The RAB Radio Show: January 20, 2011

When the Yankees officially announced the Rafael Soriano signing, he became the 40th man on the 40-man roster. That means when they want to add Andruw Jones or Andy Pettitte, they’ll have to remove someone from the 40-man. Mike and I run down some names you might recognize, and then talk about who is the first to go.

The podcast centers on the 40-man, but we hit some pretty decent tangents. Find out when Mike saw the Giants use Randy Winn at third base, and why I enjoyed Ian Kennedy’s debut more than I did Phil’s and Joba’s.

Podcast run time 35:22

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About that bullpen

Much has been written about the Rafael Soriano signing and for most part it’s been for all the wrong reasons. The contract itself has been criticized, the way ownership drove the deal has been criticized, Brian Cashman‘s comments at yesterday’s press conference have been criticized, you name it and it’s been criticized. Let’s move away from the criticism for a second and look at something that hasn’t gotten much attention since Soriano agreed to come on board: the Yankees have a fantastic bullpen right now.

Say your prayers little one. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Barring trade or injury, the Yanks will open the season with Mariano Rivera filling his customary closer’s role and Soriano serving as his primary setup man. That pushes both David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain into middle relief roles, essentially filling the gaps between the starter and Soriano. Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano will take care of the tough left-handed batters. The seventh man in the pen figures to be a low-leverage long reliever, ideally Sergio Mitre. We know what Mo brings the table and there’s not much to say about him that hasn’t been said over the last 15 years. He gives the Yankees a clear advantage over every other team in the league, so let’s focus on those middle innings instead. That’s where a ton of games are won and lost anyway.

The table to the right has the strikeout rate of the team’s three right-handed middle innings guys over the last three years, as well as their rank out of the 171 qualified relievers (min. 100 IP). Robertson trails only Carlos Marmol (12.99 K/9), Billy Wagner (12.41), and Jonathan Broxton (11.94) in strikeout rate, and those three are all closers. If we remove the now retired Wagner, just five teams will go into the 2011 season with more than one of the top 25 strikeout relievers (Yanks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Padres), but the Yankees are the only club with three. You’d have to stretch the list to the top 33 if you want to find another club with three top right-handed strikeouts guys, and that’s the Padres.

If we look at just overall reliever FIP with the same 100 IP minimum, the Yankees own two of the top ten over the last three years. Joba (2.71) is ninth and Soriano (2.78) is tenth, but remember, we’re not counting Rivera here, and his 2.56 FIP is sixth best over the last three seasons. The Padres are the only other team with two of the top ten FIP’s when you remove the closer position. Robertson isn’t exactly an FIP fiend because he does walk quite a few, but his 3.40 mark since 2008 is 39th best in the game. Among the top 40, the only clubs with at least four relievers on the list are the Yanks, Padres, and Rangers, and two of Texas’ guys are lefty specialists. The Yanks and San Diego are the only clubs with four right-handed relievers in the top 40 FIP over the last three seasons. Clearly, those two clubs are heading into the season with some dynamite righty relief.

Shifting over to the lefties, well, we can’t do much with Logan. His record of big league success is basically the second half of 2010, about 12% of his career innings. He’s just as likely to tank in 2011 as he is repeat that second half performance, and that uncertainty is why the Yankees went out and got Pedro Feliciano. Over the last three seasons, only three lefty relievers can top Feliciano’s 2.80 FIP against left-handed batters (Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Thornton, Randy Choate (grrr)) and only eight can top his 9.61 K/9. One of those eight is Logan at 10.34.

There are obviously quite a few benefits to having so many relievers of this caliber, and an important one is rest. Not that Joe Girardi has had a trouble spreading the workload around in the past, but now he can back off guys and not sacrifice much, if any quality. This will come in handy particularly with the 41-year-old Rivera, who can forget about working back-to-back-to-back days or multiple innings until the playoffs. That was a big part of Joe Torre’s problem, he’d wear his top relievers down during the summer and they were toast come playoff time.

In the past, before Cashman altered his bullpen building strategy, we watched as the Yankees chased that elusive bridge to Rivera, often focusing on one quality setup man while the middle relief suffered. That should not be any problem this year, as Girardi will be able to employ what amounts to two above-average, high strikeout setup men in the middle innings while mixing in one of the game’s top lefty specialists as needed. Once those innings are taken care of, it’s hammer time with Soriano and Mo. Of course this is all on paper, we know who quickly a bullpen situation can change, but right now the Yankees are remarkably deep in quality relief arms.

Imaginging Brett Gardner as Luis Castillo

(Kathy Willens/AP)

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Brett Gardner can pass for a major leaguer. Throw in his speed, and he looks like a fourth outfielder. What’s hard to believe is that, by fWAR, he was ninth most valuable outfielder in the bigs and the most valuable on the Yankees. That’s what a .383 OBP and some serious defensive skills will do. Still, there’s the question of whether Gardner can keep up this level of production. He doesn’t have the power that will cause pitchers to avoid throwing him strikes. How, then, will he continue to provide value to the team?

Baseball history isn’t exactly filled with high-OBP, low-SLG players. Since 1980, only 217 times has a player who qualified for the batting title finished the season with a higher OBP than SLG. Brett Gardner’s 2010 was his first. Other notable players on this list include Ozzie Smith, who did it nine times, and Rickey Henderson, who appears eight times. While those are interesting names, it’s best not to compare Gardner to Hall of Famers. There’s another name that appears eight times: Luis Castillo. We’d all be ecstatic if Gardner followed a similar career path.

What, you think I'd do a post involving Castillo and not include this?

Castillo already has a head start. By his age-26 season, Gardner’s age in 2011, he had already finished three seasons with an OBP greater than .360 — and in two of the years it was .384 and .418. In each of his seasons between age-27 and age-31 he produced an OBP of at least .358, and reached as high as .391. He’s become something of a punchline during the last three seasons, but even then he had a .387 OBP in 580 PA in 2009. Castillo might not have made headlines at the plate, but he was a steady contributor to the Marlins, Twins, and even the Mets, for over a decade.

Where this comparison takes a strange turn is when we look at Castillo’s power. With an OBP higher than his SLG in eight seasons, it’s easy to ascertain that Castillo doesn’t hit for many extra bases. That he has 28 career home runs comes as no surprise. What’s a bit surprising is his paltry career doubles total: 194. Only twice in his career did he hit more than the 20 doubles that Gardner did in 2010. Never has he topped a .082 ISO. To put his .061 career ISO in perspective, Francisco Cervelli‘s ISO was .064 in 2010. We often think of Gardner as powerless, but Castillo presents the definitive case.

Just because Brett Gardner and Luis Castillo are both low-power players who can draw a walk does not mean that one’s career path will follow the other’s. But Castillo, and the other repeat offenders on the OBP > SLG list, show that it can be done. We can only hope that Gardner progresses similarly to Castillo. With OBPs that high, combined with his range in the outfield and speed on the base paths, Gardner can be a solid, and perhaps undervalued, contributor to the Yankees for years to come.

Damned if you do…

They disrespected him by overpaying him. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

As crummy as this offseason has been, one thing it did do was show that no matter what moves the Yankees make, they’re never right. There’s always backlash, whether it’s from us, the MSM, the fans, whoever. Every single move, from the smallest minor league signing to the latest record-setting contract, it’s wrong in one way or another. Seriously, people were complaining about the Steve Evarts signing, and I’m willing to bet a whole lot of them had completely forgotten the Yankees signed the guy until just now. The Cliff Lee, Derek Jeter, and Rafael Soriano situations all prove this point as well. Each and every one was wrong in one way or the other.

Back in November and early-December, when it appeared as though the Yankees were the favorite to sign Lee, the narrative was that giving a 30-something finesse pitcher a long-term deal was a terrible idea. He’ll break down, he doesn’t have enough margin for error, yadda yadda yadda. Then once the Phillies landed Lee, the story became “how could they let him get away!” Nice, easy, and convenient. It doesn’t matter that everyone was talking about what a bad idea it was just a few weeks earlier, they failed to get him and that was a mistake.

The Jeter situation was in a class by itself. We had one side saying the Yanks needed to be firm with an aging and declining player while another was saying that they had to give him whatever he wanted because, dude, it’s Derek Jeter. The Yankees got him to take a pay cut on an average annual basis but signed him through age 40 with zero competition on the open market. They managed to disrespect him and cave into his demands at the same time, depending on who you ask. Same deal with Soriano. They needed this guy because the rotation’s awful and they can shorten the game but OH MY GOD DO YOU SEE THAT CONTRACT?

Perhaps my favorite narrative of the winter is that the Yankees aren’t spending enough money and are now being frugal. This is coming after years and years and years of stories and articles and blog posts declaring that the team was ruining baseball by buying all the best players. They dropped half-a-billion dollars* on three players two winters ago and will still have the highest payroll in the game, but no, they’re not spending enough. And if they had signed someone else, be it Lee or Carl Crawford or whoever, those bastards are ruining the game and the competitive balance all that.

* It was really $423.5M, but you’re allowed to artificially mark things up 18.1% to support your narrative, apparently. Half-a-billion just sounds better, facts are irrelevant.

Oh, oh, and then there’s the prospects. How can they worry about giving up the 31st overall pick, have you seen the list of players taken with that pick? Rewind back a few years and we were talking about how the Yankees have no farm system because they gave up all their draft picks to sign free agents and traded anyone with an iota of prospect status for the latest band-aid, and in a few years we’ll probably be saying the same thing again. It’s just the nature of farm system, they cycle between good and bad every few years. But for the Yankees, it’s always a problem. Too many prospects? Why aren’t they calling them up/trading them oh my goodness they love their own minor leaguers too much. Not enough good prospects? How can this possibly be with their resources I don’t understand. Lose-lose.

Yankee bashing is a pastime as old as the game itself, and the current age of media just makes it more prevalent. It’s a vicious cycle, and no matter what the Yanks do, it will always be wrong in the court of public opinion. We’re all guilty of it, no question. It sucks and there’s nothing we can do about it, but it goes to show what kind of world this team has to operate in.

Probably a Yankee by any other name

Visual proof that Carl Pavano did indeed make some starts for the Yankees. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After Cliff Lee shocked the baseball world and signed with the Phillies, I wasn’t quite sure what the Yankees would do, but I thought they might kick the tires on the second-best free agent pitcher on the market. After all, with Andy Pettitte‘s 2011 role uncertain and A.J. Burnett‘s ability to get outs under fire, the Yankees need someone to throw quality innings, and this free agent could do that.

Over the past two seasons, this free agent had pitched reasonably well. Splitting time between a bottom feeder and a division leader in 2009 and spending all of 2010 with the AL Central champs, he went 31-23 with a 4.39 ERA and a FIP around 4.01 in 420 innings. He posted a combined K/9 IP of 5.7 but saw his strike outs dip from 6.6 per 9 innings in 2009 to 4.8 in 2010. It didn’t matter though because he allowed just one home run every nine innings and gave up the second fewest bases on balls in the AL. With a heavy sinker, he also exhibited ground-ball tendencies, a trait that allows a pitcher to succeed with low strike-out rates.

There was but one problem: His name was Carl Pavano, and he had a history with the Yankees. His history, as we well know, wasn’t just any history; it was an injury-filled disastrous history that saw many questioning his desire to play baseball and others accusing him of flat-out ripping off the Yankees. Pavano signed a four-year, $39.95 million deal with the Yankees and made just 26 starts over the course of the deal. It was an epic disaster.

Of course, at the time of Pavano’s signing in December of 2004, the deal wasn’t a bad one, and it’s often easy to forget that. After the Yanks’ epic 2004 ALCS collapse, the team needed pitching, and Pavano hit the market after back-to-back 200-inning seasons. The Yanks’ 2003 World Series loss was fresh in the Front Office’s mind, and Pavano was one of the arms that had stymied the Yanks’ bats. So the wooing began.

It was quite the courtship. Pavano made the tour of the league, stopping in Boston, Detroit, New York, Baltimore and Seattle. Everybody wanted the right-hander, and he had his choice of destinations. Eventually, he landed with New York and called it a “dream come true.”

That dream though became a nightmare. By mid-2006, Pavano had, as ESPN.com reported, sustained “shoulder, back, buttocks and elbow injuries” and had neglected to inform the team that he had broken his ribs in a car accident in Florida while out on a rehab assignment. By early 2007, he had made doubters out of his teammates. “It didn’t look good from a player’s and teammate’s standpoint,” Mike Mussina said during Spring Training. “Was everything just coincidence? Over and over again? I don’t know…It got to a point where we just didn’t want to even hear about it or talk about it anymore.”

After drawing the Opening Day start in 2007 due to injuries to everyone else on the Yankees, Pavano went down in mid-April with an elbow strain. He eventually needed Tommy John surgery and would not return to the field until late 2008. By then, the Yankees were ready to say good bye and slam the door shut on that era.

Yet, two years later, the team has found itself without pitching, and as Mike detailed earlier, they turned to Pavano this winter. GM Brian Cashman had, according to Ken Rosenthal, “several conversations” with Pavano’s agent, and Pavano “seriously” considered a return to the Bronx. As Rosenthal reported, Pavano “even [told] friends at one point that he intended to rejoin the team.”

The ultimate hang-up was one of dollars. The Yanks had offered a one-year deal, and when the Twins guaranteed a second season, Pavano jumped at their offer. He took fewer annual dollars in exchange the security of a second year, and the reunion-to-be turned into one that never was.

It’s no longer worth justifying anything surrounding Carl Pavano. He either suffered through bad luck or a poor mind. He could have come back to the Yanks to salvage his reputation, but he would have been received far, far worse treatment than Javier Vazquez did last year. In fact, the fan reaction to Vazquez would would have seemed like a giant group hug in comparison.

Unfortunately for the Yanks’ rotation and for Pavano, the biggest sticking point is that he is, in fact, Carl Pavano. Perhaps the Twins’ second year saved Brian Cashman from himself for the second season in a row. But if Carl Pavano were some other pitcher with similar numbers, chances are that he would have been fitted for pinstripes by now.

Open Thread: A Tribute to Thames

Pimp. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Marcus Thames found himself a new job within the last few days, signing to a one-year contract that will pay him no less than $1M in 2011 to play for the Dodgers. It’s a great opportunity for him since his competition for playing time in leftfield is Jay Gibbons, Gabe Kapler, and Tony Gwynn Jr. If it was 2004, I might be worried for him.

Thames had a damn fine season with the Yankees in 2010 and become something of a fan favorite, so this thread is a tribute to his service to the pinstripes. He seemed to get big hit after big hit, whether it was a walk-off single against the Blue Jays or driving in the go-ahead run in Game One of the ALCS or, of course, walking-off against Jonathan Papelbon. Of course he was brutal in the field and hurt himself stepping on his own bat, but no one’s perfect. Big ups to Marcus, I wish him the best of luck in Los Angeles and hope to see him in the World Series.

Now that that’s taken care of, here is your open thread for the night. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all playing, but talk about whatever your heart desires. Have at it.

Food For Thought: Rafael Soriano

That graph comes courtesy of Mike Fast, who published it as part of this Baseball Prospectus article. You’ll need a subscription to read the whole thing, but the gist of the article is that Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera aren’t so different. Both guys throw cutters as their primary weapon, which you can see in the graph, but the most interesting part was that Soriano started throwing the pitch more to left-handed batters in 2010 than he had in the past. The result was a few more popups and the best performance against lefties (.267 wOBA against in 2010, .313 wOBA pre-2010) of his career. Before 2010, Soriano went after southpaws with a little two-seamer away that resulted in ground balls and ultimately more hits.

Soriano will undoubtedly see his performance regress a little bit in 2011 because a 16.7% infield fly ball rate and a .212 BABIP is unsustainable, but there’s tangible evidence that suggests his improvement against lefties is real. He altered his approach against them, and the early returns look good.