Thinking about the starting five

The 1948 Boston Braves were a pretty good team. They finished the season with a 91-62 record, good for first in the National League, but they fell to the Indians in the World Series in six games. Despite a few no-name pitchers in their rotation — or perhaps because of them — that club birthed one of the most famous poems in baseball history.

On September 14, 1948, as the Braves held onto first place and tried to find someone not named Warren Spahn or Johnny Sain who could win games regularly, the now-defunct Boston Post ran a verse from Gerald V. Hern. The one-time paper’s sports editor’s words live on as part of baseball culture.

First we’ll use Spahn
then we’ll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
And followed
we hope
by two days of rain.

As we sit here on January 28, just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the Yanks’ rotation resembles that poem. Substitute CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes — what, You think I’d say Mitre? — and we can have the 2011 edition of “Spahn and Sain.” Of course, Sabathia and Hughes won’t combine to throw 41 percent of all of the Yanks’ innings as Spahn and Sain did, but isn’t that why the club signed Rafael Soriano?

Lately, the Yankees have been trying to find someone, anyone willing to part with a pitcher, but the pickings are slim. So earlier this week, they turned to Bartolo Colon, and the world seemingly imploded. Blog commenters, Twitter conversations, talk radio spots all focused on Colon as though the Yanks were relying on him to make 33 starts and win 18 of them. They’re not. He’s a low-risk invitee to Spring Training who will take home a few thousand dollars if he doesn’t make the team. If he pitches well enough to merit a longer look, the Yanks will pay him a salary of $900,000. It won’t break the bank.

Yet, as Joel Sherman pointed out, every pitching move is being viewed through the prism of Cliff Lee. The Yankees didn’t sign Lee; ergo, Colon is the replacement. It doesn’t quite work that way. Rather, in a thin market, the Yanks have an opportunity to maybe catch lightning in a bottle for 15 starts — Aaron Small says hello — or push Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre to earn their rotation spots. Who would want to have Colon breathing down his neck anyway?

But maybe it won’t come to that. Sherman adds a tantalizing bit of some hopey-changey thing to the conversation:

For now, their only chance to change the perception of having a frail rotation would be if Andy Pettitte again reversed retirement plans. And optimism has risen within the Yankee family that Pettitte will indeed pitch in 2011. Two people briefed on the most recent conversations between the Yankees and Pettitte say the team is upbeat because Pettitte is working out regularly, has not firmly committed to retirement and because it is hard to dismiss the $12 million to $13 million Pettitte knows the Yankees would pay for his services.

What Yankee fan isn’t going to go to their windows, open it, stick their head and scream, “Come back, Andy Pettitte”? One simple signing will turn the Yanks’ off-season around. Although I’m not sold on Pettitte’s ability to withstand the physical rigors of a full season, 21 starts of Pettitte and 12 starts of someone else is far better than the alternative.

So we keep waiting, and if push comes to shove, as Sherman says, the Yanks just have to ride it out until early June. Cliff Lee was sent from the Mariners to Texas on July 9th, and if the Yanks can put together a Spahn-and-Sain-like rotation for half a season or less, the market will open up. Still, I’m holding out hope for Andy Pettitte. Does he really seem retired to you?

Open Thread: Cashman helps fight cancer

Brian Cashman was a guest bartender at Foley’s last night, helping raise money for prostate cancer research, the disease that claimed his father-in-law. I didn’t go, but from what I’ve heard it was a really good time and a lot of fun. BuzzFeed has a few cool pictures to check out, including the Daily News video you see above. Say what you want about his abilities as a GM, but Cashman seems like a pretty cool dude and I’m glad he does stuff like this. Baseball’s just a game, but cancer is real frickin’ life. I’m all for anything that helps fight it.

Anyways, here is the open thread for the night. The NHL is off because of the All Star break, but the Knicks welcome the Heat to the Garden tonight (8pm ET, TNT). You might want to hide yo kids and hide yo wife, it’ll probably get ugly. You all know what to do, so have at it.

A brief Cliff Lee post mortem post mortem

For the Yankees, Cliff Lee will forever be the one that got away. Whether that’s a blessing or curse depends upon how Jesus Montero develops and whether or not Lee ages gracefully. Right now, his loss stings, and Texas Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg has decided to rub salt in our wounds. The Rangers’ owner believes that his persistency kept Lee from the Yankees and gave the Phillies the time they needed to put together an offer.

While speaking at a Rangers’ Fan Fest this week, Greenberg expounded on his theory. “We had three different meetings with Cliff and his wife and his agent in Little Rock,” Greenberg said to his fans. “Even though Philadelphia was probably not in, they were always in the back of our mind. I think if we wouldn’t have gone to Arkansas that last time, I think he was going to sign with the Yankees. We pried the door open a little bit to give ourselves another opportunity. And ultimately the Phillies were able to take advantage of that opportunity that we created.” I would be pretty angry at this news if I weren’t so apathetic in the first place.

Link Dump: The Boss, Fifth Starter, Joba

Here’s a few links as the workday draws to a close…

The Boss on Twitter

Twitter has undeniably changed the media and access to information over the last few years, but Buster Olney says the world missed out on what could have been the greatest Twitter account in the history of man: George Steinbrenner. Olney put together dozens of 140-character, Boss inspired one liners in his blog today, all worth a read if you have Insider. My faves: “Mattingly’s hair has gotten so long that he looks like one of the Beatles — one of their girlfriends, I mean.” and “AARON BOONE!!!!!! He is A WINNER!!!!!! The third baseman of the future for the Yankees!!!!!!!” I laughed.

The recent history of Yankees’ fifth starters

As we all freak out about Sergio Mitre potentially starting the season in the rotation, Paul Swydan at FanGraphs points out that the recent history of Yankees’ fifth starters is rather ugly. That group includes Shawn Chacon and Chad Gaudin and Kei Igawa and Sidney Ponson and a whole bunch of other forgettable guys since 2006, a group that combined for just 1.6 fWAR since 2006. Despite that, the team has been to the playoffs four times and won a World Series, mostly because their offense and bullpen have been good enough to get them to the October. Once you get there, the fifth (and sometimes fourth) starters go out the window.

Joba’s stuff as a starter

Much has been made of Brian Cashman‘s recent comments about Joba Chamberlain not being the same guy since his 2008 shoulder injury, specifically as a starter compared to a reliever. Dave Allen at FanGraphs looked into the matter and found out that yes, Joba’s stuff isn’t the same as it once was, but notes that it declined across the board. It’s no better in the bullpen than in the rotation. This dead horse than been beaten into a bloody pulp, and I blame the media blamers.

Mike on the Beyond The Box Score podcast

I made an appearance on Beyond The Box Score’s podcast yesterday, which you can listen to right here. We talked about the state of the Yankees, touching on the bullpen, Jesus Montero, the starting rotation, the whole nine. Give it a listen, there some other great non-Yankee stuff in there too.

Determining Joba’s Trade Value (Part II)

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Earlier today we took a sabermetric approach to determining Joba Chamberlain‘s trade value, and we came up with $11M or roughly two wins. Now we’re going to take a more practical approach and compare the current version of Joba to some similar relievers, then look at what they brought back when they were traded.

Joba’s career performance as a reliever is pretty damn good. We’re talking about excellent strikeout (10.7 K/9), walk (2.7 uIBB/9), and homerun (0.55 HR/9) rates in 131.2 IP, but if we remove 2007 so the numbers aren’t skewed, we still get 10.3 K/9, 2.76 uIBB/9, and 0.59 HR/9. That’s still pretty damn good. Young pitchers who perform like that usually don’t get traded, so the number of comparable players is somewhat limited. Let’s dive in…

Joel Hanrahan
This one isn’t perfect because Hanrahan was traded mid-year, but like Joba now his stock was at an all-time low. He had a stellar strikeout rate (9.17 K/9), but the walk (4.66 uIBB/9) and homerun (1.13 HR/9) rates weren’t even close. To make things more complicated, he was packaged with Lastings Milledge. The trade brought Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett to the Nationals, so if we cut that in half we can say he fetched a young-ish big leaguer struggling to establish himself. That doesn’t sound enticing at all.

Fist pump included. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Matt Lindstrom
Lindstrom’s actually been traded twice, but his first move last offseason works best because he had the same amount of service time Joba has now. Although his strikeout (7.5 K/9) and walk (3.20 uIBB/9) rates weren’t as strong as Joba’s, he did have the “proven closer” tag, which counts for something. In exchange for Lindstrom the Marlins received two low-level minor leaguers (that did not figure into their top 30 prospects according to Baseball America) plus a player to be named later that turned out to be Houston’s Rule 5 Draft pick. Two organizational players and what ended up being a Quad-A infielder. Yuck.

Tony Pena
Not the Yankee bench coach, the current White Sox reliever by the same name. At the time of the trade, he had almost the exact same amount of service time as Joba does now, and he brought back first base prospect Brandon Allen. Allen was a legit top ten prospect in any farm system, a power hitting first baseman that posted no less than a .390 wOBA as he rose from A-ball to Triple-A in the three seasons prior to the trade. Pena’s numbers (6.55 K/9, 2.34 uIBB/9, 0.89 HR/9) weren’t even in the same realm as Joba’s though.

Ramon Ramirez
The former Yankee farmhand has been traded quite a few times, once with four years of team control left and once with two-and-a-half years of control left. The first time around he was dealt straight up for Coco Crisp, an average everyday big leaguer with one year left on his contract. The second time he fetched current Yankee farmhand Daniel Turpen, who was not a top 30 prospect. Ramirez’s performance (8.38 K/9, 3.05 uIBB/9, 0.52 HR/9) at the time of the first trade wasn’t all that far off from Joba’s.

(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Carlos Villanueva
We’re a year off here since Villanueva was traded with two years of team control left rather than three, but it’ll have to do. He did the starter/reliever thing early in his career like Joba, and his peripheral stats were pretty dang good (8.07 K/9, 2.90 uIBB/9) aside from the homers (1.31 HR/9). The Brewers gave Villanueva away for a player to be named later, and we have yet to learn the identity of said player. That doesn’t help us, now does it?

* * *

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and unless the PTBNL in the Villaneuva deal turns out to be some hotshot prospect, Crisp and Allen represent the best of the lot. We don’t need to be all that precise, we’re just trying to get an approximation of Chamberlain’s real life trade value. As we can see, it isn’t all that high. If the absolute best case scenario is a top ten prospect, then you know what? I’d rather just see the Yankees keep Joba. If he stays healthy and maintains his 2009 peripherals going forward, he’ll be a nice piece towards the back of the bullpen.

KLaw’s Top 100 Prospects

Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list came out today (1-25, 26-50, 51-75, 76-100), and unsurprisingly the Yankees are well represented (I believe all but the top 25 are Insider only). Jesus Montero comes in at number four, trailing only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Domonic Brown. “[Montero’s] going to hit. And by that, I mean he’s going to hit for average, get on base and have huge power — the type of offensive profile that plays anywhere on the field and in the lineup,” said KLaw, though he adds the obvious caveat about his defense. “Montero could solve the Yankees’ DH problem for the next 10 years if they commit to it, a move they are unlikely to ever regret.”

Manny Banuelos wasn’t too far behind Montero at number 12, and according to KLaw he’s the fourth best pitching prospect in baseball behind Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller, and Zach Britton. “[He’s] a 19-year-old on the cusp of the majors with a three-pitch mix where all three pitches will at least flash above-average … he’s just a few refinements away from being able to help the big league club.” Law is probably the high man on Banuelos, I was surprised to see him ranked so far up there. Gary Sanchez is 68th (“youth and distance from the majors are the only things keeping him out of the top echelon of this list”), Dellin Betances is 73rd (“[there’s] No. 1 starter potential here, but the probability isn’t there yet”), and Andrew Brackman makes five Yankee farmhands at number 88 (“[he] may be a bullpen guy, but at least now that’s his floor”).

Austin Romine make Law’s list of ten prospects that just missed the top 100, and he notes that Romine “can throw and hit for power, but has struggled with basic receiving tasks every time I’ve seen him in the past six months.” His list of each organization’s top ten prospects came out as well, and the Yankee list is pretty standard with one exception: he’s got Graham Stoneburner all that way at number seven. Hooray for a strong farm system.

Determining Joba’s Trade Value (Part I)

Earlier this week Brian Cashman acknowledged that Joba Chamberlain hasn’t been the same since his 2008 shoulder injury, something that was pretty obvious to all. For whatever reason, that was followed by a lot of “trade him now” discussion, a logic jump I’m not quite sure I understand. Anyway, I wanted to take a stab at determining his trade value since given all the opinions out there.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

We’re going to do this two ways. In this post I’ll bust out my slide rule and figure it Joba’s trade value the ol’ sabermetric way, and in another post later today I’ll dig up some similar players and see what they were traded for and use that as a comparison. Not terribly accurate, no, but that’s never stopped us before.

Last season Joba was worth 1.4 fWAR because his strong strikeout (9.67 K/9), walk (2.76 BB/9, 2.51 uIBB/9), and homerun (0.75 HR/9) rates led to a 2.98 FIP, 35th best among the 124 relievers that through at least 50 IP. Some unfortunate luck on the BABIP (.327) and strand rate (66.6%) fronts made his ERA (4.40) a lot worse than the underlying performance says it should have been.

You might disagree, but I think it’s fair to say that those strikeout, walk, and homer rates are indicative of Joba’s true talent level, or at least serve as a rough approximation of it. Even if he regresses some and is a 3.30 FIP reliever, that’s still a valuable piece. The problem going forward is that he can only be so valuable as a middle reliever, especially since Mariano Rivera will be sticking around as closer. Joba’s average Leverage Index last year was 1.22, but he was an eighth inning for half the season. With Rafael Soriano on board, Joba figures to work the six and/or seventh innings.

Going forward, I think 1.4 fWAR might be the upper bound of Joba’s value because of his reduced role. There’s also the potential for improved performance since he spent last season at just 24 years old, so 1.4 fWAR might be underselling his future worth. To be slightly conservative, I’m going to keep it constant going forward, assuming he doesn’t have a big contract push in store for 2013. Teams have gone back to paying about $5M per win this offseason, so a 1.4 fWAR reliever would theoretically fetch $7M per year on the open market. Since Joba’s under team control for the next three seasons, his total value is $21M given our assumptions.

Now we have to consider the money being paid to him, since that decreases his value. Joba will earn $1.7M in 2011 before getting raises in both 2012 and 2013, assuming he isn’t non-tendered. Arbitration salaries are typically estimated with a 40/60/80 breakdown, meaning 40% of value in year one, 60% in year two, and 80% in year three. That $1.7MM salary means Joba is starting at just 25% of expected value in year one though, so perhaps 50% in year two and 70% in year three would be more accurate. That would put his next three salaries at just $1.7M (fixed), $3.5M, and $4.9M, respectively. They sound reasonable, so let’s go with them.

All we have to do to figure out Joba’s trade value is subtract his salary from his production, so that’s…

$21M – ($1.7M + $3.5M + $4.9M) = $10.9M

Let’s call it $11M just to make it a nice round number. We’re not splitting atoms here, we can fudge a little.

According to Victor Wang’s research, Joba would be able to fetch a pitching prospect that you’d find towards the back of the top 100 list in a trade, which is someone below the Manny Banuelos/Andrew Brackman/Dellin Betances level but above the Hector Noesi/David Phelps/Adam Warren level. He could also get you a full year of Edwin Jackson, assuming Jackson sustains last year’s 3.8 fWAR pace ($10.5M surplus value). If you want to shoot for the moon, you could couple Joba with a Grade-B position player prospect ($5.5M value according to Wang) like Brandon Laird and get Dan Haren, as long as you believe Haren can maintain last year’s 4.5 fWAR pace over the last two guaranteed years of his contract. That’s a reasonable expectation, and would generate $16M in surplus value. We can play this game all day if we want, but that gives you can idea of where his value stands.

Joba’s trade value looks great in a spreadsheet, but that’s not where this stuff actually happens. That’s why were going to look at comparable trades later today, and I have a feeling that will get a little closer to reality.