Yanks invite Prior, six others to Spring Training

Isn’t it a little too early to announce Spring Training invites? Either way, the Yankees officially announced the Mark Prior deal today, inviting him and six others to major league Spring Training. Right-handers Brian Anderson and Buddy Carlyle join lefties Andy Sisco and Neal Cotts, and the other two are new to the organization: infielder Doug Bernier and catcher Gustavo Molina. Bernier spent the 2009 season with Triple-A Scranton, putting up a weak .263 wOBA while playing all over the infield. Molina, no relation to the catching Molinas brothers, is a Triple-A lifer that’s failed to crack a .300 wOBA at the level in four of the last five seasons. Both Bernier and Molina are minor league filler, just warm bodies to fill out Scranton’s roster and play late in Spring Training games.

Yanks ‘cautiously optimistic’ Pettitte will return

The “Will He or Won’t He?” saga concerning Andy Pettitte‘s future in the Bronx may be drawing to a conclusion. Jon Heyman reported this afternoon that the Yanks expect Pettitte to decide “within days” if he’d like to return for one final season in uniform. The club, he says, is “cautiously optimistic.” Pettitte’s return would certainly soften the blow of losing out on the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, but it’s probably foolhardy to pencil Pettitte in for 33 starts next year. His body has had trouble handling the rigors of a 162-game schedule, and he doesn’t heal as quickly as he used to. Still, Pettitte’s return woud be a welcome one.

The RAB Radio Show: December 15, 2010

There will be plenty of pitching issues to discuss in the next few months, so what better time to start than today? We kick things off with a discussion of Rafael Soriano, a closer who might have a hard time finding a home. There aren’t many clear cut destinations for him after the Angels signed Scott Downs. Could he fit the Yankees’ needs and budget?

There’s an Andy Pettitte tidbit in there, but that post will go up soon enough.

Moving on, it’s time for injured and underrated pitchers. These guys will certainly be Yankees target this off-season. They might only get one on the free agent market, so they must choose wisely. Who appears to be the best bet among them? And if the Yankees don’t think it’s Chien-Ming Wang, what does that say about him?

Podcast run time 40:24

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The obligatory “Injured Pitchers” post

With Cliff Lee officially a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees are left trying to salvage their offseason by spreading their money around and shoring up several aspects of their team. There simply aren’t any other high-end starters on the market to go after. The process started with the now completed Russell Martin signing, and today Joel Sherman reported the Yanks will “try to pluck a veteran starter with good stuff but questionable health (off the free agent market) and have him pitch as long and as hard as he can, basically until his arm blows up or a better option comes along.

Those kinds of pitchers are always plentiful on the free agent market, and they’re popular targets in the blogosphere because we dream of them being healthy and returning to what they once were. With Lee off the market and not in New York, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to look at some of these guys as potential targets, so let’s get it out of the way now. I’m going to do something a little different though, instead of actively campaigning for one or two players I’m just going to state the facts and let you decide who’s worth the gamble. Talk about ’em in the comments…

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jeff Francis

Francis is kind of the exception here because he isn’t actually coming off an injury. After missing the entire 2009 season due to shoulder surgery, the 29-year-old lefty did manage to make 19 starts (and one relief appearance) while pitching to a 3.88 FIP in 104.1 innings for the Rockies in 2010. His ERA was ugly (5.00), but we all know that isn’t the best way to judge performance. Francis is a generic soft-tossing command lefty, spotting a fastball, changeup, and curveball on the corners of the plate. He misses just enough bats (8.4% swing-and-miss rate, 5.8 K/9 since 2008) and doesn’t walk many guys (2.6 BB/9 career, removing intentional walks), and he also gets a pretty nice amount of ground balls (~45% over the last few years) as well. Francis’ margin for error is small, but the track record is there.

Brad Penny

The one-time Red Sox whipping boy made nine highly effective starts (3.40 ERA, 1.1 fWAR) for the Cardinals this year before a shoulder strain ended his season. Penny is a known quantity at this point; he’s struck out a touch more than five-and-a-half batters per nine innings over the last four seasons (~7% swings-and-misses) despite having the stuff to do more, and his walk rate has been below three per nine in five of the last seven years. Penny has always been a ground ball guy but took it to the extreme in St. Louis last year (52.8%), completely unsurprisingly given Dave Duncan’s track record. Like Francis, Penny does have World Series experience, and he did not have surgery for his injury, which is always a plus.

Chien-Ming Wang

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Ah yes, our old friend. Wang, now 30, was last an effective pitcher in June of 2008, when he infamously injured his foot running the bases in Houston. Surgery to repair damage to the capsule in his shoulder followed, and he was unable to reach the bigs for the Nationals in 2010 despite proclamations from his agent. Everyone reading this knows the deal with the Wanger, so I don’t need to get into the specifics. Extreme sinkerballer, lots of weak contact, won’t strike anyone out. Seen it, lived it, got a t-shirt.

Brandon Webb

Webb is the big name of the group, the former Cy Young Award winner than racked up 19.9 fWAR from 2006-2008, the second most in baseball. Now 31, Webb hasn’t pitched in what amounts to two seasons due to labrum damage, and reports out of Instructional League a few weeks ago had him sitting the low-80’s with his once devastating sinker (18.1% fly balls in his career, completely ridiculous). There’s a belief that those reports are overblown in an effort to keep his price down, however. We really don’t know what Webb is capable of right now; I don’t think he can rebound and be the beast (3.23 FIP from ’06-’08, again behind only CC) he once was. If he’s 60% of that guy though, it’d be an upgrade to the back of the Yankees’ rotation. For what it’s worth, Joel Sherman reported today that the Yankees “don’t like him all that much.”

Uh, where's the ball? (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Chris Young

Young is a rather unique pitcher, relying on extreme deception and size (dude’s 6-foot-10) rather than pure stuff. He missed all but four starts in 2010 due to a shoulder strain, and when he did pitch he averaged just five innings per start with a 3.88 FIP. His always pedestrian fastball dipped into the mid-80’s over the last two years, but he’s so big and hides the ball so well that it looks like he’s releasing the ball ten feet away from the batter. That’s how he’s managed an above average swing-and-miss rate (9.4%) and generally avoided getting clobbered. Young certainly benefited from Petco Park in San Diego, owning a 53% fly ball rate for his career, far and the away the highest in baseball during that time. His margin for error is microscopic these days.

* * *

Remember, these players are looking for one thing: an opportunity. Well, that and money, we can’t forget that. Those five guys are trying to reestablish their value, so they’ll join the team that gives them the best chance to accrue innings and prove they’re healthy and productive so they can go back out on the market next year and cash in. If that means a year with the Nats or Pirates, so be it. Don’t expect the Yanks to be able to sign two or three of them either, the more there are, the less of an opportunity they’ll have.

So which one is your preferred target? Any other that weren’t covered here?

Prospect Profile: Evan Rutckyj

(Photo Credit: www.life.com)

Evan Rutckyj | LHP

Born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, Rutckyj (pronounced Root-ski) did what most Canadians do as a kid and played hockey, getting drafted by the Barrie Colts (a junior team) in the 11th round of the 2008 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection (i.e draft). He also boxed during the summers. Rutckyj gave up hockey in high school and focused on baseball, transitioning from the outfield to the mound as a sophomore. He worked with the Canadian junior national team as well as a private pitching coach leading up the draft.

Baseball America ranked Rutckyj as the second best Canadian prospect and 193rd best prospect overall for the 2010 draft this spring, though rumors of a first round bonus demand scored teams away. Rutckyj slipped to the 16th round of the draft, when the Yankees happily grabbed him 505th overall. After two months of negotiations with Rutckyj and advisor Dan Lawson, the two sides agreed to a contract that included a $500,000 signing bonus and a $155,000 education package.

Pro Debut
The Yankees assigned Rutckyj to their rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate after signing, where he appeared in just one game. He retired all three batters he faced, recording a grounder and two fly balls.

Scouting Report
Big and tall at 6-foot-5 and 213 lbs., the 18-year-old Rutckyj is a power-armed left-hander. His fastball sat 88-91 in the spring and touched 93, though he projects to add some more oomph once he fills out and getting his mechanics cleaned up. Rutckyj’s out pitch is a sweepy slider in the low-80’s, but he has a long way to go to gain consistency with it. His changeup is borderline non-existent, so there’s a lot of work to be done there.

Because he’s so big and relatively new to pitching, Rutckyj’s delivery can get out of whack rather easily. Professional instruction will go a long way towards helping him develop a consistent motion, which will in turn help his command. Rutckyj is perhaps too in shape; his tightly wound frame doesn’t allow for much flexibility. As cliche as it is, he takes a hockey mentality out to the mound with him, so there’s no fear.

Here is Rutckyj’s draft video plus another clip from the Under Armour All America Showcase.

2011 Outlook
Rutckyj is very raw and inexperienced, so the Yankees will hold in back in Extended Spring Training before assigning him to a short season league when the seasons start in June. I fully expect him to return to the GCL, though Short Season Staten Island isn’t completely out of the question.

My Take
I’m a fan. Anytime you grab a big power arm, especially left-handed, that late in the draft, it’s a coup. Rutckyj certainly has a lot of work to do and a very long way to go, but the tools are there for success. The ceiling is considerable, but so is the risk. For $500,000, a touch more than Ramiro Pena will earn next season, there’s not much more you can ask of the Yankees with their late picks.

Using your best trade chip for only the best

(Kathy Willens/AP)

The focus has shifted. With Cliff Lee out of the picture, the Yankees must move on and start fortifying the rest of the team. In just the last day we saw them bring in a catcher and a longshot reliever. These types of moves might underwhelm, but they do bring improvement on the margins. The Yankees will likely continue maneuvering in this manner for the rest of the winter, since no readily available player presents an opportunity for the Yankees to immediately improve. But that doesn’t mean they’re not looking.

The trade market can help heal what free agency hath wrought, and the Yankees will certainly explore options on that front. That doesn’t mean they’ll find much worth taking. The players — in this case pitchers — who can provide the most significant value will come with a prohibitive price tag, if they’re available at all. For the Yankees that likely means parting with Jesus Montero. Mike and I discussed this at length on the Radio Show yesterday. While there will always be exceptions, we came to the basic conclusion that the Yankees probably should not include Montero in any deal that doesn’t return them a pitcher along the lines of Zack Greinke. Sounds pretty reasonable, right?

I thought so, too, until I read Joe Sheehan’s latest on SI.com. He feels that the Yankees should not use Montero to acquire Greinke, since Greinke’s deal last just two more seasons, after which he is eligible for free agency. Instead, the Yankees should only use their best trading chip for the best from another team. “If the Yankees are determined to trade Montero,” Sheehan writes, “they should target less-obvious candidates who can contribute for more than 70 starts — even if it seems like these pitchers will, or should, be untouchable.” Emphasis mine.

In the very next paragraph Sheehan discusses David Price, Matt Garza (for whom I would not trade Montero), Brett Anderson, Madison Bumgarner, and Clayton Kershaw. Those names might seem outlandish, given their age and abilities, but that’s the entire point. The Yankees have a premier talent in Montero. Why would they trade a potential middle-of-the-order bat for just another pitcher? Sheehan is right. If they are to trade Montero, they should make sure they receive premier talent in return. They might need to package another prospect along with him, but if we’re talking any of the above names it would be a worthy expenditure.

Refusing to include Montero in a deal for anything less than a young, elite pitcher might mean the Yankees stand relatively pat this winter. They’ll continue adding pieces, and perhaps they’ll add a lesser pitcher — someone who can pitch ahead of Ivan Nova in the rotation, but not much more. What they shouldn’t do is trade Montero for a pitcher whom they can’t control for a few years. The value his bat will likely provide more value in that case. It’s certainly tempting, especially with Russell Martin in the fold and a strong crop of catchers on the farm. But the Yankees have something special in Montero. If they trade him, they should receive something special in return.

It’s Official: Martin’s a Yankee

Via Buster Olney, Russell Martin passed his physical and his one-year deal with the Yankees is now official. He will earn $4M in base salary, and I assume there are some incentives in there as well. Martin turned down a $4.2M offer (with another $1.7M in incentives) from the Dodgers before they non-tendered him, instead asking for $5.5M guaranteed. He either misread the market or really wanted to get out of Los Angeles.

The physical was no formality; Martin missed the last few weeks of the 2010 season with a hairline fracture in his hip after taking an awkward step crossing the plate. His agent confirmed that there was no damage to the labrum, which is good news. The Yankees will be able to control Martin for the 2012 season as well since he still has another year of arbitration eligibility remaining, so they gained some flexibility should Jesus Montero need time to adjust to the big leagues or (gasp!) be traded.