Early season schedule works in Yanks’ favor

We might not have to see too much of this guy in April. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

There’s nothing quite as exciting as Opening Day, not after five long and cold winter months without any actual baseball. Rumors and signings and trades are fun, but nothing compares to the games. Yet once the season starts, everyone has the same complaint: what’s up with all the days off? As you know, it has to do with the weather. April showers bring May flowers lots of off days because baseball doesn’t want there to be an overload of doubleheaders early in the season. As annoying as it is, the logic is sound.

All those days off are a nuisance to us fans after the long offseason, but they can benefit the 2011 Yankees quite a bit. You may or may not have heard, but the Yanks have a bit of a fifth starter problem. Actually, it’s more like a fourth and fifth starter problem, though I’m down with giving Ivan Nova a chance given the lack of alternatives. Sergio Mitre is another story all together. No one has any faith in him being even a slightly below average big league starter, especially in the AL East, but that’s where the schedule comes into play. The off days in April give the Yankees ample opportunity skip him.

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so I grabbed the early season schedule off the official site and laid out the starting pitching plan. The identities of SP1 through SP4 are irrelevant as long as SP5 is the guy we’re trying to avoid, which in this case is Mitre. The number in parenthesis is the number of days the pitcher has had off, so (4) is normal rest. Here’s March/April…

As you can see, the Yankees will only need their fifth starter three times in the season’s first month, a span of 27 games. The front four also gets a nice little break during the week of the 17th in the form of an extra day of rest. SP5 and SP1 could be flip-flopped on the 15th and 16th, but doing so will give SP1 one start with two extra days of rest (on the 22nd) rather than two starts  with one extra day of rest each (16th and 22nd)  I just spread the rest around a bit, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. An added benefit is that the fifth starter will be available out of the bullpen for at least a few days in between starts, taking the load off the regular cast of relievers in early going.

There’s not much to see during the first few weeks of May since the Yankees will have to stay on rotation through the ninth, their first off day of the month. If they stay on rotation after the day off, they’ll be able to trot out their top three starters against the Red Sox on the 13th through 15th. All told, the Yankees will have to use their fifth starter just six times in the season’s first 42 games. The less Mitre the better, but if they have to start the season with him in the rotation, at least they can spread out the damage, so to speak.

Of course all of this is academic and so, so much can change between now and then. The weather could decide not to play nice, maybe someone gets hurt, maybe Mitre comes out and dominates one or two guys surprise and get a little more responsibility, who knows. As it stands, the Yankees can avoid their fifth starter quite a bit in the early going, and it could give them enough time to find a better solution than what they have right now.

Open Thread: John Flaherty

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Eight years ago today, the Yankees signed current YES broadcast John Flaherty to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. He competed with Chris Widger to be Jorge Posada‘s backup during camp and won the job with ease, leading to Widger’s release in April. Flaherty spent three years in pinstripes and was generally awful, hitting just .226/.261/.387 in 389 plate appearances while throwing out 26.0% of attempted base stealers. I think we all remember his signature Yankee moment though, the walk-off shot into the gap against the Red Sox in the game Derek Jeter flew into the stands to catch a pop-up. Flash can be bland as an announcer, but that one hit against Boston is easily the most memorable by a Yankee backup catcher during the Posada era. Not even close in my book.

Anyways, here is the open thread for the evening. If you turn on CBS, you’ll be able to catch the end of the Jets-Patriots game. You’ve also got the Rangers and Flyers plus a new episode of Family Guy. Talk about whatever you want.

The Right Trades

Like most GMs, Brian Cashman knows a little bit about making a smart trade. And while he’s certainly caused us to sigh in absolutely hopeless exasperation (sometimes followed by ‘We’ll never win a World Series again!’), he’s definitely struck gold a few times in recent history. Lately, right field has been patrolled by players brought over as a result of Cashman successes, and not only have they done well, but the trades themselves have been absolute steals. Works of art, even.

In 2006, a 38-year-old Bernie Williams was patrolling right field due to badly timed injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, and new call-up Melky Cabrera was in left. Williams was on his way to a .281/.332/.436 season, but Cashman was interested in more. He had his eye on Bobby Abreu, who was currently batting a career-low .277 and flitting with his career-low OPS of .871 in Philadelphia. Cashman refused to send Phil Hughes to the Phillies, but a deal was struck just before the deadline in 2006, sending Abreu to the Bronx with Cory Lidle for four minor leaguers. At that point, only one of them, Matt Smith, had logged any major league innings at all: a grand total of 12 IP, with four hits, eight walks, and nine strikeouts. The other three players — Carlos Monasterios, CJ Henry, and Jesus Sanchez — hadn’t played a single inning above A ball. Henry was a first round pick signed for $1.5M, so while the possibility was there, it was not exactly a sure thing. Sanchez and Monasterios were international free agents from Venezuela.

Abreu went on to hit .330/.419/.507 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs in his first 60 games in pinstripes and capped it off with four RBIs and a double in the postseason. It was a good start to his tenure, and his success would continue throughout 2007, where he hit posted an 117 OPS+, 16 homers, and five triples. The Yankees exercised his option for $16M for 2008, where he just kept getting better. He struck out less, hit more homers, and tacked twenty points onto his batting average. Meanwhile, the four minor leaguers pitched and hit in a grand total of 24 IP – all Matt Smith. There’s no question who got the better end of the deal. Abreu was worth a total of 7.3 WAR, while Smith clocked in at exactly replacement level.

Abreu would not return in 2009, though, due to the increase in his salary he was predicted to ask for. The Yankees had already picked up Xavier Nady (and Damaso Marte) near the 2008 trade deadline from the Pirates and were perfectly equipped to start him in right. They had traded Ross Ohlendorf (6.43 ERA in 40 IP), and three minor leaguers: Jose Tabata (AA), Jeff Karstens (AAA), Daniel McCutchen (AAA). Even better, Nady’s salary was a mere $6.5M in comparison to the +$16M Abreu was expected to ask for.

But Cashman wasn’t finished for 2009. He struck up talks with the White Sox for their first baseman/outfielder hybrid Nick Swisher, who had managed to hit career-worsts basically across the board, posting a pathetic .219/.332/.410. Cashman saw beyond the numbers, though; he saw a decent reserve outfielder who he could buy low and maybe even sell high on in the future. All Chicago asked for was Wilson Betemit, and minor leaguers Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez. Betemit had played in 87 games in 2008 and hit a decent .265/.289/.429. Sold.

Then, only seven games into the 2009 season, Nady went down with elbow trouble and required Tommy John surgery. Swisher, picked up as a reserve player, was pushed into the starting right fielder’s spot. The rest was history: Swish turned into a clubhouse asset, a semi-decent right fielder, and a power slugger. While he hit only .249, he also took nearly 100 walks and slugged thirty home runs in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. He posted a then-career high .869 OPS, fueled by his .371 OPB, and all for the low, low price of $5.4M. Swisher and Nady together cost less than Abreu had in 2008, too. Swisher’s only problem was his dismal October numbers: 7-for-54 with 15 Ks. Ouch. Regardless, Swisher’s numbers were far, far better than the .200/.280/.311 Betemit posted in 50 plate appearances in Chicago. Nunez made seven appearances and posted a 9.53 ERA, giving up 10 hits and 6 ER.

2010 only made the deal sweeter. Betemit signed with the Royals and went .297/.378./511 in 315 plate appearances, which wasn’t half bad, but Swisher outdid him. Not only did he play in 150 games, even when we all thought he should sit due to a busted knee and a September slide for the team, but he completed his transformation to slugger by posting career-high numbers. He traded in his walks for hits, improving on his .249 in 2009 to .288 in 2010, hitting the same amount of homers and completing the transformation to 4 WAR player. He destroyed the Twins in the 2010 ALDS with a home run and two doubles. He’s even super clutch.

While Swisher isn’t guaranteed to maintain his career-high numbers, he’s definitely in line for another great year in pinstripes. Betemit, meanwhile, has signed a 2011 contract with the Royals, and while a modest improvement might happen, it’ll certainly be nothing in comparison to Swisher. The man’s already posted the 3rd and 4th best Yankee right fielder performances (Sheffield is #1 and #2) since Paul O’Neil.  Meanwhile, Marquez and Nunez stew in AAA, with the first posting a 4.48 ERA, and the latter a 5.48.

I think it’s safe to say that Cashman has a pretty decent head on his shoulders. Like all GMs, he’s going to make a few mistakes, and things are going to happen that are out of his control. But even when taking away the free agent power that Cashman wields, he still proves to be pretty good at picking out a right fielder when he sees one he wants. Go Cash.

Open Thread: Jets vs. Pats

So who you guys got this afternoon? The consensus is that the Patriots will wipe the floor with Rex Ryan’s team, but I don’t think it’ll be another 45-3 drubbing like last time. Hopefully it’s a fun and entertaining game, that’s really all I could ask for. Kickoff is at 4:30pm ET and the game is on CBS. Talk about it here if you so choose.

Saying Goodbye to Jesus

All teams have a mixed record of success in drafting and then developing young talent into adept major leaguers. But it’s widely assumed that the Yankees have taken prospect mismanagement to new heights, that they are the bulls in the China shop of player development. Sadly, this reputation isn’t entirely unjustified. A sometimes necessary byproduct of life as a perennial juggernaut is that young players within the organization are often rushed or marginalized for the sake of feeding the machine. Some of us have mixed feelings about this, and I’d argue that being exposed to this M.O.

"Here's hoping Joe Saunders is as cool a locker buddy as you were, Jesus." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

over time turns us all, to some degree, into mini-Steinbrenner shopaholics who pine for a rush that only acquiring the shiniest new toy on the market can satisfy. And yet, considering the team’s current circumstances, the reasons for cutting ties with such a spectacular young player like Jesus Montero aren’t as rash as some might think.

The Yankees have already shown their willingness to part with Montero on multiple occasions, and will do so again given what the club deems to be a suitable scenario. As fans, we can only hope that “suitable” doesn’t also mean trading away Jesus for yet another lockdown long reliever or a pack of miscellaneous B-prospects. But he shouldn’t be considered untouchable, not right now. Because, while it’s astonishing to think the planet’s most successful sports franchise could be so flip about its most coveted position player prospect in generations, there are four main reasons why the Yankees view him as expendable.

A Decimated Pitching Staff

The current tired narrative of the week is that the Yankees have a code-red short-term urgency for starting pitching, and it’s all that diva Andy Pettitte’s fault. This, of course, is only partially true. Assuming they insist on finishing ahead of Toronto in 2011, acquiring a reliable, if unsexy, starting arm will far outweigh all other concerns going forward. But don’t blame A.P. Pettitte’s waffling notwithstanding, there’s nothing new or astounding about the Yankees’ shortage of quality starting pitching. In fact, in retrospect, it was delusional to think the Yankees could win a World Series championship last year with a hobbled Andy Pettitte, an overtaxed Phil Hughes, and a perpetually beleaguered A.J. Burnett taking turns behind the Big Stoppa’.

And here’s the thing: the starting pitching situation may have actually gotten worse since then, and that’s not even accounting for the probable loss of Pettitte and the failed courtship of Cliff Lee. While he remains a bona fide rock, the 2,127+ innings on Sabathia’s arm will eventually begin to take their toll. Hughes will be freed from a strict innings count but, per the Verducci Effect, he’s not out of the woods yet. And despite the incontrovertible fact that Ivan Nova is, along with Mo, King Felix and Tim Lincecum, on a short list of the coolest-looking pitchers in the game, his unflappable mound persona comes along with an eye-gouging 1.452 WHIP and a limited arsenal. And then, of course, there’s the endlessly maligned Sergio Mitre, slotted in at No. 5. While Yankee fans have been saddled with the reputation for being spoiled, supercilious brats (because apparently most sportswriters have never been to Fenway Park), followers of any team would have a legitimate reason to revolt if any one of their starting pitchers came with a career WAR of -1.6.

That an already toilet paper-thin free agent market for starting pitching is now in its one-ply stage makes pursuing a deal for a reliable arm even more crucial, providing the search doesn’t begin and end with plucking Freddie Garcia from the island of reconstructed labrums. And because even the most doltish of G.M.s are aware of the Yankees’ current dilemma, Brian Cashman and Co. will indeed be gouged for the privilage of acquiring the likes of Joe Saunders or Kyle Lohse. With that said, if the Yankees do decide to go big, Joba alone won’t make it happen. But a package centered around Chamberlain and Montero could net a front-line starter. Either way, hold fast to your Joba memories (grainy YouTube alert).

The Closing Window Theory

We hear different variations of the same trite maxim every year: “There is no next year,” The window’s closing,” “This team is built to win now.” Normally, I dismiss these defeatist clichés, not just because Michael Kay admonishingly wedges them into YES telecasts during lopsided losses, but because being constructed to win one year doesn’t necessarily preclude a team from winning the next – or three years down the road, for that matter. But as the Yankees’ roster is currently assembled, the “window of opportunity” claim may have a bit more validity than usual. For one thing, the average age of Yankees hitters last year was 30.4, which should remain fairly steady for this year as well. Compare that with the age of the position players from the 2009 championship team (30.5) and, in case you were wondering, the famed Shredding My Soul Into 1,000 Pieces squad of 2004 (32.2) and there should be little-to-no cause for alarm, at least for the time being.

The problem arises when we consider how few of the elder position players will be leaving anytime soon. In 2013, for instance, A-Rod will be 38, Jeter 39, Teixeira 33, and Cano (assuming he re-signs) 30. The Yankees’ continual difficulty in developing viable position prospects, combined with a fetish for relinquishing first-round draft picks means that the team’s overall age, at least for the next several years, will slowly, methodically, diabolically continue to rise. Of course, this further fuels the argument that 2011 might be an optimal time to go all-in for a starter.

Outrageous Expectations

When Montero falters, the career trajectories of countless other stars whose initial mediocrity belied their lofty scouting reports will be ignored. Barry Larkin and Pudge Rodriguez both struggled to make their own beds during their rookie campaigns; the best hitter since Babe Ruth was merely adequate during his. More recently, uber-prospect Jay Bruce finished his rookie season in 2008 with a .317 OBP and a 97 OPS+. And after 887 major league at-bats, the monstrously can’t-miss talent that is Matt Wieters has yet to exceed 97 OPS+. I bring up Bruce and Wieters not because their rookie seasons were such catastrophic failures but because they really weren’t. Sure, they fell short of projections; in fact, they were both downright mediocre. On a team with a more patient front office and a less fervent fan base, being just sort of okay during one’s first full season in the majors is actually a cause for sober optimism. On the Yankees, either player would’ve been packaged by now for Carlos Marmol. When expectations are high in the Bronx, mediocrity doesn’t play, rookie or not. But then, we already knew this. Poor guy.

So, other than OPS-ing at .850 or being packaged with Hector Noesi for Felix Hernandez, what will it take from Montero to satisfy skeptical Yankees fans and a trigger-happy ownership group? Will he need to eclipse a caught-stealing of 34 percent, an OPS+ of 86, and an OBP of .299? If he does, he’ll have yielded better performance in these categories than Sandy Alomar, Lance Parrish, and Javy Lopez, respectively.

Jesus Warts

As great as Montero is projected to be, right now he’s a trunk filled with gold on a desert island. That nearly all of his scouting reports come attached with cautions of defensive shortcomings that make his value as a long-term Yankee backstop a major point of uncertainty. The problem is, as of this moment, catcher is the only position that even remotely makes sense for both Jesus and the Yankees. Moreover, Montero’s purported lack of athleticism would preclude a transfer to either of the outfield corners. A move to first base is also a non-starter, with Mark Teixerra locked up through eternity with an infinity player option. And with the DH rotation set to be occupied by Posada, Jeter, and Rodriguez for at least the next half-decade, stashing Montero there for any significant amount of time is also out of the question.

So if the organization doesn’t view Montero as a long-term solution at catcher, and if his short-term utility will be limited due to inexperience and the vagaries of youth, it could be argued that the moment to package him is now, while the hype machine is turned to 11. Hank or Levine or Newman will propose it, and Cashman will balk. Making his stand to the Yankees’ brass, he’ll detail the folly of trading away young, cheap, premium position players who might one day flourish into young, cheap superstars. But judging from the new top-down decision-making process that seems to have taken hold of the current regime, his case will likely fall upon deaf ears.

NFL Divisional Playoffs Weekend Open Thread

Another round of postseason football this weekend, so here’s a thread to talk about all that fun stuff. The Ravens are in Pittsburgh at 4:30pm ET (CBS) and then later tonight the Packers are visiting the Falcons (8:00pm ET, FOX). Tomorrow afternoon the Seahawks (!!!) will take on da Bears in Chicago (1:00pm ET, FOX). We’ll put up a separate thread for the Jets-Pats tomorrow.

Comparing the bullpens of Boston and New York

There’s a lot to dislike about the Rafael Soriano signing: the loss of a draft pick, the injury risk, the salary and the fact that Sergio Mitre is still the fifth starter. However, there’s one thing to be very happy about, and that’s how strong the Yankee bullpen figures to be.  Last summer at TheYankeeU I spent a fair amount of time using Baseball Prospectus’ Tommy Bennett’s methodology on reliever dominance.  Bennett’s jumping off point is trying to understand and evaluate Mariano Rivera; even advanced metrics can’t consistently rate Rivera accurately.  This is because he has the relatively unique ability to sustain a consistently low BABIP and prevent home runs.  Stats like FIP and xFIP would then prove relatively useless to analyze Rivera.  For instance, take a look at Rivera’s Fangraphs page.  His ERA has been below his FIP and xFIP virtually every year of his career.  Anyone care to predict that this year will be different? Bueller?

So Bennett tried out a different methodology to evaluate reliever skill based on two stats: SIERA and WXRL.  He described them in an earlier piece accordingly:

The gist is [SIERA] gives an estimation of a pitcher’s controllable skills (fly ball rate, strikeout rate, ground ball rate, and walk rate) and considers how they interact with one another. Put simply, it’s a way to evaluate the totality of a pitcher’s skills while looking beyond contingent (or luck-based) factors.

WXRL, on the other hand, is a metric based on win expectancy. It simply measures, compared to replacement and adjusted for quality of opposing lineup, how the likelihood of the reliever’s team winning changed from when he entered the game to when he left.

This is simple enough.  The next step Bennett took was to calculate a Reliever Score based on the two stats.  The methodology sounds complicated but is relatively straightforward.  Cue Bennett again:

We’ll take WXRL and SIERA for all pitchers who have pitched solely in relief. For each pitcher, we’ll calculate how many standard deviations they are away from the mean in each category. Then we’ll add them together. For example, a pitcher who was one standard deviation better than the mean in both SIERA and WXRL would get a score of two.

For our purposes I’ve set slightly different parameters.  I set the cutoffs at 20 innings for relievers only, used data from the 2010 season, and then pulled out the relievers on Boston and New York.  The results for Boston are first.  Keep in mind that a higher number with WXRL is better (based on Win Expectancy), and that SIERA is like FIP, so it’s scaled and comparable to ERA.

Daniel Bard registered the highest Reliever Score in the Boston bullpen based on a very high WXRL score in 2010.  This is hardly surprising; Bard is an elite pitcher with an incredible arsenal who often found himself in high leverage spots for the Red Sox last season.  One interesting aspect to the chart is seeing Bobby Jenks grade out better than Papelbon in SIERA.  Boston earned accolades from the stat community for their signing of Jenks, and rightfully so. Jenks’ SIERA score is sending the same message that his FIP sends – that his peripherals were intact and that a bounceback wouldn’t be unexpected.  Jenks registers a low WXRL, but that’s not surprising given his poor results in 2010; if his BABIP normalizes and he’s used in high leverage spots this number ought to increase in 2011.  All told the most interesting aspect of this chart is that Jenks scores the best among any Boston reliever in K/BB ratio and SIERA.  If he is able to recover and have a better 2011 it’ll really help out Boston’s middle relief and make his contract look like a steal.

One area of weakness is the lefty reliever.  Doubront appears headed back to AAA this season, leaving only Hideki Okajima coming from the left side.  Okajima’s numbers are some of the worst of any reliever on this list.  He’s historically tough on lefties (3.50 K/BB ratio, 0.591 OPS against), so he could have greater value in 2011 if used more sparingly.  Now to the Yankees:

Here we see the strength and depth of the Yankee bullpen.  Simply put, Rivera and Soriano are a two-headed monster.  It wouldn’t be a surprise for Soriano’s BABIP and HR/FB ratio to rise in 2011, especially in Yankee Stadium behind the Yankee defense, but he’s always been a strikeout-heavy pitcher equally adept at limiting free passes.  It’s also notable how well Joba Chamberlain looks.  A lot of fans love the idea of Joba the starter, and for good reason, but Joba the reliever is probably underrated at this point.  Much like Bobby Jenks, Joba’s advanced stats and peripherals make him look far better than his ERA would indicate.  In fact, as Moshe from TYU noted, he looks very similar to Daniel Bard’s statistical profile, and their respective SIERA numbers back this up:

And yet, the numbers show that Joba was about as good as Bard was last season, and that with a little bit of luck, the perception about him would likely be vastly different. Furthermore, Bard is actually 3 months older than Chamberlain, a fact that would surprise most but suggests that they are on equal footing in terms of development. I do not mean to suggest that Joba was actually better than Bard in 2010, as there is something to be said for ERA and results, such that I would not explain all of Joba’s struggles away using the “luck” factor. But the peripherals clearly tell us that these two pitchers should be regarded similarly, and I would be far from shocked if Joba and Bard put forth extremely similar seasons in 2011.

Alongside Joba in middle-to-late relief is David Robertson, the forgotten cog in the bullpen wheel.  Both of these relievers are probably capable of manning the eighth inning, so hopefully they’ll be able to prove themselves in high leverage spots this season.  It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, to be frank, and really underscores the fact that the Yankees could extract more value from Joba as a starter than as a reliever.  The Yankees also figure have two solid lefties this season.  Given the strength of the Soriano, Chamberlain and Robertson, it stands to reason that Feliciano can be used more sparingly than he has been in the past, deployed particularly against lefties.  Get ready for long games full of pitching changes and endless unfunny binder jokes.

At great cost the Yankee front office (and ownership!) has assembled a very good bullpen this winter.  If they’re able to acquire another starting pitcher and/or persuade Andy Pettitte to return then the staff on the whole figures to be very solid.  It’s also pretty safe to say that this bullpen looks better on paper than Boston’s heading into this year, and may in fact be the best in baseball.  The Yankees have missed out on a lot this offseason, but the bullpen is very respectable.  Hey, it’s the little things.