Frankie Piliere’s Top 100 Prospects

Frankie Piliere of AOL FanHouse posted his list of the top 100 prospects today (part one and two), with Jesus Montero coming at number five behind a bunch of guys you’ve surely heard of. “Much debate surrounds Montero’s ability to stick behind the plate,” says Piliere, “but the bat is going to be special. He has a potential 40-homer bat with the offensive upside of Miguel Cabrera.” Sounds good to me.

Three other Yankee prospects made the list: Manny Banuelos at #41 (“…with a 90-93 mph fastball and the potential for two plus secondary pitches, this smallish lefty has the upside of a No. 2 starter”), Austin Romine at #45 (“…has the potential to be a potent offensive threat and an above-average defender behind the plate”), and Zach McAllister at #76. Old pals Austin Jackson and Jose Tabata checked in at #25 and #69, respectively.

It’s all about Johnny

It seems like everyone caught Johnny Damon Fever over the weekend. It started on Friday, when we heard that the Yankees and Damon had been talking, and grew more intense when Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees made an offer with a deadline attached. Brian Cashman denied such an offer, but things stayed heated when Marc Carig heard from Damon that he’d have a team in a week. That was only the beginning of the latest Damon saga.

Bill Madden weighed in on the matter on Saturday, giving his version of the exchange between team and player.

Still, as recently as a couple of days ago, there was renewed dialogue between Damon, Boras and the Yankees in which the Yankees made one last attempt to have a good Yankee remain a Yankee.

“Tell us your bottom line for what you’re willing to play for,” they said, “and if it’s in the realm of where our budget needs to be we can go to ownership (Hal Steinbrenner) and see if something can be worked out.” But instead of giving them a number, Boras came back with more of his patented “mystery team” hogwash, claiming he had a couple of other offers they were still considering.

That mystery team, it appears, is the Oakland A’s. Buster Olney tweeted about that this morning, noting that the A’s could see Damon as their Plan B, should they miss out on Ben Sheets. Still, I don’t see why the A’s, with their spacious ballpark and roster full of outfielders and a DH, would bring in Damon should they fail to sign a pitcher. Again, it sounds like that could just be a leverage play by Boras in order to extract the most possible dollars out of the Yankees.

I really hope that Damon isn’t just being overly optimistic when he says that he’ll have a team this week. I caught Damon Fever a few weeks ago, and really I’d just like to get it out of my system and move on. But, like a nagging cold that you seemingly can’t shake all winter, the Damon saga continues in waves. It’s almost flu-like now. The sooner it’s over, the more I can enjoy the rest of the winter.

Will Burnett bounce back in 2010?

In a general sense, A.J. Burnett performed well in his debut season for the Yankees. Sure, he tossed a few clunkers, but he also had his share of dominating performances. At the end of the season that averaged out to a 4.04 ERA, right around his 2008 ERA of 4.07. That he pitched over 200 innings for the second straight season, the first time he’s accomplished the feat in his career, was a further positive. In a number of ways, however, Burnett’s season represented a step backward.

In 2007, after an injury-shortened debut season with Toronto, Burnett accomplished something he never did in the National League: he struck out more than a batter an inning. He did it again in 2008, and that probably played a role in the Yankees’ decision to sign him. It was an odd trend, of course, as pitchers tend to rack up more strikeouts in the NL, where pitchers hit instead of the DH. During these two years Burnett also kept his walks in check, around 3.50 per nine. Yet in his 2009 campaign Burnett declined in both areas.

His strikeouts remained high, 8.48 per nine innings, right around his career National League performance, but not quite at the level of his previous AL East experience. His walks also shot up, 4.22 per nine, his highest rate since 2001 (discounting his 23 innings in 2003). But again, despite declining about 10 percent in strikeout rate and increasing about 27 percent in walk rate, Burnett produced similar results as 2008. My question is whether this is a good sign, or whether it represents a boatload of good luck.

Looking a bit deeper into Burnett’s performances makes me think that luck played a big factor in his 2009 numbers. The first set of data that stands out is his ground ball to fly ball ratio, 1.09, the lowest of his career, and by a decent margin since 2003. His ground ball rate has declined over the past three years, going from 54.8 percent in 2007 to 48.5 percent in 2008, and finally to 42.8 percent in 2009. In that time, his fly ball rate has increased from 29.8 percent to 32 percent to 39.2 percent. This led to an xFIP of 4.29 and a FIP of 4.33, both a bit above Burnett’s actual ERA. His defense, it would seem, helped him out a bit.

We know that Burnett lives on his curveball, a nasty pitch that acts somewhat like a slider, diving down and away from right-handed batters, though the down and inward motion seems to foil lefties as well. He lives on swings and misses out of the zone in that regard. Yet in 2009 hitters made more contact in pitches outside the zone, 51.1 percent, than in any other year of his career. Burnett’s contact rate as a whole jumped last season, while his number of pitches thrown inside the zone was the lowest of his career (again, discounting 2003). What’s worse, hitters swung at fewer pitches outside the zone, 22.1 percent, than they had since he moved to the AL in 2006. His overall swing rate was, again, the lowest of his career.

The curveball, however, seems to be fine. According to FanGraphs’s pitch type values, his curve was as good as ever, perhaps among the best it has been in his career. It was worth 15.4 runs above average, higher than in any of the Blue Jay years, and higher than any year of his career except 2005. What hurt him, it appears, was his fastball, which ranked -13.0, the lowest of his career and, on a per 100 pitch basis, the 22nd worst fastball in the majors among pitchers who threw more than 150 innings.

Does the fastball decline explain Burnett’s increased walks, decreased strikeouts, and decreased ground balls? I think it has to, at least in some way. Again, look at Burnett’s last three seasons, and you’ll see increasing fly balls and decreasing ground balls. You’ll also see a decrease in his fastball value, from 8.2 runs above average in 2007 to 5.9 runs below average in 2008 to 13 runs below average in 2009. While we can’t determine specific causation, there seems to be something of a correlation there.

What’s most troubling about A.J.’s trending numbers is that we should have expected an uptick in performance over Toronto. He pitched in the AL East for three years and had to face the powerhouse Yankees offense during that time. By moving to the Yankees, he moved from that to having to face the Blue Jays lineup. So it appears that his workload got a bit easier. Yet his peripherals declined. I don’t like the looks of that.

Perhaps Burnett went through a period of adjustment to the rigors of pitching for the Yankees, and will recover his previous form in 2010. We know he has the stuff to do so. We saw A.J. at his best in 2009, one-hitting both the Mets and the Red Sox. We also saw him at his worst, giving up eight and nine runs to the Red Sox, seven to the White Sox. Hence Good A.J. and Bad A.J. These numbers don’t show whether we’ll see more of Good A.J. in 2010, though they do show why it appeared Bad A.J. showed up more than he really did.

Credit: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

The 10 biggest pitching performances of the 2009 regular season

Joe took a look at the ten biggest hits of the 2009 regular season last week, and I felt it was appropriate to follow up with a post about the most important pitching performances. Unlike big hits, which are singular events that come unexpectedly and can happen at literally any time, big pitching performances are a bit more deliberate. We watch them unfold over several innings and we know exactly who’s delivering it. They lack the excitement and surprise of their batting counterparts, but dominant pitching performances give us a chance to sit back and appreciate what we’re witnessing.

Despite relying on a core of four starters all season long, seven different pitchers managed to crack my list. And let me emphasize that this is my list. These are my ten biggest pitching performances of the 2009 regular season. Chances are you’ll disagree with me, and I encourage you to tell everyone about it in the comments.

I managed to find a picture from each game, so know that they aren’t some meaningless stock photos I came across. They’re all legit. So, without further ado…

10. Chad Gaudin mows down his former team (video)

It was a relatively meaningless September contest because the Yankees were already up nine games in the division, though the team still had no idea who was going to serve as their fourth starter in the postseason. Joba Chamberlain held that title by default, however no one felt comfortable with him given his second half performance. Enter Gaudin, who at the time had a 4.04 ERA and an .808 OPS against since joining the Yanks in August. He had made two starts in pinstripes prior to this one, and they were both pretty much so-so.

Tampa Bay came to town losers of their last six, so all the stars lined up for Gaudin to grab hold of the fifth starter’s spot. He retired 10 of the first 12 batters he faced and took the ball into the 7th inning for the first time in a month and a half. Gaudin’s pitching line was not spectacular  (6 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K), but he only needed 76 pitches to record 18 outs. The outing was enough to earn him a rotation spot the rest of the way, and even though the playoff schedule made a fourth starter unnecessary for the Yanks, Gaudin was always on call if needed. It took almost all season, but the last rotation spot was finally settled following Chien-Ming Wang‘s epic meltdown.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, AP

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Fan Confidence Poll: January 25th, 2010

2009 Season Record: 103-59 (915 RS, 753 RA), won AL East by 8 games, finished with the best record in MLB by 6 games, won 27th World Series

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Unconfirmed Report: Yanks inquired about Nelson Cruz

Via Frankie Piliere of AOL FanHouse, the Yankees are exploring trade options for left field, and one player they may have asked about is Rangers’ outfielder Nelson Cruz. Piliere makes it clear that this is an unconfirmed report, so make sure you take it with a big grain of salt. That doesn’t mean we can’t discuss it, though.

The 29-year-old Cruz was an All Star in 2009, his first full season in the majors. He’s got power (33 HR, .264 IsoP in ’09) and he can definitely defend in the corners (19.6 UZR in over 2,200 innings in RF), though his on-base skills are meh at best (87 unintentional walks in 1,125 big league plate appearances) and he had a ridiculous home-road split last year. Cruz is a sexy name that’ll excite people because he hit lots of homers in 2009, but the price will likely outweigh the production. Unless we’re talking a Swisherian type of heist here, I wouldn’t bother.

Here’s the layout of Cruz’s 2009 home runs, all 33 of them, as they would play at Yankee Stadium.

It appears that even had he hit all 33 of those home run balls at Yankee Stadium, they all would have left the yard. Cruz’s average standard home run distance of 413.9 feet ranked fourth in the majors, and his 12 no-doubts ranked fifth in the AL.

Open Thread: NFC Championship Game

BritFarrr vs. Breesus, winner gets the Colts in Miami in two weeks. Chat about the game, or whatever else you want here.