The RAB Radio Show: January 6, 2011

We’re talking about pitching again, but this time it’s of the relief type. Mike and I both had posts today on the subject, so we dive into things that we didn’t get to in our posts. For instance, what aspect of a one-year deal for Soriano did I overlook? Also, we shoot down the idea of Soriano ever taking a one-year deal with New York.

We do hit on the idea of big time relievers signing late and still getting a multi-year deal. It’s happened before, and I’m willing to bet it happens again with Soriano this year.

Then we dive into the A’s relievers, since they could have something of a surplus. Where do the two match up? We look a bit closer at a couple of the guys and how they’d fit at Yankee Stadium.

Podcast run time 21:21

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Mailbag: Oakland Relievers

Not gonna happen. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Tucker asks: You already wrote about possible deals with the A’s for starting pitchers, but what about relievers? Could guys like Blevins, Breslow, Wuertz or Ziegler be had and would they be worth it? Could taking a shot on Joey Devine play dividends?

Here’s the post I wrote about Oakland starters earlier this offseason, before the Hisashi Iwakuma fallout and the David DeJesus/Vin Mazzaro trade. Maybe a trade for a starter could have been worked out if things had played out differently, maybe not. At the moment, the A’s are set to open the season with Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and the winner of the Rich Harden-Brandon McCarthy Spring Training battle in the rotation. That leaves about 14 candidates for the bullpen according to the team’s 40-man roster, but of course some of those guys still need time in the minors. Regardless, they have plenty of bullpen depth and can afford to move one or two relievers for an upgrade elsewhere.

Assuming that former Rookie of the Year and two-time All Star Andrew Bailey is off-limits, let’s look at five of the team’s better relievers and see if they’d make sense for the Yankees.

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Jerry Blevins
I’m not sure if anyone has shut down lefty batters as quietly as Blevins has in recent years. He’s held them to just a .276 wOBA with 54 strikeouts and six unintentional walks in exactly 200 plate appearances against. It’s not a huge sample, but it’s what we have. His career ground ball rate isn’t fantastic (36.6%), but it’s workable. From what I can gather, he has one minor league option (though I could easily be wrong, this stuff can be tricky) and five more years of team control remaining (he’s going to qualify as a Super Two, however), so he also provides quite a bit of flexibility. The 27-year-old Blevins fits in any team’s bullpen.

Craig Breslow
A Yale grad, Breslow bounced from the Padres to the Red Sox to the Indians to the Twins before finally sticking with the A’s. His overall numbers were rock solid in 2010, pitching to a 3.91 FIP with 8.56 K/9 and 3.01 uIBB/9 in 74.2 IP. The lefty held same-side batters to .273 wOBA in 2010, and for his career it’s a .265 wOBA against. His 83-31 K/uIBB ratio in 360 plate appearances isn’t as good as Blevins’, but it’s plenty good enough. The biggest negative is that he’s an extreme fly ball guy (70.4% non-grounders last year, and it’s been trending in the wrong direction for a few years now), so Yankee Stadium will exacerbate his already established homerun problem (1.06 HR/9 last few years). Breslow is definitely out-of-options, so he has to stick in the big leagues no matter what, plus he’s just heading into his arbitration years and will be making some decent coin.

Joey Devine
Back when it was cool to draft college closers in the first round, the Braves made Devine the 27th overall pick in the 2005 draft, one spot ahead of Colby Rasmus. I think Atlanta would like to push the reset button on that one. The 27-year-old hasn’t thrown a pitch (majors or minors) since 2008 because of a prolonged recovery from Tommy John surgery, but the A’s stuck by him and have continued to renew his contract since (a total of $1.525M counting his 2011 salary). He was lights out in 2008, striking out 9.66 batters per nine while walking just 2.56 unintentionally per nine in 45.2 innings (zero homers, 0.59 ERA, 1.97 FIP). That accounts for 69.9% of his big league career in terms of innings.  Devine, a rare sidearmer that throws hard (averaged 93.3 mph), has demonstrated a slight platoon split in his brief time in the majors: .240 wOBA against vs. RHB, .274 vs. LHB. He has to be considered a complete unknown given the long layoff, but there is some upside here.

Michael Wuertz
You’d be hard pressed to find a better relief season than Wuertz’s 2009 campaign. He struck out 102 batters in 78.2 innings (11.67 K/9) and walked just 22 unintentionally (2.52 uIBB/9). Combine that with an above average 45.5% ground ball rate, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a dominant reliever. That season earned Wuertz a two-year, $5.25M contract (with an option), buying out his final two years of arbitration eligibility. Elbow trouble (completely unsurprising for a guy that throws about 60% sliders) and minor thumb tendinitis limited him to just 39.2 IP in 2010, when his rate stats dropped to 9.08 K/9, 3.63 uIBB/9, and 41.3% grounders. He also became strikingly homer prone (1.36 HR/9 after a few sub-1.00 years). If you acquire him, you’re gambling $3.05M (his 2011 salary plus the buyout of his $3.25M option) that he reverts back to the guy he was in 2009. In terms of walk and homerun rate, that 2009 season sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of his career.

(AP Photo/Jack Rendulich)

Brad Ziegler
Ziegler burst onto the scene with a 39.1 inning scoreless streak to start his big league career back in 2008, but since then he’s been a rather generic sinker-slider submarine reliever. He makes up for a mediocre strikeout rate (5.81 K/9 career) by getting a ton of ground balls (60.5% career) and limiting walks (2.88 uIBB/9 career). As with most submariners, Ziegler has a pronounced platoon split and should be considered nothing more than a righty specialist. He’s held right-handed batters to just a .269 wOBA, but lefties have tattooed him for a .371 wOBA. The 31-year-old has four years of team control left and at least one minor league option remaining.

* * *

The Yankees have shown interest in Wuertz before, but Blevins and Ziegler are the most desirable to me given their low cost and general flexibility. The fact that both are nothing more than specialists sucks, but it is what it is. I can’t imagine the A’s would be willing to part with Devine (at a reasonable price, anyway) after sticking with him for so long. Perhaps a potential trade could be expanded to include Conor Jackson, who is stuck in limbo after the A’s rebuilt their corner outfields this winter. He’s a righty hitting leftfielder/first baseman with a career .373 wOBA against southpaws that does not strike out at all (just 238 K in almost 2,100 career plate appearances, 4.9% swings and misses). The problem is that he’s been hurt (Valley fever, two hamstring strains, and a sports hernia) and generally awful (.294 wOBA) over the last two seasons. He earned $3.1M last season and will make at least that in 2011 during his final trip through the arbitration process, and that’s simply too much money to gamble on a rebound candidate for the bench in my book. Why Oakland didn’t non-tender him, I’ll never know.

Anyone, one of the problems involving a potential deal is that these two clubs don’t match up well. Oakland’s pitching staff is generally set, and after adding Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, and Hideki Matsui this winter, their lineup is pretty much set as well. They re looking for an upgrade over Kevin Kouzmanoff at third base, but they Yankees don’t have that guy to offer. Maybe prospects would get it done, but I don’t like the idea of giving up prospects for relievers, especially flawed ones like Ziegler and Blevins. There’s definitely a it for the Yankees, but not for the Athletics, and it takes two to tango.

Draft pick not the only issue with Rafael Soriano

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Regardless of the Yankees’ stated disinterest, Rafael Soriano remains one of the most discussed players among Yankees fans and media. Without a viable starter on the free agent market or clearly available via trade, the Yankees have little recourse. They can, however, add a shutdown setup man and heir apparent to Mariano Rivera with Soriano. But as we’ve noted throughout the winter, there are factors that make acquiring Soriano a shaky proposition.

Today at New York Baseball Digest, Mike Silva tackles one of those issues: draft pick compensation. The Yankees would lose the 31st pick in the draft if they signed Soriano, and in a deep draft like this such a loss can be costly. Mike and I have butte heads before, but I think he lays out a solid argument here.

Back in March of ’10, Moshe Mandel of the Yankee U recapped a John Sickels conversation with Yankees VP of Baseball Operations Mark Newman. In that column, Newman pointed out how they have relied on the international market, as well as risking lower draft picks on players that are signability issues, because the lower first round picks don’t have the highest ceilings. Knowing that, I don’t think the lack of a first round pick eliminates the Yankees from having a productive draft in 2011.

The Yankees will still have a top-50 pick, thanks to Javy Vazquez declining arbitration, so they could still get a decent front-end pick and then use their financial might in the later rounds. If the Yankees can get a lights-out setup guy and a potential future closer, might that be worth sacrificing one pick — a pick that Newman indicates that the Yankees don’t value as greatly as other teams?

My problem with signing Soriano, though, doesn’t so much center on the draft pick issue. When signing a premium free agent, the first round pick is a known tax. It might sway my opinion when it’s a mid-level player, but Soriano is clearly an elite relief pitcher who has succeeded while closing games for the AL East champs. That certainly has value to the Yankees. But the Yankees aren’t paying for the Soriano who terrorized opponents in 2010. They’d be paying for the Soriano from 2011 through 2014. That changes the equation.

Since the start of the 2006-2007 off-season, 10 fairly high-profile relievers have signed contracts of three years or more. The list of success stories is pretty thin.

Justin Speier: After superb 2005 and 2006 seasons with the Blue Jays, Speier got four years from the Angels in November of 2006. He had a quality first year, a 2.88 ERA, but after that he completely fell apart: 5.03 ERA in 2008 and 5.18 in 2009. He didn’t even play the final year of his contract.

Danys Baez: Despite a horrible 2006 season, Baez still managed a three-year contract from the Orioles for 2007 through 2009. Unsurprisingly, he was horrible in 2007. Then he needed surgery and missed 2008 before a decent, but still not very good, come back in 2009.

Chad Bradford: He wasn’t a closer, but he was still a useful reliever for many, many years. In 2005 he had a 3.86 ERA, and in 2006, with the Mets, he dropped that to 2.90. That led to a three-year contract. While he was decent in the first year and good in the second, he was pretty terrible in 2009.

Scott Schoeneweis: I’m not sure how Schoeneweis got three years, but he was terrible enough that I’m comfortable with ignoring him here.

Mariano Rivera: Needs no explanation.

Francisco Cordero: He turned a lights out 2007 into a four-year contract with the Reds. He’s been decent, and in 2009 he was excellent, but he hasn’t exactly been great enough to justify the contract. He very well might be the best comparable for Soriano.

David Riske: At least Speier had one good year in Anaheim. Riske was flat horrible his entire time with the Brewers.

Damaso Marte: We’re all too familiar with this one.

Francisco Rodriguez: He’s actually been quite good, off-field issues aside. Maybe he could act as a comparable for Soriano as well, but he definitely had more of a track record when he hit free agency.

Brandon Lyon: He had a good first year in Houston, though we need a bit more data before we can consider it a success.

The point, made concretely, is that even previously good relievers can collapse at any time. Soriano could certainly help the Yankees if he progresses in the same way as Francisco Cordero, but at that point is he worth the salary and the draft pick? This is where I’d say I lean towards the leave him alone camp. The signing would be risky enough without losing the draft pick. Adding in that factor has me opposing a Soriano acquisition.

Silva’s counterpoint: why not a one-year deal? That would certainly reduce risk. But if Soriano gets hurt, or has terrible luck, as we’ve seen with a number of relievers previously, the loss of the draft pick hurts that much. I’m not saying that’s probable, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. I’d actually feel a bit better about losing the draft pick over a multiyear deal than a one-year deal, since the Yanks can still get some value out of Soriano in later years of the contract if he flops in the first.

Who’s going to give Soriano multiple years? I’m not sure. But Boras has his way of working magic. After all, he got a team with an incumbent third baseman to sign a third baseman to a six-year, $96 million deal. I don’t think Soriano’s settling for a one-year deal this winter. He’ll get his multi-year deal. I’d just rather that not come from the Yankees.

Mailbag: Posada a DH too soon?

Taters! (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Doug asks: With productive bats like Thome and Guerrero still out there as free agents, would the Yanks have been better off delaying Posada’s shift to DH for a year?  In other words, would a Posada (plus Cervelli/Montero)-Thome (or Guerrero) C-DH combination have been better than the Martin (plus Cervelli/Montero)-Posada combination we appear heading for? Chad Jennings over at LoHud touched on this yesterday and I’d love to hear RAB’s take on it.

I honestly don’t think so. Would the offense be better with Vlad or Thome as the everyday DH and Posada doing most of the catching? Absolutely, there’s no denying that. The defense and overall roster flexibility, however, would take a pretty big hit. As crazy as it sounds, Posada is more of a catcher than Thome is a first baseman and Vlad (or Manny) is an outfielder (best .gif ever? best .gif ever). Of all the free agent DH’s, I think the best fit might have actually been Johnny Damon. He can fake the outfield better than either Vlad or Manny, and he’d be decent insurance in case Brett Gardner‘s wrist problem persists into the new season. But I digress.

The biggest issue with Thome is that he’s a platoon guy, so you’d need a competent right-handed bat to split time with him. The Yankees are looking for a righty hitting outfielder, so maybe he could have been the guy, but I think that player would be in line for much more playing time than the team appears willing to offer with Thome as the DH. I don’t think we can ignore that last season was Thome’s best in four years either. What are the odds of him repeating that effort at age 40?

Vlad, on the other hand, had a monster first half in 2010 (.339/.382/.580 with 18 homers in Texas’ first 77 games) but a downright pedestrian second half (.265/.310/.419 with 11 homers in the final 85 games), and he didn’t hit a lick in the playoffs (.220/.242/.271). I don’t put much weight on career playoff performances, but that last part has always been one of his weak spots (just .263/.324/.339 in 44 career postseason games).

Thome is apparently seeking upwards of $8M a year, presumably using Lance Berkman’s contract with the Cardinals as a reference point. Guerrero, meanwhile, still thinks he’s going to get a multi-year deal somewhere. That’s rather pricey for a DH. Russell Martin signed for $4M with incentives tied to how well he performs, and the Yankees will have the opportunity to keep him for the 2012 campaign at a below-market rate as an arbitration eligible player. If they don’t want to keep him and hand Jesus Montero the job, Martin’s easily tradeable or can simply be non-tendered.

That’s another thing to consider, the Montero factor. At some point in the upcoming season he’ll be called up and given a shot, something that would have been difficult to do with one of those veteran DH’s. Do you really see the Yankees sitting a future Hall of Famers like Thome or Vlad or Manny in favor of a 21-year-old kid? Maybe I’m underestimating them, but I’d be surprised if they did. Sitting Martin in favor of Montero is no big deal.

As for Martin himself, he shores up one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses, and that’s defense behind the plate. He’s a guy that can actually block a ball in the dirt and keep it in front of him, and he’s thrown out 31.5% of attempted basestealers in his career. Last year it was 38.6%. With Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury on the same team in Boston, as well all the basestealers Tampa still has (B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, even Evan Longoria), that will definitely be nice to have. No, he almost assuredly won’t hit like any of the free agent DH’s, but a) the Yankees aren’t exactly lacking offensively, and b) he improves the team in a much needed way. Remember, a better defensive catcher helps make the pitching staff better, albeit in a pretty small way.

I can absolutely see the argument for sticking with Posada at catcher for another year while reaping the benefits of a big bat at DH, but the defense behind the plate was something that absolutely had to be upgraded. It went from below average to an unacceptable level that cost the team quite a few runs last summer. We saw how easy it is to acquire a DH at the trade deadline just last year with Berkman, so if Martin doesn’t cut it and Montero isn’t ready, the Yankees will have the option of shifting Jorge back to catcher and getting another DH. I don’t see it happening, but that’s an option they now have open.

The worst eight weeks of the year

It might not seem that far away. Pitchers and catchers report in 39 days — 38 if you’re reading this after waking up this morning. That’s less than six weeks until baseball returns! Sam Miller of the Orange County Register put it best, while mixing in a Yankees rumor:

No, I don’t care much about Freddy Garcia or Kevin Millwood, though there’s a chance you’ll see a post on one or both of them in the coming weeks. Why? Because we are indeed in for the worst six weeks of the year. But really, it’s longer than that. Having a date for pitchers and catchers is nice and all, but it’s the most anticipated date of the year on which nothing happens. We really have at least eight more weeks of winter.

Baseball is mostly done right now. Even the winter leagues have stopped play. College baseball will return soon enough, and there are various leagues that do run year-round, but we’re not going to see anything resembling big league baseball until early March — and then we’re watching the starters play a couple of innings before giving way to guys who won’t be gracing our TVs in April. So, if you think about it, we’re 10 weeks from seeing starters pitch four or five innings.

Yes, this is the worst time of year for a baseball junkie. In a way I admire the people who can put baseball out of their minds during this time of year. But people such as Mike, Ben, and me, who write sites like this, and you, who read sites like this, don’t have the luxury of an off switch. It’s baseball all the time. That means we’re going to follow every bit of news, and we’re going to write about possibilities that seem, well, impossible. It’s how we fill the lull between the height of the Hot Stove Season and the start of real baseball.

Many of our readers won’t like reading posts examining possible mid-season acquisitions or musings on lefty relievers. I understand that. We’re putting it out there, because we love doing this so much. We think about baseball all the time, and the only way to contain the itch is to write about whatever we’re thinking. Sometimes that will bore. Sometimes that will inspire outright rage. Sometimes we’ll hit on something that people want to talk about. It’s the nature of this time of year.

Through this lull, we’re going to continue pumping out content. It’s what we do. Thanks for sticking with us through this difficult time. Dealing with this together makes it just a bit easier.

Yankees claim Brian Schlitter

Via Carrie Muskat, the Yankees have claimed righty reliever Brian Schlitter off waivers from the Cubs. I’m guessing new pitching coaching Larry Rothschild had something to do with this. The 25-year-old made his big league debut in 2010, taking the place of Carlos Zambrano when he was suspended for one of his various tirades. He got rocked in eight appearances (8 IP, 18 H, 11 R, 5 BB, 7 K), but his minor league career features 8.6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 190 IP (all relief). The Cubbies originally acquired him from the Phillies in exchange for Scott Eyre back in 2008.

Baseball America did not rank Schlitter among Chicago’s top 30 prospects in last year’s Prospect Handbook. The Baseball Info Solutions data at FanGraphs says he throws a fastball that averages 93 mph and a slider, so it’s a pretty generic repertoire. He’s a big boy though, listed at 6-foot-5, 235 lbs. on the Cubs’ official site. Schlitter’s just another arm for depth purposes, nothing wrong with another hard-thrower.

Open Thread: New Writers

This picture of Matt Lindstrom from the 2006 Futures Game has nothing to do with anything. (AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar)

Back in November we announced that we were looking to add some weekend writers, and after a prolonged review of the hundred or so applications that poured in, we’ve finally made our picks. Here’s the new cast…

  • Brock Cohen: You know him from the comments at brockdc. He writes for the Huffington Post and can be followed on Twitter at @brockdc.
  • Hannah Ehrlich: She goes by seimiya in the comments and is on Twitter at @firstheart42. Oh, and she’s got one of these Tumblr thingees all the kids are talking about.
  • Stephen Rhoads: He comments as Stephen R. and also writes for TYU. He’s on Twitter at @stephen_mr.

We’re excited to have them on board and a thank you goes out to everyone that applied. We had go through about five rounds of eliminations before deciding on Brock, Hannah, and Stephen because there were so many good applicants. Look for their posts starting this coming weekend.

And now that that’s finally over with (seriously, so many applications), we can move on to the open thread. The Rangers and Nets are both in action, but talk about whatever you like. Have at it.