliever) is still around as well; the Yanks drafted him in the ninth round of the 1997 draft before trading him to Texas for Randy Velarde way back in the day. He’s enjoyed a moderately successful career as a lefty specialist, mostly with the Cardinals. Shelley Duncan (2001 second rounder) is still trying to make it work out in Cleveland, hitting eleven homers with a .324 wOBA in 259 plate appearances this past season. Matt Carson was the team’s fifth round pick in 2002, though he didn’t reach the big leagues until 2009, after signing with the Athletics as a minor league free agent. He owns a career .255 wOBA in 105 plate appearances.

Here’s a list of some other players that were originally drafted or signed by the Yankees, but went on to have varying degrees of success elsewhere. I probably don’t need to mention most of them, but I will anyway (in no particular order): Tyler Clippard, Austin Jackson, Mark Melancon, Juan Rivera, Randy Choate, Jose Tabata, Phil Coke, Ian Kennedy, Cristian Guzman, Alfonso Soriano, Mike Dunn, Jeff Karstens, Melky Cabrera, Joaquin Arias, Dan McCutchen, Jeff Karstens, Marcus Thames, Nick Johnson, and the recently retired Mike Lowell. I’m not counting Hideki Matsui (Japanese vet) or Juan Miranda, and although Jake Westbrook spent some time in the Yanks’ farm system, he was originally drafted by the Rockies (came to New York from the Expos in the Hideki Irabu trade). Among the big leaguers that the Yankees drafted but did not sign: Casey Blake, Daniel Bard, Aaron Heilman, Brian Tallet, Chris Davis, Drew Storen, Doug Fister, and Jason Grilli. I don’t think Phil Humber counts anymore. I’m sure I missed some players, but I think I hit on all the key ones. Let me know if I’m wrong.

Looking at Todd Coffey

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Aside from the obvious need for a starting pitcher, the Yankees also have to fill some voids on the bench and in the bullpen. While David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain are a fine setup tandem, no one would mind an upgrade. The problem is that unless you overpay for Rafael Soriano or trade half the farm system for Joakim Soria, that guy just isn’t available. The best course of action may be to simply add depth and upgrade the middle relief corps instead. I’ve already looked at Chad Durbin for this role, but another name caught my eye today: Todd Coffey.

A 41st round pick way back in 1998, Coffey slowly climbed the Reds’ minor league ladder before reaching the big leagues in 2005. He pitched out of Cincinnati’s bullpen in parts of four seasons before being designated for assignment and then claimed off waivers by the Brewers in September 2008. Coffey’s time with the Reds wasn’t anything special – a 6.0 K/9 and 2.3 uIBB/9 in just over 200 innings – but the now 30-year-old seemed to find himself in Milwaukee.

Spending the 2009 season as manager Ken Macha’s bullpen ace, Coffey threw a whopping 83.2 relief innings, the third most in baseball. His strikeout rate was just okay at 7.0 K/9, but he made up for it by walking just 1.9 batters per nine innings unintentionally and getting a ground ball 52.3% of the time with his low-to-mid-90’s fastball and mid-80’s slider. Batters swung and missed on 10.7% of the swings they took against Coffey, more than they did against strikeout artists like Bobby Jenks, Heath Bell, Carlos Marmol, and Kerry Wood. That fine season earned him a $2.025M salary for 2010 in his second trip through arbitration.

Coffey’s peripheral stats took a bit of a hit in 2010, not coincidentally as he battled a thumb contusion on his throwing hand that cost him three weeks in June. His strikeout and whiff rates actually climbed to 8.1 K/9 and 11.2%, respectively, but his walk rate jumped to 2.6 uIBB/9 and his ground ball rate fell just about five percent to 47.6%. Coffey’s ERA, just 2.90 the year before, shot up to 4.76, but you can blame that on a microscopic 63.9% strand rate. League average is right around 72%, so he ran into quite a bit of bad luck there. Instead of giving Coffey another raise through arbitration, the Brewers non-tendered him earlier this month, a completely understandable move.

Although the walk, ground ball, and improving strikeout rates are traits you want in a reliever, Coffey is flawed. His platoon split is pretty massive, as lefties tagged him for a .344 wOBA over the last two years while righties were held to just a .288 wOBA. He’s also surprisingly homer prone despite the proven ability to keep the ball on the ground, giving up the long ball at a rate almost exactly equal to one for every nine innings pitched over the last two seasons (0.98 HR/9, to be exact). Coffey is flawed, no doubt about it, but so is every other middle reliever on the face of the earth.

It shouldn’t cost much to sign Coffey at this point, definitely nothing close to what he earned in 2010. A one-year contract with a six-figure salary seems almost inevitable regardless of what team he joins, a price that’s just a drop in the hat to the Yankees. Right now the Opening Day bullpen projects to have two of Romulo Sanchez (out of options!), Ryan Pope, Danny Turpen, Luis Vizcaino, etc. in it, so adding Coffey would be an obvious upgrade. He can be a very valuable piece if used correctly, meaning he’s kept away from lefty batters. Cheap moves that are easy to back out of, like this would be, is the name of the bullpen game. The risk is minimal.

Aside: Not that it matters, but the 6-foot-4, 240 lb. Coffey has been a fan favorite wherever he’s played, mostly because he comes out of the bullpen to the Ultimate Warrior’s entrance music and does a full sprint to the mound. The Brewers even started keeping track of his sprint times and called it Coffey Time!, even keeping a leader board. It’s irrelevant to his value as a player, but baseball’s supposed to be fun and Coffey is just that.

Open Thread: Chuck Knoblauch

(AP Photo/Steve Mitchell)

I know almost everyone remembers Knoblauch for his unusual batting stance and the throwing issues and the Blauch-Head play, but his first two years in New York were pretty damn good. A leadoff hitter that got on base 37.7% of the time with more walks (159) than strikeouts (127) and the ability to hit 35 homers across two seasons? Yes please. At his peak with the Twins (1995-1996), Chuck was a .337/.437/.503 middle infielder. The end of Knoblauch’s career was a mess, but the team went to the World Series all four years he was in pinstripes, winning three of them. His last good deed as a Yankee came in Game Five of the 2001 World Series, when he led off the 12th inning with a single and later came around to score the winning run after Scott Brosius tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. Good times, good times.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers are in Newark playing the Devils, plus the Isles and Nets are in action. Talk about whatever you want, go nuts.

Food For Thought: Robbie Cano

Baerga’s sudden and rather scary fall from grace was due in part to knee issues, but otherwise he was just a guy that peaked very early. Cano’s development path has been a bit more traditional, with his age 26 and 27 seasons being his two best to date. Middle infielders can unexpectedly fall off, perhaps due to the beating they take turning the double play at second, but I would be surprised if Cano just all of a sudden stopped being a productive big leaguer like Baerga.

(related graphs) (h/t Matt Imbrogno)

The difference between Pettitte and Mitre

Which one looks better to you?

CC Sabathia CC Sabathia
Phil Hughes Phil Hughes
Andy Pettitte A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett Ivan Nova
Ivan Nova Sergio Mitre

There is no questioning that the one on the left is the preferable option. The only unknown is of how big a difference exists between Pettitte and Mitre. An initial reaction might have the difference pegged at a few wins, but I’m not sure it’s that wide a gap. In fact, given each pitcher’s limitations I think we’re talking about a single win, maybe even less.

The assumptions

As Mike did yesterday, I won’t count on Pettitte for a full season’s worth of starts. In the same way, I won’t count on Mitre for that, either, since the last time he started more than 10 games was in 2007. I also assumed 6.1 IP per start for Pettitte and 5.2 per start for Mitre. That leaves Pettitte with 126.2 IP and Mitre with 113.1. That’s just 13.1 additional bullpen innings, which we’ll have to factor in somehow.

The tougher part of this exercise is projecting ERAs. Bill James forecasts Pettitte at 3.86 and Mitre at 4.57, but I think both of those are a bit aggressive. But let’s keep them in the bank, just in case. As a rough estimate of ERA, I’d peg Pettitte at 4.00 and Mitre at his career ERA, 5.27. Let’s see how the differences work out.

The results

If we go with the James projections, Pettitte works out to 54 earned runs, or 2.7 ER/GS. Mitre works out to 58 ER, or 2.9 ER/GS. In 20 starts that amounts to a whopping four runs. Even if we go with the more conservative 4.00 and 5.27 estimates, we get Pettitte at 56 ER, or 2.8 ER/GS, and Mitre at 66 ER, or 3.3 ER/GS. That’s a 10-run difference — or roughly a single win. Now that we’ve put it in the simplest possible terms, it doesn’t seem like that big a difference, does it? We can adjust up or down, but I don’t think you’ll get an exceedingly different answer unless you think Mitre will produce something like a 7 ERA. I don’t think that particularly likely.

The bullpen

Where we actually get the biggest difference is with the bullpen. Those are just 13.1 innings, but they’re 13.1 innings that are already accounted for with Pettitte. This obviously can fluctuate wildly. If we have those innings filled by 2010 Chan Ho Park, that’s another 8 ER. If they’re thrown by David Robertson it’s 6 ER; with Boone Logan it’s 4 ER; with Mo it’s 3. I’d say 5 ER is a decent compromise.

That brings our difference between Mitre and Pettitte — accounting for earned runs and innings pitched — to somewhere between 9 and 15 ER over 20 starts, or between .45 and .75 runs per start. That’s going to cost the Yankees a couple of those 20 games. But the key term is a couple. It’s hard to argue that the difference would amount to much more than that.

Bringing back Petitte will clearly make the Yankees rotation better. There is no reliable measure that can say otherwise. But given both Pettitte’s and Mitre’s limitations, the difference might not be as great as we imagine. In the AL East two wins will matter plenty. But the difference between Pettitte and Mitre is not the difference between a .500 team and a 92-win team. Unfortunately, the small difference that does exist could play a large role in determining the 2011 postseason.

Mailbag: From Double-A to MLB

Not yet, Manny. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Jamie asks: First I’ll start off by saying I’m confident that the Yanks will sign or trade for another SP prior to Spring Training and this question becomes moot. However, if they don’t there’s been talk of using kids to fill the rotation out with names like Betances and Banuelos thrown out there. My question is, how often have teams’ top pitching prospects skipped AAA entirely and have there been many pitchers that have been successful in doing so? What’s the best/worst case scenario we could see out of ManBan or Dellin if either were the 5th starter?

I did some digging around and it turns out that quite a few top pitching prospects skipped the Triple-A level before jumping into the big leagues, including current Yankee ace CC Sabathia. He made ten High-A starts in 2000 before being promoted at midseason and making another 17 starts with Double-A, and the next year he made the Indians’ rotation as a 20-year-old right out of Spring Training. His lone career Triple-A start was a rehab outing in 2006. A.J. Burnett made the jump from Double-A to the majors in 1999, but he went back to the minors to start the 2000 season before resurfacing in June. He made all of one Triple-A start before sticking in the show.

Some of the other notable big leaguers that skipped Triple-A all together: Justin Verlander (just 20 minor league starts total, seven in Double-A), Mat Latos (nine Double-A starts), Clayton Kershaw (16 Double-A starts), Josh Beckett (13 Double-A starts), Scott Kazmir (eight Double-A starts), and former Yankee first round pick Eric Milton (14 Double-A starts). Tim Lincecum (five), Roy Oswalt (five), and Cole Hamels (three) all made a very limited number of Triple-A starts before sticking in the big leagues. The Tigers were aggressive with Verlander but he was a college draft pick; Rick Porcello was a high school kid that famously jumped from High-A to the big leagues in 2009. Half-a-decade earlier, the Tigers did the exact same thing with Jeremy Bonderman. Yeah, Detroit likes to be aggressive with their prospects. Johan Santana jumped from High-A to the big leagues as well, but he was a Rule 5 Draft pick, so his situation was a little different. I’m certain there are more examples out there, but these are just a few.

As for Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, we have to remember that if either guy started the 2011 season in the Yankees rotation, they wouldn’t be just skipping Triple-A, they’d essentially be skipping Double-A as well. Banuelos is still just 19 years old, and he has a total of three starts and 15.1 Double-A innings to his credit. Betances is older in age (22) but not in Double-A experience, his three starts at the level produced a total of 14.1 innings. Combined, the pair have faced 119 batters above the Single-A level. Throwing them to the AL East wolves with that little upper level experience is just asking for trouble. The chances of success are probably like, 5%, and the worst case scenario involves 50 or so innings with a 6+ ERA and a trip back to the minors with confidence at an all-time low.

Thankfully the Yankees have some arms in Triple-A they could turn to first. Hector Noesi and Andrew Brackman are already on the 40-man, and David Phelps can be added without a problem. We can even add Adam Warren to that mix as well. Those four can and should be given a rotation spot before turning to Banuelos or Betances. The time will come for those two, but 2011 is too soon.

The Yanks’ recent history of January & February transactions

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The holidays are always a slow time for baseball news, and this year is no different. The Yankees haven’t done anything significant this offseason beyond agreeing to a deal with Pedro Feliciano, so any further improvements to the team will have to take place after the New Year. I decided to take a look back at the moves the team has made in January and February of the last five years just to get an idea of what we can expect over the next few weeks, and unsurprisingly, it’s nothing excited. Let’s recap…

2010
January: Signed Royce Ring, traded Mitch Hilligoss for Greg Golson.
February: Signed Marcus Thames, Dustin Moseley, and Chan Ho Park.

Ring didn’t contribute much to the Yankees since he spent basically all season in Triple-A Scranton, but Golson played quite a bit in September as a pinch runner and defensive specialist. He even made the postseason roster. Thames, Moseley, and CHoP all spent a lot of time with the big league team, though Thames was the only one to have a positive impact. Park was the only one of the three on a big league contract, but he had a case of homeritis before being cut at the trade deadline. Moseley was below replacement level filling in for Andy Pettitte.

2009
January: Signed Pettitte and Angel Berroa, finalized deal with Mark Teixeira.
February: Signed Brett Tomko.

Tex agreed to his deal a few days before Christmas, but it wasn’t made official until after the holidays. The same will be true of Feliciano this winter. Berroa was a minor league signing that ended up spending some time with the big league team after both Alex Rodriguez and (shudder) Cody Ransom hit the disabled list. Tomko was another minor league deal that was sub-replacement level in a handful of appearances for the Yanks before being jettisoned.

Pettitte was coming off a terrible second half in 2008 and was doing the retire or not retire thing all winter, then the Yankees played hardball with him salary-wise. I suspect we’ll get some resolution as to Pettitte’s status for next season during January, one way or the other.

2008
January: Signed Billy Traber and Morgan Ensberg.
February: No significant moves.

Blah. Both Traber and Ensberg were signed to minor league contracts yet opened the season on the 25-man roster, but both guys were terrible and banished to the minors and released before the All Star break, respectively. It’s worth noting that the Yanks did sign both Al Aceves and Manny Banuelos in February, but those were long-term moves not necessarily designed to impact the 2008 team.

2007
January: Signed Doug Mientkiewicz and Miguel Cairo. Traded Randy Johnson and $2M to Arizona for Luis Vizcaino, Ross Ohlendorf, Alberto Gonzalez, and Steven Jackson.
February: Signed Ron Villone.

Minky! (AP Photo/Jerry Lai)

Finally, something interesting. Minky was better with the Yankees than people remember, posting a .346 wOBA with studly defense at first. Cairo and Villone stunk, and the writing had been on the wall about an RJ trade for weeks by time it was consummated. Vizcaino was the team’s best middle reliever that year, at least until Joba Chamberlain showed up in August, and Rock ‘n Rohlendorf was actually on the postseason roster that season. Gonzalez did little in his brief time in New York, Jackson even less. The trade did save the Yankees $14M, money they eventually gave to Roger Clemens when they signed him at midseason.

2006
February: Signed Bernie Williams, Octavio Dotel, Miguel Cairo, and Al Leiter. Finalized deal with Johnny Damon.
February: Claimed Darrell Rasner off waivers from Washington. Signed Scott Erickson.

Bernie’s deal was just a formality since we all knew he was coming back, and Damon’s contract was made official after being agreed to in December. Dotel was on a minor league rehab deal as he came back from Tommy John surgery, but his contribution to the Yankee cause later that season was minimal. Cairo and Leiter were forgettable, as was Erickson. Rasner proved useful for a few seasons before heading to Japan, though he was never anything special. Just a nice arm to take a beating whenever the team needed it.

* * *

For the most part, every move made in January and February over the last five seasons has involved complementary pieces or minor league filler, not counting Damon and Tex. Pettitte should get resolved next month like I said, and based on recent history, any moves the Yankees make before Spring Training will be rather insignificant. They’ll probably bring in a starting pitcher, but we all know it’s unlikely to be some kind of high-end arm. Count on it being an innings guy for depth. With any luck, he’ll be better than Rasner.