The obligatory “Injured Pitchers” post

With Cliff Lee officially a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees are left trying to salvage their offseason by spreading their money around and shoring up several aspects of their team. There simply aren’t any other high-end starters on the market to go after. The process started with the now completed Russell Martin signing, and today Joel Sherman reported the Yanks will “try to pluck a veteran starter with good stuff but questionable health (off the free agent market) and have him pitch as long and as hard as he can, basically until his arm blows up or a better option comes along.

Those kinds of pitchers are always plentiful on the free agent market, and they’re popular targets in the blogosphere because we dream of them being healthy and returning to what they once were. With Lee off the market and not in New York, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to look at some of these guys as potential targets, so let’s get it out of the way now. I’m going to do something a little different though, instead of actively campaigning for one or two players I’m just going to state the facts and let you decide who’s worth the gamble. Talk about ’em in the comments…

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jeff Francis

Francis is kind of the exception here because he isn’t actually coming off an injury. After missing the entire 2009 season due to shoulder surgery, the 29-year-old lefty did manage to make 19 starts (and one relief appearance) while pitching to a 3.88 FIP in 104.1 innings for the Rockies in 2010. His ERA was ugly (5.00), but we all know that isn’t the best way to judge performance. Francis is a generic soft-tossing command lefty, spotting a fastball, changeup, and curveball on the corners of the plate. He misses just enough bats (8.4% swing-and-miss rate, 5.8 K/9 since 2008) and doesn’t walk many guys (2.6 BB/9 career, removing intentional walks), and he also gets a pretty nice amount of ground balls (~45% over the last few years) as well. Francis’ margin for error is small, but the track record is there.

Brad Penny

The one-time Red Sox whipping boy made nine highly effective starts (3.40 ERA, 1.1 fWAR) for the Cardinals this year before a shoulder strain ended his season. Penny is a known quantity at this point; he’s struck out a touch more than five-and-a-half batters per nine innings over the last four seasons (~7% swings-and-misses) despite having the stuff to do more, and his walk rate has been below three per nine in five of the last seven years. Penny has always been a ground ball guy but took it to the extreme in St. Louis last year (52.8%), completely unsurprisingly given Dave Duncan’s track record. Like Francis, Penny does have World Series experience, and he did not have surgery for his injury, which is always a plus.

Chien-Ming Wang

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Ah yes, our old friend. Wang, now 30, was last an effective pitcher in June of 2008, when he infamously injured his foot running the bases in Houston. Surgery to repair damage to the capsule in his shoulder followed, and he was unable to reach the bigs for the Nationals in 2010 despite proclamations from his agent. Everyone reading this knows the deal with the Wanger, so I don’t need to get into the specifics. Extreme sinkerballer, lots of weak contact, won’t strike anyone out. Seen it, lived it, got a t-shirt.

Brandon Webb

Webb is the big name of the group, the former Cy Young Award winner than racked up 19.9 fWAR from 2006-2008, the second most in baseball. Now 31, Webb hasn’t pitched in what amounts to two seasons due to labrum damage, and reports out of Instructional League a few weeks ago had him sitting the low-80’s with his once devastating sinker (18.1% fly balls in his career, completely ridiculous). There’s a belief that those reports are overblown in an effort to keep his price down, however. We really don’t know what Webb is capable of right now; I don’t think he can rebound and be the beast (3.23 FIP from ’06-’08, again behind only CC) he once was. If he’s 60% of that guy though, it’d be an upgrade to the back of the Yankees’ rotation. For what it’s worth, Joel Sherman reported today that the Yankees “don’t like him all that much.”

Uh, where's the ball? (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Chris Young

Young is a rather unique pitcher, relying on extreme deception and size (dude’s 6-foot-10) rather than pure stuff. He missed all but four starts in 2010 due to a shoulder strain, and when he did pitch he averaged just five innings per start with a 3.88 FIP. His always pedestrian fastball dipped into the mid-80’s over the last two years, but he’s so big and hides the ball so well that it looks like he’s releasing the ball ten feet away from the batter. That’s how he’s managed an above average swing-and-miss rate (9.4%) and generally avoided getting clobbered. Young certainly benefited from Petco Park in San Diego, owning a 53% fly ball rate for his career, far and the away the highest in baseball during that time. His margin for error is microscopic these days.

* * *

Remember, these players are looking for one thing: an opportunity. Well, that and money, we can’t forget that. Those five guys are trying to reestablish their value, so they’ll join the team that gives them the best chance to accrue innings and prove they’re healthy and productive so they can go back out on the market next year and cash in. If that means a year with the Nats or Pirates, so be it. Don’t expect the Yanks to be able to sign two or three of them either, the more there are, the less of an opportunity they’ll have.

So which one is your preferred target? Any other that weren’t covered here?

Prospect Profile: Evan Rutckyj

(Photo Credit: www.life.com)

Evan Rutckyj | LHP

Background
Born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, Rutckyj (pronounced Root-ski) did what most Canadians do as a kid and played hockey, getting drafted by the Barrie Colts (a junior team) in the 11th round of the 2008 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection (i.e draft). He also boxed during the summers. Rutckyj gave up hockey in high school and focused on baseball, transitioning from the outfield to the mound as a sophomore. He worked with the Canadian junior national team as well as a private pitching coach leading up the draft.

Baseball America ranked Rutckyj as the second best Canadian prospect and 193rd best prospect overall for the 2010 draft this spring, though rumors of a first round bonus demand scored teams away. Rutckyj slipped to the 16th round of the draft, when the Yankees happily grabbed him 505th overall. After two months of negotiations with Rutckyj and advisor Dan Lawson, the two sides agreed to a contract that included a $500,000 signing bonus and a $155,000 education package.

Pro Debut
The Yankees assigned Rutckyj to their rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate after signing, where he appeared in just one game. He retired all three batters he faced, recording a grounder and two fly balls.

Scouting Report
Big and tall at 6-foot-5 and 213 lbs., the 18-year-old Rutckyj is a power-armed left-hander. His fastball sat 88-91 in the spring and touched 93, though he projects to add some more oomph once he fills out and getting his mechanics cleaned up. Rutckyj’s out pitch is a sweepy slider in the low-80’s, but he has a long way to go to gain consistency with it. His changeup is borderline non-existent, so there’s a lot of work to be done there.

Because he’s so big and relatively new to pitching, Rutckyj’s delivery can get out of whack rather easily. Professional instruction will go a long way towards helping him develop a consistent motion, which will in turn help his command. Rutckyj is perhaps too in shape; his tightly wound frame doesn’t allow for much flexibility. As cliche as it is, he takes a hockey mentality out to the mound with him, so there’s no fear.

Here is Rutckyj’s draft video plus another clip from the Under Armour All America Showcase.

2011 Outlook
Rutckyj is very raw and inexperienced, so the Yankees will hold in back in Extended Spring Training before assigning him to a short season league when the seasons start in June. I fully expect him to return to the GCL, though Short Season Staten Island isn’t completely out of the question.

My Take
I’m a fan. Anytime you grab a big power arm, especially left-handed, that late in the draft, it’s a coup. Rutckyj certainly has a lot of work to do and a very long way to go, but the tools are there for success. The ceiling is considerable, but so is the risk. For $500,000, a touch more than Ramiro Pena will earn next season, there’s not much more you can ask of the Yankees with their late picks.

Using your best trade chip for only the best

(Kathy Willens/AP)

The focus has shifted. With Cliff Lee out of the picture, the Yankees must move on and start fortifying the rest of the team. In just the last day we saw them bring in a catcher and a longshot reliever. These types of moves might underwhelm, but they do bring improvement on the margins. The Yankees will likely continue maneuvering in this manner for the rest of the winter, since no readily available player presents an opportunity for the Yankees to immediately improve. But that doesn’t mean they’re not looking.

The trade market can help heal what free agency hath wrought, and the Yankees will certainly explore options on that front. That doesn’t mean they’ll find much worth taking. The players — in this case pitchers — who can provide the most significant value will come with a prohibitive price tag, if they’re available at all. For the Yankees that likely means parting with Jesus Montero. Mike and I discussed this at length on the Radio Show yesterday. While there will always be exceptions, we came to the basic conclusion that the Yankees probably should not include Montero in any deal that doesn’t return them a pitcher along the lines of Zack Greinke. Sounds pretty reasonable, right?

I thought so, too, until I read Joe Sheehan’s latest on SI.com. He feels that the Yankees should not use Montero to acquire Greinke, since Greinke’s deal last just two more seasons, after which he is eligible for free agency. Instead, the Yankees should only use their best trading chip for the best from another team. “If the Yankees are determined to trade Montero,” Sheehan writes, “they should target less-obvious candidates who can contribute for more than 70 starts — even if it seems like these pitchers will, or should, be untouchable.” Emphasis mine.

In the very next paragraph Sheehan discusses David Price, Matt Garza (for whom I would not trade Montero), Brett Anderson, Madison Bumgarner, and Clayton Kershaw. Those names might seem outlandish, given their age and abilities, but that’s the entire point. The Yankees have a premier talent in Montero. Why would they trade a potential middle-of-the-order bat for just another pitcher? Sheehan is right. If they are to trade Montero, they should make sure they receive premier talent in return. They might need to package another prospect along with him, but if we’re talking any of the above names it would be a worthy expenditure.

Refusing to include Montero in a deal for anything less than a young, elite pitcher might mean the Yankees stand relatively pat this winter. They’ll continue adding pieces, and perhaps they’ll add a lesser pitcher — someone who can pitch ahead of Ivan Nova in the rotation, but not much more. What they shouldn’t do is trade Montero for a pitcher whom they can’t control for a few years. The value his bat will likely provide more value in that case. It’s certainly tempting, especially with Russell Martin in the fold and a strong crop of catchers on the farm. But the Yankees have something special in Montero. If they trade him, they should receive something special in return.

It’s Official: Martin’s a Yankee

Via Buster Olney, Russell Martin passed his physical and his one-year deal with the Yankees is now official. He will earn $4M in base salary, and I assume there are some incentives in there as well. Martin turned down a $4.2M offer (with another $1.7M in incentives) from the Dodgers before they non-tendered him, instead asking for $5.5M guaranteed. He either misread the market or really wanted to get out of Los Angeles.

The physical was no formality; Martin missed the last few weeks of the 2010 season with a hairline fracture in his hip after taking an awkward step crossing the plate. His agent confirmed that there was no damage to the labrum, which is good news. The Yankees will be able to control Martin for the 2012 season as well since he still has another year of arbitration eligibility remaining, so they gained some flexibility should Jesus Montero need time to adjust to the big leagues or (gasp!) be traded.

Yankees looking at Jerry Hairston Jr.

After losing out on Cliff Lee, the Yankees have more than $20M in 2011 payroll room to play with, and we’ve heard that they plan to spread the wealth around and shore up several spots rather than dump it all on one or two pieces. The process started on Tuesday when the Yankees agreed to sign catcher Russell Martin, who allows them to be patient with top prospect Jesus Montero while keeping Frankie Cervelli in a limited role. While Lee was busy finalizing his deal with the Phillies, we also learned that New York has interest in bringing back Jerry Hairston Jr.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Hairston short stint in pinstripes was productive but not overwhelming. He reached base 32 times in 93 plate appearances (.352 OBP), and hit enough to post a .325 wOBA with more walks (11) than strikeouts (8). Jerry Jr. did all that while playing six positions, everything but first base and the battery. In the only postseason action of his career, Hairston made one spot start in place of the struggling Nick Swisher in Game Two of the 2009 World Series (1-for-3 with a strikeout) and came off the bench on six other occasions. You probably remember him best for racing around third to score from second on a walk-off error by Maicer Izturis in Game Two of the ALCS.

Jerry got his World Series ring then did what was best for him, signing for a guaranteed $2.125M with the Padres so he could play with his brother Scott (who the Yankees should totally sign). Forced into everyday shortstop duty due to Everth Cabrera’s hamstring injury, Hairston put up a measly .287 wOBA in 2010. It wasn’t just Petco Park either, his home wOBA (.318) was better than his road wOBA (.259). Jerry’s season ended prematurely because of a stress fracture in his tibia (the bone between your knee and ankle), which came after an elbow strain. “Every step hurt, like needles were sticking me,” he said. “I stopped thinking about the elbow. I was playing on one leg.” I haven’t found anything that indicates he won’t be ready for the start of Spring Training, so let’s just assume he will be.

Hangtime. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Evaluating bench options is pretty simple. Hairston can hit a little (career .257 AVG, .266 over the last three years) but does so without much power (career .113 ISO, .134 over the last three years), though he makes up for it with some secondary on-base skills. His walk rate is slightly below average at 7.4% career and 7.1% over the last three years, and he’s got a bit of a knack for getting hit by pitches (one every 48.5 plate appearances for his career, the modern day HBP king Craig Biggio got plunked once every 43.9 PA in his career). That’s allowed Hairston to keep him IsoD’s (isolated discipline, same idea as isolated power but with OBP-AVG) right around 0.065 over the last six or seven years. It’s not great, but if it was any better Hairston would be a starter. Unless his batting average on balls in play tanks, Hairston should get on base enough to be useful at the plate.

Of course, Hairston’s calling card is his ridiculous versatility. Like I said, he played six different positions for the Yankees and I’m willing to bet he could handle first base if needed and even chip in an inning off the mound in garbage time at some point. He’s got several hundred, if not thousands of innings of experience at pretty much any spot a team would use him, and his UZR‘s are generally positive. At 34 years old, I wouldn’t expect him to be anything more than average at any position, which is perfectly fine. The best case scenario is something like 250 plate appearances with a .320 wOBA, which is good for about 1.0 WAR.

The Yankees are focused on upgrading the margins of their roster right now, and replacing Eduamiro Penunez as the utility infielder is one place they can do it. Hairston is probably going to end up commanding a salary around $2M, which seems high, but the Yanks are in the position to overpay a bit. They’ll probably have to to get him to join their bench given their regular players. Unlike some other bench options out there, Hairston can handle shortstop, allowing them to use the other two non-backup catcher reserve spots on guys that can hit. I’m all for signing Jerry Hairston Jr. at this point in time, and really I’d love to see a package deal where his brother Scott comes along and replaces Marcus Thames as the righty bat off the bench. For once, the Yanks could start the season with a strong bench rather than worry about upgrading it at the deadline.

Nunez hurt in winter ball

Via Enrique Rojas, Eduardo Nunez was “beaten in the face by a foul trying a bunt against Bartolo Colon” in a Dominican Winter League game tonight. I assume it’s a translation issue and Nunez just fouled a ball into his face trying to bunt, but Rojas’ description is pretty hilarious.

In all seriousness though, let’s all hope Nunez is okay. He could have taken it to the jaw or nose and broken something. Even worse, he could have gotten hit in the eye socket, when damage to his vision becomes a concern. Hopefully it’s nothing like that he can be back out there in a few days after walking it off.

Update (10:33pm): Apparently there is no fracture, which is good news (link in Spanish).

An old friend lands in Oakland

While we waited out our server problems and the Cliff Lee news, the A’s picked up an old Yankee friend of ours. Hideki Matsui and Oakland came to terms on a one-year deal believed to be worth just south of $5 million. He’ll be introduced at the Coliseum later today.

Matsui left New York after winning the 2009 World Series MVP, and he turned in a solid 1.9-win season for the Angels last year. He hit .274/.361/.459 with 21 home runs in 554 plate appearances and even managed to survive 123 innings in left field. While the signing could be a good one for the A’s, Matsui is moving to a home stadium where left-handed batters hit just .241/.325/.349 with just 32 home runs in 2549 plate appearances last year. Playing out his age 37 season in a pitcher’s park, Matsui could very well see his production fall off the table in 2011. Buyer beware.