Open Thread: Who has the best rotation in baseball?

In his daily blog post this morning, Buster Olney opined about the five best starting rotations in the game, led by the Red Sox. The Yankees placed second, followed (in order) by the White Sox, Angels, and Cardinals. The Phillies also received an honorable mention.

We could argue about who has the best rotation from here until Opening Day, and there’s no right answer. However, what we do have are CHONE projections, so I rounded those up to see how each rotation is expected to perform next season. He’s the four non-New York teams…

All we’re doing is adding, so it doesn’t matter what order the pitchers are listed in. Olney has no idea who the Cardinals’ fifth starter is, and neither do I. And frankly, neither does the team. Regardless, they don’t have any other pitchers projected to be worth over a win, so it doesn’t make much of a difference anyway. Obviously, the BoSox have the best projected rotation among the four teams, with five starters set to be at least league average (two WAR is basically league avg). You have to like the balance in the ChiSox’s rotation though, minus the Freddy Garcia eyesore.

Now, what about the Yanks?

Olney thinks Phil Hughes will be the fifth starter, though most others think it’ll be Joba Chamberlain. For whatever reason, CHONE has Joba projected as a reliever in 2010, a reliever worth just 0.9 WAR at that. Even if we swap Hughes out for a 0.9 WAR pitcher, the Yanks still outpace the pack by a full win. They have the two best projected starters among the five teams in CC Sabathia and Javy Vazquez, and are the only team besides Chicago with four 3.0+ WAR pitchers on the staff.

Remember, these are just projections, far from gospel. They’re not telling us what will happen, but what could happen based on past data. Don’t take them to heart, they’re just for fun. That said, I like the way the numbers worked out.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the evening. The Islanders, Nets, and Knicks are all in action. Anything goes, just be cool.

Joba lost more fastball velocity than any other pitcher

Over at FanGraphs they’re having fun with the new splits, posting trend after trend. Buried under a few such posts, Matthew Carruth took a look at which pitchers saw more speed on their fastballs in 2009 over 2008, and which ones lost the most velocity. No Yankees made the gains list, but two made the losses. Mariano Rivera lost 1.3 miles per hour on his cutter, though it didn’t show in the results. Joba Chamberlain lost more velocity than any pitcher with more than 50 IP in 2008 and 2009, by 2.5 mph. Part of the drop comes because Joba started 2008 in the bullpen and was airing out 97 mph fastballs before settling in at 94-95 in the rotation. But we did notice a difference this year. Joba’s average fastball clocked 92.5 mph. He can succeed with that speed if he continues to hone his curveball, but clearly he’s a more effective pitcher with a little more juice on ol’ number one.

Cashman: Jeter, Mo, Girardi will have to wait

Mike’s Take: Three prominent Yankees – Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Joe Girardi – enter the 2010 season in the last year of their contracts, however GM Brian Cashman does not intend to change course and negotiate with any of the three during the season. “I don’t think you can separate one from the other,” said Cashman. “I am not saying they are the same, but the questions will come, ‘If you did one, why didn’t you do the other?’ If this was Kansas City, it would be different — but it’s not.”

Since Cashman took over, the team’s philosophy has been to not negotiate with players until their contracts expire. They did this with Jorge Posada and Mo after 2007, and to be fair, Cashman did the same to himself when his contract was up after the 2008 season. Of course, with Girardi in a lame duck year, the first time the team has the audacity to fall into a slump, he’ll be answering questions about his job security. Then again, how would that be different than any other year?

Ben’s Take: For the Yankees and Brian Cashman, this development is nearly not news. The Yankees haven’t given out a post-arbitration, pre-free agency extension to any player in recent years, and the three lame ducks won’t push the issue.

However, it’s worth a minute to ponder how the Yankees have an A-Rod Problem here. Now, when I say an A-Rod Problem, I don’t mean that in what has become the typical sense of the phrase. The Yankees don’t care about the women A-Rod has dated or the Page 6 headlines he’s made. Rather, his contract is the problem. The Yankees owe A-Rod $206 million in guaranteed salary between now and 2017. Jeter will be making $21 million in his age 36 season this year, and when A-Rod hits his age 36 season in 2012, he’ll be earning $29 million.

For the Yankees, the A-Rod contract will be an albatross. Although annual contracts are creeping ever upwards and the Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols extensions will soon set the market, no one has made more than A-Rod did in 2000 except for A-Rod when the Yanks outbid themselves for his services in 2007. The Yankees, for better or worse, will be paying A-Rod $20 million or more when he’s in his early 40s. Can the team afford to do the same with Derek Jeter?

For Derek, in particular, the issue becomes one of years and money. Because Hank opened his mouth last week, Derek has the upper hand in negotiations, and the Yankees won’t and should not let him walk. But come 2014 and 2015, the Yankees will feature a rather old core of players making a significant amount of money. Finding cost-controlled, good young players is going to become that much more important for the Yankees over the next few years if the team is set on staying at or near a budget.

Sergio Mitre and the value of a roster spot

When the Yankees tendered Sergio Mitre a contract for the 2010 season, they guaranteed him a 40-man roster spot. At the time it might not have seemed like a big deal. The team had just opened up two additional roster spots by trading Phil Coke, Ian Kennedy, and Austin Jackson for Curtis Granderson, so space wasn’t an issue. But a 40-man roster spot is a 40-man roster spot. The Yankees could have used that spot in a number of different ways. Was Mitre the right decision?

First, we have to understand why the Yankees decided to allocate one of 40 roster spots to Mitre. The team values pitching depth. Over the past few years they’ve seen a number of starters succumb to injury and, for the most part, haven’t found adequate replacements. With Mitre, Chad Gaudin, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Al Aceves competing for one final rotation spot, and the losers presumably slated for the bullpen, the Yankees leave themselves a number of options should a starter get hurt.

Next, we have to look at what else the Yankees could have done with that roster spot, and at what price. Mitre signed for $850,000, a little less than double the league minimum. The depth options behind Mitre, Ivan Nova and Zach McAllister, would make a prorated portion of the league minimum if called to action, so the Yankees have to weigh that against Mitre and his salary. Could they have added someone else to that spot for cheaper? Probably not on the free agent market.

Then there’s the option of leaving the spot free, so the team has a spot to add a non-roster invite. Marcus Thames doesn’t present an issue here, because if he makes the team Jamie Hoffmann will head back to the Dodgers. But what if the Yankees end up liking one of their non-roster pitchers more than Mitre? What if they like Kei Igawa in a lefty relief role? What if Jason Hirsh lives up to his potential as the No. 42 prospect in baseball in 2007? What if Kevin Whelan finally puts it all together? There’s certainly a possibility, though not a particularly strong one, that the Yankees like a non-roster player better than Mitre.

Is it worth the roster spot and guaranteed salary, then, to keep Mitre, even if there are possibly better options? Obviously the Yankees think so. They liked Mitre when they signed him in late 2008 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, and they apparently didn’t let his string of poor performances in 2009 discourage them. They’re still hoping he returns to his 2007 form, especially his first half. That, to them, is worth $850,000 and the reduced flexibility of having a guaranteed contract in that roster spot.

The final point is how the Yankees can free up further roster spots. They currently have all 40 spots filled, but they’re not completely inflexible. If the need arises to add a non-roster player, the Yankees can DFA Edwar Ramirez or Boone Logan. This makes Mitre’s spot less critical. If he were first on the chopping block, perhaps it would be an issue, but with expendable players ahead of him the Yankees become a bit more justified in their decision to tender him a contract.

What do the Yankees expect Mitre to change from 2009? Mainly, it seems, his home run rate. His strikeout rate was about in line with his career average, and his walk rate was a bit lower. He allowed home runs at a higher rate than ever before in his career, though, 1.74 per nine. This coincides with an enormous HR/FB ratio, 21.7 percent. The home runs factored largely into his 5.30 FIP, as evidenced by his 4.00 xFIP. It appears, however, that Mitre has always allowed home runs at a greater rate than league average; his xFIP is consistently lower than his FIP, except in 2007 when just nine of 119 fly balls hit off him left the park.

Signing Mitre is a gamble for sure, but the downside doesn’t appear all that bad. Even if the Yankees like another pitcher more than him, they don’t have to act on that immediately. The above-named pitchers — Igawa, Hirsh, Whelan, in addition to Nova and McAllister — can all start the season in the minors while Mitre gets his shot. If it doesn’t work out, the contract is cheap enough that they can DFA him if necessary. It might hinder what the Yankees can do with that roster spot short term, but if necessary they can make it free again.

Credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Past Trade Review: Chuck Knoblauch

The Yankees figure to be prominent players on the free agent market every offseason, however they threw us a changeup this winter and instead pulled off two major trades while committing no more than one year to any free agent. Curtis Granderson steps into the outfield for the next few seasons, and even though Javy Vazquez is only signed through 2010, it has to be considered a major move just in terms of how valuable he could be. The cost in both trades was the same: three young players with several years of cost control ahead of them.

Twelve years earlier, the Yanks made a similar trade, one that turned a weakness into a strength at the cost of minor league depth. After watching their second basemen hit .282-.331-.362 with just five homers in 1997, the worst production the team received from any position besides catcher, rookie GM Brian Cashman acquired All Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch from the Twins. Cashman had succeeded Bob Watson as the team’s general manager just five days before the trade was completed, so he wasted no time making a big splash.

Of course, Knoblauch was very outspoken about his desire to be traded, forcing GM Terry Ryan’s hand. The Twins won just 68 games in 1997 and hadn’t made the playoffs in six years, and the 29-year-old didn’t want to spend his prime years duking it out for fourth place in the AL Central. So, in early February of 1998, just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers were due to report, the two sides consummated the following deal:

Yankees Received
2B Chuck Knoblauch

Twins Received
LHP Eric Milton
SS Cristian Guzman
OF Brian Buchanan
RHP Danny Mota
Cash (Wikipedia says $3M)

At the time of the trade, none of the four players the Twins received had yet to appear in the majors, while Knoblauch was coming off a four year stretch in which he hit .319-.413-.468 with 188 stolen bases while making four All Star appearances. His 127 OPS+ during those four years was higher than Roberto Alomar’s (124). The trade gave the Yanks a veteran lead off hitter, pushing young phenom Derek Jeter down to what would become his customary two-hole.

Milton, the Yanks’ first round pick in 1996 and then just 21-years-old, had split 1997 between High-A Tampa and Double-A Norwich, posting a 3.11 ERA with a 162-50 K/BB ratio in 28 starts and 171 innings. Yeah, things were different back then, innings limits weren’t exactly a top priority. Minnesota sent him straight to the big leagues in 1998, and he responded by posting a 5.64 ERA with a 107-70 K/BB ratio in 32 starts and 172.1 IP. He would go on to no-hit the Angels the next season, and in the end he became a fixture in the Twins’ rotation until 2002, posting a dead even 100 ERA+ in 162 starts and close to 1,000 innings along the way.

Knee issues limited Milton to just three starts in 2003, and with free agency just a year away, Minnesota shipped him to the Phillies for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, and a player to be named later. As you can imagine, Milton provided the Twins with a great deal of value as a league average innings eater. All told, he was worth 13.2 wins over a replacement player during his time in the land of 10,000 lakes.

Guzman, just 19 at the time, had hit .273-.310-.354 with 23 steals mostly with Low-A Greensboro the year before the trade. He spent his first season in the Twins’ organization playing in Double-A, hitting .277-.304-.352 with another 23 steals. Minnesota jumped him to the big leagues in 1999, though he struggled greatly and hit just .226-.267-.276 with nine steals. Guzman improved a bit the next year, and in the long run he hit .266-.303-.382 with 102 steals in six years with the Twins. He thrice led the league in triples, and even appeared in an All-Star game. The lure of a free agent payday (four years, $16.8M from the Nationals) spelled the end of Guzman’s time with Minnesota, though he gave the team 3.9 wins over replacement total.

Buchanan, another former first round pick by the Yanks (1994), had developed into a minor league slugger with good but not great numbers. He toiled away in Triple-A for a few years after the trade, seeing big league action in parts of three seasons for the Twins before being traded to the Padres during the 2002 season for a light hitting A-ball shortstop by the name of Jason Bartlett. Buchanan hit .258-.319-.428 in 455 plate appearances for Minnesota, providing just one-tenth of a win above a replacement player.

Mota, a 21-year-old righty that had spent parts of three seasons in the Short Season NY-Penn League prior to the trade, steadily climbed the ladder and ultimately contributed just 5.1 IP of 8.44 ERA ball to the big league team. He was out of affiliated baseball by 2002, contributing a whopping one-tenth of a win below replacement level to the Twins cause.

As for Knoblauch, he parked himself atop the Yanks’ batting order for four seasons, though he never quite produced at the levels he had in Minnesota. He hit .265-.361-.405 with 31 steals and a then-career high 17 homers in 1998, however he was perhaps best remembered for the “Blauch-head” play against the Indians in the ALCS, when he stood around arguing with an umpire rather than picking up a ball in play, allowing Cleveland to take the lead in extra innings. Knoblauch went on to hit a game-tying three-run homer in Game One of the World Series, helping the Yanks to a sweep of the Padres and a World Championship.

With a season in pinstripes under his belt, Knoblauch rebounded to hit .292-.393-.454 with 28 steals and a career high 18 homers in 1999, helping the Yanks to another World Title thanks to a .283-.353-.391 postseason performance. However, he began having issues with this throwing, leading to a career high 23 errors. Knoblauch missed time with injury in 2000, and his throwing problems became so severe that he spent significant time as a designated hitter. Nevertheless, he hit .283-.366-.385 as the Yankees captured their third straight World Championship.

Knoblauch, unable to overcome his issues throwing to first base, moved to left field permanently in 2001, and he hit just .250-.339-.351, the worst offensive showing of his career to that point. In the four years since he was acquired, Knoblauch went from an elite hitter at a premium position to a below average hitter in a corner outfield spot. The Yankees let him walk as a free agent after the season, and Knoblauch was out of baseball by 2003. During his four seasons in pinstripes, Knoblauch contributed just 6.6 wins above a replacement level player to the Yankees cause.

Let’s round up the WAR data in a nice, easy to read table.

The Twins quartet provided their team with a combined 17.1 wins above replacement, mostly thanks to Milton obviously. That doesn’t include the contributions they got from Silva, Punto, and Bartlett, but we can’t count that against the Yanks here because Minnesota might have made those trades anyway, just with different players.

While the Twins got the better end of the on-the-field production here – and there’s no denying that – the Yankees did win four pennants and three World Series with Knoblauch in the lineup every day. Unlike say the Brewers and CC Sabathia, the Yanks didn’t forfeit a significant part of the future for just one playoff appearance here.

In the end, this trade was a classic win-win. The Twins got exactly what they were looking for, two legitimate big leaguers and a little extra, while the Yankees got what they wanted in the form of championships. Minnesota’s reward is easily measured in WAR, but Knoblauch was a part of a dynasty in New York, and it’s impossible to put a number on that. Hindsight is 20-20, and I’d bet that both sides would do this deal again 100 times out of 100.

Photo Credit: Doug Mills

Thinking about the Yankees’ numbers

As Spring Training nears, the Yankees’ numbers are slowly talking center stage. Now, I’m not talking about wOBA, UZR or other intriguing numbers. Rather, I’m talking about those numbers on the backs of all of the players’ jerseys. As the old concessionaire’s saying goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and the Yankees are seemingly running out of numbers.

On Monday afternoon, Ed Price on Tweeter noted how the Yankees are pushing it numerically this spring. With their 40-man roster and 20 invitees, the team will have 60 players in camp, and a whole slew of coaches who need uniform numbers too. Last year, with 64 players in camp, the highest number on the field in Tampa was Kanekoa Teixeira’s 94. This year, the Yanks will again push toward 90.

This problem of numbers — if we can call it a problem — is generally a March-only issue. In recent years, the Yanks have had just two players sport numbers in the 90s range. Brian Bruney donned 99 for a spell in an effort to find some numerically-inspired consistency while Alfredo Aceves has embraced number 91 to honor Dennis Rodman. In 1952, Charlie Keller wore 99 for a spell as well, but when the rosters are pared, most players break camp with numbers at 55 or lower.

Why then are the Yanks heading to Tampa ready to dole out numbers more fit for linebackers and offensive linemen than baseball players? For the Bombers, it is one of nostalgia and historical recognition mixed with some recent stubbornness on behalf of the team and its fans. The Yankees, as we know, have retired 15 numbers — including Jackie Robinson’s and eventually Mariano Rivera‘s 42 — for historical and political purposes. Does Phil Rizzuto’s number 10 need to be shelved? What of Billy Martin’s 1? Ron Guidry’s 49, hung up in Monument Park to lure him back to the team as a pitching coach? Reggie Jackson’s 44?

And then, the Yankees have those numbers than sit in limbo. Joe Torre’s number 6 will remain reserved for a future reconciliation. Bernie Williams‘ 51 has been unissued since Bernie didn’t retire after the 2006 season. And who could forget the uproar over the Yanks’ willingness to issue 21 to LaTroy Hawkins for a few weeks? O’Neill might have been the 41st Yankee to don that one, but in the collective mind of the fans, it belongs only to him.

Eventually, the Yankees will have to hang up a few more numbers. Rivera’s 42, already on ice due to the league-wide retirement of it, will earn a place in Monument Park. Derek Jeter‘s number 2 will never see another player, and if we want to get overly sentimental Andy Pettitte‘s 46, Jorge Posada‘s 20 and maybe even A-Rod‘s 13, depending upon his career accomplishments, might wind up unused forevermore.

So at some point, the Yankees will run out of single-digit numbers to hand out. They’ll have to break that triple-digit barrier unless they do what the White Sox have done and unretire some numbers. Omar Vizquel will wear Luis Aparacio’s number 11 with the Hall of Famer’s permission, and the Yanks, a team that has, in the Steinbrenner era, put its history on a golden pedestal, may need to unretire some respectable numbers. The fans too may have to let go or else we will be cheering on future greats wearing awkwardly large numbers on their uniforms.

Above: Bernie Williams’ 51 remains in limbo. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

Can Thames 2010 be more like Thames 2006?

Marcus Thames is not an everyday player. Never has been, really. His abilities, which include a seeming ability to hit lefties, make him a platoon player. True to that, he’s seen about 40 percent of his career plate appearances against lefties, whereas an every day player — I’ll use Derek Jeter as an example — sees about 25 percent of his plate appearances against lefties. Since the Yankees have just two righties in their A lineup, a lefty masher might be a nice complement off the bench.

Yet Thames had something of a disappointing 2009. It’s part of the reason that the Tigers didn’t tender him a contract, and certainly a big factor in why he had to accept a minor league deal. His OBP, at .323, was among the highest of his career, but he didn’t hit for nearly as much power as he had in years past. Even during his poor performance in 2007 he maintained a .257 ISO. That number dropped all the way to .202 in 2009, the worst mark of his career.

The reason for the power outage becomes apparent when looking at Thames’s batted ball breakdown. He hit 47.4 percent fly balls in 2009, which ranks on the lower end of his career. In 2006, his career year, he hit almost 60 percent fly balls. The resulting increase in ground balls led to a higher BABIP in 2009, .301, but his batting average, .252, actually went down slightly from 2006. Furthering the problem, his HR/FB dropped to 14.3 percent, again the lowest mark of his career.

What I wonder is how much Thames’s oblique injury affected his power numbers. He missed 44 days in 2009, hitting the DL on April 23 and not seeing action again until June 6. He actually hit well at first, posting a .267/.341/.527 line in the 164 plate appearances following his activation. His numbers dropped greatly at the end of the year, though, as he hit .235/.309/.351 in his final 110 plate appearances. The injury, for some reason, makes me think of Bobby Abreu, who strained his oblique in camp in 2007 and went on to hit .228/.313/.289 through the season’s first two months.

As we can see in his splits, Thames’s power outage came almost exclusively in August and September, as he posted excellent ISO figures upon his return. As you can further see, his fly ball numbers dropped in those months, as his ground ball frequency rose. Also obvious: his HR/FB dropped off in the last two months, most notably in September when he didn’t hit a single home run. The injury might help explain some of that, and would explain even more if it recurred and he didn’t tell anyone, though we have no way of really knowing that.

Unless the Yankees really like what they see from Jamie Hoffmann in camp, I’d bet Thames makes the team as a righty pinch hitter, mostly for Brett Gardner or Randy Winn. Bench players often bring one skill to the table, and Thames has demonstrated tremendous power in the past. If he recovers from last season he can contribute as a pinch hitter and possibly a starter against some lefties. In other words, he’s something like a righty Eric Hinske. That doesn’t sound all that bad.

Credit: AP Photo/Duane Burleson