Finding a match between the Pirates and Yanks

(Scott Cunningham/Getty)

The offseason is officially right around the corner, which means lots of trade speculation and free agent rumors and all that fun stuff. We might as well get a jump on things by discussing something Joel Sherman mentioned yesterday, that the Pirates “have prioritized finding a catcher this offseason.” Pittsburgh recently announced that they plan on cutting ties with the injury-plagued duo of Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder, opening up their catcher’s job. Former fourth overall pick Tony Sanchez hit a speed bump by posting a weak .306 wOBA in 469 plate appearances at Double-A this summer, and the rest of their catching crop (Mike McKenry, Jason Jaramillo, and former Yankee farmhand Eric Fryer) are nothing to write home about.

Since the Yankees actually have some catching to spare, young catching at that, it makes them a potential trade match with the Buccos. We know the two teams seriously discussed a Frankie Cervelli-Brad Lincoln swap before the trade deadline, plus Brian Cashman and Neal Huntington have gotten together for three trades in the last four years, so it stands to reason that there’s a decent working relationship in place there. The question is what do the Pittsburgh have that fills a need for New York?

Obviously, it’s all about pitching for the Yankees, starting pitching in particular. They’re not going to get a starter for Cervelli, not after yet another concussion, but there’s also Austin Romine to consider. He’s definitely a trade chip as well. The problem is that the Pirates don’t have much pitching to offer, and in fact they’re going to be in the market for some this winter just like the Yankees. Dig through their 40-man roster, and there’s only two arms worth even a second though: Charlie Morton and James McDonald. This is coming from a guy that loves Jeff Locke too.

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

By almost every metric, Morton was Pittsburgh’s best pitcher this past season. He managed a 3.77 FIP across 171.2 IP because he didn’t give up any homers (0.31 HR/9, lowest in MLB), the result of him reinventing himself as a sinkerballing Roy Halladay look alike (58.5% ground ball rate). He only struck out 110 batters in those 171.2 IP (5.77 K/9), and 23 of those 110 strikeouts came against pitchers. His unintentional walk rate (3.77 uIBB/9) isn’t anything special either. Morton’s still pretty young (28 in November) and cheap (MLBTR projects a $2.2M salary his first time through arbitration this winter), so there’s always a chance he could improve as he gains more experience with his new Halladay-esque delivery.

Huntington flat out stole McDonald from the Dodgers, getting five years of him (and another prospect!) for two months of Octavio Dotel at last year’s trade deadline. He’s a much different pitcher than Morton, more of a strikeout (7.47 K/9) and fly ball (38.9% grounders) guy. He gave up a ton of homers last year (1.26 HR/9) and compounded the problem by walking a lot of guys (3.89 uIBB/9). His career numbers, not that he’s been around all that long, are almost identical to what he did in 2011. McDonald just turned 27 and is still in his pre-arbitration years, and although I’ve liked him ever since he was being mismanaged in Los Angeles, he’s not going to step in and unquestionably solidify the rotation. Neither of these guys will really, especially not in the AL East.

Having an abundance of MLB ready or near-MLB ready catching is a definite luxury the Yankees enjoy, and it figures to be their primary currency when making trades. There’s no reason to sell low on Cervelli (following the concussion) or trade away Romine for questionable pitching help, or even bullpen help at this point. I can see why the Pirates would have interest in some of the Yankees young backstops, but they’re not going to want to trade one of their better starters for catching help (not necessarily straight up, just as framework for a deal I mean). There’s not enough incentive for the Yankees to make a move given what Pittsburgh has to offer.

Jesus Montero and ZiPS

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

You might have seen this earlier, but Dan Szymborski posted his 2012 Yankees ZiPS Projections early Monday afternoon, the first team of the offseason. You can click the link and peruse all of the projections at your leisure, but I’m going to spend some time focusing on everyone’s favorite player, Jesus Montero. We’ll discuss the other guys at some point this offseason … eventually.

Following his big September debut (.328/.406/.590 and a .421 wOBA), the ZiPS system forecasts a .271/.333/.486 batting line with 37 doubles and 27 homers in 579 at-bats for Montero in 2012. At first glance, that might seen a bit disappointing because of the generally low AVG and the OBP, but it most definitely shouldn’t be. I said this on Twitter, but if Montero does that next season, he’ll probably win Rookie of the Year even if the majority of his at-bats come as a DH*. ZiPS isn’t being tricked by that big September either, the system called for almost exactly the same thing for 2011: a .276/.334/.503 line with 34 doubles and 28 homers in 539 at-bats.

* For comparison’s sake, Eric Hosmer hit .293/.334/.465 with 27 doubles and 19 homers in 523 at-bats this year, and he should finish either first or second in the voting.

I see Montero’s current situation as similar to Ivan Nova‘s after last season, at least to a certain extent. Nova wasn’t great in September 2010 but he showed enough to warrant a much longer looking 2011, which he got and in turn rewarded the Yankees. Montero made such a strong impression last month that the team has almost no choice but to play him full-time next season, it’s just a question of where. We’ve talked about the whole DH/backup catcher thing, but putting it into practice is much easier said than done. The ZiPS numbers don’t mean anything at the end of the day, but they’re a nice little reminder of just how much Montero can help the Yankees if given the chance.

Standard Disclaimer: Projections are not predictions. Dave Cameron put it best when he said “Projections are information about what we think we currently know, while predictions are speculation about things that we probably cannot know.”

Noesi improves in second winter ball start

DWL Licey (11-6 win over Aguilas) Sunday’s game
Hector Noesi, RHP: 3.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 5-1 GB/FB – although this wasn’t great, it was an improvement after his stinker the first time around … remember, he’s on a strict pitch count

AzFL Phoenix (4-1 win over Salt River)
Corban Joseph, 2B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI. 1 K – eight for his last 24 (.333) with two doubles, a homer, three walks, and one strikeout
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 2 for 4, 1 K, 1 SB – exactly two hits in four of his six games out here

Open Thread: World Series Game Five

How about that Derek Holland kid? That was his Andy Pettitte, Game Five of the 1996 World Series moment right there, which is pretty cool because apparently he idolizes Pettitte; Andy texted him a congratulations after the game. Only one non-Lance Berkman hitter managed to hit the ball out of the infield off Holland, and the Cardinals offense doesn’t suck. We’re down to a best-of-three series now, which is great news for those of us that want to see a Game Seven.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. It’s Chris Carpenter vs. C.J. Wilson at 8pm ET on FOX tonight, plus you’ve got Monday Night Football (Ravens at Jaguars, 8:30pm ET on ESPN) and the (hockey) Rangers in action. Talk about anything you want here, it’s all fair game.

Oh by the way, that’s a neat little (well, not little, it’s nearly 15 minutes long) video of World Series highlights through the years. The Yankees are well represented, both good and bad, as you probably expect.

Phillies decline Roy Oswalt’s option

The Phillies have declined their 2012 option for Roy Oswalt, making him a free agent. They did the same with Brad Lidge, but no one cares about him. The 34-year-old right-hander (Oswalt, not Lidge) will receive a $2M buyout rather than a $16M salary for next season.

Given their need for starting pitching, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll hear about the Yankees and Oswalt at various points this winter. Matt looked at the former Astro last month, and I’m sure we’ll look at him a little more during the offseason. One thing worth noting is that Oswalt’s back problems got so severe this season that he openly pondered retirement, which is scary in more ways than one. Any deal would obviously have to be short-term, like one year plus an option, for the career NLer.

Collective Mailbag: Edwin Jackson

At least a dozen emailers, paraphrased: Will the Yankees show any interest in Edwin Jackson this off-season?

If it feels as though Edwin Jackson has been around the league for nearly a decade, it’s because he has. He made his debut in 2003 at age 19, throwing 22 innings for the Dodgers. That came after he rolled through the AA Southern League with relative easy, producing a 3.70 ERA and a 2.86 FIP. It’s tough to mistake that type of talent as anything but star-bound.

It didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off. The Dodgers let him start the 2004 season in AAA, and he got rocked down there. His stint in the majors went just as poorly. A repeat in 2005 completely removed Jackson’s prospect luster. The Dodgers wasted little time in trading him to the Rays for Danys Baez and Lance Carter. That is, they traded a 22-year-old who, two years prior, was Baseball America’s No. 4 overall prospect, for what amounted to an overrated reliever and an utterly crappy one.

Here’s where Jackson’s story becomes relevant to the Yankees’ interest in him. Once he was out of options, in 2007, the Rays made him a full-time starter. In each year since then he has made at least 31 starts. That makes him seem a durable pitcher, something teams value on the free agent market. But in those five full-time seasons Jackson has displayed a measure of inconsistency. His ERA has fluctuated wildly, moving 1.00 or more in three of the last four off-seasons (and 0.85 in the fourth).

Yet we know that ERA tends to fluctuate year-to-year, at least to some degree. That’s why we have FIP: to look at a pitcher through events over which he has most control. In this manner Jackson has shown inconsistency too, especially in his strikeout rate. Here are Jackson’s K/9 numbers from the last five years:

7.16
5.30
6.77
7.78
6.67

Again, we’re not talking small fluctuations here. We’re talking a change of at least 1.00 per nine every season. That should make wary anyone with a long-term contract offer in hand.

There are a number of things to like about Jackson. He’s still just 28 years old, so there shouldn’t be any decline-related worries. As mentioned, he’s also made at least 31 starts in each of the last five seasons, so he’s proven himself durable. He’s also seen his FIP pretty consistently decline over the last three seasons. from from 4.88 in 2008 to 3.55 this past season. His xFIP has also dropped a bit, to around 3.70 in each of the last two seasons. He pitched plenty of those seasons in the AL as well — in fact, you could say that he pitched better in Chicago than he did at either of his NL stops.

In terms of a deal, chances are Jackson would command three to four years. Normally I’d say three, but the market works in strange ways when it comes to starters — especially those that Scott Boras represents. Only nine free agent pitchers in history have signed deals longer than four years, and given how few of them have worked out it’s pretty safe to say that four years is the max. If the Yankees were going to offer Jackson a contract I’d prefer three years at max, with a $33-$35 million ceiling. I’m not sure that gets the job done, but anything more could be a big mistake.

That said, I’m not sure the Yankees seriously consider Jackson this winter. They have a number of in-house options for the 2012 rotation. They might not be better than Jackson right now, but I suspect that the Yankees think they’ll be close enough in the near future that signing him makes little sense. He’s not a terrible get, especially on a three-year contract (that expires when he turns 31). But given the market, which I think will provide him a fourth year, and the current number of righties on the brink of the rotation, I think the Yankees pass on Jackson. He’s not a bad idea as a backup plan, though.

Switching Gardner and Granderson

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

It’s been trendy to classify the Yankees as a poor defensive team over the last decade or so, and for a while it was absolutely true. It’s not anymore though, even if Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have lost a step over the years. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano are rock solid at worst on the right side of the infield, Russell Martin is very good behind the plate, and the outfield features two center fielders. Yeah, the left side of the infield is lacking, but the defensive is generally solid overall.

The Yankees outfield led baseball in good ol’ UZR this season (32.3 runs saved), and they were fourth overall last year (+28.6). At 60.9 runs saved since the start of 2010, they’ve been the second best defensive outfield in baseball behind the Diamondbacks (+61.2), who on any given night are running three players out there capable of playing center field (Gerardo Parra, Chris Young, and Justin Upton). The eye test agrees with the numbers as well; Brett Gardner is a stud in the field, Curtis Granderson is solid, and although Nick Swisher can look funny out there at times, he’s solid as well.

Over the last few months, the question has arose about whether or not the Yankees are using the best outfield alignment. Because Gardner is an elite defender, shouldn’t he be playing center instead of Granderson? The advanced metrics didn’t like Curtis’ defense at all in 2011, including UZR (-5.1), DRS (-15), Total Zone (-5), and FRAA (-13.1). One year of fielding data isn’t enough though, and his three-year rates seem much more in line with the eye test (0, +3, +3, and -12.1, respectively). Gardner, on the other hand, was one of the best fielders in all of baseball this year (+25.8, +22, +3, and +13.7) and has been since 2009 (+50.9, +35, +46, and +22.6). You’re not going to find much of an argument here, Gardner is the better defensive player whether you dig the stats or not.

Now, it is important to consider context when dealing with these defensive stats. Gardner has played left field for the vast majority of the last two years, so his performance is being compared to other left fielders. As you know, most teams have some kind of plodding, bat-first guy roaming left, only able to catch balls hit right at him. Granderson is being compared to fellow center fielders, who tend to be better than left fielders on defense. Move Gardner to center, and his +20 UZR turns into a +5 or +10 UZR real fast. That’s still very good, but the numbers can be deceiving.

SG at RLYW dug deeper into the data last week, and found that yeah, the Yankees probably are better off defensively with Gardner in center and Granderson in left, but chances are the upgrade would be small. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option worth exploring though, and I think switching the two is something the Yankees should at least consider this offseason. Granderson hasn’t played an outfield position other than center since 2007, when he spend five innings in left, and all told he’s got just 59.2 career innings in left and over 8,000 in center. A mid-season switch probably would have been tough, but it’s something he can work on during the offseason and in Spring Training. It might not be a big difference, but it’s an extra five or ten runs saved over the course of the season, it will certainly help the Yankees.