The RAB Radio Show: The RAB Radio Show for December 21, 2010

It’s Hall of Fame time. The writers are submitting their ballots, and we’ll have a new group of inductees soon enough. We thought it appropriate, since Yankee news is lacking, to run down our thoughts on the 2011 ballot.

Mike and I are both small hall guys, but that doesn’t mean we’ll vote no on people just because. Well, I think I did in at least one instance. But you’ll be surprised at the number of yesses. The only disappointment is the inevitable entry of a universal No among us.

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

Might the Marlins make Anibal Sanchez available?

Yeah, but he walked six. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The normally frugal Marlins have gone on a relative spending spree this winter. It started when they signed John Buck to a three-year, $18 million contract and continued through yesterday, when they signed Ricky Nolasco to a three-year, $26.5 million extension. In the middle they also signed Javier Vazquez to a $7 million one-year deal and Randy Choate to a two-year, $2.5 million deal. Those deals bring Florida’s payroll to over $40 million in 2011. Arbitration raises and reserve clause obligations should bring it to near $50 million, which means the Marlins will increase payroll for the third straight season.

That appears very un-Marlins-like. The team has been one of the stingiest in the majors for the past half-decade. A move to a new Stadium could open up new lines of revenue, so maybe the Marlins will maintain their current payroll level for now and in the future. Or maybe they’ll look to sell off one or two of their more expensive pieces in exchange for cost-controlled talent. Looking through their payroll forecast, one name stands out as someone who might interest the Yankees. Anibal Sanchez, coming off the best, and healthiest, season of his career, is due a decent raise over the $1.25 million he earned in 2010. If the Marlins are listening, the Yanks should do a little trade talking.

Sanchez, you might remember, went to Florida in the Josh Beckett trade. After a slow start to his career he had gained plenty of value by that point, having dominated advanced-A ball before putting on a fine showing at AA as a 21-year-old. He arrived in Florida during the winter of 2005-2006 as the Marlins No. 3 prospect, and as baseball’s No. 40 overall. In 2006 he opened the season in AA, but pitched so well there that he earned a call-up to the bigs. His first 114.1 major league innings went about as well as possible, as Sanchez overcame iffy peripherals to produce a 2.83 ERA — including one no-hitter.

Sanchez’s strong 2006 season came with one drawback: it was the second straight year in which he drastically increased his workload. In 2005 he threw 136 innings after throwing 76.1 in 2004. Then in 2006 he threw 200 on the nose. After just six starts in 2007 Sanchez hit the DL with a shoulder injury that would eventually require surgery to repair the labrum. That kept him out of the majors until July 31, 2008. He again made six starts in 2009 before succumbing to a shoulder injury, which kept him out until June. After just three innings of work he hit the DL again, this time the 60-day variety. It was, for the third time, a shoulder issue.

Things have gone well for Sanchez since that last injury. He came back in late August of 2009 and threw 50.1 innings to a 2.68 ERA the rest of the way. But it was in 2010 that everything seemed to come together. While Sanchez produced quality results in 2006 and 2009, his peripherals were considerably worse than the performance. In 2010 Sanchez pitched 195 innings to a 3.55 ERA, but more importantly his FIP, 3.32, and xFIP, 4.21, were both career lows. Even his tERA was a nice, low 3.32. Injuries might have hampered his progress, but it appears as though Sanchez has overcome the obstacle and is now starting to fulfill his promise.

If the Yankees are to inquire about Sanchez, they need to first ponder two questions. First, how big an injury risk does he represent in the future? Second, how have his previous injuries affected him already? The first one is pure speculation, and requires someone with actual medical expertise. Even then, it’s merely informed speculation rather than a blind guess. To the second, though, we can see some signs in Sanchez’s 2010 numbers that might give us an indication. For instance, his velocity, according to both PitchFX and Baseball Info Solutions, is right where it has always been — and in fact might have been a bit faster in 2010. That’s an encouraging sign for a player who has undergone labrum surgery and who has suffered a subsequent shoulder injury.

If the Marlins are open to trading Sanchez, I imagine they’d settle for nothing less than taking the Yanks to the cleaners. They have a fairly strong team in 2011 and could contend for the wild card, so to trade their No. 2 starter would deal a serious blow to those hopes. Still, we have a good idea of how the Marlins operate, and the right package of young players could tempt them. I imagine they’d ask for Montero, but the Yanks won’t go there. A package that included Manny Banuelos, Brandon Laird, and Austin Romine might get the conversation started, but certainly won’t finish it. For all we know, the Marlins might not settle for anything less than Montero — and at that point there’s simply no way this gets done.

The Yankees must explore every possible pitching option on the market, and I imagine that they will inquire on Sanchez. I also think that he’d be a good fit for the Yankees’ rotation. He induces a fair number of ground balls and strikes out hitters at a rate slightly above league average. His control was on display in 2010, and when healthy he’s shown an ability to limit home runs on fly balls. He will get a bit expensive in the next few years, he has a considerable injury history, and he’s set to hit free agency after the 2012 season, which are all reasons that Florida would consider trading him. But I don’t think they’ll do it on the cheap. They could hold onto him and trade him in July for a similar return — which is exactly why Brian Cashman has preached patience so far this off-season.

Checking in on Bonderman & Saito

As the Yankees continue to search for pitching, plenty of RAB readers have come up with suggestions of their own. Some are worth exploring and we end up posting about them, others simply aren’t worth the time (Pedro Martinez? come on people). There’s been a rash of Jeremy Bonderman and Takashi Saito comments and mailbag questions of late, so I figured it was time to dive in and see what we could come up it. As it turns out, not much…

(AP Photo/Jeff Lewis)

Jeremy Bonderman

It feels like Bonderman has been around forever, and he kinda has, but he’s still just 28 years old. That’s what happens when you’re thrown to the wolves at age 20, going to the mound for 28 starts (and five relief appearances) that result in a 5.56 ERA (4.69 FIP) for a Tigers team that lost 119 games in 2003. Bonderman managed to survive that disaster and actually developed quite nicely, seeing his FIP drop from 4.69 in 2003 to 4.27 in 2004 to 3.90 in 2005 to 3.29 in 2006. As a 23-year-old in ’06, he struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings (2.4 BB/9 removing intentional walks) and got a ground ball 48.2% of the time, resulting in a 6.1 fWAR season. Before his 24th birthday, Bonderman had a ridiculous 749 innings to his credit.

All those innings started to take a toll on Bonderman after that season, unfortunately. He missed most of May 2007 with blister issues and finished the season on the shelf with cartilage damage in his elbow. He still managed a 4.19 FIP in 174.1 innings that season, but it was a disappointment coming off his 2006 season. The next year saw Bonderman’s season end after a dozen starts due to shoulder surgery. He started the 2009 season on the disabled list as he was recovering, made one start in June, then went immediately back on the DL after re-aggravating the injury.

Bonderman managed to make some relief appearances that September, and other than a sore rib cage in late-August (no DL trip required), he was perfectly healthy in 2010. His performance, like his velocity, had dropped off considerably. Bonderman was sitting right at 90 mph (even lower late in the season), down from the 93.3 he averaged at his peak. His strikeout rate was down to just 5.89 K/9, his third consecutive season with a below average swing-and-miss rate (7.7%). The walks and ground ball rate declined as well, though 3.1 BB/9 (minus intentionals) and 44.7% grounders is still plenty fine.

It would be foolish to count on Bonderman recovering the magic from 2004 through 2006, when he accumulated just 0.1 fewer fWAR than CC Sabathia. He’s just been hit by too many injuries since then. I can’t see how a team would give Bonderman anything more than a low base salary (like, $1M or less) with incentives given his recent performance and injury history. I wouldn’t even want the Yankees to go that far, to be honest. There’s just so much risk there, if anything I’d give him a minor league contract and tell him to show what he’s got in Spring Training. I suspect someone out there will give him a guaranteed contract though.

Takashi Saito

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Saito’s worst season in the big leagues was his 2009 campaign with the Red Sox, when he set new career worsts in K/9 (8.41), BB/9 (4.04), HR/9 (0.97), ground ball rate (30.6%), swinging strike rate (8.7%), FIP (4.25), xFIP (4.86), and a whole bunch of other stuff that measures underlying performance. Many will use that as ammo to claim that he can’t hack it in the AL East, but we can’t ignore the sprained elbow ligament he was recovering from. Saito was one of the first to undergo the platelet-rich plasma treatment, which he had late in the 2008 season.

Aside from the one season with the Sox, Saito’s been a certifiable beast in the majors. He’s struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings, walked just 2.6 unintentionally, and generated a ground ball more than 42% of the time. If we take out his rookie season, his ground ball rate jumps to 45.4%. On the surface he appears to be a great bullpen option, but the 40-year-old right-hander finished the 2010 season on the shelf with a bum shoulder that kept him off Atlanta’s postseason roster. That’s a huge question mark, and will probably prevent him from finding a guaranteed big league contract this winter. If he’s willing to take a minor league, prove yourself in Spring Training kind of contract, I’m all for it. I just wouldn’t expect much at this stage of his career.

* * *

The Yanks have a definitely need for a back-of-the-rotation starter at the moment, but Bonderman carries too much risk. They need sure innings, something the former Tiger can’t give them. Saito’s an interesting bullpen option but his recent shoulder trouble makes me extremely skeptical. Both guys are damaged goods and reflective of the market, but the Yankees aren’t this desperate yet. Toss both into the maybe pile.

Starting Rotation Disabled List Projections

u ok cc? (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Yankees starting rotation is quite the popular topic these days and for all the wrong reasons. After failing to sign Cliff Lee, who would have simultaneously filled three rotation spots all by himself, the Yanks are now stuck scraping the bottom of the barrel for some kind of innings eater. While they have a number of young and interesting prospects, I’m sure a team that strives to win the World Series every year would rather not trust two-fifths of it’s rotation to untested kids. Performance is not the only uncertainty though, so is health.

Jeff Zimmerman recently completed a great two-part series at FanGraphs where he projected the odds of each starting pitcher in the game (min. 20 starts and 120 IP) hitting the disabled list in 2011. His methodology isn’t terribly complex, so check out his two posts (part one, part two) for an explanation. He essentially based the projection on age and the pitcher’s health history over the last three seasons. The average odds of a DL trip is something like 39.0%, which initially struck me as high but really isn’t. For all intents and purposes, it means two members of an average five man rotation will hit the shelf at some point during the season, and that doesn’t sound crazy at all.

The front of New York’s rotation is anchored by one of the game’s premier workhorses, but everyone beyond him has had injury concerns of varying significance in the not too distant past. Let’s take a look at what might be in store in 2011…

CC Sabathia
Opening Day Age: 30 years, 8 months
DL Odds: 34.2%
Expected Number of DL Trips: Zero

Sabathia, who’s thrown 1034 innings over the last four seasons (including playoffs), has the best odds of avoiding the disabled of any pitcher age 30 or older in Jeff’s study. Dan Haren is next at 34.4%, and both Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland are a touch over 35%. Of course the study doesn’t count for his recent knee surgery, but that’s supposedly just a minor thing. CC’s been on the disabled list just twice in his career, missing 23 days in 2005 and 29 days in 2006, both with a right oblique strain. There’s no reason not to expect Sabathia to be a 33 start, 220 inning workhorse next year. Very few in the game can match this guy’s durability.

A.J. Burnett
Opening Day Age: 34 years, 3 months
DL Odds: 38.0%
Expected Number of DL Trips: Zero

When the Yankees signed Burnett, many were skeptical about his ability to stay on the field and justifiably so. From 2001 through 2007, Burnett hit the 15-day disabled list six times and the 60-day disabled list three times. Aside from a foot fracture way back in 2001, every one of the DL trips were elbow or shoulder related as well. Aside from having a trio of starts pushed back a few days this past season because of a sore foot (hit by a comebacker), a lacerated hand (slammed a door), and sore lower back, Burnett has been perfectly healthy with the Yankees. His 615 regular season innings over the last three seasons are the 18th most in baseball. Of course they haven’t always been quality innings, but staying on the field is extremely important and absolutely counts for something.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Phil Hughes
Opening Day Age: 24 years, 9 months
DL Odds: 37.7%
Expected Number of DL Trips: One

Of the 24 pitchers age 25 and under in Jeff’s study, only six (Mike Leake, Brad Bergesen, Bud Norris, Wade Davis, Yovani Gallardo, and Jonathan Niese) are more likely to hit the disabled list in 2011 than Hughes. He missed considerable time in both the 2007 (hamstring, 94 days) and 2008 (stress fracture in his rib cage, 136 days) seasons, and his minor league career featured time missed due to a stubbed toe, shoulder fatigue, and shoulder tendinitis. In fact, 2009-2010 is the first time Hughes has not gotten hurt in two consecutive seasons in his career. He’s also coming off a career high workload (191.2 IP, including postseason) that exceeds his previous career (146 IP in 2006) by more than 30%. I don’t think we needed Jeff’s study to tell us that Hughes is at risk of missing time next season.

Andy Pettitte
Opening Day Age: 38 years, 9 months
DL Odds: 56.5%
Expected Number of DL Trips: Two

No, he has not yet announced if he’s going to return for 2011 or retire, but I figured I would include Andy in the post anyway. Of the 116 pitchers that qualified for the study, none are more likely to hit the disabled list next season than Pettitte. That’s what happens when you’re that age and have missed 102 totals days due to various injuries (groin strain, elbow inflammation, shoulder fatigue, back spasms) over the last three seasons. Pettitte was a physical mess at the end of the season, battling back and hamstring issues that hampered him throughout the playoffs. If he were to retire, he’d instantly go from an old and injury prone starter to the most physically fit 38 year old in Texas.

* * *

Don’t take these DL projections to heart obviously, it’s a relatively simply method based on age and recent injury history that Zimmerman admits is still a work in progress. What it does help emphasize is the Yankees’ need for some kind of innings eater for the back of the rotation even if Pettitte does return. They’ll be fine with Sabathia and should be okay with the surprisingly durable Burnett, but after that it’s hit-or-miss, and I’m not just talking about DL potential.

My Aaron Heilman Nightmare

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Now that most of the big name free agents are off the board, we’re left digging through the list of second and third tier players that could potentially fill a hole on the Yankees’ roster until a better alternative comes along. With Pedro Feliciano on board, the back-end of the bullpen is pretty much set. In a perfect world they’d bring in someone for that oh so important eighth inning role just to bump David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain back to the sixth and seventh inning fireman roles, but that guy just isn’t available for the right price right now.

So as I was looking through this list of underwhelming free agent relievers over the weekend, something horrible hit me: Aaron Heilman will be a New York Yankee in 2011. I have nothing to base this on other than my gut feeling, but I still don’t like it for obvious reasons. It’s Aaron frickin’ Heilman man, we all watched him pitch across town for all those years. Everyone remembers Yadier Molina in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS, and that was just the highest profile meltdown in a career full of them, which is why Mets fan despise the guy. And yet there I was, momentarily convinced that he’ll pitch for the Yankees next season. Since he’s on my mind, we might as well take look and see if Heilman would be of any actual use to the Yankees in 2011.

Now 32, the right-hander never has gotten the opportunity to start after all those years of complaining about it. Heilman spent this past season in the dreadful Diamondbacks bullpen, where he was one of only two relievers to be above replacement level (0.1 fWAR) while throwing at least 40 innings (Blaine Boyer was the other). That tells you how atrocious their ‘pen was, holy cow. It was also the second worst full season of Heilman’s career, evidenced by a 6.88 K/9 and 4.47 FIP that were (yep) the second worst of his career. He actually had a drastic reverse platoon split, holding lefties to a .276 wOBA while righties tagged him for a .367 wOBA. It’s also the second straight year he’s had that problem as well, which is pretty odd.

A fastball-changeup pitcher, Heilman’s fastball velocity is still there, comfortably 92-93. He still maintains the 10 mph separation with his changeup and PitchFX says it’s still moving as much as it always was, so his stuff is fine from what we can tell. Despite that, his swinging strike rate has dropped for two consecutive seasons now (though still above average at 9.7%) and he generated fewer groundballs than ever (35.6% in 2010, a career low by more 5%). It’s worth noting that Heilman has reincorporated his slider back into his repertoire over the last three years after shelving it for a few seasons, so perhaps he needs to scrap it and do with his two best offerings exclusively. Perhaps that will help with the platoon issues. When he’s at his best, Heilman is striking out lefties and getting righties to beat the ball into the ground, but over the last two years the strikeouts against southpaws just haven’t been there.

Heilman is what he is at this point, but over the last several seasons he’s been pigeon-holed into high leverage, late inning work even though he wasn’t really qualified to handle it. Maybe a move into the middle innings will help him be more successful, which is the only role the Yankees should even consider him for. Maybe his groundball rate will recover and the platoon issue will correct itself by taking away the slider. It’s all guesswork at this point and banking on any of it to actually happen would be foolish.

The Yanks are likely to add a right-handed reliever before pitchers and catchers report, but the current crop of free agents offers little late inning help. Rafael Soriano will require a hefty contract and a draft pick, Grant Balfour just a pick, Jon Rauch is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and Kyle Farnsworth is Kyle Farnsworth. Heilman’s only good season in the last three came under current Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild with the Cubs in 2009, so maybe he holds the secret for turning Heilman into a usable middle reliever. For now, I’ll just hope the Yankees come up with a better alternative and we can go back to laughing at Heilman’s misfortunes from afar.

Open Thread: Wade Boggs

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

My signature Wade Boggs moment isn’t a hit or a homer or a defensive play or anything, it’s that right up there. Him riding around the Stadium on the NYPD horse after the Yankees won the 1996 World Series. How could it not be? It was my first World Championship as a fan, and there he was towering over everyone else. It’s a scene I’ll never ever ever forget.

Boggs did make four All Star teams in five seasons with the Yankees, but he was never anywhere close to the player he was with the Red Sox and understandably so. Did you know that in 1988, Boggs drew 125 walks and struck out just 34 times? That’s insane. From 1985 through 1989, he hit .357/.454/.496 with 538 walks and 238 strikeouts. In New York, he hit “just” .313/.396/.407 with 324 walks and 198 strikeouts, but of course he picked up his only World Series ring, so we win. Boggs finished his career back home with the Devil Rays, becoming the only player in baseball history to record his 3,000th hit on a homerun. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the term.

Here is your open thread for the evening. The MNF pits the Bears at the Vikings, and that’s it. None of the hockey or basketball locals are in action. Use this thread as you see fit, have at it.