Open Thread: A day off before the co-aces

Photo Credit: Tony Gutierrez, AP

The productive yet surprisingly stressful west coast trip is over, at least until the Yankees head back out there next week. They were able to enjoy an off day today before welcoming the Mariners into town, who are kind enough to throw Cliff Lee on Tuesday and Felix Hernandez on Wednesday. They were also nice enough to re-acquire Russell Branyan just in time for him to hit another homer off the restaurant in centerfield. Thankfully Seattle’s offense is so inept (.295 team wOBA) that it’s like having nine Yuniesky Betancourt’s (also a .295 wOBA) in the lineup, so the Yanks certainly have a chance.

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. Stephen Strasburg takes on the Braves at 7pm ET (airing on ESPN2), and the Mets are playing the Marlins in Puerto Rico. The College World Series Finals (best-of-three) start tonight as well (7:30pm ET, ESPN), with Gerrit Cole and UCLA taking on Jackie Bradley Jr. and South Carolina. Talk about whatever you want, just be cool.

Yanks have decision to make with Dustin Moseley

Update (7:14pm): It’s not an injury problem, either.

6:17pm: Moseley has been scratched from tonight’s start, so something’s up. As the turntables … turn.

5:30pm: Via MLBTR, Triple-A Scranton righty Dustin Moseley has a clause in his contract that will allow him to become a free agent if he isn’t added to the team’s 25-man roster by July 1st, otherwise known as this Thursday. These clauses are common, because no one in their late-20’s wants to be stuck in some team’s minor league system when another club might be willing to give them a real chance at a big league job.

Moseley has pitched to an unspectacular 4.21 ERA (~3.50 FIP) in a dozen starts for SWB, generating close to 60% ground balls (59.4%, exactly). He has struck out ten in two of his last three starts, and is scheduled to take the mound tonight. Clearly, if the Yanks were to call him up, it would be as a long man out of the bullpen. Would they be willing to eat some money, cut ties with either Chad Gaudin or Chan Ho Park, and gamble on the former Angel? Hard to see it happening, but it’s always possible. They also have the option of trading him before then.

Could Super Two changes affect the Yanks?

Frankie won't be cheap forever. (Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP)

Once young players started to become more prominent in baseball’s post-PED, post-megacontract era, the intricacies of arbitration and free agency and service time started to become more well known to the common fan. In a nutshell, the player will earn close to the league minimum for the first three years of his career, then go to arbitration and earn a salary comparable to his peers for the next three years, and then he’ll be eligible for free agency. Of course it’s not entirely that simple, talking specifically about Super Twos.

Teams have begun to exploit the process by keeping their best prospects in the minors for a few weeks to start the season, which essentially gives them another year of control over the player. Instead of six years of production at below market rates, the team gets six and a half years, six and two-thirds, something like that. A lucky few fall into the Super Two category, which happens when they fall just short of the three years of service time needed to qualify for arbitration. Those players instead go to arbitration four times. Robbie Cano, Melky Cabrera, and Chien-Ming Wang were all Super Twos, but the Yankees signed Cano to a long-term deal before the arbitration process became a hassle.

Once the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2011 season, it seems all but given that the player’s union and the owners will make some changes to the arbitration process, but no one knows exactly what. Not even the two sides at this point, I assume. The Super Two provision is sure to be addressed in some manner that will either a) put more money in the player’s pockets, or b) bring them closer to free agency, I’m almost sure of that. Perhaps one solution is setting a very specific date in the season that serves as a cut off; if you call up the player before that date he gets a full year of service time and is that much closer to free agency, but if you call him up after that date he gets just a partial year of service time but goes to arbitration four times regardless. I dunno, just spit-balling ideas.

Anyway, how is all this going to affect the Yankees? The team currently boasts more young players than it has at any time in the last decade and a half, and soon enough the big paydays will come. The first two come this offseason, when Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain go through the arbitration process for the first time. Both are going to get raises into the $2-3M range, maybe a touch less, but that won’t financially kill the Yankees. Those two are the only first timers.

Down the road, the only four players currently on the 40-man roster that are in line to qualify for Super Two status are Ramiro Pena (after 2011), Frankie Cervelli (2011), Jon Albaladejo (2011), and Romulo Sanchez (2012). Brett Gardner falls about two weeks short of qualifying as a Super Two after next season, David Robertson a little more than that. The extra year of team control for Gardner is going to save the team something like $3M in the long run, which may not sound like much, but it’s actually $4.2M because of the extra 40% tacked on by the luxury tax.

Of the four players in line to become a Super Two, Cervelli is the safest bet to actually get there. Pena could go down at any moment in favor of a more experienced utility infielder (similar to what happened last year when the Yanks acquired Jerry Hairston Jr.), and both Albaladejo and Sanchez would have the spend the entire 2011 season (and 2012 in Romulo’s case) on the Yanks’ 25-man roster or Major League disabled list. That’s unlikely to happen for obvious reasons, though Albie will be out of minor league options next year, so it’s always possible. Stranger things have happened.

Cervelli has the backup catcher’s job locked up for the foreseeable future, and there’s really no reason to expect him to go back to the minors anytime soon. Jeff Mathis received $1.3M his first time through arbitration, Gerald Laird $1.6M, and frankly I can’t come up with better comparables for Cervelli. I get the Melky vibe hearing those numbers; Frankie’s a great guy to have around when he’s making six figures, but once you tack on that seventh one, suddenly the appeal isn’t so great.

The Super Two issue is more of a factor for guys who have yet to reach the big leagues. Jesus Montero, despite his subpar 2010 season, is still expected to be a long-term fixture in the Yankee lineup, and Austin Romine is right behind him with the expectation of being an every day catcher. Depending on when those two are summoned to the big leagues and how the arbitration rules are changed, it could end up costing the Yankees in both money and years of team control.With more than $73M  (over $102M with luxury tax) already tied up in just three players during the 2013 season (not counting Derek Jeter), the Yanks are going to need as much production out of cheap players in their pre-arbitration years as possible.

I don’t know how the next CBA will alter the arbitration process, but chances are it’s going to cost teams somehow. They’ll either lose some kind of control over the player or just plain old have to pay up, and as they tend to do, the Yankees will have to pay more than everyone else.

Gardner day-to-day with right forearm contusion

Monday, 3:00pm: Turns out that Gardner did up getting x-rays, though they came back negative. He is day-to-day with what is being called a right forearm contusion. With Cliff Lee scheduled start tomorrow night, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Chad Huffman in left not just for matchup purposes, but to also give Gardner that extra day of rest. As weird as it is to say, he’s a really important player for this team and they can’t afford to lose him for an extended period of time.

Sunday, 10:00pm: Gardner has a bruised right forearm and is day-to-day. No x-rays were necessary.

9:28pm: Brett Gardner left tonight’s game after being hit by a pitch in the hand/wrist during his first at-bat. Joe Girardi said during the in-between inning interview that there was some swelling, and that he’s going to be checked out by the doctors. Great.

The Burnett identity

A.J. watches another hard hit ball go past him. (Photo Credit: Mark J. Terrill, AP)

Over the weekend, A.J. Burnett, the Yankees’ $82.5 million man, joined an semi-exclusive club of Bronx hurlers. In the Expansion Era, he is now the 62nd pitcher to throw 300 innings or more in the pinstripes. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the recent ones have been historically bad, and the team’s investment is looking shaky at best.

When Burnett failed to pitch out the fourth on Saturday, he sealed the book on a historically bad month. For June, he was 0-5 with an 11.35 ERA in just 23 innings. He allowed 35 hits and 17 walks while surrendering 9 home runs and striking out 19. Opposing hitters tattooed him to the tune of a line .357/.455/.724 line. No pitcher in Yankee history has had a month with five starts and an ERA that high, and the bad pitching didn’t just start with the new month. Going back May 9, Burnett is 2-7 with a 7.71 ERA, a 1.83 WHIP and 12 home runs allowed. Opponents are hitting .315/.405/.574. That’s better — or worse– than a lineup of nine Albert Pujols.

With these ten starts, Burnett has established himself in the annals of Expansion Era pitchers. Let’s take a look at some tables, courtesy of Baseball Reference’s Play Index. We start with those with the highest ERAs after 300 innings.

We continue with the context. Here’s how the same chart looks with ERA+. This allows us to see how these pitchers fared relative to their peers at the time. It’s a bit more of an honest look at these numbers.

Rk Player ERA+ IP
1 Mike Kekich 76 564.0
2 Andy Hawkins 76 378.2
3 Fred Talbot 78 374.1
4 Tim Leary 79 425.2
5 Sterling Hitchcock 88 402.0
6 Rollie Sheldon 90 389.1
7 Kenny Rogers 93 324.0
8 Scott Sanderson 93 401.1
9 Luis Tiant 93 332.0
10 Hideki Irabu 95 395.2
11 Chuck Cary 95 309.1
12 Shane Rawley 95 444.1
13 Dennis Rasmussen 96 597.1
14 A.J. Burnett 96 301.1
15 Greg Cadaret 97 439.0
16 Jim Abbott 98 374.1
17 Scott Kamieniecki 99 627.1
18 Bob Shirley 99 470.2

What we see here is a problem. Burnett has found himself in the company of the some of the worst pitchers to don the pinstripes over the past 50 years, and no one wanted to see that outcome so early on in Burnett’s contract.

When A.J. came to the Bronx, the Yanks knew their signing was a risky one. The team had to outbid the Braves during the winter of 2008, and Brian Cashman ended up forking over $82.5 million for five years. Year One was fine. He went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA, but he walked too many guys and saw his K/9 IP dip from 9.4 to 8.5. However, he came through when the team needed him to.

He threw a three-hit, one-run, six-inning performance against the Twins in the ALDS. He struggled in the ALCS but roared back in the World Series. Over 7 innings against Pedro Martinez and one night after Cliff Lee outdueled CC Sabathia, Burnett gave up two runs on four hits and struck out nine to even up the World Series. That Game 2 victory is why Burnett has received a pass while Javier Vazquez was booed mercilessly and his April — bad but not as bad as Burnett’s June — was scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb.

Later this week, AJ’s narrative will run a new course. The Yanks’ pitcher has said that he leans on Dave Eiland more so than some of the team’s other pitchers, and Eiland has been absent from the team for nearly a month. He should be returning tomorrow, and Burnett is due to pitch on Friday. If anyone can fix Burnett, it will be Eiland, but considering how Burnett has 1600 big league innings under his belt and 1300 of those were without Eiland, I remain skeptical.

Instead, I see signs of decline. His K rate has gone from 9.6 and 9.4 in 2006 and 2007 to 6.9 this year. He’s allowing nearly three more hits per 9 innings than he did while with the Blue Jays, and Pitch f/x says that the fastball has lost a full mile per hour from last year and nearly three miles per hour since 2007. The Pitch f/x data isn’t the most consistent across the years, but it’s not uncommon for a 33-year-old to see his stuff decline.

The Yanks won’t skip any Burnett starts. Rather, they need to straighten him out. They know he can pull off a 4-1 month with an ERA under 2.00 as he did in April, and they seem to be waiting out this horrendous cold streak. But lurking in the not-so-dark recesses of my mind is the fear that the AJ we know is the AJ we have. He’ll have some good stretches and then he’ll be awful. He’ll be paid handsomely by the Yanks through his age 36 season, and I’d be lying if I said I were looking forward to it.

A bullpen band-aid: More Robertson, Marte

Last night we undoubtedly witnessed one of the most exciting, satisfying wins of the 2010 season. The Yankees brought back some of that 2009 comeback luster, taking advantage of a seemingly fatigued Jonathan Broxton. The job might have been a degree easier, though, had Joba Chamberlain not surrendered a run in the bottom of the eighth, extending the Dodgers’ lead to four. At that point the game seemed all but over.

Joba’s performance again highlighted one concerning aspect of the 2010 Yankees, their bullpen. The starters have, for the most part, done a great job of limiting the need for relief pitchers. They’re going deep into games and are handing the ball to Joba or even Mo. But with Joba’s inconsistencies, perhaps he’s not the man to take the ball in every eighth inning situation. But that only creates another question. Who would provide the bridge to Mariano?

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

While the Yankees just finished one of their best games of the season, they’re still less than a month removed from their worst loss. On May 29 they blew multiple big leads to the Indians, eventually dropping the game 13-11. Once again Joba was front and center. He took the ball with two outs in the seventh and not only allowed both inherited runners to score, but allowed four of his own. All with just one out left to record. The Yankees bullpen to that point didn’t help much. David Robertson hit a guy and allowed him to score after a steal. Sergio Mitre walked a guy, and while Damaso Marte retired the only batter he faced, Joe Girardi still decided to go to Joba rather than let Marte finish the job. In other words, while Joba ultimately blew it, the inning was a team effort in futility.

Photo credit: Paul Sancya/AP

Since that game Robertson has been much better. He has appeared in nine games and has pitched nine innings, allowing just one run on eight hits and four walks, while stranding the only runner he has inherited. He’s still not perfect, of course. Those four walks stick out, as do the 164 pitches it has taken him to finish those nine innings. But he also has plenty going for him. Even with his poor start he has struck out more than a batter per inning. His walk rate is in line with last year, and as we saw then he improved on that dramatically in the second half, walking just seven in 21.0 second-half innings. He has also kept the ball in the park, allowing just three home runs all season. Two of them came in one particularly poor performance against Baltimore; the other was that infamous grand slam against Anaheim at the home opener.

From Marte we see similar flaws and strengths. He keeps the ball in the park, allowing just one home run to the 65 batters he’s faced. He’s not as proficient as Robertson with the strikeout, just 10 in 14.2 innings this year, but he still has a quality rate. His walk rate is also troubling, as he’s walked one more than he’s struck out. That, however, might be attributable to his odd usage patterns. In fact, he’s walked only two batters in appearances that have come within two days of his previous one. In other words, it seems like the old adage holds true for Marte: he needs to actually pitch in order to stay sharp. To that end, four of his walks came in his two appearances prior to last night. He had gone three and then five days between appearances. That’s not to say that he’ll miraculously stop walking guys when given consistent work, but it doesn’t look like that could hurt.

The issue standing between Marte and Robertson, and more prominent roles, is that of trust. While Joe Girardi doesn’t share the same trust issues as his predecessor, he does favor certain relievers in certain situations. When his team has a small lead in the late innings, he puts his trust in Joba Chamberlain. At this point, that trust appears misguided. Joba’s peripherals look good, and in the long run I feel his results will move more in line with his strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. But for now the Yankees need another option, or options. There aren’t many viable candidates sitting out in the bullpen. Marte and Robertson, it appears, present the best cases to receive more high leverage innings.

Turning to Marte and Robertson is not the ideal solution, but neither is continuing along the current path. Joba just isn’t getting the job done. While I think he eventually will, the Yankees need a solution that will work during the next couple of weeks. With the way they’ve been pitching lately, Marte and Robertson present the best options. Neither has pitched much so far. Marte is on pace for 31.2 innings this season and Robertson is on pace for 54. Both can handle more, and if the Yankees want to explore all possible options to fix the bullpen problem they’ll get that chance. After all, why would they go and trade for a reliever if they don’t explore all possible internal options?

Fan Confidence Poll: June 28th, 2010

Record Last Week: 4-2 (33 RS, 34 RA)
Season Record: 47-28 (409 RS, 309 RA, 48-27 Pythag. record), two games up
Schedule This Week: Monday OFF, vs. Mariners (three games, Tues. to Thurs.), vs. Blue Jays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

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