In one of the stranger baseball sex stories around, Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, two journeyman pitchers from the late 1960s/early 1970s, owned up to wife-swapping while the two were members of the 1972 Yankees. Now, Ben Affleck, one of the most well-known Red Sox fans around, is going to direct and star in a film adaptation of the wife-swapping tale. According to the rumors, Matt Damon, another movie celebrity/Red Sox fan, will co-star in the flick, and the two will play Peterson and Kekich respectively. Dave Mandel, of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, has been tabbed to pen the script, and the movie will be called The Trade. I see what they did there. (Hat tip to BBTF.)
As a general rule, I prefer to ignore the media-based talk concerning Joba Chamberlain‘s proper role with the team. I can only listen to some know-nothing sports commentator mouth off about Joba’s “bulldog mentality” and the fact that he “just fits better” in the bullpen so many times before I need to take a long walk or strangle a cute puppy to get out my anger. After an offseason of listening to George A. King take shots at the Yanks for their Joba approach, though, it is an article by John Harper in the Daily News today that put me over the edge.
The article in question can be found right here, and from the minute you read the headline, you know what’s about to happen. “New York Yankees change tune on Joba Chamberlain’s role, says it may be in bullpen,” Harper’s editors wrote. The article, though, suffers from a fatal flaw. What the Yankee coaches are saying and the words Harper attempts to put into their mouths just don’t line up.
“I think we’ve all seen the difference in him when he starts and relieves,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. He continued, “”I’ve told Joba that if he wants to be a starter for us, he has to have the same mound demeanor, the same aggressiveness, and repeat his delivery as a starter the way he does as a reliever. hat’s who he is. He’s got to be an aggressive, come-right-at-you, power-type guy. Sometimes when he started he’d fall behind, he’d try to show all his pitches. Yes, he does have four pitches but he doesn’t have to use them in every at-bat.”
Nothing in Eiland’s statement suggests that the Yanks are at all considering moving Joba to the bullpen, permanently or otherwise or that Joba is better in the pen. Rather, Eiland thinks Joba has a different approach while in the pen, and the Yanks’ coach wants Joba Chamberlain to come out there as a starter with the same confidence in his stuff that he had as a reliever. He wants Joba to come out there pitching as he did in the minors where, as a starter, he went 9-2 in 15 starts with a 2.56 ERA and 125 strike outs in 84.1 innings. He wants Joba to come out there with the confidence he had before an incessant sports media drumbeat began urging the Yanks to push a suggestible young kid into the bullpen.
And it’s that suggestibility that highlights how the media has created this beast of a B-Jobber problem. In the same Harper piece, Joba starts talking about his various roles. He talks about mentality and approach, and it sounds as though he’s starting to buy into this whole bullpen/starter bifurcation debate. “You can’t be the same person,” Chamberlain said. “It’s two different adrenaline rushes. It’s two different approaches. Out of the bullpen you only have to face a guy once. As a starter you’ve got to get him out three or four times. These guys are so good, you’re not going to be able to get them out the same way twice. So it’s the same feel for pitching, but it’s a different approach. To try and stay in that [mode] for six or seven innings is a lot different than going at it for one.”
There, Joba confronts what we all know: Pitchers who need to throw just an inning or two every four out of seven games can approach their outings differently than pitchers expected to throw 12-15 innings twice in seven games. Yet, again, nothing in Joba’s words suggest he wouldn’t be able to start. Rather, he needs to carry over a mentality.
Harper, though, will have none of it. He writes of the Yanks’ “bad idea” to have a starter try to be a starter and how it will be “better late than never” to move Joba into a less valuable role. It’s lunacy and idiocy all rolled up into one, and it never ends. Joba might be susceptible to the constant questioning of his ability, but if Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi and Dave Eiland show enough faith in him, he will be a great starter.
As this whole debate has unfolded, I keep returning to a question of blame. I fully blame the Yankees for creating this mess. In 2007, they believed their bullpen to be so inept that they moved a successful young starter who was fast-tracking his way to the Big League rotation into the bullpen to both limit his innings and help out the Big League club. He was a star out of the pen, one of those fist-pumpin’ strike out machines, and even after he faltered in the biggest of spots while surrounded by midges, the media couldn’t let go of that image of Joba the Eighth Inning Guy. It’s always been more important to find top-flight starters; it’s always been easier to replace the bullpen production with your next best guy; and it will always be, in part, the Yanks’ fault for starting this endless debate in the first place.
As Joba himself said last summer, “I could win 20 games and people are still going to think I could save 50.”
So here we are again. It seems like just last week that we were watching the Yankees parade down the Canyon of Heroes, and yet pitchers and catchers have already reported to Tampa. I guess that’s one of the many perks of having your favorite team win the World Series; a shorter offseason.
Just like the big league team, both High-A Tampa and Short Season Staten Island were able to capture their league championships in 2009. For the SI Yanks, it was their fifth league title of the decade. Double-A Trenton was unable to win their third consecutive Eastern League Championship, though Triple-A Scranton returned to the International League Championship Series after winning the crown in 2008. Overall, the Yanks’ six minor league affiliates combined for a 381-309 record, good for the second best winning percentage (.552) among the thirty clubs (Giants, .590).
Even with all the winning, the Yanks system took a big hit in all sorts of ways over the last year. Five key prospects graduated to the big leagues in 2009, while attrition knocked six others off my list all together. Five others are no longer with the organization for whatever reason. As a result, this year’s list features a whopping 16 new faces, quite the turnover in just 12 months.
As always, ranking prospects is all about trying to find a balance between performance, projection, and probability. Oodles of talent and great performance is all well and good, but if the player is in A-ball, we have to be careful and remember to temper expectations. There are certainly times that the player’s upside is so great that you can’t ignore it, no matter how far down the ladder they are. Remember, a lot of these guys are very interchangeable. I don’t think there’s much of a difference between this year’s #2 and #5 prospects, or the #15 and #30 prospects. When guys are that close, it comes down to preference.
Here’s my lists from 2007, 2008, and 2009. Hard to believe I’ve been at this for four years already, more if you count past blogging ventures. Anyway, the listed ages are as of April 1st of this year, and the fun starts after the jump.
In early 2007, just as RAB came on the scene, Andrew Brackman dominated draft talk. He was a projected Top 5 pick, and with good reason. The 6’10” dual-sport player sported not only a mid-90s fastball, but a curveball to go with it. He was raw at the time, having thrown only 70 college innings, but the potential was certainly there. He probably would have gone Top 5, too, if there hadn’t been injury concerns during his final college season that led to him sitting out games towards the end. The pre-draft rumors had him needing Tommy John surgery, so down the first round he slipped.
Photo credit: AP/Julie Jacobson
The Yankees, picking at No. 30 after a huge 2006 season, jumped on Brackman. Of course, they probably preferred Rick Porcello, who also tumbled through the first round, but the Tigers took him two picks prior. So the Yankees, seeing no one with nearly the ceiling of Brackman left on the board, took the plunge. It took a major league deal and a year of waiting for him to recover from TJS, but at the start of 2009 Brackman looked ready to start his professional career.
His first season, as we saw, did not go very well. Through his first 19 starts he pitched just 85.2 innings, or about 4.5 innings per start. His 6.72 ERA was certainly a concern, but not nearly as big as his 6.72 BB/9. In June and July he had more walks than innings pitched. A conversion to the bullpen in late July seemed to help, as Brackman’s final 21 innings went a bit better, as he allowed 17 hits and walked 12 to 24 strikeouts.
Now Brackman faces a huge challenge. As he moves up the ladder to Advanced-A Tampa, he must prove that he’s made adjustments. The Times’s new Yankees beat writer Ben Shpigel profiles Brackman, talking to Charleston pitching coach Jeff Ware in addition to farm director Mark Newman and the pitcher himself. They talk about comfort level and how Brackman might have been overthinking his mechanics. As Pitching guru Nardi Contreras said, “everything was out of whack.” Sounds about right.
Chances are, Brackman won’t turn into the ace pitcher the Yankees envisioned in 2007. That’s not just because of his problems last season, though. A pitcher like Brackman presents an enormous gamble, and those high-risk, high-reward moves have a bigger chance of busting than not. The Yankees wanted to take the risk, wanted the upside of a Top 5 pick, knowing they might not get one for another decade or two. It’s easy to look back and say the Yanks messed up, but I think they made the right call back in 07.
By the time Robinson Cano fielded a Shane Victorino ground ball and tossed it to Mark Teixeira to end the 2009 World Series, the Yankees’ starting pitchers had thrown a lot of innings. For nearly a month, Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett had been making high-stress October starts, and the innings kept mounting. Keeping these key arms fresh, then, has now become a primary concern for the Yanks this spring.
The horses were ridden hard in October and November. After throwing 230 regular season innings, Sabathia tacked on another 36.1 in October, far surpassing his career high. A.J. Burnett tossed 207 regular season innings and added another 27.1 in the postseason. His previous career high was 221.1, a mark he reached in 2008. Andy Pettitte, the October veteran of the group, threw 194.2 regular season innings and another 30.2 in October. He hadn’t surpassed the 225-inning mark since 2005. These guys threw long and hard in high pressure situations.
As Spring Training begins, Joe Girardi knows that his pitchers worked a lot last season. Today, while addressing the media, Girardi spoke about physically preparing his pitchers for another long season. “We figured we could ease all these guys into it,” the Yanks’ skipper said. “We wanted to make sure that they’re absolutely physically prepared to go out and have that same type of workload.”
The Yankees are going to proceed slowly with their hurlers. They won’t ask the pitchers to overtax themselves in Spring Training. CC Sabathia, the ace, will throw his first full bullpen session on Saturday, and the others will follow suit as though lining up the rotation for the regular season. A.J. will toss on Sunday, Pettitte Monday and Javier Vazquez, the new guy, will take his turn on Tuesday. It’s a smart move for the Yankees.
Why the care and kid gloves? Well, a 2007 Washington Post article about the Chicago White Sox helps to put it all into perspective. As Dave Sheinin noted then and as the 2009 Tampa Bay Rays can tell you, teams that go deep into the postseason one year often see their pitchers regress the next. Wrote Sheinin, “Of the 30 pitchers who threw 240 or more innings in a season between 2001 and ’05, the vast majority (21 pitchers, or 70 percent) saw their ERAs rise the following season — and 11 of them experienced a jump of at least one full run. Still others experienced arm injuries the year after their high-workload season.”
And so the Yankees will be careful. They have a lot riding on their pitching staff. Besides the $72.75 million invested into their four top starters, the Yankees are going to need to have these guys be on top of their games to fend off the Red Sox and the Rays. The team knows this, and as Spring Training begins, so too do the innings concerns.
Steve Keane from The Eddie Kranepool Society has asked me to appear as a guest on his Pro Baseball Central show on Blogtalk Radio tonight. I’ll be calling in to chat Yankees, Mets, Spring Training and New York baseball with Keane and co-host Joe McDonald at 9:30 p.m. Give it a listen. I promise I won’t make too much fun of the Mets’ woes.