Mark Teixeira’s Quiet Milestone

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We’ve become numb to homerun records over the last decade or so, likely because of smaller ballparks, expansion, better advance scouting, PEDs … all of that and more likely contributed to the offensive explosion. Alex Rodriguez has chased 400, 500 and 600 career homers in recent years, plus Derek Jeter‘s recent pursuit of 3,000 hits has given us our fill of historic milestones. So when Mark Teixeira hit his 299th career homerun last night, it was barely a blip on the radar. It shouldn’t be though, his (inevitable) 300th homer will be an impressive feat, especially when put into context.

Just 129 hitters in baseball history have hit 300 career long balls, a group that does not include plays like Roger Maris, Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Will Clark, and Bernie Williams. Furthermore, just seven switch-hitters have hit three hundred homers: Mickey Mantle (536), Eddie Murray (504), Chipper Jones (443 and counting), Chili Davis (350), Lance Berkman (345 and counting), Reggie Smith (314), and Ruben Sierra (316). Only four players (Albert Pujols, Ralph Kiner, Eddie Matthews, and Adam Dunn) have hit more homeruns in their first nine seasons than Tex, and he still has half a season to go. That’s pretty nuts.

I think part of the numbness to Teixeira’s pursuit of 300 homers has to do with his age. We’re not talking about a guy in his mid-30’s limping to the milestone at the end of his career; there’s no feel-good story here. He’s only 31, so we expect expect him to hit many more homeruns over the final five and a half years of his contract. Four hundred homers seem like a lock barring injury, and Tex has a legit chance to get to 500 as well. He’d have to hit another 15 this year and average just over 37 homers per year over the rest of his contact. That’s a lot of homers for a guy approaching his mid-30’s, but he could certainly give himself a nice head start this year and next.

Teixeira has certainly benefited from the short porch at Yankee Stadium, hitting 15 of his league lead-tying 24 homers at home. At least ten of those 15 have come as a left-handed batter, so the Yankees first baseman is clearly playing to his ballpark. That’s fine and that’s what he should do, especially since he’s strong enough to be successful with that kind of approach in road ballparks as well. His upcoming 300th homerun might just be a ho-hum moment, but he’s in a rather exclusive group of switch-hitting power bats when it comes to career accomplishments.

Scouting The Trade Market: Wandy Rodriguez

This is actually from the Yanks/Stros series in '08. (From Flickr user William Holtkamp via Creative Commons license.)

When the Yankees sought a pitcher to fill the spot reserved for Cliff Lee, Wandy Rodriguez’s name came up frequently. He’s a quality pitcher on a not-so-quality team, and he was just one year from free agency. While that might sound like a match on the surface, it misses a bigger point. With an already thin starting staff, Houston wasn’t about to give up its best pitcher before the season even started. Come trade deadline, though, he could become available.

Houston threw a wrench in the plan by signing Rodriguez to a three-year, $34 million contract with a $13 million fourth-year option. That doesn’t preclude them from trading him, since it’s a market value contract (and maybe a bit below market). But it does change the proposition, from acquiring a rental to acquiring an arm for the next few years. He’s someone who can help in that time, though. So far this year he has a 3.21 ERA and 3.94 FIP (3.48 xFIP) through 13 starts and 84 innings.

The Pros

  • From 2008 through 2010 he was the Astros best pitcher, posting an 8.4 K/9, 2.93 BB/9, and 0.85 HR/9, good for a 3.36 ERA and 3.55 FIP. That amounted to 10.2 WAR, best on the team by a full win.
  • His fielding-independent performance has remained pretty consistent through his peak years, peaking at 3.62 and bottoming out at 3.50. He has also kept his ERA reasonably in line with the number, so it does appear that he is as good as his peripherals indicate.
  • Since 2008 he ranks 16th in IP, 13th in ERA, 15th in FIP, 11th in xFIP, and 17th in WAR among NL pitchers with more than 350 IP. In other words, he’s a solid No. 2 – No. 3 pitcher.
  • He eats lefties for breakfast, striking them out more, walking them less, and keeping the ball in the park more often. That’ll play well at the Stadium.

The Cons

  • He has a clause in his contract that turns the $13 million option into a player one if he’s traded. Put in a different context, that means the Yankees would be trading for a rental and then signing him to a three-year, $36 million contract — while giving up the players that reflect that they’re getting him for all those years.
  • He’s a late bloomer and is actually 32 this season. That means the Yankees would have him for his age-33 through his age-35 seasons. It’s not the worst proposition, but it’s always dicey dealing with pitchers at that age.
  • He’s been remarkably poor during interleague play during his career, with a lower strikeout rate and higher walk rate than his career numbers. This carries over to his good years, as he’s been horrible during the last three years of interleague play.
  • He pitches quite a bit better at home than on the road, though that seems a bit odd, considering how hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park is, especially for righties. I’m not sure if that’s a big consideration in acquiring him, but it does stand out.

Left-handed pitching is clearly a priority for the Yankees, and Rodriguez fits that need well. He’s not just someone who throws with his left hand, but rather a high-strikeout, low-walk guy who can keep fellow lefties in check while handling righties just fine. In that way he appears to be a good target for the Yankees. But the cons list takes away a lot of his value. The Yankees would be making a significant commitment to him, and unless they’ve scouted him extensively, as they would a potential free agent signing, they might be disinclined to make a deal. The contract itself isn’t bad, and it would give the Yankees another lefty in the rotation for a few years. But it’s still a hefty commitment for a deadline deal.

If Rodriguez had not signed the extension, I would have thought a trade possible, or even likely. But the contract, especially the player option clause, complicates matters. There’s still an outside chance, but the more complexities you add to a trade the less likely it becomes. We might hear the Yankees inquiring on Rodriguez, but I’d have to put the chances of an actual trade at less than one percent.

Watch Phil Hughes’ Rehab Start

Just a heads up, Phil Hughes is making a rehab start for Double-A Trenton right now and you can watch here for free. He’s struck out three in two scoreless innings so far.

Building A Postseason Pitching Staff

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We’ve wasted countless words here talking about specific players the Yankees may or may not target at the trade deadline, and the majority of the time we’ve written about pitchers. The one point we keep missing or just ignoring is the goal of a trade. Yes, it’s to make the team better (duh), but for when? Given the Yankees and their perpetual pursuit of World Championships, the goal is too build a better postseason team, specifically a better postseason pitching staff. That’s a different animal than a regular season staff, very much so.

Right now, at the end of June, the pitching staff is a dozen guys deep because they’re playing everyday and they don’t want to overworking certain players, yadda yadda yadda. Come playoff time, that all changes. There’s no screwing around, you’ll see clubs rely heavily on their three best starters and three or four top relievers. That’s pretty much it. Just look back at 2009, the Yankees used just three starters in the playoffs and the relief quartet of Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Phil Hughes threw 34 of 46.1 total relief innings (73.3%). Those seven guys combined to throw 92.5% of the team’s total innings that postseason.

If anyone beyond the six or seven top pitchers gets into a postseason game, it’s either a) an emergency (short start or extra innings), b) a blowout, or c) overmanaging. This is nothing new, and it’s not something unique to the Yankees. As much as we don’t want to see them on the roster, the Brian Gordons and Buddy Carlyles of the world are only here to help navigate this current stretch of the 162 game regular season. The beauty of the postseason is that we get to see who the manager really trusts because he’s in “win at all costs” mode.

At the moment, I see just three guys on the Yankees’ staff that are absolute locks for the postseason roster: Mo, Robertson, and CC Sabathia. I don’t think anyone else’s spot is guaranteed. Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia have done a bang-up job at the back of the rotation so far, but will they start a playoff game for the Yankees this year*? Who knows if Bartolo Colon will return from the hamstring injury and pitch the way he did earlier in the year. Furthermore, who knows if he’ll hold up all year? It’s a roll of a dice every time he goes out there. How effective will Rafael Soriano be? Phil Hughes? A.J. Burnett was not used out of the bullpen in last year’s ALDS, he’s certainly not guaranteed to pitch. Obviously some guys will step up and seize jobs between now and then, but others will make it by default.

The clear needs right now for a potential Yankees’ postseason pitching staff are a legitimate number two starter behind Sabathia, two reliable right-handers out of the bullpen, and a lefty specialist that can actually get lefties out. It’s entirely possible that all four needs will be filled from within, but the smart money is on some outside help being needed. The Yankees have another month to really evaluate their internal options before the trade deadline, and beyond that they can sort out the rest of the staff and ride the hot hands into October. Just remember, the pitching staff at the end of the season will look little the one the Yankees have now, and with good reason.

* Assuming they get that far, of course. The playoffs are far from a given.

Series Preview: Colorado Rockies

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And now it’s the National League’s turn to come to the Yankees. The Bombers have done their time in Chicago and Cincinnati, and now they’re back in their natural element, with nine real hitters in the lineup and no need for double switches. The less “strategy,” the better.

What Have The Rockies Done Lately?

Although they dropped their most recent game to the Indians, the Rockies are coming in hot. They’ve won two of their last three games, six of their last eight, and nine of their last 14. Most of those games have been close though, nine of the 14 were decided by two runs or less. Four of the last five have been one run affairs. Colorado is exactly .500 at 37-37, and their +11 run differentially is just a win or so better than average.

Rockies On Offense

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The Rockies can definitely hit (.323 wOBA as a team, ninth best in baseball), but their lineup is very top heavy. It starts right at the top with Carlos Gonzalez, who has followed up last year’s monster .416 wOBA, 6.6 fWAR season with a .348/1.5 effort this year. Since moving to the leadoff spot earlier this month, the center fielder is hitting .362/.392/.551 in 16 games. The number two hitter changes by the day, but of late it’s been either Jonathan Herrera (.319 OBP, .288 wOBA) or Chris Nelson (.279 OBP, .327 wOBA). They split time at second base as well.

Batting third is the best player in franchise history, Todd Helton. He’s having a great dead cat bounce year (.382 wOBA), doing his usual job of getting on base like a fiend (.387 OBP) while rediscovering some of that lost power (.190 ISO and nine homers, already more than he had last year in half the plate appearances). Troy Tulowitzki is generally one of the five most valuable players in baseball and the cleanup hitter, but he’s down to a .357 wOBA due to a prolonged stretch of mediocre hitting (.251/.300/.407 since the end of April). It’s worth noting that his last 14 games feature a .356/.387/.559 line, and he capable of doing major damage at any moment. Former Yankee Jason Giambi will be the designated hitter and protect Tulo, and he brings a .426 wOBA to the table in limited playing time. Hopefully the Yankees take a huge lead in one of these games and the Giambi parks one into the upper deck in garbage time, I wouldn’t mind that for old time’s sake.

The rest of the lineup is a bit more fluid. Ty Wigginton (power heavy .358 wOBA) is now the regular third baseman after Ian Stewart’s disaster start, and the duo of Ryan Spilborghs (.320 wOBA vs. LHP) and Seth Smith (.427 wOBA vs. RHP) platoon in right. Catcher Chris Iannetta sports a .229 batting average but a .389 OBP because his 19.9% walk rate is the second highest in baseball (behind only Jose Bautista). His power is very real as well (.218 ISO). Recent call-up Charlie Blackmon (.338 wOBA in limited time) handles left field duties. Colorado has three guys that qualify as elite count-workers (Helton, Giambi, and Iannetta), three that can steal a few bags (CarGo, Tulo, Blackmon), and a number of players capable of putting one in the people. It’s a diverse and effective offense, but that top five is where the real damage is done.

Rockies On The Mound

(Photo Credit: The Chicago Sun-Times)

Friday, RHP Ubaldo Jimenez: It’s been a very up-and-down year for Mr. Jimenez. Sometimes he’ll be this guy, other times he’ll be this guy. He’s very enigmatic, almost like a younger version of A.J. Burnett (who he will be facing). Ubaldo’s strikeout numbers aren’t as good as you’d expect them to be with his stuff (7.83 K/9) but he’s gotten the walks under control (3.86 BB/9) and generates a fair number of ground balls (45.9%). His stuff is absurd despite a noticeable drop in velocity; he’ll still sit 94-96 with both a two and four seamer. Jimenez’s wide array of secondary pitches includes a changeup (mid-80’s), slider (low-80’s), and curveball (high-70’s), and his new toy is a nasty little splitter that dives down and away from lefties and sits in the high-80’s. You can see it at 0:30 and 0:40 of this video. Filthy. If good Ubaldo shows up tonight, there’s almost nothing the Yankees can do. If it’s bad Ubaldo, then it’s all about patience.

Saturday, RHP Aaron Cook: A shoulder issue kept Cook on the shelf until late-May and this will be his fourth start back. He’s an extreme pitch-to-contact guy, having struck out just four men per nine innings since his first full season in 2006. Cook will get a healthy amount of ground balls (50% in 2011, but well over that in the last few years) with an upper-80’s sinker and a low-80’s slider, plus he’ll also throw some low-70’s curves on occasion. He typically won’t hurt himself with walks, but the Yankees tend to eat pitchers without overpowering stuff and a pitch-to-contact approach for breakfast. Cook hasn’t been great since coming off the disabled list, which naturally means he’ll throw eight scoreless tomorrow.

Sunday, RHP Juan Nicasio: Nicasio started this season in Double-A and crushed the competition there (10.0 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9 in 56.2 IP) before skipping right over Triple-A and joining the Rockies’ rotation. His numbers aren’t as stellar in five big league starts (7.53 K/9, 2.20 BB/9, 40.7% grounders) but that’s to be expected. The 25-year-old relies heavily on a mid-90’s fastball, throwing it about two-thirds of the time. Nicasio backs it up with a low-80’s slider and a mid-80’s changeup, but when push comes to shove he goes back to the number one. There’s nothing tricky here, it’s power stuff and he dares you to hit it.

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Bullpen: It doesn’t show up in the ERA (3.93), but the Rockies have a phenomenal relief corps that is near the top of the league in strikeout rate (8.01 K/9) while boasting the game’s best walk rate (2.72 BB/9). It starts at the back with Huston Street (8.31 K/9 and 1.56 BB/9), who does his job well but is amazingly homer prone (1.56 HR/9 this year, 2.09 HR/9). I guess solo shots aren’t the end of the world. Rafael Betancourt might be the best setup man in the world, having struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings since the start of last season while unintentionally walking just 1.08. He’s a human rain delay because he takes his sweet time between pitches, but he’s also brutally effective.

The middle innings feature former Marlins and Astros closer Matt Lindstrom, who throws serious gas but doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d expect. He can make it interesting on occasion, but he gets it done more often than not. The criminally underrated Matt Belisle (8.39 K/9 and 2.10 BB/9) will throw four different pitches in relief and fill-in wherever manager Jim Tracy needs him. You could see him in the third or the eighth, he’s like the 2009 Al Aceves. Lefty specialist Matt Reynolds has held same side batters to a .188/.239/.288 batting line since coming up in the second half of last year. The hard-throwing Rex Brothers was just called up and doesn’t really have a defined role, and we’re most likely to see his mid-90’s gas from the left side in low leverage spots, if anything. Swingman Clayton Mortensen has done some starting and some relieving this year, and right now he’s the weak link in the bullpen (4.98 FIP). The Rockies’ bullpen is a microcosm of the team; they’re deep and diverse with no obvious weak spot, better than their .500 record would lead you to believe.

Recommended Rockies Reading: Purple Row