2010 Season Preview: Whose future is now?

It seems like just yesterday, but it was actually way back in early 2007 that Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain were nothing more than a pair of exciting, yet unproven pitching prospects sitting in the Yankees’ farm system. Fast forward to today, and the unproven part of the equation still holds true to some extent, yet both players have lived what feels like a baseball lifetime since they last appeared on any prospect list.

Despite being just 23- and 24-years-old, respectively, Hughes and Joba have each experienced a roller coaster of success and failure in just a little over two years of big league service time. Hughes dealt with both injury and ineffectiveness as a starter before hitting his stride out of the bullpen last year, while Joba enjoyed success out of the bullpen before finding out that life isn’t easy as a starter in the AL East. It wasn’t always pretty, but the duo combined to provide the team with 243.1 innings of 4.14 ERA quality pitching on it’s way to the 2009 World Championship.

But that was then and this is now. The reality of life going into the 2010 season is that there is just one rotation spot for these two players. The one that doesn’t get that spot faces an uncertain fate. More than likely he’ll end up back in the bullpen working in some unknown capacity, but an assignment to Triple-A is not out of the question. Even though the Yankees are in a perpetual win-now mode, their decision will have an impact beyond 2010 because of where each player is in the development process.

Joba started last season as the number five starter, but he was quickly bumped up to number four status when Chien-Ming Wang‘s shoulder betrayed him. Working with reduced velocity, he entered the month of August with a shiny 3.58 ERA but a not great 4.33 FIP, though he struggled the rest of the way – not coincidentally, once the Joba Rules took effect – and finished the season with a 4.75 ERA that damn near matched his 4.82 FIP. It was certainly not what the Yankee faithful expected out of Joba, but I think we need to keep in mind just how unique his situation is. Just five other pitchers his age have managed to throw 150 innings in a single season in the AL East during the wildcard era, and just two of those five were able to post a better than league average ERA (Scott Kazmir in 2007, Jesse Litsch in 2008).

The bad news is that four of those five pitchers would make at least one trip to the disabled the very next season, and collectively their ERA would go from 4.40 ERA (4.28 FIP) to 4.74 (4.79 FIP). The lone survivor of the group is Edwin Jackson, who went from a 5.76 ERA (4.90 FIP) in 161 IP as a 23-year-old in 2007 to a 4.42 ERA (4.88 FIP) in 183.1 IP as a 24-year-old in 2008. Even though his ERA dropped nearly a run and a half, his core peripheral stats remained the same, suggesting that he didn’t improve much as a pitcher, if at all. If he does end up serving as the fifth starter in 2010, history is not on Joba’s side when it comes to a breakout.

Let’s see what the projection systems say…

Well, these don’t really do us much good. CHONE projects Joba to work strictly in relief next season, while CAIRO and ZiPS see him splitting time between the rotation and bullpen. If we completely remove the CHONE projection, we get a 4.15 ERA (3.99 FIP) and 1.42 WHIP in 156.1 IP as a (mostly) starter. These things are really unpredictable for young players with limited track records, so this don’t shed much light on anything.

Really, the most important thing to know about Joba heading into the 2010 season is that he’s finally stretched out and the Joba Rules are no more. Between the regular season and playoffs last year, he piled up 163.2 innings, putting him on track for 190-200 next year. If the Yankees send Joba back to the bullpen for the entire season, all that hard work over the last two years will have been for naught.

As for Hughes, he’s in an even weirder place than Joba. After making six good starts and one complete stinker last season, he moved to the bullpen and literally became the best setup man in the business. He held opponents to a .172-.228-.228 batting line out of the bullpen, posting a gaudy 1.40 ERA (1.94 FIP). All told, Hughes threw 111.2 innings last season (majors, minors, playoffs), his most since a career high 146 IP in 2006. There’s really very little precedent for a pitcher as young as Hughes having that kind of success in the bullpen over that long of a period of time, except for maybe former Halos’ closer Francisco Rodriguez, who last started a game in A-ball.

Time to turn to the projections…

Well these don’t really do much for us, but we knew that would be the case going in given Hughes’ unsettled track record. CHONE is the only system to go out on a limb and project him exclusively as a starter, while the other systems go the part-time starter/part-time reliever route. The Yanks have maintained that they envision him in the rotation long-term, so we’re in very muddy water here. If Hughes spent all of 2010 in the rotation, he would likely be looking at cap of 150 innings or so, putting him on track for his first unabridged season in 2011. I think we all know that Hughes can be a successful reliever if he returned to the bullpen in 2010, though maybe not as dominant as he was last year. As a starter, we really have no idea what to expect.

So the Yankees have a pretty big decision to make. They are stuck in the enviable position of having two high-ceiling players on the right side of 25 for one rotation spot. Of course, the Yanks could always call an audible and decide the best team going forward features both Hughes and Joba in the bullpen, but that would be a major upset. Both players are expected to be core pieces of the rotation going forward with the fallback option of becoming quality late-game relievers.  The 2010 season is just the next step in developing both Hughes and Joba into cornerstones pitchers.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

The last RAB fantasy Baseball League (I mean it this time)

Update (11:08am): 6:30pm on Friday is a stupid time, my bad. I’ll run the sign up post Monday night, with details to come that morning.

11:00am: Okay, we put together a seventh league. I’ll post the sign up info at 6:30pm ET today, so check back then if you haven’t gotten into one of our other leagues.

A peek at some Spring Training numbers

Nick Johnson has been a bright spot for the Yankees offensively this spring. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

We don’t spend much time on Spring Training results. They are largely irrelevant, and the teams themselves are looking more at process, strength and red flags than who wins, who loses and who compiles the biggest stats. Some games end with tied scores and others have a bottom of the 9th after the home team has already won so that a pitcher can get some extra work in. It’s a relaxed atmosphere where players who start often don’t even know who won or who lost.

With their win over Tampa Bay last night, the Yanks wrapped up their 15th Grapefruit League game of the year, and in 16 days, 10 hours and approximately 35 minutes from when this post is published, the team will face off against the Red Sox in a game that counts. So at Spring Training’s halfway point, let’s have some fun with numbers.

NJ leading the way

Nick Johnson, the man atop this post who was brought back to the Bronx to the be the OBP machine at DH, has led the team offensively so far. In 18 ABs, he’s hitting .389/.478/1.000 with three home runs, a pair of doubles and four walks. Robinson Cano is having himself a nifty spring as well with a .400/.444/.520 triple slash line in 25 ABs, and Mark Teixeira is right there with him. The switch-hitting first baseman sports a .333/.417/.619 line in 21 ABs.

Of those not likely to make the team, Colin Curtis leads the way. He has just ten at-bats this spring, but two of them have resulted in three-run home runs. His seven RBIs lead all Yankees, and the 25-year-old has certainly flashed some offense this month. Jon Weber is 8 for 15, and Kevin Russo is 6 for 17. Juan Miranda, auditioning for a trade or a bench spot, is just 4 for 23.

The guys fighting for spots and playing time are faring a bit worse. Brett Gardner has four walks but is just six for 25. Jamie Hoffmann has three hits in 21 ABs but has just one strike out. At least he’s making contact. Randy Winn is four for 21 with six K’s, and all four of his hits were singles. Spring Training invitee Marcus Thames is three for 21 with seven whiffs.

Aceves strong in the early going

For the Yankee hurlers, Alfredo Aceves has led the way. He has tossed a team-high 10 innings and has allowed just one run on three hits. He hasn’t issued a free pass and has struck out five. He should again turn out a solid season from the pen as he morphs into this generation’s Ramiro Mendoza.

Beyond Aceves, Javier Vazquez has turned in an admirable spring as well. In three outings, he has unsurprisingly surrendered three home runs, but he has struck out nine while walking just three in eight innings. If he can maintain that K:BB ratio, he’ll be just fine this summer. Sergio Mitre, another year removed from Tommy John surgery, has impressed as well. In nine innings, he has surrendered three runs on seven hits while walking two and striking out seven. Mark Melancon — 5.2 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K — remains a sleeper candidate for the bullpen.

The guys who have struggled on the mound include some big names. CC Sabathia sports an ERA north of 8.00 right now, and Joba Chamberlain, coming off of a strong outing on Wednesday, has allowed 12 in 6.2 innings with a K:BB ratio of 5:7. Jonathan Albaladejo holds the title for worst of camp though. In 2 innings, he has given up 15 hits and 10 earned runs.

It’s tempting to draw conclusions from this numbers, but there’s nothing much here. Players have too few at-bats, and pitchers are working to get a feel for pitchers. As long as no one gets hurt, the results are secondary. We’ll worry about the results in April.

Photo credits: Colin Curtis via AP Photo/Brian Blanco. Alfredo Aceves via AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar.

Spring Training Trade Review: Wily Mo Pena

It seems that spring training trades tend to involve small-time players. After evaluating players over the first month of exhibition, some of these role players become expendable. This is what we saw in the Rondell White trade. Hideki Matsui‘s addition rendered White a reserve outfielder. Rather than spend $5 million on a bench player, the Yankees traded him for a high-upside arm. Yet this isn’t at all the type of trade Cashman pulled in the Spring of 2001. It involved two minor leaguers, Wily Mo Pena and Drew Henson. The players involved have quite a history with the Yankees.

The backstories

Photo credit: Tony Tribble/AP

During the international signing period in 1998, the Mets signed 16-year-old Wily Mo Pena. That winter, however, Major League Baseball voided the deal. Why this happened I could not find, but whatever the reason the Yankees stepped in a month later and signed Pena with a $2.44 million bonus, the largest non-Cuban bonus ever at that point.

The Yankees drafted Drew Henson in the third round of the 1998 draft. A star quarterback at the University of Michigan, Henson chose baseball and the Yankees thought he had star potential. But, needing a pitcher in 2000, they traded him to the Reds for Denny Neagle. Also included in that trade: Ed Yarnall, whom the Yankees acquired just a year prior in exchange for Mike Lowell.

The trade

Photo credit: Chris O’Meara/AP

In the spring of 2001 Henson had recently completed his junior year at the University of Michigan, where he excelled at quarterback. He was still playing baseball, but it was clear that he could still choose to enter the 2002 NFL draft and try his hand there. His preference, however, was to play baseball, and specifically for the Yankees. As Buster Olney put it, the Yankees were convinced of his future stardom and wanted him back from the Reds before he had to decide on the NFL.

Pena had not impressed during his first two seasons in the Yankees’ minor league system. He played his age-17 season in the GCL, hitting .247/.323/.446 through just 186 plate appearances. He followed that up with underwhelming performances in low-A and A levels in 2000, hitting for a combined .651 OPS. He played mostly in class-A, Greensboro at hte time, where he hit .205/.268/.361 in 276 PA. The performance itself was disappointing, but Pena was all projection at the time. His raw power certainly enticed other teams, and the Yankees took advantage.

The two teams worked out a swap in late March, with the Yankees receiving outfielder Michael Coleman in the deal. This was not much of a consolation, as Coleman had no remaining options — hence Cincinnati’s willingness to deal him. His last at-bat of the season, and of his major league career, came on May 16.

The results

What started as a swap of two talented players turned into a swap of two busts. Pena appeared to be on his way in 2001, when he hit .264/.327/.485 in 565 PA at Class-A. He struggled at AA the next year, though, especially with his bread and butter, power. Still, he made his Major League debut that season. He hit well enough in 2003 to warrant a call-up, and in 2004 it appeared he was well on his way to mashing major league pitchers. He posted a .268 ISO in 2004 and .238 in 2005. Yet his plate discipline remained a big problem.

Pena was involved in another spring training trade five years after the Yanks traded him when Cincinnati sent him to Boston for Bronson Arroyo in 2006. His power numbers dropped that year, but his .301 average powered his OBP to a respectable .349. THat’s what a .400 BABIP will do. Of course, that’s unsustainable. After 172 poor plate appearances for the Red Sox in 2007 they traded him to the Nationals, where he picked it up. Unfortunately he stumbled again the next season. He spent 2009 at the Mets’ AAA organization, where he hit .276/.296/.414.

Though Henson played at three minor league levels in 2001, he spent most of his time at AAA, 281 PA, though he struggled worse than Pena. His .145 ISO was the only remotely bright spot that season. In 2002 he returned to AAA and showed improvement, hitting .240/.301/.435, again displaying power, a .195 ISO this time, but once again showing not much in the way of discipline. He did get one major league PA at the end of the season. He was even worse in 2003, hitting .234/.291/.412. He went 1 for 8 that september with the big league club and never played baseball again.

Overall, Pena produced 0.8 WAR in his career while Henson was -0.1, so the Yankees didn’t lose even one win by making the swap. I don’t remember much of the trade, though I understand what they were doing. They wanted the athlete over the power product. As it turned out, neither reached their potential.

Spring Training Game Thread: Under the lights

There’s nothing quite like baseball under the sun, but I’ve always had a soft spot for night games. The cool breeze, the lights, I dunno what it is, but I like it. The Yankees are playing one of their few night games of the preseason tonight, taking on the Rays’ B-team in Tampa. Javy Vazquez will be making his third televised start of the spring in as many outings. I guess he’s an attention whore.

Anyway, here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Granderson, CF
Swisher, RF
Posada, C
Cano, 2B
Thames, DH
Winn, LF
Miranda, 1B
Pena, 3B

Scheduled Pitchers: Javy Vazquez, Chan Ho Park, and David Robertson. Dustin Moseley, Mark Melancon, Romulo Sanchez, and Boone Logan are also available.

Also scheduled to play: Reegie Corona, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, Reid Gorecki, Eduardo Nunez, P.J. Pilittere, Austin Romine, Kevin Russo, and Jon Weber.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET. You can watch locally on YES, or out of market on MLB Network. Enjoy the game.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Report: Yanks’ brass to meet Sunday to discuss the fifth starter

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees have a meeting planned for this Sunday to discuss the fifth starter situation. The prevailing thought seems to be that Phil Hughes is at the front of the line for the job, sending Joba Chamberlain back to the bullpen, but I can’t imagine that the brain trust is going to base the decision on each player’s first three Spring Training appearances if it is in fact a true “open competition.” Stranger things have happened, I guess.

Either way, there might be some progress towards a resolution with this mess situation soon, and Mo knows we’re all looking forward to it. Maybe they’ll talk about the trade partner they found for Sergio Mitre following his strong exhibition season. Wishful thinking?

Catching up with Mark Newman

John Sickels of Minor League Ball sat down to talk to Mark Newman, the Yankees’ farm director, and needless to say, it’s a must read. Some of the many topics they discussed were Gerrit Cole, how to pronounce Jeremy Bleich‘s name, sleepers, all sorts of great stuff. The most interesting part, to me at least, was Newman explaining how they use the Latin American market as a way to acquire premium young players that normally wouldn’t get to them in the draft. When it comes to drafting risky players like Cole and Andrew Brackman, Newman had a great quote: “… to be extraordinary involves risk, and our goal is to be extraordinary.” Amen, brother.

The interview was conducted this morning, so it looks like Newman won’t be getting the Steve Swindal treatment after his DUI.