The need for good Thames against Texas

Mr. Thames to you. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Marcus Thames has been everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to be and then some. He was brought in to hit lefthanded pitching and has done just that (.300/.352/.454, .354 wOBA), but he’s also been much better than expected against righthanders (.268/.347/.549, .382 wOBA). He’s produced numerous big hits throughout the year, like this walk-off homer against the Red Sox, this walk-off single against the Blue Jays, this go-ahead homer against the Jays, and of course this go-ahead single against the same Rangers’ club that the Yanks will face in the ALCS starting Friday. As good as Thames has been this season, his team is going to need just a little bit more out of him against Texas.

Although neither team has officially released their ALCS rotation yet, the Rangers are expected to start the series with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis before giving the ball to Cliff Lee in Game Three. Tommy Hunter is your probable Game Four starter. It’s highly likely that each team will win at least one game at some point, meaning that Texas will be able to give the ball to a southpaw three times in the first five games of the series (Wilson twice, Lee once). These aren’t your everyday lefthanders either. Wilson annihilates batters of the same hand (lefthanded batters had just a .205 wOBA with just five doubles and no homers off him this season) and Lee … well … is Cliff Lee.

Even though Curtis Granderson has improved immensely against lefties since working with Kevin Long (.380 wOBA vs. LHP since the changes that, ironically, took place in Texas), his offensive ability is likely to be somewhat compromised during those three games. Ditto Brett Gardner, even though he was more than respectable against lefties this season (.332 wOBA, .351 vs. RHP). Alex Rodriguez was uncharacteristically awful against lefthanders this year (a solid .335 wOBA, but Alex is held to different standards than mere mortals) as well. That’s why they need Thames to be on top of his game, he’s got to pick up the seemingly inevitable slack.

The good news is that Marcus has already shown he can do that, albeit in a tiny sample. When Mark Teixeira was away with his birth-giving wife in early August, Thames not only stepped in as the three-hole hitter for two games, he basically replaced (or even improved upon) Tex’s production as well. He went 5-for-10 with a homer in the two games (started by Wilson and Lee of all people), with one of the hits being that go-ahead single linked above. He took Frank Francisco deep one inning before that to bring the Yanks to within one. Of course it was all or nothing for Marcus that series, because he struck out in the five plate appearances in which he didn’t get a hit. That’s the trade off you get with a guy like him though.

The Twins learned the hard way that the Yankee lineup is extremely deep with no easy out(s), especially their two lefties Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing. Thames was a big reason for that, as he has been all season, but the team still needs a little more out of him. They know that, he knows that, the other team knows it, everyone does. Thames has been worth every penny of his $900,000 salary so far this season, but the job isn’t done yet.

Aside: That’s easily my favorite picture of the season so far. So badass. Here’s that play, if you’re curious…Also, check out this Wall Street Journal piece on Thames. Mike Sielski spins a great tale of Thames’ friendship with former Yankee farmhands Jeff Nettles and Drew Henson as well as his time in Detroit.

Lining up the ALCS rotation

We know the who. But beyond Game 1, we don’t know the when. As in, when do Hughes, Pettitte, and Burnett pitch? It might seem like a straightforward situation, but it doesn’t have to be. The Yankees can exploit the schedule to give them the best possible rotation in the ALCS.

Starting Sabathia on three days’ rest

(Jim Mone/AP)

The first question the Yankees have to answer is whether they will start CC Sabathia on three days’ rest in Game 4. It worked last year, and since the Yankees face a pitching situation similar to last year’s, they will certainly consider it. If everything goes well, going with CC in Games 1, 4, and potentially 7 makes sense.

No one wants to wear down Sabathia. He is, after all, under contract for the next five seasons and figures prominently into the team’s plans during that time. But he also figures prominently into the team’s 2010 postseason plans. He’s clearly the team’s best starter, and the Yankees should use that to their advantage.

As was the case last year, Sabathia is well rested heading into the ALCS. After he pitches on Friday he’ll have made two starts in 17 days. This isn’t a situation akin to 2008, where he pitched on three days’ rest down the stretch and was worn out by the playoffs. We might worry about the long layoffs between his starts, but it has the potential to help the Yankees more than it does to hurt them.

Using Sabathia in Games 4 and 7 gives the Yankees a further advantage. Cliff Lee pitches in Game 3. If he dominates as he did last night, the Yankees can respond immediately with their stopper. Then, when Lee returns for a potential Game 7, he’ll have Sabathia opposing him. The hope, of course, is that things don’t even get that far.

Using Sabathia in Game 4 presents an additional advantage, as well.

Starting Burnett in Game 5

(Michael Dwyer/AP)

No one wants to see A.J. Burnett start in the ALCS. But the way the schedule works out this year, there isn’t much of a choice. Last year the schedule worked out so that only Sabathia would have to pitch on three days’ rest. This year, without the off-day between Games 4 and 5, every starter would have to go on short rest in order to cut out A.J. He’s necessary at this point.

The Yankees, though, can make him as unnecessary as possible. By going with Sabathia in Game 4, Burnett gets pushed to an if-necessary game. No one’s going to predict an ALCS sweep, but in this case I think it’s a real possibility. We’ll get to that in more depth as we continue previewing the series. If the Yanks can pull that off, it eliminates the need to use Burnett at all.

Who in Game 2?

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The last rotation issue involves the Game 2 starter. The smart money is on Andy Pettitte, since he filled that role in the ALDS despite throwing with the same arm as Sabathia. If the Yanks didn’t feel the need to start Hughes on the road in that series, I’m not sure they’d change course in the ALCS.

For his part, Hughes has pitched well in Arlington. We all remember the near-no-hitter back in 2007. He returned there in 2009 and threw his best game of the year, an eight-inning, zero run performance. This year he pitched a single inning there. That makes for some entertaining noise, but it doesn’t have much substance. The sample, for both its size and remoteness, is completely unpredictive.

What we do know is that the Rangers hit righty starters a bit better than lefty starters, especially in terms of power, and that they hit far better at home than on the road. Their righty hitters have also hit righties just about as well as they have hit lefties*, which further negates the 15.1 innings Hughes threw in Texas in the last four years. Andy Pettitte

*Rangers RHB vs. RHP: .268/.330/.404. Rangers RHB vs. LHP: .272/.332/.399.

The preferred ALCS rotation

If the Yankees want to take advantage of their situation, this is how they’ll lineup the ALCS rotation. I’ll also take a stab at the Rangers’ rotation just for fun.

Game 1: CC Sabathia vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 2: Andy Pettitte vs. Colby Lewis
Game 3: Phil Hughes vs. Cliff Lee
Game 4: CC Sabathia vs. Tommy Hunter
Game 5: A.J. Burnett vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 6: Andy Pettitte vs. Colby Lewis
Game 7: CC Sabathia vs. Cliff Lee

But since the Yankees might not start Sabathia on three days’ rest, it will likely line up like this.

Game 1: CC Sabathia vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 2: Phil Hughes vs. Colby Lewis
Game 3: Andy Pettitte vs. Cliff Lee
Game 4: A.J. Burnett vs. Tommy Hunter
Game 5: CC Sabathia vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 6: Phil Hughes vs. Colby Lewis
Game 7: Andy Pettitte vs. Cliff Lee

Mailbag: Next Year’s Bullpen

Seems that the big question mark for next season is whether we land Cliff Lee or not. But to me, going rather unnoticed is the question mark that will be our bullpen. If Joba starts and Aceves & Marte are still injured doesn’t that leave just Robertson, Logan and Mo (assuming he returns)? That leaves 4 spots open. Of course we have internal options like Nova, Mitre, Albaladejo & Romulo Sanchez but do you see us looking elsewhere to fill out the final roster spots? There are a lot of good free agent options this winter.

Although the team hasn’t confirmed anything yet, it’s all but certain that Al Aceves (back) and Damaso Marte (shoulder) will have surgery at some point this offseason. We have no idea what that’ll do for their availability next season, but you have to assume they’ll contribute nothing and treat whatever they do give you as a bonus. Kerry Wood is as good as gone after the season, there’s no way they’ll pick up his $11M option and he’ll probably bolt for a closer’s job elsewhere. Remember, saves = money in this game, no matter how you feel about the stat. It’s also unlikely that the Yanks will offer him a multi-year deal to set up Mariano Rivera, Wood’s just too much of a health risk.

Internally, Robertson and Logan are locks behind Mo. I’m not of the belief that Joba will even be considered for a starting job next year, never mind actually get a crack at one. I’ve given up hope on that front. Let’s assume he’ll be back in the bullpen next year as well. Chad Gaudin and Dustin Moseley are goners, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sergio Mitre returns at all. He’s cheap enough ($850,000 this year) and arbitration eligible for the final time this offseason. Plus Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman seem to like him. So that’s five spots accounted for in the seven man bullpen.

Jon Albaladejo will be out of options next season (Logan too, but he’s not on the bubble), so he’ll have to either break camp with the team out of Spring Training or hit the waiver wire if they don’t trade him before then. He killed it in Triple-A this summer but the team never seemed to have interest in giving him an extended shot in the bigs, and you can’t really blame then for that. Romulo Sanchez could be another option, but his command isn’t good enough for any kind of high (or even medium) leverage work. Hector Noesi and David Phelps reached Triple-A as starters this year and could be given a shot in relief at some point. Then there’s Ivan Nova, who’s probably a lock for a long relief role if he doesn’t start the year as the fifth starter.

The free agent market is stacked with quality relievers as you said, with the most interesting (and reasonable) names beyond Wood and Rafael Soriano being Jason Frasor (Type-A), Scott Downs (A), Matt Guerrier (A), Frank Francisco (A), Grant Balfour (A), Joaquin Benoit (B), Jon Rauch (B), Chad Qualls (B), Jesse Crain (B), and Dan Wheeler (nothing). Cashman has shown little interest in signing relievers to multi-year deals since the Kyle Farnsworth and Steve Karsay debacles, and who could blame him? Bullpen guys are so volatile that you just can’t trust them to live up to the contract. Look at Marte; sure he helped them win the World Series, but aside from the playoffs last year that contract has been a disaster. There’s a big benefit to having flexibility and plenty of options in the bullpen, which is how they Yanks have done it for the last three years.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with adding relievers on cheap one year deals, similar to Chan Ho Park this season. If it works, great, if not then they cut the guy loose with no long-term obligation. I’d rule out the Type-A’s right off the bat simply because it’s not worth giving up a high draft pick for unpredictable relievers, regardless of what their track record looks like. Maybe if the Yanks go on a somewhat unexpected free agent binge and would only be giving up like, a third or fourth rounder, then maybe a Type-A becomes a more realistic option. Otherwise forget it.

Of the guys listed above, Benoit makes the most sense because he performed at an elite level in the AL East this season a year after major shoulder surgery, though I suspect the Rays will retain him on a two year deal or something to replace Soriano. Qualls was terrible in 2010 despite good peripherals, so maybe he’s an option on a late offseason CHoP-type flier. Crain and Rauch are solid options at the right price. Forget Wheeler, he’s a homerun factory before taking account Yankee Stadium.

There’s also the option of trading for a reliever(s), but I wouldn’t expect anything big. Something more along the lines of the Logan deal, a guy with good stuff and no spot in his current team’s bullpen as a throw-in to a bigger deal. As for targets … I dunno, your guess is as good as mine. Who has relievers to spare? Pretty much no one these days. If you’d have asked me this question last year, I never would have come up with Logan. That’s just the nature of the bullpen business.

So wrapping it all up, we’re looking at Mo, D-Rob, Logan, Joba and three relievers to be named later. Mitre and Nova/Albie are likely to get two of those spots, and a suspect a CHoPian free agent signing gets that last one with Romulo, Noesi, Phelps and others in Triple-A as backup plans. The important thing to remember is that the bullpen that starts the year is never the one that finishes it. They’ll start 2011 with one set of players and make changes as needed throughout the summer, like they always do.

Mailbag: Cliff Lee and Cliff Lee

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

In celebration of Cliff Lee’s series-clinching complete game, we turn to two mailbag questions regarding the connection between him and the Yankees.

WWJMD ask: With a good post-season, can we consider Hughes the #2 starter going into 2011? If so and if Andy returns, wouldn’t it be better to go after a middle of the rotation starter instead of Lee and use the money saved towards the bench and contract extensions?

Do we really need a third veteran free agent starter signed multi-year well into their 30’s? I like Lee but at most on a Halladay-type deal and only if the yankees find a way to cut losses on Burnett (even if it means cutting him or eating his salary through trade). The team needs to start making room for young talent, hopefully by 2012 implementing hughes chamberlain and some of the “B’s” in the rotation. The opportunity cost of having a stale unflexible starting staff is high as seen through the mid-2000’s.

To the Hughes question, I’d say no. Among the current crop of Yankees pitchers there’s a good chance he’ll be second best in 2011. But, because the best pitcher in baseball hits the free agent market, there’s a better chance that he’ll be third best.

The rest of the question, and the entire second question, run counter to what we hear from the most vocal fans. Every day, but especially on days that Lee pitches, we hear clamoring for his presence in pinstripes. He is over 30 and will require a costly contract, but that’s what any team will have to pay. Why not the Yankees?

It’s true that even without Lee the Yankees should have a formidable rotation in 2011. Sabathia will return as the top man, and if Phil Hughes can build on his 2010 he could be an excellent second option. Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett will likely come next. That leaves one spot open for competition. We’d see guys like Ivan Nova, Joba Chamberlain, and even perhaps some of the AAA guys like David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell, get a shot at that last spot. Or, as the first reader suggests, they could sign a mid-rotation arm.

In a recent mailbag we explored alternatives to Cliff Lee and came up empty. Today I’ll throw out one alternative as a mid-rotation arm: Jorge De La Rosa. In the past few years, as he has entered his prime, he has developed as a pitcher. This year he started to throw his changeup more often, and according to pitch type values it has gotten better in each of the last three years. His fastball isn’t great, but he still throws 93, 94, which teams will always find attractive, especially from a left-handed pitcher. He also has a good slider that he breaks out as his third pitch.

Still, he’s no Cliff Lee. Slotting him in behind Sabathia gives the Yankees the kind of rotation they thought they had in 2009. It also affords them some depth, since those guys who otherwise would have competed for a rotation spot will now be stored in the bullpen or in AAA. As we saw this season, and even last, depth can become important mid-season when one guy or another goes on DL. The Yanks should have a few options to replace any injured starter in 2011.

To the point of saving money, why would the Yankees do that? Their No. 1 resource is their capital. The issue of signing bench guys isn’t necessarily money. It’s convincing a bench player to sit while Cano, Jeter, Teixeira, and A-Rod take the field almost every day. Trading for bench guys is the way to go. We’ve seen that work in the past few years. Plus, bench guys aren’t typically expensive. If they are, chances are the Yanks don’t want him on the bench.

The point in the second question about making room for young talent is something the Yankees should certainly consider, but ultimately it shouldn’t be a consideration when making Lee an offer. We’re all hyped about Banuelos, Brackman, and Betances. But we all know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that the Yanks would be extremely lucky to have even one of them work out. Prospects are a crapshoot. Some get hurt, some don’t continue to develop, some flop at the major league level. You can wish on a prospect, but you shouldn’t let one, or three, get in the way of signing baseball’s best pitcher.

Even then, I’m not sure it’s a long-term issue. There is little chance that any of the three is ready before 2012. By that point Andy Pettitte will almost certainly retire. For all we know, Sabathia could opt out and leave (even though he’s indicated that he won’t). Burnett will have just two years left on his deal. Someone could get hurt. There will be spots open in the rotation. There’s no need to pass on Lee just to create another one. If they do that, they could run into the other problem of the 00s: a complete dearth of quality pitchers.

Also, there is a maybe a 0.5 percent chance that Burnett pitches anywhere else next season. You don’t eat $52 million on a guy who can come back and help you next season.

Save The Date: Yanks Will Face Texas In ALCS

Enjoy it now, Rangers. You ain't seen nothing yet. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Three days after the Yankees swept the Twins out the ALDS, we finally know who their opponent will be in the ALCS. The Cliff Lee led Rangers topped the Rays in the decisive Game Five of their series on Tuesday night, making it the first time in history that the home team lost every game of an LDS. It’s also the first time the Rangers’ franchise has won a playoff series, something they’ve waited 49 years to do (if you go back to their Washington Senators days).

Lee was masterful and the story of the game as you’d expect, tossing a complete game six hitter while allowing just one run. He struck out eleven and walked none, throwing a season high 120 pitches in the process. Tampa batters got nothing but fastballs and cutters the first time through the order, and before they could adjust Lee broke out the curveball the next time through and kept everyone guessing right down to the final out. There have now been seven games in playoff history where a pitcher has gone at least seven innings with ten or more strikeouts and zero walks, and Lee’s done it four times. That’s pretty nuts.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The Rangers gave the Rays a little dose of their own medicine offensively, taking advantage of defensive miscues while on the bases before padding the lead with a late homer. Elvis Andrus caught David Price napping at first after a Josh Hamilton ground out, scoring from second on the play. Nelson Cruz attempted to steal third after a booming double in the fourth, but Kelly Shoppach threw the ball into the outfield and allowed the run to score. Vlad Guerrero pulled an Andrus in the sixth, scoring on a grounder to second all the way from second. Ian Kinsler capped the scoring with a two-run shot off Rafael Soriano in the ninth, his third jack of the series. The final score was 5-1, and the WPA graph was pretty uneventful for a big game.

So now the Yanks know who they’ll face when the ALCS starts (in Texas) on Friday. Lee won’t be able to start until Game Three of that series, so it’s important for New York to jump ahead during the first two games. They don’t want to split the first two and essentially turn it into a best-of-five series with Lee scheduled to start the makeshift Game One, and they definitely don’t want to be down two games to none without having faced the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner yet.

The Yankees are certainly no stranger to Lee, facing him five times in the last calendar year. They lost to him twice in the World Series last fall (though they did beat a Phillies team in that series that was much stronger than this Rangers’ team) then two more times in his three regular season starts against them this season. Hopefully the familiarity helps the Yanks, but I suspect it’s not going to matter. If Lee is throwing all of his pitches to both sides of the plate like he did tonight, there’s no lineup in the world that could hit him. That said, he’ll only be able to start two of the seven potential games in the ALCS, so don’t panic.

RAB readers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a Yankees-Rangers ALCS, so you guys got what you wanted. Now we just have to sit and wait for this thing to start, and hope the Yanks start that series the same way they ended the last one, firing on cylinders and getting great starting pitching. We’ll be sure to preview the hell out of the ALCS, but for now just sit back and enjoy the remaining days off, because we all know the nerves will shoot up once the games start.

Romine & Laird kick off the AzFL season with hits

Happy DotF‘s back? Don’t get too excited, it’s just the Arizona Fall League. It’s an extremely hitter fielding league, so don’t get too worked up about big time offensive performances or too down about bad pitching jobs. The important thing is that these guys continue their development and stay healthy.

Before we get to the game, here’s this week’s edition of minor league transactions. Nothing interesting happened with the Yankees, but the first wave of minor league free agents are in there. There’s some interesting names, but no one that will save a franchise. Just some high-end filler, really. Anyway, without further ado…

Phoenix Desert Dogs (8-3 loss to Mesa)
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 4, 1 K, 1 PB – allowed a stolen base in Mesa’s only attempt
Brandon Laird, LF: 1 for 4, 1 R, 2 K – and so the outfield experiment begins
Jose Pirela, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 K, 1 SB
George Kontos: 1.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 13 of 23 pitches were strikes (56.5%) … stranded a pair of inherited runners

Manny Banuelos, Craig Heyer, and Ryan Pope are also playing in the AzFL, but obviously didn’t get into today’s game.

Rosters for the various winter leagues are starting to trickle out, but they’re far from complete. Justin Christian, Walt Ibarra, Eric Wordekemper, and Francisco Gil will be playing in the Mexican League while Edwar Gonzalez, Juan Marcano, Jose Gil, Eduardo Sosa, Marcos Vechionacci, Josh Schmidt, Emerson Landoni, and some kid named Jesus Montero will all be playing in the Venezuelan Winter League. Because those guys are scattered all over the place, I only update their stats once a week, usually Sunday afternoons.

Open Thread: For the right to face the Yanks

Over/under on the number of innings until a bad call: 2.5. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Tonight’s game between the Rays and Rangers has about as much impact on the Yankees as any non-Yankee game in recent memory. Depending on who wins tonight, the Yanks will head to either Texas or their home away from home Tampa for Game One of the ALCS on Friday. Earlier today the overwhelming majority of you voted that you’d rather see the Yanks face the Rangers in the next round, and I’ll admit I’m in that camp as well. You do have to be careful what you wish for though, we’re splitting hairs between two very good teams here.

Anyway, the game starts at 8:07pm ET and can be seen on TBS. Cliff Lee, whose teams have never lost a playoff game in which he’s started, gets the ball against David Price. The road team has also won every game of the series, which bode well for the Rangers. Chat about the game here, but if you’re not interested, then go ahead and talk about whatever else you want.