Joba and Hughes to the pen!

Yesterday, the debate began all over again, as if we hadn’t made our arguments a hundred times over. With just one open spot in the starting rotation, either Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain will start the season in the bullpen. Ben tackled the topic yesterday, noting how Joba is saying all the right things — and doing them, too, as he’s in camp early. What he didn’t do is link to a Joel Sherman column about how the Yankees have supposedly already pegged Joba for the pen. He took the idea one step further, into pretty crazy territory.

Why not put both Joba and Hughes in the pen? That would, he claims, make the role of fifth starter even less necessary, because of the Yankees’ high-powered offense and, with both young pitchers in tow, their lights out bullpen. He at least admitted that it would hinder the development of either one into a future starter. With Andy Pettitte‘s and Javy Vazquez‘s contracts up after this season, the Yankees will need one, if not both, to hit the rotation in 2011.

While many of us just wrote off the idea as crazy, Dave Pinto, creative as he is, proposed a different type of idea. What if, instead of using Hughes and Chamberlain as one-inning setup men, the Yankees deployed them as bridges to Mariano unto themselves? In other words, they take over when the starter exits, and they pitch from that point until the ninth. If the Yankees rack up the score late, they could even pitch the ninth themselves, further increasing their innings totals.

In theory, I love the idea. I’ve long advocated changing the way teams use their bullpens, with a trend towards the multi-inning reliever. Having two pitchers in this role would help, as they could cover most late-inning situations, with the short relievers taking over when the starter goes seven and the game is close. But this is all theoretical. How would this work in practice?

April seems like the best opportunity for this type of bullpen scheme. Pitchers are still getting into the groove, and it seems like starters pitch fewer innings per start in April than any other month. That was true, at least, for the Yankees. Last April the Yankees starters pitched 126.1 innings, out of 197.1 total. That includes Wang’s three short starts, so it skews the sample in a way, but if the Yankees use both Hughes and Chamberlain in the bullpen they’ll have a fifth starter who, while not as bad as 2009 Wang, still probably won’t go shutting out opponents for eight innings.

In nine of the 22 starts, the starter did not make it out of the sixth inning. In an additional three starts, the starter went exactly six innings. These are the opportunities for the super relievers. Either Hughes or Chamberlain would enter in this situation and pitch up to, perhaps including, the ninth inning. As an experiment, let’s see how this could have panned out in April 2009, ignoring that some of the starts were made by Hughes and Chamberlain themselves.

Obviously this is a very rough estimate of when and how much they could pitch, and clearly the 2010 innings will not go the same as 2009. Using that as a guideline, however, it appears that in the super relief role, Hughes and Joba could get close to the number of innings they’d get as starters. Not quite to that level — Joba pitched 23 innings in April 2009 — but it would be pretty close. Plus, since they’ll prepare in spring training as starters, their arms can probably handle longer stints earlier in the year.

This accomplishes a few things. First, it reduces the need for a 12-man pitching staff. With Joba, Hughes, and Mo covering almost 50 innings in relief, the Yanks shouldn’t need four other guys to cover the rest. Second, it allows them both to keep their innings up while also keeping them manageable. It would be much easier to keep Hughes under his innings limit if deployed in this manner. Third, it keeps them ready to fill in if a starter goes down — or if the fifth starter just isn’t working out.

Again, this is all theoretical. We have no way of knowing if this scheme can come close to working in practice. Can both pitchers adjust to this usage schedule, pitching two to four inning stints every three or four days? Also, what happens if the Yanks’ starters dominate one turn through the rotation? That might mean one inning each for Joba and Hughes over five days. There’s plenty of unpredictability in this model, and the Yankees might not favor that for their young starters.

The risk involved probably makes this idea a nonstarter, but it certainly has merits. It allows young pitchers to transition from AAA to the majors without jumping in as full-time starters. It allows teams to more easily manage their innings. It keeps them stretched out, so they can jump into a rotation spot in case of injury. But it also hasn’t really been done, at least to my knowledge, in recent years, and we don’t know what kind of effect these usage patterns will have on a pitcher’s arm. Maybe some small-market team will try this one day. Until then, I doubt a team like the Yankees will take any path except the traditional.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Teixeira among the NCAA’s best of the decade

Baseball America put together a list of college baseball’s All-Decade Team, and as you can imagine it features several prominent big leaguers and some big time prospects. Current Yankee and former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Mark Teixeira made the squad, but not as the first baseman. He played third in college (and early in his pro career), hit .427-.547-.772 with a 23-67 K/BB ratio and 18 homers in 66 games his final year (yawn), and was voted as the NCAA’s best at the hot corner in the aughts. Tex also finished third in the Player of the Decade voting, coming in just behind Buster Posey but a mile behind Dustin Ackley.

The only other player with Yankee ties to make an appearance is Scott Bittle, who was the team’s second round pick in 2008 and got some consideration for the Reliever of the Decade spot. He, of course, did not sign with the Yanks.

How well do you know your 2009 Yankees?

If you’re looking to kill some time at the office, or are just bored at school, then take this quiz to see if you can name every player who played for the Yankees in 2009 in under six minutes. I missed just one stinkin’ relief pitcher, and it made me hate him even more. Once you finish, tell us how you did in the comments. But don’t cheat, I’m sure there will be some spoilers in the thread.

In which an owner talks about something he doesn’t understand

The Yankees catch a lot of grief because of their payroll, and whether you think it’s fair or not is another discussion for another day. Most of those outside of the Tri-State Area will bitch and moan every time the Yankees sign a CC Sabathia or a Mark Teixeira, yet won’t give an iota of credit whenever the team makes a shrewd move like grabbing Nick Swisher as an ultra-buy low or finding a big league arm (Al Aceves) and a top pitching prospect (Manny Banuelos) in Mexico for the the total cost of a replacement level player ($400,000). It’s the way it is, and most don’t think twice when fans of other clubs complain.

However, when team owners start to run their mouth, especially when they aren’t even in the same sport, well then something’s not right. At a press conference yesterday, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti took an unprovoked shot at GM Brian Cashman and our beloved Bombers

“It certainly doesn’t show up in the standings,” Bisciotti said. “If I’m a Yankees fan, I’m upset we’re not winning 130 games with the roster that they have and the money that they pay out. I think it’s a disgrace they only beat the average team by 10 games in the standings with three times the money. I’d fire that GM. You don’t need a GM. All you have to do is buy the last Cy Young Award winner every year.”

Dare I say … Boversimplification?

I’m sure Mr. Bisciotti is a smart dude, you kind of have to be to make the kind of money needed to buy an NFL franchise. However, what the hell is he talking about that it doesn’t “show up in the standings?” The Yankees have won almost 100 more games than any other team in baseball over the last 14 years. They could have gone 0-162 in 1996, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007, or 2008, and they still would have the best record in the game over that time. They’ve won the most World Championships in the last two decades, the most division titles, most pennants … how doesn’t it show up in the standings?

The goal isn’t to win 130 games in the regular season, at least not around these parts. The goal is to win 11 in the playoffs. If Bisciotti is going to talk trash about the Yankees not getting bang for their buck, then maybe he should look in a mirror first. The team he owns has missed the playoffs more times in the last five years than the Yankees have in the last 16. Something about throwing stones in glass houses seems appropriate here.

Anyway, thanks for the laugh Steve.

The price of pitching just went up

Young pitching can be both a blessing and a burden. A blessing because they represent hope for the future. A burden because they oftentimes stumble early in their careers. Many teams, especially those with lower payrolls, gladly accept these foibles in exchange for potential ace production in the future. But for a team like the Yankees, with a huge payroll and a demanding fan base, growing pains are not as easy to stomach. We need look no further than Joba Chamberlain for proof.

Thankfully for the Yankees, they have the resources to sign top pitchers as free agents. This takes the pressure off them to develop their own arms, as they can pay top dollar for the best free agent arms. This isn’t always the best strategy, as we saw in the 2004-2005 off-season. But, when applied to top-flight pitchers the team has coveted for years, the payoff can be great. It might mean overpaying, but it also means more of a sure thing than a young, developing starter.

But what if the supply of young, top-flight starters dried up? What if more and more of the game’s top arms opt to sign extensions while they’re still under team control, rather than sign a series of one-year contracts until they reach free agency? That certainly changes the equation for the Yankees. When players sign extensions during their arbitration years they typically forgo at least a year, oftentimes more, of free agency in exchange for security. After all, they might blow out their arms at any time.

For the Yankees and other high budget teams, this means a shallower pool of free agent pitchers still in the primes of their careers. We’ve seen three of the games best young pitchers sign extensions this off-season: Felix Hernandez, Josh Johnson, and Justin Verlander. Hernandez, who will turn 24 in April, signed a five-year extension in January. It sounds insane, but he’ll 29 when he reaches free agency. That’s young enough that the Yankees still might target him, but not nearly as attractive as he would have been, at 26, had he not signed the extension.

Johnson, who finally bounced back after missing much of the previous two seasons with injuries, is just 26, and would have hit free agency at age 28 after the 2011 season. His contract is heavily backloaded, meaning he’ll likely be available after the 2011 season, but in a trade. At least in this instance the Yankees wouldn’t have to pay in both prospects and a long-term contract. In 2012 and 2013 Johnson will make a combined $27.5 million before hitting free agency at age 30.

Verlander, 27 later this month, would have hit free agency the same year as Felix. Yeterday, he reportedly reached an agreement with the Tigers for a five-year, $80 million contract. Had he gone year-to-year, he would have hit free agency at age 29. He’ll now hit free agency at age 32. Again, this hasn’t stopped the Yankees. They did, after all, sign A.J. Burnett at the same age. But it’s not nearly as attractive a proposition now that he’s locked up for the next five years.

Beyond the matter of losing prime-age years, these extensions also mean slimmer pickings in the coming years. The 2011 free agent class figured to feature Zack Greinke, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, but Halladay signed an extension and probably won’t hit the market until he’s 38, and Greinke, who would have hit free agency as a 27-year-old, signed an extension that will keep him in Kansas City two years longer. In 2012 we would have seen Verlander, Johnson, and Hernandez, but now they’re locked up. Adam Wainwright would have been in this class, too, but the Cardinals have him locked up affordably through 2013. Matt Cain is all that remains. Even in 2013 Jon Lester would have been a free agent, but the Sox signed an extension to keep him around for two additional years. Chad Billingsley, John Danks, and Cole Hamels are scheduled to hit free agency, but as we can see that remains far from a certainty.

Over the next two years, just two top flight starters will hit free agency, Lee and Cain. There will be others — Brandon Webb and Josh Beckett come to mind for next off-season, but if the Sox don’t reach an extension with Beckett shouldn’t teams be a bit concerned? — but there figure to be very few Sabathia-type arms hitting free agency over the next three years. And, given the enthusiasm of teams to lock up their young starters, we could see this scarcity continue for years to come.

As a result, the Yankees have no other choice than to develop their own young starters if they want to maintain a top of the line rotation. It might hurt, and we might see a few of them turn in seasons like Joba’s 2009. But in future years, when a few of those starters pan out, the Yankees will reap the rewards — meaning they can sign their own young pitchers to long-term extensions, keeping them out of the prying claws of those greedy Yankees. Wait, what?

Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

State of the RAB

Fellow dwellers in the series of tubes:

As we near the three-year anniversary of River Avenue Blues, I’d like to take a few moments to greet and thank everyone who has visited and supported us since our inception in February of 2007. We’ve come a long way since then. Our posts have grown greater in number and deeper in thought. Our audience has grown from few and quiet to many and loud — through not only comments, but emails, instant messages, our web form, and even in real life. For those of you have ambled by here recently, and even for those who have been here for years, this is who we are.

While this particular site launched in 2007, Ben, Mike, and I go back a bit further than that. We all started up our own baseball writing projects in the mid-00s, just because we loved writing about baseball. Sure, at times we each had aspirations of attracting a large audience, but none of us really expected it. It was more a form of catharsis, a way to deal with the day in, day out stress of the baseball season. The players get to vent that stress through physical performance. For us less athletic types, writing sometimes does the trick. It does for us, at least.

The baseball season is, thankfully, fast approaching, and changes will come with it. This seems to happen every year. A certain percentage of the audience checks out after they stop playing games, only to return six, but hopefully only five, months later, just in time for Opening Day. Some readers, intrigued by our non-stop hot stove coverage, tune out during the season, opting to enjoy the game for itself and not getting caught up in the tangle of daily analysis. We do keep many of those who discovered us during the hot stove, and that means the composition of our audience will change.

That won’t change the content. We’ll continue to write stories that interest us. Sometimes that involves a prospect. Sometimes it involves breaking down data. Sometimes it involves comparing players with various statistics. If you particularly like something, but especially if you don’t, email us and let us know. We also appreciate emails in regards to typos and other small errors. We aren’t to the point of hiring a full-time editor — hell, we don’t even really pay ourselves — so any corrections from the crowd are appreciated. If you have an issue with the data we used to analyze an issue, or a conclusion we drew from the data, that’s perfect for the comments section. It might make us think of the topic in another way, perhaps making our posts more complete in the future.

What will change, undoubtedly, between now and Opening Day is the comments section. Again, it happens all the time. It’s happened over the past year, and it will continue to morph and evolve. We have an excellent core of commenters who not only know baseball, but also know how to lighten the mood. As we get more and more comments, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor them. We want nothing more than a robust baseball discussion, but unfortunately there are others who do not. Allow me to elaborate.

Baseball incites argument. That’s good. We can all learn a lot from people whose opinions differ from our own. But, contrary to what many people think, not all opinions are created equal. The opinions which count for the most are those which are supported by evidence. As Tango likes to say, an opinion without evidence is bullshit. You can still hold said evidence-less opinion, but don’t expect it to garner much respect among our commenters.

If you hold an opinion and cannot back it up with evidence, we ask that you not act like a jackass about it. Accept it as just your opinion, with no basis in fact, and move on. There’s plenty to discuss. If you do continue to post evidence-less opinions, well, good for you. If you feel the need to do that, again, we just ask that you not act like a jackass about it. That’s the most important point, as you can see.

For the core commenters, we’re asking a bit more. By responding to jackasses, you’re legitimizing them. Over the past few weeks I’ve seen plenty of this — ashamedly, have been part of it once. It takes the focus off the baseball discussion and puts it onto the jackass. We do not want this. It generally leads to everyone acting like a jackass, and the comment thread devolves into an unreadable mass. Remember, we’re here to talk baseball, not act like tough guys on an internet message board.

As we specify in our commenting guidelines, we really appreciate you keep comments true to the topic of the post. If a conversation moves a certain way, keep it within that particular thread within the comments. Even then, we ask that it not get too far out of hand. For off-topic comments, we have an open thread every evening. We’ve also added an off-topic thread, which you can find in the navigation bar, and by clicking here.

To our readers who don’t use the comments section, we thank you every bit as much as our regular commenters. You’re welcome at any time to drop in and add to the conversation. We hope our threaded comments layout makes it easy to follow different conversations within the thread. We’re also working to make improvements on the layout, including re-adding the ability to see unread comments. Again, if you have any suggestions please contact us. We make it ridiculously easy to do so.

We’ll leave this post up overnight. Baseball will be back in the a.m. Thanks again for reading.

Open Thread: Official Winn

The slow time just before Spring Training can be hell for blog content, so I figured I’d pass along the news that Randy Winn is listed on the Yankees’ 40-man roster page at the official site, which confirms that he in fact passed his physical and is officially signed. Our Depth Chart is up to date.

The 40-man roster is now full, which means someone will have to head to DFA-ville before the Yankees can acquire another player. Looking at the list of the players, I’m guessing Edwar Ramirez would be the first to get the axe, however a spot would also open up if/when Jamie Hoffmann is returned to the Dodgers. Chris Garcia is dead to me, so he can follow Edwar out the door. Who’s after that, maybe Jon Albaldejo?

Anyway, use this as your open thread for the night. The Knicks and 4-43 Nets are both playing tonight, and rumor has it Derek Jeter is making an appearance on MLB Network’s Hot Stove program tonight. You know what to do, so enjoy the thread.