Mailbag: Thornton, Hamels, Montero, CC, Danks

It’s been a pretty busy week around these parts and we have quite a few mailbag questions to answer. I’m going to try to answer these as possible because we all know our attention spans aren’t what they once where. If you ever want to send in a question in the future, just use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar…

Bubba asks: What would it take to pry power lefty Matt Thornton from the Chicago White Sox to be our set-up man?

Probably more than it’s worth, really. The ChiSox don’t have a defined closer after non-tendering Bobby Jenks, and right now Thornton is in line for the job. He’s dirt cheap ($3M) and highly effective (2.14 FIP, 12.02 K/9 in 2010), and I can’t even remember the last time a reliever that valuable was traded with one year left on his deal. Maybe the best comparison is Mike Gonzalez, when he went to the Braves from the Pirates. He fetched a 28-year-old Adam LaRoche coming off a .379 wOBA season with 32 homers, and Gonzalez wasn’t as good then as Thornton is now. There were some incidental prospects involved, but no one major. Needless to say, it’s going to take an arm and leg to fetch Thornton, most likely more than I’d be willing to pay for a setup man, albeit a great one.

SNS asks: This may be jumping to far ahead. In light of the lack of availability of starting pitching out there, the one guy who jumps to mind is Cole Hamels. I know he is arb eligible after this year but given the fact that Hamels actually had a better bWAR last year than Lee and is significantly younger, what could he get in arbitration and how likely would the Phillies be to move him? I know they aren’t poor, but can they really afford Halladay, Lee, Howard (and even Oswalt)? While Hamels wouldn’t be available this year, could he be available next winter and how would he play in the Bronx/AL East?

You kinda sorta read my mind, I was thinking about Hamels when he becomes a free agent after the 2012 season. I can’t imagine the Phillies will trade him now, they’re clearly going all in before their core hits the inevitable decline, and I think it’s very reasonable to assume they’ll be going for it again in 2012. Philadelphia has $82.3M committed to just four players (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, with some misc. buyouts mixed in) in 2013, but they’re also going to re-sign Jimmy Rollins and Brad Lidge between now and then. Hamels will still be just 29 at that time, and will surely be the best available pitcher on the free agent market.

Hamels is a fastball-cutter-curveball guy with arguably the best changeup on the planet, and I have no issues about him in the AL East. He’s like CC Sabathia in that he’s the kind of guy that can dominate any lineup at any time. He’s already got a World Series MVP and plenty of playoff experience to his credit, so I have no concern about his ability to deal with pressure. I would be stunned if the Phillies look to deal him before he’s eligible for free agency given the construction of their team, but if I was the Yankees I’d be licking my chops in advance of his free agency.

Harrison asks: A quick question with regards to Montero. Aside from the obvious benefit of giving him a little extra seasoning down in AAA, what other benefit might there be for keeping him down there for the first few months? I remember how a bunch of teams in recent years have kept their rookies down in AAA until May or June in order to prevent the arbitration clock from running (Longoria, Price, Posey, etc.). How would that work with Montero for instance?

A player can only accrue service time while in the big leagues or while on the major league disabled list, so teams have been keeping their top prospects in the minor leagues just long enough to delay their arbitration years and/or free agency by a year. It only takes about two weeks to delay a player’s free agency (so they can call the player up in mid-April and then control him for the next six-plus seasons), and about two months to avoid Super Two status (meaning the player goes to arbitration four times instead of three).

If the Yankees were to keep Montero in the minors until the first week of June or so, they could then retain him at close to the league minimum for the rest of the season as well as the 2012, 2014, and 2013 seasons. After that he would get three years of arbitration eligibility. If they called him up right away, they would only control him from 2011 through 2016 (first three years at the league minimum, next three via arbitration). The Yankees have more money than they know what to do with, but they can still benefit from delaying Montero’s call up by just two months. Getting production at a below market salary can only help.

Rafi asks: Mailbag: Given the Yankees’ (Cashman’s?) stance of not negotiating with personnel under contract, as well as what happened with A-Rod‘s opt-out, how do you see the Yankees handling [CC’s] situation? They obviously can’t say that if he opts out they won’t pursue him, or they have a rotation on par with Pittsburgh.

The other day Buster Olney said that the Yanks should explore a contract extension with Sabathia now to avoid what will surely be a messy situation when he opts out, but that struck me as completely crazy. I don’t see any reason to assume that risk at all. I fully expect Cashman to stick to his policy of not negotiating with a player until the contract expires, like he’s done with everyone else, himself included.

What they do at that point really depends on their situation. A lot can change in the next eleven months, and that will dictate their course of action. If they’re happy with him and are willing to sign him for another six years or something, they’ll do it. If they’re wary about his workload and ability to be productive going forward, they might let him walk. It’s too early to know for sure, but I wouldn’t expect them to discuss a new contract with CC before he actually opts out.

Junior asks: What is John Danks availability and prospect cost? He is really good and as a lefty can dominate the lefty Red Sox.

Danks isn’t on par with Felix Hernandez or Josh Johnson, but he’s in the next tier. He’s going to earn close to $6M through arbitration next year and then about $9-10M in 2012 before becoming a free agent, so he’s cheap. The club tried to sign him to a long-term extension (they offered him and Gavin Floyd the same four-year, $15.5M deal before the 2009 season, but only of them took it), but Danks was a Scott Boras client at the time and those guys never sign away free agent years (he’s no longer with Boras, however).

I suspect that Danks will be the most costly of Chicago’s starters to acquire, since he’s excellent, young, and pretty damn cheap. He’s the future of their rotation with Mark Buehrle getting up there in years and Jake Peavy starting to rack up the trips to the disabled list, making him even more difficult to attain. A package headlined by Montero is not an unreasonable request, but I’m not sure if that’ll work on Chicago’s end since they just locked up a first baseman and designated hitter for the next three and four years, respectively. If they believe he can catch, well then we’re on to the something.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’ll cost an arm and a leg to pry Danks away from the White Sox. It absolutely makes sense for the Yankees to at least inquire, but like I said when I looked at Buehrle and Floyd, these two teams just don’t seem to match up well in the trade. The demands and supplies do not line up.

A look at potential trade target Fausto Carmona

(H. Rumph Jr/AP)

When Yankees fans think of Fausto Carmona, it’s natural for Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS to spring into memory. While midges remain the most distinct recollection, Carmona’s performance cannot be understated. His only flaw during his nine innings of work was a solo home run to Melky Cabrera. The extra innings victory put the Indians ahead two games to none, and while Phil Hughes helped stave off defeat in Game 3, the Yankees could not mount a comeback from the bring of elimination.

Carmona was brilliant in that 2007 season, finishing with a 3.06 ERA in 215 IP. It took him three years to get back to that level, but in 2010 he again crossed the 200-inning barrier and had a 3.77 ERA with a FIP right around his 2007 level. Now we’ve heard word that Carmona is generating heavy trade interest from other teams — perhaps from more teams than Zack Greinke. Since the Yankees are in the market for a starting pitcher, we can easily make the connection. Would Carmona be a worthy addition to the Yankees’ rotation?

The Indians signed Carmona in 2000 as an international free agent, and finally put him in a stateside league in 2002. The next year, when he pitched in the Sally league, he produced a 2.06 ERA and 0.883 WHIP in 148.1 innings. That vaulted him to No. 76 on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects. In 2004 he moved up to advanced A ball and similarly dominated, a 2.83 ERA in 70 innings. The Indians got a bit aggressive with him and moved him to AA halfway through the season, but there he struggled, a 4.97 ERA in 87 innings. He eventually got the hang of AA, and then AAA, in 2005, and by 2006 he was headed up to the big league club.

The most noticeable thing about Carmona when looking at his stat sheet is his low strikeout rate. In his 746 big league innings he has averaged 5.50 K/9, which is far below the league average rate. He compensates with a heavy sinker, which helps him induce plenty of ground balls — almost 60 percent for his career. Since he came up full-time in 2007, only Derek Lowe has a higher ground ball rate, and even that is by only 0.3%. At the same time, only 13 pitchers during that span have a worse strikeout rate.

After his breakout 2007 season Carmona did what so many young pitchers do. He got hurt. The 215 innings he threw in 2007 represented an increase of about 40 over his previous high, which puts him in something of a risky category. After just 10 starts and 58 innings he went on the DL with a hip strain. Before the injury he had a 3.10 ERA. After his late July return he had a 7.61 ERA in 62.2 innings. That carried over into 2009, when he had a 7.42 ERA in his first 60.2 innings. This time the Indians sent him down to the minors until late July. After his return he was a bit better, but he still managed only a 5.29 ERA in 64.2 innings.

During his two down years Carmona got away from one aspect of his game that helped him succeed despite a low strikeout rate. In 2008 he walked 5.22 per nine, and in 2009 he walked 5.03 per nine. His minor league walk rate was 1.6 per nine, and in the 2007 season it was 2.55 per nine. In 2010 he regained some of that control, getting his walk rate down to 3.08 per nine. That and health appear to be the keys to his success. If he has both of them going he’ll be a quality pitcher — a high-range No. 3 who will have an ERA somewhere between 3.50 and 4.10, give or take.

Before his injury in 2008 Carmona signed a four-year, $15 million extension that includes team options for 2012, 2013, and 2014. The 2012 option is absolutely team friendly, as it represents a mere $900K raise over his 2011 salary in what would have been his final year of arbitration. Carmona will earn $6.1 million in 2011 and will then have team options for $7 million, $9 million, and $12 million. A top five Cy Young finish will bring his 2012 option to $8 million, and two straight top five Cy Young finishes will increase his 2013 and 2014 options by $2 million each. If he continues pitching as he did in 2010, that could provide a little surplus value.

The question, as with any trade target, is of what Cleveland will demand. On one hand they have a young starter on a relatively team friendly contract. On the other they have a guy whose four years have ben divided among being good, being really bad, and being injured. Any acquiring team would assume plenty of risk, though that might be why Cleveland wants to deal him in the first place. Better to get a return now than have him flop in 2011 and get nothing for him. At the same time, hanging onto him until the trade deadline could yield an even bigger return if he continues pitching the way he did in 2009 — even more if it’s more like 2007.

At this point I’m not sure what I’d consider a reasonable package for Carmona. Is he worth a high-ceiling guy such as Betances? Will the Indians take a package centered on Adam Warren or another lesser prospect get the process started? I’m really not sure what Cleveland expects for a pitcher with Carmona’s history, and I’m even less sure of what the Yankees would consider a reasonable return. This leads me to believe that the Indians will roll with him to start 2011 with an eye on dishing him at the deadline. If the Yanks can get him for a price that doesn’t include one of their high-ceiling pitchers, I’d endorse it. But otherwise he appears to be too big a risk at this point to justify a top-tier package.

Yankees agree to deal with Feliciano

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Update by Mike (12/17/10, 10:16 a.m.): Ken Rosenthal says it’s a two-year deal worth a guaranteed $9M with a club option for 2013. Sounds like it’s a $4M salary in 2011 and 2012 with a $1M buyout on the club option. There’s no denying that Feliciano makes the bullpen stronger, but for how much longer? And the contract kinda stinks, but what can you do. Blame the Tigers and Joaquin Benoit.

Update by Joe (12/17/10, 10:02 a.m.): Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have agreed to a two-year, $8 million contract with a third year option with Feliciano. It should be finalized and made official later today. If that’s not a team option I will be disappointed. Actually, scratch that. I’m a bit disappointed as is. Feliciano isn’t bad, but Bobby Jenks and Randy Choate both came off the board in the past couple of days and they’re both better deals.

Original Post (12/16/10): According to Bob Klapisch, the Yankees are getting close to a deal with lefty reliever Pedro Feliciano. Our anonymous source that’s both close to the situation and a friend of someone involved in he negotiations who asked not to be named but is a baseball person confirms that the two sides are close. Terms of the deal are unknown, but Scott Downs got three years and $15M while Randy Choate got two years and $2.5M, so I bet it’s somewhere between the two. With any luck, it’ll be a one year deal.

This move should come as no surprise. We first heard that the Yankees were interested in Feliciano one month ago today, and then learned that they had met with his agent at the winter meetings last week. Brian Cashman declared that acquiring a second lefty was one of his offseason priorities soon after the season ended, but it appears he isn’t fully confident in Rule 5 Draft selection Robert Fish, or minor league signings Andy Sisco and Neal Cotts. Can’t blame him, really.

Feliciano, 34, is well known around these parts after spending the last five seasons coming out of the bullpen for the Mets. He’s a true workhorse reliever, leading the league in appearances in each of the last three seasons (86, 88, and then 92 in 2010) even though he’s never faced more than 280 batters in a season. Feliciano has held left-handed batters to a .274 wOBA over the last three years, striking out 9.61 lefties for every nine innings pitched against them. He’s also generated a ground ball 57.0% of the time against same-side batters since 2008, an excellent rate.

Like every other reliever, Feliciano has his warts. His unusable against right-handed batters; they’ve tagged him for a .360 wOBA over the last three seasons. He can also be prone to walks and homers, giving out an unintentional free pass to roughly one out of every eleven lefty batters faced since 2008, and he allowed exactly seven homers in both 2008 (1.2 HR/9) and 2008 (1.1 HR/9) before dropping down to just one in 2010. It could be legitimate improvement, or it could be a fluke that will regress at Yankee Stadium. My money’s on the latter, but you’re welcome to feel differently.

One thing Feliciano really has going for him is experience. He’s spent the last half-decade as the Mets’ primary lefty, so he’s squared off against Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, and Brian McCann with great regularity. I don’t think facing David Ortiz or Adrian Gonzalez or Adam Lind in a big spot will scare him. With Choate and Downs off the board Feliciano is the best of the lefty reliever lot, and hopefully the contract will not be too outrageous. I’m a little skeptical given his history of walk and homer issues, but I recognize that relievers are so damn volatile that he’s just as likely to dominate as he is fall apart.

Sickels’ Top 20 Yankee Prospects

John Sickels of the Minor League Ball released his list of the top 20 Yankee prospects on Wednesday, led of course by Jesus Montero. Rather than simply copy and past the list here, I’ll let you click through. What I do want to mention is Sickels’ blurb on the overall farm system, which I’ll stick right here…

This system has two excellent hitters at the top, but thins out quickly in position players with impact potential after that. The pitching is quite rich; I count eight guys with the ability to hold rotation spots at the major league level, including a couple of potential anchors, and there are more arms behind them.

The system has some toolsy outfielders and some interesting catchers past Montero and Sanchez, but could use additional depth. Overall, though, it is a system that has a lot going for it, and if some of the sleepers from the ’10 draft pan out it can look even better next year.

The Yankees really went for upside in the 2010 draft with guys like Cito Culver, Mason Williams, and Angelo Gumbs, so most of their top shelf position players are still in the low, low minors. Montero and Brandon Laird are the only guys at the Triple-A level with the potential to be impact players at the big league level, and even Laird is on the fence in that regard. If he turns into a righty Eric Hinske (not a good comp, by the way), I wouldn’t consider that to be much of an impact even though he’ll certainly be useful.

The pitching is very important, because as we know the Yankees don’t have much of it at the big league level. It’s not just the Manny BanuelosDellin BetancesAndrew Brackman trio either, the Yanks have pitching coming in waves. The Triple-A level will offer David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, Hector Noesi, and Andrew Brackman next season. Double-A will have the remaining two-thirds of the Killer B’s, Adam Warren, and Graham Stoneburner. Below that you have Marshall and Jose Ramirez. It just keeps coming, which is a great thing because not all of these guys are going to work out. Some will get hurt, some will suck, some will get traded away. It’s the nature of the beast. Unlike most of the position players though, the high-end pitching talent is no more than two years away, and that’s being conservative.

As for Sickels’ actual list, I don’t have too many issues with it. No one strikes me as way out of place and the grades aren’t worth the argument, though I do think Brett Marshall deserves to be a little higher. More importantly, there are 20 players on the list, and 19 of them play an up-the-middle position or pitch. The lone exception is Laird. Strength up the middle is absolutely key and the Yankees thrived on it for years, getting well above average production from shortstop, centerfield, and catcher throughout the late-90’s and early-00’s. If a prospect at an up-the-middle position can’t cut it, he simply moves to a corner. If a prospect at a corner position can’t cut it, well then he’s out of luck. That why these guys are so valuable and why it’s important to have hordes of catchers and middle infielders. They have value both to the team and for use in trades.

So I guess that’s my minor league rant for the night. I’m just glad that despite all the holes in the big league roster, help is on the way in one form or another.

Open Thread: Zim

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Is it a coincidence that Don Zimmer’s tenure as Yankee bench coach started in 1996 and ended in 2003, the bookends of the most recent Yankee dynasty, or something greater? Probably the former, but it’s a great narrative. Zim, now the ripe old age of 79, had a pacemaker put in on Monday and is resting comfortably at his home. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing him a speedy recovery. The 2010 season was his 62nd in baseball, and he’s actually the last former Brooklyn Dodger to still be in baseball in some capacity. What a life this guy’s lived, eh?

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The Isles, Rangers, and Nets are all in action tonight, and the 49ers and Chargers are on NFL Network. I’m sure you all have something else to occupy your time anyway. Anything goes, so have at it.

Feinsand: Yankees “exploring” Rafael Soriano (UPDATE: Nope)

Update (5:57pm): So much for that, Buster Olney says the Yanks are no going after Soriano after all. Unsurprising to say the least. Meanwhile, Kerry Wood agreed to sweetheart deal with the Cubs that will pay him just $1.5M for one year. He turned down $3.5M from the White Sox, and a source told Feinsand that the asking price to return to the Yankees was much higher. I guess he just really wanted to go back to the Cubbies. What can you do.

(3:32pm): Via Mark Feinsand, the Yankees are “exploring” the possibility of signing free agent reliever Rafael Soriano, having preliminary discussions with his agent Scott Boras. Joe laid out the case for signing him just this morning, but I’m not terribly fond of surrendering a first round draft pick for a reliever no matter how good he is. Feinsand’s source says that while the Yankees aren’t willing to meet any asking price, though they are comfortable paying him more than they would have Kerry Wood.

Bobby Jenks just came off the board as well, agreeing to a deal with the Red Sox. Oh well, I expected him to end up in Tampa anyway.

Russell Martin needs minor knee surgery

Via Joel Sherman, new Yankee Russell Martin needs some minor knee surgery. It’s the same procedure CC Sabathia had a few weeks ago, and he’ll be ready in plenty of time for Spring Training. Sherman says the issue popped up during the pre-signing physical, but the Yankees didn’t consider it serious enough to be a deal breaker. It’s a concern anytime a catcher has knee issues, but I wouldn’t get too worked up over this. Not every injury is the end of the world.