The Mythical Number Two Starter

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The last two offseasons have been all about finding a number two starter for the Yankees, someone to pair with CC Sabathia. They made a huge offer to Cliff Lee last winter, and this year they’ve at least made an attempt at Yu Darvish after showing little interest in C.J. Wilson. We fans have already started looking at next winter’s free agent crop in anticipation of the search continuing next year. Something got lost in translation somewhere along the line though, what exactly are we talking about when we refer to a number two starter?

Whenever we talk about prospects, we tend to pigeon-hole them into rotation slots because that’s the easiest way to talk about their long-term potential. A number one starter is one of the best pitchers in baseball, but a number two is still really good, but a notch below number ones. A mid-rotation guy is solid but lacking something (a third pitch, command, etc.) that prevents him from being any better. A number four or five starter, a back-end guy, they’re generally easy to find and lack a number of things to be a successful starter long-term. Baseball America puts a list of tools and their importance to the various positions in their Prospect Handbook every year, and they define a number two starter as someone with two plus pitches, an average third pitch, average command, and average makeup. That’s prospects though, big leaguers are much different.

The term “number two starter” is pretty vague when talking about guys in the Majors. You could take it literally and consider the second best pitcher in every rotation a number two starter, but I think we can all see the problem with doing that. If you’re a die-hard believer in WAR, then perhaps a number two starter is someone in the 3-5 WAR range, give or take a little. If you’re going to stick with that definition, then looking at a player’s value over several years is important. Pitchers that consistently sit in that range are more reliable that someone who has had an up-and-down career. Does that apply to the Yankees though, do they need that consistent 3-5 WAR guy in the rotation? You can make that case, but I don’t buy into WAR enough to say that definitely.

Realistically, what the Yankees need is a pitcher better than the group of Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Hector Noesi, David Phelps, etc. That’s essentially what it boils down to. That guy doesn’t have to be as good as Cliff Lee, but it sure would be nice if he was. That’s what they need right now heading into the season, which is different than what they’re going to need ten months from now when the playoffs start. Ten months from now, they just need someone to pitch like a number two, it doesn’t matter who it is or how they were acquired or how much they’re being paid. Nova was that guy last year, but they probably shouldn’t count on him doing that again. It’s not that he can’t, but young pitchers tend to be unpredictable. Of course, the better your staff is, the more likely it is that someone steps up and pitches like that number two in the playoffs.

Now I don’t want to come off as the spoiled Yankees fan I so obviously am, but the playoffs are not a given. They’ll be a little easier to get into now with the second wildcard, but the Yankees have a really good team and have a better chance than most at qualifying for the postseason. There is some value to winning the division now, so perhaps they need that mythical number two starter right now to help them to another AL East crown. I’m not sure it’s an absolute necessity, but it wouldn’t hurt. The point is, number two starters come in all shapes and sizes, and they don’t have to pitch like a number two all season long. Timing is everything. Sometimes we get too caught in labeling people certain things that we forget about context.

What Josh Willingham’s contract tells us about Swisher’s

While filing the position in right field presents no problems for the 2012 Yankees, the 2013 team could have a vacancy there. After the 2011 season the Yankees exercised Nick Swisher‘s $10.25 million option, keeping him in the Bronx at least one more year. But after this season he reaches free agency, at which time his value on the open market might be more than the Yankees are willing to pay him. After all, if the Yankees really do plan to get under $189 million in 2014, Swisher just might not fit into the plans. That is, if he’s due a raise over his current salary. Given the current market, that might not be the case.

This week the Twins signed Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract. That looks like a bargain, since they reportedly had a three-year, $25 million out to Michael Cuddyer. Willingham has been a quality hitter in his six major league seasons, compiling a .262/.361/.475 slash line and a .364 wOBA (123 wRC+). He’s had some health issues, and he’s not the greatest outfield defender. But there’s little question about his bat. His worst major league season came last year, when he played half his games at the Oakland Coliseum, and even then he produced a .350 wOBA and 123 wRC+.

If Willingham’s career numbers look familiar, it might be because they resemble someone else’s:

It’s pretty crazy how those numbers match up almost exactly, save for Swisher’s poor 2008 season. They also share eerily similar platoon splits, about .350 wOBA against right-handed pitching and .375 against left-handers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they’re in line for the same payday. There are a few factors, beyond offense, that separate Willingham and Swisher.

  • Willingham is, by the numbers and the eye test, not a very good defender. Swisher might not be a gem, but he’s serviceable in right. That gives him a leg up on Willingham.
  • Swisher will be a year younger hitting free agency. Willingham will be 33 next year, while Swisher’s first year after hitting free agency will be his age-32 season.
  • Swisher has a far better health record. He’s played in at least 150 games in every season since 2006. Willingham has yet to hit the 150-game mark.
  • Swisher already makes $10.25 million, so it’s not likely he gets a pay cut, especially from the Yankees.

Still, even with the advantages Swisher holds over Willingham, it’s not likely he’ll fetch a significantly more lucrative contract next off-season. Perhaps Michael Cuddyer getting three years at $30 million might change the equation, since Swisher is a better hitter than Cuddyer, is younger, and has had fewer poor seasons. But since it’s likely that Cuddyer gets something in Willingham’s range, it’s reasonable to expect Swisher to receive something in that range when he hits the open market.

If the Yankees could lock down right field from 2013 through 2015 at $11 million per season, would that work? One big issue at play here is a potential replacement. There are a few corner outfielders whom the Yankees could pursue, but they’re all flawed in their own ways. Josh Hamilton has injury concerns and will still likely get paid far more than Swisher. Andre Ethier will likely get a decent payday by reputation, but he’s only one year younger than Swisher and has nearly identical career numbers. Carlos Quentin will also hit free agency, but he has longstanding injury issues. Since the Yankees have no viable internal replacements, that means either trading prospects for a right fielder or re-signing Swisher. At $11 million per season that could be a viable proposition.

We can be sure that nothing will come of this until next off-season. The Yankees aren’t eager to deal with any player under contract, and Swisher certainly isn’t a priority. But when the time comes they might find that, even at three years and $33 million, he’s the most reasonable on the market.

On Montero and opposite field power

Over the last few years, we’ve heard quite a bit about Jesus Montero‘s power to right, the opposite field for him. We caught a glimpse of that opposite field power in September, when three of Montero’s four homeruns were hit out to right. For some perspective, Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp tied for the league lead in opposite field homers hit by right-handed batters in 2011. They each had nine, or three times as many as Montero in roughly ten times as many plate appearances.

Opposite field power is generally more impressive than pull power because for one, it takes a ton of raw strength. Making contact with a pitch that is essentially behind you and still driving it 350-feet isn’t something most baseball players can do with regularity. Secondly, it supposedly indicates a better approach and the willingness to wait on a pitch, letting it travel deep in the zone before swinging. That part is more up for debate that the raw strength part, but I certainly think it passes the sniff test.

Over the last three seasons, Nelson Cruz leads all right-handed hitters with a .417 wOBA to the opposite field. Miguel Cabrera is second at .409, and Derek Jeter of all people is third at .398. I only say “of all people” because we don’t think of Jeter as a power guy, but he certainly does a ton of damage the other way. That’s a good reminder that having opposite field power doesn’t necessarily have to mean just homers, it could also means doubles and triples. I don’t expect to see many three-baggers out of Montero, though. Over the last three seasons, righty hitters have averaged a .274 wOBA on balls hit the other way. Clearly, opposite field pop for a righty bat is a pretty scarce and valuable commodity.

Not to rain on the parade, but we have to remember that Montero still has a long way to go before proving that his opposite field pop is a sustainable thing in the big leagues. He had 69 plate appearances and put 44 balls in play in September, which is nothing. Five of Travis Snider’s first eleven homers in the show were hit to the opposite field, and none of the 17 he’s hit since them have gone the other way. This could vanish quick. It was fun to see Montero launch some bombs the other way late last year, and the scouting report indicates that this could be something more than a fluke. The kid sure does seem to have a swing geared for the small part of Yankee Stadium, and that’s pretty exciting.

Nakajima and the sign-and-trade possibility

(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The Yankees have a very interesting situation on their hands with Hiroyuki Nakajima, the 29-year-old Japanese shortstop whose negotiating rights they won with a $2.5M bid last week. Brian Cashman and Greg Genske (Nakajima’s agent) continue to negotiate a contract, but late last night Ken Rosenthal reported that Genske has broached the idea of a sign-and-trade scenario, in which the Yankees would sign his client before flipping him to another club.

Obviously Nakajima wants to play everyday, but we’ve heard over and over again that the Yankees view him as a bench player, a utility infielder. Nakajima has indicated a willingness to sign, and Rosenthal even says he’s intrigued by the idea of wearing pinstripes and playing behind Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees don’t necessarily want to trade him though, and the FOX scribe goes on to quote a “rival scout” who raves about Nakajima’s makeup. There’s that makeup thing again, the Yanks really seem to have placed an emphasis on it lately.

Anyway, a sign-and-trade sounds like a wonderful idea, but we have to remember that Nakajima probably has very little trade value. I doubt the Yankees aren’t going to be able to flip him for a starting pitcher or anything substantial like that. Rosenthal says the Giants and Cubs have interest in trading for him, but apparently not enough interest to bid more than $2.5M during the posting process. Jed Lowrie is a decent comp as a middle infielder with three years of contractual control and questions about his game (defense, ability to hit righties, health), and he got traded for a middle reliever yesterday. Not even straight-up either; he had to be paired with an okay-ish pitching prospect. That’s basically our benchmark for a Nakajima trade, which means he’d likely have to be the second or third piece in a package of players if the Yankees want to receive anything meaningful.

The last two infielders to come over from Japan — Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Akinori Iwamura — signed three-year contracts worth $9M and $7.7M, respectively. Their posting fees were a little larger than Nakajima’s ($5.3M and $4.5M, respectively), but that gives us an idea of the kind of contract it will likely take to sign him. Would a club rather have Nakajima at something like three years and $8M, or one of the various middle infielders that signed two-year contracts in the $5-11M range this winter (Aaron Hill, Clint Barmes, Mark Ellis, Jamie Carroll)?  I think they’d prefer Nakajima since it’s basically the same money spread out over one more year, plus he’s several years younger than those folks. Now, would you rather have Nakajima at that price, or Eduardo Nunez? Remember, Nunez is five years younger, substantially cheaper, and under team control for another five years. ZiPS projection for Nakajima (.276/.322/.389) is almost exactly what Nunez hit this past season (.265/.313/.385).

You folks know I’m not Nunez’s biggest fan, but I think he offers more trade value than Nakajima, so perhaps the best thing for the Yankees would be to deal him and keep Nakajima. Then again, the market has shown that the trade return is likely to be underwhelming unless there are a few more players included in the package. The sign-and-trade idea suggest by Genske is a nice option for the Yankees to have, but I’m not quite sure it’s much of a help unless they sweeten the pot with some other players. That said, the Yankees did acquire a trade chip for essentially nothing, even if they get stuck paying the $2.5M posting fee, and that’s pretty awesome.

Building a better posting system

As the afternoon hours tick away in Japan, Major League Baseball and its fans are eagerly awaiting word of the Yu Darvish sweepstakes. The bidding ended at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and we know the Yankees posted a bid. Some reports say the Yanks’ bid isn’t very substantial, and Jon Heyman called it a “modest bid.”

Right now, all we know is basically nothing. No one has yet leaked the winning figure or the winning team. We don’t know what the Yanks submitted. Maybe they went low in the hopes of preempting a skittish field. Maybe, after four years of scouting Darvish, they weren’t willing to bid high and then follow up that bid with an equally lucrative deal for an unproven commodity. Of course, the recent failures of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa could be fresh in their minds, but those are inexact comparisons at best.

As we wait out the results, though, I pondered the posting system earlier today. Spurred on by an article in The Times, I realized just how ludicrous a system this is. A team in Japan posts a player, and then Major League Baseball clubs submit a blind bid for the exclusive right to negotiate a deal. If the negotiations fail, that player simply returns to Japan, and the team gets its money back. There’s no incentive to give the player a fair market deal, and the team winds up spending its assets on the posting fee rather than the player.

The agents certainly don’t like the system as they suffer tremendously. “The system has already failed,” Scott Boras said to The Times, “and that type of thing is only going to increase. I lived through it with Matsuzaka. As it stands, this system doesn’t benefit anyone.”

So what might happen? In the piece, David Waldstein noted that changes may be coming to the posting system. He writes:

The posting system was introduced after the experiences of Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano, who escaped their Japanese teams via loopholes. Then in 1997, the Chiba Lotte Marines, who had a working agreement with the San Diego Padres, agreed to let them sign Hideki Irabu, who refused to play for San Diego and forced a trade to the Yankees. “It wasn’t fun,” recalled Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers, who was the Padres’ general manager at the time. “I think that episode annoyed a lot of people, and that’s why we have the system we have now, as flawed as it might be.”

But it might change within a couple of years. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, a committee will be established to discuss a worldwide draft, including changes to the current system along with Nippon Professional Baseball.

Boras suggested a sliding scale whereby Japanese players can negotiate with any team and their Japanese teams would receive a percentage of the contract. For instance, if a player leaves after one year, the Japanese team would get 80 percent of the contract, 50 percent after five years and 20 percent with just one year remaining before free agency. “A lot of Japanese players aren’t successful here because they aren’t comfortable in their situation,” Boras said. “If they could choose where they want to play, their success rate would definitely increase.”

Who knows if Boras, as he often does, is just selling a load of hooey. Maybe Japanese players aren’t successful because they are siphoned off to one team and have to negotiate with little leverage. Maybe they’re not successful because they just can’t beat Major League competition. Either way, the posting system is a bit of a strange beast, more akin to the amateur draft than anything else. Veteran players aren’t given the option to pick their next team. How peculiar.

For now, though, we’ll wait it out for a little while longer. At some point soon, Yu Darvish’s potential future employer will be announced. I’m not too optimistic it will be the Yankees, but as a famed broadcaster likes to say, sometimes, you just can’t predict baseball.

Yankees made bid for Darvish, high bidder could be announced tonight

7:49pm: Via Buster Olney, the Yankees did in fact place a bid for Darvish. No word on the size of the bid, but David Waldstein hears it was “not huge.” Jack Curry says they discussed the right-hander at a meeting today, then decided to make a bid within the last two hours before the deadline.

5:30pm: The posting period for Yu Darvish officially came to an end at 5pm ET this afternoon, so teams are no longer allowed to submit a bid. Jack Curry says at least one team did submit a bid for the right-hander, but that team is not the Red Sox according to Nick Cafardo. They didn’t submit a bid at all, which is kinda surprising. The Orioles didn’t place a bid either, according to Roch Kubatko.

Usually the Japanese team gets four business days to mull things over and then the high bid is announced — which is  exactly what happened with Hiroyuki Nakajima — but Adam Kilgore heard from an MLB official that they might announce the high bidder for Darvish as soon as tonight or tomorrow morning. That would be pretty cool.

Open Thread: John Axford

(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Relievers have a tendency to pop-up out of nowhere, which is exactly what happened with John Axford. The Brewers’ closer has been one of the very best relief pitchers in baseball over the last two and a half years, pitching to a 2.26 ERA (2.33 FIP) with 11.05 K/9 and 48.2% grounders in 139.1 IP since making his debut in 2009. He also led the league with 46 saves in 2011.

Of course, Axford was a Yankee once upon a time, or at least a player in the Yankees organization. They signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2006 after seeing him pitch for the Melville Millionaires of the Western Major Baseball League, a summer college league way up Canada. Axford was 24 at the time, and the Yankees used him as a classic organizational arm. His first appearance of the 2007 season came with High-A Tampa, his second with Triple-A Scranton, his next eleven with Low-A Charleston, his next eight with Short Season Staten Island, his next two with Low-A Charleston, and his final four with High-A Tampa. Twenty-seven total appearances across four levels in the span of six months.

Four years ago today, after just one season in the system, the Yankees released Axford. The Brewers signed him about three months later and stuck him on their High-A affiliate as (primarily) a starter for most of 2008. Milwaukee sent him back to High-A the next year, but this time as a reliever. A few weeks into the season, pitching coach Fred Dabney and pitching coordinator Lee Tunnell told Axford to “try to pitch like [Roy Halladay]” during a bullpen session. He lowered his arm slot, and the rest is history. Axford’s low-90’s fastball suddenly jumped into the 95-98 mph range, and his curveball had a bit more bite. Three years later, he’s an All-Star closer. Funny how that works, eh?

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Here’s your open thread for this chilly evening. You’re pretty much on your own as far as entertainment goes, but you folks are resourceful, I’m sure you’ll find a way to entertain yourself. Talk about anything you like here, it’s all fair game.