Updates: Kevin Whelan up, Joba under the knife

Update (6:28pm): Joba was placed on the 60-day disabled list and Chris Dickerson was send down to make room for Whelan on the roster. I don’t get that at all. Thirteen pitchers when three of them are pop-up guys? When one of you catchers has a bad back? How does this roster construction make any sense?

Original Post (4:30pm): Via Donnie Collins, Kevin Whelan is on his way to New York and will be activated before tonight’s game. It’s unclear who will be sent down, but my money’s on Amaury Sanit. Figure that either Joba Chamberlain or Justin Maxwell will be placed on the 60-day disabled list to clear a 40-man roster spot. Whelan’s been absolutely awesome for Triple-A Scranton this year, striking out 30 and walking just six in 27 innings. He does have a history of walking guys and getting hurt though, but he was clearly the top call-up candidate. The Yankees just might actually get some return from the Gary Sheffield trade after all.

Meanwhile, the Yankees announced that Joba Chamberlain with undergo Tommy John Surgery on Thursday. Dr. James Andrews will perform the operation, and the Yanks should get their right-hander back within 9-12 months. My money’s on a return by the All Star Break next year. Considering Joba never really felt the pain associated with ligament damage and had been throwing quite well, this is a blow for the team. We can dream that the club will reassess his future role in the pitching staff. (Additional reporting by Benjamin Kabak.)

Series Preview: Cleveland Indians

(Photo Credit: Flickr user BenSeese via Creative Commons license)

The Yankees and Indians have some ties, namely CC Sabathia and the 2007 ALDS, but otherwise these are two very different teams. It’s the whole David vs. Goliath deal, the small market club vs. the big bad Yankees, the speedy club vs. the Bronx Bombers, all that jazz. The Yankees and Indians do have one thing in common right now though: they’re both playing terrible baseball at the moment.

What Have The Indians Done Lately?

The Tribe was the surprise, fell-good story of the year early on, jumping out to a ridiculously hot 20-8 start through the first month of the season. The good times didn’t last though. The Indians are just 14-18 since then and they’ve been outscored 153-125 in the process. Imagine if they hadn’t scored 14 runs in two innings off Vin Mazzaro that one game. Cleveland has won just four of its last 15 games, and they’ve scored a total of nine runs in their last six games. Yep, the Indians are who we thought they were. Regression is a bitch.

Indians On Offense

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Like I said, they’re struggling to score runs of late, in part because the resurgent Travis Hafner (.409 wOBA) is on the disabled list. That said, the top five spots of their lineup are very, very dangerous. Lead-off man Michael Brantley (acquired in the Sabathia trade) owns a .349 wOBA for the year and a .354/.426/.521 batting line over the last two weeks. Number two hitter Asdrubal Cabrera has been the best shortstop in the AL this year, combining a .395 wOBA over the full season with a .343/.361/.629 batting line this month. Grady Sizemore is now hitting third following his long knee-injury related layoff, and a .366 season wOBA with a .290/.353/.506 line over the last two weeks is reminiscent of the old Grady.

Carlos Santana holds down the cleanup spot and hasn’t been great overall (.336wOBA), but he’s come alive over the last three weeks or so (.317/.434/.463). Shin-Soo Choo has not been himself (.300 wOBA) in part because of his DUI (according to him), though he’s still dangerous and left-handed power in Yankee Stadium plays well. The rest of Cleveland’s lineup is a little hit or miss. Matt LaPorta (.332 wOBA) is the best of the rest (he was another piece in the Sabathia trade), but old pal Shelley Duncan (.270 wOBA), Jack Hannahan (.309), Lou Marson (.248), Austin Kearns (.252), and Travis Buck (.308) aren’t scaring anyone. Prospect Cord Phelps was just called up to take over second base from the punchless Orlando Cabrera (.263 wOBA), and he went hitless in his first and only game on Wednesday.

The big thing to watch with the Indians is that they will run, which will be a problem if Russell Martin‘s still not healthy enough catch and Frankie Cervelli plans on throwing some more balls into center field. Choo, Brantley, and Cabrera all have seven steals or more, and they’re aggressive going first to third and what not. As a whole, the Tribe’s offense is right about league average at a .324 wOBA, but the lineup is very top heavy.

Indians On The Mound

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Eric Kilby via Creative Commons license)

Friday, RHP Fausto Carmona: Fausto is like the sinkerballing version of A.J. Burnett, dude’s just crazy inconsistent. Here’s his runs allowed in his last five starts: 4, 8, 4, 9, 4. He’s also allowed ten runs in a game this year (Opening Day, actually), and also has six starts of two earned runs or less. Good luck figuring him out. Carmona will throw that hellacious low-90’s sinker most of the time, but he can also mix in quality sliders and changeups. They aren’t strikeout pitches, but enough to keep both righties and lefties off balance. A 58.1% ground ball rate with a very good infield defense are the recipes for his success.

Saturday, RHP Mitch Talbot: An elbow injury has cut Talbot’s season in half, but his last two starts have been pretty good (12.2 IP, 3 R) following a disastrous return (3 IP, 8 R). His main weapons are a two-seamer and cutter, both of which sit in the high-80’s. He’ll also throw the occasional changeup and slider, though Talbot doesn’t miss bats (6.11 K/9) and he does walk guys (4.18 BB/9). His saving grace is a fine ground ball rate (50.5%).

Sunday, RHP Josh Tomlin: Oh the nightmare of Josh Tomlin. You probably remember that he made his Major League debut against the Yankees last year, when he held them to one run and three hits in seven innings. He was rocking a sub-2.50 ERA as recently as three starts ago, but it’s now closer to 4.00 after allowing six runs in six innings in both of his previous two outings. Tomlin is a pretty generic right-hander, throwing three high-80’s fastballs (cutters, two-seamers, four-seamers), a changeup, and a curveball. He doesn’t walk anyone at all (1.27 BB/9), but he also doesn’t miss any bats (5.10 K/9) and is a big time fly ball guy (37.4%). Unsurprisingly, he’s homer prone (1.27 HR/9).

Monday, RHP Carlos Carrasco: The prize of the first Cliff Lee trade, Carrasco fits the mold of Talbot and Tomlin (low walks and low strikeouts), just with better stuff. He’ll sit in the low-90’s with his heat and back it up with a changeup and curveball, getting a solid amount of ground balls (49%). It’s worth noting that the scouting report on Carrasco has long been that he struggles with men on base for whatever reason (diminished stuff from the stretch? overly worried about holding runners? who knows), so the Yankees need to make him sweat when guys get on. He followed up a six run, six inning outing against the Rangers with 8.2 shutout innings against the Twins in his last two starts.

Bullpen: The Indians have a really good bullpen, owning a 3.60 FIP and 3.25 ERA as a unit. Closer Chris Perez is flirting with the dreaded 1.00 K/BB ratio (5.01 K/9, 4.63 BB/9), and with a 31.4% ground ball rate, you wonder how long until he blows up. Setup man and great name Vinny Pestano has been fantastic, striking out 11.57 batters per nine while walking just 3.43 per nine. Lefties Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp are holding same-sided batters to .209/.222/.256 and .063/.147/.156 batting lines, respectively. Both hold their own against righties too.

The rest of the relief corps consists of middle man Chad Durbin (3.97 FIP but a 5.47 ERA), mop-up man Frank Herrmann (5.51 FIP and a 7.71 ERA), and righty specialist Joe freakin’ Smith, who naturally has a reverse platoon split (.311/.392/.356 vs. RHB, .100/.174/.150 vs. LHB). The Tribe can certainly protect a lead in the late innings with a lot of guys that have a lot of different looks, but there are some soft spots in the middle innings that can be exploited.

Recommended Indians Reading: The DiaTribe and Let’s Go Tribe

The RAB Radio Show: June 10, 2011

It’s been a depressing few days, but Mike and I are making the most of it. We lament the Sox series, of course, but there are productive things to say about this team. Like, uh, they can make small but effective changes to try and patch up an offense that has been good, but that has suffered because of a few poorly producing players.

Podcast run time 27:34

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
  • Listen in your browser by left clicking the above link or using the embedded player below.
  • Subscribe in iTunes. If you want to rate us that would be great. If you leave a nice review I’ll buy you a beer at a meet-up.
[audio:http://riveraveblues.com/podcasts/TheRABRadioShow0601011.mp3]

Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

RAB Live Chat

Mailbag: Matsui, Noesi, Montero, Banuelos

Just a heads up, we’re getting lots and lots of Joba Chamberlain-related questions into the inbox. So much so that I might do a Joba-specific mailbag on Monday, once the dust settles and we’re all thinking clearly. Plus I just didn’t have enough time to do one for today. So anyway, here is this week’s mailbag. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions, as always.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user rburtzel via Creative Commons license)

Daniel asks: Do you think Matsui has anything left as bench bat and part-time DH? By the trade deadline, the A’s should be even further back and might want to shed the remaining ~ $2M or so on his deal. With his current level of production, can’t imagine it’d take much more than a C level prospect no?

You have to remove the name when talking about guys like this, because Hideki Matsui‘s status as a True Yankee™ will certainly create biases and cloud judgment. Do the Yankees have a need for a left-handed hitting, part-time designated hitter/bench bat? Not, not really. They already have one in Jorge Posada. Here, look…

Posada in 2011: .203/.311/.366, .303 wOBA, 87 wRC+
Nameless Player: .215/.265/.337, .264 wOBA, 65 wRC+

Posada vs. RHP in 2011: .234/.331/.435, .342 wOBA, 114 wRC+
Nameless Player vs. RHP: .210/.267/.297, .249 wOBA, 55 wRC+

Posada with RISP in 2011: .171/.356/.257, .290 wOBA, 78 wRC+
Nameless Player with RISP: .209/.280/.302, .243 wOBA, 51 wRC+

The triple-slash and wOBA numbers are FYI more than anything, wRC+ is the most important number there because it’s park adjusted. There’s an obvious difference between Yankee Stadium and Whatever They’re Calling It These Days Coliseum. I don’t put much stock in performance with runners with scoring position, so that’s there for those that do more than anything.

In addition to just the overall offense, at least Posada is a switch-hitter, and there’s a tiny bit of value in that even though he’s been brutal (-16 wRC+ … -16!) against lefties this year. He can also play catcher in an emergency, which is more defensive value that Nameless Player provides. In reality, neither of these players should be on the Yankees’ roster, but one is and apparently it’s going to take a minor miracle to get him off it. Adding a second player like that doesn’t make sense to me, regardless of how little he makes or how easy it would be to acquire or what he did in the past.

Dan asks: I thought Hector Noesi was supposed to be a fastball-changeup guy? (“He backs [the fastball] up with quality changeup, his second best offering, and he also throws both a slider and a curveball.” From Mike’s prospect profile) So far in the majors he’s throwing a ton of sliders, and a decent amount of curveballs. Only 6 changeups in 71 pitches Tuesday night, and about 7% coming into the night. What’s the dealio?

Hey, I’m not the only one that said that. From Baseball America’s write-up of the Yankees’ top ten prospects before the season (subs. req’d)…

He pounds the zone with an 89-93 mph fastball, reaching as high as 96. His maintains his velocity deep into games, and his fastball has some run and tail. Noesi’s No. 2 pitch is a changeup with similar action, though he doesn’t quite command it like his fastball. His curveball and slider remain below-average offerings, but he flashes the ability to spin the ball.

Remember, we’re talking about a ridiculously small sample size. Noesi’s faced 58 batters and thrown 204 pitches in the big leagues, which is nothing. Here’s the breakdown of those 204 pitches: 107 fastballs, 61 sliders, 14 curves, and 14 changeups. That adds up to 196, and the missing eight pitches were part of intentional walks. He’s faced 29 righties and 29 righties, so it’s not a platoon thing (changeups are used primarily against batters of the opposite hand).

I honestly don’t know what the deal is, but I suspect it’s more of a fluke than anything given the number of batters faced and overall pitches we’re talking about. Pitchers typical go with their two best offerings in relief, maybe he felt the slider was a better swing-and-miss pitch at the time? Maybe Russell Martin (who’s caught all 204 of those pitches) just hasn’t called it enough and Noesi’s too rookie-ish to shake him off?

Ross asks: When will we get to see Montero in the Bronx? This Cervelli experiment has run its course. If we’re going to accept mediocre defense, we can at least have a bat in the lineup for when the bottom half of the order gets on base. Would there be any takers on the trade market for Cervelli?

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

I think we’ve reached the point where Jesus Montero could be called up literally any day now. If it happened today, I would not be surprised. It’s bad enough that Frankie Cervelli can’t throw anyone out (he’s gunned down 11 of the last 84 that have tried to steal off him, 13.1%), but now he’s gotten into the habit of throwing the ball into center field and giving runners an extra base. It’s not just some annoying problem anymore, it’s in the scouting report and teams are exploiting it.

Despite his general awfulness, I’m certain that Cervelli has some value on the trade market. He’s cheap and young, and the position itself is pretty much a wasteland these days. The Giants are looking for catching help following Buster Posey’s injury, the Pirates are as well with Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder on the shelf. I’m not saying there’s a trade match between the Yankees and either of those clubs, but there are teams out there looking for catching.

J.R. asks: I know that Banuelos has had control problems in the minors, but I’m wondering how he has done against lefties. With both an innings cap coming up (not sure what you would guess it is) and the need for a LOOGY, would it make sense to put him in the pen for August and September (maybe even October)? It wouldn’t really hurt his development and would give him major league experience.

I’m glad someone asked this because Banuelos is not exactly an ideal LOOGY candidate. Here’s the numbers, first…

vs. LHB in 2011: 14.1 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 7 BB, 15 K, 1.22 GB/FB
vs. RHB in 2011: 36.1 IP, 37 H, 17 R, 15 ER, 22 BB, 30 K, 1.27 GB/FB

vs. LHB in 2009-2010: 34.1 IP, 27 H, 12 BB, 30 K, 4.15 FIP, 5.04 xFIP
vs. RHB in 2009-2010: 139.33, 116 H, 40 BB, 151 K, 2.54 FIP, 3.99 xFIP

The 2009-2010 numbers are park adjusted, courtesy of the minor league splits database at Driveline Mechanics. The numbers from this year come right from his milb.com player page. First of all, this does a great job of showing you just how relatively inexperienced Banuelos is. He’s faced a total of 485 batters in the last 32 months. For some perspective, CC Sabathia has faced 424 batters this year alone.

Secondly, Banuelos has a reverse split. Not necessarily this year, but from 2009-2010 and as a whole from 2009 through today. Why? Because he’s a fastball-changeup pitcher (with a great changeup), and changeups (as I said earlier) are used primarily against batters of the opposite hand. Banuelos’ best pitch doesn’t help him at all against lefties; he’s got to use his fastball and curveball (easily his third best pitch) to get those guys out.

Just because a pitcher throws left-handed doesn’t mean he’s a LOOGY candidate. Banuelos projects as a starter long-term because he can neutralize right-handed batters with that changeup, but he’s still got to work on improving the rest of his repertoire and his command, especially this year. The Yankees have other LOOGY options in house, namely Randy Flores, and there are always guys like Jerry Blevins and David Purcey on waivers. Given the complete debacle of Joba Chamberlain’s development, I’d rather not see the team turn another high-end pitching prospect into a reliever for the big league club then try to turn him back into a starter long-term. I honestly have very little faith in it being done in a way that won’t hurt Banuelos’ long-term development/future.

Lessons learned from pitching prospects

Billy Beane put it best when he said, paraphrased, that you need three pitching prospects in order to get one major league starter. One will get hurt, one will backslide, and one will succeed. This is precisely why, in RAB’s halcyon days, we so strongly argued that the Yankees should keep Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain. If they traded the wrong one, they could end up with nothing to show for their top three prospects. Keeping all three, however, gave them a good chance at having a young, cost-controlled pitcher in the rotation, which allows the further benefit of spending money elsewhere.

With the Yankees’ big three, it didn’t quite work out the way Beane described it. There were successes, injuries, and backslides, but those results were scattered among the three. Both Chamberlain and Hughes have gotten hurt, and, to a degree, have backslid — though, before news of Joba’s season-ending elbow injury, it was more that he backslid and that Hughes got hurt. Ian Kennedy backslid in ways, got hurt, and then succeeded, albeit in an environment dramatically different than that of the Yankees. There are still chances for Hughes, and even Joba, to succeed, but it’s still pretty clear that these guys followed Beane’s axiom.

At this point, the development of these three is behind us. Kennedy is finding success elsewhere, and while Hughes and Joba could still succeed to degrees, I’m not sure it’s particularly likely at this point. This shouldn’t be surprising, since it is the nature of pitchers. There’s a reason for TINSTAPP — there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. There are only pitchers. They all develop at different paces, and they’re all susceptible to the same pitfalls. WIth so much attrition among pitchers, teams absolutely need a block of high-end prospects if they’re going to get even one from the group.

This is relevant to the Yankees now, just as it was four years ago. They have a new trio of top pitching prospects in Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Brackman. Right away, it appears that they’re going to take a different tack with this new group than they did with the Big Three. Brian Cashman made that relatively clear yesterday, when he said there were no plans to bring them up as relievers to help patch a spotty bullpen. Chances are, they also won’t call upon them to help in the rotation, either. That is, unless they display a certain degree of readiness.

The situation the Yankees face now is somewhat similar to the 2007 season. They were a bit more pitching starved then, as was evident when they called up Chase Wright to take a few starts. Eventually, though, they went to Hughes, despite him having made just a couple of starts at AAA, and despite him having pitched a career high 146 innings in 2006, after just 86.1 in 2005. His injury appeared to be a freak one, but he was never quite the same after that. He had a few good appearances, including a season-saving one in relief during the ALDS, but in 2008 he completely lost it. There might not be a causal link here, but I’m sure that the experience has the Yankees preferring to err on the side of caution nonetheless — especially when you consider the other two.

Both Chamberlain and Kennedy came up in the 2007 season as well. Chamberlain was so completely dominant as a starter in A and AA ball that the Yankees thought he could help save their spotty bullpen. He was nearing his innings limit anyway, so rather than have him make a few more starts in the minors and pack it up in September, the Yankees decided to have him finish his workload in relief. Of course, we know that a starter’s workload is different from a reliever’s, and perhaps bringing him to his innings limit in high-leverage situations in the majors wasn’t the best idea. It did help them make the playoffs in 2007, though. It also excited a fanbase, inciting the starter-reliever debate that still hasn’t died. (And will be reignited as Joba rehabs from surgery.) Kennedy’s debut was less of a big deal, but his good, if lucky, September performances gave him a rotation spot out of the chute in 2008, an experience from which the Yankees have clearly learned.

This time around, the Yankees are going to let the prospects speak for themselves, rather than let team necessity dictate their development paths. I’m certain that if the Yankees brought Dellin Betances into Joba’s old role that he’d succeed. He throws gas and has shown a propensity to miss bats. He might have control troubles, but as David Robertson has shown, if you can strike guys out you can often mask those troubles. And yes, many starters have come up as relievers before breaking into the rotation. At the same time, we can’t just use a blanket statement like that to make and examine decisions. If a pitcher isn’t developmentally ready to start in the bigs, will relieving in the bigs help excel that development? Or will it just prepare him for life in the bullpen? These are all questions that have to be asked of individual pitchers, and cannot be determined by a rule of thumb.

The good news is that the Yankees have three top-flight pitchers in their minor league system who, if developed fully, can help the team for years to come. Of course, chances are that only one will help. The others will make the bigs, maybe, and maybe even show signs of greatness. But the chances are great that one will backslide, one will get hurt, and one will succeed. The only way to find out which is which, though, is to let them continue developing their games. It will hurt the 2011 team for sure. But it stands to help the future Yankees to a greater degree.