Can Mitre succeed in the bullpen?

Sergio Mitre doesn’t stand much of a chance to break camp as the Yankees’ fifth starter. After pitching well in his first few outings he came back to earth in his latest, quelling the story he had created a few weeks ago. He is once again an afterthought, a pitcher not totally taken seriously as a starting candidate for the Yankees. But, since he’s out of options, chances are he’ll head to Boston as a member of the bullpen.

Over the winter I wondered whether Kei Igawa would profile as a reliever. The idea came from The Hardball Times’s Jeff Sackmann, who identified key traits of quality relievers. These include pitching well the first time through the order (and also in the first inning of work), pitching well out of the stretch, and, less important for a righty like Mitre, strong platoon splits. If Mitre fares well in these aspects, perhaps he can survive as a short reliever. Otherwise, it’s difficult to determine his value to the team.

Mitre has a 5.56 career ERA, spanning 362.1 innings, so he’s already a prime candidate for bullpen conversion. As we often note, if you look through major league bullpens you’ll see a bevy of failed starters. That covers 90 games, 61 of which were starts. His relief numbers are actually worse than his starting numbers, a 6.44 ERA, though we can’t project much from a 36.1 inning sample. Still, perhaps there’s something in the numbers that provide an indicator.

Like most pitchers, Mitre is more effective when facing a batter for the first time. Opponents hit .260/.321/.393 off him initially, but as expected they get a bit better the second time, to the tune of .311/.367/.455. The second line is pretty horrible, and the first line doesn’t really stand out. In his 2007 season, however, Mitre did show better numbers the first time through the order. His OPS against the second and third time through were right around his career averages, but the first time through opponents hit .240/.286/.299. Unfortunately, we’re again dealing with a small sample, just 242 PA. To demonstrate what can happen in small samples, opponents hit .344/.373/.510 against Mitre the first time through in 2009, while they managed just .235/.297/.469 the second time through.

On pitches one through 25 for his career, opponents have hit .274/.337/.411 off Mitre, still not an eye-opening number. Again, he did a bit better in 2007, .248/.300/.309, but in that similarly short sample. In other words, over the only meaningful sample Mitre provides, his career numbers, he hasn’t fared too well in short bursts. Perhaps he’d change his style when relegated to the pen full-time, but that’s not something a team like the Yankees can bank on.

Worse yet, Mitre does not react well to having men on base. Pitching out of the stretch during his career he has allowed opponents to hit .323/.383/.472 over 759 PA. That is not a pitcher I want in with men in scoring position. His only saving grace in that regard is that he keeps the ball on the ground. Then again, that’s not a trait particular to having men on. He generally keeps the ball on the ground 60 percent of the time, which is the entire reason he continues to get a chance. It’s tough to ignore someone with that type of ground ball rate.

I do think that Mitre is better than he showed last season. Then he had just finished rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and surely wasn’t at his strongest. He also didn’t keep the ball on the ground quite to the rate he had earlier in his career. Given the chance I think he could be a decent fill-in starter. He pitched well in 2007 before getting hurt, and if he can rediscover that form he might provide value. I do not think, however, that it will be for the Yankees.

As I mentioned last night, the Yankees have one too many pitchers. Their choices involve optioning a good young pitcher, trading one, or designating one for assignment. The first doesn’t make much sense — unless the Yankees want to keep one pitcher stretched out at AAA (that could even be Aceves, I suppose). The second is an option for sure, but not one a team can rely on. That leaves the third. I think, though, that the Yankees would trade Mitre for peanuts before they released him. Again, he can fill a back of the rotation spot for a team in need. But given his track record, and given the construction of the Yanks roster, I don’t think it will be for them. There are just too many pitchers better than him who deserve the spot more.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Open Thread: Blacked out

The Yankees are playing the Astros tonight, but we’re all left in the dark because it won’t be on TV. They’re trotting out the A-lineup tonight, and Mariano Rivera is making his spring debut. Would have been a good game to watch, but alas.

So here’s your open thread for the evening. Oh, and before I forget, a friend’s sister is in a contest, and needs as many clicks on her YouTube video as possible. The friend is James Varghese, who you may recognize as a contributor at the now defunct YanksBlog.com. He was the first person to ever link to one of my posts, way back in early 2006, so I’m forever in debt. You never forget that first link. So make sure you click through and do James (and I) a solid. Enjoy the thread.

Photo Credit: Brian Blanco, AP

Single-game tickets on sale this Friday

One of the questions most frequently asked of us concerns the Yanks’ single-game ticket sales. “When will it be?” fans wonder from December until nearly Opening Day. Well, the wait is over, As the Yankees announced via Twitter this afternoon, a limited number of single-game tickets will go on sale this Friday at noon via Yankees.com and Ticketmaster by phone. Next Wednesday, March 24, tickets will be available at the Yankee Stadium ticket windows, Ticketmaster outlets and Yankee Clubhouse Stores. The team hasn’t said how many tickets are available, but based on the number of season ticket packages sold, it won’t be many.

Spring Training Trade Review: Rondell White

After an off-season spent assembling a roster, teams get a month-long look at players during spring training. Plenty can change during this time. Players step up and players get hurt. This can change a team’s season outlook. If, for instance, a key player succumbs to an injury the team might be more inclined to trade for a replacement. Yet we typically don’t see many inter-team transactions in March. Since he took over in 1998 Brian Cashman has made only a handful himself, and none was particularly significant. A couple do stand out, though.

In Spring Training 2003 the Yankees had a logjam of sorts. For years they had sought a stable left fielder. In the winter of 2001 they pursued Moises Alou, but by the Winter Meetings had given up. Instead, Cashman signed Rondell White to a two-year, $10 million contract. The team had apparently been interested in White for years, but when the opportunity to trade for him two years prior, in the summer of 2000, they shied away because of the time White had missed over the past few seasons with knee injuries. He ended up missing all of September that year.

The Yankees still had high hopes for White heading into the 2002 season, despite his having played only 95 games in 2000. Early word, upon his signing, was that he could have hit as high as fourth, with Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and recently signed Jason Giambi hitting ahead of him. Yet things did not go well for White, who started off by hitting .232/.287/.404 in April and never really recovered. His slugging actually went down as the season progressed, and he ended the season with a .240/.288/.378 line over 494 plate appearances. He did pick up one hit that postseason, a home run in the Yankees’ Game 1 victory over Anaheim. He didn’t get into another game.

During the following off-season the Yankees signed Hideki Matsui to a three-year, $21 million contract. While Matsui had played center field in Japan, he figured to play left in the majors. This left White seemingly without position. Cashman tried to trade him early in the off-season, but found no takers. Unwilling to send White away for nothing, the Yankees went into Spring Training 2003 with two players for one position. But as March wound down, Cashman hooked up with an old buddy on a trade.

In his fifth transaction with Padres general manager Kevin Towers, Cashman traded White for outfielder Bubba Trammell and left-handed pitching prospect Mark Phillips, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2000 draft. Surprisingly, cash didn’t trade hands between the teams. Trammell had two years and $7.25 million left on his contract, while White had just one year and $5 million. The money evened out, in the Yankees’ eyes, because the Padres had paid Phillips a $2.25 million signing bonus upon signing him.

White did make a recovery in the final year of his contract, hitting .278/.330/.465 in 449 plate appearances before the Padres traded him, in August, to Kansas City, where he hit the cover off the ball for 85 plate appearances. Trammell made just 61 plate appearances through June 22, hitting a paltry .200/.279/.291. At that point he left the team without permission, forcing the Yankees to place him on the restricted list. He said he was depressed, but that didn’t stop the Yankees from releasing him and filing a grievance to recover a portion of his salary. He signed with the Dodgers that off-season and then, after being cut, signed with the Rays, but he never made another major league appearance.

The main aspect of the trade from the Yankees’ end was Phillips. Control had been a problem for him at Class-A Advanced Lake Elsinore in 2002, but he still managed to strike out more than a batter per inning while allowing only 9 home runs through 148.1 innings. This made him the No. 84 prospect in baseball heading into the 2003 season. His Yankees career didn’t go so well, though, lasting just 13 starts spanning 70.1 innings. His strikeout rate dipped, his walk rate rose, and while he still kept the ball in the park it didn’t much matter. I’m not sure what happened to him after that, but he didn’t play at all from 2004 through 2006, making a 32.2 inning comeback with Newark of the Independent League before hanging them up for good.

In terms of results, the White trade didn’t go so well. The Yankees got a busted prospect and a bench player who hit poorly even by those standards. It’s a shame what happened to Trammell, though it’s tough to blame the Yankees for placing him on the restricted list. The key to the trade, Phillips, didn’t work out, making the deal look a little worse. But from the Yankees’ perspective, they were trading a spare part for a potentially useful player. It’s not every day that a team can trade a player who had a .666 OPS the previous season for the No. 84 prospect in baseball. Sometimes these things just don’t work out.

Photo credit: Osamu Honda/AP

Report: Yankees tried to acquire Denard Span

It’s no secret that the Yankees were looking to upgrade their centerfield situation last summer, after all they had agreed to a trade for Mike Cameron in July before Hal Steinbrenner refused to take on the extra payroll. They didn’t stop there apparently, because they also made several attempts to acquire Denard Span from the Twins according to Joel Sherman.  Without knowing for sure, I’d have to think the Span talks came after the Cameron deal was shot down since GM Brian Cashman probably went looking for a cheaper alternative.

Knowing how these things usually go, I’m guessing Minnesota was seeking either Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain in the deal while the Yankees were pushing the Brett Gardners and Melky Cabreras and Ian Kennedys of the world. The money wouldn’t have been a problem for Hal considering that Span barely had more than a full year of service time and was making slightly more than the league minimum last summer. Of course, Span signed a long-term deal just last weekend, so there’s basically a zero chance of the two sides revisiting the talks.

The then-25-year-old Span was hitting .292-.381-.388 (.355 wOBA) with 16 steals at the All Star break last season, compared to the .283-.343-.424 (.338 wOBA) batting line and 23 steals the Yankees where getting out of Gardner and Cabrera to that point. Span’s defense in center was below average through the eyes of UZR,  so the Yanks’ duo had the advantage there. However, a 38-point difference in on-base percentage is a huge, especially if you consider that Span would have been hitting ninth for the Yanks, serving as that theoretical second leadoff man.

Combining offense and defense, the upgrade would have appeared to have been marginal at the time, especially if Melky and not Gardner was involved in the swap. Span did go on an absolute tear after the break, hitting .331-.402-.443 with a .366 wOBA in the second half to help Minnesota overtake the Tigers for the AL Central crown. Melky and Gardner combined for just .258-.322-.375 and a .325 wOBA after the break, but of course all of that falls into Michael Kay’s fallacy of the predetermined outcome. The Yankees would have been (even more) unstoppable if they had a nine-hole hitter performing like Span was in the second half.

The Yanks won the World Series, so there’s no sense in contemplating how much of a help Span would have been to the team last year had they managed to pull of the trade. The real question is how such a deal would have impacted the team this offseason. Would the Yankees still have pulled the trigger on the Curtis Granderson swap? Would they have still had the prospects to do so? Swapping out Gardner/Randy Winn for Span in the current outfield alignment would be tremendous, but what about swapping out Granderson for Span? It’s an interesting question we’ll never know the answer too.

Span’s a guy that’s been around for a while, he was the 20th overall pick was back in 2002, and there was a time he was spinning his wheels as a sub-.700 OPS player in the high minors. For whatever reason, maybe a tip from Joe Mauer or just maturing as a player, Span’s plate discipline and walk rate shot through the roof in 2008, and he’s been able to sustain that success in the big leagues. He’s six months younger than Brett Gardner, and clearly a better player. It certainly would have been an interesting move, that’s for sure.

Photo Credit: Mark Duncan, AP

2010 Season Preview: Designated table-setter

On a team loaded with older players and bloated contracts, the designated hitter position was one the Yankees often used to hide a particularly decrepit player during the mid-aughts. Hideki Matsui fit that bill in 2009, though unlike many of his predecessors, he was tremendously productive with the bat. However, with his ticking time-bomb knees now residing in Orange County, the Yanks to turned to a familiar face to be their DH, and are also asking him to do something different than be a lumbering run-producer, in the traditional sense of the term.

As a group, Yankee DH’s hit .269-.362-.497 with a .371 wOBA last season, with Matsui receiving approximately three-fourths of the playing time at the position. Among players who came to the plate at least 400 times as a DH, Godzilla hit the most homers (27), was second in RBI (86), batting average (.270), and slugging percentage (.506), and was third in doubles (20), on-base percentage (.361), and OPS (.866). On top of all that, he was the World Series MVP after a .615-.643-1.385 (.815 wOBA) performance against the Phillies. But instead of replacing him with another middle of the order thumper to bat behind Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, the Yanks grabbed a player to hit in front of them.

Nick Johnson, the former Yankee third round pick, was brought back to town on a one-year deal worth $5.75M (plus some incentives and a mutual option) with the idea of deploying his supreme on-base skills in front of Tex and A-Rod. Johnson is one of just 11 players with an OBP of .400 or better since he made his big league debut in the second half of 2001, yet he’s the only one of the group to never appear in an All-Star Game or earn eight figures in a single season. Like Matsui, the lefty swinging Johnson can more than hold his own against southpaws (.290-.423-.427, .386 wOBA career) and has shown the ability to produce in high leverage situations (.290-.434-.482, another.386 wOBA). With more walks (432) than strikeouts (410) since 2003 and the ability to murder fastballs, Johnson seems like an ideal two-hole hitter for a lineup designed to work the count and grind the opposing starter into a fine powder by the fifth inning.

But there’s a catch. Johnson’s military-style plate discipline and lack of a platoon split and relatively cheap contract comes with the caveat of questionable health. He’s missed 557 of 1,098 possible days (50.7%) due to injury since the Yankees traded him away after the 2003 season, including all of 2007 and most of 2008 with a broken leg and wrist issues. Joe chronicled all of Johnson’s health issues a few months ago, and thankfully it appears most of his ailments were flukes. However, with an injury history that long, it’s impossible to feel comfortable with the idea of Johnson playing 150 games and getting 650 plate appearances next year. The Yankees hope that keeping Johnson away from the rigors of playing the field will help keep them healthy, which sounds great in theory.

That wrist injury from 2008, a torn sheath tendon suffered on a swing that required surgery, could be the culprit behind Johnson’s lack of power in 2009. His eight homers were the fewest he’s ever hit in a season in which he came to plate at least 300 times, majors or minors, and his .114 isolated power was the same as notable noodle-bats Jacoby Ellsbury and Ryan Sweeney. It’s not uncommon for a player to lose some power for a year or so following wrist surgery, and the Yankees are going to have to hope Johnson regains some pop as he gets further and further away from the injury.

Here’s what the projection systems have in store for Johnson…

We have some variation amongst the systems regarding playing time, obviously the result of Johnson’s sketchy medical history. Luckily, they see his power rebounding to essentially league average (.151 IsoP), and his overall .273-.408-.424, .377 wOBA performance is well above average. Combine that with zero defense and -3.0 runs on the bases (Johnson’s average during his three seasons of at least 500 plate appearances), and you’ve essentially got a two win player (1.9 WAR, to be exact). If he managed another 100 or so plate appearances, he’d be worth 2.4 WAR. Remember that DH’s get docked big time because of the complete lack of positional value.

Now, if Johnson were to miss significant time due to injury, his likely replacement would be Triple-A masher Juan Miranda. CHONE projects a .340 wOBA for Miranda in 460 plate appearances, which is above average but not by much. I’ve already said that I don’t think he would be much of a DH option for 2010, and I’m sticking to it. Another name that is sure to pop up is that of superprospect Jesus Montero. CHONE projects over 300 plate appearances of .314 wOBA hitting from the 20-year-old next year, but I can’t see the Yankees rushing him up to occupy a very easy to fill spot when it would be in his and the organization’s best interest to play every day and work on his defense in Triple-A. Montero’s a possibility, but he shouldn’t be considered anything more than an outside one.

The Yankees could have gone a number of ways when filling their vacant DH spot. They could have re-signed Matsui and his chronically bad knees, or they could signed one of the many slugging DH types perpetually available on the open market, or they could have used it as a revolving door to keep some of the older players on their roster fresh. Instead, they opted to bring in a player who’s skill set can help maximize the already immense production of their 3-4 hitters by setting the table near the top of the lineup. Now they just need him to stay healthy.

Photo Credit: Antonelli, NY Daily News

Will Jeter cost the Yankees more than just money?

As the season draws near, the big story isn’t whether or not the team can successfully defend their World Championship, but how the Derek Jeter‘s contract situation will play out after the season. And they say Yankee fans are too focused on the now. We’ve already discussed it ad nauseum here, addressing issues like the possibility that Jeter will ask for six years, or an ownership stake, and that extending him now would be a mistake. Mike Vaccaro came up with another angle today, saying that the Captain’s next contract has already cost them a shot at their shortstop of the future.

As you probably remember, the Yanks had their more than fair $8.5M offer to Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria rejected over the weekend because the 20-year-old had concerns about how he would fit into the organization with Jeter entrenched at his favorite position. He instead headed north of the border to Toronto, who paid him $10M and offered him a crystal clear picture of how he fit into the organization’s future.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things I doubt Jeter’s presence mattered. Chances are Hechevarria would have taken the extra $1.5M from the Blue Jays regardless of who the Yankees had at shortstop. After improving his defense considerably the last two years, there’s no immediate need to move Jeter off of the only position he’s ever played as a professional, so the need for a fill-in is lessened, at least at the moment. There’s always the chance of a Roberto Alomar fall from grace, but it would be a shock to everyone if things played out like that, Jeter and the Yankees included.

I’m not going to fret about Jeter’s inevitable extension costing the Yanks a chance at Hechevarria, there’s more than one way to find a shortstop of the future after all. And besides, this was a rather unique situation. Players with the kind of profile and hype as Hechevarria are the exception, not the rule. The organization seems to be making nothing but smart baseball decisions these days, so I”m confident they’ll find a more than adequate way to replace Jeter at short when the time comes. Whether that’s through the draft, or a temporary stop-gap solution, or a big money free agent signing, I don’t know. I would be surprised if they get caught off guard and end up having to run Ramiro Pena out there 150 games a year.

The Yankees and Jeter will reach an agreement on a new contract after the season, I’m 99.9999% sure of it, and chances are they’re going to overpay him (possibly grossly) for past contributions. It’s not an ideal situation, but the Yankees are one of the few teams able to overpay a homegrown star like that, plus the negative PR that would come from anything but a new deal would be staggering. Jeter knows this, and he also knows that New York is the best place for him, both in terms of marketability and where he is at this point of his career.

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP