Possible trade target: Toronto’s bullpen

We’re a little more than halfway through the season, and it’s now painfully obvious that the Yankees need some help at the back of the bullpen. The setup crew that helped the team to the World Championship last year has been largely inconsistent (or hurt) this year, and even the depth pieces in Triple-A have been unimpressive. Jon Albaladejo might be able to help, sure, but when three-sevenths of the big league bullpen is Chad Gaudin, Chan Ho Park, and Dustin Moseley, it’s going to take more than one move to right this ship.

The trade market for relievers is usually full of retreads or one year wonders, but there’s one team out there with three effective bullpen arms to market before the trade deadline. That team is the free falling Toronto Blue Jays, who have gone 11-20 over the last month or so.

Photo Credit: Mark Duncan, AP

Let’s start in the 9th inning and work our way back. The Jays have made closer Kevin Gregg available, re-routing a scout to Seattle to over the weekend, perhaps to check out the Yanks. I’m not sure who Toronto would want off the Yanks’ big league roster, or perhaps I’m better off saying I’m not sure who Toronto thinks they’ll be able to get off the Yanks’ big league roster, maybe Colin Curtis or Ramiro Pena. It won’t be anyone more than that, I think we can safely say.

The 32-year-old Gregg is a capital-C closer, meaning that he occupies the high profile role without the guarantee of being effective. He’s actually been better than ever this season, with a 3.67 FIP and 3.88 xFIP through 34.1 IP, better marks than what he posted during his best years with the Marlins. Gregg has always missed bats (8.91 K/9 since 2007) and his strikeout rate is a career high 9.70 K/9 this year, but his walk rate is far too high for an end-game reliever at 4.72 BB/9, a full walk over his career rate. We really don’t have any reason to expect Gregg to be any better than that going forward, and his skill set screams a more experienced version of David Robertson. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Photo Credit: Chris Gardner, AP

Setting up Gregg has been the lefty-righty tandem of Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, both of whom have served as Toronto’s closer at one time or another in the past few seasons. Downs is enjoying yet another fine season in a career full of them, locking things down to the tune of a 3.14 FIP and 3.58 xFIP. He’s not just a LOOGY either, and believe it or not he’s actually performed better against righties than lefties over the last season and a half. With a walk rate that has gotten progressively better over the last four seasons, Downs has limited the free passes to just 1.93 BB/9 this season, though it’s worth noting that his swinging strike rate is down to 6.7% (lg avg is 8.4%), a career low.

Frasor, on the other hand, is having the worst season of his career in terms of ERA, but we all know that’s no way to judge a reliever. His strikeout rate is at an all-time high (9.87 K/9), ditto his ground ball rate (50.5%), though the walks are abnormally high at 4.67 BB/9. The 32-year-old righty has run into some bad luck in terms of BABIP (.376) andĀ  strand rate (65.8%), which explains the high ERA, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that as a reliever, he simply might not accrue enough innings to have those totals regress to the mean. He simply might be in the middle of one of those bad luck relief years. It happens.

Contractually, these guys are pretty much all in the same boat. All three can become free agents after the season, though Gregg’s contract has an option for 2011 and 2012. Downs is owed $1.8M the rest of the way and the only projected Type-A free agents of the bunch, while Frasor are Gregg are projected Type-B’s and owed $1.19M and $900,000 (with a $750,000 buyout of the option), respectively. Even if you’re assuming a half-a-win performance after the trade (pretty darn good for a reliever), you’re looking at about $3.5-4M worth of trade value according to Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator, which is worth slightly less than a Grade-B position player prospect according to Victor Wang’s research.

Photo Credit: Steve Nesius, AP

The Yankees have plenty of depth behind the plate and in the middle infield, as we learned in the Cliff Lee non-trade, so they could surrender someone like David Adams or Corban Joseph or Reegie Corona without missing a beat. The last time the Yankees and Blue Jays made a trade was the George Steinbrenner mandated Raul Mondesi swap, but of course Brian Cashman is in charge now and Toronto is under a new regime. Whether or not Alex Anthopoulos would be open to trading one of his bullpen pieces within the division remains to be seen (he reportedly wanted more in return to deal Roy Halladay to an AL East team, but that’s an extreme circumstance), but frankly he’d be foolish not to. It’s just a reliever, and his priority should be getting the best return possible.

I’m a big Scott Downs fan, so I’d prefer him over either Gregg or Frasor, but I’m not sure if Joe Girardi would be open to using him as a normal reliever instead of just having him face lefties. Gregg is the better of the two righthanders, given his long track record of missing bats. I’m always skeptical of trading for relievers given their penchant for sucking at the drop of a hat and for no apparent reason, but if the Yanks are going to make a move for bullpen help, these three probably represent the best available options.

Three observations from Phil Hughes’s first half

Phil Hughes is no No. 5 starter. He might have won the competition for that spot in spring training, but his results have been more in line with a No. 2 or No. 3 guy. It was what the Yankees had in mind when they placed him in the 2010 rotation instead of their 2009 No. 5 starter, Joba Chamberlain. Given their first half performances, that decision appears justified.

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

While Hughes has shown flashes of his ceiling at times, he has also hit a few rough patches. In four of his 16 starts he has allowed five or more runs, and in another he allowed four runs in 5.2 innings while using 117 pitches. The seven starts with seven or more innings and two or fewer runs helps offset those, but they don’t make them go away. There are still issues he needs to work on in the second half if he’s going to reach his ceiling.

Overall Hughes’s numbers look great. He not only sports a 3.65 ERA, but he has the peripheral stats to go with it, a 3.59 FIP, 3.96 xFIP, and 3.66 tERA. He has struck out 22.2 percent of the batters he’s faced, and has walked just 7.1 percent. As a testament to his control, with a little nod to luck, he has avoided hitting a single batter this year. His HR/FB ratio and BABIP are right in line with his performance last year. Yet despite these numbers Hughes has shown a few concerning trends in his 16 starts.

Performance in 3-2 counts

Of the 410 hitters Hughes has faced this year, 49 have run the count full. This is a bit below the league average rate, but I’m guessing above average for a top of the rotation starter. In those counts Hughes has fared terribly, allowing opponents to hit .258/.531/.419. Of the 29 batters he has walked this season, 18 have come in full counts. It certainly hasn’t been his best situation, though it doesn’t appear he’s doing anything differently.

In full counts Hughes throws 55 percent four-seamers, 28 percent cutters, 15 percent curves, and 1 percent changeups. He throws pitches with nearly the same frequency in 2-2 counts. Why the difference in performance, then? Clearly, throwing the ball outside the zone on a 3-2 count has been a problem. When he does throw a strike opponents hit for a better AVG and SLG than league average in full counts. That’s something he’s going to have to improve on in the second half. Thankfully it’s not something that comes up too often.

Facing the No. 9 hitter

Starting pitcher will obviously face the No. 9 hitter at a lesser rate than hitters higher in the order. In the first half Hughes faced the No. 1 hitter 50 times, while facing the No. 9 hitter just 38 times. Against the leadoff men he’s been quite excellent, allowing them to hit just .213/.240/.340. Opponent batting numbers rise through there, peaking at No. 5 hitters, who have a .879 OPS against Hughes. Then it starts to decline as the hitters get worse. Yet there’s another peak at the bottom of the order.

No. 9 hitters have knocked Phil around, hitting .344/.432/.500 against him. It’s a small sample, sure, but those are still terrible results against the nominal worst batters on each team. The AL average against No. 9 hitters is .239/.299/.342, which actually looks even worse for Hughes because he doesn’t have to face the best No. 9 hitter in the league, Brett Gardner. It seems like a fluke that Hughes would fall apart against these guys. I doubt it’s anything more than that, but if I find some time this week I might examine this a bit more deeply.

Bad when behind, but not behind often

Opposing hitters go nuts against Hughes when they’re ahead in the count. In 108 plate appearances they’re hitting .321/.500/.526 against a league average of .308/.477/.507. But while Hughes manages a worse-than-average line while behind in the count, he doesn’t face those situations often.

In the American League the hitter has been ahead in the count 35.9 percent of the time — that is, 35.9 percent of plate appearances have ended with the batter ahead in the count. For Hughes that number is just 26.3 percent. He has faced an even count 33 percent of the time and has been ahead in 40.7 percent of plate appearances. The league as a whole faces an even count more often than having the pitcher ahead.

This trend might be related to the 3-2 count as well. Again, it will take a bit deeper of a look to make a determination, but intuitively the connection makes sense. Maybe he’s trying a bit too hard and ends up not throwing his best stuff. Maybe he throws fatter pitches when behind, as to avoid walking batters. Again, I’m not sure. I’m just glad that Hughes doesn’t face those situations often.

The first half has been mostly good for Phil Hughes, despite a handful of pitiful starts. He’s had his share of excellent ones, though. His biggest problems seem like either flukes or correctable aspects of his game. If he can make those adjustments in the second half we could see a better Phil Hughes. That’s a scary proposition for the American League contenders.

Fan Confidence Poll: July 12th, 2010

Record Last Week: 6-1 (33 RS, 12 RA)
Season Record: 56-32 (469 RS, 352 RA, 56-32 Pythag. record), 2.0 games up
Schedule This Week: Mon. to Thurs. OFF (All Star break), vs. Rays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Sabathia, offense roll over Mariners as Yanks head into All Star break

With the bitter taste of Joba Chamberlain‘s 8th meltdown still in their mouths, the Yankees showed up to Safeco Field on Sunday as a team on a mission. CC Sabathia shut down the Mariners deep into the game, the offense piled on runs early and often, and the final result was an 8-2 win that seemed far more lopsided than that. Both Tampa Bay and Boston won, so the Yanks’ lead in the AL East remains at two games.

Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP

Biggest Hit: Take Your Pick

The Yanks offense was rather relentless today, pounding Mariners’ starter Ryan Rowland-Smith for six runs in just four innings of work, and it could have been a whole lot worse if not for some great outfield defense. A pair of errors by Seattle’s defense led to a pair of Yankee runs in the first, but singles by Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada helped as well. They scored two runs in the 1st, one in the 3rd, three in the 4th, and two in the 5th.

Tex finished the day with four hits, Posada and Marcus Thames with two each, and Brett Gardner reached twice on walks. Yankee hitters attacked early and often, capitalizing on errors, balls lost in the sun, wild pitches, you name it. I also remember no fewer than five balls caught right at the wall by Mariners’ outfielders, two off the bat off Robbie Cano, so the score could have been even more one-sided.

CC on Cruise Control

Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP

It doesn’t get much better than CC Sabathia when he’s on his game. The big lefty skated right through the first five innings of this one, retiring 11 in a row before Michael Saunders, Ichiro, and Chone Figgins touched him up for singles to lead off the 6th. A line out to short and a double play later, the threat was over and Sabathia would tack on another scoreless inning for food measure.

At the end of the day, CC’s line sat at 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, but he was much better than that line indicates. The Mariners didn’t really hit anything right on the nose, and most of the outs were routine fly balls or weak grounders on the infield. He needed just 96 pitches in those seven innings, though Joe Girardi opted to give CC a little breather and pull him early even though there was plenty of gas left in the tank.

Sabathia is now 8-0 in his last eight starts, and his ERA has dropped all the way down to 3.09. As good as Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and Javy Vazquez have been, the Yankees need CC to be than dominating workhorse at the front of the rotation, and that’s exactly what he has been for the last two months.

Miscellany

Derek Jeter ripped two balls into the right-centerfield gap, legit extra base hit shots. Of course one was caught by Franklin Gutierrez, but that’s besides the point. The Cap’n had two extra base hits (both doubles) total in his previous 109 plate appearances before those two rockets. Hopefully this a sign of what’s to come in the second half.

Big ups to Tex for scoring a run with hisĀ  hustle. He made it to second when Michael Saunders lost a lazy fly in the sun, moved over to third on a foul pop behind first, then scored on a wild pitch. That’s the kinda stuff you expect Brett Gardner to do, not the big and slow Mark Teixeira.

Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP

Meanwhile, I can’t let Alex Rodriguez go for squaring around to bunt when Tex was on second. Yes, the ball almost stayed fair, but there’s never a reason for that man to bunt. Ever. Swing the damn bat. He hits cleanup for a reason, because he’s good at hitting the ball far, far away. Stick to that, let the scrawny middle infielders worry about the small ball nonsense.

Marcus Thames hit his first homer since that walk-off shot at the expense of Jonathan Papelbon back in May. Yes, there was a disabled list stint mixed in, but that’s a long time.

Curtis Granderson singled and sent a ball to the wall (for an out), and heads into the break having gone 7-for-16 with just one strikeout in the four game set. It hasn’t been a great year for the Yanks’ centerfield, but at least he can head home for a few days feeling good about himself.

And finally, nice play by John Flaherty on that foul ball (above).

WPA Graph & Box Score

It’s always a good thing when the green line hugs the bottom of the graph for five-plus innings. MLB.com has the box score, FanGraphs all the other cool stuff.

Up Next

The Yankees get to enjoy an extra long four day All Star Break, and will begin the second half of the 2010 season in a big way: at home against the Rays. Sabathia will get the ball in that game too, technically starting back-to-back games, and will face Jamie Shields. It’ll be as big as mid-July series get.

Three walk-offs at the lower levels

MLB Futures Game (USA defeated World Team 9-1)
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 2, 1 2B – pulled a double into the left-centerfield gap off Jeurys Familia on a 3-1 fastball that Gameday clock at 97 … threw Eury Perez out trying to stealing second on a breaking ball … entered the game in the 6th
Hector Noesi: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 0-3 GB/FB - ten of his 15 pitches were strikes … pitched the 2nd inning, sat 92-94 mostly … gave up a single to Logan Morrison of the Marlins

Triple-A Scranton (5-4 loss to Lehigh Valley)
Reegie Corona, 2B & Jorge Vazquez, DH: both 0 for 4 – JoVa K’ed twice
Chad Tracy, 3B: 3 for 4, 2 R, 2 HR, 2 RBI – almost hit a third homer too … he’s six for 11 (.545) since signing
Chad Huffman, LF: 0 for 3, 3 K – left the game for an unknown reason, there was no obvious injury
Chad Moeller, PF-LF: 0 for 1 – took over for Huffman & played the outfield for what appears to be the first time in his professional career, majors or minors
Juan Miranda, 1B: 2 for 4, 1 R, 2 2B – seriously, why not swap him & Tracy for Colin Curtis & Kevin Russo? it might actually, you know, improve the bench … certainly couldn’t make it any worse
Jesus Montero, C: 0 for 3, 1 R, 1 BB, 2 K – 7-9 K/BB ratio in his last nine games
Reid Gorecki, RF & Eric Bruntlett, SS: 1 for 3, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K – Bruntlett played short in place of Eduardo Nunez, who sat today after getting hit by a pitch in the arm yesterday
Greg Golson, CF: 0 for 4, 1 K
Ivan Nova: 6 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 11-2 GB/FB – 54 of 94 pitches were strikes (57.4%) … he hit 95 on the gun
Romulo Sanchez: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB – eight of his 15 pitches were strikes (53.3%)
Boone Logan: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 1 HB, 2-2 GB/FB – 18 of his 29 pitches were strikes (62.1%)

[Read more…]

Open Thread: A little vacation

Ashlie Christian, an Army captain based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and her mother, Debbie Christian of Payette, Idaho, watch 3-D highlights of Saturday's game before a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners in Seattle on Sunday, July 11, 2010. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Did anyone out there actually watch either of the last two games in 3-D? If so, how was it? The beat writers all loved it, but I’m curious to hear more.

Anyway, the Yankees wrapped up the pre-All Star break portion of their schedule at 56-32 today, owners of the best record and best run differential in all the land. Through 88 games last year, the Yanks were 51-37, three games back in the division. The bullpen’s generally a mess, the bench stinks, and the offense has yet to fire on all cylinders, but damn is this team good.

Use this as your open thread. The Futures Game is still being played, and you can talk about that in our Futures Game thread. The ESPN Sunday Night Game features the Cubs at the Dodgers (Carlos Silva vs. Vicente Padilla), but talk about whatever you want.

Game Thread: 2010 Futures Game

Perhaps my favorite part of the All Star Break is the Futures Game, which pits a collections of baseball’s best prospect against each other. Austin Romine and Hector Noesi are representing the Yankees, a year after Jesus Montero and Manny Banuelos did the honors. Keith Law rated Romine as the 15th best prospect selected to the game (Insider req’d), though Noesi comes in towards the back of the pack. Neither player is starting the game (lineups), but don’t worry, they’ll definitely get in at some point.

ESPN2 will broadcast the game, which begins at 6pm ET. Enjoy.