The RAB Radio Show: March 16, 2011

Cliff Lee already ticked off Yanks fans by snubbing them in favor of the Phillies. That’s fine. It’s part of the game. But insulting the Yankees using criteria that is actually more critical of the Phillies? This, sir, means war.

And we couldn’t get through the radio show without mentioning Manny Banuelos. I’m clearly baiting Mike here.

Also, new theme music!

Podcast run time 29:09

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich.

Yankees on Felix’s no-trade list

Via Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees are one of ten teams listed in Felix Hernandez’s no-trade clause. Others include the Red Sox, Mets, Angels, Dodgers, and Phillies, so Felix clearly can’t handle the pressure of a big market. Am I doing this right? That’s how it worked for Zack Greinke, no?

Anyway, the reason big market teams are on everyone’s no-trade clause is because they are the clubs that can offer the most in exchange for waiving it. If a player wants an extension or an option picked up as a condition of accepting a trade, well the big market teams can give it to them. It’s that simple, it’s all about maximizing leverage. Should the Yankees and Mariners ever get in serious talks about Felix, the NTC will be the smallest of obstacles.

Link Dump: Banuelos, Montero, Soriano

Here’s a few links to check out as you wait for today’s edition of the RAB Radio Show

Even more on Banuelos

Didn’t get enough talk about why Manny Banuelos shouldn’t start the season in the big league rotation this morning? Luckily for you, Kevin Goldstein tackled the same topic today (subs. req’d), but did so a lot better than I did. “Twenty-year-old starting pitchers in the big leagues are rarities, but having a player like Banuelos, who has made just three starts above Class-A ball, in the big leagues would be nearly unprecedented,” said KG. “Make no mistake about it, Banuelos could at the very least hold his own in the big leagues right now, but the real question revolves around how long he could do it.”

It’s essentially the long-term gain vs. short-term pain argument, but I recommend reading the whole thing.

BA’s Top 20 Rookies

The gang at Baseball America compiled their list of the top 20 rookies for the 2011 season (subs. req’d), led by Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays. This isn’t a top prospect list, it’s a list of players poised to make the greatest contribution to their big league team this year. Hellickson has himself a guaranteed rotation spot, so it’s easy to see why he edged Freddie Freeman of the Braves. Jesus Montero came in at number ten, noting that in the best case scenario he’d “push his way into the catcher and DH slots for 300-400 productive at-bats.” In the worst case, Hey-Zeus could end up back in Triple-A. Big whoop.

No other Yankees farmhands made the cut, though I’m sure Ivan Nova at least garnered some consideration. The fact that Montero is ahead of guys with guaranteed Opening Day jobs like Brent Morel, Michael Pineda, Jake McGee, and Jordan Walden says a lot.

The Soriano Contract

We’ve ripped Rafael Soriano‘s contract to shreds on this corner of the interweb, but what about an objective opinion? Tim Dierkes of MLBTR examined the contract this afternoon, explaining why it’s not guaranteed that Soriano will opt out of his contract even if he has an excellent 2011 season. “A strong 2011 might allow Soriano to find a three-year deal for around $25MM,” said Tim, “but that’s not a big enough improvement over the two years and $23.5MM that would remain on his current deal.  Getting three years as opposed to one after the ’12 season has added appeal, but the Yankees backloaded Soriano’s contract so that it’ll still be a tough choice for him.”

There are a ton of closer-types scheduled to become free agents after the season, so Soriano would have to compete with several other viable alternatives on the open market next summer should he choose to go that route. Then again, when’s the last time a player had an opt-out clause and didn’t use it?

How a suspension screwed the D’Backs and helped the Yankees

When the Yankees signed Juan Carlos Paniagua for $1.1M last week , most of us thought “cool” and moved on. Not the Diamondbacks though. Both Ben Badler and Nick Piecoro explain that Paniagua was originally known as Juan Carlos Collado, and had signed with Arizona for $17,000 back in 2009. MLB later suspended him because he falsified his name (but not his age) and then voided the contract for that same reason. The problem is that Paniagua went from throwing 88-90 to the mid-to-upper 90’s during the suspension, raising his prospect status considerably. Hence the seven figure payout.

“[Paniagua] was probably working out with the Diamondbacks [during the suspension], getting instruction, eating better and then they lost the rights,” said a scout to Badler. “It’s crazy.” It’s messed up and completely unfair, especially if Paniagua really was working out at Arizona’s facility during the suspension. Then again … go Yanks!

Joba: ‘I have no soreness, I have no pain’

Update (1:50pm): Carig reports that the MRI confirmed the oblique strain, but Joba’s well enough that he’ll play some catch as soon as tomorrow. Guess it’s not that bad of a strain.

1:32pm: Via Chad Jennings, Dan Barbarisi & Marc Carig, Joba Chamberlain isn’t feeling any pain in his injured oblique but won’t pitch until at least next week. “I feel fine,” he said. We still haven’t gotten word on the MRI results, but Joba said the team is taking the safe route by holding him off for a week, so I guess that’s a good sign. If it was bad, they probably wouldn’t even have penciled him in for next week.

I do know one thing about oblique problems: if they aren’t given proper time to heal, they can be re-injured very easily. They also hurt like a bitch, you don’t even want to take a deep breath.

2011 Season Preview: Joba & Robertson

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Adding Rafael Soriano to the bullpen improved the team in more innings than just the eighth. By pushing last season’s setup duo of Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson into the middle innings, the Yankees are now able to deploy a pair of super-high strikeout relievers at a point in the game when most other teams are crossing their fingers. That’s a very real advantage for the Yankees, though it’s not enough to make up for the mish-mash of has-beens at the back of the rotation.

Middle relievers are typically the most replaceable part of the roster, and in the last three years we’ve watched the Yankees shuffle guys in and out of that role until they found something that clicked. They shouldn’t have to do that this year, hopefully correcting the early season bullpen woes that have popped up in each of the last few seasons.

Best Case

Looking at Joba and Robertson as one entity of middle innings relief, the best scenario is lock down work bridging the gap between starter and the big guys in the eighth and ninth inning. So many games are won and lost in those middle innings that the tangible effect of having what amounts to two setup men available for those innings could be three or four wins in the standings. That’s the best case, obviously.

Robertson’s performance has been pretty consistent throughout his three big league seasons; he’s always had a 10+ K/9, a walk rate near 4.5 per nine, and has surrendered close to one homer for every eleven innings pitched. His ground ball rate has hovered right around 40% as well. We don’t normally think of D-Rob as a consistent guy, but overall he is. His best case scenario is basically the best of his individual peripherals, meaning a ~13 K/9 (2009) and a ~4.40 BB/9 (2008) and a ~42% ground ball rate (2008). Put that together over 60 innings of medium/high-ish leverage work and you’ve got something very close to a one win middle reliever. That guys aren’t common.

Joba’s different than D-Rob because he’s bounced between starter and reliever so much, but for the first time in his career, he was able to come into camp knowing precisely what his role will be this season. It’ll be very tough for Joba to improve on his 2010 performance in terms of the process stats, meaning his peripherals. A 9.67 K/9 with 2.51 uIBB/9 and a 45.6% ground ball rate (2.98 FIP) is as good as it gets for relievers. His ERA sucked, but blame that on the well-below average 66.6% strand rate and .361 BABIP when runners were in scoring position. If those issues regress to league average (72.2% and ~.300, respectively) and he sees slight improvement in the strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates, we’re talking one of the ten best relievers in the game. Joba’s best case basically has him showing that Soriano was completely unnecessary, a high-leverage grunting and farting monster that invokes memories of 2007.

Worst Case

As is the case with relievers, they can be pretty unpredictable and start sucking for no apparent reason. Small sample size is a part of it, these guys just don’t throw enough innings in a season for their true talent level to win out, as is (usually) the case with starters. Aside from injury, the worst thing that can happen to Robertson would be his own fault, if he starts nibbling more and more. If he does that and his walk rate climbs over 5.00 BB/9 while the strikeout rate drops below one per inning (because hitters aren’t chasing anymore), then he’s going to have a problem and is no better than Brian Bruney.

For whatever reason, some people are acting like 2010 was Joba’s worst case. I guess it was in terms of ERA and stuff like that, but we’re smarter than that (I think). There are the standard concerns, like his strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates declining for whatever reason, but it seems like Joba’s worst enemy are expectations. If he puts up Daniel Bard peripherals in 2011, he will have gotten worse. Seriously. I guess the worst thing Chamberlain could do is pitch like he did as a starter in 2009 (7.61 K/9, 4.35 BB/9, 4.82 FIP) out of the bullpen, in which case he’s just a slight upgrade over Sergio Mitre and falls into that “only when losing” cache of relievers. There’s also this rib/oblique issue, and that could carry over into the season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

Like I said, relievers are incredibly unpredictable, so this section is nothing more than an exercise in guesswork. We’d like to think that we’ve seen enough of Joba and D-Rob to know what to expect out of them in 2011, but it doesn’t matter. Reliever volatility is a bitch.

One thing I do expect to see is some improvement in Robertson’s control issues. He walked 4.45 batters per nine in 2008 (30.1 IP), then walked 4.74 per nine in 2009 (43.2 IP), and then last year it was 4.84 per nine (61.1 IP), however intentional walks are inflating those numbers a bit though, especially since Robertson issued six of ’em last year. If we take those out, we’re talking about a 3.86 uIBB/9 in 2008, 4.53 in 2009, and 3.96 in 2010. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not great, but it’s a better indicator of his ability. Robertson’s never going to be a control artist, but a walk rate right around four is tolerable.

To be honest, Joba just needs to keep doing what he did last year and the success will come. He struck guys out, didn’t walk many, got some ground balls, it’s just that some of the stuff out of his control didn’t go his way. I’m encouraged by his new mechanics, but that’s probably nothing more than Spring Training optimism talking. His velocity returned in the second half, so hopefully that’s sustainable. I fully expect these two to perform like they have over the last two years, at least in terms of the underlying performance. What happens with ERA is anyone’s guess.

How Romulo Sanchez Fits

Attractive, Romulo. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Heading into spring training, the Yankees bullpen situation appeared relatively set. Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and Pedro Feliciano constituted six out of the seven members. Sergio Mitre or Ivan Nova figured to be the last. But, as so often happens, guys got hurt. While Mitre appears ready for action again, the Yankees are taking a more cautious tack with Chamberlain. If he doesn’t respond to treatment for his oblique, his absence could open up an opportunity in the bullpen.

One pitcher who could benefit is Romulo Sanchez. Acquired from the Pirates in exchange for Eric Hacker, Sanchez entered his second Yankees camp with an ultimatum. Since he’s out of options, the Yankees must add him to the active roster or else expose him to waivers. Given his hard-throwing nature, there’s a strong chance that another team takes a chance. Previously Sanchez’s departure seemed a foregone conclusion. But now with a couple of injuries in camp he might have a chance.

When the Pirates traded Sanchez to the Yankees, he didn’t appear to have much potential. For the first two years of his minor league career he possessed the undesirable combination of low strikeout rate and high walk rate. But in 2007 he started mowing down more hitters and walking fewer, which led to his first big league call-up. That was a mostly unsuccessful 18 innings, but the promise was still there. But in 2008, in AAA, his strikeout rate dipped again. He did pitch 13.1 big league innings scattered throughout the year, but he wasn’t particularly impressive. That helps explain why the Pirates traded him for a low-potential pitcher such as Hacker.

Again in 2009 Sanchez saw his strikeout rate spike, this time to nearly a batter per inning in Scranton. His walk rate was still high, but that’s always easier to stomach with a high strikeout rate. In 2010 he showed that it was no fluke, as he struck out 8.3 per nine. Of course, he also walked 5.1 per nine. His lack of control was on display during his paltry 4.1 innings in the Bronx, most of which came during an early May appearance against the Red Sox. The potential remains, but the control issues are what holds Sanchez back.

This spring has seen more of the same. Sanchez has pitched in four games, totaling 4.1 innings, and has walked four batters. Yet he has struck out only one. Even still, as Ken Rosenthal reported yesterday, scouts have been impressed by Sanchez. That’s not too surprising, since spring stats, especially in such a minuscule sample, can be deceiving. If he really has looked impressive this spring, it would be a shame for the Yankees to lose him. With their current injuries, they might not have to.

If Chamberlain opens the season on the DL, I’m fairly certain that Sanchez would take his place. That would only last a week or so, but it would give Sanchez a big league audition before the Yankees make a decision on him. Perhaps that extra time will convince the Yankees that Sanchez is a suitable replacement for Sergio Mitre. But, chances are that it will just delay his inevitable placement on the waiver wire.

On a team with fewer options in the bullpen, Sanchez makes sense. Even on the Yankees he might provide a better option than Mitre in the seventh-man/long-man bullpen role. Still, the concerns about his wildness will probably prevent him from capturing a long-term spot on the team. Injuries to two relievers might open up a temporary opportunity, but Sanchez still likely won’t be a Yankee come May.

The time is not now for Banuelos

There is no more optimistic time of the year than Spring Training. The old cliche is that every team is in first place, and the reports of players adding a new pitch or refining their swing mechanics allow the optimistic part of our imagination run wild. Included in that is prospects, who we can watch flash the talent that makes them a prospect in the first place, and then somehow get lumped into the mix for a big league job. Just over two weeks away from the start of the regular season, Manny Banuelos finds himself in that spot.

The little lefty, who turned 20 this past Sunday, made his first start (and fourth appearance) of the Grapefruit League schedule Monday night, holding what figures to be the Red Sox’s Opening Day lineup (sans J.D. Drew) scoreless for 2.2 innings. Banuelos worked out of trouble in both the first and second innings, the latter with the bases loaded and one out. His night came to an end when Kevin Youkilis swung and missed at a 3-2 changeup, a pitch 20-year-olds aren’t supposed to throw. That’s a big league pitch. Overall, Banuelos has thrown 7.2 scoreless innings this spring, striking out ten while walking four and allowing that same number of hits. Sergio Mitre is the only other pitcher on the staff to have thrown at least five innings while allowing no runs.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

While he certainly looks ready when he’s out on the mound, we have to remember that Banuelos is just a kid, a kid with 15.1 Double-A innings to his credit. If you want to add in the playoffs, it’s 25 Double-A innings. If you want to be really generous and include his time in the Arizona Fall League after the season, then it’s 50 innings against Double-A caliber competition. Either way, it’s not a whole lot, which is why he isn’t/shouldn’t be in the mix for a big league job.

One reason I want to see Banuelos go back to the minors is because I want to see him get his ass handed to him. Struggles are good for development because a) a player learns to deal with failure, and b) the team gets to see how they react. Diamondbacks’ ace Ian Kennedy is a classic example of a pitcher that had to learn about failure in the show. That guy never struggled on a baseball field in his entire life, and all through high school and college and minors he was told he was the bomb and was going to make it. Then he gets to the bigs and finds out that hitters couldn’t care less about how good you were in the minors or how high you were drafted. A solid month of getting hit around by hitters isn’t necessarily bad for Banuelos’ development, but it’s bad for the team if he experiences that for the first time in the majors, in games that actually count. His poise has been universally praised, but I want to see it put to the test.

There’s also the innings issue. Counting the playoffs and AzFL, Banuelos threw just 99.1 IP last summer, a year after throwing 109 IP. He’s probably good for 150 this season, which will carry him through mid-August. If the team gets “creative,” maybe he lasts through September. Either way, we’ve seen Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain wilt down the stretch under career high workloads in the last two years, so let’s not make it three in a row. Plus Banuelos is so young remember, he’s still developing physically and his workload has to monitored carefully.

Trust me, I don’t want to see Freddy Garcia and/or Bartolo Colon making starts for the Yankees any more than you do. If it was up to me from a pure entertainment standpoint, Banuelos would be in the starting rotation along with Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman. However, it’s not like the team doesn’t have viable alternatives stashed away in Triple-A for Garcia’s and Colon’s inevitable flame-out, rushing Banuelos is just bad news. He clearly has the talent to be a long-term fixture for a championship-caliber team, and there’s no need to screw around with that for an extra win or two this year.