Does the Zambrano trade tell us anything about Burnett?

We must kung-fu fight! (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Cubs’ new regime didn’t even give Carlos Zambrano a chance. After watching his numerous meltdowns and blowups from afar, the new Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer-led baseball operations department traded the right-hander to the Marlins yesterday. All they had to do was eat $15.5M of the $18M owed to Zambrano next year, the last one on his contract, and take back a player that was nearly non-tendered last month. Chris Volstad was so far out of Miami’s plans that they didn’t even invite him to their new jersey unveiling earlier this offseason.

The Yankees don’t have a new regime, but they are looking to move their own troubled right-hander. During the Winter Meetings we heard that they were shopping A.J. Burnett, reportedly willing to pay $8M of the $33M left on his contract. We know that amount won’t get it done, but it’s just a starting point for negotiations. A few weeks later we heard that a number of teams were mulling over the idea of trading for A.J., but so far nothing has materialized. Ken Rosenthal reported yesterday that the Pirates were one of those clubs, but ultimately everyone is asking the Yankees to basically eat everything left on Burnett’s contract. As the Zambrano trade shows, that probably what it’ll take to facilitate a deal.

In terms of performance, Burnett and Zambrano have been very, very similar over the last three seasons. The former has stayed healthier so he’s thrown 140 more innings during that time, but the latter isn’t as homer prone (0.73 HR/9 vs. 1.25). Burnett has slight edges in strikeout (7.91 K/9 and 20.0 K% vs. 7.49 and 19.1), walk (3.91 BB/9 and 10.1 BB% vs. 4.11 and 10.5), and ground ball (45.6% vs. 43.6%) rates, though Zambrano has the sexier ERA (3.99 vs. 4.79). Obviously the whole NL Central vs. AL East thing plays some part in that. The two have similar BABIPs (.299 vs. .303), xFIPs (4.19 vs. 4.27) and SIERAs (4.15 vs. 4.33) as well.

Not a whole lot differentiates the two on the field over the last three seasons, but off the field they are quite different. Zambrano is a noted hot-head, getting suspended by his team multiple times for run-ins with coaches and teammates. He even had to attend an anger management class. Burnett showed up with a black eye and punched a wall in 2010, but he’s never had any problems remotely close to what Zambrano has put the Cubs through over the last decade. That’s not enough to overcome his poor performance, but it’s definitely not negligible.

Yesterday’s Zambrano trade doesn’t make it any more likely that the Yankees will be able to move Burnett, but it might tell us a little something about what it will take to make it happen. The Cubs ate 86% of the money left on Big Z’s deal and took an out-of-favor player with a smidgen of upside in return. The Yankees would have to eat $28.4M of the $33M left on Burnett’s deal to match that percentage, which I’m guessing is beyond where they’re willing to go. There’s also the whole one year of Zambrano vs. two years of Burnett thing, and we shouldn’t discount the Ozzie Guillen factor. He and Zambrano are friends and countrymen, so I’m sure he was consulted prior to the deal. The Yankees won’t have that Guillen-like edge when trying to trade the Burnett.

Much like the Derek Lowe trade — when the Braves ate two-thirds of his salary and received a fringe low-level prospect in return — the Zambrano deal gives us an idea of what it takes to move an underperforming, overpaid player like Burnett. The Yankees will have to eat upwards of $20-25M to make it happen, getting next to nothing in return. Volstad represents the best case return, and he’s back end of the rotation fodder. Is that worth it for the Yankees? Maybe, but I’m not 100% convinced of it. Either way, I’m not betting on A.J. getting traded anytime soon.

Looking Back: The Brien Taylor Story

(Photo via The Houston Chronicle)

The Brien Taylor story is a sad one and a familiar one. Drafted first overall back in 1991, the high schooler from some remote corner of North Carolina was supposed to be the next great Yankee left-hander. Instead, his career was derailed after just two seasons by injury, a self-inflicted injury at that. I wrote about Taylor’s career and life over at FanGraphs on Wednesday, an ode to the best pitcher none of us ever got to see…

Pitching prospects may as well go out to the mound in bubble wrap these days, protected with pitch counts and innings limitations and the like. Back in 1992, things were very different. Less than one year out of high school, a 20-year-old Taylor was assigned to the High Class-A Florida State League and threw 161.1 innings across 27 starts in his pro debut. He struck out 187 of the 663 batters he faced (28.2%), walked 66 (10.0%), and allowed just three homers. Baseball America considered him the second best prospect in the game after the season, behind only Chipper Jones.

“From a development standpoint, Taylor showed the Yankees all they wanted to see: well above-average arm strength, an effortless delivery and the ability to locate pitches with rare precision,” wrote the publication in their AL East Top 10 Prospects issue, published in February 1993. “Taylor’s fastball reached 98 mph on occasion and consistently hit 95. He also threw a power curve and changed speeds off it. Scouts marveled at Taylor’s ability to keep his head as he unleashed his full arsenal of pitches … Scouts say he’ll be ready for New York by September.”

Bumped up to the Double-A Eastern League the next season, Taylor again made 27 starts, this time throwing 163 innings. His strikeout (21.1 K%) and walk (14.3 BB%) rates took a step back, and he gave up more than twice as many homers as the year before, a whopping seven dingers. It was a disappointing performance given the hype, but for a kid less than two years out of high school in Double-A, he more than held his own. That was the last time Taylor would experience success on a baseball field.

Not counting the recent guys, Taylor is one of just three first overall selections to never reach the big leagues, joining Steve Chilcott (1966) and Matt Bush (2004). He was a bust but not the wrong pick, those are two entirely separate ideas. Taylor was a phenom, arguably the best high school pitching prospect in draft history, and he got hurt in a freak, off-the-field accident. You can’t get on the Yankees for that, but that’s never stopped people. Click the link and check out the entire piece, I hear it’s pretty awesome.

Yanks sign Adam Miller, Cole Garner to minor league deals

Via Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed RHP Adam Miller and OF Cole Garner to minor league contracts. We heard that they were close to signing Miller way back during the Winter Meetings. The 27-year-old was the 31st overall pick back in 2003, but career-threatening ligament damage in his finger hampered his development. You can see the damaged finger on his Twitter page (it’s not gross). Even if it doesn’t work out, I’m still very interested to see him in Spring Training.

As for Garner, Baseball America ranked him as the 22nd best prospect in the Rockies’ system in last year’s Prospect Handbook. He put together a .392 wOBA for Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate last year, then picked up a pair of knocks in his first taste of the big leagues late in the season. The 27-year-old is a right-handed hitter and an extra outfielder type, just some depth.

Open Thread: Octavio Dotel

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The mid-aughts’ bullpens featured a lot of turnover, much more than we’ve seen out of the Yankees in recent years. Part of it had to do with Joe Torre, destroyer of arms, and part of it had to do with those pitchers not being very good in the first place. In an effort to beef up the relief corps, the Yankees signed Octavio Dotel to a one-year deal worth $2M with another $5.75M in incentives on this date in 2006. The only problem: Dotel was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Obviously the Yankees knew that, but he was expected back by June, maybe even sooner since he was a reliever. Dotel was an established, close to elite reliever at the time, so they gambled that he’d strengthen their bullpen for the stretch drive. Things didn’t go as planned, starting with a minor setback that delayed the then-32-year-old’s return until mid-August. Once he did return, Dotel was pretty terrible, putting 29 men on base in ten innings, which led to 13 runs. Good idea, but it just didn’t work out.

I think we all suggest moves like that every offseason, the ol’ roll the dice on an injured star move. We heard quite a bit about Grady Sizemore this winter, and Rich Harden’s name always pops up from time to time. Chien-Ming Wang was another popular one both this offseason and last. Those moves don’t work out most of the time, though every once in a while they’ll turn into a Bartolo Colon circa 2011 and make it all worth it.

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Here is your open thread for the night. The Devils, Knicks, and Nets are all playings, though Time Warner customers are still without MSG because of the Dolans. I’m still paying for it, of course. Anyway, talk about whatever you want here. It’s all fair game.

Report: Yankees unlikely to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima

Via Marc Carig and Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees and Hiroyuki Nakajima are unlikely to agree to a contract prior to Friday’s 5pm ET deadline. He needs to pass a physical before then, so time is running out. The Yankees see Nakajima as a bench player and Carig says they insist on paying him as such. If the two sides can’t reach a deal, the Yankees won’t have to pay the $2.5M posting fee and Nakajima will return to Japan. He’ll be able to become an international free agent next offseason.

Why I can’t hate the A.J. Burnett contract

He’s the target of constant ire, and for good reason. In the past two years A.J. Burnett has brought Yankees fans little but frustration. During that span he has amassed a 5.20 ERA, which is the second worst mark in all of baseball*. At the same time he has earned $33 million — more than all but a handful of pitchers. The separation between compensation and performances only further ignites fans. Yet despite the tension before every Burnett start and the anger following a good portion of them, I can’t bring myself to hate the contract he signed back in 2008.

*Only John Lackey, who, coincidentally, signed with the Red Sox for the same years and dollars as Burnett a year later, has fared worse (5.26 ERA).

To be sure, the contract hurts right now. The Yankees could likely get similar production from an array of pitchers in their system, for a fraction of Burnett’s costs. That Burnett money could then go to other resources. It could even go towards a better starting pitcher. There is no denying that it’s a bad contract, on account of the production they’ve received from Burnett. Even two above-average years to finish out the contract won’t make up for 2010 and 2011.

This is the risk every team takes when they sign a player to a long-term contract. The minute Burnett put his signature on that piece of paper, it was a sunk cost for the Yankees. There is no recouping that money, except in extreme cases. The Yankees knew what they were getting into when they signed Burnett, but they did it anyway. And, considering the state of the team at the time, it was probably the right move.

The need for pitching

In 2008 the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. That’s an admirably long streak, but it was still disappointing to see it come to an end. That year it seemed as though everything broke poorly for the Yankees. They started the year with two rookies in the rotation, and both performed horribly. They then turned to another rookie pitcher, who dazzled and then got hurt. Their most stable pitcher hurt himself running the bases during an interleague game. Even Andy Pettitte struggled down the stretch. The starting staff there produced a 4.58 ERA, 9th in the AL.

(Though, to be fair, their notoriously bad defense could have played a part. They finished 3rd in FIP and xFIP, so there’s a chance that the defense exacerbated an already rough situation.)

When the Yankees closed shop for the season, they completely lacked starters for 2009. Brian Cashman said that only two were guaranteed rotation spots: Joba Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang. Both, however, were coming off fairly major injuries. Wang missed the entire second half, while Chamberlain finished the year in the bullpen. So even the two penciled-in starters were far from guarantees. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy still lingered, but after 2008 it was unlikely the Yankees wanted to hand anything to either of them.

The need for pitching, then, was great. As the free agent signing period approached, Cashman said that he intended to sign two starters. CC Sabathia was obviously the main target, and after him there was a list of quality pitchers who could slot in right behind him: Burnett, Derek Lowe, and Ben Sheets. The Yankees decided that Burnett, who had flourished in the AL East in 2008, made the best target. And so they outbid the Braves for him.

The Yankees had plenty of money coming off the books that off-season. The departures of Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, and Bobby Abreu gave the Yankees plenty of payroll flexibility. Pitching was clearly the area of greatest need, and Cashman addressed that by adding the top two starters on the market. Thinking about it that way, it’s hard to complain.

Burnett’s ability

Remember, the biggest criticism of Burnett’s deal wasn’t about his ability. It was about his health. He had landed on the disabled list four times in 2006 and 2007, missing 116 games for the Blue Jays. Before that he had missed considerable time with the Marlins. In fact, his only two completely healthy years were 2005 and 2008, his two contract years. Worst of all, all of his injuries were either elbow or shoulder related.

Yet in terms of performance, it was hard to argue with Burnett. He had just come off a season in which he led the AL in strikeouts. This was remarkable not only because he pitched in the AL East, but because he had to face the two toughest offenses in the division. That is, it wouldn’t be quite as remarkable for a Red Sox or Yankees pitcher to accomplish this feat, because they miss one of the two powerhouse offenses. Yet Burnett handled them with aplomb in 2008.

Going back even further, Burnett was one of the league’s more effective pitchers from 2005 through 2008. His 3.78 ERA in that span ranked 18th among all MLB starters with at least 600 IP in that span, while his FIP ranked 11th. His strikeout rate, 8.88 per nine, ranked fourth in that group. Clearly, performance issues were not at the forefront. Burnett might not have quite been a top-10 pitcher when the Yankees signed him, but he easily had the most talent of any available pitcher. That he dominated AL East opponents during his time with Toronto only helped his case.

The Yankees correctly assessed Burnett’s health condition. He’s missed almost no time for them in the last three years. What they didn’t figure on was the complete erosion of the skills that had made him so successful in the first place.

Flags fly forever

It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book, but there’s a reason for that. Without A.J. Burnett, the Yankees would have had an infinitely more difficult time winning the 2009 World Series. Derek Lowe certainly wasn’t the answer. Nor was Ben Sheets. Unless Cashman pulled off a trade, Phil Hughes would have started the season in the rotation. Who, then, would have replaced Chien-Ming Wang? Where would Burnett’s reasonable production have come from?

Is there an argument that the Yankees could have won that year without Burnett? Sure. But given a few of his postseason performances, including his infamous shutdown of the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series, it’s tough to envision them having quite the same level of success without him. Even if Burnett continues tanking, the Yankees will always have that 2009 banner flying above Yankee Stadium. That might not justify the entire contract, but it’s sure easier to swallow this way.

The Yankees had plenty of pitching needs the winter they signed Sabathia and Burnett. They went about it in typical Yankee fashion, handing out two big contracts to the two best pitchers on the market. For a year, ti worked. Burnett didn’t light the world on fire, but he provided a solid 200 innings in 2009, holding down the No. 2 spot in the rotation. That his skills have betrayed him is certainly frustrating to anyone who has watched him for the past two seasons. But looking back, it’s hard to hate that deal. It was the right move at the time, and it immediately paid off. You can ask for more, sure, but how much more?

The 40-Man Roster Chopping Block

Whelan's on the block. (Getty)

The Yankees have a very full 40-man roster at the moment, so every player they acquire from here on out will cost another player his 40-man spot. Andruw Jones will need a spot whenever his new one-year deal becomes official, and Hiroyuki Nakajima will as well if he signs a contract before Friday’s deadline. Any trade for a starting pitcher will likely involve a 40-man roster player going the other way, but a free agent like Edwin Jackson means another 40-man spot will have to be cleared.

With Jones back, it seems likely that Justin Maxwell has moved to the front of the roster casualty line. He’s out of minors league options (meaning he’d have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors) and a right-handed hitting outfielder, which is the job Andruw will fill. Maxwell has some potential, but not enough to win the numbers game. Nakajima could take Ramiro Pena‘s 40-man spot, though Pena has one minor league option left and is the default emergency infielder. Perhaps Nakajima’s ability to play the middle infield plus Brandon Laird’s ability to play third plus Jayson Nix’s presence on a minor league contract makes Ramiro more expendable.

Along with Maxwell and possibly Pena, Kevin Whelan appears to be the most vulnerable. He certainly is among pitchers, anyway. The soon-to-be 28-year-old right-hander made his big league debut last season after being acquired in the Gary Sheffield trade, walking five of the ten batters he faced in one and two-thirds jittery innings. Control (and injury) has always been his problem, as the 2011 season was his first with a sub-5.5 BB/9 and a sub-14.0 BB% since 2006 (2.4 BB/9 and 6.8 BB%). He does miss bats through (career 11.1 K/9 and 29.7 K%), and with two minor league options left, he’s a not terrible piece of bullpen depth. George Kontos, Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and D.J. Mitchell are also on the 40-man and serve the same purpose though, and at some point something is going to have to give.

This year’s two Rule 5 Draft picks — Brad Meyers and Cesar Cabral — are also candidates to get cut if space is needed, though I hope not. Those two intrigue me more than any of the Yankees other recent Rule 5 picks, and I’d selfishly like to get a look at them in Spring Training. Chris Dickerson is out of options like Maxwell, and I have a hard time envisioning a scenario in which he’d make the team, barring a Spring Training injury. I suspect he’ll be kept around in camp for that very reason, then traded for a spare fringe prospect in late-March if the Yankees make it through the month with a healthy outfield. With two minor league options and upside left, Melky Mesa figures to be safe.

There’s also Pedro Feliciano, who is extremely unlikely to pitch in 2012 after having shoulder surgery in September. As far as I know, there is no rule preventing teams from releasing an injured player to free up 40-man space, but it rarely happens. I’m guessing it’s a courtesy to veteran players (the Yankees did release the injured Amaury Sanit last year), since he can be placed on the 60-day DL during the season to free up a spot while retaining all the 40-man benefits, like health care for his family. Feliciano figures to be 60-day DL’d as soon as possible/when necessary, maybe for a non-roster guy like Hideki Okajima.

Maxwell, Pena, and Whelan will likely be the first three to get the 40-man roster axe, but not necessarily in that order. That should be plenty of wiggle room until Spring Training, when Dickerson and Feliciano start to come into play. The Yankees don’t have very much flexibility with their 40-man because of all the young players they’re carrying — I count 16 with less than a year of service time, eight with zero MLB experience on the 40-man — which is a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have a good farm system, but at some point all these players have to go somewhere.