My Aaron Heilman Nightmare

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Now that most of the big name free agents are off the board, we’re left digging through the list of second and third tier players that could potentially fill a hole on the Yankees’ roster until a better alternative comes along. With Pedro Feliciano on board, the back-end of the bullpen is pretty much set. In a perfect world they’d bring in someone for that oh so important eighth inning role just to bump David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain back to the sixth and seventh inning fireman roles, but that guy just isn’t available for the right price right now.

So as I was looking through this list of underwhelming free agent relievers over the weekend, something horrible hit me: Aaron Heilman will be a New York Yankee in 2011. I have nothing to base this on other than my gut feeling, but I still don’t like it for obvious reasons. It’s Aaron frickin’ Heilman man, we all watched him pitch across town for all those years. Everyone remembers Yadier Molina in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS, and that was just the highest profile meltdown in a career full of them, which is why Mets fan despise the guy. And yet there I was, momentarily convinced that he’ll pitch for the Yankees next season. Since he’s on my mind, we might as well take look and see if Heilman would be of any actual use to the Yankees in 2011.

Now 32, the right-hander never has gotten the opportunity to start after all those years of complaining about it. Heilman spent this past season in the dreadful Diamondbacks bullpen, where he was one of only two relievers to be above replacement level (0.1 fWAR) while throwing at least 40 innings (Blaine Boyer was the other). That tells you how atrocious their ‘pen was, holy cow. It was also the second worst full season of Heilman’s career, evidenced by a 6.88 K/9 and 4.47 FIP that were (yep) the second worst of his career. He actually had a drastic reverse platoon split, holding lefties to a .276 wOBA while righties tagged him for a .367 wOBA. It’s also the second straight year he’s had that problem as well, which is pretty odd.

A fastball-changeup pitcher, Heilman’s fastball velocity is still there, comfortably 92-93. He still maintains the 10 mph separation with his changeup and PitchFX says it’s still moving as much as it always was, so his stuff is fine from what we can tell. Despite that, his swinging strike rate has dropped for two consecutive seasons now (though still above average at 9.7%) and he generated fewer groundballs than ever (35.6% in 2010, a career low by more 5%). It’s worth noting that Heilman has reincorporated his slider back into his repertoire over the last three years after shelving it for a few seasons, so perhaps he needs to scrap it and do with his two best offerings exclusively. Perhaps that will help with the platoon issues. When he’s at his best, Heilman is striking out lefties and getting righties to beat the ball into the ground, but over the last two years the strikeouts against southpaws just haven’t been there.

Heilman is what he is at this point, but over the last several seasons he’s been pigeon-holed into high leverage, late inning work even though he wasn’t really qualified to handle it. Maybe a move into the middle innings will help him be more successful, which is the only role the Yankees should even consider him for. Maybe his groundball rate will recover and the platoon issue will correct itself by taking away the slider. It’s all guesswork at this point and banking on any of it to actually happen would be foolish.

The Yanks are likely to add a right-handed reliever before pitchers and catchers report, but the current crop of free agents offers little late inning help. Rafael Soriano will require a hefty contract and a draft pick, Grant Balfour just a pick, Jon Rauch is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and Kyle Farnsworth is Kyle Farnsworth. Heilman’s only good season in the last three came under current Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild with the Cubs in 2009, so maybe he holds the secret for turning Heilman into a usable middle reliever. For now, I’ll just hope the Yankees come up with a better alternative and we can go back to laughing at Heilman’s misfortunes from afar.

Open Thread: Wade Boggs

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

My signature Wade Boggs moment isn’t a hit or a homer or a defensive play or anything, it’s that right up there. Him riding around the Stadium on the NYPD horse after the Yankees won the 1996 World Series. How could it not be? It was my first World Championship as a fan, and there he was towering over everyone else. It’s a scene I’ll never ever ever forget.

Boggs did make four All Star teams in five seasons with the Yankees, but he was never anywhere close to the player he was with the Red Sox and understandably so. Did you know that in 1988, Boggs drew 125 walks and struck out just 34 times? That’s insane. From 1985 through 1989, he hit .357/.454/.496 with 538 walks and 238 strikeouts. In New York, he hit “just” .313/.396/.407 with 324 walks and 198 strikeouts, but of course he picked up his only World Series ring, so we win. Boggs finished his career back home with the Devil Rays, becoming the only player in baseball history to record his 3,000th hit on a homerun. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the term.

Here is your open thread for the evening. The MNF pits the Bears at the Vikings, and that’s it. None of the hockey or basketball locals are in action. Use this thread as you see fit, have at it.

Pettitte still leaning towards retirement

Via Marc Carig, a person close to Andy Pettitte said the chances of the big lefty returning for the 2011 season are roughly 30%. “There is a very real possibility that he will retire,” said this person, and I think we all understood that from the get go. I certainly respect that Pettitte is making a major life decision here, but I would really like to see a resolution sometime soon. The wait is killing me, yo.

Cashman: Yankees might start season with current pitching staff

Via Wally Matthews, Brian Cashman acknowledged that the Yankees might begin the season sporting the same starting rotation they do right now, meaning CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, and Sergio Mitre. “I’m not saying I want to do it,” said Cash, “but I may have to do it. Could I go out and get a starter? Yes, I could. But there’s just not much out there … I have March, April, May, June and July, really, to come up with someone.” The GM also said that he’s operating under the assumption that Andy Pettitte will not return, which is the right thing to do.

In other news, Bubba Crosby will be the starting centerfielder and Jesus Montero will be the starting catcher. I’ll believe it when I see it.

The RAB Radio Show: December 20, 2010

The Zack Greinke trade happened over the weekend, and we know the Yanks were at least somewhat involved. Mike and I have differing views of this, so we talk about the merits of each.

More interestingly, Brian Cashman said that he might have to go into the season with the current troops. That would make for an interesting pitching staff, but not interesting in the “they might be awesome” kind of way. It’s interesting in a hold-onto-your-butts kind of way.

Really, though, who could they get? That’s a perpetual point of conversation, and we’re definitely in on it.

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Looking at some Astros pitchers

Late last week we heard that the Yankees had spoken to the Astros about infielder Jeff Keppinger, prompting Joe and I discussed the possibility of expanding a trade to include a starting pitcher in that day’s podcast. It was only natural with the Yankees in perpetual pursuit-of-pitching mode, and I figured it was worth exploring in greater detail.

Before we dive in, we have to eliminate some candidates. The Astros just signed Ryan Rowland-Smith so he’s not an option, not that he should be anyway. Houston also picked up Aneury Rodriguez and former Yankee farmhand Lance Pendleton in the Rule 5 Draft less than two weeks ago, so it’s unlikely either one of those guys will be available. J.A. Happ was one of the centerpieces of this summer’s Roy Oswalt trade, and Bud Norris is their version of Phil Hughes, so for all intents and purposes we can cross those two off the list as well. That leaves a pair of veterans, which is really what the Yankees need. An experienced arm that will give them some predicable innings. Let’s break ’em down…

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Wandy Rodriguez

After missing close to six weeks with a groin strain early in the 2008 season, Wandy has been one of the games least-heralded great starters. He’s pitched to a 3.55 FIP in 538 innings since then, better than guys like Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Andy Pettitte, and John Danks, just to name a few. In fact, just a dozen pitchers with that many innings since 2008 can top that FIP.

Wandy’s a strikeout artist (8.40 K/9 over those last three years) that doesn’t walk many batters (2.93 BB/9) and gets a good amount of grounders (44.8%), so the basics are there. His big breaking curveball has been the second best yakker in baseball over the last two seasons at 23 runs above average, trailing only Adam Wainwright’s legendary curve (45.7 runs above average, absurd). He does have a platoon split, but it’s not out of control; 4.18 FIP vs. RHB in his career compared to 3.58 vs. LHB. Over the last three seasons, those numbers drop to 3.80 and 2.47, respectively.

The Astros only have Rodriguez under contract for one more season. He’ll earn something like $8M in 2011, his final season of arbitration-eligibility. He should easily top the two-year, $21.5M guarantee Jorge De La Rosa received as a free agent when he hits the market next winter, a price that might not jive with Houston’s budget during their rebuilding effort. Even if GM Ed Wade decides to hold onto Wandy for now, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll become available at some point during the season.

Brett Myers

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Ever so quietly, Myers was the best free agent signing of the 2009-2010 offseason. After agreeing to a one-year deal that paid him just $3.1M in 2010, Myers pitched to a 3.56 FIP in 223.2 innings for the Astros, racking up 4.0 fWAR. Not only did he make 33 starts, his most since 2005, but Myers also went at least six innings in every single start except his very last one, when he only mustered 5.2 IP. After having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip in 2009 and dealing with elbow trouble in 2007, this season was a brilliant rebound for the 30-year-old.

There’s really nothing that stands out about Myers. His fastball averages almost exactly 90 mph (I’m guessing he tired late in the year after being hurt in 2009), and he backs it up with a curveball and slider. He has almost no platoon split (3.54 FIP vs. LHB, 3.57 vs. RHB in 2010, 4.24 vs. 4.50 career), a good but not great strikeout rate (7.24 K/9 in 2010, 7.46 career), a good but not great walk rate (2.66 BB/9 in 2010, 3.04 career), and a very solid groundball rate (48.7% in 2010, 47.5% career). The one thing that stands out from last season is his homer rate, which dropped off quite a bit last season and should creep back up next year. That said, Myers is a rock solid starter, capable of 30 or more starts that should be no worse than league average.

Myers was sure to decline his part of an $8M mutual option for 2011 after the season he had, but Wade (who had Myers in Philadelphia) was proactive. He signed the righty to a two-year contract extension with a third year club option worth no less than $23M. Myers would make a lot of sense for the Yankees, but I just can’t imagine the Astros would be willing to trade him less than five months after giving him the extension.

* * *

I don’t like Myers because he is a wife-beater, so I’m happy that he’s the unlikely trade target. Rodriguez simply makes far more sense for the Yankees and their current needs. He’s left-handed, can strike people out, and is on a short-term commitment. The Javy Vazquez trade could be a good comp in terms of prospect package required since both guys were coming off strong seasons with just one year left on their deals, so that means an average or worse big leaguer, a lower level pitching prospect, and a fungible relief prospect. Feel free to fill in the blanks, but just know that it won’t take Jesus Montero or someone like Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances to land him. Wandy definitely makes some sense for the Yanks, so I hope they’ve at least brought up the idea of acquiring him during the Keppinger talks.

The asking price for Zack Greinke

(Steve Ruark/AP)

Yesterday we were all a little shocked to see the Royals trade Zack Greinke to the Brewers. That led to two inevitable questions. First, could the Yankees have topped Milwaukee’s offer? Second, what players would it have involved? As normally happens with these situations, at least one of those questions got a bit clearer the day after. It started with SI’s Jon Heyman reporting that the Royals wanted Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez. But, while he reports that Greinke would be amicable to a New York move, the Yanks “weren’t convinced NY was right for the kid.”

Before we jump to conclusions about what this means, let’s make sure to note the caveats that go along with Heyman’s statement.

1) The Royals might have wanted Montero and Nunez, but they likely wanted more than just those two.

2) There’s no guarantee that the Royals would have even taken the Yankees package had they offered it.

3) We don’t know what he meant by the Yanks not thinking NY was right for Greinke. We also don’t know where that information originated.

Let’s start with the last point first. Might social anxiety disorder have affected Greinke to a greater degree in New York than elsewhere? Maybe. Maybe not. To make an assumption either way is a folly. For most of the off-season we’ve heard comments about how Greinke couldn’t handle the pressure of New York, with the only evidence being SAD. But SAD comes in many varieties, and literally no one making such a comment has any idea what Greinke has experienced. Any presumption of his reaction to New York, then, is further folly. The only things we know about Greinke involve his performance on the pitcher’s mound.

That works both ways. After reading Joe Posnanski’s brilliant profile of Greinke on Friday, I was even more convinced that Greinke would be a fit in New York. A guy who despises losing above all? That seems to fit right in with the New York mindset. Yet to think that his SAD wouldn’t affect him in New York is as great a folly as assuming that it would. We don’t know what it would do. Again, all we can do is judge him as a ballplayer. That moves us to the first point.

That goes back to the argument that Joe Sheehan made, and that I echoed, last week: only trade Montero for the very best. In many ways, Greinke ranks among the very best. But in other ways he might not. The biggest obstacle here is not Greinke’s performance or his health issues, but rather his time under team control. He becomes a free agent after the 2012 season, which means the Yankees would be giving up six-plus years of Montero for two of Greinke. During that time span Greinke will make $27 million. Montero likely won’t make $27 million total until, at the very earliest, his second year of arbitration. And if he made a cumulative $27 million after his second year of arbitration, he’ll have put up some absolutely insane numbers.

Then there are the other chips to consider. As Joel Sherman notes, the Yankees view Nunez as a starting shortstop. He might not be as good a prospect as Alcides Escobar, even in the Yankees’ lofty estimation, but if they view him as a starter they shouldn’t treat him as a throw-in for every potential trade. On top of that, the Royals probably wanted one of the Yankees’ many right-handed arms. At this point we’re at a pretty substantial package. I’d argue that Montero, Nunez, and a RHP — whether it be Betances, Warren, or whoever — can provide more value to the Yankees in the next six years than Greinke will. That might come through performance, or through inclusion in another trade. But when we add up the value these players will provide, I’m confident it will be more than Greinke’s value in the next two seasons.

The Yankees have a difficult balancing act right now. They have a small window for their current crop of superstars. But then they have to reload for the next window. If they trade Montero for Greinke they lengthen the current window, but they hamper their chances of re-opening one soon. That might be tough for many of us to reconcile. After all, we want them to have the best possible team in 2011. But holding onto Montero is the correct move here. His bat will help replace the production of their current aging superstars. That should help them maintain a top team for years to come.