You can never have enough non-roster relievers

The Yankees appear ready to go to war with their current roster. The 40-man is full, and the 25-man roster, other than the final spot or two, seems set. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the bullpen looks especially strong, with not only a number of late inning relievers, but also a couple of long men who can spot start. So why would they want to explore the remaining free agent relievers? Because few of them will require a major league deal. Former Rays reliever Joe Nelson signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox, and a number of others could follow.

If the Yankees plan to sign a reliever to add depth, they’ll have to choose from a group of flawed relievers who present some semblance of an upside. This would count out someone like Kiko Calero, who has a solid track record and performed well in 2009. They’ll be looking more for scrap heap guys, ones who have played well in the majors, but in this environment won’t attract a major league deal. The gut reaction on most of these guys will likely be, “no, he sucks,” but there’s really no harm in trying out a guy on a minor league deal. You never know when you’ll find a Brett Tomko — and let him stick on the roster long enough to pitch well.

Luis Vizcaino

For half of the 2007 season, Luis Vizcaino was the man. Acquired in the Randy Johnson trade, The Viz started his Yankee tenure on shaky ground, losing a game and blowing two others — though the Yankees would win both — in his first two months. During that time he allowed 21 runs in 26 innings, and was prone to the big inning — 11 of those 21 runs came in just three appearances. Once the calendar hit June, however, The Viz flipped it into overdrive.

For the next three months he’d destroy opposing hitters, allowing just seven runs over 41.1 innings. That included 39 strikeouts and a .182 batting average against. But pitching 41 innings over three months extrapolates to 82 over the course of a season, more than most relievers pitch in a season and more than Vizcaino had thrown since 2002 with Milwaukee. He faded a bit in September and ended the year with 75.1 innings. After signing with the Rockies the next season, Vizcaino made two appearances before hitting the DL with a shoulder issue that would keep him out until June.

The Cubs acquired him in exchange for Jason Marquis at the beginning of 2009, but they DFA’d him after just four appearances, in which he allowed no runs. The Indians then signed him, and then released him after just 11 appearances. I couldn’t find much on where he went afterward — he has no minor league stats from 2009, so I assume he just waited and waited. Maybe the rest will help him rebound for the 2010 season. It could be worth a minor league deal to find out.

Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Joaquin Benoit

Though he hasn’t pitched since 2008, Benoit presents appealing traits for a reliever. He strikes out a lot of batters, in some years more than one per inning, while keeping his home runs low. That’s the main run on Vizcaino, the propensity for the longball. That’s hell for a reliever. In the three years before his injury-shortened 2008 season, Benoit allowed less than one home run per nine innings.

Benoit, a former starter who took the bullpen full-time in 2005, features three pitches. His fastball sits at around 91-92, and he has a changeup that has about 8-9 mph separation. His killer pitch is a hard slider, clocked at 86 mph in his phenomenal 2007 season. He really did break out that year, allowing 26 runs on 68 hits in 82 innings pitched, striking out 87 to 28 walks. Best of all, he allowed just six home runs in that span, especially nice because his home park tends to favor home runs.

The rub, of course, is the rotator cuff injury that kept him out for all of 2009. Will his slider still run in the high 80s? Will his fastball still sit low 90s? Can he adjust his pitching style to the limitations of his surgically repaired shoulder? It’ll take a spring training invite to find out.

Credit: AP Photo/Ronald Martinez

Russ Springer

This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned Russ Springer as a bullpen option, and as long as he keeps on pitching it probably won’t be the last. Springer actually has roots in the Yankees system, a 7th round draft pick back in 1989, eventually sent to the Angels in the Jim Abbott trade. But if you’ve read RAB over the past year, you already know that.

Springer is a high strikeout reliever, working with mostly his fastball that clocks in the low 90s and a cutter/slider in the mid-80s. After stellar 2007 and 2008 seasons in St. Louis Springer signed with the A’s, where he didn’t pitch quite as well but was still serviceable. Over 41.2 innings he struck out 47 hitters to 14 walks, though he allowed a ton of hits. The Rays picked him off waivers in August, and he pitched about the same there, the strikeouts coming down but the hits coming down, too.

What’s odd about Springer’s 2009 is that his batted ball types completely shifted. He was never a ground ball guy, but he still managed around 30 percent from 2006 through 2008. Then in 2009 it dropped all the way to 19.2 percent, while his fly ball shot up to 61.6 percent, 10 points higher than it had been with the Cardinals. I’m not sure if that’s a red flag or a sign that a correction is in order. It’s tough to guess at these things when the player in question will be 41 in 2010.

Still, on a minor league deal, the Yankees could do worse than check in on Springer. Maybe the old arm has one more good year left in it.

Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Ron Mahay

For years, we heard baseball commentators declare that the Yankees absolutely needed a lefty in the bullpen. They went through tons of them, but none quite worked out. Meanwhile, a lefty they had traded for Enrique Wilson was busy putting together a solid career out of the bullpen. Finally, in July 2008 the Yankees re-acquired Damaso Marte. With him in tow, the line now is that the Yankees need a second lefty in the bullpen. Wonderful.

The Yanks sent two left relievers away in trades this season and brought back one. Boone Logan has a shaky, to be kind, MLB track record, and there’s a chance the Yankees don’t even break camp with him. If they want a second lefty they might have to look outside the organization. There doesn’t appear to be much interest in Ron Mahay at this point, but the veteran lefty can still provide some value. He’s reportedly holding out for a major league deal, but there’s no guarantee he’ll get one.

As expected of a lefty reliever, Mahay fares better against lefty hitters. His numbers against righties have fluctuated, and were downright horrible last season. At 39 years old he might be cooked. But on a minor league deal, there seems to be little harm. If the Yanks want to look at other lefty reliever options, Mahay could be their guy — on their terms, of course.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

The downside

Okay, so perhaps I exaggerated the “no downside” part of the non-roster invite argument. The Yankees stand to lose little by bringing in various spare parts to compete for roster spots for spring training. If they don’t come to camp in Tampa, they’ll go somewhere else. Many of them will find themselves jobless again by the end of March. Teams bring in players like this every year, at little risk.

The only downside this presents is a lack of spring training innings for the guys the Yankees might want to examine closer. In addition to the regular bullpen guys, the Yankees probably want to get a better look at pitchers like Romulo Sanchez, Ivan Nova, Hector Noesi, Chris Garcia, and Wilkin De La Rosa. Bringing in a NRI means fewer innings for those guys before they head to the minor league complex.

As long as the Yankees can keep a potential NRI past spring training and into the season, a deal makes sense. That would provide true depth, at least through the first month of the season, when veterans on minor league deals can usually opt-out and pursue opportunities elsewhere. That’s the kind of deal the Yankees should pursue, and probably are pursuing.

Open Thread: Overreactialignment

During these slow days of winter (unless you count that Willy Taveras blockbuster!) we’re subject to lots of nonsense stories, usually stuff about salary caps and competitive balance, but in some case realignment as well. David Schoenfield wrote a feature for ESPN in which he presents what their editors call a “radical idea” for making baseball less unfair by reorganizing the divisions each year. Allow me to excerpt.

Why does baseball have to keep the same division format every year? Why should Tampa Bay and Baltimore always have to beat out the Yankees and Red Sox while the AL Central teams duel each other to 87 wins? Why should the Angels only have to beat out three teams instead of four in the AL West?

So the plan is to realign the divisions after every season. For the American League, there would be three basic rules:

1. The Yankees and Red Sox always remain in the AL East. It makes sense and it’s good for the game.

2. Tampa, Toronto, Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland can play only in the AL East or AL Central. All five cities are in the Eastern time zone and having them play in the West creates logistical and television issues.

3. The Angels, Seattle and Oakland always remain in the AL West. This makes sense for logistical reasons, as well.

Now, how do we disperse the remaining teams? Simple. MLB holds a big telecast two days after the World Series ends. We put all the team names in a big ball like during the NBA lottery selection show. Teams send their general manager and a star player and Hall of Famers like George Brett and Reggie Jackson draw out the team names. You wouldn’t watch this? You wouldn’t love to see Dave Dombrowski throw up in his mouth when the Tigers draw the AL East? You wouldn’t get excited to see Andrew Friedman high-fiving Evan Longoria when the Rays draw the AL Central? You know you would watch this.

Well, I probably wouldn’t watch it, but in general the idea of changing the division each year is completely unrealistic (and to his credit, Schoenfield acknowledges that). Why are we punishing the Yankees (and Red Sox) by keeping them in the same division year after year, while other teams get to enjoy life outside the AL East? Believe or not, there will be a point in time when either the Yankees or Red Sox aren’t competitive, so what are we going to do then, lump them in with the group that gets to change divisions each year? Aside from that, you’re killing some rivalries by constantly moving teams around. It’s not just the Yanks-Sox, it’s the Cardinals and Cubs, or the Giants and the Dodgers.

The game is in a place right now where the the two most dominant teams are in one division. It’s not fair to the other three clubs stuck in the division, but that’s life. Was anyone suggesting that baseball should realign when the Blue Jays and A’s were dominating baseball in the late-80’s/early-90’s? Somehow I think not.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the evening, and here’s your open thread. The big story of the night is Nick Swisher‘s cameo on How I Met Your Mother (WCBS, 8pm), in which he’ll be playing Nick Swisher. I’ve never watched the show, but I’ve already set the DVR. Other than that, you’ve got House and 24, but none of the sports locals are in action. Enjoy the thread.

Determining the value of draft picks

Every team and every person has a different philosophy about how their team should approach the draft, and to be honest there is no right answer. I’ve always preferred high school players because the sooner you get them into a professional system with professional instruction and conditioning programs, the better. College programs have come a long way, but those coaches can still do lots of damage (especially to pitchers). Oh sure, you’ll have to wait longer for your prize when drafting high schoolers, but that’s life.

In a piece for THT, Alex Pedicini looked at the top 100 draft picks from 1992-1999, and determined the most valuable demographics in terms of WAR. College hitters in the first round are generally the safest group, averaging 1.336 WAR per year during their first six seasons in the bigs (which their original team controls), while college pitchers are the most dangerous at just 0.649 WAR/year. That’s right, taking a high school pitcher in the first round has historically been a safer pick that their college counterparts.

Pedicini also breaks it down by draft pick (the top 20 picks are by far the most valuable) and position (corner infielders and outfielders are the safest, righty pitchers by far the riskiest). Check it out, it’s a short but very interesting read.

Report: Mauer agrees to 10-year extension (UPDATE: No he didn’t)

Update (4:31pm): Buster Olney is shooting the report down now. So much for that.

4:20pm: First it was Felix Hernandez, and now another drool-worthy future free agent target is off the market. Via MLBTR, AL MVP Joe Mauer has agreed to a 10-year contract extension with the Twins, locking him up until the ripe old age of 37. No word on the money yet, but I would think it’s over $200M. Good for him, good for the Twins, good for baseball, bad for the Yanks.

Imagining the sole situation in which Johnny Damon returns to New York

Preface

In no way do I believe the Yankees will do this, nor do I think they should. Johnny Damon had an excellent pinstriped tenure that ended with a World Series title. Retaining him seemed like an option, but only if his contract demands fell into the Yankees’ desired range. That didn’t happen, and the Yankees moved on. While I’d love to see Johnny back in the lineup this year, it’s so unlikely at this point that I had to concoct this crazy scenario. As the price for acquiring one year of Damon, it hardly seems worth the trouble.

The set-up

In the MLB Rumors and Rumblings section of his Weekend Update on Baseball Prospectus, John Perrotto mentioned Damon’s desire to play for the Rays, citing his nearby residence in Orlando. In the next sentence, Perrotto drops the bomb. “He has not completely ruled out a return to the Yankees, even though they have signed Randy Winn to presumably take his place on the roster.” Ignoring the one-for-one replacement of Damon with Winn — and further ignoring the flawed idea of “replacing” production — this is an interesting statement. How could he not rule out a return to the Yankees when it seems everyone else has?

Last week, just after the Winn signing, SI’s Jon Heyman wrote a column about the situation between the Yankees and Damon, quoting both Brian Cashman and Damon at length. Both sides expressed the desire for a reunion, but both recognized the obstacles that stood, and continue to stand, in the way. Both also conceded that they could get back together at some point in the future. “You never know,” said Cashman. Not the most specific of endorsements, but like any good GM, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility if a favorable situation arose.

The scenario

The Yankees have three outfielders who have guaranteed 2010 contracts: Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Randy Winn. Beyond that they have Brett Gardner, who will make the league minimum and who has two options remaining, and Jamie Hoffmann, whom the Yankees must offer back to the Dodgers if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training. By all appearances, the Yankees will use Gardner and Winn in left, doling out their playing time as their performances warrant. Hoffmann, if he makes the roster, would serve as the fifth outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement — perhaps as a pinch runner with Gardner already in the game.

For now, we can discount Hoffmann. I doubt the Yankees will make roster moves to accommodate him. If he plays well enough to earn a spot, he’ll get it. If they have another player who can fill his role better, they’ll go with that player. That leaves four outfielders, which sounds about right. Winn and Swisher can play both corners, while Granderson and Gardner profile best in left or center. That seems to cover the outfield. So where in the world would Damon fit?

In any return scenario, Gardner would be the odd man out. He not only has an option or two remaining, but he has drawn interest from other teams this off-season, namely the Reds, Padres, White Sox, and Royals. Because any Damon contract would cover just one year, the Yankees wouldn’t necessarily have to trade Gardner to open a spot. They could simply start him in the minors and use him to fill in when needed. This makes the Yankees situation a bit more flexible.

The main obstacle in a Damon-Yankees reunion is the same as it ever was. Before acquiring Winn the Yankees had just $2 million left in their Opening Day payroll budget. All of that went to Winn, so unless Damon is willing to play for the league minimum the Yankees would have to free up some salary. Of their players currently under contract, only Chad Gaudin makes sense from a salary standpoint. He’ll make $2.95 million to start 2010.

In his column, Heyman notes that Cashman floated “a contract of $6 million with $3 million deferred at no interest.” The idea, apparently, is that while the entire $6 million would count against the official Opening Day payroll, Hal Steinbrenner might be open to a deal with deferred money. With around $3 million in savings from dealing Gaudin, presumably for a low-level or low-ceiling minor leaguer, the Yankees could put this offer back on the table. They could go even lower, too, because we haven’t seen much interest in Damon since the Winn signing.

Why it makes sense

If Damon hits as well as he did last season, he’ll be more valuable than Winn at the plate in 2010. If his defense, as Damon himself says, “was only the first two months, and it involved probably five plays,” then perhaps he can play a capable left field. We know that his bat plays well at the Stadium, and that he’s a good guy to have in the clubhouse. His speed, while not what it was when he first signed, is still an asset.

Why it doesn’t make sense

To list them:

  • Trading away pitching depth to sign another outfielder doesn’t seem like a great idea.
  • The Yankees seem to like Brett Gardner, probably enough to give him at least a half-season’s worth of at-bats in left field.
  • The chances of Damon replicating his 2009 season remain low. He’ll be a useful offensive player, but it’s doubtful that he replicates a career year — one in which he slipped considerably toward the end.
  • Stats and scouts agreed that Damon played poorly in left field last season, so his return to league average doesn’t appear likely.

Why it won’t happen

Judging from his track record, I don’t think Brian Cashman will alter his roster, trading away valuable pitching depth, just to accommodate Damon. They’re likely mindful that 2010 Damon isn’t 2009 Damon, and that the latter outperformed most reasonable expectations. True, for $6 million, with $3 million deferred, he wouldn’t have to replicate his production to justify the contract. But, again, the Yankees would have to make a further sacrifice in order to even think about bringing back Damon. I just don’t see them doing that.

Really, this is just a crazy thought based on Johnny not yet ruling out a return to New York. The door might remain unlocked, but it’s definitely shut. I doubt the Yankees would go through the trouble at this point. They should be too busy preparing for another championship season in 2010.

Photo credit: Eric Gay/AP

Andy Pettitte and stolen base attempts

Ah the pickoff. There’s nothing in baseball quite like it. When one of the good guys catches a runner napping and picks him off, there’s that rush of excitement that comes with stealing an out. At the same time, there’s almost nothing in the game more frustrating than watching one of your guys get picked off. I wanted to take a look at how often opponents were swiping bases (or tried to, anyway) against Yankee pitchers last year, but frankly the data was pretty boring and consistent with past seasons for everyone on the team who accumulated a usable sample of innings. Except for one guy, that is: Andy Pettitte.

In terms of stolen base attempts, Andy is a unique case. He’s a lefty, which has its own built-in advantage, and of course he has that great pickoff move. If you’re any kind of Yankee fan, you know that Pettitte’s move to first is world class, and if it’s not the best in the game, then it’s definitely in consideration for it. Pickoffs serve two purposes, the first obviously is trying to steal an out when a guy is napping. But throws to first also serve to hold runners close, muting the running game.

Unfortunately there’s no perfect way to measure a pitcher’s ability to hold runners … well, maybe there is and I’m just not aware of it. Anyway, because of this I’ll stick to the basics and look at how often opponents have attempted to steal bases off Andy throughout his career. We generally break stats down in terms of innings pitched for pitchers (K/9, BB/9, WHIP, etc); however, for this exercise I broke the data down using baserunners because all innings are not created equal. You can’t steal a base unless you first reach base, so looking at it any other way just wouldn’t make sense. The bigger the number the better, since that means more runners have to reach base before someone attempts to steal a bag. Here’s the raw data table (the second BR/SBA column is the league average, I forgot to label it), and the plot is below. Click to enlarge.

First off, elephant in the room, that 2000 season. I double checked the data, and for whatever reason baserunners just did not attempt to steal against Pettitte that season. Just eight (!!!) stolen base attempts by 303 baserunners in over 200 innings, and that includes the three guys he picked off. It wasn’t even one of Pettitte’s best years either. Yeah, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting on the strength of 19 wins, but he had a 4.35 ERA (4.22 FIP) and a below average 1.56 K/BB ratio. Statistical outlier, I suppose.

As for the rest of the data, it passes the sniff test. Baserunners attempted to steal bases at a slightly lower than league average rate for the first four years of Pettitte’s career, and after that crazy 2000 spike they attempted to swipe bags at an even lower rate. Once Andy got to Houston (’04-’06), it’s like they just stopped trying. We’re talking more than 20 baserunners for every one stolen base attempt. However, things changed once Pettitte returned to the Bronx.

Since coming back to the Yankees in 2007, opponents have been far more liberal on the bases against Pettitte than at any other time in his career. In fact, they’re the only three years of his 15-year career in which runners tried to steal bases at a rate higher than league average against the big lefty. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the throwing and defensive deficiencies of Jorge Posada, but note that baserunners attempted steals at the highest rate of Pettitte’s career in 2008, when Posada was hurt and caught less than 25% of his innings.

I have no idea what is causing this, and I don’t have the tools to find out, either. It’s more than a matter of just looking at some numbers given the uniqueness of stolen bases and holding runners. Maybe after a dozen years in the bigs, the league finally caught on to Andy’s pickoff move and runners have learned when to pick their spots. Maybe it’s advancements in technology and scouting. Maybe it is Posada’s arm, who knows. For whatever reason, baserunners who reach base against Pettitte are trying to steal bases more often than ever before. Any theories?

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Yankees hitters against ground ball pitchers

We all know the baseball cliché that good pitching beats good hitting. The Yankees experienced it in the mid-00s, pairing a powerhouse offense with mediocre pitching. Over a 162-game season, often facing mediocre pitching, that worked out well. But in the playoffs, with the weak teams eliminated, good pitching shut down the Yankees. It comes as no surprise, then, that the year the front office focused on the pitching staff was the year that the team returned to the World Series for the first time since 2003.

On his blog at WEEI, Lou Merloni notes that the top starters in the AL did a good job of holding down the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Nos. 1 and 3 offenses in the American League. Again, this comes as no surprise. It did make me wonder, though, how the Yankees hitters fared against different types of pitchers. Was there a certain type that caused them fits? Today we’ll look at the best ground ball pitchers in the AL and see how they fared against the 2009 Yankees.

Only five American League pitchers recorded a ground ball rate of 50 percent or higher: Rick Porcello, Ricky Romero, Felix Hernandez, Brett Anderson, and Roy Halladay. Another eight had a ground ball rate of 45 percent or higher: Trevor Cahill, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Joe Saunders, Scott Feldman, Nick Blackburn, Mark Buehrle, and John Lackey. Here’s how they fared:

In general, the Yankees killed ground ball pitchers. The exceptions are, for the most part, the best pitchers in the game. There’s no shame in getting shut down by Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez. Scott Feldman also stands out, but like many pitchers on this list his sample against the Yankees includes just one start. That’s the real trouble with making any determinations from this chart. Anything can happen in a single game. The Yankees especially beat up on the rookies — Romero, Porcello, and Anderson — which further skews the sample.

The further problem with looking at ground ball pitchers is that other traits might better define the pitcher. Jon Lester, for example, recorded the second highest strikeout rate in the AL in 2009. Beckett, Hernandez, Halladay, and Anderson were all in the top 10. Halladay, Blackburn, Buehrle, Anderson, and Beckett all ranked in the top 10 in walk rate (with Lackey finishing 11th). In order to get a better grasp of what pitcher type the Yankees hit better, we’ll probably need to account for these other factors. Digging back further, we should probably also examine how individual hitters on the Yankees hit these pitchers in previous years.

Still, on the whole, the pitchers who induced the most ground balls in 2009 did not fare well against the Yankees. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that they hit ground ball pitchers especially well, it does give us an idea of what to look for when evaluating the Yankees vs. pitchers. We’ll see soon how they fare against fly ball, high-strikeout, low-walk, and low-HR pitchers.