Mailbag: The Next Closer

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Mark asks: Considering that Mo was talking it up like an “old timer” this past weekend and previously stating that this contract will be his last, what internal options do the Yankees have for a closer? What potential free agents look intriguing?

The answer to this is simple: Mariano Rivera is never going to retire and will just close games for the Yankees for all eternity. Until I’m dead at the very least, I don’t really care what happens after that.

In all seriousness, this is the question no one wants to answer. Rivera will be 42 years old after the season and has just one more year on his contract. The smart money is on him calling it a career after the 2012 season, which is going to completely and totally suck. This “old timer” is still better than the other 29 guys doing the same job. There are basically three places Mo’s heir can come from, so let’s break them down…

Currently On The Yankees

There’s three obvious candidates here: Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, and David Robertson. Soriano is making the big bucks, Joba’s been touted as Mo’s replacement almost since the day he was called up, and Robertson’s the most effective of the bunch. Unless he continues to avoid 1-2-3 innings like the plague and/or continues to visit the disabled list, I bet Soriano gets first dibs at the job just because he has the Proven Closer™ tag. He’ll be 33 during the 2013 season, the last one on his contract and what we’re assuming is the first year post-Rivera.

Joba’s elbow reconstruction really complicates things. It’s typically a 12-month rehab but it’s not uncommon for it take 18 months before a pitcher gets back to where he was before the operation, specifically with their command. Just look at Joe Nathan. Joba had his surgery earlier this month and figures to be back with the Yankees next June. If it takes those six months to get back to being the guy he was last year and early this year, then we’re talking about the start of the 2013 season. Inserting him into the ninth inning might not be as cut and dry as it once seemed.

Robertson has been stupid effective this year (1.67 FIP and 1.3 fWAR in just 31.1 IP) but his walks continue to be a concern. His unintentional walk rate sits at 4.88 men per nine innings at the moment, which is worst than all but two current closers: Brian Wilson (uncharacteristically bad year) and Kevin Gregg (awful). Yes, it’s even higher than Carlos Marmol’s. Perhaps Robertson could get it down to sub-4.00 BB/9 by 2012, but he’s always walked a ton of guys. It would be pretty surprising for such drastic improvement. A long shot could be Hector Noesi, who some like better in a relief role because of his fastball command. I’d rather see him start, but what do I matter. We probably shouldn’t rule out Phil Hughes either.

In The Farm System

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The Yankees best pure relief prospect at the moment is probably Chase Whitley, though you can make a case for Ryan Pope, Tommy Kahnle, Dan Burawa, or George Kontos. They’re all pretty interchangeable. Of course the vast majority of closers are failed starters*, so pretty much all the upper level starters have to be considered. That includes Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Dellin Betances, Craig Heyer, and even Manny Banuelos. And, of course, there’s always personal fave J.B. Cox. (kidding)

As far as I’m concerned, Betances and Banuelos should continue to be groomed as starters regardless of what’s going on at the big league level. They’re clearly the most talented of the bunch and selling out even part of their future to help the big league team now  isn’t the wisest thing to do. The Yankees don’t exactly have the best track record in this department though.

Mitchell still struggles with lefties and Heyer fits the middle reliever mold because his stuff isn’t anything special. I think Warren could hack it as a starter at the back of a big league rotation, but he’d also fit well as a reliever because he’s got command of one above-average pitch (the fastball) and could focus on his top secondary pitch in relief. The same applies to Phelps, though I like his chances to start a little better (assuming this latest shoulder injury isn’t anything serious).

I’m leaving Andrew Brackman out of the discussion entirely because he’s a complete disaster at the moment. He’s got to get minor leaguers out consistently before we worry about where he fits long-term with the big league team, if at all. Phil Wetherell is probably the only (signed) 2011 draftee that would even be a blip on the radar, but going from short season ball to closing at the big league level in less than two years is unprecedented. Pat Venditte, Kevin Whelan, Pants Lendleton … yeah, that probably won’t happen.

Outside The Organization

The free agent market offers a ton of big name closers after this season, but the problem is that Rivera is retiring after next season in our hypothetical situation. The post-2012 free agent class isn’t all that pretty, with Leo Nunez and Brandon League representing the best of the bunch. Huston Street, J.J. Putz, and Joakim Soria all have contract options that may or may not be exercised. Mike Adams, Sean Marshall, and Hong-Chih Kuo will also be free agents, and although they haven’t closed before, they’re all hyper-effective relievers that could probably do the job. Kuo’s injury issues this year (and, well, his entire career) make him a huge question mark though.

Who knows that the trade market will offer, but by then both Joel Hanrahan and Chris Perez will be into their arbitration years and making some decent money. Perhaps more than the Pirates and Indians will be willing to pay a guy to work 70 IP a year, respectively.

* * *

I’m pretty confident in saying that whoever replaces Rivera will have the worst job in the world because they’ll have to live up impossibly high standards. It’s almost better to be the guy that replaces the replacement, and that might be where Soriano fits in. He could step in for a year then give way to some one better, or maybe even do so in the middle of 2013 if he doesn’t get the job done. Someone’s going to have to take the heat, might as well be the one without a real super long-term future with the Yankees.

No matter what happens from here on out, we’re approaching the end of Mariano’s reign in the ninth inning, and I can assure that it will be worse than you can ever imagine. After watching the other 29 clubs over the last few years through the magic of MLB.tv, and I safely say that Mariano Rivera-less save situations are terrifying. No team has a closer for ten years these days, if someone lasts five years in the role it’s a minor miracle. That makes Mo’s career all that more impressive.

* Off the top of my head, the only current closers that were groomed in the minors as closers are Wilson, Street, and Mark Melancon.

Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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It’s been a long, long time since the Yankees and Brewers played in Yankee Stadium. The last time these two clubs met in the Bronx was before Milwaukee jumped from the AL to the NL in 1998, and … well here’s the box score from that game. Scott Pose leading off! Derek Jeter batting seventh! Cats and dogs, living together! Crazy how long it’s been, a baseball lifetime basically.

What Have The Brewers Done Lately?

The Brewers are coming off a three game sweep of the Twins in Milwaukee, outscoring the road team 21-6 during the series. They’ve also won four of five but are coming out of a stretch in which they won just two of six games. It happens. At 44-35, the Brewers lead the NL Central by three games and their +27 run differential is fourth best in the so called senior circuit.

Brewers On Offense

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This is pretty damn close to an AL offense folks, at least at the top the lineup. Rickie Weeks flashes a .375 wOBA from the leadoff spot and comes into the series with a .348/.389/.576 batting line over the three weeks or so. Nyjer Morgan (.371 wOBA) will bat second against right-handers but Corey Hart (.359 wOBA overall, .506 wOBA vs. LHP) will bat there against CC Sabathia in the final game of the series. Batting third is one of the game’s very best, Ryan Braun. Dude’s got a .416 wOBA this year and comes into the series with a 17 game hitting steak. Because that’s not enough, Prince Fielder backs him up from the cleanup spot, and he’s sporting a .439 wOBA. He comes into the series hitting .363/.519/.800 over his last 26 games and .326/.473/.681 in his last 44 games. Someone hold me.

Things kinda drop off after that. Third baseman Casey McGehee handles most of the five-hole duties, but his wOBA is a pathetic .264 at the moment. He hasn’t hit at all, one little hit streak in May and that’s it. Yuniesky Betancourt is one of the very worst players in baseball (.264 wOBA with bad defense), and Carlos Gomez is just slightly better (.296 wOBA). The catching tandem of Jonathan Lucroy (.336 wOBA) and George Kottaras (.323 wOBA) is surprisingly productive for the position, and the just called up (as in yesterday) Mat Gamel (.409 wOBA in Triple-A) will get reps as the designated hitter.

Overall, the Brewers boast a .328 wOBA as a team, the fifth highest in baseball. They’ve hit the second most homers (91) behind the Yankees (111), and they’re middle of the pack with 53 steals. Braun (17), Gomez (15), and Weeks (seven) are the tops in that department. Fielder is going to make Yankee Stadium look very small with his power, smaller than it already looks. The good news is that Morgan and Kottaras are Milwaukee’s top power threats from the left side after him, but Braun, Weeks, and Hart can hit the ball out of almost any part of the park. This will not be a fun series for the Yankees pitching staff.

Brewers On The Mound

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Tuesday, RHP Zack Greinke: The Yankees had their chance to trade for Greinke this winter, but decided against it and will now have to face him later tonight. The 27-year-old right-hander comes into the series with 80 strikeouts and nine unintentional walks in 60 IP, adding up to a 2.30 FIP. His 4.77 ERA is the result of a laughably low 58.8% strand rate and a .348 BABIP. Greinke is going to carve hitters up with two low-90’s fastballs plus a slider, curveball, and changeup. Aside from Felix Hernandez in Seattle, I don’t think the Yankees have had a tougher assignment yet this season. It’s okay though, he can’t handle New York, amirite?

Wednesday, RHP Shaun Marcum: I’m not sure if Marcum is actually going to make this start. He’s left his previous two outings early due to hip issues (after just one and three innings, respectively), but as of now he’s listed as the probably starter. Marcum is another guy having a phenomenal year, sporting a 3.16 FIP in 94.2 IP. Although the numbers don’t show it this year, the right-hander has typically had a very pronounced reverse platoon split in recent years because his changeup is world class. He’ll throw it in any count to batters on either side of the plate, though it’s most effective against lefties. Beyond that, Marcum will also throw a mid-80’s fastball (yes, 80’s) and a curveball, but that changeup is how he makes his money. The Yankees have seen enough of him over the years because of his time in Toronto, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be any easier.

Thursday, LHP Randy Wolf: After Greinke and Marcum, Wolf is going to seem like batting practice. The lefty doesn’t miss many bats 6.68 K/9 and gives up a ton of fly balls (36.1%), two traits that play right into the Yankees’ hands. His 4.08 FIP is a better indication of his talent than his 3.20 ERA, but the former is still rock solid. Wolf still has that knockout curveball, the big slow (upper-60’s) bender that he can throw for strikes or bury in the dirt. An upper-80’s fastball, slider, and changeup round out his repertoire. Andruw Jones has more plate appearances against Wolf (61) than anyone in baseball not named Chipper, but he’s just a .200/.279/.436 hitter off the southpaw.

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Bullpen: Unfortunately, we won’t get to see Sergio Mitre‘s comeback tour, Milwaukee designated him for assignment just yesterday. That’s a shame. Instead we’ll have to settle for another Yankees castoff, Brewers closer John Axford. He spent a year bouncing around the farm system before being released, and he’s since turned into one the better closers in the baseball thanks to some mechanical adjustments. He will get himself into trouble (4.08 BB/9), but it’s tough to get past an 11.72 K/9 and 52.5% ground ball rate with three outs to go.

Axford’s primary setup man is Kameron Loe, who is death on righties thanks to his sinker-slider approach (64.2% grounders). Lefty Zach Braddock was just called up yesterday to replace Mitre, and he’s Milwaukee’s lone southpaw in the pen. He’s sorta like Boone Logan in that he throws hard (low-to-mid-90’s) with a slider, but he’s not like Boone Logan in that he destroys left-handed batters. Tim Dillard was also called up not too long ago, and he’s struck out 17 against just two walks in 16 IP. The Brewers other righty reliever is another Yankees castoff, old buddy LaTroy Hawkins. He came back from shoulder surgery last month and has a 2.44 FIP in 19.2 IP with a lot of grounders (60.3%). Long man Marco Estrada would (presumably) start for Marcum if he can’t go, and he’s got a 4.10 FIP in 47.2 IP.

The Yankees are going to get the best the Brewers have to offer this week, so it’s going to be a very tough series. Their starters miss bats, the lineup hits the ball out of the park from both sides of the plate, and the bullpen has some dynamite specialists in front of a very good closer. This one should be fun.

Recommended Brewers Reading: Disciples of Uecker

If you want to check out any of these three games at Yankee Stadium, RAB Tickets can get you there. We’ve got some ticket pricing info after the jump…

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Mailbag: Minor League Parks

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Will asks: I’ve read in past years that several of the Yankees minor league complexes are pitcher friendly. Are they? If so do they skew the numbers of some pitching/position player prospects?

Oh yes, absolutely. Some of the parks in the minors are extreme too, though not necessarily the ones in the Yankees’ system. With some help from StatCorner, we have park factors for each of the four full season affiliates. Let’s tabulate…

The park factors are expressed like ERA+/OPS+, so 100 is league average. Anything below that is below average, anything above it is above average. StatCorner has factors for frickin’ everything (we’re talking singles, doubles, strikeouts, grounders, etc.), but I went with homers and wOBA because they’re what we most commonly reference.

Overall, all four parks are close to neutral in terms of wOBA, slightly on the pitcher’s side with the exception of the stadium formerly known as Legends Field. The homerun factors are much more interesting though, because a number of them are rather extreme. Left-handed batters at Waterfront Park in Trenton are roughly half as likely to hit a homer there than in other parks, which makes the 19 homers Eric Duncan hit with Thunder in 2005 look pretty impressive. Similarly, the 17 homers Jesus Montero whacked with Low-A Charleston back in 2008 looks damn good as well since that park holds righties to 68% of the homers a neutral park would.

It’s easy to forget about park effects when talking about minor leaguers because we rarely watch the games and see the actual parks. Given the factors of the four parks above, I wouldn’t concern myself too much with their impact on Yankees farmhands overall, but the power numbers are worth monitoring. If a pitcher is giving up an exorbitant number of homers in Low-A, then that’s a problem. If a lefty bat in Trenton isn’t hitting for as much power as we’d like, well now we know why. Here are aerial views of PNC Field, Waterfront, GMS Field, and JPR Park, just for a visual.

Turley & Higashioka give Charleston a win

Yesterday it was Josh Romanski, today it’s Chase Whitley. The righty reliever has been promoted from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton. Romanski, by the way, will pitch in relief. That’s probably his ultimate destination anyway. As for the bad news, Carlos Silva was placed on the disabled list for an unknown reason. Fernando Hernandez was bumped up from Trenton to Triple-A Scranton to take his place, which is hilarious. He’s put 70 men on base and allowed 24 runs to score in 35 innings this year, numbers that usually get you released and not promoted.

Also, make sure you check out Penn League Report’s interview with Dellin Betances.

Triple-A Scranton (4-3 win over Durham in ten innings)
Austin Krum, CF: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 K – threw a runner out at second
Luis Nunez, 2B: 3 for 5, 2 2B, 3 RBI – had been in an 0-for-16 drought
Mike Lamb, 3B: 2 for 4, 1 2B
Greg Golson, LF: 0 for 1, 1 K, 1 SB – pinch-ran for Lamb late
Jesus Montero, DH: 1 for 4, 1 K – he fouled a ball off both his knee and foot, but shook it off and stayed in the game
Terry Tiffee, 1B & Jordan Parraz, RF: both 0 for 4, 2 K
Brandon Laird, LF-3B: 1 for 4, 1 K - made a nice running catch in the outfield
Gus Molina, C: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 K
Doug Bernier, SS: 0 for 2, 2 R, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HBP
D.J. Mitchell, RHP: 6 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 6-5 GB/FB – 51 of 95 pitches were strikes (53.7%) … the two runs didn’t come to the sixth, when he’s typically run into trouble
George Kontos, RHP: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 1-0 GB/FB – just eleven pitches, eight strikes
Randy Flores, LHP: 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2-2 GB/FB – a dozen of his 20 pitches went for strikes
Eric Wordekemper, RHP: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 17 of 28 pitches were strikes (60.7%)

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Yankees interested in Roberto Osuna

Via Roberto Espinoza (link in Spanish), the Yankees are one of several teams with serious interest in 15-year-old Mexican right-hander Roberto Osuna, who they watched throw last week. He will turn 16 on July 2nd, so he will be eligible to sign this year. Osuna is the nephew of former Yankee Antonio Osuna and a 6-foot-0, 198 lb. hurler with an idea of how to use three pitches: a low-90’s fastball, a curveball, and a changeup. He’s currently pitching in the Mexican League (5.49 ERA in 19.2 IP), which is somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A in terms of competition.

Osuna is one of the top pitching prospects available on the international market this year, and he’s expected to command a seven-figure bonus. The Yankees have never given an international pitcher seven-figures (not counting vets Jose Contreras or Hideki Irabu), but they tried to with Michael Ynoa. Because he is property of a Mexican League club, Osuna will only receive 25% of his bonus. The rest goes to his team. The Yankees have a very strong presence in Mexico thanks to scout Lee Sigman, who helped broker deals for Manny Banuelos and Al Aceves in the not too distant past.