Open Thread: On Upton … and Corpas

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Yes, the Yankees spoke to the Diamondbacks about The Justin Upton today, as did the Red Sox and I’m sure a host of other teams. When you put a guy that talented on the market, you should expect 29 phone calls, if not more. I’ll have a post on Upton up tomorrow morning, I promise, but for now I’ll leave you with Dave Cameron’s take on the matter.

One player I do want to quickly talk about reliever Manny Corpas, who the Rockies released today. He had Tommy John surgery late in the year and will miss basically all of 2011, but signing him would be a move geared towards 2012 and beyond. Assume he agrees to a minor league contract and rehabs next season, pretty much unavoidable at this point, he’ll still be under team control in both 2012 and 2013. Corpas isn’t the high strikeout guy the Yankees like to have on their staff (6.48 K/9 career), but he’s a ground ball beast, at least until year when his grounder rate dipped to a career low 42.5%. He’s generally at or above 50%, so perhaps the decline is injury related. Even though he has a ton of late game and closing (and World series!) experience (3.82 FIP career), I’m thinking about Corpas as just another middle innings guy to add to the inventory. They could go the Jon Lieber/Octavio Dotel route and let him rehab for a year before giving him his real chance.

Anyway, that’s my hot stove musing of the day. Here’s the open thread. The only local team in action are the Knicks, who are way out in Denver and don’t start for another few hours. I have no idea how to entertain myself tonight. Hopefully you have better luck, and if you do, spill the beans here. Have at it.

Yanks interested in lefty reliever Feliciano

Guys who throw like this and don't crack 90 typically have a tough time with righties (Tony Dejak/AP)

At the GM meetings this week, Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd said something that made me think of a situation the Yankees currently face. “But we’re not looking for the best player; we’re looking for the right player.” That might sound odd at first — isn’t the best player most often the right player? When it comes to team building, that’s not always the case. Every team has constraints. The Rockies probably can’t afford to sign a big-ticket free agent. While the Yankees can do that, they can’t afford to do other things. Among them is giving up all of their draft picks.

The point about draft picks came up in the Scott Downs post. He is easily the best left-handed reliever on the free agent market, but he’s not the best for the Yankees. Whether or not the Yankees sign Cliff Lee, or another Type A free agent, the cost of sacrificing another draft pick for Downs just isn’t worth the benefits he brings. The Yankees always pick low, and they haven’t had a supplemental pick in years now. To push their first pick into the triple digits just doesn’t sound like a good idea.

This morning Newsday’s Ken Davidoff mentioned that the Yankees are interested in Pedro Feliciano. That sounds interesting enough. Most of us are familiar with Feliciano because of his long tenure with the Mets; other than a stint in Japan during the 2005 season he has spent his entire career in Queens. He’s regarded as a quality lefty who can take the ball every day — his 92 appearances was the most in the league by seven. This might make him appear to be a viable option for the 2011 bullpen, but there is plenty that works against Feliciano.

What first jumps out is his walks. In three of the last four years he has walked 4.3 per nine, which is something you absolutely do not want out of any pitcher, never mind a lefty specialist. As Mike noted on today’s podcast, a good number of those are intentional. He issued intentional passes to six hitters in 2010, which would bring his walk rate down to 3.45 per nine. This trend continues back throughout his career. It does, in some way, mitigate the high walk rate. On the other hand, it speaks to another deficiency.

Feliciano is simply no good against right handers. All of those intentional walks in years past were issued to righties. This is unsurprising. We often see lefty relievers walk a righty in between two lefties. That’s the strategy some managers play. The intentional walks do indicate that Feliciano’s control isn’t as bad as his walk rate would have you believe. But it means, at the same time, that he’s putting more men on base. He certainly has the ability to strand those intentionally walked batters, as he is death on lefties. In 2010 he had a 9.55 K/10 and 2.73 BB/9 against lefties while not allowing a home run. That would be even better if he didn’t face more righty batters than lefties.

If the Yankees were to use Feliciano solely against left-handed hitters, maybe he’d work out. His career numbers against them are tremendous. He’s also a Type B free agent and so would not cost the team a draft pick. What he will cost is money. He will be 34 next season, so this is his chance to secure his future with a long-term contract. I suspect he’ll seek something along the lines of Damaso Marte‘s three-year, $12 million deal. I also suspect some team will acquiesce to that demand. I just hope it’s not the Yankees. If they’re looking for a lefty reliever who is terrible against lefties there are other options — Randy Choate, for one. At least he’ll be cheap and come on a short-term deal. Feliciano might be better, but he likely won’t be worth the years and money. The Yanks can find their lefty elsewhere.

The RAB Radio Show: November 16, 2010

We’re moving through awards week. This time it doesn’t have anything to do with the Yanks — well, other than a Yankee killer winning it. Roy Halladay took home the Cy in unanimous fashion. The more interesting points were further down the ballot.

Then we move back to the pitching coach question because of two items from yesterday. First, the Brewers let go pitching coach Rick Peterson. He is only of the better known pitching coaches out there. The same goes for Leo Mazzone, but Brian Cashman said that the Yankees will not interview him. Mike and I talk about the two, including their respective Big Threes.

Whoever the new pitching coach is, he might have a second lefty in the pen with whom to work. The latest rumor deals with Pedro Feliciano. Mike and I run down his pros and cons.

Podcast run time: 27:31

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Halladay takes home NL Cy Young Award

Boy am I happy this guy is in the other league now. Roy Halladay took home his second career Cy Young Award today, finishing ahead of Adam Wainwright by a solid (102 point) margin since he received all 32 first place votes. Doc is the fifth player to win the award in both leagues, joining Gaylord Perry, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.

In his first season with the Phillies, Halladay led the league with wins (21), innings pitched (250.1), complete games (nine), shutouts (four), walk rate (1.1 BB/9), strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.3), xFIP (2.92), and fWAR (6.6). In 33 starts, Halladay walked just 29 men unintentionally. He’s the first player to strike out more than 200 batters and walk fewer than 30 since, fittingly enough, Cy Young back in 1905. Congrats to Doc, he was a worthy foe with the Jays. Have fun, National League.

What Went Right: The Farm System

As we get closer to the end of our annual What Went Right/What Went Wrong season review, let’s shift our focus away from the big league team for just a bit.

The life blood of just about any team, in any sport really, is its ability to develop players from within. Homegrown players are substantially cheaper and in almost all cases are younger and closer to their primes than free agents, but the Yankees got away from that for a while. From about 2002 through 2007 the team started to rely on big name free agents to fill holes on the major league roster, sacrificing present depth by trading away prospects and future depth by forfeiting draft picks as free agent compensation. As a result, the Yankees were often left scrambling to find stop gap solutions for the inevitable injury or poor performance.

Brian Cashman started to change that way of thinking once he signing his new contract and got autonomy before the 2008 system, focusing more on the team’s farm system and their ability to produce quality players all by themselves. That didn’t mean they were going to stop signing free agents, but they weren’t going to rely on them as much. He and the team took a hit in 2008, missing the postseason for the first time in more than a decade, but the reward was a World Championship the very next season. Now three years into Cashman’s build from within plan, the farm system is starting to bear some seriously good fruit.

Jesus is coming. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For much of the year it appeared as though top prospect Jesus Montero had finally met his match in Triple-A. Older pitchers refused to challenge him with fastballs until he proved he could hit offspeed stuff, and as a result he started off very slowly, with a modest .312 wOBA through the season’s first three month. He was even benched for failing to run out a ground ball in May. There were legitimate reasons to be concerned about the 20-year-old”s development, but Montero answered those questions and then some in the second half.

Nearly traded to Seattle in a potential Cliff Lee deal, Montero put up a monster .433 wOBA from July 1st on, hitting 15 homers in just 223 plate appearances. That nearly matched his 2009 total of 17 homers, which took 379 plate appearances. Despite the slow start, the still just 20-year-old catcher set career highs in triples (three), homers (21), and unintentional walks (44), though he did set a new career high in strikeouts as well. As disappointing as the first half was, in the end it’s a good thing. Montero had never faced any kind of adversity in his career, and this season he showed that he could deal with the struggles, make adjustments, and thrive. That’s exactly what you want to see out of your top prospects, the overall numbers are just gravy.

On the pitching side of things, two of the organization’s most promising arms returned from injury and didn’t miss a beat, dominating really in a way that even they hadn’t yet. Left-hander Manny Banuelos had an appendectomy in Spring Training and didn’t debut until June 21st, but he finished the season with Double-A Trenton as a 19-year-old, pitching to a 2.38 FIP in 64.2 regular season innings before going to the Arizona Fall League and drawing rave reviews. Righty Dellin Betances returned from elbow surgery on June 10th and pitched to a 2.19 FIP the rest of the way. His 85.1 innings were the second most of his career, and they featured a stout 108-22 K/BB ratio.

(Photo Credit: Mike Ashmore)

Andrew Brackman, the third member of The Killer B’s, followed up his disastrous 2009 campaign with a breakout 2010. The 2007 first rounder finally found his control two years out from Tommy John surgery and reached Double-A, pitching to a 3.23 FIP in a career high 140.2 innings. His walk rate dropped from one every 6.6 batters faces to one every 15.5 batters faced while his strikeout rate remained an impressive 8.1 per nine innings. Brackman’s put himself in position for a 2011 call up to the big leagues.

On the offensive side of the ball, third baseman Brandon Laird led the way in terms of breakouts. He took home Double-A Eastern League MVP honors with a .371 wOBA, then moved up to Triple-A late in the year as a reward. Second baseman David Adams was right behind Laird in the breakout department, though his season ended prematurely due to a broke ankle. He was wOBA’ing .392 through 173 plate appearances before suffering the injury trying to break up a double play. Gary Sanchez made his pro debut and put up a .364 wOBA as a 17-year-old, leading the rookie level Gulf Coast League in basically every significant offensive category despite being promoted with three weeks left in the season. Austin Romine wore down during his first full season as an everyday catcher, but he still set career highs with 31 doubles and 36 unintentional walks.

While those are the headliners, what shouldn’t be forgotten is the amount of depth the Yanks have accumulated, especially on the mound. Adam Warren reached Double-A a year after being drafted and put up a 2.66 FIP in 135.1 total innings. David Phelps had a 2.65 FIP in 158.2 IP and reached Triple-A. Ivan Nova put together a 3.54 FIP in Triple-A before coming to the big leagues. Lance Pendleton (3.93 FIP), Shaeffer Hall (2.96), and Graham Stoneburner (2.73) all deserve to be mentioned as well.  Oh yeah, and then there’s Hector Noesi, who climbed from High-A Tampa to Triple-A Scranton, posting a 2.80 FIP in a system leading 160.1 IP. All he did was represent the organization at the Future’s Game.

Generally unsung players like righty Craig Heyer (2.27 FIP in 92 IP), first/third baseman Rob Lyerly (.351 wOBA), and jack-of-all-trades Kevin Mahoney (.402 wOBA at four different levels) put themselves on the map with big years. Toolsy outfielder Melky Mesa finally started to turn those tools into production, winning High-A Florida State League MVP honors thanks to a .378 wOBA. That performance earned him a spot on the 40-man roster after the season. Bradley Suttle recovered from a year-long hiatus due to a pair of shoulder surgeries to post a .348 wOBA. Slade Heathcott (.331 wOBA) and J.R. Murphy (.320 wOBA) held their own as teenagers making their full season debut. It’s easy to forget about Corban Joseph (.367 wOBA in the FSL before moving up to Double-A at age 21) and Brett Marshall (2.70 FIP in 84 IP after coming back from Tommy John surgery), two of the system’s highest upside players.

Heathcott during Spring Training. (Photo Credit: Andy in Sunny Daytona)

A few of the players that did stumble a bit were quickly moved in trades before their stock fell any further. Mark Melancon‘s usually strong control had deserted him, and he was sporting a 4.11 FIP in Triple-A (after years of being in the 2.00’s) when he was sent to Houston in the Lance Berkman trade. Zach McAllister‘s inability to miss bats (5.98 K/9)and sudden case of homeritis (1.29 HR/9) earned him a trip to Cleveland as the player to be named in the Austin Kearns deal. His FIP at the time of the trade sat at 4.73, and his previous career worst was 3.26, set two seasons ago. Jeremy Bleich was awful (4.82 FIP) before undergoing season ending shoulder surgery and Chris Garcia’s season lasted one start before he needed a second Tommy John surgery. That’s pretty much the extent of the major negatives from the 2010 season.

I hope everyone understands just how much of a success this year was for the Yankees’ farm system. The number of players that stepped up and improved far exceeded the number of those that took a step back or got hurt. It’s the closest thing to a best case scenario that I can remember, and as a result the Yanks now legitimately have a top ten farm system after being ranked in the 20’s last offseason. There’s depth in all forms; impact players both on the mound and in the field, useful role players and relievers, and plenty of trade fodder. It was a great year on the farm, one that will unquestionably help the Yanks going forward, one way or another.

Japanese club working to sign Thames

Via NPB Tracker, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are working to sign free agent outfielder/designated hitter Marcus Thames. Thames, of course, was fantastic after signing a dirt cheap minor league deal with the Yankees last year, exceeding all expectations by hitting .288/.350/.491 (.365 wOBA) overall. He was brought in to mash left-handers and he did just that (.365 wOBA), but he was much better than expected against right-handers as well (.382).

At 33 years old (34 in March) and coming off his best season in half-a-decade, Marcus is probably looking to cash in on what his likely his last opportunity for a big payday. If Softbank offers him two or more guaranteed years at something like $1.5-2M annually, I’m not sure Thames could turn that down.

What Went _____: Joba Chamberlain

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Over the past four seasons, few Yankees have inspired as much analysis, hand-wringing and debate than Joba Chamberlain. He seems to embody both the impossibly high expectations the Yankees and their fans place on young players and the ways in which the organization seemingly cannot get out of its own way when it comes to developing young pitchers. In that latter sense, then, Joba’s 2010 campaign is a microcosm of his career. Joba made 73 appearances, and the results should have been better than they were.

By now we know the Joba story. Drafted out of Nebraska in 2006, Joba rocketed through the system in 2007 as a starter and made his Yankee debut in August of that year as a reliever when Kyle Farnsworth could not be trusted. Limited by the Joba Rules, Chamberlain dazzled out of the pen, and his initial success set himself up for inevitable failure. Transitioned into the starting rotation in 2008, he was excellent until a shoulder injury in Texas derailed his season, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in 2009, he didn’t regain his velocity. When the team again instituted a variety of rules at the end of last year, the Yanks seemed to consider him a lost soul at the ripe old age of 24.

Heading into Spring Training in February, the Yankees had reportedly planned to host a competition for the fifth starter spot, but it was an unfair one from the start. Before camp began, Joel Sherman reported that the rotation spot was Phil Hughes‘ to lose, and Joba stumbled through Grapefruit League play. Destined for the bullpen, Joba inherited the eighth inning role and seemed to excel.

Through mid-May, Joba was as good as we could have hoped. He struck out 21 over his first 16.2 innings and allowed just four runs on 12 hits and five walks. But after giving up a combined seven earned runs in back-to-back appearances on May 16 and 18, the wheels fell off. From May 16-July 25, Joba pitched to an 8.42 ERA as opponents hit .348/.408/.500. Stick Joba on the mound, and everyone became Albert Pujols.

Over that span of 26 appearances, Joba gave up runs in 11 of them, and he did so in spectacular fashion. He allowed four runs to Boston in the 8th inning of a game the Yanks were winning and then choked away a six-run lead against the hapless Indians two weeks later. His nadir came on July 10 when he came in with a 1-0 lead and gave up a grand slam to Jose Lopez.

But through it all, the numbers just didn’t add up. Over those 25.2 innings, Joba had a FIP of 3.49, a mark nearly 5 runs per 9 innings lower than his actual results. He was still striking out more than a batter an inning, and the home run to Lopez was just the second he had surrendered all season. We were waiting for the market correction to come, and it finally did in late July.

Over the final two months of the season, Joba returned to form. In 29.1 innings, he struck out 30, walked just five and gave up seven earned runs on 20 hits for a nifty 2.15 ERA and a FIP — 2.89 — nearly to match. Joba saw limited playoff action in 2010 but gave up just a run in 3.3 innings against the Rangers.

The 2010 data on Joba's fastball velocity shows an upward trend. (Via Fangraphs)

So what do we make of this? On the one hand, Joba’s 9.7 K/9 IP was his best mark since 2008; his 2.8 BB/9 IP was his lowest since his debut season in 2007; and he showed a marked improvement in keeping the ball in the park. On the other hand, at times, he just didn’t have the confidence in his stuff. He threw too many 3-2 sliders and seemed tentative. Even though his velocity seemed to return to pre-shoulder injury levels and improved as the season wore on, he went through stretches where he fooled no one.

The numbers too bear out these struggles. Fewer than half of his pitches were inside the strike zone, and only 9.4 percent of his strikes were of the swinging variety. In 2007, he notched an impressive 16.7 percent mark in that category. His fastball, a whopping negative 20 runs below average last year, rebounded to 2.8 runs above average while the slider dipped from 7.6 runs above average to just 3.6. Perhaps the league has caught on to Joba’s approach and his stuff. Perhaps he’ll never be as consistently good as he was for a few months in 2007.

Going forward, the Yankees seem intent on keeping Joba in the bullpen. “We consider him a bullpen guy in the back end of the bullpen,” Joe Girardi said last month. Even though Joba’s stuff seems to be rebounding, even though he can gets the outs and could be a more valuable member of the pitching staff, the Yanks like his stuff in the pen and clearly view him as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera if he can keep his head in the game.

And so I’m left without a word to put into the blank. Did Joba’s season go wrong because of his mid-summer struggles? Did it go right because it validated the Yanks’ decision to put him in the pen and saw his strike out abilities return? Whatever the answer, Joba remains an enigma who just might not be as good as we all hoped and dreamed he would be.