Projecting Andy Pettitte

As exciting as it was to hear the news about Andy Pettitte‘s return, it’s very fair to wonder just what exactly he’ll be able to offer the Yankees once he’s ready to go.  We won’t know the answer to that until he actually gets on a mound in real game situations, but Dan Syzmborski put his ZiPS system to work in the meantime (Insider req’d). ZiPS projects a 4.45 ERA and 1.5 WAR for Pettitte in 125.1 IP this year, accounting for the fact that he missed a full year but was above average before retiring. That’s basically a league average hurler, a bargain at the $2.5M price. For a seventh starter, that’s not bad at all.

Standard disclaimer: Projections are not predictions, just an estimate of current talent level.

Sorting out the rotation, now and later

The good news is that the Yankees have two and a half weeks to sort the final three spots in the starting rotation. The bad news is — really, there is no bad news. The difficult news, if it can even be called that, is that they don’t have a spot for everyone. Right from the start someone is getting traded, optioned to the minors, or sent to the bullpen. Then, a few weeks later, assuming Andy Pettitte‘s comeback goes according to plan and schedule, they’ll have to make another similar move.

Given the guys on the roster, the Yanks could move in a number of directions. They face a few restrictions, but few enough that they can both populate their rotation with five high-quality arms and retain depth. They might even find upgrades in other spots along the way.

Unmovable objects

While it was seen as meaningless banter when he said it, Joe Girardi did reveal a truth when he talked about his rotation earlier this spring. In discussing his starters, he said that only CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda were guaranteed spots. Yeah right, people said in reaction. As though they’re going to send Ivan Nova or Michael Pineda to the bullpen or to the minors. Yet right now the possibility of just such a move has increased.

Without reading too far into Girardi’s statement, he did make one thing clear: Sabathia and Kuroda are unmovable. Kuroda secured a no-trade clause when he signed on with the Yankees. Given his desire to stay in LA last season, despite having no prayer of making the postseason, there is a close to zero chances that he waives it at any point this season. He committed to New York, and given everything we’ve heard about him, he intends to honor that commitment. Sabathia, of course, is the team’s ace and is essentially irreplaceable. We don’t need to forget about the idea of moving him, because it was never there in the first place.

Options remaining

If the Yankees would like to retain their depth, they could take advantage of the three pitchers on staff who have minor league options. Phil Hughes, Michael Pineda, and Ivan Nova can head to AAA if the Yankees feel that is the best course of action. Chances are, however, that AAA isn’t the best option for these guys, for a number of reasons.

1. A full AAA rotation. The Yankees already have D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, and Manny Banuelos in the AAA rotation. There have long been talks of Mitchell and Betances going to the bullpen, but it appears the Yankees would prefer for that move to come of necessity. Optioning one of the big leaguers to AAA would mean bumping someone at AAA, which causes a chain reaction across the organization.

2. The AAA road show. As we know, the AAA Yankees — the Empire State Yankees — will have no home turf this year. They will essentially be a traveling roadshow. That makes life a bit tougher, and it might make them think twice before optioning one of their more highly regarded pitchers. Then again, they do plan to have Betances and Banuelos travel all season, so perhaps it’s not that big a deal. In any case, it seems like an unideal situation to force someone into.

Along with those two general points, each pitcher has something going himself. It seems unlikely the Yankees would trade their up-and-coming slugger, and 2012 full-time DH, for a guy they’re going to stash in AAA. Last year Nova was one of the Yankees’ more reliable starters, and even earned the call in Game 2 of the ALDS. Finally, how silly would it look if the Yankees optioned Hughes to AAA a month after Brian Cashman referred to him as a “top-of-the-rotation starter”?

To the bullpen

Before the Pettitte news broke, it was pretty much assumed that the Yankees would move the odd man out of the rotation into the bullpen. From the start of the spring it appeared that Freddy Garcia would head that way, since the Yankees want to continue giving Phil Hughes chances in the rotation. Since Pettitte won’t be back to start the season, the Yankees could simply continue on this path and table their decision until Pettitte forces the issue.

Trade winds

Eventually the Yankees will have to make another rotation decision. Once Pettitte is ready, someone will get bumped. By that point, things might work themselves out. Someone might get hurt, someone might pitch horribly, whatever. That would give them a chance to shuffle things around and make room for Pettitte in the rotation.

Still, the Yanks could decide to get out in front of this issue and make a trade now to keep the picture a bit clearer. Chances are Garcia would agree to a trade — they need his permission if they want to trade him before June 15th. Otherwise, would they trade Nova for the right package? Hughes? It seems as though it’s Garcia or bust when it comes to a trade. That lessens the chance that one will happen.

All of this is predicated on the idea that Pettitte will indeed come back in good form. There is always the chance that he does not, which is why the Yanks might want to avoid the trade route. Then again, they do have considerable depth in the minors, so losing Garcia might not hurt that much, even if Pettitte does not return.

Looking at it from a wider angle, there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. The Yankees can proceed as normal through the final weeks of spring training. Pettitte only complicates things a bit further down the road. Maybe this increases the chances the Yankees look to trade someone, but for right not it’s unlikely that they do anything too drastic. Seven starters for five spots seems like excess, but that can chance in a heartbeat. Despite possible complications, the Yanks are in a great spot right now.

The Raul Ibanez Problem

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, I wrote this post tearing into Marcus Thames for his poor Spring Training as well as the Yankees for counting on him as their primary lefty masher heading into the season. He looked old and slow in camp, then went on to exceed every expectation during the regular season by producing a .365 wOBA in 237 plate appearances, which was far more playing time than he was supposed to receive. Thames had history on his side and the Yankees stuck with him despite the ugly Spring Training numbers, and their patience was rewarded.

A similar scenario is playing out this spring with Raul Ibanez, who has been awful with the bat (a single, a double, and two walks in 33 plate appearances) and is showing signs of being toast. There are obvious differences between he and the 2010 version of Thames, specifically age (39 vs. 33), handedness (left vs. right), role (DH vs. OF), and price ($1.1M vs. minor league deal), but otherwise things are pretty similar. History says Ibanez will hit right-handed pitchers in the long run, but the short-term has been ugly and uninspiring. It’s real easy to envision the guy carrying this performance over into the regular season and becoming a bit of a problem for the Yankees.

I haven’t watched many of Ibanez’s at-bats this spring only because I usually don’t pay much attention to any hitters in March. I’m a pitching guy so I watch the arms but don’t focus on the bats. I’ve seen a few people say that Ibanez hasn’t hit anything hard all month and I’m inclined to believe them only because I haven’t been paying attention. It’s a bad sign if true, but at the same time I still have a hard time putting stock into any Spring Training performance. We’ve seen too many guys hit the snot out of the ball in March and go back into hibernation during the regular season, and vice versa.

I can’t imagine many of us had high expectations for Ibanez when the signing was announced, but that would have been true regardless of who they brought in to DH. All of the quality bat-only guys were off the market by the time Jesus Montero was traded away, so the Yankees were stuck picking from a group of old, declining players. True Yankee™ Johnny Damon wasn’t guaranteed to perform any better even though he probably made a little more sense. If they have to cut Ibanez at some point, they’ll do it. Simple as that. He’ll get some time to prove himself, and if he doesn’t they’ll find someone else. The Yankees survived a below average DH situation last year, and they have more than enough firepower to do it again.

2012 Season Preview: Left-on-Left Production

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Only 10% of the population is left-handed, and I don’t think any industry rewards southpaw-ness more than baseball. Lefty hitters are typically at the platoon advantage 65-75% of the time while lefty pitchers will get chance after chance to contribute something, anything at the big league level. It’s good work if you can get it.

Given the short right field porch at both the old and new Yankee Stadium, the team’s history has been dominated by power left-handed bats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, and Don Mattingly. Left-handed pitchers are also at a premium to help prevent the other team from capitalizing on the right field dimensions, which is why the club’s all-time best pitchers are southpaws like Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Ron Guidry, and Andy Pettitte. The current incarnation of the Yankees is no different, with a group of left-handed guys who do their very best work against same-sided players.

Robinson Cano
The best hitter on the Yankees also happens to be one of the very best left-handed hitters against left-handed pitching in all of baseball. Since the start of the 2009 season, only Joey Votto (.402 wOBA) and Chase Utley (.390 wOBA) have outhit Cano (.371 wOBA) against same-side pitchers (min. 500 PA). His 31 homers against southpaws over the last three years are the third most in baseball among all hitters, regardless of hand. Only Albert Pujols (40) and Mark Teixeira (34) have more.

Cano’s ability to hang in against left-handed pitching stems from his freakish contact skills, which allows him to get the fat part of the bat on both fastballs in and breaking balls away. He uses the entire field and is basically un-matchup-able. That’s why he’s one of the game’s most dangerous hitters.

Curtis Granderson
Once upon a time, Granderson was completely useless against left-handed pitchers. From 2006 through mid-August 2010, Curtis hit just .208/.264/.326 with a 24.5% strikeout rate in 767 plate appearances against lefties. That all changed 20 months ago, when hitting coach Kevin Long revamped the center fielder’s setup and stroke. Since then, Granderson has hit .275/.354/.575 in 275 plate appearances against lefties, which is almost identical to his .255/.366/.545 line against right-handers.

No hitter — right-handed or left-handed — hit more homers off lefty pitchers in 2011 than Granderson, who had 16. Teixeira had 15 and no one else had more than a dozen. Jay Bruce had the next highest total by a left-handed hitter at 11, so none of those fellas was particularly close to Curtis. Granderson’s transformation from platoon player to MVP candidate has been just remarkable, and there are going to be a lot of opposing managers tricked into using inferior LOOGYs in the late innings when Grandy and Cano are hitting back-to-back in the 2-3 spots this season. It will be glorious.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

CC Sabathia
One of the two or three best left-handed pitchers on the planet, Sabathia has been tormenting same-side hitters with his fastball-slider combination for a decade now. He’s held lefty batters to a .221/.272/.322 batting line with a 30.3% strikeout rate in 692 plate appearances during his three years in New York, which looks a whole lot like the old version of Granderson. Only eleven of the 55 homers he’s given up since the start of 2009 have come off the bat of lefties.

Because of his dominance of left-handed hitters, opposing managers often stack their lineups with right-handers whenever Sabathia starts. Only 22.3% of the hitters he’s faced in pinstripes have been lefties, well below the ~50% league average*. Thankfully Sabathia is very effective against right-handed batters as well — .249/.308/.371 over the last three years — thanks to his knockout changeup. CC’s best work comes against his fellow southpaws though, and he’s one of the best in the business.

* The RH-LH split for pitchers is approximately 75-25, but it’s just about 50-50 for hitters when accounting for switch-hitters.

Andy Pettitte
Pettitte’s surprise return last week will give the Yankees a second left-handed starter assuming he comes through his preparation fine and wants to see this comeback thing through. He’s held lefty batters to a .246/.286/.352 batting line with a 25.5% strikeout rate during the New Stadium era, which obviously includes no data for 2011. Andy is a bit more saavy than Sabathia, relying on three different 80-something mile-an-hour fastballs — four-seamer, sinker, and cutter — and a curveball to neutralize same-side hitters. Whether or not he retains that effectiveness after a year-long hiatus remains to be seen.

Boone Logan
The Yankees only true lefty specialist at the moment, Boone’s performance against lefties last season wasn’t exactly special. They tagged him for a .260/.328/.462 batting line in 2011, far worse than his career performance coming into the year (.248/.322/.355). The good news is that his underlying performance was very strong, featuring a 28.8% strikeout rate, a 5.9% walk rate, and a 40.6% ground ball rate. That will typically lead to excellent results, so Logan really doesn’t have to chance much going forward. Keep missing bats and limiting walks, and the results should fall in line.

There are a number of second lefty reliever candidates in camp, highlighted by Clay Rapada at the moment. He’s stood out the most from a group that includes fellow non-roster invitee Mike O’Connor and Rule 5 Draft pick Cesar Cabral. With one bullpen spot up for grabs, Rapada is the favorite right now should the Yankees decide to take a second southpaw given their April schedule. Even if they take another righty, the Yankees will have plenty of left-on-left firepower in 2012.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 19th, 2012

Record Last Week: 3-4 (29 RS, 29 RA)
Spring Training Record: 8-9 (67 RS, 72 RA)
Opponents This Week: Mon. OFF, vs. Pirates (Tues. on YES/MLBN), @ Rays (Weds. on ESPN), @ Red Sox (Thurs. on YES/ESPN), vs. Twins (Fri. on YES/MLBN, split squad), @ Phillies (Fri. on MLBN, split squad), @ Tigers (Sat.), vs. Tigers (Sun. on YES)

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Update: X-rays negative after Cano hit by pitch in hand

10:11pm: Via Bryan Hoch, x-rays were negative. “He’s fine,” said Joe Girardi. And exhale.

9:09pm: Robinson Cano left tonight’s game in obvious pain after getting hit by a pitch in the left hand. He actually swung at the pitch and struck out. Kevin Russo took over at second base. We’ll update this post when more information becomes available.

ST Game Thread: Mason’s Debut

(Photo via MiLB.com)

The Yankees are on the road tonight, meaning only four regulars are required to be in the lineup and a lot of non-roster/minor league guys will play in the game. One of the guys scheduled to come off the bench is the 20-year-old Mason Williams, one of the team’s very best prospects who is getting his first taste of big league action in camp. I had Williams second on my annual Top 30 Prospects List, mostly because of the athleticism and overwhelming tools. Pretty much the only thing he lacks right now is power, but hopefully that will come at some point. Here’s the starting lineup…

CF Brett Gardner
SS Eduardo Nunez
2B Robinson Cano
1B Mark Teixeira
DH Raul Ibanez
3B Bill Hall
RF Justin Maxwell
LF Dewayne Wise
C Gus Molina

RHP Ivan Nova

Available Pitchers: RHP George Kontos, LHP Clay Rapada, LHP Cesar Cabral, LHP Juan Cedeno, LHP Mike O’Connor, RHP David Phelps, RHP D.J. Mitchell, and RHP Adam Warren are all available.

Available Position Players: C Jose Gil, 1B Jorge Vazquez, 2B Kevin Russo, SS Doug Bernier, 3B Brandon Laird, LF Colin Curtis, CF Mason Williams, RF Chris Dickerson, and DH Cole Garner will replace the starters.

Tonight’s game starts at 7pm ET and can be seen on MLB Network. The blackout has been lifted in the Tri-State Area. Enjoy the game.

David Robertson Update: Robertson threw 25 pitches off a bullpen mound today and felt fine. It was his first time throwing off a mound since suffering that bone bruise in his right foot. His goal is to get in a game by next weekend. [Sweeny Murti]