The difficulties of building a quality bench

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

In the mid 2000s the Yankees had a penchant for building weak benches. Players such as Matt Lawton, Bubba Crosby, Mark Bellhorn, Miguel Cairo, Craig Wilson, Nick Green, and Wil Nieves routinely sat near Joe Torre during those years. It wasn’t exactly a fatal flaw; the Yankees did manage to make the playoffs basically every year in that span, and it’s not as though the bench makes a huge difference in the postseason when a team has nine clearly superior starters. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Yankees actually managed to assemble some talent to back up their starters.

While the 2009 bench, highlighted by Erik Hinske and Jerry Hairston, was built through mid-season trades, the 2011 bench, perhaps the Yankees’ strongest in a decade, came fresh out of the box on Opening Day. In a way the Yankees got lucky there. The circumstances happened to line up. They needed a right-handed fourth outfielder, since two of their three starters were lefties and the other was a switch-hitter. A left-handed infielder came in handy, too, because most of his work came spelling the right-handed Alex Rodriguez and the switch-hitting Mark Teixeira. It was mere chance that a solid-hitting right-handed outfielder, Andruw Jones, and a reclamation project infielder, Eric Chavez, happen to be not only available, but willing to take on a reduced role.

For the most part, the bench moves worked out. After struggling in the first half, Jones came back with a huge second half performance. Chavez did miss considerable time with a foot injury — worse, because it overlapped with Alex Rodriguez’s knee surgery — but he still managed to hit .263/.320/.356 when healthy. Considering the playing time available and the playing time they actually got, Jones and Chavez were two of the better bench players in the entire league last year.

It’s tough to mete out actual bench players. We can look at plate appearances, but there are so many variables that we can’t control for. Some bench players turn into starters when the player they back up gets hurt. Some players begin the season as a starter only to lose the job. There are also mid-season call-ups who are actually starters, but end up with a number of plate appearances similar to a bench player. And, of course, some bench players do get hurt, and others are so bad that they’re replaced — in which case neither of a team’s backups might fit into a plate appearance range. This is a long way of saying that it’s tough to place Chavez and Jones among their peers.

Keeping the above caveats in mind, Chavez fared very well compared to other infielders who got between 100 and 250 plate appearances in 2011. His .320 OBP in 175 PA ranked seventh in that group, all but a couple of the players ahead of him were injured starters (Casey Blake) or late call-ups (Brett Lawrie, Jason Kipnis, Dee Gordon). Using the same parameters for outfielders, Jones fares even better. His OBP ranked third among that group, and his SLG ranked second (by 25 points to a guy whose BA was 80 points higher). You can sort it out any way you want, but when you look at non-starters and compare them to Jones and Chavez, they come out looking great.

This is actually a remarkable feat for the Yankees, especially considering these players came from the free agent market. After all, who wants to sit on the bench while Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano play every day? Perhaps Jones made sense, because he could play platoon caddy to Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson. But before that the Yankees have had pretty solidly set outfields, which hurt the market for free agent backups. Remember, before the 2009 season both Hinske and Hairston signed elsewhere. It took a trade to get them in pinstripes, and even then it lasted just half a season.

The Yankees failure to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima now re-opens the door for Chavez, and the Yankees would do well to bring him back. He’s not ideal in many ways, particularly his penchant to land on the DL every year, but seeking out bench players is essentially choosing which ones have the most manageable flaws. If Chavez can avoid hurting his foot while running the bases, he could be one of the more productive infield options, both offensively and defensively. It’s hard to see any options on the free agent market, or any worth their price in a trade, who has the potential to add as much as Chavez.

(And that’s most certainly a commentary on the quality of bench players and not on Chavez himself.)

If the two sides don’t work out a deal, it won’t threaten the season. The Yankees will simply roll with Eduardo Nunez as their all-purpose infielder and perhaps carry another lefty, say Chris Dickerson, on the bench. But given their current options and needs, Chavez seems a nice fit. He’s not going to hit like a starter, but of course, few if any bench players do. He can, however, provide production superior to his direct peers. That’s really what matters in this situation. While there’s plenty of risk involved, he is once again a nice fit for the Yankees.

It’s official: Yanks fail to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima

(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Yankees announced that they’ve failed to come to terms on a contract with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. “We unfortunately could not come to an agreement with Hiroyuki,” said Brian Cashman in a press release. “We wish him the best of luck during the upcoming 2012 season.”

We heard the two sides were unlikely to reach an agreement before tomorrow’s deadline just yesterday. Since no deal was reached, the Yankees don’t have to pay the $2.5M posting fee they used to win the 29-year-old infielder’s negotiating rights last month. Jack Curry says they offered a one-year deal and nothing more, reiterating that they viewed him as a bench player. Cashman and the Yankees seemed surprised that they won the bid last month, and it’s fair to assume no other club viewed him as a starter given the lack of a significant bid.

Nakajima hit .297/.354/.433 with 16 homers and 21 steals for the Seibu Lions in 2011, and he’s consistently been a .300 average/15+ homer/15+ steal/50+ walk guy in his career. That was before the new ball drained all of the offense out of Nippon Pro Baseball, however. Nakajima played short exclusively over the last few seasons, and although he expressed interest in signing, he didn’t seem all that enthused about being a reserve. His agent even broached the idea of a sign-and-trade. The infielder will now return to Japan for another year, then become a true free agent next winter.

Rolling the dice with Adam Miller

(AP Photo | John Raoux)

Now that the calendar has flipped over to January, teams will start to load up on players via minor league contracts. Most of the big free agents are off the board and most of the big trades have already taken place, so depth becomes the focus. The Yankees have signed a number of players to minor league pacts already, including former big leaguers Dewayne Wise, Hideki Okajima, Matt Daley, and Jayson Nix, but the most intriguing addition came yesterday: 27-year-old right-hander Adam Miller.

Miller, the 31st overall pick in the 2003 draft, is a classic Texas fireballer standing 6-foot-4, 200 lbs., and he’s ridden the career roller coaster over the last eight years. He dominated in 2004 — 10.2 K/9 (28.0 K%) and 2.7 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) in 134.1 IP split between the two Single-A levels — and was ranked as the fourth best pitching prospect in the game by Baseball America after the season. That’s when the injuries started to set in. Miller missed the first half of 2005 with an elbow strain, then dominated again in 2006 — 9.2 K/9 (24.5 K%) and  2.6 BB/9 (7.1 BB%) in 158.1 IP at mostly Double-A — before elbow and finger problems hampered him in 2007.

Click to embiggen. (Photo via

Those finger problems almost ended Miller’s career. Damage to the pulley system and ligaments in his right middle finger required four surgeries and limited him to just 94 innings from 2007-2010, zero from 2009-2010. Replacement ligaments from his calf and wrist now hold together a finger with a tip that is bent at a 45-degree angle and slightly to the right (see right). The digit conveniently wraps right around a baseball now.

Miller returned to the mound this past April, pitching exclusively in relief and rarely more than two innings at a time. He did strike out 39 in 44 IP (8.0 K/9 and 19.5 K%), but he also walked 21 (4.3 BB/9 and 10.5 BB%) and plunked six batters. Rust probably accounts for some of the control problems, but he also had trouble taming his once lethal slider with the rebuilt finger. His fastball was still pushing 95-96 after sitting 95-97 with some 100’s back in the day, encouraging but not super surprising since he hasn’t had any shoulder problems. He also has a solid changeup, but the high-octane fastball and knockout slider were what gave him that top of the rotation potential.

The injuries have basically ended any chance Miller had of remaining a starter, but obviously the Yankees feel he still might have something to offer in relief, where he can go to town with his two best pitches. He has a lower arm slot than most (here’s video of him from camp last year), which when combined with his fastball-slider combo leads me to believe he might wind up having a platoon split. Sure enough, he handled righties better than lefties both last year and throughout his career. That doesn’t mean he’s destined to become a righty specialist, lots of great relievers have platoon splits. It’s just something to be aware of.

Chances are Miller won’t ever help the Yankees just because that’s usually how these minor league contract fliers on former top prospects tend to go. We know the Yankees have emphasized strong makeup in recent years, and I think Miller’s prolonged battle with his health shows that he’s a tough, resilient guy. I don’t think spending a few months in Triple-A and traveling all over the place will discourage him all that much. Think of him as this season’s Mark Prior, just younger and with a sound shoulder. If he stays healthy in the first half and shows some effectiveness, he’s got a chance to help the big league team at some point during the season.

Does the Zambrano trade tell us anything about Burnett?

We must kung-fu fight! (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Cubs’ new regime didn’t even give Carlos Zambrano a chance. After watching his numerous meltdowns and blowups from afar, the new Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer-led baseball operations department traded the right-hander to the Marlins yesterday. All they had to do was eat $15.5M of the $18M owed to Zambrano next year, the last one on his contract, and take back a player that was nearly non-tendered last month. Chris Volstad was so far out of Miami’s plans that they didn’t even invite him to their new jersey unveiling earlier this offseason.

The Yankees don’t have a new regime, but they are looking to move their own troubled right-hander. During the Winter Meetings we heard that they were shopping A.J. Burnett, reportedly willing to pay $8M of the $33M left on his contract. We know that amount won’t get it done, but it’s just a starting point for negotiations. A few weeks later we heard that a number of teams were mulling over the idea of trading for A.J., but so far nothing has materialized. Ken Rosenthal reported yesterday that the Pirates were one of those clubs, but ultimately everyone is asking the Yankees to basically eat everything left on Burnett’s contract. As the Zambrano trade shows, that probably what it’ll take to facilitate a deal.

In terms of performance, Burnett and Zambrano have been very, very similar over the last three seasons. The former has stayed healthier so he’s thrown 140 more innings during that time, but the latter isn’t as homer prone (0.73 HR/9 vs. 1.25). Burnett has slight edges in strikeout (7.91 K/9 and 20.0 K% vs. 7.49 and 19.1), walk (3.91 BB/9 and 10.1 BB% vs. 4.11 and 10.5), and ground ball (45.6% vs. 43.6%) rates, though Zambrano has the sexier ERA (3.99 vs. 4.79). Obviously the whole NL Central vs. AL East thing plays some part in that. The two have similar BABIPs (.299 vs. .303), xFIPs (4.19 vs. 4.27) and SIERAs (4.15 vs. 4.33) as well.

Not a whole lot differentiates the two on the field over the last three seasons, but off the field they are quite different. Zambrano is a noted hot-head, getting suspended by his team multiple times for run-ins with coaches and teammates. He even had to attend an anger management class. Burnett showed up with a black eye and punched a wall in 2010, but he’s never had any problems remotely close to what Zambrano has put the Cubs through over the last decade. That’s not enough to overcome his poor performance, but it’s definitely not negligible.

Yesterday’s Zambrano trade doesn’t make it any more likely that the Yankees will be able to move Burnett, but it might tell us a little something about what it will take to make it happen. The Cubs ate 86% of the money left on Big Z’s deal and took an out-of-favor player with a smidgen of upside in return. The Yankees would have to eat $28.4M of the $33M left on Burnett’s deal to match that percentage, which I’m guessing is beyond where they’re willing to go. There’s also the whole one year of Zambrano vs. two years of Burnett thing, and we shouldn’t discount the Ozzie Guillen factor. He and Zambrano are friends and countrymen, so I’m sure he was consulted prior to the deal. The Yankees won’t have that Guillen-like edge when trying to trade the Burnett.

Much like the Derek Lowe trade — when the Braves ate two-thirds of his salary and received a fringe low-level prospect in return — the Zambrano deal gives us an idea of what it takes to move an underperforming, overpaid player like Burnett. The Yankees will have to eat upwards of $20-25M to make it happen, getting next to nothing in return. Volstad represents the best case return, and he’s back end of the rotation fodder. Is that worth it for the Yankees? Maybe, but I’m not 100% convinced of it. Either way, I’m not betting on A.J. getting traded anytime soon.

Looking Back: The Brien Taylor Story

(Photo via The Houston Chronicle)

The Brien Taylor story is a sad one and a familiar one. Drafted first overall back in 1991, the high schooler from some remote corner of North Carolina was supposed to be the next great Yankee left-hander. Instead, his career was derailed after just two seasons by injury, a self-inflicted injury at that. I wrote about Taylor’s career and life over at FanGraphs on Wednesday, an ode to the best pitcher none of us ever got to see…

Pitching prospects may as well go out to the mound in bubble wrap these days, protected with pitch counts and innings limitations and the like. Back in 1992, things were very different. Less than one year out of high school, a 20-year-old Taylor was assigned to the High Class-A Florida State League and threw 161.1 innings across 27 starts in his pro debut. He struck out 187 of the 663 batters he faced (28.2%), walked 66 (10.0%), and allowed just three homers. Baseball America considered him the second best prospect in the game after the season, behind only Chipper Jones.

“From a development standpoint, Taylor showed the Yankees all they wanted to see: well above-average arm strength, an effortless delivery and the ability to locate pitches with rare precision,” wrote the publication in their AL East Top 10 Prospects issue, published in February 1993. “Taylor’s fastball reached 98 mph on occasion and consistently hit 95. He also threw a power curve and changed speeds off it. Scouts marveled at Taylor’s ability to keep his head as he unleashed his full arsenal of pitches … Scouts say he’ll be ready for New York by September.”

Bumped up to the Double-A Eastern League the next season, Taylor again made 27 starts, this time throwing 163 innings. His strikeout (21.1 K%) and walk (14.3 BB%) rates took a step back, and he gave up more than twice as many homers as the year before, a whopping seven dingers. It was a disappointing performance given the hype, but for a kid less than two years out of high school in Double-A, he more than held his own. That was the last time Taylor would experience success on a baseball field.

Not counting the recent guys, Taylor is one of just three first overall selections to never reach the big leagues, joining Steve Chilcott (1966) and Matt Bush (2004). He was a bust but not the wrong pick, those are two entirely separate ideas. Taylor was a phenom, arguably the best high school pitching prospect in draft history, and he got hurt in a freak, off-the-field accident. You can’t get on the Yankees for that, but that’s never stopped people. Click the link and check out the entire piece, I hear it’s pretty awesome.

Yanks sign Adam Miller, Cole Garner to minor league deals

Via Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed RHP Adam Miller and OF Cole Garner to minor league contracts. We heard that they were close to signing Miller way back during the Winter Meetings. The 27-year-old was the 31st overall pick back in 2003, but career-threatening ligament damage in his finger hampered his development. You can see the damaged finger on his Twitter page (it’s not gross). Even if it doesn’t work out, I’m still very interested to see him in Spring Training.

As for Garner, Baseball America ranked him as the 22nd best prospect in the Rockies’ system in last year’s Prospect Handbook. He put together a .392 wOBA for Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate last year, then picked up a pair of knocks in his first taste of the big leagues late in the season. The 27-year-old is a right-handed hitter and an extra outfielder type, just some depth.

Open Thread: Octavio Dotel

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The mid-aughts’ bullpens featured a lot of turnover, much more than we’ve seen out of the Yankees in recent years. Part of it had to do with Joe Torre, destroyer of arms, and part of it had to do with those pitchers not being very good in the first place. In an effort to beef up the relief corps, the Yankees signed Octavio Dotel to a one-year deal worth $2M with another $5.75M in incentives on this date in 2006. The only problem: Dotel was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

Obviously the Yankees knew that, but he was expected back by June, maybe even sooner since he was a reliever. Dotel was an established, close to elite reliever at the time, so they gambled that he’d strengthen their bullpen for the stretch drive. Things didn’t go as planned, starting with a minor setback that delayed the then-32-year-old’s return until mid-August. Once he did return, Dotel was pretty terrible, putting 29 men on base in ten innings, which led to 13 runs. Good idea, but it just didn’t work out.

I think we all suggest moves like that every offseason, the ol’ roll the dice on an injured star move. We heard quite a bit about Grady Sizemore this winter, and Rich Harden’s name always pops up from time to time. Chien-Ming Wang was another popular one both this offseason and last. Those moves don’t work out most of the time, though every once in a while they’ll turn into a Bartolo Colon circa 2011 and make it all worth it.

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Here is your open thread for the night. The Devils, Knicks, and Nets are all playings, though Time Warner customers are still without MSG because of the Dolans. I’m still paying for it, of course. Anyway, talk about whatever you want here. It’s all fair game.