What does it take to get a save in this place?

It would be hard to find a segment of the free agent market in which saber-minded analysts and general managers differ more than on the value of relief pitchers. Second only to the uselessness of the pitcher win stat, the futility of paying relievers big money and chasing the save statistic is likely the biggest saber cause célèbre in town. The argument goes something like: “The save stat is stupid, and relievers are volatile. Don’t chase the save, and don’t pay relievers big money, because they’ll likely just blow up in your face”.

By and large, this line of thinking is correct. Yet if its constantly regurgitated by the masses with no critical thinking behind it, and if no attempt is made to understand why teams do what they do, then we’ll never really advance the proverbial baserunners. We’re just spinning our wheels, beating the same old dead horse and never learning anything or trying to understand the people making the big decisions.

In any walk of life, one quick way to open yourself up to embarrassment is to assume that those around you are either unable or unwilling to comprehend the complexities of your worldview, to borrow a turn of phrase from Confederacy of Dunces. I’d wager that most General Managers have a pretty good idea that relievers are volatile creatures, and that they are also aware of the failure of these relievers to live up to the contracts given to them. So, avoiding the arrogance that would suggest that they’re just irrational actors, what would drive a GM to pay a premium for a reliever? It boils down to predictability.

Paradoxically, the volatile nature of relief pitchers drives GMs to pay big money for relievers whom they don’t believe will be volatile. Thus, relievers with a long track record of health and consistently superb performance are the most likely candidates to get big money. Like it or not, teams also value closer experience. Late inning relievers with a track record of ably manning the ninth inning will pull in a premium over those without it. Anecdotally, relievers with fewer than ten saves signing multi-year deals after the 2010 season averaged $3.8M per year. Relievers with more than ten saves averaged $8.3M, although this number is driven higher by the Soriano and Rivera deals. This illustrates the point that for whatever reason, most clubs are averse to handing big money to someone to close out games if they’ve never seen them close out games before.

This is all perfectly illustrated by the Phillies pursuit of Ryan Madson. Madson has a long track record of being an excellent reliever, and has shown a decent enough health record. Yet not too long ago, the Phillies weren’t interested in committing big money to Madson because he lacked the “closer’s mentality”. After a solid year closing out games for the Phils they were on the verge of guaranteeing him of $44M over 4 years. The deal has since been put on hold, but Madson will likely see a huge payday.

Teams crave predictability, which is why you’ll often see teams with decent budgets pursue relievers whom they believe to be predictable. They’re looking for relievers who can make a nine inning game an eight inning game, and when they find them or believe they’ve found them, they’re willing to pay a bit more than one might expect. It’s just the way it is. As our understanding of how to properly value relievers evolves and develops, it’s important to keep in mind the principles under which various organizations appear to operate.  Who knows, we might even learn something from the people who are doing this for a living.

Scouting The Trade Market: Francisco Liriano

While speaking to reporters at a charity function yesterday, Brian Cashman said it was too early to know if the best pitching options were available via free agency or trade this offseason. “I haven’t talked to every team and I haven’t talked to every agent yet,” he said. “And I certainly haven’t had any agent tell me what they want financially.” Cashman has put preliminary calls in to the representatives for C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson, but nothing more than that. The trade market, as I wrote last week, can offer more cost effective alternatives.

After a disastrous 63-99 season, the Twins somewhat surprisingly fired GM Bill Smith earlier this week (surprising because it didn’t happen sooner), replacing him with long-time GM Terry Ryan. During his re-introductory press conference, Ryan said the team’s payroll will drop about $15M next season, which could mean that some of his players might be available in trades. One of the guys that could potentially be on the block is a name we’ve discussed quite a bit here in the past, left-hander Francisco Liriano. He’s always kinda been the black sheep in the Twins rotation, not conforming to their “let the hitter put the ball in play and get quick outs” pitching philosophy. Whether or not that makes him any more available, we don’t know. Let’s look at his qualifications…

The Pros

  • When right, the 28-year-old Liriano is a dominant strikeout and ground ball pitcher. He burst onto the scene with a 10.71 K/9 and 55.3% ground ball rate in 2006, then put together a Cy Young caliber season with 9.44 K/9 and 53.6% grounders in 2010. His walk and homerun rates those two years were 2.38 BB/9 with 0.67 HR/9, and 2.72 BB/9 with 0.42 HR/9, respectively. Batters have swung and missed on 12.7% of the swings they’ve taken against Liriano in his career, a ridiculous rate. Utter domination.
  • A true three-pitch guy, Liriano throws his mid-80’s slider and changeup regularly (~20% of the time) in addition to his low-90’s fastball, which he can sink a bit. He destroys left-handed batters, holding them to a .277 wOBA with a 3.12 K/BB ratio with 61% ground ball rate for his career. Only one lefty (former Yankee Juan Miranda) has taken him deep since August of 2009.
  • MLBTR projects a $5.7M salary for Liriano next season, his final trip through arbitration before becoming a free agent next offseason. It’s a reasonable salary and a short-term commitment.

The Cons

  • Pardon me while I get my Tim McCarver on, but as good as Liriano was in 2010, that’s how as bad as he was in 2011. Yes, he did throw a no-hitter against the White Sox, but he only made it to the mound for 134.1 IP and posted career worsts in K/9 (7.50), BB/9 (5.02), and xFIP (4.52). It was the second time in three years he pitched to a 4.00+ BB/9, 5.00+ ERA, and 4.50+ FIP.
  • Liriano has a lengthy injury history, with Tommy John surgery in late-2006 being just being the tip of the iceberg. He missed significant time in the minors with shoulder trouble, which is why he was thrown into the ill-fated Joe Nathan-A.J. Pierzynski swap. Forearm swelling and arm fatigue (requiring a cortisone shot) cost him three weeks in 2009, and more shoulder problems (soreness, inflammation, and then a strain) shelved him for a total of seven weeks in 2011. All arm problems. Yuck.
  • Because of all the injuries, Liriano has never thrown 200 IP in a single season. In fairness, he did top 190 IP in both 2008 and 2010 when you tally up the majors and minors. More than one out of every four pitches he’s thrown over the last three seasons has been a slider, and those are generally believed to wreak havoc on a pitcher’s arm when used so heavily.
  • To make matters worse, Liriano told Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson that he did not do his prescribed shoulder strengthening exercises last winter. It’s not the first time the team has had a problem with the lefty’s work ethic and conditioning, and that’s part of the reason why they never got serious about signing him to a long-term contract.

The Yankees have been connected to Liriano quite a bit over the last year or so, and they reportedly “dangled” the duo of Ivan Nova and Ramiro Pena for the lefty last winter. That would be an overpay now, simply because Nova had a strong rookie season and is under team control for five more years while Liriano had a poor and injury-filled season and is only under contract for one more year. I’m certain Minnesota would be interested in a Nova for Liriano swap, but it doesn’t make sense for the Yankees at this point. They should be looking to add to the rotation around Nova, not replace him.

The healthy version of Liriano is as good as it gets, a homer-suppressing left-hander with swing-and-miss stuff, but you don’t know what guy you’re going to get from year to year or even from start to start. That arm has been through quite a bit despite his relatively young age, and there’s a legitimate chance that any team that trades for him will get zero return. The talent is tantalizing though, and theoretically the price should be dropping given his poor season and one year of team control. There’s a lot of risk involved here but I think the Yankees should at least inquire, just in case the Twins are open to moving him for pennies on the dollar given his poor health and their impending payroll cuts.

A departure, but not yet the end, for Jorge

In 1991, Jorge made his professional debut with the Oneonta Yankees.

And then there were two.

As the Yankees gear up for an active off-season as the team prepares for the 2012 season, the clock is ticking inexorably forward for the players with whom I’ve grown up. Bernie Williams faded from view in 2006, Andy Pettitte stepped down after the wear and tear of 2010 grew to be too much, and now, it seems, it is Jorge’s turn.

The erstwhile catcher turned part-time DH spoke on Wednesday night at a charity event for his foundation. He hasn’t decided to hang it up yet, and a few Major League teams have come a-knockin’. The Yankees however are not one of them. “I don’t think there’s even a percentage of a chance that I can come back. It’s not going to happen,” Posada said.

I can’t imagine Posada’s emotions as the season ended. Drafted by the Yankees in the 1990 amateur draft when he was all of 19 years old, the Puerto Rican native has spent an eternity with the Yankee organization. In fact, only Mariano Rivera has been with the organization for longer. Over the past 17 years, Posada has earned more than $117 million from the Yanks, and he has put up numbers as a catcher that make him a serious contender for Cooperstown. He hit .273/.374/.474 with 275 home runs and starred in October on four World Series winners.

“I,” Posada said, “will always be a Yankee. The Yankees for me is my second family. It would be tough to put on another uniform for real and learn another set of rules and all that stuff, but that’s one of those things. I have to see if I want to keep playing.”

Posada, who had a tough time coming to grips with a team that no longer needed his full services this year, knows what baseball is all about. After 17 years in the Majors with the same team, Jorge harbors no grudges. “At the end of the day, it’s a business,” he said. “You look back and you wish there was some things that could have gone differently, but they didn’t. There’s nothing I could control. Everything happened for a reason. I’m not bitter at the Yankees. I’m not bitter at Joe Girardi. I’m not bitter at Brian Cashman. It just happened.”

We lived through the Posada drama this year. Mired in a bad slump, he benched himself when he was on the verge of hitting ninth. He ended the year at just .235/.315/.398 in 387 plate appearances, and he saw the future in Jesus Montero emerge in September. He isn’t quite ready to call it a career though, and his .269/.348/.466 line against right-handers has made him a wanted man. Still, Jorge said, questions remain: “Do I want to do it for somebody else? Do I want to leave home? Do I want to do it all over again without knowing anybody? It would be tough. I’ve got great people, great friends and great teammates and it would be tough to learn new people again.”

His wife last night expressed an interest in seeing Jorge play for the Marlins at a new stadium near their home. It would be the final hurrah of a great career, but I selfishly would rather not see him anywhere else. He’s Jorge Posada, Yankee. Even as other Hall of Fame lifers have ended their careers elsewhere, I want to see my favorite players go out on top as proud Yankees. It’s the cheesiness of the emotional impact of the game. Jorge was there through my teen years and well past college. Don’t wind up playing out a perfunctory final season with Tampa Bay or the Marlins just to show the world you can.

Jorge told reporters last night that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but he said he’s been talking to Bernie about it all. “Make sure you make the right decision,” Jorge said Bernie told him. “Don’t say or do something that you are going to regret.” Go out on your own terms, go out when you want to, and hopefully after 20 years, go out a Yankee.

Sanchez makes winter ball debut

Gary Sanchez is playing winter ball this year, suiting up for the Leones de Escogido of the Dominican Winter League. His regular season ended in early-August because of a broken finger, so it’s good to see him make up for some lost at-bats this winter. Sanchez, who turns 19 in December, went 1-for-3 with a strikeout and a run scored in his debut yesterday (box score). He served as the DH and singled off short-term Yankee Raul Valdes.

Also, the Yankees have re-signed minor league free agents Reegie Corona and Ronny Marte. Gabriel Tatis was released.

AzFL Phoenix (4-3 win over surprise) Monday’s game
Corban Joseph, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 K
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
David Phelps, RHP: 5 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 8-2 GB/FB – 43 of 70 pitches were strikes (61.4%) … that’s four runs, two walks, and ten strikeouts in his last three starts (14 IP)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 3-0 GB/FB – nine of 16 pitches were strikes (56.3%)

Tuesday’s AzFL Phoenix game was canceled for some reason. Probably bad weather or something.

 

Open Thread: Humberto Sanchez

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years already, but after the 2006 season the Yankees dumped Gary Sheffield on the Tigers, receiving three minor league pitchers in return. The headliner for the Yankees was the Dominican Republic-born and New York City-raised righty Humberto Sanchez, who Baseball America would rank as the 57th best prospect in the game just a few months later. Unfortunately, he never delivered on that promise.

A few weeks after Baseball America’s rankings came out, Sanchez went down with a torn elbow ligament in Spring Training and had Tommy John surgery. A prolonged rehab kept him on the shelf until the second half of the 2008 season. After 14.2 minor league innings across three levels, Sanchez got his first taste of the big leagues, allowing one run in two innings as a September call-up. The Yankees released Sanchez in April 2009 but quickly re-signed him to a minor league pact. He never resurfaced as a Major Leaguer, and two years ago today, the Yankees officially cut ties with the one affectionately known as Hungry Hungry Humberto. Two years and 364 days after the trade, he’d been released for good.

Unable to land a job with one of the 30 clubs, Sanchez headed to Asia for the 2010 season, signing with the since renamed La New Bears of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. He returned to the States this past season with the independent Camden River Sharks, though he also pitched for a pair of Mexican League teams. Now 28, Humberto gave the Yankees just 50.1 minor league innings and eight big league batters faced following the trade. Prospects eh? They’ll break your heart time and time again.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers are the only local sports team team in action, but I trust that you folks will find ways to occupy yourselves. Talk about anything you like here, the thread is yours.

Yankees eyeing two more Cuban defectors

By now you know all about outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, but he’s not the only Cuban defector on the market. According to Jesse Sanchez and George King, the Yankees also have their eyes on 19-year-old outfielder Jorge Soler and 23-year-old right-hander Armando Rivero.

Soler, a big boy at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs., is said to be a corner outfielder with “explosive power” and a strong arm according to Baseball America (no subs. req’d). Rivero, who stands 6-foot-3, reportedly features a fastball that touched 98 during the showcase as well as a slider, changeup, and splitter. Neither player was part of Cuba’s team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Both guys strutted their stuff in a showcase at the Yankees’ complex in the Dominican Republic last week.

Cashman talks further about Yanks winter plans

This morning Brian Cashman put in some volunteer work, donating coats and helping out for New York Cares’ winter coat drive. Wherever Cashman goes reporters are bound to follow. Following the event both Marc Carig of the Star-Ledger and Erik Boland of Newsday provided dispatches. Here’s a rundown of what he said, along with the relevant commentary. You can find the original quotes from both Boland’s and Carig’s Twitter feeds.

(On a side note, even if you’re not into the whole Twitter thing, I highly recommend you sign up for an account if only to follow some of the beat writers. They provide quick, interesting information throughout the day. It helps that they’re mostly good guys, too.)

  • Cashman said that teams have already inquired about the Yankees’ catching depth. From Carig’s article: “There would be interest in those guys. I’ve had a lot of teams express, ‘Hey, if you’re ever going to do something there, mark us down,’ that type of things.” The Yankees have not only Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, but also Gary Sanchez and J.R. Murphy a few rungs below.

    As Mike mentioned during the World Series, the Yankees could learn from the Rangers in this regard. They had three big-time catching prospects, none of whom panned out. The Yankees could opt to deal from that position of strength this winter. Sanchez in particular could be an enticing bit for a team that’s a bit further away from contention. Romine, too, could play a less significant part in a bigger trade.

  • Cashman said that while he’s been in contact with several teams, he’s not yet sure whether the best path to acquiring a starter will be the free agent or trade market. He said that he hasn’t gotten to the point of financials with any player/agent, so we’re probably a long way away from any activity.
  • Boland had an interesting bit about Hector Noesi. Cashman wants him to pitch in winter ball, because he “needs innings.” That makes sense after he threw just 81 innings this year between AAA and the majors. Noesi is in line to compete for a rotation spot next year, though his value is that he can pitch both out of the bullpen and in the rotation.
  • In other homegrown pitching news, Ivan Nova has been cleared and his strained forearm is “fully 100 percent.” There is nothing to worry about heading into the spring, which is relieving news. Any time a pitcher complains of forearm tightness there’s a fear that it might actually be the elbow. Losing Nova for a year to Tommy John surgery would be quite devastating right now.
  • After repeating his line about a set budget for the past two off-seasons, Cashman said that he had the “flexibility to stretch it if needed” (Carig’s words). The Yankees could have between $192 and $198 million committed to the players currently on the roster, so in order to add any pieces, never mind a significant free agent or trade piece, they’d need to go a bit higher than they have in years past.
  • Finally, Cashman says they had no interest in Jonathan Sanchez. Clearly he has no reason to admit it if they did have interest. But it really makes no sense. He’s just not the kind of guy the Yankees need to target right now.