Game 63: The Nation’s Capitol

(Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

This is going to be a fun series. The Nationals are very clearly a team on the rise with some of the most exciting young players in the game, and these two clubs come in playing very well. Both the Yankees and Nationals have won six straight and both clubs are in first place, Washington by six in the loss column and New York by one. Their run differentials — +46 and +42 — are nearly identical. Here’s the lineup…

SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
1B Mark Teixeira
3B Alex Rodriguez
RF Nick Swisher
LF Andruw Jones
Russell Martin
2B Jayson Nix — Robinson Cano‘s fine, just has terrible numbers vs. Gio Gonzalez (0-for-9, 4 K)
RHP Phil Hughes

Tonight’s game is scheduled to start a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on My9 locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy.

FanGraphs Q&A with Tyler Clippard

David Laurilia of FanGraphs interviewed former Yankee and current Nationals closer Tyler Clippard when Washington was visiting the Red Sox last weekend, and the two spoke about a number of topics that I thought were worth sharing. Clippard spoke about having a “closer’s mentality” and the idea of leveraging relievers, why he falls off to the first base side on fastballs and the third base side on offspeed pitches, why he thinks he could go back to starting, plus a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s really fascinating stuff and gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation, so check it out.

2012 Draft: Yankees sign second rounder Austin Aune

June 15th: Via K. Levine-Flandrup and Jim Callis, Aune has officially signed for $1M. Slot money was just shy of $550k, so they went over big time for him. Check out our Draft Pool page for the latest on that front. Interestingly enough, Aune will begin his professional career as a shortstop, not as an outfielder. He did play short in high school and I was wondering if they would have him at least have him try it after signing. No reason not to, really.

June 5th: Via Adam Boedeker, the Yankees already have an agreement in place with second round pick Austin Aune. The high school outfielder from Texas was committed to TCU, and New York selected him with the compensation pick they received for failing to sign last year’s second rounder, Sam Stafford.

Slot money for the 89th overall pick is $548,400, though it’s unclear how much the agreement is worth. In their subscriber-only scouting report, Baseball America said Aune “offers an impressive package of tools, starting with plus raw power and arm strength … He has a balanced lefthanded stroke and solid speed, and scouts praise his makeup as well.” I don’t remember the Yankees ever having an agreement in place with a draft pick this quickly, but I suppose this is a result of new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams had to make sure they could sign their guys before committing.

Yanks interested in Dempster and probably every available pitcher

Dempster said he’ll waive his 10-and-5 rights for a contender, but will he shave his beard for one? (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

If a columnist connects an available player to the Yankees, you can bet it will get widespread publication in the major baseball blogs. It wasn’t a surprise, then, to open up Hardball Talk and see the headline, “Yankees, Dodgers are interested in Ryan Dempster.” Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times stirred the drink here, writing that Dempster “is coveted by several would-be contenders, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees.” Coveted? Really?

Two weeks ago we heard quite the opposite. Jon Heyman wrote that the Yankees have concerns about Dempster pitching in the American League. Since his debut as a 21-year-old for the Marlins in 1998, Dempster has pitched exclusively in the NL. The Yankees seemingly haven’t had success with pitchers who switch leagues, though Hiroki Kuroda has performed admirably this season. It does seem, as Heyman writes, that they’d prefer to trade for Dempster’s teammate Matt Garza, though Garza will be a bit more expensive since he’s still under team control for 2013.

Dempster has gotten off to a great start this season, allowing just 19 earned runs through 74 innings while striking out 63 to just 20 walks. His ground ball rate is down a bit, which is somewhat concerning. During his peak years of 2008 through 2010, when he produced a 3.49 ERA in 622 innings, his ground ball rate was around 47 percent, while it’s under 43 percent this year. And, again, the transition from the NL Central to the AL East is a significant one. That shouldn’t stop the Yankees from acquiring Dempster, but it should certainly limit the price they’re willing to pay.

The Yankees might have five starters going well right now, but as we’ve seen in years past, that can change at any time. In 2010 they had five starters pitching well when the Cliff Lee trade fell through, and it seemed like no big deal. But then Hughes’s performance worsened considerably. Javy Vazquez fell off a cliff. Andy Pettitte got hurt. And A.J. Burnett again turned in a poor summer performance. That is to say, a currently full pitching staff shouldn’t turn off the Yankees. With the rate at which situations change, they’d be fools to write off such a trade solely because they seem set in the moment.

This is no ringing endorsement of Dempster. Where he is, he’s fine. Great, you can even say this season. But move him out of his current environment and stick him in the AL East and it’s a different story. I think he can pitch well, but not nearly to the level he’s currently achieving. We’re talking more back-end starter. There could come a time between now and July when the Yankees might need such an arm. Getting Dempster for the right price will be tricky, but if they can figure out something with the Cubs then they should go ahead. There will inevitably be a need on the pitching staff later this season.

6/15-6/17 Series Preview: Washington Nationals

Natitude. (AP)

I have to admit, I’m kinda disappointed the Yankees are going to miss both Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang this weekend. I think most of us have had this series circled on the calendar since the schedule was released, but I was really looking forward to seeing Strasburg’s awesomeness and the nostalgic aspect of CMW. For shame.

What Have They Done Lately?

Win and whole lot of it. The Nationals have won six straight games just like the Yankees, including a pair of three-game sweeps on the road in Boston and Toronto. That’s some accomplishment. Washington has the second best record in baseball at 38-23, trailing only the Dodgers. Their +42 run differential is the third best in the NL.

Offense

So good. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

You’d never know the Nationals were one of the best teams in baseball by looking at their offense. They average just 3.93 runs per game, a bottom ten mark in baseball and the second worst by a team with a winning record. As a team, they own a .308 wOBA and a 91 wRC+, and are near the bottom of the league in stolen bases (37) and homers (62). Injuries to Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos are partly to blame, but sheesh.

It all starts here with Bryce Harper. The 19-year-old wunderkind has a 150 wRC+ in 117 plate appearances since being recalled at the end of April and quite simply, he’s been one of the best players in baseball since arriving. He’s amazing. Adam LaRoche (124 wRC+) has been their best non-Harper hitter and is their only other guy in their lineup that can safely be considered above average this season. Ryan Zimmerman (76 wRC+) has missed time with injury and Mike Morse (40 wRC+) has yet to get going after coming off the DL. Those are supposed to be their big bats.

The Nationals have gotten some decent mileage out of rookie Steve Lombardozzi (88 wRC+) and the middle infield tandem of Danny Espinosa (98 wRC+) and Ian Desmond (100 wRC+). Rick Ankiel (72 wRC+) gets most of the reps in center but former Yankee Xavier Nady (19 wRC+) will see some action against lefties with Harper moving to center. Jesus Flores (61 wRC+) has taken over behind the plate following Ramos’ injury. The bench — Tyler Moore (135 wRC+), Roger Bernadina (104 wRC+), and backup catcher Jhonatan Solano (227 wRC+ in four games) — is full of recent call-ups with strong numbers is very small samples. With all due respect to Zimmerman, Morse, and LaRoche, Harper is the guy the Yankees have to stop.

Pitching Matchups

Friday: RHP Phil Hughes vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez
The Yankees have historically pounded Gio, but this isn’t the same guy. The southpaw has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this year, pitching to a 2.35 ERA (2.06 FIP) with a sky-high strikeout rate (11.02 K/9 and 30.4 K%) and a strong ground ball rate (49.1%). His walk rate (3.72 BB/9 and 10.2 BB%) is still high but you can live with that given his propensity to miss bats and generate grounders. Gonzalez throws both a two and four-seamer in the low-to-mid-90s and he can reach back for 97-98 in tight spots. His curveball is one of the best in the game, a true bender right at 80 mph. A mid-80s changeup is an infrequently used third pitch. Gio will still walk himself into trouble occasionally, but at age-26 he’s really starting to put it all together.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Saturday: LHP Andy Pettitte vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann
Kind of a forgotten man given everything going on around him, Zimmermann has very quietly been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons. His 2.91 ERA is backed up by a 3.87 FIP that is due to an unusually high homerun rate (1.16 HR/9 and 14.9% HR/FB), though he keeps the walks down (1.51 BB/9 and 4.1 BB%) and limits the damage to solo shots. Zimmermann is more of a ground ball guy (51.7%) than a strikeout guy (6.52 K/9 and 17.8%), and he recently told David Laurilia that that’s a conscious decision. A low-to-mid-90s fastball is his weapon of choice, and he’ll use it to set up his mid-80s slider and upper-70s curveball. He’ll also break out the occasional mid-80s changeup. I get the feeling that a lot of people will see Zimmermann for the first time this series and be surprised by how good he is.

Sunday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Edwin Jackson
The best free agent deal of the offseason, Jackson has pitched to a sparking 3.02 ERA with peripherals that are right in line with previous years: 3.50 FIP, 6.95 K/9 (19.6 K%), 2.46 BB/9 (16.9 BB%), and 44.9% grounders. He’s a two-pitch pitcher stuck in a four-pitch pitcher’s body, meaning he relies heavily on his mid-90s heat and mid-80s slider but will also throw a mid-80s changeup and an upper-70s curveball on the rarest of occasions. The Yankees have seen Jackson plenty through the years, both the crummy Devil Rays version and the good White Sox version.

(Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Bullpen Status
Like the Yankees, the Nationals have a fresh bullpen because they had Thursday off. Former Yankee Tyler Clippard (1.92 FIP) has stepped up in the closer’s role while elbow woes have shelved Drew Storen, and he’s being setup by right-hander Craig Stammen (2.74 FIP) and left-hander Sean Burnett (2.31 FIP). The only other righty in manager Davey Johnson’s bullpen is Brad Lidge, who has not been all that good this season (5.57 FIP).

In addition to Burnett, Johnson has a trio of southpaw relievers to deploy in various situations. Mike Gonzalez (2.39 FIP) has thrown just three innings since being recalled and is their middle innings matchup guy. Tom Gorzelanny (3.28 FIP) will work full innings and face batters on both sides of the plate, and former fifth starter Ross Detwiler (3.96 FIP) handles most of the long relief work. Overall, Washington’s bullpen owns a 3.00 ERA with a 3.49 FIP.

The Yankees are getting David Robertson back today, so thank goodness for that. You can check out our Bullpen Workload page for the exact details, but having Robertson back will help because guys like Boone Logan, Cory Wade, and Rafael Soriano have been worked hard of late. Needless to say, it’ll be great to see him back. For the latest and greatest on the Nationals, we recommend Federal Baseball.

RAB Meetup Info
If you’re like me and will be in the nation’s capitol this weekend, we’re going to have a little meetup on Saturday night after the game. Here are the details.

Mailbag: Binder, Danks, Frenchy, Pineda

Six questions and five answers this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

Jersey untucked. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Jerome asks: With the Yankees starting to win a lot of games (and close ones at that) without David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, who should we credit for this? Does Joe Girardi‘s binder deserve some love? I’m not saying we’re better without D-Rob and Mo but will this help convince the Yankees to never again spend big bucks on bullpen help in the future?

Yeah, it’s funny how the binder jokes went away when Girardi mix-and-matched his bullpen to 16 wins in 20 games without Robertson or Mo. I’ve always been amazed at how every industry in the world uses available data to make informed decisions and progress forward, but in sports it’s frowned upon. The number of people that think relying on “gut feel” is a good thing is staggering.

Anyway, I wouldn’t hold my breath if you think the team’s recent ability to put together strong bullpens using internal options and the scrap heap will keep them away from the free agent market. They are the Yankees and will always spend on players. Maybe they won’t splurge to the extent to Rafael Soriano again, but I doubt the Pedro Felicianos and Damaso Martes are going to go away forever. There’s nothing wrong with taking a one-year flier on a guy like LaTroy Hawkins or Chan Ho Park or Luis Ayala each winter, but the multi-year commitments for less than elite relievers are what really irk me.

Anonymous asks: Would you still be interested in acquiring John Danks after this rough start he has had to the season, including injuries? I know you were pretty high on him as a trade target.

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Danks was terrible early on this year — 5.70 ERA and 4.97 FIP in nine starts — and is currently on the DL with a shoulder strain. He’s expected back sometime later this month. I drove the Danks train this offseason, I’m a big fan of the guy and like his chances of improving into his age-27 season, plus I liked his left-handedness and the fit for Yankee Stadium. Obviously the shoulder problem changes that somewhat, but also his new contract extension — five years and $75M — changes things as well.

The new contract basically eliminated my interest. I liked the idea of getting Danks for one year (2012) and seeing how he handled the AL East and Yankee Stadium before committing long-term. Now they’d be locked in long-term right out of the chute, which could be problematic given the 2014 payroll plan. I still like Danks and think he’ll be very good going forward, but I don’t think he makes sense for the Yankees at this point. Not with that contract.

Miller asks: If the starters keep pitching effectively, will the Yankees go after another starter at the deadline? Will they have faith in Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova to carry them through the playoffs?

Yeah, I’m sure they’ll trust those two into the postseason. Remember, you only need four starters in October and the fourth starter will be marginalized, maybe three starts tops if you make a deep run and play five or six or seven games in each series. The Yankees have a strong front three with CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda, so just one of those two — I’d go Nova and stick Hughes in the pen if the playoffs started today — needs to serve as the fourth starter.

The non-waiver trade deadline is still six or so weeks away and a whole lot can change between now and then. Injuries could pop up, guys could start stinking for no apparent reason, all sorts of stuff could force the Yankees to swing a deal for a starting pitcher. Things are going well right now and I wouldn’t expect rotation help to be all that high on the deadline shopping list at the moment.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

D.R. asks: If Gardner is out for an extended period of time, what do you think of Jeff Francoeur as a trade target?

Peter asks: Jon Heyman reports that the Royals are putting Jeff Francoeur on the block. He’s a bit pricey for his production, but do you think he could be a fit for the Yanks to 1) fill in for Brett Gardner this year and 2) be a one-year stop-gap if they don’t re-sign Nick Swisher in 2013?

Frenchy is still only 28 years old and he’s under contract for $6M this year and $7.5M next season, so he’s not cheap. He had a very good season in 2011 (.346 wOBA and 117 wRC+) but has since reverted to his usual terrible self: 93 wRC+ in 2012 vs. 92 career. The two things Francoeur can do really well is hit left-handers (114 wRC+) and play defense (both just running down balls in the outfield as well as making throws). He also has a reputation as a great clubhouse guy, for what it’s worth. Frenchy is a classic underachiever in the sense that he should be so much better than he is; the talent is there for him to be a top-25 player in the game. The lack of plate discipline — not just not walking (5.0 BB%), I mean swinging at bad pitches and making weak contact — has been his downfall.

That said, Francoeur isn’t a terrible platoon option given his production, but he is given his salary. He’s being paid like an everyday guy and there’s no way the Yankees could run him out there for 500+ plate appearances. If he was making like, $2-3M or so, maybe it’s a different story as a one-year stopgap. He’s on the short-end of the platoon stick as the right-handed bat, so you’d still need a quality left-hander to make this thing work.

Rahul: Is there any update on the Michael Pineda injury? I actually forgot he is even a Yankee. I just haven’t even thought about the guy since maybe mid-May.

Pineda had his surgery as scheduled on May 1st, and Brian Cashman confirmed that everything went well that day. Based on the Twitter feeds of various Yankees’ farmhands, Pineda is currently in Tampa doing whatever he needs to do. I haven’t been able to find any kind of rehab timetable, but his arm may still be in a sling since we’re only six weeks out from surgery. I wouldn’t expect many updates at this point just because we’re less than two months into a year-long process.