The remaining pitching market

If the Yankees don’t make a move for a pitcher this off-season, it won’t be for lack of options. To this point we’ve seen two free agent signings, an NPB posting, and two trades involving pitchers who would represent an upgrade to the Yankees. Perhaps they think that the prices to acquire these pitchers does not match the upgrade they’d receive, but the opportunities are there nonetheless. Brian Cashman figures to have a few more chances to upgrade later this winter, as there are a number of actually or reportedly available pitchers.

Hiroki Kuroda

In terms of pure results, he’s the best available arm. His 3.31 ERA since 2009 ranks 23rd among all qualified starters. Even better, he’s reportedly seeking a one-year contract at a reasonable $12 or $13 million. The Yankees have been frequently connected to Kuroda, and it stands to reason that they’ll remain involved until he does sign somewhere.

While he does have the top results, there are some downsides to Kuroda. For instance, the hitters on the Rays, Orioles, Red Sox, and Blue Jays are better than those on the Padres, Rockies, Giants, and Diamondbacks. The AL East also features more hitter-friendly parks than the NL West. Then there’s Kuroda’s age, 37. A one-year deal helps limit some of that risk, but if he shows decline in 2012 he might not present much of an upgrade.

Wandy Rodriguez

Not far behind Kuroda in terms of results is Wandy Rodriguez. The Astros shopped him at last year’s trade deadline, but the Yankees weren’t interested unless Houston paid a significant portion of his remaining salary. He’s owed $36 million for the next three years, because his 2014 option becomes a player option if traded. That makes him much less attractive, meaning Houston will have to kick in some cash if they want to trade him. While they showed reluctance earlier in the off-season, they now appear willing to make that trade-off.

Not only does the NL Central have a number of top-flight hitters, but none of them actually play for the Astros. That is, Rodriguez has the burden of facing all of these elite hitters. The closest they ever had was Hunter Pence, but he wasn’t even a top-five hitter in the division. That does make him look a bit more attractive. He also has fewer pitchers’ parks in the division. Yet the Yankees appear not at all interested. That’s probably because of the commitment length. Were Rodriguez signed only through 2013 they might be more on board. But three years to a pitcher you’re not totally sold on? While Rodriguez might help, it’s understandable why the Yankees are shying away.

Roy Oswalt

In the last three years, despite multiple bouts with lower back injuries, Oswalt has accumulated a 3.46 ERA in 531 innings. All told that’s a pretty solid accomplishment. Since we just discussed Oswalt yesterday there’s no need to elaborate further. He remains a tantalizing yet risky option.

Gio Gonzalez

There has been no shortage of Gio Gonzalez news this winter. The A’s seem pretty intent on trading him, and judging by how slowly they’re moving they’re also trying to extract every last drop of value from another team. This makes complete sense. Gonzalez ranks 39th in ERA among all starters from 2009-2011, despite his horrible 2009 showing. He’s been among the best in terms of results the last two seasons. Even when you look at only his away stats, he still fares pretty well: 3.96 ERA in 238.2 innings since 2009. That takes away some of the concern that he’s the product of a large ballpark.

The Nationals were rumored to be pushing hard for Gonzalez, offering up a four-for-one trade that will involve prospects Brad Peacock and Derek Norris, among others. Still, four-for-one deals can get complicated, since they typically lack top-end quality. Today on, Jim Bowden suggested a few trades for Gonzalez (subscription required). For the Yankees he suggests Dellin Betances, David Phelps, and Austin Romine. Since Gonzalez has four years remaining of team control, this could work out for the Yankees. The only catch: Oakland might find a better package, and one that fits their needs better, elsewhere.

Matt Garza

Garza represents an interesting option, if only because he’s experienced success in the AL East. But the Cubs are apparently asking for a lot. Would the Yankees be willing to trade Banuelos and at least one other top-five prospect (Gary Sanchez or Mason Williams), plus other pieces, to get the last two years of Garza’s pre-free agency years? It seems unlikely. While he’s been good, he might be a bit more expensive than other pitchers. If he costs more than Gonzalez, he certainly isn’t worth it.

John Danks

You can check out our large and growing John Danks archive for various takes on the 27-year-old left-hander. He’s an enticing option for a few reasons. He’s been solid for the last four years, he has AL experience and in a hitters’ park no less, and he is conceivably someone the Yanks could sign long-term after the 2012 season. The issue, as with Garza, is that the White Sox are asking the moon for him. It’s simply not worth a top-five prospect for a player who will reach free agency after this season. At a price more commensurate with his overall value, Danks could be the best target on the board.

Edwin Jackson

A free agent, Jackson requires just one resource to acquire: money. The Yankees have that in abundance, though they’re seemingly not throwing it around this off-season. They might also be reluctant to sign Jackson for four years. As with Oswalt, we covered Edwin Jackson recently, so there’s no need to dive any deeper into his case. He’s there for the taking and could represent an upgrade in the Yanks rotation.

That brings us to a dozen candidates who could have upgraded, or still might upgrade, the Yanks rotation in 2012. All of the candidates, save for Darvish, have sported ERAs under 4.00 since 2009. They’ve all thrown a good number of innings, and everyone on the list, save for Oswalt and maybe Latos, has been relatively healthy. If the Yankees are serious about upgrading their rotation, they’ll connect on one of these 12 options, even though there are just seven remaining.

Baseball America’s Top Ten Yankees Prospects

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s prospect season, and Baseball America is continuing to pump out their team top ten lists pretty much every other day. All of the NL lists have been published, and today the crazy stacked Rays top ten hit their site. If the name Mikie Mahtook sounds familiar, it’s because he’s Tampa’s tenth best prospect and the guy they took with the draft pick the Yankees gave them for signing Rafael Soriano. They say the LSU product “possesses the power/speed combination to make an impact in the majors” and “he’s an advanced hitter who could move quickly.” So hooray for that.

Anyway, the Yankees top ten list will be released online two weeks from today, January 4th, but if you have a Baseball America subscription with access to the digital version of their magazine, you can see the list today. Friend of the site and cat lover Leonora has said access and shared the top ten list on Twitter earlier today…

  1. Jesus Montero
  2. Manny Banuelos
  3. Dellin Betances
  4. Gary Sanchez
  5. Mason Williams
  6. Dante Bichette Jr.
  7. Ravel Santana
  8. Austin Romine
  9. J.R. Murphy
  10. Slade Heathcott

John Manuel, who’s been writing up the Yankees top tens for eight years now, very clearly went heavy on tools this time around. The top three was the easy part, though some might argue Betances over Banuelos. Bottom line, those three guys should be the top three names in any Yankees prospect list you see this winter. Hard to take it seriously otherwise.

Sanchez at four isn’t terribly surprising, though chances are I’ll have him behind Williams whenever I get around to doing my annual Top 30 List. The 19-year-old had a very busy season in 2011, though not necessarily in a good way. He was just so-so in first half with Low-A Charleston before being sent back to Extended Spring Training for disciplinary reasons, then he demolished the ball in the second half before a broken finger ended his season prematurely. Baseball America still loves his bat and plate discipline, but they also note that he struggles with breaking balls, both hitting them and catching them. According to Manual, some scouts even said he stopped calling for breaking balls behind the plate, which is a problem.

Bichette and Santana making the top ten over essentially big league ready arms like David Phelps and Adam Warren (Hector Noesi isn’t eligible) is a bit surprising to me, but it’s not crazy. They topped the Gulf Coast League Top 20 Prospects List back in September, and really the only questions are long-term position (Bichette) and health (Santana). Ravel is reportedly doing well following his brutal and season-ending ankle injury, though he still has a ways to go with his rehab. He is expected to be ready in time for camp though, which is great news. Heathcott was another interesting top ten guy given his continued shoulder problems, but like I said, the tools won out this year.

I’ve had a tendency to lean towards probability in recent years, valuing big league readiness a little more than long-term potential. That’s a personal preference though, there’s nothing wrong with placing an emphasis on upside and potential stardom. Many times it’s too hard to ignore (Sanchez, Williams), but anything less than a potential star gives me pause when compared to his brethren at the higher levels. The Yankees farm system is down from where it was a year ago, but it’s still a top ten system with star power up top and near-MLB ready depth below that. Baseball America’s top ten list reflects the upside this winter.

Fun with Fangraphs’ new sortable PITCHf/x leaderboards

(Photo by Steve Ruark/Getty Images North America)

During the past year, one of the most frustrating aspects of conducting advanced baseball analysis has been the widening gulf between the reliability of the pitching data supplied by Baseball Info Solutions (and which FanGraphs uses) and Sportvision’s PITCHf/x, the latter of which is near-universally acknowledged as the superior data set (though that’s certainly not to say PITCHf/x is without its own flaws). To the delight of baseball nerds like me, FanGraphs recently went a long way toward rectifying this situation, adding PITCHf/x data not only to the individual player pages, but even more importantly, to the sortable leaderboards, enabling us to make comparisons that were previously impossible unless one wanted to input every individual name into manually and compile the data themselves in as painstaking a manner as possible.

In honor of the newfound ability to see where our favorite pitchers ranked in relation to their peers, I’ve taken a first pass through last year’s data to see where the members of the Yankees’ starting staff ranked among the 42 qualified AL starters across several categories. Neither Freddy Garcia nor Phil Hughes made the innings cut, which is why they’re not present. I also didn’t evaluate horizontal movement (pfx_x) or vertical movement (pfx_z), as you can’t really rank H-break and V-break in descending/ascending order (though you can try), at least not without first binning by pitching arm, which FanGraphs does not have the ability to do.

It may surprise you to learn that Ivan Nova threw the 7th-most four-seamers in the American League last season, although despite the fact that it’s frequently been derided as a lesser pitch for Nova, he also wound up having the most relative success with it on the Yankee pitching staff, with a 0.46 FF/C, good for 12th-best in the league. It will not surprise you that A.J. Burnett had by far the worst four-seamer in the league, at -2.21 per 100 thrown.

Here’s another interesting Nova nugget: despite the fact that PITCHf/x only has him having thrown a slider 3.7% of the time — a percentage that appears to be incorrect — he had tremendous success with it (which is, of course, something we already knew), putting up a 0.90 wSL/C, good for 11th-best in the AL and second on the team after CC Sabathia. As I and many other shave noted throughout this offseason, Nova’s slider will likely be the deciding factor behind whether he can continue to pitch as effectively as he did in 2011.

CC Sabathia’s sinker was one of the best in the game, ranking second-fastest (93mph), most valuable on an overall basis (2.5 runs above average) and second-most valuable on a per-100 basis (0.41). The only thing that worked for A.J. Burnett last season was his curve, which was worth 10.7 runs above average. And Bartolo Colon, as we saw all season, had one of the best two-seamers in the business, worth 4.7 runs above average, good for 7th-best in the AL.

The Justin Maxwell Option

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Yankees have a very balanced outfield situation, at least in terms of the 40-man roster. Their big league outfield is set with Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner, a three-man unit that’s been the best in the AL and arguably the best in baseball over the last two seasons. Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa are both on the 40-man but are still a ways off from being big league options. Then there’s Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, the former of whom we saw quite a bit of last season. The latter is still very much an unknown.

Maxwell, 28, was having a dynamite season with Triple-A Scranton this past summer (.418 wOBA and 16 homers in 48 games) before he tore his labrum robbing a homer at the wall. He had surgery and his season was over before the calendar flipped to June, though he picked up some service time late in September when the Yankees called him up and immediately placed on the 60-day DL to free up a 40-man spot for Jesus Montero. When they needed to clear more 40-man space this offseason, they opted to release Greg Golson and designate Colin Curtis for assignment rather than dump Maxwell. That’s a pretty good sign that they think he has some value.

Chad Jennings spoke to VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman yesterday, who indicated that Maxwell is expected to be healthy next season and has a chance to contribute off the bench. “He’s got some tools, and he’s a high-caliber individual who works,” said Newman, who isn’t kidding about the tools part. When Baseball America ranked Maxwell as the Nationals eighth best prospect prior to the 2010 season (the last time he was prospect eligible), this was part of their scouting report (subs. req’d) …

A physical specimen with plus athleticism, Maxwell has above-average power potential and a patient offensive approach. Nats hitting coach Rick Eckstein and first-base coach Marquis Grissom got the idea to lower his hands to chest level after watching video of other long-levered sluggers like Willie Stargell and Dave Winfield, and the adjustment fueled Maxwell’s September surge by getting him in a stronger position to drive the ball more consistently. He’s a plus runner who stole 41 bases in 50 tries last season. He’s also an above-average defender in center field with excellent range and instincts.

As wonderful as that sounds, Maxwell’s weakness has always been his inability to make consistent, quality contact. He’s drawn walks (14.6%), hit for solid power (.178 ISO), and been a threat on the bases (11-for-13 in stolen base attempts) in his 260 big league plate appearances, but he’s hit just .201 and has struck out 31.9% of the time. In 924 career Triple-A plate appearances, he owns a 12.4% walk rate (very good), a .192 ISO (also very good), gone 62-for-79 in stolen base attempts (78.5% success rate, pretty good), a .259 batting average (decent at best), and a 30.6% strikeout rate (very bad). The guy does everything but get the bat on the ball with regularity.

If the Yankees truly feel that Maxwell can help the team off the bench, his bench chance to do so would be as a defensive replacement and a platoon bat against lefties. He has shown a sizable platoon split in his limited big league time, and also demolished lefties in Triple-A this past season with a similar split throughout his minor league career. In a perfect world, the Yankees would just send Maxwell back to Triple-A this season with an eye towards the second half or 2013, but he’s out of minor league options. They can’t send him to the minors without first passing him through waivers, and that creates a bit of a roster problem.

When it comes to next year’s fourth outfielder, I think Plan A, B, and C should be Andruw Jones. He did everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to do in 2011 — hit for power, draw walks, hit lefties, play average defense, contribute in the clubhouse — which was nothing more than a repeat of his 2010 season with the White Sox. If he wants to come back, and it sounds like he does, then they should welcome him back with open arms. However, if the Yankees drag their feet and Jones ends up elsewhere, letting Maxwell compete with a non-roster invite or two (Scott Hairston? Conor Jackson?) for the job is a pretty decent backup plan. He has some interesting tools, so they might as well see what he can do if Andruw doesn’t come back.

Remember Hideki’s arrival as Darvish slips away

All of the recent brouhaha over Yu Darvish, I got to thinking about Hideki Matsui. Unlike many high-profile Japanese players who made the jump to the states, Matsui hit the Majors as an unrestricted free agent. There was no blind bidding process and subsequent negotiation. Hideki was free to pick whatever team he wanted. It almost made sense.

For Darvish, the decision to push his team to post him was a calculated risk. As’s Patrick Newman and Eno Sarris showed (in an Insider-only piece) on Tuesday, Darvish probably could have made more had he waited a few more years. If his deal with the Rangers ends up being at an annual level of around $12 million, there’s a good chance he would earn more in the long term by returning to Japan this year and entering the States via bidding process. Teams wouldn’t have to pony over sunk dollars on a posting fee, and Darvish would stand to make all of the money from his contract.

Yet, the allure of guaranteed dollars is a tough one to resist. It’s why pitchers are willing to sign seemingly below-market deals earlier in their careers. The threat of injury lurks, and easy access to millions is too tempting to turn down. Darvish will sign a deal that locks him up for five or six years, but if he’s as good as advertised, he’ll cash in again in his early 30s. That said, he would be wise to sign a high-dollar, low-year deal with the Rangers and hit free agency at 29. Texas, though, would rather lock him up for longer.

Anyway, I digress. The erstwhile World Series MVP was my original focus. I realized a few days ago, as the Yanks continued through a silent off-season, that I missed Matsui. Now, I don’t believe the Yanks should bring him back, but I miss his presence in left field and his bat in the lineup. Bring back the glory days of Matsui, the player who hit .292/.370/.482 on the Yanks, and I’ll be happy.

So how anyway did the Yanks land Hideki? It was the more traditional path. By the end of 2001, Matsui’s name was bandied about as a future Major Leaguer. He was the highest paid Japanese player at the time, and the next stop for him would be the States. The first time the Yanks were tied to him arrived in August of 2002 when Jack Curry reported that Jean Afterman was scouting Matsui. Over the next few months, rumors of the Yanks’ interest hit the news. Would the Bombers land both Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui prior to 2003?

Hideki was a new — and seemingly rare — breed of Japanese players. He used a quick bat to pull the ball and was a power hitter more in the American baseball mode. As the offseason wore on, both the Yankees and the Mets emerged as potential suitors for Matsui’s services. As the Yankees tried to determine if they wanted Bartolo Colon or Roger Clemens for 2003, they stepped up their pursuit of Matsui as well, and by mid-December, they seemed poised to land him for three years and $20-21 million. It was an easy negotiation and an easy deal. Godzilla came to New York.

Since Matsui’s arrival, no Japanese player has made quite the same impact on Major League Baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka and, to a greater extent, Kei Igawa failed to deliver as advertised, and no power hitters or All Star position players in the Ichiro or Matsui mold have arrived on U.S. soil. Now, it’s Darvish’s turn, and in Texas, where the defending AL Champs are in bad need of pitching, he’ll get a chance to star. The whole world will be watching.

Prospect Injury News: Adams, Slade, Murphy

We’re all focusing on the big league team right now, but Chad Jennings took some time to check in with VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman about some minor league business. I suggest heading over and reading the whole thing, but the important stuff I want to highlight are the injury updates…

  • David Adams is still rehabbing from that brutal ankle injury he suffered in May 2010, and he’s scheduled to arrive in Tampa for early Spring Training work next month. The Yankees added Adams to the 40-man roster last month, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Slade Heathcott figures to be behind other position players in Spring Training as he rehabs from his second left shoulder surgery in as many years. It’s his third left shoulder injury since 2009, his senior year of high school, and they’ve limited him to just 132 games over the last 2+ seasons. They’re a very real problem.
  • J.R. Murphy is 100% ready to go after missing the end of last season due to a foot/ankle injury suffered when he apparently fouled a pitch off himself. Newman says he will “predominantly” catch in 2012, as he should given the significant improvement in his defense.
  • Remember Jeremy Bleich? The Yankees highest signed pick from the 2008 draft hasn’t pitched since May 2010 due to major shoulder surgery, and Newman says he’s still rehabbing.

Open Thread: Tony Womack

(Richard Perry/The New York Times)

The 2004-2005 offseason was quite ridiculous in Yankeeland. They (theoretically) reinforced the rotation with Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, and Randy Johnson, brought back Tino Martinez, and thought they found someone to replace Miguel Cairo at second base. Seven years ago today, the Yankees signed Tony Womack to a two-year deal worth $4M, apparently mesmerized by his .307/.349/.385 batting line with the Cardinals in 2004 while ignoring the .262/.303/.352 he hit in the 2,193 plate appearances prior to that.

Predictably, Womack was terrible. He had three hits on Opening Day but then fell into a 14-for-55 funk that brought his batting line down to .233/.292/.283 on April 23rd. As an added bonus, his defense at second was rather atrocious. The Yankees needed just a month to pull the plug, moving Womack to left field and calling up Robinson Cano soon after the calendar flipped to May. Cano finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting with his strong rookie showing, and Womack finished the season by hitting .238/.257/.262 in his final 257 plate appearances, reduced to part-time duty.

Brian Cashman managed to turn Womack into two real live players after the season, trading him to the Reds for non-prospects Ben Himes and Kevin Howard. He was out of baseball a year later. The best thing Womack ever did in New York was unite Yankees fans, who hated him universally. No one liked the signing, no one liked him at second base, no one liked him in the outfield, and not one liked him at the plate. No one liked the guy at all. It was a beautiful thing, the united hatred.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. All three hockey locals are in action, but that’s pretty much it. You can talk about whatever you want here, so have at it.