Sunday Open Thread

Hooray for charity baseball in Panama City. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Ready for some foobaw? I’m posting this a few hours earlier than usual because of the NFL playoffs, which start with the Ravens and Patriots at 3pm ET (on CBS). The Giants and 49ers follow at 6:30pm ET (on FOX). The two winners meet in the Super Bowl two weeks from today. The Nets are also playing a little later. Talk about whatever you like here, go nuts.

Pineda speaks for first time since trade

Jesus Montero is finally in Seattle for his physical, meaning the four player trade that will bring Michael Pineda to the Yankees should become official within a day or two. Christian Red of The Daily News caught up with Pineda in the Dominican Republic recently, the first time the young right-hander has spoken publicly since the two sides agreed to the deal.

“It’s a tremendous team,” he said. “It’s very exciting for me … I’m not scared. I’m always focused, working very hard every day. I don’t think about anything else on game days. I’ve never pitched in New York or at Yankee Stadium, but I’m dying to. We’ll see what happens. I’m going to work very hard to do my job.” Pineda said he feels “good about [his] changeup,” and is well aware of the short porch in the right field at Yankee Stadium. “I’ll just keep it low. Keep it low and everything will be fine,” he said. Easier said than done, my friend. Check out the entire article, it’s worth your time.

A Sigh of Relief For Mo

Last night, the Red Sox traded incumbent starting shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Rockies, presumably to free up the $6 million dollars he was slated to earn. While Red Sox fans debated what the move meant for the likes of Roy Oswalt, Mike Aviles, Nick Punto, and The Gloved Wunderkind Who Hits Worse Than Ramiro Pena™, Yankees fans breathed a sigh of relief. You see, Marco Scutaro is the David to Mariano Rivera‘s Goliath. He is a middling hitter, more of a pest than anything, with a career OPS+ of 93. Against the Yankees overall, he has a thoroughly unimpressive .697 OPS. But when he digs in against the Great Rivera, the nondescript, unspectacular Scutaro, for no identifiable reason, turns into Edgar Martinez.

It all started in April of 2007. To that point, Scutaro had 6 career at-bats against Rivera, and was hitless with 2 walks. One of those walks came around to score a winning run, but the final score was 6-3 and the walk did not seem to be all that important. But on Sunday, April 15th, Andy Pettitte and Scott Proctor handed Rivera a 4-2 lead on a nice afternoon in Oakland. With 2 outs, Todd Walker singled and Jason Kendall walked, bringing the light-hitting Scutaro to the plate. On an 0-2 pitch, Scutaro turned on a cutter up in the zone and drove it off the foul pole in left, turning a certain Yankees win into a painful loss.

For a few seasons, it seemed as if Scutaro’s success against Mariano would prove to be a one-time event, a fluke that would make him the answer to a trivia question one day but nothing more. In 2008 and 2009, Scutaro faced Mo six times and reached base once, a single that was rendered meaningless by Rivera retiring the subsequent hitter. And then Scutaro signed with the Red Sox.

Marco faced Mo four times in 2010, but only twice in vitally important situations (Mo retired him in the two lower leverage spots). Scutaro reached base the first time he faced Mo in a Red Sox uniform, doubling to bring the tying run to the plate, but Mo retired the next two Sox in order to end the game. Later that season, after Joba Chamberlain blew a 5-1 lead by allowing 4 runs in the 8th, Rivera allowed 2 runs in the 9th, with a blooper off the bat of Scutaro that was ruled an error being the turning point of the inning. Marco was starting to reveal himself as a pesky hitter who could at least make contact off Rivera, but it was not until 2011 that he established himself as a true annoyance to the great Mo.

On August 7th, the Yankees played the Red Sox on Sunday Night Baseball, looking to win their first series from the Sox in 4 tries. Behind homers from Eduardo Nunez and Brett Gardner, as well as solid pitching from Freddy Garcia, Cory Wade, Rafael Soriano, and David Robertson, the Yankees carried a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th. Alas, Marco Scutaro was poised to strike, doubling off the Green Monster to start the inning and eventually scoring on a sacrifice fly. The Yankees lost the game one inning later.

When the teams met again on the first day of September, Scutaro and Rivera matched up in similar circumstances. The Yankees were once again trying to take their first series from the Red Sox, with the entire country watching the two clubs clash on ESPN. They took a lead late in the contest against Daniel Bard, and handed Rivera a 4-2 advantage. After Jed Lowrie walked to start the frame, Rivera retired the next two batters before walking Jacoby Ellsbury. In stepped Marco Scutaro, already feared as Rivera Kryptonite, with a chance to extend the game and bring up Adrian Gonzalez. Marco did just that, lining a hard single to RF and setting up the Yankees for more heartbreak. However, Rivera struck out Gonzalez looking, and the Yankees finally celebrated a series victory over their rivals from Beantown.

When the Yankees faced the Red Sox late in September, Joe Girardi decided not to take any chances with Scutaro. With the game tied at 4 with 2 outs in the top of the 9th, a runner at 3rd, and the struggling Jarrod Saltalamacchia on deck, Girardi finally gave in to the Myth of Marco and had Rivera intentionally walk Scutaro. Salty struck out to validate the decision, but the Yankees eventually lost the game.

Scutaro’s resume against Rivera is a bit thinner than I thought it would be, but it is important to remember that not many hitters get to Mo at all, and that notching multiple successes against him is notable. Of hitters with at least 20 PA’s against Rivera, Scutaro’s OPS of .988 (.294/.400/.588) is 5th highest, trailing just Edgar Martinez, Aubrey Huff, Rafael Palmeiro, and Vernon Wells. As William Juliano noted, Scutaro is one of 5 players to have a walk-off homer off Rivera, and one of 8 to have at least 3 extra-base hits against him. And his IBB against him last season makes him one of the 33 hitters (36 walks) to be given a free pass by Mo, and 17 of those walks came with runners on 2nd and 3rd to load the bases and create a force play. I’ll let the WSJ contextualize that:

Since 2001, the legendary Yankees closer has issued 20 intentional walks. Thirteen were to load the bases and set up a force at home, but the rest of the list consists of the greatest sluggers of this generation: Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Evan Longoria and Carlos Delgado (twice). Now add Scutaro, and his .387 lifetime slugging percentage, to that group.

Small sample or not, Scutaro was one of the few players who made me a bit uncomfortable when he dug in against Mariano Rivera. That unease may have been based on one swing from 2007, but I know many other Yankees fans shared it and are glad to see him head off to Colorado. If you asked him, Mariano might tell you that he feels the same way.

Touring ballparks in 2012

The Yankees acquisition of Michael Pineda and signing of Hiroki Kuroda couldn’t have come at a better time. While the weeks and months leading up to the moves were filled with frustration, they were still filled with discussions of the team’s direction. Those discussions usually end in mid-January, when we hit the ultimate lull. Two and a half months removed from live baseball and a month and a half away from the first spring training games, mid-January is the worst time of year for baseball fans.

Dreams of warmer climates can help us pass the time. Lately I’ve been lamenting my relative lack of ballpark experience. Outside of Yankee Stadium and CitiField, my personal ballpark experience is basically nonexistent. It consists of a game at Petco Park, and once, while in high school, standing outside of Fenway Park, behind the green monster. It’s time for that to change this year. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to make your way to other parts of the country. And it doesn’t even require a time-consuming summer road trip.

One thing the internet has brought us is an abundance of cheap flights and hotels. Where before we’d have to pay fees to middlemen, or we wouldn’t have easy access to the best prices, now we have automated middlemen and the ability to constantly check prices. Plus, the best time to book is several months out, so now is the right time to be thinking about any summer ballpark trips. Here are some shortish trips that a Yanks fan could take in 2012.

Nationals: June 15th through 17th

You can bet the RAB crew is going to make the short trip down to DC for this three-game weekend set. It’s a chance not only to see an up-and-coming team, but also to experience their new ballpark. Friend of RAB Rob Iracane led a group outing down to Washington last year, and it was a smashing success. While this trip might not be an organized one, we hope to see plenty of Yankees fans in DC that weekend.

Red Sox: July 6th through 8th

It’s the last series before the 2012 All-Star Game, which is always nice. Nothing better than watching some live baseball before we’re deprived for a few days. It’s also way better than taking the April trip up to Boston. Who wants to travel North in April, anyway?

A’s and Mariners: July 19th through 25th

With two brothers in California, my family tries to find a West Coast series every year where we can meet up. Last year I missed the Anaheim trip due to a wedding. This year, since there aren’t any weekend series in Anaheim, we’re going to Oakland for a four-game set in July. That’ll be nice, if for no other reason than the cheap tickets. Plus, Hannah will be there. Oh, and Bartolo.

The Yanks go up the coast to Seattle directly afterwards. While the whole trip would require a week, it could be worth it to see Jesus Montero in his new digs.

White Sox: August 20th through 22nd

Spending a few days in Chicago is never a bad time. The Yanks will have just come off seven straight games against the Rangers and Red Sox, so it will be nice to see them in a slightly less intense environment. Plus, there’s the possibility of heading to Cleveland, following an off-day, for a weekend three-game set.

Orioles: September 7th through 9th

An Orioles trip is pretty standard for any Yankees fan. That it’s not in the summer heat and humidity is even nicer. The O’s always work it well for Yankees fans. There’s a night game on Saturday and day game on Sunday, so you can drive down during the day Saturday, spend one night in a hotel, and catch two games. It’s easy enough to get home in time for work Monday. Plus, since it’s after Labor Day there won’t be massive shore traffic on the Turnpike.

These are just a few examples. There are plenty of road trips worth taking this year — even ones that don’t involve the Yanks. Which ones are you planning to take?

Snowy Saturday Open Thread

(click to embiggen)

A couple inches of snow isn’t bad, and in fact I actually heard the plow drive by a few times today. That’s a rarity here. The snow is a big slap in the face though, reminding us baseball fans that we’re still weeks away from anything remotely resembling meaningful baseball. On the other hand, it sure is bright and sunny down in Tampa. Pitchers and catchers are 29 days away…

(Photo via @Julie_Stone)

Guest Post: Mason Williams Scouting Report

The following a guest post from David Gershman, better know as The Gersh around the Twitterverse. He spent last summer covering the NY-Penn League, and today gives us a firsthand scouting report on Mason Williams, the Yankees top position player prospect now that Jesus Montero is headed to Seattle. You can follow Gersh on Twitter at @Dave_Gershman.

(Photo via MiLB.com)

Of all the talent I was able to spectate in 2011, hardly anyone caught my eye to the extent of Mason Williams, Staten Island’s everyday center-fielder. The New York-Penn League technically ranks as the third lowest developmental level in baseball, ahead of the Pioneer and Appy Leagues and the Gulf Coast League. Therefore, finding talent to keep an eye on is somewhat rare. As a matter of fact, on a good year there might only be one elite-level talent worth watching in the Penn League. While I’m not claiming Williams to be an elite-level prospect, his upside and advanced skill-set are through the roof, clearly making him a must-see talent.

A scout once requested my opinion on Williams and my reasoning for touting him as much as I did last season. I replied, “After months of Extended Spring Training work, Williams began to hit the cover off of the ball right out of the gate and continued doing so even after the first week of the season. There wasn’t any point throughout the year in which he cooled off, and it was rather astonishing.” I labeled his everlasting performance as astonishing simply because inconsistency is so common amongst prospects at the short-season level. And it’s especially colloquial for those playing their first season as a professional. On to the report.

Williams is a terrific athlete with assets and upside that could make him an above-average major leaguer in the not-too-distant future. Quick hands, loads of bat speed and a smooth bat plain make him an advanced hitter, one that hits both lefties and righties without much problem for someone of his age and level. Williams is prone to making bad contact at times, given his high tendency to swing early in the count and, more importantly, at lousy pitches, but plate discipline is an aspect of his game I imagine he’ll be working to ameliorate until he reaches the majors.

While his approach needs some tuning, he has the right idea. As one professional scout noted, “a hitter constantly swinging at pitches early in the count would generally warrant some concern, but if the hitter is either making good contact with pitches in the zone or swinging at hittable pitches than there isn’t much of a problem, and Mason Williams often overdoes it, he customarily accounts for both.”

Williams has a thin and wiry frame, but contains tons of physicality and, in correspondence, some of the most physical upside the Yankees system. He isn’t expected to possess too much power down the road, but certainly enough to avoid being considered a “slap-hitter” of any sort. Remaining a center fielder isn’t a question, but the role system (at least according to two scouts), suggests that Angelo Gumbs might be a more adequate center-field option than Williams should both progress at a similar rate. Williams’ plus range and baseball instincts, at least for me, make him a more-than-viable candidate to be an every day center-fielder for the Yanks down the road.  Williams seemed to have developed refined accuracy as last season progressed. Accuracy sure is expected to develop accordingly, but arm strength is slightly different. As players fill out and develop more fortitude and muscle, they improve the distance and accuracy on their throws. Being that his arm is currently below average unquestionably is a non-issue.

Williams’ current and future tool grades are to the right and up a bit. If you need an explanation as to how these grades work, you can read my primer on how professional scouting reports are compiled.

The reason I gave Williams such a low power projection is mostly due to lack of leverage and loft in his swing. Although it’s quick and stays through the zone, it’s choppy and rather flat. That doesn’t make him a bad hitter by any means; it just decreases his power projection. That said, he’s shown the ability to hit to all fields and, in doing so, drive the ball. Additionally, I upgraded his overall future potential (OFP) because his range and speed suggest such an adjustment.

All professional scouts have a specific computer program that automatically adjusts OFP based on the weight of the prospect and his positional grade requirements. Meaning, center fielders are supposed to have plus range and speed, even if they aren’t that good of hitters. However, what if a first-baseman grades out to have 30 power but 70 speed and defense? His adjusted OFP would lower significantly since first base is a power position. Thus, center field is a speed and defense position.

The Yankees have a rare commodity in Williams, a clear center-fielder with the ability to hit. He’s only 20-years of age, so the Yankees obviously won’t be rushing him at any point. That said, if he shows he can hit in Charleston I’d expect him to finish the season off in Tampa and eventually head to Trenton sometime in 2013. Unlike his time spent in Staten Island, Williams won’t be hitting .349 in Charleston this season, but you can unequivocally expect a to see improvements and maturity in Mason Williams’ game. He’s a bright player with a bright future.

Vetting out some thoughts on ‘the big trade’

Farewell Jesus, greetings Michael (Yahoo.com)

Like some of you (and some of us here at RAB), my head is still swirling from last Friday’s trade escapades. Cashman, in vintage ninja-like fashion, redefined the Yankees landscape in what seemed like a matter of hours when he elected to ship Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi off to Seattle in return for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.  Not only could the trade drastically influence the 2012 season, but it may reverberate for years to come on a number of different levels.

Frankly, I have not completely sorted out my thoughts on the trade yet; although, my initial response was some combination of bewilderment and panic. On the surface, the deal seems to make a great deal of sense for both teams though – the Mariners obtained a potential middle-of-the-lineup threat to aid their otherwise meager offense, while the Yankees theoretically acquired another potent arm to complement a rotation comprised of CC Sabathia and a bunch of question marks. Incidentally, both organizations received players that are very young and cost-controlled to boot.

While Hector Noesi and Jose Campos are certainly not the feature pieces of the deal, both offer some honest upside as well. Noesi will probably slot into the Mariners rotation and should deliver some decent production, especially in spacious Safeco Field. Similarly, Campos, a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher with a dazzling fastball, will likely qualify as a top ten prospect within the Yankees organization upon arrival. High-end bullpen pitching depth is never a bad thing, right?

Yet, general consensus here in Yankeeland seems to be that the deal was “good but not great” despite the fact that it clearly addressed some of the franchise’s obvious concerns. Some of the luster of the move was certainly dulled by the fact that we, as fans, have been captivated by Montero for quite some time now. He was supposed to be the next homegrown superstar after all, who would grow up donning pinstripes and ultimately retire to the Hall of Fame as a True Yankee™.  So as great as Pineda could potentially be, the loss of Montero is still bittersweet.

As if sentiments weren’t hazy enough already, Brian Cashman did his part to complicate the discussion further as he went on the record stating, “I gave up a ton [for Pineda]. To me, Montero is Mike Piazza. He’s Miguel Cabrera.”  Assuming for a moment that Montero does have that kind of ceiling at the MLB level (and boy that is a lofty assumption), what’s that worth to a team exactly?  I suppose it depends on the team’s needs first and foremost.  For what it’s worth, WAR tells us that Miggy has been been an outstanding player (only once in the past seven seasons has he delivered a fWAR value below five).   There’s only a handful of players in all of baseball who can deliver similar production consistently.

Even if Montero was relegated to designated hitter role early on in his career, at that level of production, he’d still contribute some serious value going forward. Consider David Ortiz; in 2011, he was valued at 4.2 WAR according to FanGraphs.  Also keep in mind that in 2011, there were only 24 pitchers total who could claim a WAR above four, and only 16 topped five.  Last season, Cabrera eclipsed the seven fWAR plateau —  a feat only pitchers Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Justin Verlander could claim.  So in the spirit of gross over-simplification, our hearts and eyes told us Montero carried huge clout, a point which Cashman reiterated right after trading him to the Mariners for some kid not named Felix.

Now, I generally tend to value very good pitching beyond very good hitting simply because of supply and demand, a philosophy which makes it easier for me to accept Cashman’s decision to pull the trigger (not that he needs my official endorsement). However, I also contend that elite talent (regardless of the role) should hold trump. The reason why elite talent is so tantalizing is because, by very definition, it’s a rarity.  If Cashman was serious about Montero becoming a generational talent, I sure hope he has similar aplomb in Pineda’s future as well.  Trading future Miguel Cabrera away for, say, Ricky Romero just doesn’t satisfy me.*

Realistically speaking, at this point, Montero’s a highly touted prospect who is still in the process of transitioning into the bigs. Although he had an exciting September, it’s probably unfair to label him the next big deal until he showcases some consistency. As for Pineda, his strengths are obvious but he’s also not without his flaws. We’ve all heard by now about his gaudy strikeout ratio.  We’ve also heard about his fly ball tendencies and the changeup that needs to develop. Nevertheless, he is definitely a very talented kid, and the Yankees were not likely to obtain that caliber of a player without giving up something comparable in return. Considering the value of other young cost-controlled quality arms, it would appear Cashman gave up a reasonable amount relative to the haul.

Cashman said that the trade will likely be a bust for the Yankees if Pineda doesn’t develop a viable changeup and become a number one starter. Those are some hefty expectations (that we all probably feel in the pit of our stomach to some extent or another). Then again, I’m sure Seattle is saying the same thing. Montero needs to live up to the hype in order to justify the loss of a pitcher who could become a bonafide ace; moreover, he’ll likely need to do it behind the plate for some folks to be truly content.  The uncertainty is the rub.  It’s the reason I flinched at the trade initially, and it’s also the reason I completely support the reasoning behind it now.

I know I wasn’t alone in wondering whether the Yanks could have had the proverbial cake and been able to eat it too. It’s plausible that the Yankees would still be dubbed the AL East favorite at this juncture if they had just signed Hiroki Kuroda and not made the trade additionally. Although the rotation would not have been as appealing in 2012 without Pineda’s services, perhaps the differential in run support would have made up for it.  I think we were all prepared to face that reality with open arms.

In the long run, hopefully we’ll wind up thanking Cashman for his foresight. Unfortunately, because baseball isn’t played in a vacuum, such hypotheticals are not only abstract but at times haunting. Only Cashman truly knows the true game plan, and he gets to make the tough decisions while only we get the benefit of being able to scrutinize his moves without the torments of accountability.

In any event, the wheels are in motion and there is no real option other than to embrace the future. Hopefully, the team does not lose interest in some of the other quality arms on the free agent market come next season **. There’s nothing more we can do but wait and see how this will pan out for the Yankees. For now, I’ll trust in Cashman’s judgment with optimism, say a fond farewell to the superstar-in-the-making we barely knew, and welcome with open arms the future face of the rotation.

* Please know that I’m not comparing Michael Pineda to Ricky Romero here.  The example was simply the first name that popped into mind for the sake of discussion.

** Just for the record, I do not expect the Yankees to skip out on elite pitchers next offseason should they be made available.

*** Apologies for my hiatus the past two months. Between work and wedding planning, my life has been rather chaotic. That said, I hope to regain normalcy in my daily routine soon and get back to posting at my typical frequency.  Cheers!