The Big Question: Tampa or Texas?

The Yankees wrapped up their ALDS matchup with the Twins more than two full days ago now, but they’re still waiting on an opponent. The Rangers grabbed the first two games of their series against the Rays in Florida, but Tampa Bay rebounded to win the pair in Texas. Thus, we get to enjoy a Game Five tonight. The Yanks benefit from this long series in a big way; they won’t have to face Cliff Lee/David Price until Game Two of the ALCS at the absolute earliest. More likely, the Bombers’ ALCS opponent with throw its ace in Game Three.

As we await tonight’s do-or-die affair, the big question on everyone’s mind concerns the Yanks’ opponent. Who is the better matchup for New York? Ben and I are going to sort that out. I’ve got the Rangers; he’s got the Rays. We’ll wrap with a poll.

The Case For Texas

The 2010 season marks the Rangers’ first trip to the postseason since 1999 when the eventual World Champion Yankees swept them in the ALDS. The Yanks also swept them in the 1998 ALDS and beat them 3-1 in the best-of-five series in 1996. Not only have the Rangers never won a playoff series, they’ve also never a playoff game in their home ballpark. By my rough count, just three of their regulars (Vlad Guerrero, Bengie Molina, Jeff Francoeur) and two of their pitchers (Cliff Lee, Darren Oliver) have played in the postseason before this month. The massive edge in experience is nice, but it’s certainly not everything.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

As it tends to do, it all comes down the the pitching. Lee is an absolute stud, capable of beating any team at any time, so there’s nothing we can do about that. The Yanks smacked C.J. Wilson around all three times they faced him this year (14.1 IP, 18 H, 11 R, 9 BB, 15 K) and he’s exactly the kind of pitcher they’re capable of punishing because he will start a rally by himself with walks (led the league with 93  free passes this year). Same deal with Tommy Hunter, who held the Yanks to two runs in five innings in his only start against them this year. He’s cut from the Yankee-friendly “pitch-to-contact and don’t strike guys out” cloth. Colby Lewis had a fine season (3.55 FIP) and didn’t face the Yanks at all this season, but it’s not like he’s another Cliff Lee. The Rays were able to do some damage against him and the Yankees can too.

On the other side of the coin, Texas hasn’t faced CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte since April, and they didn’t see Phil Hughes at all this season (save for a one inning relief appearance). When they beat the Yanks four times in their last five meetings, the opposing starters were A.J. Burnett twice, Javy Vazquez twice, and Dustin Moseley. Burnett will start a game in the ALCS, but just one of the potential seven. That unfamiliarity works to the Yanks’ advantage.

Offensively, Josh Hamilton is still battling rib trouble and hasn’t hit a lick in the playoffs (.143/.250/.143). Nelson Cruz and Vlad Guerrero are big time power threats, but also prone to getting themselves out on pitches out of the zone. They rely on the money-making half of the power and patience combo. Guys like Molina (.297 OBP) and Francoeur (.300) are essentially automatic outs while Elvis Andrus hits for zero power (.036 ISO (!!!)). They also don’t employ the running game nearly as much as Tampa, a big-time help to the Yankees and Jorge Posada.

Texas does have a good bullpen featuring power arm after power arm, but they lack experience beyond Oliver. Rookie closer Neftali Feliz has already blown one save this postseason and put five of nine men he’s faced on base (three walks). The Darrens – O’Day and Oliver – are a ROOGY and LOOGY, respectively, and both Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland are just as like to melt down as they are to shut down. Beyond Lee, the pitching staff is solid but hardly overwhelming. I’ll take that every day of the week.

The Case For Tampa

The Yankees and the Rays know each other well. They played each other 18 teams this year, and while the Rays won the season series, the games were close. The Yanks lost 10 and won eight against Tampa Bay, and now they’re nine innings and a Tampa Bay win from facing off against their division rival on the road to the World Series.

After watching Tampa Bay for 18 contests this year, it’s tough to say I’d rather see the Yanks face the Rays. The kids from Tampa Bay feature a solid front-line pitcher, some shut-down relievers and a few fearsome hitters. With a triple-slash line of .316/.395/.492 in their nine games at Yankee Stadium, the Rays seem built for a late-season match-up with the Yankees. Still, the team is far from perfect.

(AP Photo/David Richard)

Despite the nine-game sample from their contests in the Bronx, the Tampa Bay Rays are not a well-rounded offensive club. Overall, they hit just .247/.333/.403 on the season, ranking 13th, sixth and eighth, respectively, in the American League. Their team wOBA of .328 was just the eighth best mark in the Junior Circuit. They can be stopped from scoring runs. The Rays offense as a whole doesn’t show significant differences in their splits against either lefties or righties.

Beyond their lineup, the Rays’ pitching has had its fair share of troubles against the Yanks. Matt Garza, who figures to start Game 2, allowed 15 earned runs in 16.2 innings against the Yanks. He gave up five dingers to the Yanks’ bats. David Price struck out 21 Yanks in 26.2 innings but still allowed 38 base runners with an ERA of 4.39. The Yanks hit 24 home runs against Tampa’s pitching this year, and James Shields hasn’t been nearly as effective recently as he was earlier this year. As Jay Jaffe notes at the Pinstriped Bible today, the Rays’ pitching woes should tilt our preferences toward Tampa Bay.

Finally, the Yanks match up well against the Rays’ bullpen as well. Rafael Soriano may be a shut-down closer, and Joaquin Benoit pitched quite well against the Yanks. Yet, the team has just one lefty reliever, and it’s one the Yanks have beaten repeatedly. In eight appearances against the Yanks this year, Randy Choate faced 20 batters, and he retired just six of them. He allowed 2 walks and 12 hits while the Yanks tagged him for 10 earned runs. When the Yanks’ lefties come up in key spots, they’ll either be facing a pitcher they’ve tattooed or a right-hander. That a match-up sounds good to me.

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So there you have it. The Yanks probably would have an easier go of it against the Rangers but not by much. Both clubs will play them tough, and the Yanks will have to earn their trip to the World Series. Let’s wrap this baby up with a poll.


Baseball America’s Top 20 International League Prospects

With the end of their top 20 prospect series in sight, Baseball America posted their Triple-A International League list today. Three Yankee farmhands made the list: Jesus Montero at #4, Ivan Nova at #9, and Eduardo Nunez at #13. Montero was behind three pretty good prospects in Carlos Santana (Indians), Jeremy Hellickson (Rays), and Aroldis Chapman (Reds). Nova was sandwiched between Pedro Alvarez (Pirates) and Dan Hudson (1.69 ERA, 3.22 FIP in 79.2 IP after being traded to Arizona for Edwin Jackson).

As for the subscriber only scouting reports, they say that “Montero may have the highest [offensive] ceiling in the minor leagues. He has tremendous strength and a knack for barreling balls when he gets in rhythm.” There are still doubts about his defense behind the plate, as there always will be, but they did note that his patience at the plate improved this season (career high 44 unintentional walks). Nova came in a bit higher than I expected, but that’s because his velocity shot up into the 92-94 range consistently. They say he’s held back by inconsistent command and secondary pitches. Nunez is projected to be a utility player, “a bottom-of-the-order [hitter] who makes contact but doesn’t draw many walks or hit for much power.”

All told, the Yankees had 14 different prospects featured in the various top 20 lists, the third most in baseball. You can go back and re-live the magic here. It’s so nice to see the Yankees with a top-shelf farm system again.

The inevitable A.J. Burnett start

Hope for Good A.J., not Hide The Women And Children A.J. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

What everyone assumed was made official yesterday: the Yankees are going to use a four man rotation in the ALCS, and the fourth starter will be A.J. Burnett. It’s not clear which game he’ll start, but the smart money’s on either Game Four or Five. The schedule actually allows them to use only three starters if they’re willing to start CC Sabathia on short rest twice and both Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes on short rest once. Given Andy’s recent groin and back issues plus Hughes’ career high workload, it’s easy to understand why they didn’t go this route.

So that leaves us with Burnett. As a whole his regular season was awful; he set new career worsts in ERA (5.26), FIP (4.83), xFIP (4.66), K/9 (6.99), AVG against (.279), WHIP (1.51), swinging strike rate (7.9%), contact rate (81.8%) … the list goes on and on. It was the worst season of his career by a considerable margin, and according to bWAR he was below replacement level (-0.1). Burnett did have some stretches of brilliance during the season (1.99 ERA in his first six starts, 2.00 during July) as he tends to do, but he finished the year with a 6.61 ERA in his last dozen starts. Opponents hit .300/.380/.494 off of him during that stretch, which is hard to believe.

And yet the Yankees are giving the ball to Burnett for a few reasons, but one that sticks out more than the others: the simply don’t have a better option. Javy Vazquez, the guy that was supposed to be the fourth starter back in April, was been even worse than Burnett in 2010 and was left off the ALDS roster entirely. Dustin Moseley did an admirable job filling in while Pettitte was hurt, but he’s not a realistic option because he doesn’t strike anyone out and had a 5.29 ERA in his nine starts. Ivan Nova had his moments in September, but he struggled big time with men on base and was prone to that one big inning, a recipe for disaster in the postseason.

For all his warts, Burnett gives you something Moseley and Nova do not: the potential to dominate. Sure, it’s unlikely given his performance this year, but the ability is still tucked in there somewhere, and when you’re picking between three mediocre (or worse) options, go with the one that at least offers some upside. Anything can happen in one game, the regular season goes right out the window in October.

A.J. had a 5.27 ERA in his five postseason starts last year but he was dominant in his three home starts, allowing just ten hits and five runs while striking out 19 in 19.1 innings. He was also better at home this year, posting a 4.59 ERA (4.56 FIP) with 7.51 K/9 and 3.70 BB/9 in 80.1 innings (14 starts). Burnett was better at home last season too. His 2010 ALDS start will come at home regardless if he pitches in Game Four or Five, so at least he has that going in his favor. If he starts Game Four it’s likely to come against the other team’s fourth starter, another thing that’ll make A.J.’s life a little easier.

No one feels comfortable starting the 2010 version of A.J. Burnett in a playoff game, but it’s a necessary evil at this point. They don’t need him to be excellent, just good enough to keep them in the game and hand the ball over to the four main setup guys. Admittedly, that’s not something he was able to do on a consistent basis this season. Burnett is going to start next round, and while you don’t have to like it, you’d be foolish not to at least root for him.

Mailbag: Lining up the aces

I don’t get why Lee/Price not pitching until game 3 is such a big advantage for the Yanks. Assuming TB/TX weren’t planning on pitching anyone on 3 days rest, which they probably weren’t, each pitcher, in a 7 game series, will go the same number of times as they would have gone had they lined up their aces for game 1.

This question raises a good point about playoff rotations. Let’s assume that the Rays win today. If Price sticks with normal rest — and considering the situation this weekend I’d say he certainly will throughout the playoffs — he’d line up for a start on Sunday. Unfortunately for the Rays, there is no game on Sunday. That lines him up for a start in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Monday. He could then come back for a potential Game 7 on normal rest. Wouldn’t that, then, give the Rays something of an advantage? Should the series go seven games, they would have their ace back on the hill.

If that were the case, though, would’t every team just line up its ace in Game 3, as to be available for a Game 7? Of course not. The advantage you gain in a potential game is an advantage lost in required games. No matter what happens, they will play the first four games of this series. Because the Yankees have plenty of time off, they can use their three best pitchers in those games. In the first two games, then, it will be the Yankees best vs. the Rays second best, and the Yanks second best vs. the Rays third best.

The Rays would then have an advantage in Game 3, since they’d have Price on the mound against Phil Hughes. Then in Game 4 the Rays go back to their fourth worst, while the Yankees will in all likelihood turn to CC Sabathia on three days’ rest. In Game 5 the Yankees will turn Burnett loose, but then in Game 6 they can turn back to Pettitte, lining up CC for another short rest start in Game 7. In that scenario, the Yankees will have their ace going as well.

The situation changes, of course, if Maddon decides to throw Price on three days’ rest in Game 2. But that doesn’t appear likely. If he intended to use Price on short rest, he would have done it on Sunday when the Rays faced elimination. There will be no elimination concern in Game 3, so I doubt that he’d change tactics at that point. Though managers have certainly made more baffling moves.

I think that a big part of the Yankees’ advantage is the potential to use their ace three times in a seven-game series. The Rangers don’t appear willing to do that, nor do the Rays. Not only would they be at a disadvantage in the first two games, but they also wouldn’t have any distinct advantage in Game 7. That’s the beauty of the Yankees sweeping and the Rays/Rangers going to five.

Mailbag: Traded Prospects

Here’s a special one-question edition of the RAB Mailbag, but don’t worry, we’ll definitely get to some more throughout the course of the week.

Hey! Since many, many moves were made both prior to the season and during the season concerning movement of prospects, it doesn’t seem to have affected the farm system too much. Contrary to this, the farm system as a whole seems to have taken a giant leap forward, especially with the development of our young pitching corps. But I still wonder, how much better (in terms of subjective quality or actual ‘ranking’) would our farm system be if we still had all the players pre Javy-trade.

The Yankees have made several trades involving prospects over the last twelve months, most notably for Curtis Granderson, Javy Vazquez, Boone Logan, Lance Berkman, and Austin Kearns. As far as we know right now, the Kerry Wood trade only involves money. Here are the prospects that were dealt away in those moves, in no particular order: Austin Jackson, Arodys Vizcaino, Mike Dunn, Mark Melancon, Jimmy Paredes, and Zach McAllister. Ian Kennedy surpassed the rookie limit of 50 big league innings back in 2008, so technically he wasn’t a prospect at the time of the trade.

The best overall prospect with the highest long-term value traded away is Vizcaino, who posted a 2.22 FIP (2.74 ERA) in 85.1 innings split between Low-A and High-A this season before being shut down with a small ligament tear in his elbow that did not require Tommy John surgery. During one stretch from early-May to mid-June, he went 44 innings between issuing a walk. Baseball America ranked him the sixth best prospect in the South Atlantic League two weeks ago, saying he “shows a 92-94 mph fastball that touches 96, a hammer curveball and excellent control … [h]is changeup continues to improve and could give him a third plus pitch.” It’s a frontline starter package, for sure. If he was still with the Yanks, he’d almost certainly be their top pitching prospect if healthy, but I’d probably dock him a bit for the injury and the uncertainty it brings. For sure, The Killer B’s (Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Brackman) would have another running mate, so perhaps we’d be calling them The Killer B’s Plus V.

The best immediate impact guy they traded was Jackson by far. He had a 3.6 fWAR season for the Tigers thanks to a slightly above average .333 wOBA combined with a strong +4.2 UZR in center. I have a hard time believing that Jackson would have made the Yanks out of Spring Training had the trade never gone down, simply because a starting outfield of Jackson, Brett Gardner, and Nick Swisher would have been very questionable back in April. He likely would have returned to Triple-A for at least a few weeks, and the Yanks would have brought in another outfielder, probably Johnny Damon now that I think about it. If he was still a Yankee prospect, he’d be their second best position player prospect behind Jesus Montero, but he’d only be in the middle of their top ten prospects behind Montero and The Killer B’s.

The other four guys were all second tier prospects with similar value. Melancon is  the best of the bunch as an MLB-ready strikeout reliever, and sure enough he pitched to a 3.19 FIP (3.12 ERA) with 9.87 K/9 and 4.15 BB/9 in 17.1 innings for Houston after the trade, good for 0.3 fWAR. Dunn spent most of the season in Triple-A but came up late in the year to post a 3.60 FIP (1.89 ERA) in 19 innings for the Braves, though his impressive 12.79 K/9 came with a hideous 8.05 BB/9. Paredes was one of the system’s better sleepers, a slick fielding middle infielder with some pop (.130 ISO this year) and lots of speed (50 steals, 82.0% success rate).

McAllister took a big step back before the trade, getting surpassed by several of the higher upside arms in the system throughout the summer. Before the trade he posted a 4.73 FIP (5.03) in 132.1 Triple-A innings after never having an FIP higher than 3.26 at any level in any season of his career. He also become exceptionally homer prone, giving up 19 in 24 starts after surrendering just 17 in the first 74 outings of his career. The numbers after the trade are from too small a sample to draw any conclusions from (4.08 FIP, 6.88 ERA, 17 IP).

There’s no question that the Yanks’ system would be considerably stronger had all of those trades never gone down, and that’s mostly thanks to Jackson and Vizcaino. Melancon and Dunn are solid depth pieces, Paredes and interesting low-level guy, but frankly McAllister had no place on a team like the Yankees and trade bait was almost certainly his ultimate future one way or the other. The Yanks certainly have a top ten system right now, but if you add a high upside arm like Arodys and a solid everyday centerfielder in Jackson (thanks to the benefit of hindsight, of course), it jumps into the top five, maybe even top three. Their depth would be improved greatly, and the cache of arms would be even deeper. For fun, here’s a rough top list of the ten best Yankee prospects had those trades never gone down…

  1. Jesus Montero
  2. Arodys Vizcaino
  3. Manny Banuelos
  4. Andrew Brackman
  5. Dellin Betances
  6. Austin Jackson
  7. Gary Sanchez
  8. Austin Romine
  9. Slade Heathcott
  10. Hector Noesi

Quibble about the order if you want, but the names are generally correct. No matter how you slice it, that’s a monster top ten.

Remember, prospects serve two purposes: the plug into the big league roster and trades. They were able to trade Vizcaino because of all the other high-upside arms they had in-house, and the reason they were able to acquire a power hitting centerfield with top notch defense like Granderson is because they had someone like Jackson to deal away. The other guys are just the cost of doing business, potentially useful pieces for almost certainly useful pieces. The farm system would be stronger with them, no doubt, but the big league team is stronger because they traded away, and that’s what matters.

Photo Credits: Jackson with the Honolulu Sharks of Hawaii Winter Baseball in 2007 via Kyle Galdeira, Jackson with the Tigers in 2010 via Mark Duncan, AP.

Open Thread: Another day off

This picture makes me laugh. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Sheesh, life without Yankee baseball stinks, doesn’t it? These six days off are going to suck, I don’t know what to do with myself. My nightly routine is all out of whack. Anyway, it’s for the best. The players get to rest, the coaches get to game plan, yadda yadda yadda. Just a few more days and they’ll be back at it.

For now, here’s your open thread. The Braves are sending Derek Lowe to the mound on three day’s rest to try to save their season at 7:37pm ET (TBS), the Giants are countering with young Madison Bumgarner. Brooks Conrad is not starting the game, if you’re wondering. Can’t say I’m surprised by that. Meanwhile, the Jets are playing Vikings at 8:30pm (ESPN), which should be fun. You guys know what to do, so have at it.

Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s the MoneyBart episode of The Simpsons from last night. Bill James and Mike SciosciaFace make cameos.

Yankees will play simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday

Via Chad Jennings, the Yankees will play a pair of simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday once they reconvene from their two day break tomorrow. It will consist of basically every non-Mariano Rivera reliever (Kerry Wood, Boone Logan, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Sergio Mitre, Dustin Moseley) throwing to the four non-designated hitter platoon bench players (Frankie Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, Austin Kearns, Greg Golson).

There is no announced plan for the regulars and the four starting pitchers, but they’ll assuredly throw bullpens and take batting practice to stay sharp. The relievers need regular work given the nature of the job, hence the simulated games. A.J. Burnett hasn’t pitched since starting on October 2nd, so you have to figure he’ll do plenty of work in advance of his ALCS start.