Open Thread: Joba states his case

The internets were abuzz this morning with commentary about how Phil Hughes had grabbed hold of the fifth starter’s job following his shutout performance last night, which in turn meant that Joba Chamberlain‘s career as a starter was on borrowed time. There was talk about how he needed to man up, how he could end up in the bullpen or even in Triple-A, and there was a sense that the obituaries on his time as a big league starter were already written. But then something strange happened today.

He pitched well.

The box score shows three innings of one run ball with three strikeouts, but that doesn’t include the unofficial 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth in which Joba struck out two more. The run came in his first inning of work, when a well-placed blooper got past a diving Kevin Russo for a double, and a routine single by the next batter plated the run. After hitting 94 with his fastball in his previous start, there apparently was no stadium gun to get an idea of how he was throwing today. Regardless, he was impressive.

“Outstanding,” said Girardi of Joba’s outing after the game. “Worked quickly. Attacked the zone. He’s got to go out and throw more, and that’s what you want to see. Quality.”

This purported competition for the fifth starter’s spot is now three appearances old for everyone. It’s only March 17th, and all five candidates have at least two outings left before a winner must be declared. Hughes pitched well, Joba pitched well, Al Aceves has pitched well, even Sergio Mitre has pitched well. This thing’s far from over, folks.

* * *

Here’s tonight’s open thread. If you’ve managed to get into one of our six fantasy baseball leagues, do us all a favor and post your team name in the comments, so everyone can chat about their strategies and what not. The Devils, Nets, and Knicks are all in action, so have a blast.

Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP

RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 5:05pm ET. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

Why the Yanks won’t sign Joe Mauer

At a position typically short on heavy hitters, Joe Mauer stands out. Over the past three seasons he has posted a .392 wOBA, the best among catchers. Jorge Posada comes pretty close with a .391 mark, but Mauer has about 500 more plate appearances over that span. Behind them, the list gets a bit thin. Only five catchers have produced over 10 WAR from 2007 through 2009 — Brian McCann, Russell Martin, and Victor Martinez in addition to Mauer and Posada. When a team finds a heavy hitting catcher, it is in their best interest to hold on tightly.

Photo credit: Kevin P. Casey/AP

This is why I still believe that the Twins will work out an extension with Mauer. There’s just too much at stake for the team. If Mauer leaves, then what? They’ve already locked up the complementary talent, Denard Span for the next five years, Justin Morneau for the next four, and even Michael Cuddyer for the next two. What is the complementary talent, though, without the star? Furthermore, what better use for revenue generated from their new stadium? It seems all signs point to an extension.

Of course, just because the signs point one way doesn’t mean it will happen. Anything can still happen at this point, and that includes Mauer hitting the free agent market this winter. If that’s the case he’ll command more than $100 million, and possibly get closer to $200 million. With numbers that large, it’s clear that the big market teams will play the largest role in the bidding. Some are already connecting the two parties.

If Mauer does hit the free agent market, though, I don’t expect the Yankees to outbid the Red Sox for him. They’ll make a play, of course, but I don’t expect them to use their resources that way. Yes, Mauer is one of the most valuable players in the game, but the Yankees have spent the past three or so years filing their farm system with catchers. After all that, why go and use an enormous portion of your resources to sign one in free agency?

As it stands, the Yankees have $144 million locked into the 2011 payroll before they work out contracts for Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. They’ll also have arbitration cases for Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. In other words, they could be near $185 million for just 13 players — and that doesn’t include Javy Vazquez or Andy Pettitte. At that point they’d probably need at least one starting pitcher. Other needs could crop up during the season, including left field.

Yet at catcher the Yankees would have Jorge Posada under contract for one more season. They’d also have Jesus Montero with a year of AAA under his belt, and Austin Romine with a season of AA — and possibly with some AAA experience. Below them they feature a number of low-level catchers, too, including J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez. Signing Mauer to a six- or seven-year deal would render these developing players essentially useless to the organization. Wouldn’t that render a waste the past few years of focus on catcher?

None of this downplays the immediate impact Mauer would have on the Yankees. As the second best catcher over the past three years heads into his sunset years, he would be replaced by the best. It would allow the Yankees to trade Montero for a pitcher, filling one of the rotation vacancies. It would also give them more time to let the other catchers develop, perhaps also using them as trade bait — or even as a oft-used backup in order to help limit Mauer’s workload. For all these reasons, I’d never rule out the Yankees signing Mauer.

Rather than adding another nine-figure contract to the ledger, though, I think the Yankees will focus on pitching and left field, once again, next winter. They’ve put a lot into developing a next generation crop of catchers, so why would they make such an enormous outlay to sign one in free agency, when players are at their most expensive? Why not use that money to sign a player at a thinner position? That’s what I think the Yankees will do. I’d love to see Mauer in pinstripes, but given the current structure of the organization it appears their money would be better spent elsewhere.

RAB Fantasy Baseball League (Part Six)

Alrighty, here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The settings are exactly the same as before, so go to Yahoo and sign up using the League ID and password found here. The settings are exactly the same as the other leagues, and the maximum moves per week is set at eight, even though the screen cap of the settings say otherwise. Hopefully this takes care of everyone, six leagues is pretty insane.

Marte leaves game after getting hit by comebacker

Update (4:37pm): Marte’s fine, just a bruise. He was working out after the game. Phew.

2:31pm: Via Sweeny Murti, Damaso Marte left today’s game after taking a Ryan Howard line drive to the back. The Yanks’ primary lefty reliever allowed two hits and a homer to the first three batters he faced before Howard ended his day. It was Marte’s first action of the spring, and if he misses any time, it’s unlikely he’ll to be ready for Opening Day. Boone Logan‘s chances of making the team just went up big time.

2010 Draft: Mid-to-late round arms

Ever since taking over as scouting director in 2005, Damon Oppenheimer has provided the Yankees with a steady stream of low cost pitching talent to plug holes in the bullpen and use as trade bait. Most of those arms have been acquired in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft, making those selections that much more rewarding. In 2006 he landed Mark Melancon (9th round), Dan McCutchen (13th), and David Robertson (17th), then in 2008 he drafted D.J. Mitchell (10th) and David Phelps (14th), and last year it was Sean Black (7th), Gavin Brooks (9th), and Graham Stoneburner (14th).

The general idea was to take polished college starters with good enough stuff, and hope pitching guru Nardi Contreras can take them to the next level. As more and more teams are becoming aggressive in the draft, it’s getting harder and harder to find valuable pieces after the 3rd or 4th or 5th round. Oppenheimer’s approach has yielded quality relievers and decent trade pieces, which is exactly what a big money club like the Yankees need.

Surely the Yankees will deploy the same strategy this June, using those usually fruitless middle rounds to replenish the pipeline with more useful arms that should climb the ladder quickly. Here’s a few such players the Yankees could target…

Bryan Harper, LHP, College of Southern Nevada
Projected top pick Bryce Harper isn’t the only baseball prospect in his family, his older brother Bryan is a pretty good player himself. After posting a 6.68 ERA with a 15-22 K/BB ratio in 32.1 IP as a freshman at Cal State Northridge, Harper transferred to CSN to help his brother transition to college ball when he should have been a junior in high school. He’s emerged as the Coyotes best starter, carving up the wood bat league to the tune of a 2.39 ERA with a 41-17 K/BB ratio in 26.1 IP.

A physical specimen like his brother, the elder Harper is projectable at 6-foot-5 and just 190 lbs. Obviously he needs to work on his command and control, but the raw stuff is there. His fastball generally sits 89-91 – less impressive than his brother’s heat, actually – and his second pitch is a big breaking curve that is a put-away pitch some days and a show-me offering on others. A changeup has been in the works as well. Harper needs to become more consistent with all of his pitches, and that will come with experience and pro instruction.

Draft eligible because of the transfer to a junior college, Harper is likely an early double-digit round selection. Teams with the top overall pick usually select that player’s bother if he’s draft eligible as a bit of a favor and also to provide a certain level of comfort. Most recently, the Rays drafted Jeremy Beckham in the 17th round after taking his younger brother Tim first overall in 2008. If the team that takes Bryce doesn’t draft Bryan later on, he’ll be a very tough sign and will likely end up following through on his commitment to South Carolina.

Photo Credit: Screen cap’d from here

[Read more…]

2010 Season Preview: Burnett and Sabathia could be even better in ’10

When the Yankees signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett a year ago, they believed they were getting, at best, a pair of aces or, at worst, a No. 1 and a No. 2. In year one they got the latter. Sabathia pitched as well as anyone could have expected, tossing 230 innings at a 3.37 ERA, fourth lowest in the AL. Burnett might not have been a second ace, but he pitched capably behind Sabathia, posting the fourth best strikeout rate in the AL. Both could make improvements and perform even better in 2010.

Photo credit: AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese

There are concerns that career highs in innings pitched could adversely affect Burnett and Sabathia. Neither set career highs during the regular season. In fact, both had set that mark in 2008, when Sabathia pitched 253 innings and Burnett pitched 221.1. In 2009 the Yankees had leeway later in the season to give them a rest, and it led to Burnett pitching 14 fewer innings, while Sabathia, not pitching every fourth day in a tight pennant race, managed 23 fewer innings. The playoffs, of course, pushed them both above their career highs. Sabathia threw 36.1 innings in the playoffs for a total of 266.1, 9.2 innings over his career high. Burnett threw 27.1 playoff innings for a total of 234.1, 13 more than his career high.

Put this way, it doesn’t appear either pitcher worked much harder than in 2009. In fact, they might have put less stress on their arms. Sabathia’s 2008 season started on March 31 and ended on October 2, 186 days. That works out to 6.9 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 6 and ended on November 1, 210 days. That works out to just about 6 1/3 innings every five days. Burnett’s 2008 season started on April 2 and ended on September 24, 176 days, or just under 6 1/3 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 9 and ended on November 2, 208 days, or just under 5 2/3 innings every five days. Both of their workloads, spread over time, were lower in 2009 than in 2008.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The sheer number of innings each pitched still causes concern, of course, and the Yankees have taken steps to mitigate that this spring. They’ve exercised caution with all three of their postseason workhorses, and will likely use the sparse April schedule to spread out their early starts. The idea, of course, is to have them pitching like normal as the season moves on, rather than like a pair of pitchers fatigued by the added workload of a postseason run. If this works out as planned, both Sabathia and Burnett could make improvements that could help them realize the Yankees’ goal of having a pair of aces atop the rotation.

Burnett knows that he walked way too many batters in 2009, and he has made it his goal to improve that rate in 2010. That plays into his other goal of pitching deeper into games. What could further help him in that second goal is inducing ground balls at his career rate. In 2009 Burnett induced a career low 42.8 percent ground balls. His career rate is 49.5 percent. More ground balls typically means a higher BABIP, since ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls. Burnett could mitigate this increase by improving his walk-rate. That works out better than a wash, since ground balls can also lead to double plays, which can erase some of those walked batters.

Another area where Burnett could see a return to his career marks is his performance against right-handed hitters. He struck out just 7.09 righties per nine innings, well below his marks from previous seasons. He was as high as 8.91 per nine in 2008. His walk rate against righties also shot up to 4.34 per nine, more than a full walk per nine more than 2008, and his .284 batting average against represents the worst of his career. Perhaps adding a changeup to his arsenal will help in this regard. Even if he doesn’t, a simple return to his career norms would represent a big improvement over 2009.

Like Burnett, Sabathia also saw his groundballs dip. While he had hovered around 45 percent over the previous three seasons, he dropped to about 43 percent in 2009. That’s not a huge change, but it hurts when combined with his increased fly ball rate, 37.3 percent. That’s not much above his pre-2008 norm, though, and it’s doubtful he’d get that number as low as the 31.7 mark he posted in 2008. Still, a few more groundballs can never hurt. Sabathia’s walks were also up a bit, 2.62 per nine, but not significantly so. It led to his four-year high in FIP, but even then he was at 3.39.

In terms of the small stuff, Sabathia saw a few changes in 2009. His strikeout rate dipped and his walk rate spiked with men on base. His strikeout rate with men on base, 6.70 per nine, looks a bit worse because of his outstanding 8.12 mark in 2008, though it still sits a bit below the ~7.00 rate he posted in 2006 and 2007. His walk rate, 3.30 per nine with men on base, is over his career norms and way over his totals over the previous three years. In his Cy Young season, 2007, he walked just 1.08 per nine with men on base. He also saw a dip in his K/9 against lefties, to 9.94. He had been around 12 per nine from 2006 through 2008.

Yet even as they both slipped in some areas, both Sabathia and Burnett performed to expectations in 2009. If they improve on any of those aspects in 2010, they could easily exceed expectations. Chances are the projection systems won’t see it that way, but we’ll check them anyway.


Click for larger

So, in other words, when we average out the forecasts we get a near replica of CC’s 2009 season.


Click for larger

Sabathia and Burnett were a big part of Brian Cashman‘s plan to bring the Yankees back to the World Series, and obviously that worked out pretty well. They both performed well during their debut seasons in the Bronx, and could see improvement in their second. There is certainly some concern from their having exceeding previous innings highs, but not only did they spread those innings over more time, but they also only modestly increased over their 2008 marks. With those two heading the rotation, the Yankees finally have that dominant feel. Not only can they mash, but they can win the 2-1 games, too.