Mailbag: Non-Yu Darvish Asian Pitchers

Iwakuma. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

JCK asks: What are your thoughts on the Asian pitching market beyond Yu Darvish? Namely Koreans Suk-Min Yoon and Hyun-Jin Ryu, Wei-Ying Chen from Taiwan, each of whom could reportedly enter the posting system, and Japanese free agent Hisashi Iwakuma?

NOTE: All were recently mentioned in a Jeff Passan piece as potentially posting or being free agents.

Other than Iwakuma, I hadn’t heard of any of these guys until a few weeks ago, and we could add Japanese lefty Tsuyoshi Wada and righties Kyuji Fujikawa and Shinobu Fukuhara to that mix as well. The A’s won the posting for Iwakuma last winter but couldn’t hammer out a contract, so he went back to Japan for another year and is now a true free agent. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a shoulder injury during the season after years of injury problems earlier in his career. Keith Law had the 30-year-old Iwakuma 48th on his list of the top 50 free agents (Insider req’d), saying “he was back up to 87-90 by the end of the season with the hard splitter and plus slider he’s shown in the past. If his medicals check out and his fastball is at least fringe average, he could be someone’s fifth starter because he throws so many strikes and tends to keep the ball down.”

Other than Darvish, Chen is probably the most coveted Asian pitcher this winter. The 26-year-old lefty was born in Taiwan but has pitched for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan for a few years now. He got Tommy John surgery out of the way in 2006. “He had been sitting low-90s and touching 95 in past years but was more 88-92 early in 2011, and his slider didn’t have its usual bite,” said KLaw, who ranked him 19th on his top 50 list. “By the end of the year, he was back up to 92-94 and the slider was sharper … He has a decent split-change that should make him more than just a lefty specialist, although it’s not an out pitch for him. Chen still has plus control.” He is a true free agent thanks to some contract shenanigans.

Wada. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty)

Wada, 30, is a true free agent like Iwakuma. NPB Tracker put together a full-fledged scouting report on him last month, saying “his fastball velocity [lives in] the 87-88 range.” They project him as back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever in MLB, but note that he takes preparation very seriously, which could ease the transition. The 31-year-old Fujikawa won’t be a free agent until next winter, so the Hanshin Tigers would have to put him through the posting process to get him to MLB. Law had him 45th on his top 50 list, said he’s “up to 94 mph with his fastball and will sit around 92, but the pitch is pin-straight and he goes to his splitter often to keep changing eye levels. The splitter is an out pitch for him, and he commands it well.” Fukuhara, 35 in December, is said to have a low-90’s fastball with a slider and a curve according to NPB Tracker (via MLBTR). Wada is a starter, Fujikawa is a reliever, and Fukuhara has done a little of both.

Yoon, 25, was the Korea Baseball Organization’s MVP this year, and he’d need the Kia Tigers to post him if he wants to come to MLB. Passan’s article says the right-hander has “a fastball that sits at 93 mph, a hard slider and what one scout deemed an above-average changeup.” Ryu, a 24-year-old southpaw, has been pitching in the KBO since he was a teenager, winning both the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year awards at age 19. “Ryu has four average to above-average pitches, including a 86-93 mph fastball with late life that he can add and subtract from when needed, a slow curve (75 mph), a tighter slider and a changeup,” wrote Baseball America (subs. req’d) after the 2009 World Baseball Classic. “Ryu’s biggest asset is his feel for pitching. Scouts have said that he would be a first-round pick if he was in the U.S., and would likely need only a brief period of acclimation before stepping into a big league rotation.”

Here are YouTube clips of Iwakuma, Chen, Wada, Fujikawa, Yoon, and Ryu. Can’t find anything on Fukuhara, sorry. Based on the tiny little bit I know about these guys, the trio of Chen, Fujikawa, and Ryu seem interesting. Chen is still really young and has shown premium stuff in the past, but there should be a little concern about how his stuff dropped off this year. Japanese relievers tend to transition a little better than starters, I think in part due to their usage and the general lack of exposure, so I could see Fujikawa stepping right into a bullpen next year and helping someone. Baseball America’s scouting report makes Ryu sound like a stud, and he doesn’t look like a traditional Asian pitcher in the video I linked. He’s a big boy and and it’s almost an American delivery, with basically no hesitation at all. That makes him stand out from the crowd, if nothing else.

We know the Yankees have scouted Darvish quite a bit over the years, but we haven’t heard anything about their interest in any of these other guys. As far as I can tell, they didn’t even place a bid for Iwakuma last year. I’m sure the team is at least aware these guys exist though. The three free agents (Iwakuma, Wada, and Fukuhara) aside from Chen are all back-end types, but the guys that need to be posted (Yoon and Ryu) are interesting because they’re still in their mid-20’s and theoretically offer some upside. We’ll see how this plays out this winter, but I would be surprised if the Yankees got involved with anyone other than Darvish.

Can the Yankees trade A.J. Burnett?

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

If the Yankees have made one thing clear this off-season, it’s that they will explore every possible avenue in pursuit of rotation upgrades. That’s plural, because they might not be satisfied with just one new pitcher. With options on the free agent, international, and trade markets, they could seek multiple pitchers to complement CC Sabathia. If Freddy Garcia returns as well, it could create a crowded rotation situation. The Yankees could then look to trade one of the lesser pitchers in their rotation.

Phil Hughes could be one of those candidates. After an impressive bullpen run in 2009 and an exciting start to his 2010 season, he has fallen off considerably. While he did improve, to some extent, as the season rolled along, he’s still at the nadir of his value. Could the Yankees even get as much for Hughes as the Giants got for Jonathan Sanchez? The low return makes trading Hughes a difficult proposition. It might still happen if they can find an eager taker, but it’s hard to imagine a team placing significant value on him in a trade.

That leaves A.J. Burnett. Yankees fans aplenty would love to see Burnett walk out the door rather than endure the final two years of his contract. The Yankees do have the ability to trade Burnett, as he can block trades to 10 (unknown to us) clubs. But as with most big-money players, his contract acts as a no-trade clause. The Yankees would have to eat significant money in order to entice another team. But with the possibility of freeing up some money and a rotation spot, might the Yankees be willing to cut their losses on Burnett?

The Yankees still owe Burnett $33 million through 2013. That’s a large chunk of change for a pitcher who ranks among the worst in baseball during the life of his deal. Since 2009, of the 59 qualified pitchers, Burnett ranks 57th in ERA and 55th in FIP. He looks slightly better in xFIP, as his 4.19 mark ranks 45th, but with almost 600 innings under his belt in that span it’s hard to believe that his xFIP has more relevance than his ERA. Even if we remove some level of survivor bias and count any pitcher who qualified in even one of the three included seasons, Burnett ranks 69th out of 73 in ERA and 67th in FIP.

The Braves recently ate a considerable portion of Derek Lowe’s contract when dealing him, so the Yankees may have a model for a Burnett deal. Lowe ranks 53rd in ERA out of those 59 pitchers with 500 IP since 2009, and was only 0.22 better than Burnett while facing pitchers and pinch-hitters rather than DHs. An equal comparison would have the Yankees eating $22 million of the $33 million remaining to Burnett. Any acquiring team would then get him at two years and $11 million. That still might seem steep for a pitcher of Burnett’s caliber, but it might not that bad a deal considering the market alternatives.

With a relatively weak free agent market, the Yankees could certainly find a team interested in Burnett. He’s not in C.J. Wilson’s class, and he’s definitely a notch below Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, and Roy Oswalt. He’s better, at least in terms of talent, than Jason Marquis, Brad Penny, and Paul Maholm; at the very worst he’s at their level. Since he’s stayed on the mound for the last four years he’s more reliable than guys such as Rich Harden, Chris Young, Erik Bedard, and Joel Pineiro. That could make him an attractive target to a few National League teams.

What could also make Burnett attractive is his controlled cost. At $5.5 million per season a team would know what it’s getting into. Many of these free agents could sign for much more money and perhaps one more year than that. Chien-Ming Wang, who has thrown 62.1 innings in the last two years, got a $4 million guarantee. While that deal itself doesn’t necessarily set the bar, the dearth of free agent pitching could certainly push up prices. If we look to last off-season as a guide, Jake Westbrook got two years at $16.5 million, as did Carl Pavano. Javy Vazquez, coming off an unimaginably bad season, got $7 mil. Those types of deals can happen when there’s not much pitching on the market.

An acquiring team wouldn’t have to part with much to acquire Burnett. Again, if we use the Lowe trade as a model the return could involve an afterthought minor leaguer. But the return isn’t as valuable to the Yankees as the roster flexibility. Moving Burnett means they’d have an extra rotation spot this spring. They could choose to sign a free agent, such as Buehrle, and also trade for a starter. Alternatively, they could do one or the the other and keep rotation spots open for competition among Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances. It also leaves room for a known pitcher on a minor league deal, such as Bartolo Colon or Rich Harden.

Chances are, trading Burnett will prove prohibitive enough as to render it practically impossible. Any pitcher, and particularly an ineffective pitcher, which such a large contract already has an effective no-trade clause. But given the Yankees’ situation, they might deem it worthwhile, given the extra rotation spot and the $6.5 million per season they’d gain from such a deal. This definitely seems like one of those stealth moves that Cashman pulls from out of nowhere.

Thanks to Eric Seidman of FanGraphs and Brotherly Glove for helping me work out this idea.

What does it take to get a save in this place?

It would be hard to find a segment of the free agent market in which saber-minded analysts and general managers differ more than on the value of relief pitchers. Second only to the uselessness of the pitcher win stat, the futility of paying relievers big money and chasing the save statistic is likely the biggest saber cause célèbre in town. The argument goes something like: “The save stat is stupid, and relievers are volatile. Don’t chase the save, and don’t pay relievers big money, because they’ll likely just blow up in your face”.

By and large, this line of thinking is correct. Yet if its constantly regurgitated by the masses with no critical thinking behind it, and if no attempt is made to understand why teams do what they do, then we’ll never really advance the proverbial baserunners. We’re just spinning our wheels, beating the same old dead horse and never learning anything or trying to understand the people making the big decisions.

In any walk of life, one quick way to open yourself up to embarrassment is to assume that those around you are either unable or unwilling to comprehend the complexities of your worldview, to borrow a turn of phrase from Confederacy of Dunces. I’d wager that most General Managers have a pretty good idea that relievers are volatile creatures, and that they are also aware of the failure of these relievers to live up to the contracts given to them. So, avoiding the arrogance that would suggest that they’re just irrational actors, what would drive a GM to pay a premium for a reliever? It boils down to predictability.

Paradoxically, the volatile nature of relief pitchers drives GMs to pay big money for relievers whom they don’t believe will be volatile. Thus, relievers with a long track record of health and consistently superb performance are the most likely candidates to get big money. Like it or not, teams also value closer experience. Late inning relievers with a track record of ably manning the ninth inning will pull in a premium over those without it. Anecdotally, relievers with fewer than ten saves signing multi-year deals after the 2010 season averaged $3.8M per year. Relievers with more than ten saves averaged $8.3M, although this number is driven higher by the Soriano and Rivera deals. This illustrates the point that for whatever reason, most clubs are averse to handing big money to someone to close out games if they’ve never seen them close out games before.

This is all perfectly illustrated by the Phillies pursuit of Ryan Madson. Madson has a long track record of being an excellent reliever, and has shown a decent enough health record. Yet not too long ago, the Phillies weren’t interested in committing big money to Madson because he lacked the “closer’s mentality”. After a solid year closing out games for the Phils they were on the verge of guaranteeing him of $44M over 4 years. The deal has since been put on hold, but Madson will likely see a huge payday.

Teams crave predictability, which is why you’ll often see teams with decent budgets pursue relievers whom they believe to be predictable. They’re looking for relievers who can make a nine inning game an eight inning game, and when they find them or believe they’ve found them, they’re willing to pay a bit more than one might expect. It’s just the way it is. As our understanding of how to properly value relievers evolves and develops, it’s important to keep in mind the principles under which various organizations appear to operate.  Who knows, we might even learn something from the people who are doing this for a living.

Scouting The Trade Market: Francisco Liriano

While speaking to reporters at a charity function yesterday, Brian Cashman said it was too early to know if the best pitching options were available via free agency or trade this offseason. “I haven’t talked to every team and I haven’t talked to every agent yet,” he said. “And I certainly haven’t had any agent tell me what they want financially.” Cashman has put preliminary calls in to the representatives for C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson, but nothing more than that. The trade market, as I wrote last week, can offer more cost effective alternatives.

After a disastrous 63-99 season, the Twins somewhat surprisingly fired GM Bill Smith earlier this week (surprising because it didn’t happen sooner), replacing him with long-time GM Terry Ryan. During his re-introductory press conference, Ryan said the team’s payroll will drop about $15M next season, which could mean that some of his players might be available in trades. One of the guys that could potentially be on the block is a name we’ve discussed quite a bit here in the past, left-hander Francisco Liriano. He’s always kinda been the black sheep in the Twins rotation, not conforming to their “let the hitter put the ball in play and get quick outs” pitching philosophy. Whether or not that makes him any more available, we don’t know. Let’s look at his qualifications…

The Pros

  • When right, the 28-year-old Liriano is a dominant strikeout and ground ball pitcher. He burst onto the scene with a 10.71 K/9 and 55.3% ground ball rate in 2006, then put together a Cy Young caliber season with 9.44 K/9 and 53.6% grounders in 2010. His walk and homerun rates those two years were 2.38 BB/9 with 0.67 HR/9, and 2.72 BB/9 with 0.42 HR/9, respectively. Batters have swung and missed on 12.7% of the swings they’ve taken against Liriano in his career, a ridiculous rate. Utter domination.
  • A true three-pitch guy, Liriano throws his mid-80’s slider and changeup regularly (~20% of the time) in addition to his low-90’s fastball, which he can sink a bit. He destroys left-handed batters, holding them to a .277 wOBA with a 3.12 K/BB ratio with 61% ground ball rate for his career. Only one lefty (former Yankee Juan Miranda) has taken him deep since August of 2009.
  • MLBTR projects a $5.7M salary for Liriano next season, his final trip through arbitration before becoming a free agent next offseason. It’s a reasonable salary and a short-term commitment.

The Cons

  • Pardon me while I get my Tim McCarver on, but as good as Liriano was in 2010, that’s how as bad as he was in 2011. Yes, he did throw a no-hitter against the White Sox, but he only made it to the mound for 134.1 IP and posted career worsts in K/9 (7.50), BB/9 (5.02), and xFIP (4.52). It was the second time in three years he pitched to a 4.00+ BB/9, 5.00+ ERA, and 4.50+ FIP.
  • Liriano has a lengthy injury history, with Tommy John surgery in late-2006 being just being the tip of the iceberg. He missed significant time in the minors with shoulder trouble, which is why he was thrown into the ill-fated Joe Nathan-A.J. Pierzynski swap. Forearm swelling and arm fatigue (requiring a cortisone shot) cost him three weeks in 2009, and more shoulder problems (soreness, inflammation, and then a strain) shelved him for a total of seven weeks in 2011. All arm problems. Yuck.
  • Because of all the injuries, Liriano has never thrown 200 IP in a single season. In fairness, he did top 190 IP in both 2008 and 2010 when you tally up the majors and minors. More than one out of every four pitches he’s thrown over the last three seasons has been a slider, and those are generally believed to wreak havoc on a pitcher’s arm when used so heavily.
  • To make matters worse, Liriano told Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson that he did not do his prescribed shoulder strengthening exercises last winter. It’s not the first time the team has had a problem with the lefty’s work ethic and conditioning, and that’s part of the reason why they never got serious about signing him to a long-term contract.

The Yankees have been connected to Liriano quite a bit over the last year or so, and they reportedly “dangled” the duo of Ivan Nova and Ramiro Pena for the lefty last winter. That would be an overpay now, simply because Nova had a strong rookie season and is under team control for five more years while Liriano had a poor and injury-filled season and is only under contract for one more year. I’m certain Minnesota would be interested in a Nova for Liriano swap, but it doesn’t make sense for the Yankees at this point. They should be looking to add to the rotation around Nova, not replace him.

The healthy version of Liriano is as good as it gets, a homer-suppressing left-hander with swing-and-miss stuff, but you don’t know what guy you’re going to get from year to year or even from start to start. That arm has been through quite a bit despite his relatively young age, and there’s a legitimate chance that any team that trades for him will get zero return. The talent is tantalizing though, and theoretically the price should be dropping given his poor season and one year of team control. There’s a lot of risk involved here but I think the Yankees should at least inquire, just in case the Twins are open to moving him for pennies on the dollar given his poor health and their impending payroll cuts.

A departure, but not yet the end, for Jorge

In 1991, Jorge made his professional debut with the Oneonta Yankees.

And then there were two.

As the Yankees gear up for an active off-season as the team prepares for the 2012 season, the clock is ticking inexorably forward for the players with whom I’ve grown up. Bernie Williams faded from view in 2006, Andy Pettitte stepped down after the wear and tear of 2010 grew to be too much, and now, it seems, it is Jorge’s turn.

The erstwhile catcher turned part-time DH spoke on Wednesday night at a charity event for his foundation. He hasn’t decided to hang it up yet, and a few Major League teams have come a-knockin’. The Yankees however are not one of them. “I don’t think there’s even a percentage of a chance that I can come back. It’s not going to happen,” Posada said.

I can’t imagine Posada’s emotions as the season ended. Drafted by the Yankees in the 1990 amateur draft when he was all of 19 years old, the Puerto Rican native has spent an eternity with the Yankee organization. In fact, only Mariano Rivera has been with the organization for longer. Over the past 17 years, Posada has earned more than $117 million from the Yanks, and he has put up numbers as a catcher that make him a serious contender for Cooperstown. He hit .273/.374/.474 with 275 home runs and starred in October on four World Series winners.

“I,” Posada said, “will always be a Yankee. The Yankees for me is my second family. It would be tough to put on another uniform for real and learn another set of rules and all that stuff, but that’s one of those things. I have to see if I want to keep playing.”

Posada, who had a tough time coming to grips with a team that no longer needed his full services this year, knows what baseball is all about. After 17 years in the Majors with the same team, Jorge harbors no grudges. “At the end of the day, it’s a business,” he said. “You look back and you wish there was some things that could have gone differently, but they didn’t. There’s nothing I could control. Everything happened for a reason. I’m not bitter at the Yankees. I’m not bitter at Joe Girardi. I’m not bitter at Brian Cashman. It just happened.”

We lived through the Posada drama this year. Mired in a bad slump, he benched himself when he was on the verge of hitting ninth. He ended the year at just .235/.315/.398 in 387 plate appearances, and he saw the future in Jesus Montero emerge in September. He isn’t quite ready to call it a career though, and his .269/.348/.466 line against right-handers has made him a wanted man. Still, Jorge said, questions remain: “Do I want to do it for somebody else? Do I want to leave home? Do I want to do it all over again without knowing anybody? It would be tough. I’ve got great people, great friends and great teammates and it would be tough to learn new people again.”

His wife last night expressed an interest in seeing Jorge play for the Marlins at a new stadium near their home. It would be the final hurrah of a great career, but I selfishly would rather not see him anywhere else. He’s Jorge Posada, Yankee. Even as other Hall of Fame lifers have ended their careers elsewhere, I want to see my favorite players go out on top as proud Yankees. It’s the cheesiness of the emotional impact of the game. Jorge was there through my teen years and well past college. Don’t wind up playing out a perfunctory final season with Tampa Bay or the Marlins just to show the world you can.

Jorge told reporters last night that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but he said he’s been talking to Bernie about it all. “Make sure you make the right decision,” Jorge said Bernie told him. “Don’t say or do something that you are going to regret.” Go out on your own terms, go out when you want to, and hopefully after 20 years, go out a Yankee.

Sanchez makes winter ball debut

Gary Sanchez is playing winter ball this year, suiting up for the Leones de Escogido of the Dominican Winter League. His regular season ended in early-August because of a broken finger, so it’s good to see him make up for some lost at-bats this winter. Sanchez, who turns 19 in December, went 1-for-3 with a strikeout and a run scored in his debut yesterday (box score). He served as the DH and singled off short-term Yankee Raul Valdes.

Also, the Yankees have re-signed minor league free agents Reegie Corona and Ronny Marte. Gabriel Tatis was released.

AzFL Phoenix (4-3 win over surprise) Monday’s game
Corban Joseph, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 K
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
David Phelps, RHP: 5 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 8-2 GB/FB – 43 of 70 pitches were strikes (61.4%) … that’s four runs, two walks, and ten strikeouts in his last three starts (14 IP)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 3-0 GB/FB – nine of 16 pitches were strikes (56.3%)

Tuesday’s AzFL Phoenix game was canceled for some reason. Probably bad weather or something.


Open Thread: Humberto Sanchez

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years already, but after the 2006 season the Yankees dumped Gary Sheffield on the Tigers, receiving three minor league pitchers in return. The headliner for the Yankees was the Dominican Republic-born and New York City-raised righty Humberto Sanchez, who Baseball America would rank as the 57th best prospect in the game just a few months later. Unfortunately, he never delivered on that promise.

A few weeks after Baseball America’s rankings came out, Sanchez went down with a torn elbow ligament in Spring Training and had Tommy John surgery. A prolonged rehab kept him on the shelf until the second half of the 2008 season. After 14.2 minor league innings across three levels, Sanchez got his first taste of the big leagues, allowing one run in two innings as a September call-up. The Yankees released Sanchez in April 2009 but quickly re-signed him to a minor league pact. He never resurfaced as a Major Leaguer, and two years ago today, the Yankees officially cut ties with the one affectionately known as Hungry Hungry Humberto. Two years and 364 days after the trade, he’d been released for good.

Unable to land a job with one of the 30 clubs, Sanchez headed to Asia for the 2010 season, signing with the since renamed La New Bears of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. He returned to the States this past season with the independent Camden River Sharks, though he also pitched for a pair of Mexican League teams. Now 28, Humberto gave the Yankees just 50.1 minor league innings and eight big league batters faced following the trade. Prospects eh? They’ll break your heart time and time again.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers are the only local sports team team in action, but I trust that you folks will find ways to occupy yourselves. Talk about anything you like here, the thread is yours.