The Big Three, revisited

For a young baseball player, nothing can be worse than the spectre of expectations. Ask Rocco Badelli, now retired at 29 and long called the next Joe DiMaggio, how he feels about the label now. Ask every relief pitcher who gets tagged as the next Mariano. Ask young sluggers about the pressures of Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera comparisons.

Meanwhile, for those kids who come of age as a member of the Yankees, the expectations are even greater. Win today, win tomorrow, win yesterday. There’s no time for growth, development, mistakes or adjustments. If you can’t cut it from the get-go, you’re not tough enough. I shudder to think where Robinson Cano would be had he hit .229 instead of .289 over his first 50 games.

A few years ago, as Mike mentioned in tonight’s Open Thread, we hitched our wagon to Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. The Yanks had three top arms they had selected in the early rounds of the amateur draft, and these kids were working their way successfully through the organization when Johan Santana became available. The Twins wanted Kennedy and Hughes plus others, and we believed it would be a mistake to include two of them in a deal with Minnesota.

At the time, we didn’t expect all three of them to be top-flight Major League starters. It rarely works that way with young arms. But we expected them to be useful Major Leaguers or Major League pieces in the right deal, and that’s what happened. Phil Hughes has emerged as a legitimate middle-of-the-rotation arm; Joba Chamberlain is working himself back from a shoulder injury more serious than originally thought; and Kennedy has found success in the NL after helping net the Yanks Curtis Granderson. My personal views on Joba’s role notwithstanding, that’s a great tale of pitcher development.

Now we have our second generation of the Big Three, and they’re getting a lot of attention early on. We call the top arms in the Yanks’ rotation the Killer B’s. They are, after all, the next generation of hyped — or overhyped — pitchers. Andrew Brackman, 25, Dellin Betances, 22, and Manny Banuelos, 19, are names regular RAB readers know well and names with which Yankee fans will soon become familiar. Already, reporters are getting itchy.

With the Yankees’ rotation heavy with question marks and thin with top-flight starters, the kids are under the microscope. Enter Joel Sherman. In his blog post today, Sherman talks about other Yankees who unexpectedly forced themselves into the picture. Alfonso Soriano‘s killer Spring Training in 2001 made the Yanks play him. Robinson Cano came up ahead of schedule when Tony Womack just couldn’t cut it. Phil Hughes was pressed into service when the Yanks’ thin rotation started to fall apart. Can history repeat itself with one of the Killer B’s?

Sherman almost answers his own question in the negative. Brian Cashman told The Post that these kids — the potential future — won’t be rushed. “They shouldn’t be caught up in our major league problems,” he said. But Sherman, who may be speculating or may be doing more than reading tea leaves, can’t help but wonder:

No matter how short the rotation might be, it is not up to two inexperienced pitchers to solve the mess caused by Cliff Lee’s rejection and Andy Pettitte‘s continued defection. Banuelos and Betances have each made three career starts at Double-A, which is the highest level they have attained. Both had injuries last year that severely restricted their workload. So you can expect that the Yankees will institute an innings cap not much above 130 — if that high — this season. With that the case, it would be hard to begin or end the year with either Banuelos or Betances in the rotation. In addition, Cashman stressed that Banuelos is 19 (he turns 20 next month).

For now, Banuelos and Betances are ticketed for Double-A. But keep this in mind: Many members of the Yankees organization feel breaking young pitchers in via the bullpen is worthwhile, so it is possible that the last 20 or 30 innings of their work could be out of the major league pen. Also, don’t forget, Soriano was not supposed to be with the Yankees in 2001 nor was Hughes supposed to be with the team in 2007. So whatever the rules are in the chill of February, remember they are always subject to rewrite.

I don’t discount Sherman’s sourcing. He’s very well connected within the upper reaches of the Yanks’ braintrust. But if the recent past is any indication, the Yanks won’t rush prized arms. Banuelos and Betances have combined for 30 AA innings. Brackman threw 80 at that level and is very much a work in progress, and the Yanks like to let their works in progress arrive when ready. If any player is going to play themselves onto the Yanks during Spring Training, it will be Jesus Montero and not Brackman, Banuelos or Betances.

So we’ll wait out this second generation of the Big Three. We’ll give them their innings at AA and AAA, and we’ll see their names pop up in trade rumors all season. If they can approximate the success of the first Big League — a starter, a reliever and a trade chip — the Yankees can pat themselves on the back for a job well done. The road to that end is long yet, and there is no need to rush.

Open Thread: Johan Santana

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It’s been a long, long time since we campaigned to Save The Big Three. That was three offseasons ago, when the Yankees (and Red Sox) were talking to the Twins about acquiring two-time (shoulda been three-time) Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. The rumored package was Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, Mitch Hilligoss, and Jeff Marquez, though Minnesota was supposedly holding out for Ian Kennedy. Think the Cliff Lee or Andy Pettitte stuff is too much this winter? That was nothing compared to the non-stop Johan rumors, around the clock coverage of a trade we never wanted to happen. Three years ago today, it all came to a merciful end when the Mets officially acquired Santana for what amounted to a package of spare parts.

We were happy, many were not. The Yankees were in clear need of pitching help, moreso than they are right now, and there was Santana, an ace in his prime waiting to be had. Brian Cashman gambled that he could keep his prized young players (though four of those five guys are long gone) and simply buy CC Sabathia as a free agent the next offseason. It was a ballsy and absurdly risky move, but that’s exactly what happened. Less than two years after the Johan non-trade, Sabathia, Hughes, and the rest of the Yankees were parading down the Canyon of Heroes, world champs for the 27th time. They took their lumps along the way, missing the playoffs in 2008, but here they are today with both Sabathia and Hughes headlining their rotation while Johan recovers from major shoulder surgery across town. I don’t think Hollywood could have written a better script.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Isles, Nets, and Knicks are all playing, but talk about whatever you want. Go nuts.

Piniella set to consult for San Fran

When, in early 2009, it became clear that Lou Piniella was going to end his managerial career after the 2010 season, Hal Steinbrenner expressed his desire to bring Lou back to the Bronx in an advisory role. Piniella also had fond feelings for the Yanks and the Yanks for him. It is not a reunion to be, however. As John Shea of The San Francisco Chronicle reported this morning, Piniella will be joining the Giants instead. Piniella and Giants’ GM Brian Sabean are tight from their time together with the Yanks, and the former skipper will consult for the defending World Champions instead of the Yankees.

‘I wanna be where the fans are’

With apologies to Bruce Springsteen for the headline, take a look at this map. Not quite an accurate survey of the landscape of baseball fan-dom, CommonCensus has mapped the baseball landscape through online surveys. The result is a rough approximation of where fans of the 30 clubs live. Red Sox fans have clearly taken to voting as they seem to possess a territory in western Connecticut and eastern New York far greater than the club’s reach.

Anyway, kill 15 minutes on the high-res version and start voting here to help reshape the Yanks’ share of the country. For what it’s worth, Montana doesn’t seem to be a hotbed of people, let alone baseball, and for another excellent if inexact map of the baseball landscape, check out the United Countries of Baseball.

The RAB Radio Show: February 2, 2011

The Yankees made a small move today, acquiring Justin Maxwell from the Nationals. Maxwell has some promise. Before the 2010 season Baseball America ranked him 8th in the Nationals system, and he has displayed plenty of power. Mike and I break down where he fits in and how this represents the Yankees’ M.O. lately in acquiring outfielders.

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Yanks pick up OF Justin Maxwell

With that swing Maxwell drove in four. (John Bazemore/AP)

Via MLBTR we learn that the Yankees have acquired recently DFA’d outfielder Justin Maxwell from the Nationals. It’s not a particularly big move, but it does give the Yankees a potential fifth outfielder, as well as some depth for AAA. That is, he’ll likely push Greg Golson back to the minors. The Yankees will send Adam Olbrychowski to the Nationals.

Maxwell, 27, was rated the Nationals’ No. 8 prospect heading into the 2010 season. Baseball America call him a “physical specimen with plus athleticism” and noted his patience and power potential. His review ends with an encouraging note, too: “If he hits, he can be a valuable four-tool player.” In between, though, were a few negatives, including injuries, inconsistent contact skills, and a poor arm. The injuries remain an issue: Max well recently underwent Tommy John surgery, though he’s expected back for spring training.

The Nationals have recalled Maxwell in three seasons, but he’s managed just 260 PA in his career. In 2009 it appeared he was on the path to regular playing time, as he produced a .357 wOBA, which included plenty of power, in 102 PA. But in 2010 he fell off, a mere .279 wOBA in 131 PA. Even in AAA he experienced a power dip, though his .390 OBP helped compensate.

The Yanks aren’t asking much of Maxwell. He’s out of options, so either he makes the team or he heads back through the waiver process. (Edit: He does have a remaining option.) I think he’s a better option than Greg Golson, but even if he’s not there’s little risk in this move. The only downside is having to remove someone from the 40-man roster. That man is Jordan Parraz. They still have to remove someone for Andruw Jones. Mike and I discussed 40-man roster issues on a recent podcast.

This move won’t make an enormous difference in the 2011 season, but it’s another example of the Yankees shoring up when there’s an opportunity. If Maxwell helps, great. If not, he’s easily expendable. We’ve criticized Brian Cashman in the past for not using his resources to build powerful benches. It appears this year that he’s put a bit more focus on that aspect of the team.

Bonus: Here’s another Maxwell grand slam.

Update by Mike (2:58pm): Joel Sherman says that Maxwell does in fact have one option remaining, which is excellent news.

A look ahead at potentially available starting pitchers

When the Yankees seek pitching help during the 2011 season, it will likely come from outside the organization. This morning Joel Sherman reminisced about previous years where the Yankees used a young player they had not intended, but this situation feels a bit different. When Phil Hughes came up in 2007 he was the the best amateur pitching prospect in the game and had just finished a season in which he threw 146 innings. In 2011 Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos might appear attractive options, but in 2010 they combined to throw as many innings as Hughes did the season before he made the bigs. Both pitchers are short on experience, and I think that keeps them out of the picture, at least as starters, for the 2011 season. Unless Andrew Brackman breaks out in a serious way, the Yankees are going to have to explore other options to fill in rotation spots.

Today Buster Olney listed 11 pitchers who might become available during the 2011 season. Some we’ve written about, and some we haven’t. But if the Yankees don’t get much use out of Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova doesn’t delvier in his sophomore effort, or Andrew Brackman isn’t ready, they’re going to look to the market for a replacement. These 11 names will likely come up in discussions if their teams make them available.

(John Raoux/AP)

James Shields: In 2010 James Shields saw some of his stats spike. With his strikeout rate also went his home run rate and BABIP. That still amounted to peripherals that far outpaced his 5.18 ERA. We’re undoubtedly going to see better from Shields in 2011, but that doesn’t mean he’s a fit for the Yankees. Not only will the Rays likely need him to remain in contention, but they probably won’t be so willinng to trade him to the Yankees. He still has a team friendly contract: $4.25 million this year, followed by options for $7 million, $9 million, and $12 million.

Joe Blanton: We hear a lot about Blanton, mainly because of rumors that the Cliff Lee signing left the Phillies short on cash. Blanton has had his ups and downs throughout his career, and he has seen his home run rate jump, and his ground ball rate decrease, since moving to Philadelphia. He currently has two years and $17 million remaining on his contract, so he’s affordable. But I’m not sure he’s quite the answer the Yankees seek. It depends on how desperate they become.

Edwin Jackson: We talked about Jackson’s case here. His availability will depend on Chris Sale’s and Jake Peavy’s statuses. But if the Sox are in contention, I can’t see them trading a useful pitcher unless it fetches them a player who can immediately help the team. I’m not sure the Yanks have an expendable player who would fit the bill.

Paul Maholm: He’s a groundball heavy lefty who doesn’t strike out anyone, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good pitcher. His career FIP is 4.28 and xFIP is 4.31, so he’s not a total disaster. But when he allowed a lot of hits on balls in play, which happens with such a contact-heavy pitcher, his ERA gets inflated. In the past two years it has been considerably higher than his peripherals indicate.

Shaun Marcum: The Brewers are all-in for 2011, but that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed anything. A few bad breaks and they could be well behind the Reds and the Cardinals, and maybe even the Cubs, by the time July rolls around. They might want to hang onto Zack Greinke, but Shaun Marcum could fetch them a farm-replenishing return. He had a superb return from Tommy John surgery in 2010, and despite poor velocity he can still rack up strikeouts at a league average rate while keeping his walk rate low. His changeup is an especially effective weapon, which could help him fend off lefties salivating over the short porch.

(Gregory Bull/AP)

Ryan Dempster: If I were to make a list of underrated pitchers, Dempster would finish in the top three. Ever since moving back to the rotation in 2008, after four years in the bullpen, Dempster has shined. In fact, 2010 was his worst year of the three, and even then he had a 3.85 ERA and 3.99 FIP. He can strike out guys, and his walk rates are usually acceptable. His contract is a bit much, as he’s owed $27.5 million over the next two seasons. But if the Yanks can get him for a decent price, I think they’d jump.

Carlos Zambrano: Mike has previously said everything I want to say, and more, The Mariners won’t trade Felix Hernandez.

Jeremy Guthrie: His name has come up in many discussions this winter, but the hangup is always the prospect of trading him within the division. He has four years of service now, meaning he’ll be arbitration eligible in 2012 before hitting free agency. That said, I’m not sure he’s the best guy for the job. His home run rate is always fairly high, and he doesn’t strike out many batters. Last year his ERA was ahead of his FIP and way ahead of his xFIP. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll come back down to earth in 2011, but there is little indication that he possesses some skill, such as Matt Cain, that renders him exceptional.

Fausto Carmona: I wrote about Fausto Carmona in December. While I think he’s a worthy risk, I don’t see the Indians having any reason to trade him.

Justin Masterson: If they wouldn’t trade Carmona, why would they trade Masterson? He won’t turn 26 until March, and he has shown some decent peripherals during his short time in the bigs. Still, he might profile better as a middle reliever, since he lacks an out pitch against lefties.