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.

Yanks to play two afternoon games during ALCS

Although it’ll be another six hours or so until the Yankees know their American League Championship Series opponents, Major League Baseball has officially unveiled the TV schedule for the upcoming playoff series. While rumors of day games emerged earlier today, thanks to Stephen R. on Twitter, we can now confirm that the Yankees will play at least one and possibly two day games during the ALCS. All games are on TBS with Ernie Johnson, John Smoltz and Ron Darling in the booth, and all times are Eastern. The best-of-seven slate looks a little something like this:

Game 1: Friday, October 15 at 8:07 p.m. at TEX/TB
Game 2: Saturday, October 16 at 4:07 p.m. at TEX/TB
Game 3: Monday, October 18 at 8:07 p.m. at Yankee Stadium
Game 4: Tuesday, October 19 at 8:07 p.m. at Yankee Stadium
Game 5: Wednesday, October 20 at 4:07 p.m. at Yankee Stadium*
Game 6: Friday, October 22 at 8:07 p.m. at TEX/TB*
Game 7: Saturday, October 23 at 8:07 p.m. at TEX/TB*

*If necessary

Some Yankee fans stuck at work next Wednesday are bound to bemoan the early start time, but this isn’t the first time the Yanks have played an afternoon ALCS game. In fact, Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS against Boston started at 3:05 p.m. on a Tuesday. Although we’d prefer night games for the Yanks, because of the overlapping NLCS schedule, Major League Baseball has scheduled some AL day games to accomodate fans of the San Francisco Giants. I can respect that.

And if you’re looking for seats on the secondary market for any of the games in the Bronx, be sure to check out RAB Tickets.

The hoopla over Joba Chamberlain

That's all the action Joba saw in the ALDS (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

When a team goes through a series using only its starters and four best relievers, it usually goes without comment. That’s the ideal scenario, especially when one of those four is a lefty and the other is Mariano Rivera. Yet there was one conspicuous omission: Joba Chamberlain. Joe Girardi never called his name in the series, and as with all things Joba it left plenty of room for speculation. Ben didn’t waste any time.

The one common thread I’ve seen in the Joba discussion is how the Yankees will have to evaluate his future with the club this off-season. That’s true, of course, but it’s also true of nearly every player on the team and in the farm system. I’m not sure that his lack of use in the ALDS speaks to any greater need to discuss his future. The Yankees will evaluate him based on his body of work and how he has progressed, not on the manager’s relief pitcher choice in one postseason series.

This raises two points I want to make about Joba, both of which I think play favorably for his future as a Yankee.

1) The match-up wasn’t there. Ben noted this in his post. It’s not necessarily that Girardi doesn’t trust Joba; it’s that he trusts Robertson and Wood more. There’s nothing wrong in losing a battle to two relievers of that caliber. Plus, as I read on Jon Lane’s YES Network blog, there might have been something else at play.

“It was just matchups,” Eiland said. “Matchups where, for example, guys hit sliders better than they hit curveballs. Things like that. Joba’s going to play a big part in this thing before we’re finished this year, and he understands that. He’s all in as is everyone else.”

That might just be Eiland trying to cover for one of his guys. We hear that all the time. But we do have a way to check Eiland’s statement. FanGraphs has a stat called pitch type values, which evaluate’s a hitter’s ability to hit certain pitch types. It’s not perfect, of course, because it doesn’t account for the pitch coming from a lefty or a righty, it doesn’t consider pitch sequences, and it doesn’t differentiate between similar pitches with different degrees of break. But in terms of publicly available information it’s the best we have.

Six of the Twins’ starters have fared well against sliders, per pitch type values. Orlando Hudson is a bit below average against sliders. Jim Tome and Jason Kubel rank as the team’s worst, but that could very well be a lefty-heavy stat. In other words, it’s possible that opposing righties don’t throw them many sliders. Joba does handle lefties well — he struck them out at a better clip than he did lefties this season — but since he relies on his slider it is perhaps understandable that the Yankees left him out.

(For what it’s worth, the Twins as a team seemed to fare a bit better against curveballs.)

2) He actually put together a good season. Remember when Joba had a terrible ERA, but we kept saying that his peripherals suggested he’d perform better? Through July 25 Joba had a 5.95 ERA, but a 3.02 FIP. It wasn’t necessarily bad luck on balls in play, but that had to play some role in such an immense discrepancy. From his appearance on July 28 through the end of the season, Joba had a 2.15 ERA and 2.91 FIP. In other words, things started to get better. He ended the season with a 2.98 FIP, 3.34 xFIP, 3.12 tERA, and 3.16 SIERA. All of this suggests that he can certainly rebound next year.

Returning to the question of the Yankees’ decision on Chamberlain this off-season, I now turn to a mailbag question.

How would you rate his market value? Teams might acquire him as a starter or reliever — what would he bring in return?

I think that his greatest value is to the Yankees. I’m not sure how other teams view him, though I’d guess that they’d want him in a starting role. But even if he stays in the bullpen, I think he can provide more value there for the Yankees than they can receive in return. As Brian Cashman has said, he’s a starter in the bullpen, so he can provide depth for the rotation, if not win a spot outright. He has also shown that he can be an effective relief pitcher.

The main reason I think he’s more valuable to the Yankees is that I’m not sure how they’d use him in a trade. Assuming Jeter re-signs, the entire infield is back, as is the entire outfield. They could trade him for a pitcher, but I don’t see how Cashman can trade Joba for a better pitcher. The only other option is to trade him for bench depth. But then you’re just trading pitching depth for position player depth, and that’s not an exchange I favor. Pitchers get hurt all the time. Having every possible pitcher available is important for any team.

No matter what he does, or doesn’t do, Joba Chamberlain will continue to act as a lightning rod for Yankees fans. The guy excited us as a reliever in 2007, and then tantalized us as a starter in 2008. He hasn’t been the same guy since, which has caused much frustration. But the Yankees organization does not think like a fan. They know Chamberlain’s value to the team. When they evaluate the team’s situation this off-season, I’m fairly certain that they will determine that Joba will play a role on future Yankees teams.

The Big Question: Tampa or Texas?

The Yankees wrapped up their ALDS matchup with the Twins more than two full days ago now, but they’re still waiting on an opponent. The Rangers grabbed the first two games of their series against the Rays in Florida, but Tampa Bay rebounded to win the pair in Texas. Thus, we get to enjoy a Game Five tonight. The Yanks benefit from this long series in a big way; they won’t have to face Cliff Lee/David Price until Game Two of the ALCS at the absolute earliest. More likely, the Bombers’ ALCS opponent with throw its ace in Game Three.

As we await tonight’s do-or-die affair, the big question on everyone’s mind concerns the Yanks’ opponent. Who is the better matchup for New York? Ben and I are going to sort that out. I’ve got the Rangers; he’s got the Rays. We’ll wrap with a poll.

The Case For Texas

The 2010 season marks the Rangers’ first trip to the postseason since 1999 when the eventual World Champion Yankees swept them in the ALDS. The Yanks also swept them in the 1998 ALDS and beat them 3-1 in the best-of-five series in 1996. Not only have the Rangers never won a playoff series, they’ve also never a playoff game in their home ballpark. By my rough count, just three of their regulars (Vlad Guerrero, Bengie Molina, Jeff Francoeur) and two of their pitchers (Cliff Lee, Darren Oliver) have played in the postseason before this month. The massive edge in experience is nice, but it’s certainly not everything.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

As it tends to do, it all comes down the the pitching. Lee is an absolute stud, capable of beating any team at any time, so there’s nothing we can do about that. The Yanks smacked C.J. Wilson around all three times they faced him this year (14.1 IP, 18 H, 11 R, 9 BB, 15 K) and he’s exactly the kind of pitcher they’re capable of punishing because he will start a rally by himself with walks (led the league with 93  free passes this year). Same deal with Tommy Hunter, who held the Yanks to two runs in five innings in his only start against them this year. He’s cut from the Yankee-friendly “pitch-to-contact and don’t strike guys out” cloth. Colby Lewis had a fine season (3.55 FIP) and didn’t face the Yanks at all this season, but it’s not like he’s another Cliff Lee. The Rays were able to do some damage against him and the Yankees can too.

On the other side of the coin, Texas hasn’t faced CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte since April, and they didn’t see Phil Hughes at all this season (save for a one inning relief appearance). When they beat the Yanks four times in their last five meetings, the opposing starters were A.J. Burnett twice, Javy Vazquez twice, and Dustin Moseley. Burnett will start a game in the ALCS, but just one of the potential seven. That unfamiliarity works to the Yanks’ advantage.

Offensively, Josh Hamilton is still battling rib trouble and hasn’t hit a lick in the playoffs (.143/.250/.143). Nelson Cruz and Vlad Guerrero are big time power threats, but also prone to getting themselves out on pitches out of the zone. They rely on the money-making half of the power and patience combo. Guys like Molina (.297 OBP) and Francoeur (.300) are essentially automatic outs while Elvis Andrus hits for zero power (.036 ISO (!!!)). They also don’t employ the running game nearly as much as Tampa, a big-time help to the Yankees and Jorge Posada.

Texas does have a good bullpen featuring power arm after power arm, but they lack experience beyond Oliver. Rookie closer Neftali Feliz has already blown one save this postseason and put five of nine men he’s faced on base (three walks). The Darrens – O’Day and Oliver – are a ROOGY and LOOGY, respectively, and both Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland are just as like to melt down as they are to shut down. Beyond Lee, the pitching staff is solid but hardly overwhelming. I’ll take that every day of the week.

The Case For Tampa

The Yankees and the Rays know each other well. They played each other 18 teams this year, and while the Rays won the season series, the games were close. The Yanks lost 10 and won eight against Tampa Bay, and now they’re nine innings and a Tampa Bay win from facing off against their division rival on the road to the World Series.

After watching Tampa Bay for 18 contests this year, it’s tough to say I’d rather see the Yanks face the Rays. The kids from Tampa Bay feature a solid front-line pitcher, some shut-down relievers and a few fearsome hitters. With a triple-slash line of .316/.395/.492 in their nine games at Yankee Stadium, the Rays seem built for a late-season match-up with the Yankees. Still, the team is far from perfect.

(AP Photo/David Richard)

Despite the nine-game sample from their contests in the Bronx, the Tampa Bay Rays are not a well-rounded offensive club. Overall, they hit just .247/.333/.403 on the season, ranking 13th, sixth and eighth, respectively, in the American League. Their team wOBA of .328 was just the eighth best mark in the Junior Circuit. They can be stopped from scoring runs. The Rays offense as a whole doesn’t show significant differences in their splits against either lefties or righties.

Beyond their lineup, the Rays’ pitching has had its fair share of troubles against the Yanks. Matt Garza, who figures to start Game 2, allowed 15 earned runs in 16.2 innings against the Yanks. He gave up five dingers to the Yanks’ bats. David Price struck out 21 Yanks in 26.2 innings but still allowed 38 base runners with an ERA of 4.39. The Yanks hit 24 home runs against Tampa’s pitching this year, and James Shields hasn’t been nearly as effective recently as he was earlier this year. As Jay Jaffe notes at the Pinstriped Bible today, the Rays’ pitching woes should tilt our preferences toward Tampa Bay.

Finally, the Yanks match up well against the Rays’ bullpen as well. Rafael Soriano may be a shut-down closer, and Joaquin Benoit pitched quite well against the Yanks. Yet, the team has just one lefty reliever, and it’s one the Yanks have beaten repeatedly. In eight appearances against the Yanks this year, Randy Choate faced 20 batters, and he retired just six of them. He allowed 2 walks and 12 hits while the Yanks tagged him for 10 earned runs. When the Yanks’ lefties come up in key spots, they’ll either be facing a pitcher they’ve tattooed or a right-hander. That a match-up sounds good to me.

* * *

So there you have it. The Yanks probably would have an easier go of it against the Rangers but not by much. Both clubs will play them tough, and the Yanks will have to earn their trip to the World Series. Let’s wrap this baby up with a poll.


Baseball America’s Top 20 International League Prospects

With the end of their top 20 prospect series in sight, Baseball America posted their Triple-A International League list today. Three Yankee farmhands made the list: Jesus Montero at #4, Ivan Nova at #9, and Eduardo Nunez at #13. Montero was behind three pretty good prospects in Carlos Santana (Indians), Jeremy Hellickson (Rays), and Aroldis Chapman (Reds). Nova was sandwiched between Pedro Alvarez (Pirates) and Dan Hudson (1.69 ERA, 3.22 FIP in 79.2 IP after being traded to Arizona for Edwin Jackson).

As for the subscriber only scouting reports, they say that “Montero may have the highest [offensive] ceiling in the minor leagues. He has tremendous strength and a knack for barreling balls when he gets in rhythm.” There are still doubts about his defense behind the plate, as there always will be, but they did note that his patience at the plate improved this season (career high 44 unintentional walks). Nova came in a bit higher than I expected, but that’s because his velocity shot up into the 92-94 range consistently. They say he’s held back by inconsistent command and secondary pitches. Nunez is projected to be a utility player, “a bottom-of-the-order [hitter] who makes contact but doesn’t draw many walks or hit for much power.”

All told, the Yankees had 14 different prospects featured in the various top 20 lists, the third most in baseball. You can go back and re-live the magic here. It’s so nice to see the Yankees with a top-shelf farm system again.

The inevitable A.J. Burnett start

Hope for Good A.J., not Hide The Women And Children A.J. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

What everyone assumed was made official yesterday: the Yankees are going to use a four man rotation in the ALCS, and the fourth starter will be A.J. Burnett. It’s not clear which game he’ll start, but the smart money’s on either Game Four or Five. The schedule actually allows them to use only three starters if they’re willing to start CC Sabathia on short rest twice and both Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes on short rest once. Given Andy’s recent groin and back issues plus Hughes’ career high workload, it’s easy to understand why they didn’t go this route.

So that leaves us with Burnett. As a whole his regular season was awful; he set new career worsts in ERA (5.26), FIP (4.83), xFIP (4.66), K/9 (6.99), AVG against (.279), WHIP (1.51), swinging strike rate (7.9%), contact rate (81.8%) … the list goes on and on. It was the worst season of his career by a considerable margin, and according to bWAR he was below replacement level (-0.1). Burnett did have some stretches of brilliance during the season (1.99 ERA in his first six starts, 2.00 during July) as he tends to do, but he finished the year with a 6.61 ERA in his last dozen starts. Opponents hit .300/.380/.494 off of him during that stretch, which is hard to believe.

And yet the Yankees are giving the ball to Burnett for a few reasons, but one that sticks out more than the others: the simply don’t have a better option. Javy Vazquez, the guy that was supposed to be the fourth starter back in April, was been even worse than Burnett in 2010 and was left off the ALDS roster entirely. Dustin Moseley did an admirable job filling in while Pettitte was hurt, but he’s not a realistic option because he doesn’t strike anyone out and had a 5.29 ERA in his nine starts. Ivan Nova had his moments in September, but he struggled big time with men on base and was prone to that one big inning, a recipe for disaster in the postseason.

For all his warts, Burnett gives you something Moseley and Nova do not: the potential to dominate. Sure, it’s unlikely given his performance this year, but the ability is still tucked in there somewhere, and when you’re picking between three mediocre (or worse) options, go with the one that at least offers some upside. Anything can happen in one game, the regular season goes right out the window in October.

A.J. had a 5.27 ERA in his five postseason starts last year but he was dominant in his three home starts, allowing just ten hits and five runs while striking out 19 in 19.1 innings. He was also better at home this year, posting a 4.59 ERA (4.56 FIP) with 7.51 K/9 and 3.70 BB/9 in 80.1 innings (14 starts). Burnett was better at home last season too. His 2010 ALDS start will come at home regardless if he pitches in Game Four or Five, so at least he has that going in his favor. If he starts Game Four it’s likely to come against the other team’s fourth starter, another thing that’ll make A.J.’s life a little easier.

No one feels comfortable starting the 2010 version of A.J. Burnett in a playoff game, but it’s a necessary evil at this point. They don’t need him to be excellent, just good enough to keep them in the game and hand the ball over to the four main setup guys. Admittedly, that’s not something he was able to do on a consistent basis this season. Burnett is going to start next round, and while you don’t have to like it, you’d be foolish not to at least root for him.