The Obligatory The Justin Upton Post

Every year right around this time the hot stove seems to kick it up a notch, and 2010 is no different. Players that were previously thought to be untouchable are suddenly on the market and having their names mentioned in trade talk, and such is the case with The Justin Upton*. “I’m open to listening on anybody,” said new Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers. “We got more hits on Upton and [Stephen] Drew. They’re difficult to move, but sometimes to make your club better, you have to move good players. You never know when a deal might present itself.”

While the D’Backs are indeed listening to offers for their franchise player, it’ll take a king’s ransom to acquire him according to various reports, as it should. Both the Yankees and Red Sox have already inquired, and although their interest appears to be nothing more than due diligence, it’s enough to get everyone all worked up. As Ben explained in his now infamous Carl Crawford post, the Yanks aren’t really desperate for outfield help, but that’s not going to stop us and Upton is a special case anyway.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The very first pick in the 2005 draft, B.J.’s younger brother reached the big leagues a little more than two years later. He was three weeks shy of his 20th birthday at the time. That 43 game cameo in 2007 resulted in just a .277 wOBA, but that was fine. No one expected the kid to come up to the show and start raking two years out of high school. Upton started the next season as the team’s every day rightfielder and more than held his own. He wOBA’d .347 in 417 plate appearances, missing almost two months due to a left oblique strain. Combined with his defense, which was decidedly below average according to various metrics, Upton was just a half-a-win player that season, but again he was just 20. He should have been a sophomore in college, not playing everyday in the big leagues.

The next year, 2009, was Upton’s masterpiece. He hit .300/.366/.532 (.388 wOBA) with 26 homers, and performed well enough on defense to be a 4.6 fWAR player. In all likelihood, TJU would have eclipsed the five-win plateau as a 21-year-old had he did missed three weeks with another oblique strain (this one on the right side). Just 26 players in the history of baseball have performed at a five-win pace at that age, 20 of which are either in the Hall of Fame or will be some day. The kid was that good already, and as a reward the D’Backs gave him a six-year contract worth $51.25M, buying out all of his arbitration years in addition to two years of free agency.

(AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill)

As awesome as he was in 2009, Upton was just pretty good in 2010. He dropped down to a .349 wOBA and 3.1 fWAR, which is still well above average, but just not up to the lofty standard he had set the year before. A sore shoulder originally suffered on a swing bothered Upton during the season’s final month, and a visit to Dr. James Andrews after the season reveal a small tear in his labrum. He didn’t need surgery and is rehabbing this winter, which brings us to these latest rumors.

Since the season ended the D’Backs have hired a new GM, one affectionately known as the Human Trade Rumor. That’s just how Towers seems to operate, in a very public way. As if putting a package together to acquire Upton wasn’t hard enough already for Brian Cashman and the rest of the Yankees’ brain trust, it’s made even more difficult by the fact that KT knows their players and farm system better than just about all opposing GM’s after working with the team in 2010. Pulling a fast one with a great stats/meh tools minor leaguer like say, a Zach McAllister before he was dealt to Cleveland, is improbable.

What makes Upton so special is the raw talent and especially the power. When Baseball America ranked him the second best prospect in the game in 2007, they said he “does everything exceptionally well and already has the body and composure of a big leaguer,” noting that he “whips his bat through the hitting zone and has great leverage in his swing, which allows him to sting the ball like few players can and gives him plus power potential.” In his three full big league seasons, TJU boasts a .205 ISO, which is slightly off from the .215 ISO that Robbie Cano put up this year. That’s the kind of power we’re talking here. Take a look at his spray chart below, the power is to all fields as well, especially important in Yankee Stadium. It’s not like he’s pull happy.

Now, as good as Upton is, he’s not without his flaws. He strikes out a ton, once every 3.36 trips to the plate during his three full seasons. Of course there are the injury concerns, namely the shoulder, and he also has a sizable platoon split (.388 wOBA vs. LHP, .343 vs. RHP). Upton has also been much better in hitter friendly Chase Field (.384 wOBA) than he has been on the road (.326). Remember though, we are talking about someone that didn’t turn 23 until this August; Upton’s more than two full years younger than Ramiro Pena and just a month older than Brandon Laird, for example. The fact that he hasn’t fully figured out how to consistently hit on the road and against same-side pitchers yet should be no surprise.

Dave Cameron figured that based on his contract, Upton has an excess value of $70M if he develops into merely a very good player (3.5-5.0 fWAR) and over $100M if he turns into a superstar (4.5-6.5 fWAR). Both totals seem a little outrageous, but let’s roll with it since the legwork is already done. Towers is a smart fella, so you can bet he’s going to market him as a superstar. A trade with the Yankees would unquestionably start with Jesus Montero, and even then you’re adding two or three quality pieces. Including guys like Laird and Eduardo Nunez and Ivan Nova won’t cut it. Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances will have to be involved, maybe Brett Gardner, and then even more. Players of Upton’s caliber don’t come cheaply, especially when they’re this young and signed at a below market rate for the next five years.

I’m a big Justin Upton fan and he’s the kind of player you move mountains to acquire, so I hope that talks with Arizona progress from due diligence to legitimate discussions. It’s sounding more and more like a trade is possible, too. As solid as the Yankee outfield is now, Upton makes it better and he instantly becomes the centerpiece of the offense going forward, a surer thing than Montero because he’s shown he can do this and this in the big leagues (seriously, click that first link). It’s a long shot, and it would be extremely costly to make it happen, but man, The Justin Upton in pinstripes would make the Yankees demonstrably better both now and in the future.

* In case you’re wondering, the The Justin Upton nickname came about from a reader typo in one of Keith Law’s ESPN chats like two years ago. TJU is a great nickname, so it stuck.

Yankees have contacted a dozen free agents

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees have contacted the agents for about a dozen free agents, though we don’t know exactly which ones. Well, we know about Cliff Lee and Pedro Feliciano, then there’s Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Does Andy Pettitte count? Probably. Sherman mentions that they’ve also checked in on Rafael Soriano, so that’s half the group right there. I suspect the others were just part of due diligence, backup plans and backup backup plans. It certainly doesn’t seem like any significant moves are coming, but remember, Brian Cashman is a ninja.

Check out the rest of Sherman’s column for some more dope on Soriano, who the team views as strictly as a backup plan should Rivera not re-sign for whatever reason. He adds that teams have called the Yanks about Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and/or Nick Swisher, but right now they have no motivation to move them.

Joba, Ivan Nova and the fifth starter

Oh, hey. It's Joba again. (Andy King/AP)

For the last four seasons, we’ve watched the Yankees attempt to figure out what they had in Joba Chamberlain. He was the 41st pick of the 2006 draft, and the Yankees expected big things from him. When the team had the Big Three — Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy — all on the way, Chamberlain was the one with the highest ceiling who profiled as a true ace.

For a little while, in 2008, he got there. He had a sub-3.00 ERA as a starter when he was just 22 before a shoulder injury robbed him of his velocity. He struggled through 2009 and was then toyed with by the Yanks as he neared an innings limit. He spent 2010 in the bullpen where his velocity and strike outs returned but his consistency did not.

Now, it seems that the Yankees are content with sending Joba to bullpen for good. “Joba to the pen,” Yanks GM Brian Cashman said to reporters yesterday. “We made that decision after spring training. We’re not looking to put it back. We told him in the spring, you’re a reliever now. That’s it.”

That’s it. It’s all over. Joba will be a bullpen while the Yanks, as Chad Jennings reported, now consider Ivan Nova to be a potential rotation candidate. For those of us not privy to the Yanks’ internal conversations and who are inclined to take Cashman at his word, this is quite a development. The team is giving up on a high-ceiling pitcher after he struggled thanks to their kid gloves and inability to chart a clear path or at least so it seems.

As I come to terms with this decision, I realize Joba the Starter has become my Moby Dick. I want the Yankees to believe they can turn a guy who they considered to be good enough to be a first-round pick (and who would have gone higher but for some health and signability concerns). I want to see the Yankees turn the promise of Joba into results as they deal with the looming departure of Andy Pettitte, the decline of A.J. Burnett and a thin free agent class. But that’s not what happened.

What’s going on here? The team can’t actually consider Nova a better option. Compared to Joba, Ivan Nova is small beans. He had a just a 5.6 K/9 IP in 2010 and a poor walk rate: 3.6 BB/9 IP. Generally effective the first two times through the order, Nova couldn’t handle a third trip through the starting nine, and players in their third plate appearances of the game hit .400/.531/.480 against him. He’s a work in progress, and his ceiling is far lower than Joba’s is today.

So I have four theories:

1. Player Failure: It’s quite possible that the Yankees watched the Joba progress and determined that he just couldn’t make it at the Major League level. They looked at 2008; they gave him a second chance in 2009; and he failed. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a high-ceiling pitcher failed to reach the sky. But I don’t buy it, and that brings me to…

2. Team Failure: The Yankees watched Joba progress and didn’t give him enough time or had a set plan. They had too many layers of kid gloves on, and Joba couldn’t withstand the yo-yo of the bullpen shuffle. It also wouldn’t be the first time a team couldn’t figure out how to bring up a top pitcher.

3. The Next Mariano: But maybe it’s neither player nor team failure. Maybe the Yankees just think Joba profiles better in the bullpen. They know that Mariano Rivera isn’t going to pitch forever, and they believe this deal Mo signs this winter will be his last. They need a replacement for him ready to take over at a moment’s notice, and Joba is the heir apparent. He has the mentality to be a closer and the stuff as well. That Joba might be nearing free agency by the time Mo retires isn’t much of a concern to the Yanks who have the resources to sign a reliever of Joba’s potential caliber.

4. Health Concerns: Finally, it’s quite likely that the Yankees simply know more than everyone else about Joba’s shoulder. Again, it wouldn’t be the first time a potential starter has moved to the pen due to health concerns (See Papelbon, Jonathan), and the Yankees would rather get their 70 bullpen innings out of Joba every year than an injury-plagued 120 starting. After all, they can keep Joba healthy over a full season out of the pen, and it’s much easier to replace an injured reliever than it is a starter.

Ultimately, that’s it, as Brian Cashman said. Joba tantalized us a starting pitcher, and now he’s going to serve as a key part of the Yankees’ bullpen. He can still be an impact player in the late inning, and if the club is willing to move forward with players of lesser caliber in the rotation, I’ll just believe they have that reasons. The alternative is simply too unpleasant to contemplate.

With that, I’ve said more than my share on Joba. Unless the Yanks trade him or he becomes news in his own right, River Ave. Blues is through with this starter/reliever debate. You know where we stand, and you know where the club, better informed than us, stands. And so it goes.

GM Meetings Notes: Jeter, Mo, Hall, Marte

"Then Derek said 'I want a G6,' and I was like 'lol whatevs'." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The first official day of the GM Meetings has come to a close, at least in theory. Like I said on Monday, the hot stove is a 24/7 business, so who knows what could happen overnight. Obviously, the big news from Tuesday involved Dan Uggla, who was dealt to the Braves for the low, low price of (All Star) Omar Infante and former Yankee prospect Mike Dunn. I know they’re just getting one year of Uggla before free agency, but damn. You mean someone else wouldn’t top that?

Anyway, let’s round up today’s miscellaneous items, with the source in parenthesis again…

  • “Things are going well right now,” said Hal Steinbrenner (Chad Jennings). He acknowledged talking to Derek Jeter‘s agent “a couple of times” since last week’s meeting in Tampa, but otherwise there’s not much going on.
  • Meanwhile, Jon Heyman hears that the Yankees will bid at least three years to keep Jeter. Three years? Fine. At least three years? I don’t like where that’s going.
  • The Yankees still have no idea if Mariano Rivera is looking for a one or two-year deal, but they’re expecting it to be the latter (Buster Olney).
  • Bill Hall is on the list of free agents the team is interested in, and they have a bit of a connection: Hall works out with Yanks’ hitting coach Kevin Long during the offseason (Ken Rosenthal). I’m not much of a Hall fan, mostly because the idea of multi-million dollar utility players with multi-year contracts strikes me as utter lunacy.
  • The Yankees did in fact contact the Diamondbacks about trading for Justin Upton, but it was nothing more than due diligence (Marc Carig).
  • “I’ve got a small player move that I’m working on that might get done at some point this week,” said Cashman (LoHud). “But it’s small.” Let the speculation begin. I hope it’s Randy Choate.
  • They won’t consider releasing Damaso Marte to free up a 40-man roster spot even though they expect him to miss the entire 2011 season. Cashman doesn’t believe the team has a roster crunch when it comes to protecting players from the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Cash on the pitching coach situation (Marc Carig): “This is a scenario where there isn’t an obvious, without a doubt, in-house candidate.”
  • In somewhat surprising news, Brian Cashman said that Al Aceves might have been healthy enough to pitch in the World Series if they’d gotten there (LoHud). The Mexican Gangster last pitched on May 8th and suffered a setback as recently as early-September. Cash said he’s “hopeful” going forward, presumably talking about Ace’s ability to stay healthy. That’s basically all you can do, back issues are tricky.

And finally, former Yankee GM Bob Watson announced that he will retire at the end of the 2011 season. Watson is currently MLB’s VP of Rules & On-Field Operations, meaning he disciplines players and what not, but he ran the Yankees’ ship from in 1996 and 1997, bridging the gap between Gene Michael and Cashman. He was a helluva player before that, hitting .295/.364/.447 with 184 homers in a career that spanned from 1966 to 1984. Watson played mostly for the Astros, but he also had stints with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Braves. Congrats on the retirement, Bob.

House of Representatives honors Bob Sheppard

The United States House of Representatives passed a resolution today saluting the late Bob Sheppard for his service as a public address announcer and a speech professor. Sponsored by New York’s Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the measure resembles those frequently passed by the House to honor prominent Americans who have recently passed away. The short bill, which I’ve embedded below, commends how “Bob Sheppard’s clear, distinctive voice has set the standard of sports announcing, and has become ingrained in the fans and players as a widely recognized and revered Yankees tradition.” Sheppard’s moniker — the Voice of God — has now been forever memorialized in the Congressional record.

Sheppard House Resolution

Open Thread: On Upton … and Corpas

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Yes, the Yankees spoke to the Diamondbacks about The Justin Upton today, as did the Red Sox and I’m sure a host of other teams. When you put a guy that talented on the market, you should expect 29 phone calls, if not more. I’ll have a post on Upton up tomorrow morning, I promise, but for now I’ll leave you with Dave Cameron’s take on the matter.

One player I do want to quickly talk about reliever Manny Corpas, who the Rockies released today. He had Tommy John surgery late in the year and will miss basically all of 2011, but signing him would be a move geared towards 2012 and beyond. Assume he agrees to a minor league contract and rehabs next season, pretty much unavoidable at this point, he’ll still be under team control in both 2012 and 2013. Corpas isn’t the high strikeout guy the Yankees like to have on their staff (6.48 K/9 career), but he’s a ground ball beast, at least until year when his grounder rate dipped to a career low 42.5%. He’s generally at or above 50%, so perhaps the decline is injury related. Even though he has a ton of late game and closing (and World series!) experience (3.82 FIP career), I’m thinking about Corpas as just another middle innings guy to add to the inventory. They could go the Jon Lieber/Octavio Dotel route and let him rehab for a year before giving him his real chance.

Anyway, that’s my hot stove musing of the day. Here’s the open thread. The only local team in action are the Knicks, who are way out in Denver and don’t start for another few hours. I have no idea how to entertain myself tonight. Hopefully you have better luck, and if you do, spill the beans here. Have at it.

Yanks interested in lefty reliever Feliciano

Guys who throw like this and don't crack 90 typically have a tough time with righties (Tony Dejak/AP)

At the GM meetings this week, Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd said something that made me think of a situation the Yankees currently face. “But we’re not looking for the best player; we’re looking for the right player.” That might sound odd at first — isn’t the best player most often the right player? When it comes to team building, that’s not always the case. Every team has constraints. The Rockies probably can’t afford to sign a big-ticket free agent. While the Yankees can do that, they can’t afford to do other things. Among them is giving up all of their draft picks.

The point about draft picks came up in the Scott Downs post. He is easily the best left-handed reliever on the free agent market, but he’s not the best for the Yankees. Whether or not the Yankees sign Cliff Lee, or another Type A free agent, the cost of sacrificing another draft pick for Downs just isn’t worth the benefits he brings. The Yankees always pick low, and they haven’t had a supplemental pick in years now. To push their first pick into the triple digits just doesn’t sound like a good idea.

This morning Newsday’s Ken Davidoff mentioned that the Yankees are interested in Pedro Feliciano. That sounds interesting enough. Most of us are familiar with Feliciano because of his long tenure with the Mets; other than a stint in Japan during the 2005 season he has spent his entire career in Queens. He’s regarded as a quality lefty who can take the ball every day — his 92 appearances was the most in the league by seven. This might make him appear to be a viable option for the 2011 bullpen, but there is plenty that works against Feliciano.

What first jumps out is his walks. In three of the last four years he has walked 4.3 per nine, which is something you absolutely do not want out of any pitcher, never mind a lefty specialist. As Mike noted on today’s podcast, a good number of those are intentional. He issued intentional passes to six hitters in 2010, which would bring his walk rate down to 3.45 per nine. This trend continues back throughout his career. It does, in some way, mitigate the high walk rate. On the other hand, it speaks to another deficiency.

Feliciano is simply no good against right handers. All of those intentional walks in years past were issued to righties. This is unsurprising. We often see lefty relievers walk a righty in between two lefties. That’s the strategy some managers play. The intentional walks do indicate that Feliciano’s control isn’t as bad as his walk rate would have you believe. But it means, at the same time, that he’s putting more men on base. He certainly has the ability to strand those intentionally walked batters, as he is death on lefties. In 2010 he had a 9.55 K/10 and 2.73 BB/9 against lefties while not allowing a home run. That would be even better if he didn’t face more righty batters than lefties.

If the Yankees were to use Feliciano solely against left-handed hitters, maybe he’d work out. His career numbers against them are tremendous. He’s also a Type B free agent and so would not cost the team a draft pick. What he will cost is money. He will be 34 next season, so this is his chance to secure his future with a long-term contract. I suspect he’ll seek something along the lines of Damaso Marte‘s three-year, $12 million deal. I also suspect some team will acquiesce to that demand. I just hope it’s not the Yankees. If they’re looking for a lefty reliever who is terrible against lefties there are other options — Randy Choate, for one. At least he’ll be cheap and come on a short-term deal. Feliciano might be better, but he likely won’t be worth the years and money. The Yanks can find their lefty elsewhere.