The Steve is the thing

Steve Sax is probably the best Steve in Yankee history, and that's not saying much.

When it comes to great Bens in Yankee history, they are few and far between. In fact, other than a fleetingly brief and utterly forgettable 11-inning stint by Ben Ford in 2000, the last Ben to play on the Yankees was Ben Chapman in 1936. His real first wasn’t even Ben. Rather, Benjamin was his middle name, and William his birth name.

As namesakes go though, there are more boring comps than Ben Chapman. Vehemently opposed to racial integration of the game, as a manager of the Phillies, Chapman and his team’s harassment eventually led to increased support for Jackie Robinson during 1947. As a Yankee for parts of seven seasons from 1930-1936, Chapman hit .305/.379/.451 and made the All Star team four times. Before Chapman was Benny Bengough (born Bernard) and Ben Paschal, a superb fourth outfielder actually born Benjamin.

So in nearly 110 seasons, only two players in Yankee history have been named Benjamin, and they have amounted to not much. That’s hardly however the biggest name failure in Yankee history. But who cares? What’s this all about anyway?

While searching for a topic for this post, I asked my followers on Twitter for ideas, and Jesse Spector, now the national hockey writer for The Sporting News, offered up a name-based suggestion. Talk about, he said, “lousy Yankees named Steve through history.” I hadn’t ever given it much thought, but when I looked up the history of pinstriped Steves, more than a few rotten eggs came up.

The most recent Steve to take the field for the Yankees was Mr. Garrison earlier this year. The 24-year-old New Jersey native made just one appearance and retired both batters he faced. As Yankee Steves go, it was a rather triumphant appearance. The previous Steve to pitch for the Yanks went by the surname Karsay, and his failures weren’t really his fault. Signed by the Yanks to a four-year contract prior to the 2002 season, Karsay suffered at the hands of Joe Torre. He made 78 appearances in 2002, missed all of 2003 and appeared in just 13 more games for the Yanks before he was released in 2005.

Prior to Karsay, the most recent Yankee Steves were of the Howe Farr variety in the mid-1990s. Steve Howe and Steve Farr provided a rather dynamic relief duo. For the Yanks, Howe made 88 appearances over six seasons as drug suspensions and injuries cut short his career. He was terrible in the 1995 playoffs and was cut by the Yanks a few months before their 1996 World Series championship. As the closer to Howe’s set-up man, Steve Farr racked up 78 saves in three years, but these two were just behind the curve. After they left, the Yanks’ bullpens improved tremendously.

That era of mediocre and downright awful Yankee teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s played host to a few other Steves as well. Steve Sax played just three seasons with the Yanks, but they were his three best offensive years. As a second baseman, he hit .294/.342/.376 in 472 games while also making 30 errors in the process. The Yanks eventually traded him to the White Sox for Domingo Jean, Melido Perez and Bob Wickman. Steve Balboni in 1989 and 1990 brought his brand of all-or-nothing baseball to the Bronx as well. After starting his career in the early 1980s in the Bronx, he returned for a 226-game encore and hit .216/.294/.435 in the process. He was the DH on the last Yankee team to finish in seventh place in the AL East. That 1990 also featured Steve Adkins for five awful starts.

Beyond that motley group of early 1990s Steves, the other players in Yankee history to don that name made small marks on the franchise. Sundra, Peek, Roser, Souchock, Kraly, Whitaker, Hamilton, Barber, Blateric — they bounced around the bigs, they came and went. Of them all, only Steve Sax was an All Star. One day, a great Steve may come through the Yankees’ system. Perhaps we’ll see our own Garvey, Bedrosian or even a Carlton. For now though, Steve, like my name, isn’t a great one for Yankee history.

Open Thread: Dave Righetti

Dave Righetti amidst his July 4, 1983 no-hitter against the Red Sox. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Thirty-three years ago today, the Yankees acquired Dave Righetti from the Rangers as part of a ten-player trade. Rags was just a minor leaguer at the time, having finished the previous season at Double-A. He debuted before I was born and left as a free agent when I was just nine years old, so I don’t remember all that much of his time with the Yankees. I do know that he won Rookie of the Year as a starter, but four years later he was in the bullpen because Goose Gossage left as a free agent.

Righetti was the Yankees all-time saves leader until Mariano Rivera showed up, and I’m willing to bet there are a lot of people out there wondering what his career would have been like had he remained in the rotation. He did have a 3.28 ERA as a starter before shifting to the bullpen at age 24, and Baseball-Reference says the pitcher most similar to Righetti at that age is Tommy Hanson of the Braves. Similarity scores don’t mean much of anything, but it’s still interesting to see. What could have been, eh?

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils Isles are playing, but not until later because they’re on the left coast. There’s also a new Parks & Rec which is pretty awesome. The Office sucks now though, Michael Scott made that whole show. Anything goes here, talk about whatever you like.

With 101 days to go, Yanks unveil Grapefruit League slate

As the sun sets earlier and earlier these days, salvation now has a spot on the calendar. The Yankees today announced that pitchers and catchers would report for Spring Training on Feb. 19, 101 days from now, and that Grapefruit League action will start on March 3 with a game against the Phillies. The club’s first home game of Spring Training will be played at 1:05 p.m. on March 4. It is the latest start to the spring slate since 2005.

The Yankees will play 15 Spring Training games against MLB opponents this year including the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles. The Bombers will also break in the Marlins’ new ballpark in Miami as the club will play the inaugural exhibition games there on April 1 and April 2. They will end Grapefruit League play with a home-and-home set against the Mets on April 3 in Port St. Lucie and April 4 at Steinbrenner Field. Those games mark the first spring meetings between the New York rivals since 1996. Individual game tickets for all Yankees’ home games go on sale on December 2 at 10 a.m.

Mailbag: Non-Yu Darvish Asian Pitchers

Iwakuma. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

JCK asks: What are your thoughts on the Asian pitching market beyond Yu Darvish? Namely Koreans Suk-Min Yoon and Hyun-Jin Ryu, Wei-Ying Chen from Taiwan, each of whom could reportedly enter the posting system, and Japanese free agent Hisashi Iwakuma?

NOTE: All were recently mentioned in a Jeff Passan piece as potentially posting or being free agents.

Other than Iwakuma, I hadn’t heard of any of these guys until a few weeks ago, and we could add Japanese lefty Tsuyoshi Wada and righties Kyuji Fujikawa and Shinobu Fukuhara to that mix as well. The A’s won the posting for Iwakuma last winter but couldn’t hammer out a contract, so he went back to Japan for another year and is now a true free agent. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a shoulder injury during the season after years of injury problems earlier in his career. Keith Law had the 30-year-old Iwakuma 48th on his list of the top 50 free agents (Insider req’d), saying “he was back up to 87-90 by the end of the season with the hard splitter and plus slider he’s shown in the past. If his medicals check out and his fastball is at least fringe average, he could be someone’s fifth starter because he throws so many strikes and tends to keep the ball down.”

Other than Darvish, Chen is probably the most coveted Asian pitcher this winter. The 26-year-old lefty was born in Taiwan but has pitched for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan for a few years now. He got Tommy John surgery out of the way in 2006. “He had been sitting low-90s and touching 95 in past years but was more 88-92 early in 2011, and his slider didn’t have its usual bite,” said KLaw, who ranked him 19th on his top 50 list. “By the end of the year, he was back up to 92-94 and the slider was sharper … He has a decent split-change that should make him more than just a lefty specialist, although it’s not an out pitch for him. Chen still has plus control.” He is a true free agent thanks to some contract shenanigans.

Wada. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty)

Wada, 30, is a true free agent like Iwakuma. NPB Tracker put together a full-fledged scouting report on him last month, saying “his fastball velocity [lives in] the 87-88 range.” They project him as back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever in MLB, but note that he takes preparation very seriously, which could ease the transition. The 31-year-old Fujikawa won’t be a free agent until next winter, so the Hanshin Tigers would have to put him through the posting process to get him to MLB. Law had him 45th on his top 50 list, said he’s “up to 94 mph with his fastball and will sit around 92, but the pitch is pin-straight and he goes to his splitter often to keep changing eye levels. The splitter is an out pitch for him, and he commands it well.” Fukuhara, 35 in December, is said to have a low-90’s fastball with a slider and a curve according to NPB Tracker (via MLBTR). Wada is a starter, Fujikawa is a reliever, and Fukuhara has done a little of both.

Yoon, 25, was the Korea Baseball Organization’s MVP this year, and he’d need the Kia Tigers to post him if he wants to come to MLB. Passan’s article says the right-hander has “a fastball that sits at 93 mph, a hard slider and what one scout deemed an above-average changeup.” Ryu, a 24-year-old southpaw, has been pitching in the KBO since he was a teenager, winning both the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year awards at age 19. “Ryu has four average to above-average pitches, including a 86-93 mph fastball with late life that he can add and subtract from when needed, a slow curve (75 mph), a tighter slider and a changeup,” wrote Baseball America (subs. req’d) after the 2009 World Baseball Classic. “Ryu’s biggest asset is his feel for pitching. Scouts have said that he would be a first-round pick if he was in the U.S., and would likely need only a brief period of acclimation before stepping into a big league rotation.”

Here are YouTube clips of Iwakuma, Chen, Wada, Fujikawa, Yoon, and Ryu. Can’t find anything on Fukuhara, sorry. Based on the tiny little bit I know about these guys, the trio of Chen, Fujikawa, and Ryu seem interesting. Chen is still really young and has shown premium stuff in the past, but there should be a little concern about how his stuff dropped off this year. Japanese relievers tend to transition a little better than starters, I think in part due to their usage and the general lack of exposure, so I could see Fujikawa stepping right into a bullpen next year and helping someone. Baseball America’s scouting report makes Ryu sound like a stud, and he doesn’t look like a traditional Asian pitcher in the video I linked. He’s a big boy and and it’s almost an American delivery, with basically no hesitation at all. That makes him stand out from the crowd, if nothing else.

We know the Yankees have scouted Darvish quite a bit over the years, but we haven’t heard anything about their interest in any of these other guys. As far as I can tell, they didn’t even place a bid for Iwakuma last year. I’m sure the team is at least aware these guys exist though. The three free agents (Iwakuma, Wada, and Fukuhara) aside from Chen are all back-end types, but the guys that need to be posted (Yoon and Ryu) are interesting because they’re still in their mid-20’s and theoretically offer some upside. We’ll see how this plays out this winter, but I would be surprised if the Yankees got involved with anyone other than Darvish.

Can the Yankees trade A.J. Burnett?

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

If the Yankees have made one thing clear this off-season, it’s that they will explore every possible avenue in pursuit of rotation upgrades. That’s plural, because they might not be satisfied with just one new pitcher. With options on the free agent, international, and trade markets, they could seek multiple pitchers to complement CC Sabathia. If Freddy Garcia returns as well, it could create a crowded rotation situation. The Yankees could then look to trade one of the lesser pitchers in their rotation.

Phil Hughes could be one of those candidates. After an impressive bullpen run in 2009 and an exciting start to his 2010 season, he has fallen off considerably. While he did improve, to some extent, as the season rolled along, he’s still at the nadir of his value. Could the Yankees even get as much for Hughes as the Giants got for Jonathan Sanchez? The low return makes trading Hughes a difficult proposition. It might still happen if they can find an eager taker, but it’s hard to imagine a team placing significant value on him in a trade.

That leaves A.J. Burnett. Yankees fans aplenty would love to see Burnett walk out the door rather than endure the final two years of his contract. The Yankees do have the ability to trade Burnett, as he can block trades to 10 (unknown to us) clubs. But as with most big-money players, his contract acts as a no-trade clause. The Yankees would have to eat significant money in order to entice another team. But with the possibility of freeing up some money and a rotation spot, might the Yankees be willing to cut their losses on Burnett?

The Yankees still owe Burnett $33 million through 2013. That’s a large chunk of change for a pitcher who ranks among the worst in baseball during the life of his deal. Since 2009, of the 59 qualified pitchers, Burnett ranks 57th in ERA and 55th in FIP. He looks slightly better in xFIP, as his 4.19 mark ranks 45th, but with almost 600 innings under his belt in that span it’s hard to believe that his xFIP has more relevance than his ERA. Even if we remove some level of survivor bias and count any pitcher who qualified in even one of the three included seasons, Burnett ranks 69th out of 73 in ERA and 67th in FIP.

The Braves recently ate a considerable portion of Derek Lowe’s contract when dealing him, so the Yankees may have a model for a Burnett deal. Lowe ranks 53rd in ERA out of those 59 pitchers with 500 IP since 2009, and was only 0.22 better than Burnett while facing pitchers and pinch-hitters rather than DHs. An equal comparison would have the Yankees eating $22 million of the $33 million remaining to Burnett. Any acquiring team would then get him at two years and $11 million. That still might seem steep for a pitcher of Burnett’s caliber, but it might not that bad a deal considering the market alternatives.

With a relatively weak free agent market, the Yankees could certainly find a team interested in Burnett. He’s not in C.J. Wilson’s class, and he’s definitely a notch below Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, and Roy Oswalt. He’s better, at least in terms of talent, than Jason Marquis, Brad Penny, and Paul Maholm; at the very worst he’s at their level. Since he’s stayed on the mound for the last four years he’s more reliable than guys such as Rich Harden, Chris Young, Erik Bedard, and Joel Pineiro. That could make him an attractive target to a few National League teams.

What could also make Burnett attractive is his controlled cost. At $5.5 million per season a team would know what it’s getting into. Many of these free agents could sign for much more money and perhaps one more year than that. Chien-Ming Wang, who has thrown 62.1 innings in the last two years, got a $4 million guarantee. While that deal itself doesn’t necessarily set the bar, the dearth of free agent pitching could certainly push up prices. If we look to last off-season as a guide, Jake Westbrook got two years at $16.5 million, as did Carl Pavano. Javy Vazquez, coming off an unimaginably bad season, got $7 mil. Those types of deals can happen when there’s not much pitching on the market.

An acquiring team wouldn’t have to part with much to acquire Burnett. Again, if we use the Lowe trade as a model the return could involve an afterthought minor leaguer. But the return isn’t as valuable to the Yankees as the roster flexibility. Moving Burnett means they’d have an extra rotation spot this spring. They could choose to sign a free agent, such as Buehrle, and also trade for a starter. Alternatively, they could do one or the the other and keep rotation spots open for competition among Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances. It also leaves room for a known pitcher on a minor league deal, such as Bartolo Colon or Rich Harden.

Chances are, trading Burnett will prove prohibitive enough as to render it practically impossible. Any pitcher, and particularly an ineffective pitcher, which such a large contract already has an effective no-trade clause. But given the Yankees’ situation, they might deem it worthwhile, given the extra rotation spot and the $6.5 million per season they’d gain from such a deal. This definitely seems like one of those stealth moves that Cashman pulls from out of nowhere.

Thanks to Eric Seidman of FanGraphs and Brotherly Glove for helping me work out this idea.

What does it take to get a save in this place?

It would be hard to find a segment of the free agent market in which saber-minded analysts and general managers differ more than on the value of relief pitchers. Second only to the uselessness of the pitcher win stat, the futility of paying relievers big money and chasing the save statistic is likely the biggest saber cause célèbre in town. The argument goes something like: “The save stat is stupid, and relievers are volatile. Don’t chase the save, and don’t pay relievers big money, because they’ll likely just blow up in your face”.

By and large, this line of thinking is correct. Yet if its constantly regurgitated by the masses with no critical thinking behind it, and if no attempt is made to understand why teams do what they do, then we’ll never really advance the proverbial baserunners. We’re just spinning our wheels, beating the same old dead horse and never learning anything or trying to understand the people making the big decisions.

In any walk of life, one quick way to open yourself up to embarrassment is to assume that those around you are either unable or unwilling to comprehend the complexities of your worldview, to borrow a turn of phrase from Confederacy of Dunces. I’d wager that most General Managers have a pretty good idea that relievers are volatile creatures, and that they are also aware of the failure of these relievers to live up to the contracts given to them. So, avoiding the arrogance that would suggest that they’re just irrational actors, what would drive a GM to pay a premium for a reliever? It boils down to predictability.

Paradoxically, the volatile nature of relief pitchers drives GMs to pay big money for relievers whom they don’t believe will be volatile. Thus, relievers with a long track record of health and consistently superb performance are the most likely candidates to get big money. Like it or not, teams also value closer experience. Late inning relievers with a track record of ably manning the ninth inning will pull in a premium over those without it. Anecdotally, relievers with fewer than ten saves signing multi-year deals after the 2010 season averaged $3.8M per year. Relievers with more than ten saves averaged $8.3M, although this number is driven higher by the Soriano and Rivera deals. This illustrates the point that for whatever reason, most clubs are averse to handing big money to someone to close out games if they’ve never seen them close out games before.

This is all perfectly illustrated by the Phillies pursuit of Ryan Madson. Madson has a long track record of being an excellent reliever, and has shown a decent enough health record. Yet not too long ago, the Phillies weren’t interested in committing big money to Madson because he lacked the “closer’s mentality”. After a solid year closing out games for the Phils they were on the verge of guaranteeing him of $44M over 4 years. The deal has since been put on hold, but Madson will likely see a huge payday.

Teams crave predictability, which is why you’ll often see teams with decent budgets pursue relievers whom they believe to be predictable. They’re looking for relievers who can make a nine inning game an eight inning game, and when they find them or believe they’ve found them, they’re willing to pay a bit more than one might expect. It’s just the way it is. As our understanding of how to properly value relievers evolves and develops, it’s important to keep in mind the principles under which various organizations appear to operate.  Who knows, we might even learn something from the people who are doing this for a living.

Scouting The Trade Market: Francisco Liriano

While speaking to reporters at a charity function yesterday, Brian Cashman said it was too early to know if the best pitching options were available via free agency or trade this offseason. “I haven’t talked to every team and I haven’t talked to every agent yet,” he said. “And I certainly haven’t had any agent tell me what they want financially.” Cashman has put preliminary calls in to the representatives for C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson, but nothing more than that. The trade market, as I wrote last week, can offer more cost effective alternatives.

After a disastrous 63-99 season, the Twins somewhat surprisingly fired GM Bill Smith earlier this week (surprising because it didn’t happen sooner), replacing him with long-time GM Terry Ryan. During his re-introductory press conference, Ryan said the team’s payroll will drop about $15M next season, which could mean that some of his players might be available in trades. One of the guys that could potentially be on the block is a name we’ve discussed quite a bit here in the past, left-hander Francisco Liriano. He’s always kinda been the black sheep in the Twins rotation, not conforming to their “let the hitter put the ball in play and get quick outs” pitching philosophy. Whether or not that makes him any more available, we don’t know. Let’s look at his qualifications…

The Pros

  • When right, the 28-year-old Liriano is a dominant strikeout and ground ball pitcher. He burst onto the scene with a 10.71 K/9 and 55.3% ground ball rate in 2006, then put together a Cy Young caliber season with 9.44 K/9 and 53.6% grounders in 2010. His walk and homerun rates those two years were 2.38 BB/9 with 0.67 HR/9, and 2.72 BB/9 with 0.42 HR/9, respectively. Batters have swung and missed on 12.7% of the swings they’ve taken against Liriano in his career, a ridiculous rate. Utter domination.
  • A true three-pitch guy, Liriano throws his mid-80’s slider and changeup regularly (~20% of the time) in addition to his low-90’s fastball, which he can sink a bit. He destroys left-handed batters, holding them to a .277 wOBA with a 3.12 K/BB ratio with 61% ground ball rate for his career. Only one lefty (former Yankee Juan Miranda) has taken him deep since August of 2009.
  • MLBTR projects a $5.7M salary for Liriano next season, his final trip through arbitration before becoming a free agent next offseason. It’s a reasonable salary and a short-term commitment.

The Cons

  • Pardon me while I get my Tim McCarver on, but as good as Liriano was in 2010, that’s how as bad as he was in 2011. Yes, he did throw a no-hitter against the White Sox, but he only made it to the mound for 134.1 IP and posted career worsts in K/9 (7.50), BB/9 (5.02), and xFIP (4.52). It was the second time in three years he pitched to a 4.00+ BB/9, 5.00+ ERA, and 4.50+ FIP.
  • Liriano has a lengthy injury history, with Tommy John surgery in late-2006 being just being the tip of the iceberg. He missed significant time in the minors with shoulder trouble, which is why he was thrown into the ill-fated Joe Nathan-A.J. Pierzynski swap. Forearm swelling and arm fatigue (requiring a cortisone shot) cost him three weeks in 2009, and more shoulder problems (soreness, inflammation, and then a strain) shelved him for a total of seven weeks in 2011. All arm problems. Yuck.
  • Because of all the injuries, Liriano has never thrown 200 IP in a single season. In fairness, he did top 190 IP in both 2008 and 2010 when you tally up the majors and minors. More than one out of every four pitches he’s thrown over the last three seasons has been a slider, and those are generally believed to wreak havoc on a pitcher’s arm when used so heavily.
  • To make matters worse, Liriano told Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson that he did not do his prescribed shoulder strengthening exercises last winter. It’s not the first time the team has had a problem with the lefty’s work ethic and conditioning, and that’s part of the reason why they never got serious about signing him to a long-term contract.

The Yankees have been connected to Liriano quite a bit over the last year or so, and they reportedly “dangled” the duo of Ivan Nova and Ramiro Pena for the lefty last winter. That would be an overpay now, simply because Nova had a strong rookie season and is under team control for five more years while Liriano had a poor and injury-filled season and is only under contract for one more year. I’m certain Minnesota would be interested in a Nova for Liriano swap, but it doesn’t make sense for the Yankees at this point. They should be looking to add to the rotation around Nova, not replace him.

The healthy version of Liriano is as good as it gets, a homer-suppressing left-hander with swing-and-miss stuff, but you don’t know what guy you’re going to get from year to year or even from start to start. That arm has been through quite a bit despite his relatively young age, and there’s a legitimate chance that any team that trades for him will get zero return. The talent is tantalizing though, and theoretically the price should be dropping given his poor season and one year of team control. There’s a lot of risk involved here but I think the Yankees should at least inquire, just in case the Twins are open to moving him for pennies on the dollar given his poor health and their impending payroll cuts.