Looking Ahead: Cliff Lee

If the byline looks a bit unfamiliar, that’s because we’ve brought aboard a couple of guys to help out on weekends. Welcome JMK from Mystique and Aura and also the RAB comments.

Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP

It’s never too early to speculate on whom the Yankees will target during the free agency period. Popular logic suggests Cliff Lee will be among the bigger names this winter, and for good reason. With only three rotation spots filled next year – who can tell what role Joba Chamberlain will find himself in next year or Pettitte’s retirement status or if Javy figures it out and returns – Lee might just fit the bill as the perfect #2 starter in 2011.

With the extensions of Josh Beckett, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez, the next best options in the FA pool are Brandon Webb, Ben Sheets and Javy Vazquez. With fewer elite pitchers entering free agency these days than ever, the chance to lock up one of the best pitchers to be available for the foreseeable future, coupled with the likely impending need in the rotation, seem to indicate that Lee in pinstripes next year is as good a guess as any.

Though Mr. Lee is undoubtedly one of the best pitchers in the game right now and the Yankees are likely to have a spot needing to be filled, he’s not without questions. The Arkansas native has only really been an “elite” starting pitcher since 2008; he’d also likely sign somewhere around the range of a 4 or 5-year, $80-100 million contract, which at the tail end would mean the Yankees’ top 3 starters will be in their mid-30’s, all making around $20 million each. That’s generally something you’d like to avoid, particularly as many of the key members of the team are already on the wrong side of 30, with long contracts limiting flexibility.

His injury history, too, isn’t spectacular, though nothing suggests chronic problems or elbow concerns. His eye-popping numbers of late are also a bit skewed by his high LOB%, which is very unlikely to sustain itself. They’ll level off at around 70% (they’re currently in the high 70’s), which will increase his ERA. His strikeout rate, while good, isn’t fantastic, either.

Now, for the good news — Cliff Lee is really, really, really good. I can’t stress that enough. I was even reaching looking to find noticeable flaws in Lee’s game. Cliff Lee may not be Nolan Ryan, but his strikeout rate — around 7 per 9 — doesn’t make him John Lannan. It’s not a concern. And despite some of the minute issues I may have, he’s easily the top free agent available and I think has demonstrated that he’s likely to be worth every penny, provided he’s blessed with good health.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s hard not to like AJ Burnett, but his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde act makes him a better fit as a #3 starter. You’d really prefer more consistency out of your #2 starter, especially on a team that makes the playoffs as often as the Yankees. In contrast to Burnett, Cliff Lee doesn’t have such eccentricities. In 2008 and 2009 Lee threw up a combined 13.8 WAR and he was amazingly consistent as well, throwing 10 complete games within that span and generally suffocating opposing offenses. For a sense of perspective, Roy Halladay has a WAR of 14.7 within the same time period. Clearly Halladay is a better pitcher with a longer track record, but the age, similarities in performance and stuff, and likely contract demands make the two a fairly good comp. Again, he’s really good.

On top of that, just like Halladay, the Yankees have also expressed interest in acquiring the 31-year-old lefty before, at the trade deadline in 2009. When asked to surrender Joba or Hughes and more, the Yankees understandably balked. Now, with Hughes seemingly firmly entrenched in the rotation and Lee almost certain to test the market, the strategy to not surrender prized young arms seems to have been the right one.

To boot, Lee is likely to age well as he starts to leave his peak. With a repertoire of four pitches – the best is said to be a nasty circle changeup – all of which are refined options he can command well, he shouldn’t have much trouble adjusting, even if his fastball drops a bit. I also haven’t seen worries about his pitching mechanics, although they’re a bit unorthodox. Larry LaRue, beat writer for The News Tribune had a little preview on Lee’s arsenal earlier this year.

“As for pitches. Lee relies on a fastball that sits around 89-92. He’s doesn’t throw exceptionally hard, but his fastball moves and when he’s right he can keep put it on the corners whenever he wants. Lee also throws a cut fastball that is usually around 85-87. It rides in on right-hander hitters and if he’s throwing it well you’ll see him break plenty of bats. Lee also has a curveball that’s more of an overhand variety. It isn’t quite as nasty as Erik Bedard’s curveball, but Lee’s can be effective, particularly to lefties.

And of course there’s the changeup which Adam Moore called “filthy” and “borderline unfair.” It’s a circle change (you can see the grip in the photo at the top) that has plenty of downward movement. And because of Lee’s simple and consistent mechanics and arm motion, it’s nearly impossible to pick up early. You will see several guys making that lunging swing for balls tonight. But it isn’t just about swings and misses with that pitch. You’ll often see plenty of swings where guys are out on their front foot and rolling over on the change up for easy ground balls.”

I’ve talked about how different Lee has been since his masterful Cy Young season in 2008, but how did he improve so much from earlier? Is it even sustainable or are we likely to see him fall back to his awful, injury-plagued 2007 or his good and mediocre years that preceded it? The team’s been burned before by throwing big money on long deals to inconsistent guys past 30. Considering the construction of the team and the money at stake, this isn’t a guy you can whiff on. So is Lee just a flash in the pan likely to drop off a few years into the deal or implode entirely?

Having looked at the data, I think he’s the real deal. His GB rate improved from the mid 30’s to the low-to-mid 40’s, and he also saw his HR/FB rate drop from the range of 8-12% to 5-6% the last few seasons. Much of this can be attributed to the addition of the cut fastball, better velocity on his 4-seamer and a curveball that is effective against lefties. He’s been able to elicit more swings on balls outside the zone over the past few years than earlier in his career, a harbinger moving forward. In fact, even in his mediocre-to-good seasons in the mid-00’s, he was close to or below average in O-Swing %. That’s definitely something he’s put behind him, which is even more impressive considering his walk rates are microscopic these days. Don’t get me wrong — ideally you’d like more than two seasons on which to hold your hat on, but his peripherals are trending positively and he hasn’t had flukey BABip luck in that span.

Obviously there are a myriad of factors that could make this potential pairing more or less likely to happen. Maybe Javy turns it around, dominates and re-signs at the conclusion of the season. The team could also place “the starter in the bullpen” Joba back in the rotation, filling a potential hole. Maybe Andy comes back again. Hell, at this rate Phil Hughes might become a #2 starter by the end of the year, negating some of the need for a big FA starting pitching acquisition. The M’s could also fall out of the AL West race and end up trading Lee; who knows, he may even sign a long-term deal if the suitor is right. The Yankees could instead target Carl Crawford and fill left field for years. (I’d be highly surprised if the team could retain Jeter, Rivera and sign Lee and Crawford in the same off-season.)

Basically, there are too many variables to play out. But in the end, Cliff Lee, even depite a relatively short track record as an elite pitcher on the wrong side of 30, with some injury hiccups, and likely to have big contract demands, should be the guy to sign next year if he keeps this up and he’s available.

Yankees recall Kevin Russo; Posada still out; Cano in

Via Ben Shpigel, the Yankees have recalled infielder Kevin Russo to help out as injuries thin the roster. The corresponding move hasn’t been announced, but we can safely assume Nick Johnson will be placed on the disabled list with a sore right wrist. The 25-year-old Russo has hit .302-.383-.425 with Triple-A Scranton this year, and he’s played every position except left field, first base, pitcher, and catcher.

The Yanks needed an extra infielder with Robbie Cano hobbling, and Russo also brings a little extra versatility to the table. Joe ran through the team’s roster options this morning.

Update by Ben (12:17 p.m.): While we don’t yet have further details on the extent of their injuries, Joel Sherman tweets that both Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada are out of the lineup today. Cano’s day off isn’t much of a surprise, but Posada’s is. The catcher yesterday seemed to express the belief that he would play today, but it appears that his calf isn’t up to par yet. Even though the Yanks could really use his bat, Joe Girardi is sticking with his plan to rest Posada today. Both Jorge and Robinson — who says he’s feeling better despite a slightly sore and swollen knee — expect to be back tomorrow.

Update (1:14 p.m.): Per Mark Feinsand, Cano may play after all. The Yanks’ second baseman is going to take a few swings in the cage and get some treatment on his sore left knee. If he’s feeling OK, Girardi will slot him into the lineup as another lefty against Clay Buchholz. We think it might be wiser to give Cano a day off, but if the Yanks feel he won’t jeopardize further injury by playing, the team could use his bat.

Update by Mike (1:19pm): Just to tie a bow on it, Johnson is in fact on the disabled list.

Update by Ben (1:59 p.m.): Our 15-hour national nightmare is over: Robinson Cano is in the lineup as the Yanks’ DH. That is, if rain doesn’t cancel the game. Stay tuned.

Yanks have a bit of an injury mess

In the past few days the Yankees have had to deal with a number of injuries. Most of them have been mild in nature, but that still causes problems for the roster. In fact, mild injuries can cause more problems than DL trips in some cases, because the player is not available and there is no one to take his place on the roster. Right now the Yankees have three players nursing injuries who won’t hit the DL, so that’s three inactive roster spots. It can make managing the lineup and bullpen a bit tricky.

The Yankees do have options, though, and will likely make a number of moves during the next few days to keep their roster up to speed. The moves will include recalling an infielder tomorrow, and then probably an outfielder early next week. They’ll need an extra OF if Marcus Thames is going to take more reps at DH. Let’s start with what they’ll do tomorrow.

Send down: David Robertson or Boone Logan. Recall: Kevin Russo

Marc Carig reports that the Yankees have scheduled no tests on Robinson Cano‘s knee, so chances are he’ll just sit out a day or two. The Yanks could probably get by with just four infielders, but it’s probably advisable to have a backup. Kevin Russo makes the most sense, since he can play all infield positions and is already on the 40-man roster. I’d be very surprised if this didn’t happen tomorrow.

The Yankees currently have 13 pitchers, which is two too many. Logan and Robertson pitched last night, so they’re the most likely to go on an optional assignment. Mike wrote about demoting Robertson yesterday. Boone Logan writes about his own demotion every time he walks a batter.

Disabled list: Nick Johnson. Recall: Greg Golson

The Yankees sent down Golson before today’s game, meaning that under normal circumstances he’d have to spend 10 days in the minors. With the injury to Johnson, though, the Yankees can bring him right back. If, as Carig reports, they’ll use Thames at DH, they’ll need a reserve outfielder. Golson is the best option right now.

Possible alternative: Moeller instead of Russo or Golson

Both Golson and Russo are really just emergency options. They’re nice to have around, and the Yankees have the flexibility to keep them around as insurance. They could, however, opt to give Jorge some reps at DH. That way they can get his bat into the lineup without risking his legs by playing him at catcher. That would require a third catcher, which would be Chad Moeller.

This is something I can see happening after the need for Russo expires. Once Cano is back to playing the Yanks don’t need two utility infielders, so Russo will likely head back to Scranton. That does leave a roster spot free. The Yankees could opt to recall Chad Moeller as Francisco Cervelli‘s backup and give Jorge reps against righties at DH. They could even ease him back into catching, making sure that his leg issues really are behind him.

Alternative two: Option Russo, recall Miranda

If the Yankees are prepared to let Jorge return to catching full-time, they could opt to replace Russo with a platoon partner with Thames at DH. I like this just about as little as I like carrying a third catcher. Miranda can back up Teixeira at first, and Thames can play the OF if need be, but neither presents a good option. Then again, with these injuries that doesn’t come as a surprise.

I’d probably support recalling Moeller more, because it provides the added bonus of getting Jorge’s bat into the lineup while making sure his calf is ready for the rigors of squatting for an hour and a half each night. Also, Miranda hasn’t played since May 4, so there might be something there.

Rain? That might help

There is rain in the forecast today, and while I’m not normally one to hope for a washout, it might not be the worst thing in this case. Rescheduling this afternoon’s game as a doubleheader later in the year accomplishes a few things.

  1. It pushes the whole rotation back a day. CC would pitch on Sunday, and then Burnett would go Monday against the Tigers. Vazquez could then go Tuesday as scheduled, followed by Hughes on Wednesday. Could Andy Pettitte pitch on Thursday? I doubt it, but there’s a non-zero chance.
  2. It gives Jorge and Robbie a free day. It sounds like Jorge could catch today, but giving him another day couldn’t hurt, especially if there’s no game to win that day. Cano won’t play today, so a rainout will only help there.
  3. It means no Joe Buck and Tim McCarver.

No one likes to see injuries, especially ones to key players. The Yankees have weathered a few trips to the infirmary this year, but they’re in an even tougher spot now. They do have options, though they’re starting to get a bit thin.

Swisher & Hughes bury Sox, but Yanks lose two more to injury

Winners in seven of their last eight games, the Yankees rolled into Boston tonight feeling pretty good about themselves. Even though the Red Sox just laid a four game beat down on the Angels, even though Andy Pettitte‘s going to miss a start, even though Jorge Posada was still out of the lineup with a calf issue, and even though Javier Vazquez‘s problems had yet to be solved, the team showed up to the ballpark expecting to win, and win they did.

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson, AP

Biggest Hit: Nick Swisher breaks the tie

Through the first three innings of this game, Josh Beckett was absolutely devastating. He had already racked up six strikeouts, and the Yankees had hit one ball out of the infield. The 4th inning began with a first pitch ground out by Nick Johnson (more on that later), but Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez followed up with a walk and a single, respectively. The Yanks had finally showed a little bit of life, and their best hitter in the early going was stepping to the plate.

Photo Credit: Steven Senne, AP

Robbie Cano, 5-for-24 (.208) on the homestand, saw four fastballs in the mid-90’s, the last of which was foul tipped in Jason Varitek’s glove for the strikeout. No one wanted to see the Yankees squander the opportunity to break the scoreless tie, and Nick Swisher was there to deliver. The Red Sox ace fired a first pitch cutter in the inner half, which tied Swish up and resulted in one of the ugliest swings you’ll ever see. He took the next fastball on the outer half for a quick 0-2 count, but spit on the next two pitches to even things up.

The 2-2 pitch was Beckett’s worst pitch of the night, a hanging curveball that stayed up in the zone long enough for Swisher to give it his finest swing. He sent the ball deep to centerfield, and it eventually came to a rest in the camera pit beyond the wall, giving the Yankees what seemed like a gargantuan three run lead. With one swing of the lumber, just one pitch from the end of the inning, Swish improved the Yankees’ chances of winning this game by almost 30%.

Biggest Out: Dustin Pedroia flies out

After being staked to a three run lead, Phil Hughes spotted the Red Sox a run in the bottom of the 4th and appeared as if he was going to give them a little more in the 4th. After recording the first two outs of the inning without incident, Darnell McDonald and Marco Scutaro each pulled a ball for a single, putting runners on the corners for Boston’s 2-3-4 hitters. In years past, this is where the old version of Hughes would let things get away from him and start giving up runs.

But this isn’t that Phil Hughes anymore. He dug in and went after the 2008 AL MVP, getting him to fly out harmlessly to center on just two pitches. There was no nibbling, no throws to first, no shaking off, he just got the ball and threw it. The threat was over, and the rest is history.

Photo Credit: Steven Senne, AP

Hughes Your Daddy?

There’s been one constant in our recaps this season: when Phil Hughes takes the mound, we generally end up writing a glowing report of his performance. We’re not doing it because where’s unabashed homers, the kid just keeps on pitching well. Tonight’s effort featured seven innings of one run ball with seven strikeouts, seven hits, and just one walk. Just 31 of his 101 pitches were balls (69.3% strikes), and he went to a three ball count on just three of the 28 batters he faced.

The Yankees are one of the two or best teams in baseball this season, and despite all of their star power and future Hall of Famers, it’s the 23-year-old kid taking the ball every fifth day that’s the center of attention. Hughes’ starts are must see TV, and they’ve absolutely been worth the wait we’ve endured since 2007.

Total Meltdown

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson, AP

Early on, this game had the look of a good ol’ fashioned pitcher’s duel. Beckett struck out the side in the 1st inning, then tacked on two more in the 2nd. He skated into the 6th inning having made just one mistake – granted, it was a three run mistake – but he had given his team a chance to win. But not for long.

A-Rod led off the inning with a hard-hit double into left-center, then two pitches later Cano was standing on first after taking a cutter on the left knee. He stayed there for all of one pitch, getting lifted for pinch runner Ramiro Pena after the soreness became too much. Swisher struck out after having to duck out of the way of a 2-2 fastball that ran too far inside. Beckett was ordered to intentionally walk Brett Gardner (hah!) to load the bases and set up the force at every base. That’s when the wheels came completely off the bus.

Cervelli stepped the plate after getting his tower buzzed in his previous at-bat, and he worked the count full thanks to a series of high fastballs and foul-offs. The seventh and final pitch of the duel came up and in, knocking Cervelli down and forcing in a run. Randy Winn jumped all over a first pitch changeup to drive in another run, then Beckett wasted no time in planting a first pitch fastball into Derek Jeter‘s ribs. The Yanks pushed some more runs across, but not before Teixeira had to duck out of the way of two inside fastballs.

You wouldn't like CC when he's angry. (Photo Credit: Winslow Townson, AP)

Given how utterly dominant Beckett had looked in the first several innings, locating two kinds of fastballs and a breaking ball with deadly precision, the sudden disappearance of his ability to get the ball over the plate was staggering. I don’t think he meant to hit Cano or Jeter intentionally, nor do I think he threw inside on Cervelli on Teixeira with the intention of sending a message. I just think he had a completely unmitigated mental breakdown and was hung out to dry. It’s not something you want to see from your supposed ace, but that’s Boston’s problem.

Injuries, injuries, and more injuries

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson, AP

It’s been one hell of a week for the Yankees. They’ve seen five significant players go down with injuries, the most serious of which was Curtis Granderson‘s strained groin. We were all hoping the team would be able to escape this series without adding anyone to infirmary, but alas, it was not meant to be.

Photo Credit: Steven Senne, AP

After grounding out in his second at bat, Nick Johnson was replaced by pinch hitter Marcus Thames, and it turns out that he’s dealing with some wrist soreness. It’s the same wrist he had surgery on in 2008, and Johnson is headed back to New York for tests. He’s going to wind up on the disabled list for an unknown amount of time, and suddenly the Yanks are missing about 388 points worth of on-base percentage in front of the heart of their order.

But wait, it gets better. Not long after Johnson was forced out of the game, Cano took a Beckett fastball to the knee and had to exit the game himself. At this point he’s just classified as day-to-day, just like Jorge Posada was when he took a Jeremy Guthrie pitch to his knee two weeks ago. Hopefully Cano won’t be out very long, but the Yankees have the luxury of being a little extra careful with him to make sure he’s 100% before returning. Johnson and Cano make it seven injuries in the last seven days, and a roster move is coming tomorrow to help shore things up.

Happy Moments

Phil Hughes. What more do you want? The guy’s a stud. Also, the BABIP gods continue to smile upon Cervelli, and even Randy Winn picked up a few hits. Oh, and Gardner being intentionally walked. How awesome is that?

I’m also glad the Yanks didn’t stoop down to Beckett’s level. He was hitting guys and backing them off the plate left and right – intentionally or not – but Hughes and the rest of the pitchers took the high road and let the scoreboard be their retaliation. Beckett probably feels like a tough guy, but he’s a tough guy on a team that’s seven games out of first.

It was also just the third time the Boston righthander had allowed nine earned runs in a game, but the second time the Yanks have done it to him. You gotta love it.

Photo: Winslow Townson, AP

Annoying Moments

Walking Jason Varitek, and needing six pitches to do it. That’s a major no-no, and pretty much the only blemish on Hughes’ line.

Beckett’s overall wildness was frustrating too. Yeah I know I just said I didn’t think it was intentional, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be angry about it. For a guy making that much money and getting held in such high regard, you’d think he’d be able to step back and control his emotions. I’m not sure what it says about you when a 23-year-old displays more maturity and composure on the mound.

The injuries man … when it rains, it pours, eh?

WPA Graph

This one’s a beaut. Individual player breakdowns are at FanGraphs box score.

Up Next

Same two teams tomorrow on a FOX broadcast matinee, weather permitting. First pitch is scheduled for 3:10pm ET, and will feature CC Sabathia vs. Clay Buchholz.

Romine extends hit streak in Trenton win

Got a ton of info to pass along, most of it coming from Josh Norris

Also, biggest news of the day: the Yanks signed Justin Christian out of the independent Atlantic League and assigned him to Double-A Trenton. He spent 2004-2008 in the Yanks’ system, and even got some big league time in 2008. Dude stole 220 bases (caught just 36 times, 85.9% success rate) during that time, and was always a personal fave. Good to have him back.

Triple-A Scranton (9-3 loss to Durham)
Kevin Russo, RF, Eduardo Nunez, SS & Jon Weber, DH: all 1 for 4 – Russo doubled, scored a run & K’ed … Nunez drove in a run & K’ed
Reegie Corona, 2B: 0 for 4
David Winfree, 1B: 0 for 2, 1 R, 1 BB – hmmm, two straight games with no Juan Miranda … not sure what that’s about
P.J. Pilittere, 1B: 0 for 1 – just activated from the phantom DL … pinch hit for Winfree when things got out of hand in the top of the 9th
Jesus Montero, C: 0 for 1 – got taken out of the game in the 3rd inning for an unconfirmed reason, but it’s believed that he didn’t run out a grounder … he warmed up pitchers in the bullpen later in the game, so it’s unlikely to be an injury
Chad Moeller, C: 0 for 3 – took over for Hey-Zeus
Chad Huffman, LF: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K – he doesn’t make contact often, but when he does …
Robby Hammock, 3B: 1 for 3
Greg Golson, CF: 0 for 2, 1 BB, 2 K – he got there pretty quick, huh?
The Ghost of Kei Igawa: 4 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1-6 GB/FB – 49 of 74 pitches were strikes (66.2%) … he was pressed into action because Romulo Sanchez was supposed to start tonight, but he’s with the big league team now
Amaury Sanit: 1.2 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 2-2 GB/FB – 26 of 47 pitches were strikes (55.3%)
Royce Ring: 1.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 2-0 GB/FB – 18 of 31 pitches were strikes (58.1%)
Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB – exactly half of his 30 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Johnson, Cano leave game with injuries

10:36pm: Johnson appears headed to the disabled list. For shame.

10:29pm: Cano’s knee is sore, and he’s day-to-day, but Johnson is going back to New York to have tests performed on his wrist, which is not a good sign at all. There will be a callup before tomorrow’s game; my money is on Kevin Russo given his impressive Spring Training showing and versatility.

8:48pm: As if the Yankees need another injury, Nick Johnson was pinch hit for in the 5th inning of tonight’s game because of a sore right wrist. It’s the same wrist he had surgery on in 2008, which caused him to spend 137 total days on the disabled list.

Meanwhile, Robbie Cano took a fastball off the left knee in the 6th inning, and left the game as well. Jorge Posada missed a handful of games two weeks ago after a similar HBP. We’ll update this post with more info as it comes.

Game 28: You again

"I wish I had Brett Gardner's wOBA." (Photo Credit Winslow Townson, AP)

Didn’t the Yankees just play a series in Fenway? I hate these games, they’re always so drawn out and overmedia’d, it takes the joy out of baseball. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s FOX broadcast and Sunday’s ESPN broadcast. At least now they won’t have to play in that place again until the final series of the year.

The Red Sox probably feel pretty good about themselves, since they just beat down on the wimpy Angels for four games and have their Opening Day starter on the mound. For the Yankees … meh, it’s another series. They’ve got nothing to prove. Here’s tonight’s lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, DH
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Swisher, RF
Gardner, CF
Cervelli, C
Winn, LF

And on the mound, St Phil.

If you’ve missed all today’s roster news, then make sure you check this out. Nothing major, just a little furniture being rearranged. First pitch is at 7:05pm ET, and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Photo Credit Winslow Townson, AP