Looking at Todd Coffey

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Aside from the obvious need for a starting pitcher, the Yankees also have to fill some voids on the bench and in the bullpen. While David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain are a fine setup tandem, no one would mind an upgrade. The problem is that unless you overpay for Rafael Soriano or trade half the farm system for Joakim Soria, that guy just isn’t available. The best course of action may be to simply add depth and upgrade the middle relief corps instead. I’ve already looked at Chad Durbin for this role, but another name caught my eye today: Todd Coffey.

A 41st round pick way back in 1998, Coffey slowly climbed the Reds’ minor league ladder before reaching the big leagues in 2005. He pitched out of Cincinnati’s bullpen in parts of four seasons before being designated for assignment and then claimed off waivers by the Brewers in September 2008. Coffey’s time with the Reds wasn’t anything special – a 6.0 K/9 and 2.3 uIBB/9 in just over 200 innings – but the now 30-year-old seemed to find himself in Milwaukee.

Spending the 2009 season as manager Ken Macha’s bullpen ace, Coffey threw a whopping 83.2 relief innings, the third most in baseball. His strikeout rate was just okay at 7.0 K/9, but he made up for it by walking just 1.9 batters per nine innings unintentionally and getting a ground ball 52.3% of the time with his low-to-mid-90’s fastball and mid-80’s slider. Batters swung and missed on 10.7% of the swings they took against Coffey, more than they did against strikeout artists like Bobby Jenks, Heath Bell, Carlos Marmol, and Kerry Wood. That fine season earned him a $2.025M salary for 2010 in his second trip through arbitration.

Coffey’s peripheral stats took a bit of a hit in 2010, not coincidentally as he battled a thumb contusion on his throwing hand that cost him three weeks in June. His strikeout and whiff rates actually climbed to 8.1 K/9 and 11.2%, respectively, but his walk rate jumped to 2.6 uIBB/9 and his ground ball rate fell just about five percent to 47.6%. Coffey’s ERA, just 2.90 the year before, shot up to 4.76, but you can blame that on a microscopic 63.9% strand rate. League average is right around 72%, so he ran into quite a bit of bad luck there. Instead of giving Coffey another raise through arbitration, the Brewers non-tendered him earlier this month, a completely understandable move.

Although the walk, ground ball, and improving strikeout rates are traits you want in a reliever, Coffey is flawed. His platoon split is pretty massive, as lefties tagged him for a .344 wOBA over the last two years while righties were held to just a .288 wOBA. He’s also surprisingly homer prone despite the proven ability to keep the ball on the ground, giving up the long ball at a rate almost exactly equal to one for every nine innings pitched over the last two seasons (0.98 HR/9, to be exact). Coffey is flawed, no doubt about it, but so is every other middle reliever on the face of the earth.

It shouldn’t cost much to sign Coffey at this point, definitely nothing close to what he earned in 2010. A one-year contract with a six-figure salary seems almost inevitable regardless of what team he joins, a price that’s just a drop in the hat to the Yankees. Right now the Opening Day bullpen projects to have two of Romulo Sanchez (out of options!), Ryan Pope, Danny Turpen, Luis Vizcaino, etc. in it, so adding Coffey would be an obvious upgrade. He can be a very valuable piece if used correctly, meaning he’s kept away from lefty batters. Cheap moves that are easy to back out of, like this would be, is the name of the bullpen game. The risk is minimal.

Aside: Not that it matters, but the 6-foot-4, 240 lb. Coffey has been a fan favorite wherever he’s played, mostly because he comes out of the bullpen to the Ultimate Warrior’s entrance music and does a full sprint to the mound. The Brewers even started keeping track of his sprint times and called it Coffey Time!, even keeping a leader board. It’s irrelevant to his value as a player, but baseball’s supposed to be fun and Coffey is just that.

Open Thread: Chuck Knoblauch

(AP Photo/Steve Mitchell)

I know almost everyone remembers Knoblauch for his unusual batting stance and the throwing issues and the Blauch-Head play, but his first two years in New York were pretty damn good. A leadoff hitter that got on base 37.7% of the time with more walks (159) than strikeouts (127) and the ability to hit 35 homers across two seasons? Yes please. At his peak with the Twins (1995-1996), Chuck was a .337/.437/.503 middle infielder. The end of Knoblauch’s career was a mess, but the team went to the World Series all four years he was in pinstripes, winning three of them. His last good deed as a Yankee came in Game Five of the 2001 World Series, when he led off the 12th inning with a single and later came around to score the winning run after Scott Brosius tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. Good times, good times.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers are in Newark playing the Devils, plus the Isles and Nets are in action. Talk about whatever you want, go nuts.

Food For Thought: Robbie Cano

Baerga’s sudden and rather scary fall from grace was due in part to knee issues, but otherwise he was just a guy that peaked very early. Cano’s development path has been a bit more traditional, with his age 26 and 27 seasons being his two best to date. Middle infielders can unexpectedly fall off, perhaps due to the beating they take turning the double play at second, but I would be surprised if Cano just all of a sudden stopped being a productive big leaguer like Baerga.

(related graphs) (h/t Matt Imbrogno)

The difference between Pettitte and Mitre

Which one looks better to you?

CC Sabathia CC Sabathia
Phil Hughes Phil Hughes
Andy Pettitte A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett Ivan Nova
Ivan Nova Sergio Mitre

There is no questioning that the one on the left is the preferable option. The only unknown is of how big a difference exists between Pettitte and Mitre. An initial reaction might have the difference pegged at a few wins, but I’m not sure it’s that wide a gap. In fact, given each pitcher’s limitations I think we’re talking about a single win, maybe even less.

The assumptions

As Mike did yesterday, I won’t count on Pettitte for a full season’s worth of starts. In the same way, I won’t count on Mitre for that, either, since the last time he started more than 10 games was in 2007. I also assumed 6.1 IP per start for Pettitte and 5.2 per start for Mitre. That leaves Pettitte with 126.2 IP and Mitre with 113.1. That’s just 13.1 additional bullpen innings, which we’ll have to factor in somehow.

The tougher part of this exercise is projecting ERAs. Bill James forecasts Pettitte at 3.86 and Mitre at 4.57, but I think both of those are a bit aggressive. But let’s keep them in the bank, just in case. As a rough estimate of ERA, I’d peg Pettitte at 4.00 and Mitre at his career ERA, 5.27. Let’s see how the differences work out.

The results

If we go with the James projections, Pettitte works out to 54 earned runs, or 2.7 ER/GS. Mitre works out to 58 ER, or 2.9 ER/GS. In 20 starts that amounts to a whopping four runs. Even if we go with the more conservative 4.00 and 5.27 estimates, we get Pettitte at 56 ER, or 2.8 ER/GS, and Mitre at 66 ER, or 3.3 ER/GS. That’s a 10-run difference — or roughly a single win. Now that we’ve put it in the simplest possible terms, it doesn’t seem like that big a difference, does it? We can adjust up or down, but I don’t think you’ll get an exceedingly different answer unless you think Mitre will produce something like a 7 ERA. I don’t think that particularly likely.

The bullpen

Where we actually get the biggest difference is with the bullpen. Those are just 13.1 innings, but they’re 13.1 innings that are already accounted for with Pettitte. This obviously can fluctuate wildly. If we have those innings filled by 2010 Chan Ho Park, that’s another 8 ER. If they’re thrown by David Robertson it’s 6 ER; with Boone Logan it’s 4 ER; with Mo it’s 3. I’d say 5 ER is a decent compromise.

That brings our difference between Mitre and Pettitte — accounting for earned runs and innings pitched — to somewhere between 9 and 15 ER over 20 starts, or between .45 and .75 runs per start. That’s going to cost the Yankees a couple of those 20 games. But the key term is a couple. It’s hard to argue that the difference would amount to much more than that.

Bringing back Petitte will clearly make the Yankees rotation better. There is no reliable measure that can say otherwise. But given both Pettitte’s and Mitre’s limitations, the difference might not be as great as we imagine. In the AL East two wins will matter plenty. But the difference between Pettitte and Mitre is not the difference between a .500 team and a 92-win team. Unfortunately, the small difference that does exist could play a large role in determining the 2011 postseason.

Mailbag: From Double-A to MLB

Not yet, Manny. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Jamie asks: First I’ll start off by saying I’m confident that the Yanks will sign or trade for another SP prior to Spring Training and this question becomes moot. However, if they don’t there’s been talk of using kids to fill the rotation out with names like Betances and Banuelos thrown out there. My question is, how often have teams’ top pitching prospects skipped AAA entirely and have there been many pitchers that have been successful in doing so? What’s the best/worst case scenario we could see out of ManBan or Dellin if either were the 5th starter?

I did some digging around and it turns out that quite a few top pitching prospects skipped the Triple-A level before jumping into the big leagues, including current Yankee ace CC Sabathia. He made ten High-A starts in 2000 before being promoted at midseason and making another 17 starts with Double-A, and the next year he made the Indians’ rotation as a 20-year-old right out of Spring Training. His lone career Triple-A start was a rehab outing in 2006. A.J. Burnett made the jump from Double-A to the majors in 1999, but he went back to the minors to start the 2000 season before resurfacing in June. He made all of one Triple-A start before sticking in the show.

Some of the other notable big leaguers that skipped Triple-A all together: Justin Verlander (just 20 minor league starts total, seven in Double-A), Mat Latos (nine Double-A starts), Clayton Kershaw (16 Double-A starts), Josh Beckett (13 Double-A starts), Scott Kazmir (eight Double-A starts), and former Yankee first round pick Eric Milton (14 Double-A starts). Tim Lincecum (five), Roy Oswalt (five), and Cole Hamels (three) all made a very limited number of Triple-A starts before sticking in the big leagues. The Tigers were aggressive with Verlander but he was a college draft pick; Rick Porcello was a high school kid that famously jumped from High-A to the big leagues in 2009. Half-a-decade earlier, the Tigers did the exact same thing with Jeremy Bonderman. Yeah, Detroit likes to be aggressive with their prospects. Johan Santana jumped from High-A to the big leagues as well, but he was a Rule 5 Draft pick, so his situation was a little different. I’m certain there are more examples out there, but these are just a few.

As for Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, we have to remember that if either guy started the 2011 season in the Yankees rotation, they wouldn’t be just skipping Triple-A, they’d essentially be skipping Double-A as well. Banuelos is still just 19 years old, and he has a total of three starts and 15.1 Double-A innings to his credit. Betances is older in age (22) but not in Double-A experience, his three starts at the level produced a total of 14.1 innings. Combined, the pair have faced 119 batters above the Single-A level. Throwing them to the AL East wolves with that little upper level experience is just asking for trouble. The chances of success are probably like, 5%, and the worst case scenario involves 50 or so innings with a 6+ ERA and a trip back to the minors with confidence at an all-time low.

Thankfully the Yankees have some arms in Triple-A they could turn to first. Hector Noesi and Andrew Brackman are already on the 40-man, and David Phelps can be added without a problem. We can even add Adam Warren to that mix as well. Those four can and should be given a rotation spot before turning to Banuelos or Betances. The time will come for those two, but 2011 is too soon.

The Yanks’ recent history of January & February transactions

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The holidays are always a slow time for baseball news, and this year is no different. The Yankees haven’t done anything significant this offseason beyond agreeing to a deal with Pedro Feliciano, so any further improvements to the team will have to take place after the New Year. I decided to take a look back at the moves the team has made in January and February of the last five years just to get an idea of what we can expect over the next few weeks, and unsurprisingly, it’s nothing excited. Let’s recap…

January: Signed Royce Ring, traded Mitch Hilligoss for Greg Golson.
February: Signed Marcus Thames, Dustin Moseley, and Chan Ho Park.

Ring didn’t contribute much to the Yankees since he spent basically all season in Triple-A Scranton, but Golson played quite a bit in September as a pinch runner and defensive specialist. He even made the postseason roster. Thames, Moseley, and CHoP all spent a lot of time with the big league team, though Thames was the only one to have a positive impact. Park was the only one of the three on a big league contract, but he had a case of homeritis before being cut at the trade deadline. Moseley was below replacement level filling in for Andy Pettitte.

January: Signed Pettitte and Angel Berroa, finalized deal with Mark Teixeira.
February: Signed Brett Tomko.

Tex agreed to his deal a few days before Christmas, but it wasn’t made official until after the holidays. The same will be true of Feliciano this winter. Berroa was a minor league signing that ended up spending some time with the big league team after both Alex Rodriguez and (shudder) Cody Ransom hit the disabled list. Tomko was another minor league deal that was sub-replacement level in a handful of appearances for the Yanks before being jettisoned.

Pettitte was coming off a terrible second half in 2008 and was doing the retire or not retire thing all winter, then the Yankees played hardball with him salary-wise. I suspect we’ll get some resolution as to Pettitte’s status for next season during January, one way or the other.

January: Signed Billy Traber and Morgan Ensberg.
February: No significant moves.

Blah. Both Traber and Ensberg were signed to minor league contracts yet opened the season on the 25-man roster, but both guys were terrible and banished to the minors and released before the All Star break, respectively. It’s worth noting that the Yanks did sign both Al Aceves and Manny Banuelos in February, but those were long-term moves not necessarily designed to impact the 2008 team.

January: Signed Doug Mientkiewicz and Miguel Cairo. Traded Randy Johnson and $2M to Arizona for Luis Vizcaino, Ross Ohlendorf, Alberto Gonzalez, and Steven Jackson.
February: Signed Ron Villone.

Minky! (AP Photo/Jerry Lai)

Finally, something interesting. Minky was better with the Yankees than people remember, posting a .346 wOBA with studly defense at first. Cairo and Villone stunk, and the writing had been on the wall about an RJ trade for weeks by time it was consummated. Vizcaino was the team’s best middle reliever that year, at least until Joba Chamberlain showed up in August, and Rock ‘n Rohlendorf was actually on the postseason roster that season. Gonzalez did little in his brief time in New York, Jackson even less. The trade did save the Yankees $14M, money they eventually gave to Roger Clemens when they signed him at midseason.

February: Signed Bernie Williams, Octavio Dotel, Miguel Cairo, and Al Leiter. Finalized deal with Johnny Damon.
February: Claimed Darrell Rasner off waivers from Washington. Signed Scott Erickson.

Bernie’s deal was just a formality since we all knew he was coming back, and Damon’s contract was made official after being agreed to in December. Dotel was on a minor league rehab deal as he came back from Tommy John surgery, but his contribution to the Yankee cause later that season was minimal. Cairo and Leiter were forgettable, as was Erickson. Rasner proved useful for a few seasons before heading to Japan, though he was never anything special. Just a nice arm to take a beating whenever the team needed it.

* * *

For the most part, every move made in January and February over the last five seasons has involved complementary pieces or minor league filler, not counting Damon and Tex. Pettitte should get resolved next month like I said, and based on recent history, any moves the Yankees make before Spring Training will be rather insignificant. They’ll probably bring in a starting pitcher, but we all know it’s unlikely to be some kind of high-end arm. Count on it being an innings guy for depth. With any luck, he’ll be better than Rasner.

Joakim Soria and the Yankees

(Orlin Wagner/AP)

Perhaps we’d better start from the beginning.

Trade deadline 2010. The Rangers acquire Cliff Lee and the Angels acquire Dan Haren. The Yankees had varying degrees of interest in both, and both ended up elsewhere. Clearly they were going to look wherever possible for ways to upgrade the team. On July 25th SI.com’s Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees “made a big proposal for Royals closer Joakim Soria.” That’s it. There was no mention of names involved in the proposal. Just one vague statement.

Two days later, in the sidebar of a trade deadline column, Jayson Stark expanded a bit. “The Yankees just made another run at Soria, as first reported by SI.com — even dangling Jesus Montero.” Is this Stark adding a bit of reporting? Is he speculating? Who did he talk to that mentioned Montero’s name? And, most importantly, if this was in fact the case why wasn’t it a more prominent item in the column? Or maybe it’s just a matter of wording. After all, Montero’s name coming up in conversation, or even being dangled, is quite a bit different than him being offered in a trade.

(This is along the lines of a story this morning, where the headline didn’t reflect the content. The game of telephone continued from there.)

Once Cliff Lee went to Philadelphia and especially once Zack Greinke went to Milwaukee, it was inevitable that we’d hear some sort of connection between the Yankees and Royals involving Soria. The Royals have said that they intend to keep their closer, but that won’t stop the rumor mill from turning. It turns out that Soria himself has restarted it. MLB Trade Rumors links to an article that quotes Soria regarding his no-trade clause. While he can block trades to the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, Cardinals, and Cubs, only one of those names came up in conversation.

“I didn’t put it there, my agent did, as a strategy,” Soria said. “But if the Royals decide to trade me to New York I would gladly go to play with the Yankees or any other team… I repeat, I would not block a trade to the Yankees. I like to play baseball and I would play with any team.”

This is clearly going to raise some eyebrows, but I wouldn’t make much of it. There are a few reasons to not take seriously any of this Soria talk at all.

Regarding the summer 2010 rumor: If Cashman did offer Montero for Soria, he should be relieved of his duties. The same goes for Dayton Moore if he refused.

Regarding acquiring Soria now: Why not just sign Rafael Soriano at that point? Soria is under contract for four more years at $26.75 million. It would probably take another $15 or so million to land Soriano, and it would cost the 31st pick in the draft. But the Royals clearly won’t let Soria go for cheap. It’s probably better to keep the prospects who are closer to helping and spend the extra money, something the Yankees can do with ease.

We constantly see the Yankees connected to every available high-profile player. It was determined the minute Soria became a star that he’d eventually be mentioned as a Yankees target. But given what we know, there’s no reason to believe any of it. Maybe Montero’s name did come up in a discussion regarding Soria. If that happened, I doubt the conversation lasted long. The Yankees might want Soria, but the Royals also appear to want a bit much for him. I wouldn’t expect this one to move, despite the rumors we’ll hear every July and December from now until Soria’s free agency.