Phil Hughes and a dose of reality

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Although he’s still only 25, it feels like Phil Hughes has lived a baseball lifetime with the Yankees. He’s gone from first round pick (2004) to top prospect (2005-2006) to disappointing rookie (2007-2008) to dominant reliever (2009) to dominant starter (early-2010) to disappointing starter (mid-2010 to present) with a lot of injuries in between. The Yankees have him penciled into a rotation spot for next season at the moment, but Phil is aware that he’s passed of the point of getting by on potential.

“I’m at a point where the patience is running out,” he said to Mark Feinsand on Wednesday. “I’m not a prospect anymore and I’m not 21 years old anymore. You’re gauged on what kind of year you had, not what you’re capable of doing.”

Like he said, Hughes is not a kid anymore. His big league career is 120 games and 443.2 IP old already, he’s no longer cheap (MLBTR projects a $3.4M salary next season), and he’s now just two years away from free agency. The training wheels are off, at least to a certain extent. Given their current rotation situation, it makes sense for the Yankees to give Phil yet another chance at starting rather than banish him back to the bullpen, where he looked quite good at the end of the season and in the ALDS. That is subject to change depending on how the offseason plays out, though.

After coming to camp out of shape last year, Hughes has been working out with Ricky Romero at Athletes Performance Institute near his Southern California home this winter. Feinsand says he started throwing three weeks ago, a full month earlier than usual.

“I want to make sure to get that out of the way now so there are no lingering effects when we start camp in February,” said Hughes, referring to the dead arm phase that hits most pitchers at some point in Spring Training and hurt him in the first half of this past season. “I want my arm to be in shape and be ready to go full-bore when we report.”

That’s great to hear, but words aren’t worth very much. Spending the offseason at API speaks to his (re)commitment to conditioning more than anything else, you know, the whole “actions speak louder than words” thing. Hughes has to treat next season as his last chance (not that it will be, but that’s how he should approach it), because he’s going to have a rotation spot barring some unexpected and significant pitching additions in the coming weeks. He’s going to have the opportunity to help the team as well as himself in a big way, by potentially establishing himself as a bonafide big leaguer starter and earning himself a nice payday in the following season.

“It’s always good to hear your manager say that he expects you to be in that spot,” said Hughes, referring to some recent comments made by Joe Girardi. “But at the end of the day, if you don’t do what you’re expected to do, there’s going to be somebody that will.”

Sick of this.

Yesterday Larry chronicled how past offseason activity compares to the current state of “no news yesterday, today or tomorrow”. Given the healthy condition of the Yankees roster and the dearth of good options on the free agency or trade market (for now), Larry concludes that this peaceful offseason is a actually a blessing, even if it is a bit boring:

However, in the aftermath of the Cliff Lee non-signing, standing relatively pat for the remainder of last offseason…and continuing to stand his ground at the trade deadline back at the end of July, Brian Cashman’s strategy of waiting things out — and perhaps not even making a significant move at all — may not be such a bad thing. Especially if Kenny Williams finally comes calling bearing gifts of John Danks and/or Gavin Floyd.

This is true, of course. There has hardly been a good opportunity squandered by the Yankees since the Dan Haren deal, and their inactivity is really more of a function of the market than reticence or over-caution. In fact, the front office’s ability to keep calm and carry on and not sell the farm on risky ventures is a testament to their intelligence, and patience.

Yet, I can’t help myself in feeling just a little bit antsy, and quite a bit bored, with how the Hot Stove season has gone so far. It’s been weeks and weeks since the Yankees were eliminated and the most interesting news to come out of Yankeeland and MLB writ large has been the re-signing of CC Sabathia, something of a fait accompli in my mind, and the changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That’s it. No rumors of a blockbuster trade, no mystery team, no secret meetings. Just nothing but boring. Like the kid in Sandlot, I don’t think I can take much more. As Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me [rumors] or [take away my Internet access].”

This problem is compounded by thorough and analytical coverage here at River Ave Blues. Whenever a rumor surfaces, readers can count on Joe or Mike to quickly put together a Scouting the Market piece and examine the pros and cons of the target. Yet they always provide three or four good reasons why a trade won’t happen. I know everyone’s trade proposal sucks, but yeesh fellas, let a guy dream on Cole Hamels or Andrew McCutchen for a day before you kill the idea.  It’s gotten so bad (and they’ve gotten so good) that they often will quash a trade target before I even know the player is available. They’re murdering my Hot Stove Dreams faster than I can dream them up.

Sick of this.

Part of the consolation of a baseball-less half-year is the fact that the offseason unfolds in a manner unlike any other sport. Much like the game itself, baseball’s free agency is a languid and leisurely process, dawdling and lingering before wrapping up in January; trade rumors kick up in the first set of winter meetings and refuse to die for weeks; and avid fans are treated to a solid eight or more weeks of news and gossip before February settles in and the countdown to Spring Training begins in earnest. Aside from the absence of actual games, at times it feels like baseball never leaves.

So while I’m generally comfortable with the team’s roster, I’m with Larry and others in hoping the club can add one or more starter pitchers this winter. And before they ink these pitchers to shiny new deals or ship out prospects to get them, I’d very much like to have a lovely drawn-out period in which the team is linked, truthfully or not, to all the names out there. All of them. Tell me Prince Fielder wants to live in Alpine with CC and let me try to figure out how in the world they could pay $180 million for just a DH, and with Montero on board to boot. Tell me Cash had dinner with Big Papi at Tap. Tell me Jack Z. and Felix just aren’t getting along. Tell me Tim Lincecum cut his hair and has been spending time in the Village. Tell me all of it.

It’s been a long time since Ben, Mike, Joe and I gnawed our way through our hats and watched in agony as the team failed in Game 5 of the ALDS. It’s been a long time since Joe and I stood at the mezzanine level in the bottom of the 4th with the bases jacked and one out and ate our hot dogs and banged on the metal tables and hollered until security told us to stop, and then acted like we forgot and did it again, only to see Martin and Gardner pop out and the rally die. But it hasn’t been long enough. A new year is almost here, and that means a new team. And until I get that new team, I’d like very much to dream on what could be. Help a brother out; it’s starting to get cold.

Scouting The Trade Market: Andrew McCutchen

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Brock Fleeger via Creative Commons license)

The Yankees have focused on improving their starting rotation this offseason and rightfully so. Even with Freddy Garcia back in the fold, they still stand to open the season with no fewer than two question marks in the rotation, and it’s really more like four question marks behind undisputed ace CC Sabathia. Just because the rotation needs help doesn’t mean the rest of the team gets ignored though, and just because the offense is a strength doesn’t mean it can’t be further improved.

Earlier this week, it was reported that the Pirates are open to listening to trade offers for center fielder Andrew McCutchen, a report the team unsurprisingly denied a few hours later. The two sides discussed about a long-term contract extension earlier this year, though talks slowed during the summer and there haven’t been any reports of progress lately. A player of McCutchen’s caliber fits on pretty much every team, regardless of who they already have in the outfield. Rather than do the usual Pros & Cons shtick, I’m going to break his game down into the three basic parts of baseball: offense, defense, and baserunning. Let’s start with the bat…

Offense

Since breaking into the league in June of 2009, McCutchen has consistently produced about 25% better than league average with the bat. In fact, his wRC+’s by year from 2009-2011 are 125, 125, and 129. It all starts with his approach at the plate. McCutchen works deep counts, having seen 4.18 pitches per plate appearance this past season (12th highest in baseball) and 4.10 for his career. That’s Kevin Youkilis (4.18 in 2011) and Nick Swisher (4.07) territory. Those deep counts lead to a lot of walks — including 13.1% this past season (16th highest in baseball, right behind Youkilis) and 11.7% for his career — but surprisingly not many strikeouts, just 18.6% this year and 16.3% for his career.

McCutchen started to hit more line drives and fly balls this past season, resulting in more power (.198 ISO and 23 homers) but a slightly lower BABIP (.291 after .318 from 2009-2010). After hitting .286 in each of his first two seasons, his average dropped to .259 in 2011 thanks to a late-season slump (.196/.321/.384 in his final 35 games). Like most hitters, he does most of his damage to the pull side, but he can drive the ball with authority to right and right-center. Here’s proof. His spray chart show plenty of balls driven right to the wall to all fields throughout his career…

(via Texas Leaguers)

McCutchen does show a bit of a platoon split, but it’s nothing crazy. He’s posted a .397 wOBA with a .231 ISO against left-handers in his career, but against right-handers those numbers are .347 and .166, respectively. That’s not a major red flag because the performance against same-side pitcher is still above-average. At this point in time right now, McCutchen is a legitimate .275/.365/.450 hitter (.277/.368/.455 career), a level of performance roughly 25 others have been able to maintain over the last three seasons.

Defense

McCutchen is a great example of how flawed defensive metrics still are. They’ve gotten better, but none of them are perfect. All the systems rated him as well below average from 2009-2010, including UZR (-15.0), DRS (-18), Total Zone (-5), and FRAA (-23.7), but they all changed gears and considered him above-average in 2011 (+3.5, +7, +9, and +9.6 respectively). The improvement had nothing to do with McCutchen himself, he’s still the same defensive player he always was. The improvement came from the team’s manager.

Under former skipper John Russell, the Pirates’ outfield used to play what was best described as a no-triples alignment. They played deep with the left and center fielders shaded towards the left-center field gap, the big part of PNC Park. Matt Bandi spent quite a bit of time looking at the club’s outfield alignments at the now-defunct Pittsburgh Lumber Co. Russell was fired last offseason and replaced with Clint Hurdle, who had his outfielders play at more traditional depths and positions.

McCutchen’s defense wasn’t the problem, the metrics were just unable to properly measure his contributions in the no-triples alignment. Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he was a “a potential Gold Glover” with “outstanding instincts and an average arm in center field” before the 2009 season, the last time McCutchen was prospect-eligible. I suspect the advanced metrics will match up with that scouting report in the coming years, as the sample size continues to grow.

Baserunning

(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Although he’s stolen at least 22 bases in his three seasons, including 33 in 2010, McCutchen isn’t the most efficient baserunner. He’s been thrown out exactly ten times each of the last two seasons (56-for-76), a 73.7% success rate that is above the break-even point but not exactly stellar. His 75.0% success rate in the minors suggests he might not get much better than he is right now.

Stolen bases are just part of the baserunning equation though. McCutchen has been able to take the extra base 40% of the time his career, which is essentially the same as the 41% league average. Baseball Prospectus’ baserunning stats say he was a bit below-average at advancing on ground balls, sacrifice flies, and on wild pitches/passed balls this past season, but he was above-average in 2010 and 2009 as well. Either McCutchen suddenly forgot how to run the bases in those situations in 2011, or the data is imperfect. I tend to believe the latter is true.

Smash it all together — stealing bases, taking the extra base on hits, moving up on other balls in play/wild pitches/passed balls — and McCutchen is essentially a league average baserunner. For what it’s worth, FanGraphs’ catch-all baserunning data says he’s been a touch better than average in each of his three seasons. If you’re going to be bad at something, baserunning is a good thing to be bad at.

* * *

Just a few weeks after his 25th birthday, McCutchen is already a true franchise player, a guy that impacts the game on both sides of the ball while playing a premium up-the-middle position. He’s never been on the disabled list, not even in the minors, and thanks to some service time shenanigans he won’t be eligible for arbitration until next season and won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season. That’s four full years of team control left.

A near six-win player in the eyes of both both fWAR (5.7) and bWAR (5.5) this past season, there are few players in the game with more trade value than McCutchen. Obviously, any team hoping to trade for him would need to really blow the Pirates out of the water. A trade involving a star player in his pre-arbitration years is unprecedented, so we don’t have any kind of reference for what a potential trade package would look like. I imagine any teams that call Pittsburgh would start negotiations by opening up their farm system and saying “okay, pick any four.”

Please understand that I’ve set you (and myself) up for extreme disappointment. It’s highly unlikely that the Yankees or any other team will be able to pry McCutchen away from Pittsburgh this offseason, just like no one was able to pry The Justin Upton away from the Diamondbacks last winter despite his reported availability. But man, if the Pirates are sincerely willing to listen the offers … the Yankees should be all over this. Acquiring McCutchen is both a win-now and win-later move.

Trading with the NL

For an introduction to this post, check out last night’s item on the Yanks’ recent trades with AL teams. Tonight, I’m tackling the NL. Some thoughts at the end.

Arizona Diamondbacks: The Yanks and Diamondbacks have made a few key franchise-defining trades over the years. Two of them involved Randy Johnson, and a third sent Ian Kennedy to the desert where he has blossomed. The most recent deal between these two clubs saw Juan Miranda head to Phoenix in 2010 in exchange for minor leaguer Scottie Allen.

Atlanta Braves: The Boone Logan trade on December 22, 2009 was the last deal between these two teams. I will say nothing more of that transaction. Before that, the two teams hadn’t exchanged players since a 1995 deal sent Luis Polonia to the Braves for a nobody.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza seems to be available, and Brian Cashman‘s buddy Theo Epstein is now in charge of the Cubs. Over the past ten years, the Yanks have acquired Matt Lawton (2005) and Glenallen Hill (2000) from the Cubbies.

Cincinnati Reds: On July 31, 2009, the Yanks acquired Jerry Hairston for Chase Weems. They haven’t won a World Series since Hairston left. Coincidence? I think not.

Colorado Rockies: The Yankees and Rockies haven’t done much on the trade market together. Their biggest deal involved sending Mike DeJean to Colorado for Joe Girardi back in 1995. In April 2010, the Yanks acquired Robby Hammock for a PTBNL who was never actually named later.

Florida Marlins: The Yanks and Marlins have made three trades, and one of them was absolutely awful. In 1999, the Yanks sent Mike Lowell to Miami for for Todd Noel, Mark Johnson and Ed Yarnall. Their last deal came in 2005 when the Yanks Ron Villone for Ben Julianel.

Houston Astros: On July 31, 2010, the Yanks sent Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes to the Houston Astros for Lance Berkman. Should of kept.

Los Angeles Dodgers: In 2007, the Yanks took Scott Proctor away from Joe Torre and turned him into Wilson Betemit who eventually became Nick Swisher. Despite their intertwined histories, the Yanks and Dodgers have consummated only 29 trades.

Milwaukee Brewers: On June 29, 2011, the Yanks purchased Sergio Mitre from the Brewers, and there was much rejoicing in the land.

New York Mets: The Yanks have traded just 12 times with their crosstown rivals. Most recently, the clubs swapped southpaws in 2004 when the Yanks shipped out Felix Heredia for Mike Stanton.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Bobby Abreu fleecing marks the most recent trade between these two perennial contenders. In 2006, the Yanks acquired Abreu and Cory Lidle for C.J. Henry, Jesus Sanchez, Carlos Monasterios and Matt Smith.

Pittsburgh Pirates: After a flurry of trade activity in 2008-2009, the Yanks haven’t made a move with the Pirates since they landed Eric Hinske for Casey Erickson and Eric Fryer in June of 2009.

San Diego Padres: Money in exchange for Chad Gaudin in 2009 was the last dealing between these two teams. The Hideki Irabu deal stands out as the biggest between these two teams.

San Francisco Giants: The Yankees and their former executive Brian Sabean have not traded together in ages. The last deal between these two teams came in 2001 when the Yanks sent Jay Witasick, after his disastrous appearance in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, to the Bay Area for John Vander Wal.

St. Louis Cardinals: Not much dealin’ going on here. In June of 2003, the Yanks sent Sterling Hitchcock to St. Louis for Ben Julianel and Justin Pope. I guess they liked that Julianel guy.

Washington Nationals: In February, the Yanks sent Adam Olbrychowski to D.C. for Justin Maxwell. But remember when the Yanks got Javy Vazquez for Randy Choate, Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera? It seemed like quite the deal at the time.

* * *

So that’s the Yanks’ recent trade history. As I’ve gone through the transactions from the other 29 clubs, I’ve noticed that franchise-changing trades happen every few years, and they’re never as expected. In back-to-back seasons, the Yanks landed Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher and tried the same with a well-intentioned Javy Vazquez trade. Otherwise, though, most trades are minor moves that have only tangential impacts on the big league club, and they don’t happen all that often.

Now, we wait. Perhaps the Yanks will make a big splash on the trade market. It seems likely than via free agency this year. But we don’t know what the moves will be or when. Trades that actually happen come together without the media fanfare of rumored deals. It could be Nick Swisher, it could be Mike Lowell or it could just be Chad Gaudin.

New “Resources” Pull-Down Menu

Just a heads up, we’ve done some behind-the-scenes reshuffling, and we now have a new “Resources” pull-down menu in the nav bar above. It’s directly under the “Ave Blues” in the street sign in the banner. This is where you’ll now find neat stuff like the 2012 Draft Order page, the Depth Chart, the Blogroll, and Joe’s ongoing Guide To Stats project. I plan on added some more stuff to it in the future as well, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

Open Thread: Craig Wilson

(Photo via www.bestsportsphotos.com)

A lot of things went wrong for the Yankees in 2006, specifically the injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield and the collapses of 2005 saviors Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon. One of the outfield holes was plugged when Brian Cashman stole Bobby Abreu (and Cory Lidle) from the Phillies at the trade deadline, and he also shored up another hole by trading Chacon to the Pirates for Craig Wilson.

Melky Cabrera was doing a fine job as a rookie (.360 OBP), but Andy Phillips wasn’t getting it done as the regular first baseman. Wilson replaced him after the trade, and his versatility was also supposed to be a plus. He was exactly the kind of guy everyone loves to suggest for a bench job these days; he’d hit 29 homers two years prior to the trade and was capable of playing four positions (catcher, first, and both corner outfield spots). Wilson had a dozen hits in his first ten games with New York, but he just stopped hitting after that. A 10-for-64 finish to the season dropped his Yankees’ batting line to .212/.248/.365 in 109 plate appearances.

The Yankees let Wilson walk as a free agent after the season, and he didn’t have much baseball left in him. He hasn’t seen the big leagues since 2007, and hasn’t even played in the minors since 2008. Wilson turns 35 years old today, so he’s younger than I realized. Baseball-Reference says he managed to bank over $10M during his seven-year career, which is a pretty good head start on life after baseball.

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Here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils are the only local sports team in action tonight, so you’re pretty much on your own as far as entertainment goes. You folks now what to do by now, so have at it.

Bernie headlines 13 newcomers on Hall of Fame ballot

The BBWAA announced the 2012 Hall of Fame Ballot today, with former Yankees star Bernie Williams headlining the group of 13 newcomers. Fellow former Yankees Ruben Sierra, Tony Womack (ha!), and Terry Mulholland are also on the ballot for the first time, joining holdover Don Mattingly. This will be Donnie’s 12th year on the ballot, though he received just 13.9% of the vote last time around. It would take a campaign that would make Jim Rice blush to get Mattingly in the Hall before his 15 years on the ballot are up.

As for Bernie, I don’t expect him to ever get voted into Cooperstown, but I do hope he gets a decent sized vote and maybe spends a few years on the ballot. He was a personal fave, I hope he does well.