The RAB Radio Show: December 16, 2010

Relief pitching is the theme of the day. We talked about it in the morning, when Mike wrote about Pedro Feliciano and I wrote about Rafael Soriano, Bobby Jenks, and David Aardsma. There are options available, and while Jenks is off the board everyone else is still around. We talk a bit more in depth about the reliever market and what fits the Yanks’ needs the best.

Listen in, too, for our digression into the draft. I can’t quite remember how we got there, but there’s plenty towards the end about incentivizing kids to play baseball professionally. I

Podcast run time 40:18

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

Taking down a non-rumor

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

It was inevitable. The Yankees lost out of Cliff Lee, and now the potential pitching trade targets are coming out of the woodwork. We’ve heard about Felix Hernandez, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Joe Blanton, Kevin freaking Slowey, and plenty of others that are not worth listing. Yesterday another name popped up, one that shouldn’t surprise any of you: Carlos Zambrano. His name has frequented the trade rumor circuit for years, for no other reason than because he’s an ace, or at least the perception is that he’s an ace.

Before we dive into explaining why Zambrano is a bad fit for the Yankees, we have to understand that there is no rumor in the first place. It all started with this little nugget from Bill Madden yesterday…

In the meantime, look for Cashman to spend his saved money on shoring up the bullpen, with re-signing Kerry Wood a new priority. And in addition to re-signing Pettitte, he’ll still be exploring the trade market with the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano, who experienced a turnaround both in temperament and results under the tutelage of new Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild the last six weeks of last season, a likely target.

Emphasis mine. There’s zero reporting there. That’s Bill Madden saying that he considers Big Z a likely target without any concrete information. He didn’t even bother with anonymous scouts or persons close to the situation, he just threw a name out there and qualified it with “likely.” The part about Rothschild is irrelevant; he’d been the Cubs pitching coach since 2002 and now all of a sudden those last six weeks of the season are different? Doesn’t pass the sniff test, but of course everyone ran with it because all they saw was this…

In the meantime, look for Cashman to spend his saved money on shoring up the bullpen, with re-signing Kerry Wood a new priority. And in addition to re-signing Pettitte, he’ll still be exploring the trade market with the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano … OMG CARLOS ZAMBRANO!!!!

It’s nonsense, made up to fill out some lines in the newspaper. There is no rumor, just Bill Madden’s speculation. Now that that’s out of way, let’s move on to how bad of a move acquiring Zambrano would be if the Yankees did magically trade for him at some point.

He’s Not As Good As You Think

Once upon a time, Carlos Zambrano was a bonafide star in the marking. He pitched to a 3.58 FIP from ages 21 through 24, racking up 14.0 fWAR from 2003 through 2005 with no less than 4.5 fWAR or 209.2 IP per season. The problem is that his FIP and fWAR declined in each of those years, and since that ’05 season Zambrano’s been no better than pretty good.

After a 4.14 FIP, 3.9 fWAR campaign in 2006, Big Z has pitched to a 4.09 FIP with 11.8 fWAR total. He’s eclipsed the three-win plateau just once in the last four seasons, and his performance over that time is right on par with Joe Blanton’s (11.7 fWAR) and slightly worse than Scott Baker’s 12.4 fWAR). A.J. Burnett has even been able to outproduce Zambrano during that time (12.9 fWAR), and he spent 59 days on the disabled list in 2007.

Zambrano is a high strikeout (8.10 K/9 over the last two years), high walk (4.24 BB/9 after taking out intentional walks) pitcher that gets a fair share of ground balls (44.2%), and he’s done a better job of getting his case of homeritis under control in the last few seasons (0.51 HR/9). His swinging strike rate has been below league average for three years now (8.0%), and all of those innings (839.1 IP with the Cubs before he turned 25) seem to be slowly eating away at his velocity.

This isn’t to say that Zambrano is a bad pitcher, just that he’s not the ace he’s made out to be. There’s no denying that he’s a legit innings eater, assuming he isn’t being suspended by his own team like in 2010. His 50th percentile projection is probably something like 2.8-3.2 fWAR going forward, which would absolutely help the Yankees right now, but this isn’t a vacuum. There are other factors to consider besides performance.

He’s Really Overpaid

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Four pitchers in all of baseball make more money on an annual basis than Zambrano, and for all intents and purposes it’s the four best pitchers on the planet: Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, and Roy Halladay. That’s it. He’ll make $17.875M in 2011 and then $18M in 2012 before a $19.25M vesting option for 2013 comes into play. The option vests based on Cy Young Award voting, so I wouldn’t expect it to kick in, but we’re still talking $35.875M over the next two years. According to the data at FanGraphs, Zambrano was worth $50.8M in production over the last four seasons while being paid $63.025M. He hasn’t been worth his salary since 2006.

For the Cubs to make this even worth the Yankees’ consideration, they’d have to eat something like $15M left on Zambrano’s deal, and even then they’re not getting anything worthwhile in return.

He’s Insane

It amazes me that people are so quick to write off Zack Greinke as unable to handle New York because Social Anxiety Disorder sounds scary, yet think that Zambrano is fine. The dude is crazy. He’s gotten in teammate’s faces for not making defensive plays behind him, gotten into fights in the dugout (twice in the same game!), beaten the crap out of inanimate objects, and plenty of other stuff that you’ll find if you google “Carlos Zambrano crazy.”

We have absolutely no idea how Greinke would handle the pressure cooker of New York, we just think we do. We know how Zambrano acts when things don’t go his way though, and it involves going off the deep end more times than not. What happens when he has the inevitable four or five start slump (it happens to every pitcher) and has 50,000 people booing the crap out of him every five days? And just think about it for a second, half of the Cubbie faithful wants this guy gone. That tells you right away that there’s a problem, a problem the Yankees don’t need.

* * *

The entire idea of Carlos Zambrano in Yankee pinstripes is little more than a figment of Bill Madden’s imagination right now, and that’s a good thing. The negatives outweigh the positives, but you know the Cubs will value him as an ace-caliber pitcher on the trade market anyway because once upon a time he was that guy. He’s not now, hasn’t been for a few seasons. There is a ton of risk in Zambrano given his well-documented temper, risk that can be far more damaging than some free agent signing blowing out his arm. Just say no to Big Z.

Yankees have asked to see Freddy Garcia’s medical records

From the please don’t let it be true department, Andrew Marchand says the Yankees have asked for Freddy Garcia’s medical records, indicating their interest in the right-hander. Once upon a time Garcia was a brilliant workhorse starter, but that was several years and shoulder injuries ago. Last season with the White Sox, the 34-year-old pitched to a 4.77 FIP in 157 innings, striking out just 5.10 batters per nine innings and surrendering one homer for every 6.2 innings pitched. His fastball can’t even break a window these days.

I mean, I guess if it’s a really really low base salary ($1M or less), preferably on a minor league prove yourself in Spring Training deal, then I can live with it. All I know is that this movie will have a tragic ending.

Will a former closer set up for the Yanks in 2011?

Since Joe Girardi took over as manager of the Yankees, we’ve seen a trend from his bullpens. They start off a bit shaky, but after weeding out the ineffective ones and bringing in new blood they end up among the better units in the league. But now that the team has money and roster spots available, might they try to strengthen the bullpen now, when there are a number of quality relievers available?

The Yanks already have a good base in the pen. Mariano will return to close out games. Setting him up are Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson, both of whom are worthy of the job. Robertson has spells where he struggles, but he has far longer streaks of dominance. Joba got off to a rough start, but by the end of the year he was pitching as well as his peripherals indicated. Boone Logan, too, will be back as the team’s primary lefty. After that the Yankees have some openings. With the current free agent crop, they could choose to sign a primary set-up man and move Chamberlain and Robertson down the ladder.

Rafael Soriano

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

Yesterday ESPN New York’s Andrew Marchand wondered whether Rafael Soriano would work as a setup option. It seems to be based on an anonymous scout saying, “It would make sense,” so let’s look just a little deeper at the cases for and against Soriano.

If the Yankees want the absolute best reliever on the market, Soriano is their man. Since 2006 he’s been downright dominant, averaging a 2.54 ERA, 0.961 WHIP, and 3.17 FIP. He broke out in 2003 when he pitched 53 innings to a 1.53 ERA, but he then missed most of the 2004 and 2005 seasons after undergoing and recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2006 he returned to form with a 2.25 ERA in 60 innings. The Mariners then traded him to the Braves for Horacio Ramirez, which was one of the most lopsided deals of the last decade.

In Atlanta Soriano continued his dominance. During his three years there he threw 161.2 innings to a 2.95 ERA and 3.26 FIP. He became eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, but instead decided to accept the Braves’ offer of arbitration. They then traded him to Tampa Bay, who signed him to a $7.5 million contract. He more than earned it by producing a 1.73 ERA in 62.1 innings as the team’s closer. The Rays offered him arbitration, but this time he declined. We haven’t heard much about him during the free agency period.

While Soriano, 31, is likely seeking a closer’s gig, there might not be one immediately available. He was originally connected to the Angels, but they signed Scott Downs and already have Fernando Rodney. That leaves him with only a few options. Setting up for the Yankees could certainly be an attractive gig for him. He remains on a winning team, and gets to set up for the greatest closer of all time before perhaps taking over for him in 2013. Soriano is by no means the next Mariano, but he’d be an adequate replacement after Mo finally hangs ’em up.

There are downsides to signing Soriano, of course. First, he’s going to command a multi-year, big money contract. We know that relievers are volatile creatures, and while Soriano has been relatively consistent throughout his career, he’s still susceptible to random fluctuations. His health is also somewhat of a concern. After his Tommy John Surgery he missed time in 2008 with further elbow troubles. Since the Rays offered him arbitration he’d cost the Yankees their first round pick, which makes it a bit tougher a proposition. Losing the pick would be even worse if the contract didn’t work out.

Bobby Jenks

(Ted S. Warren/AP)

Last night Ken Rosenthal made a pretty terrible pun by saying that there is “heavy action” on former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks. He mentioned that the Rays have interest, as do the Yankees. What can Jenks offer the Yanks?

After producing a 4.44 ERA and blowing four saves in 2010, the White Sox declined to tender Jenks a contract. This comes as a curious decision. Since he came up in 2005 Jenks has been at least a good reliever, and at times has been downright dominant. He has the highly desirable combination of high strikeouts, high ground balls. That will play well in any park, but it works particularly well at Yankee Stadium.

The fear is that Jenks is in decline. It started in 2008, when his strikeout rate dipped all the way to 5.55 per nine. That was the culmination of a four-year trend. After striking out 11.44 per nine during his rookie season, he saw that number dip in each subsequent year.

2005: 11.44 K/9
2006: 10.33 K/9
2007: 7.75 K/9
2008: 5.55 K/9

Throughout all this he kept his ERA below 3.00, and still kept his FIP at a decent level. In 2009 he rebounded to strike out 8.27 per nine, but something else changed. He more than doubled his career home run rate to that point, allowing nine in 53.1 innings (1.52 per nine). That led to a career high 4.47 FIP, and his ERA inflated to 3.71. While his strikeout rate was encouraging, there still had to be some concern about Jenks. Still, the White Sox took a chance and tendered him a contract, which paid him $7.5 million in 2010.

In terms of peripherals Jenks completely rebounded in 2010. His ground ball rate shot back up to near 60 percent, and his strikeout rate rebounded to 10.42 per nine. He walked a few more than normal, but nothing drastic. Most importantly, his home run rate dipped down to his normal, low career level. He did struggle at times, thanks to a .368 BABIP — his career mark is .306. This makes the Sox decision to non-tender him a bit curious. He’s now a free agent, and while he could cash in better next off-season if he went to close for the Rays, he could also raise his value by setting up for the Yanks.

David Aardsma

(Ted S. Warren/AP)

Rosenthal was at it again last night, this time reporting that the Mariners were shopping closer David Aardsma. After bouncing around the league since his debut in 2004, Aardsma finally settled in with the Mariners in 2009, establishing himself as their closer that season. His 2010 season wasn’t as impressive, but it was still a decent season for a relief pitcher.

Aardsma has always been a high strikeout guy, but walks have hurt him in the past. That tendency was at its worst in 2008, when he walked 35 in 48.2 innings for the Red Sox. With the Mariners he showed a bit more control, but at 4.29 walks per nine he still issued a few too many. He thankfully made up for that by striking out 10.09 per nine and allowing just four homers in 71.1 innings in 2009. That certainly raised his stock, and instead of getting DFA’d, as he had grown used to, he got a $2.75 million contract from the Mariners.

In 2010 Aardsma continued his walk happy ways, but didn’t quite have the strikeouts or home run rate to sustain his 2.52 ERA from 2009. He did get some help on balls in play, a .235 BABIP that had to be somewhat influenced by Seattle’s strong defense. His FIP rose a full run to 4.05, which has to be a concern as well. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Aardsma have a disappointing 2011.

The big problem, though, is his fly ball rate. Aardsma is a straight fastball pitcher, and as such induced many fly balls. In Seattle’s large park he was able to keep his HR/FB ratio in check, but that won’t be as easy in Yankee Stadium. This makes him a poor fit for the Yankees. He might fit nicely into a setup role for another club, and might close for a second division team. But his fly ball and walk rates make him less than ideal for the Yankees.

Go hard after Jenks

It should be clear at this point that Jenks fits the Yankees the best. He doesn’t have Soriano’s track record, and there are certainly concerns with him, but given his price tag and lack of free agent compensation, I can see the Yanks getting involved. They might have to go above and beyond in order to land him as a setup man, but a two-year deal could definitely seal it. The only question then is money, though I suppose that depends on the types of offers he’s receiving elsewhere.

While Soriano makes sense for some reasons, he presents a few too many risks to warrant a four-year contract. That would be ideal for the Yankees, since it would give them a closer for two years after Mariano’s current deal expires, but if Soriano gets hurt along the way it doesn’t matter. Jenks can be had on a shorter contract and has the potential to be an elite setup man. If they’re going to target a righty free agent bullpen arm, it should be him.

Bob Feller passes away

Baseball lost a legend yesterday, as Bob Feller, famed Indians pitcher, passed away at age 92. Last week Feller was moved to hospice care after spending time in the Cleveland Clinic with pneumonia. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in August and had a pacemaker implanted after he underwent chemotherapy.

For the definitive obituary, check out Joe Posnanski’s article. As always, he nails down the essence of Feller.

Report: Wood, Cubs close to deal

TTFN, Kerry. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

While Mark Prior has landed with the team first drafted him, so too is Kerry Wood. According to David Kaplan, the Cubs and Wood are closing in on a deal. Terms haven’t been reported yet, but earlier in the evening, Wood was rumored to be seeking a two-year, $12-million deal.

For the Yankees, this move is nothing more than an official seal on Wood’s departure. While the team had been interested in bringing him back to fill out the bullpen, the Yanks wanted him to return for the right price while Wood wanted more than the team was willing to pay a set-up man. Instead, the club will likely turn their attention to Rafael Soriano or Bobby Jenks. Joe will have more on those two in the morning.

Wood’s stay in New York was short but sweet. The Yanks acquired him on July 31 in exchange for Andrew Shive and Matt Cusick, two non-prospect minor leaguers. In 26 innings spanning 24 games, Wood struck out 31 and sported a 0.69 ERA despite walking 6.2 batters per 9 IP. That low ERA was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, and while his presence will be missed, he is eminently replaceable at a reasonable cost.

Catching situation: Dodgers vs. Yanks

The Dodgers catching situation had a bit of a Yankee flavor to it this winter. It started when the two teams discussed a Francisco Cervelli for Russell Martin swap on the eve of the non-tender deadline. That didn’t work, so the Dodgers let Martin walk. Immediately afterwards they signed Rod Barajas to a one-year, $3.25 million contract. This week the Yankees ended up with Martin at one years and four million, with the opportunity to retain him next year. Who came out ahead here?

Make sure to check out the other WAR comparisons. Also note that Martin’s worst year was only slightly worse than Barajas’s best year — and Barajas’s best year came in 2005. With a mere $750,000 difference in salary, it appears that the Dodgers got hosed — or hosed themselves.

(Though, in fairness, Martin did turn down a $4.2 million contract from the Dodgers. Still, it’s tough to imagine the Dodgers being worse off by tendering Martin a contract and paying him a bit more, than having Barajas and his poor production.)

Then come the backups. Had the trade gone through the Dodgers presumably would have had Cervelli backing up Barajas. Now they have former Yankee farm hand Dioner Navarro backing up Barajas, while the Yankees have Cervelli backing up Martin. Here’s a telling WAR graph for these guys.

Yes, Navarro has been better, but not only has his graph leveled off in the past two years, it has actually declined slightly. Navarro is two years older than Cervelli and has been in the league four more years, but has produced just 3.4 more WAR. In two more years I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Cervelli pass Navarro in WAR, even though the latter has that four-year head start.

This wasn’t a one-on-one deal, so we can’t say that the Yankees won. But given the way the Dodgers’ catching situation played out, I’ll take the Yanks’, even minus Montero, any day.