Archive for 2010 Season Preview
Over the last month or so, the three of us have broken down and previewed just about every aspect of the 2010 Yankees. It was quite the undertaking but we’re very pleased about how it all turned out. Here’s a link to each post, in case you missed any or just want to go back and relive the magic…
- March 4th: Will Posada continue to defy age?
- March 5th: Robo-Tex
- March 8th: Will the real Robinson Cano please stand up?
- March 9th: Early Season Alex
- March 10th: Can Jeter keep it up?
- March 11th: Sacrificing offense for defense in left (Brett Gardner & Randy Winn)
- March 12th: Banking on another rebound candidate (Curtis Granderson)
- March 15th: Can Swish do it again?
- March 16th: Designated table-setter (Nick Johnson)
- March 17th: Burnett and Sabathia could be even better in ’10
- March 18th: Strength from the back end (Javy Vazquez & Andy Pettitte)
- March 19th: Whose future is now? (Joba Chamberlain & Phil Hughes)
- March 22nd: Breaking Down Aceves
- March 23rd: Set up for success (Damaso Marte, David Robertson & Chan Ho Park)
- March 24th: Greatness in the 9th
- March 25th: The Four Benchman
- March 26th: Managing when the pieces fit
- March 29th: Help from within (farm system)
- March 30th: The Front Office
- March 31st: Settling into the new digs
You can always just search for 2010 Season Preview in the sidebar to find any and all of those posts. Hope you enjoyed them.
Anyway, here’s the open thread for the evening. The Knicks and suddenly hot Nets (three wins in their last four games!) are both in action, but go ahead and talk about whatever you want. Just don’t be a dick.
When we wrapped up the 2009 season, I gave the new Yankee Stadium a mostly positive review. The team, after all, had just captured a World Series trophy in its first year in the new home and had enjoyed a significant home field advantage. They drew 3.7 million fans and won 64 home games while losing just 25 over the course of the regular season and the playoffs. The stadium itself can be the team’s 26th man on the roster.
The 2009 team’s offensive splits belie the stadium advantage. At home, the lineup hit .284/.368/.490 with 136 home runs. On the road, the team hit .283/.355/.466 with 108 home runs. At least as the ball flies over the fence, the new stadium helped the Yankees.
But despite the tropes of a hitter’s paradise, the new stadium depressed extra-base hits. The Yankees hit far more doubles on the road, and triples at the new park were few and far between. When the dust settled, the new stadium played as a pitcher’s park. So now, as Yankee Stadium gets ready for year number two, what can we expect?
On the field, we’ll be able to tally more data on the trends of the park. We can say, as I did, that after one season, pitchers who aren’t extreme fly-ballers should enjoy pitching at the stadium, but the year two data could be completely different. We can say that left-handed batters with a nice power stroke will hit a lot of home runs into those alluringly short right field seats, and we’d probably be right. Yet, as the Yankees have loaded up a lineup heavy on lefties, a second year of data will hopefully help the team make that case.
Meanwhile, a key claim from earlier last year will be put to the test as well. As home runs were flying out of Yankee Stadium and meteorologists were positing wind patterns, some commentators started to blame the old stadium for the home run-happy jet streams. As the old stadium meets the wrecking ball and will be but rubble by late June, the team will see if the winds do indeed change. Color me skeptical.
But the stadium’s impact goes beyond the way it plays for the team. It is also the home for the fans, and although I yearn for the countless seasons I spent at the House that Ruth Built, I’ll spend the bulk of my life attending games at the House that George Built. What needs to go right then for the Yankees to enjoy another year of crowds above three million, constant sell-outs and a content fan base?
What the Yankees should do is again make the ballpark more fan-friendly. The team should allow young fans the chance to watch batting practice from as close to the field as possible. The team should do away with that moat that separates the Legends Suites from the rest of the park at least until an hour before the game starts. The team should relax its security guards and make fans feel welcome instead of threatened if they happen to step into the wrong section or look at someone halfway cross-eyed. The team should also sell more of those standing-room only seats. I watched Game 2 of the ALDS from SRO in the Main Level, and I will remember it forever. Fans stopped by to chat, and we were ecstatic as A-Rod‘s and later Mark Teixeira‘s home runs brought the Yanks a victory.
And yet, we hear tales of the Yankees making the park a little less accessible. They seem to be offering standing room tickets at all levels only for a select bunch of premium games. They’re going to allow fans in for batting practice two hours before first pitch this year instead of three as they did last year. There goes the opportunity to watch most of the Yankees take BP. As NYY Stadium Insider notes, this move aligns the Yankees with the rest of the league, and staffing concerns may warrant it. But it simply limits access.
Of course, those are but minor gripes. Unlike the Mets, the Yankees didn’t have to fix glaring omissions of history at their ballpark, and the team had a relatively smooth first year at the new stadium. I expect to 2010 to offer more of the same and more wins at home. I didn’t warm up to the new park until late in the season, and I still have a tough time accepting it as the permanent home of the New York Yankees. But it is, after all, tough to argue with the World Series. Can the stadium deliver two in two years?
The front office has done its job. Over the past five months the group, led by GM Brian Cashman, has retooled a championship team. That is no small task, especially in New York. The fans here expect a championship every year. There’s no use making excuses, either. Save those for the small market teams. In New York, a front office is expected to not only anticipate every possible scenario, but have a plan to deal with it and still deliver that championship. In other words, the front office has to work in a volatile atmosphere where they can’t possibly succeed every year. That’s part of what makes this team interesting.
As we’ve all come to learn during our years of fandom, the media environment in New York is unlike anywhere else in the country. Even as newspapers try to save costs by cutting sports coverage, nine beat reporters continue to travel with the team, including eight print journalists. Each newspaper features at least one columnist, and then there are the various TV and radio personalities. They’re all vying for attention, which oftentimes means riling up the fan base by any means possible. This only makes the front office’s job tougher.
The two aforementioned elements work together, creating a chemical reaction of sorts. If the team makes a mistake or goes on a losing streak the media outlets pounce. This riles up the fan base — the rabid fanatics who, again, expect a championship every season. The front office then has a choice. It can succumb to the pressure from all ends and make a move, or it can stand pat and explain, calmly and rationally, that to do something now could damage the future. Meaning, in other words, that a move now might not only fail for the current season, but could hurt the team’s chances of winning a championship in future seasons. Unfortunately, if either approach means losing now then the front office might not be around much longer.
This balancing act constitutes the toughest part of the front office’s job. The mandate to win now means bringing in solid veterans, which often means trading away prospects. Yet without an influx of young talent a team will also find a hard time winning. The front office has done what it can to walk that balance beam, but with such a small margin for error it’s inevitable that they’ll screw up. To what degree they screw up determines their futures with the organization. This current front office seems to have some semblance of balance, though a few unpopular moves this off-season could lead to agitated fans if the team gets off to a slow start.
What will Brian Cashman and company do if something goes awry? What’s the plan if Nick Johnson hits the disabled list? What’s the plan if Curtis Granderson continues to struggle against left-handed pitching? What’s the plan if Phil Hughes flops in the rotation? The other half of each question is of whether the plan is adequate compensation. Again, the front office can have a plan in mind, but if the plan doesn’t add up to at least a playoff appearance then the organization will face a deflated and angry fan base that doesn’t take well to explanations.
Over the past five days I’ve seen a lot of negativity toward the front office for the decision to start Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen. Yet this is just part of the aforementioned balancing act. Once the team acquired Javy Vazquez it was clear that only one of Joba or Hughes would make the rotation. The Yankees chose Hughes, moving Chamberlain to the bullpen. Could the team have optioned Chamberlain in order to keep him stretched out? Sure. But they also want the best seven arms in the bullpen. To option Joba would be to go north with a lesser reliever. It appears that the team just wasn’t prepared to do that this year. As Brian Cashman said on Michael Kay’s radio show, the decision fell on the win-now side of the ledger.
The front office will inevitably face many decisions that will cause a divide among the fan base. The Chamberlain incident presents a prime example. One side of the fan base, wanting to get the most value out of Joba while continuing his development, wants to see him in the rotation, whether in the bigs or in AAA. The other wants to win now, and views Chamberlain as an elite option out of the bullpen. The front office shouldn’t, and probably doesn’t, make its biggest decisions based on fan opinion. But it knows that fan opinion, if low enough, can cost its members their jobs. In other words, it’s all about winning now, which also means planning for the future. It’s a delicate balancing act, and this front office has shown that it won’t scrap one in favor of the other.
Although they’ll always be known as a team that relies on stars and big name players, the core of the most recent Yankees’ dynasty came from within. The team developed three borderline Hall of Fame players at premium up-the-middle positions (Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte) in under a decade, and that alone would have been a strong enough foundation for perennial championship contender. The Yankees got greedy though, so they went ahead and developed a surefire Hall of Fame shortstop and the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived as well. That’s not just a great run of player development, it’s a historically great run.
After the lavish spending that occurred in the early part of the century, GM Brian Cashman re-emphasized the farm system and player development, and in recent years he’s begun to see those efforts pay dividends. Last year’s World Series roster featured eight homegrown players who made their big league debut within the last five seasons, and six who debuted within the last three years.
The crown jewel of the farm system right now is the man you see above, 20-year-old catcher Jesus Montero. Opinions about his ability to remain behind the plate vary, though most believe he’s destined to move to a less valuable position down the road. His bat will work no matter where he plays, because he compliments top of the line power with a solid approach and the innate ability to get the fat part of the bat on the ball. As a 19-year-old he hit .337-.389-.562 with 17 homers in 92 games split between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton before a fluke injury (broken finger on his catching hand) ended his season in August, and just before Spring Training he was named the fourth best prospect in the game by Baseball America. The Yankees have Montero penciled into the starting catcher’s job for Triple-A Scranton this season.
It’s unlikely the Yanks would call Montero up for any sort of extended playing time during the 2010 season, but they have several other players on the cusp of contributing, one of whom we caught a glimpse of last season. Mark Melancon, the team’s best relief prospect, walked as many batters as he struck out (ten) in his 16.1 inning cameo, but his minor league track record (2.69 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 57.6 GB%) screams future success. With a low-90′s fastball and an out-pitch curveball, the 25-year-old Tommy John surgery survivor will be the first arm called up whenever the bullpen needs some help, and there’s a good chance he’ll be this year’s version of David Robertson.
Another player the Yankees are sure to call on at some point is utility man Kevin Russo (left), who has opened eyes this spring with a .276-.353-.379 batting line. A 2006 draft pick like Melancon and Robertson, the 24-year-old broke out in 2008 and has hit .318-.379-.424 since, playing three infield spots as well as the outfield corners. The undersized Russo (5-foot-11, 190 lbs.) has battled hamstring injuries and bad luck in his pro career (a batted ball in BP broke some bones in his face), but he’s the first in line for a promotion when Ramiro Pena falters or the bench otherwise needs some reinforcements.
The Yanks also have young rotation depth in 23-year-old Ivan Nova (3.83 FIP, 1.53 K/BB last year) and 22-year-old Zach McAllister (3.03 FIP, 2.91 K/BB), both of whom will open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation and project as back of the rotation workhorses. Jason Hirsh is a little older than those two at 28, but he’s a former top prospect with the Astros and Rockies who has big league experience and has done nothing but get outs since joining the Yanks last season. All three players also double as prime pieces of trade bait should the Yankees decide to go that route. The 24-year-old Greg Golson offers elite defense and speed if a stopgap outfielder is needed, and I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the soon to be 27-year-old first baseman Juan Miranda. All but McAllister and Hirsh are on the 40-man roster.
Those are the players that are in the position to help the big league team in 2010, but the Yankees also have several prospects further down the ladder with a chance to make a name for themselves this year. Catcher Austin Romine will finally step out of Montero’s shadow this year for Double-A Trenton, and look to improve on last year’s .347 wOBA with High-A Tampa while handling the rigors of his first full season as a clear cut number one catcher. With a strong all-around package of offense and defense at a premium position, the 21-year-old Romine is the early favorite to be the team’s catcher of the future.
His battery mate every five days will be former Stanford lefty Jeremy Bleich, who despite less than stellar stats at Double-A Trenton (4.40 FIP, 1.76 K/BB) showed great improvement with his stuff last year as he got further away from a 2008 elbow injury. Drafted as a polished finesse pitcher, the 22-year-old’s velocity flirted with 95 last season, and anytime a lefty throws that hard, you pay attention. He’ll look to regain his trademark command this year to get back on track.
Dominican bonus baby Jose Ramirez, 21, took the short season circuit by storm last year when he held opponents to a .161 batting average and posted a 3.46 FIP and a 3.31 K/BB, and he’ll bring his mid-90′s gas and knockout changeup to Low-A Charleston in 2010. Lefty Manny Banuelos emerged as Charleston’s ace last season when he posted a 2.76 FIP and a 3.71 K/BB in 108 innings, earning himself a trip to the Futures Game. Still a year away from his 20th birthday, he’ll jump to High-A Tampa and try to further establish himself as a cornerstone piece for the future. Last year’s top draft picks, outfielder Slade Heathcott and catcher J.R. Murphy, will spend their first full season in the organization proving they were worth their seven figure signing bonuses.
Of course, when it comes to farm system this year, all eyes will again be on 2007 first rounder Andrew Brackman (right), who disappointed in 2009 to say the least. The now 24-year-old posted a 4.66 FIP in Low-A Charleston, walking close to six and a half batters for every nine innings pitched, and his stuff was a far cry from what it was in college. The silver lining was that he continued to miss bats (8.69 K/9) and showed improved control and arm strength in a late season stint as a reliever, which he was able to carry over into Instructional League and again into Spring Training. The Yankees will bump Brackman up to High-A Tampa in part because his big league contract will force him to stick in the Majors for good by 2013, and they’re looking for him to really step up and grab the reigns in a farm system devoid of star power beyond it’s top prospect.
Trades, attrition, and graduation have thinned out the farm system that was rated as one of the game’s five best by Baseball America as recently as 2008, but the Yankees still have a bonafide superstar in the making in Jesus Montero, as well as several complementary pieces just a phone call away from the Bronx. The 2009 draft brought a much needed influx of high upside position players and power arms, while several Latin America prospects and pre-2009 draftees are poised to make the jump from good to very good and possibly even great prospects as they enter into their early-20′s and finish maturing.
The current Yankee team is still built around that same homegrown core from the late-90′s, though they’re surrounded by more star power than ever before. Should they need some reinforcements during the season or prospects to dangle as trade bait, the farm system offers plenty of variety. As the Yankees look to start their next dynasty, they aren’t going to have the luxury of producing five players as productive as the quintet they produced in the 90′s, though it’s possible no team will ever have that much player development success in such a short period of time ever again.
Photo Credits: Jesus Montero via Kathy Willens, AP. Kevin Russo via AP (uncredited). Andrew Brackman via Barton Silverman, NY Times.
Joe Girardi’s first tenure as a manager — the 2006 season with the Florida Marlins — was not one in which a prospective employer would find much comfort. He fought with his overbearing owner; he created a tense clubhouse environment; and four of the seven pitchers who made seven or more starts for him suffered through serious arm injuries. Still, he walked away with the Manager of the Year Award, and his skill as a baseball strategist earned much praise.
When the Yankees, then, hired this Joe to replace the outgoing Joe, it wasn’t an easy choice. Yankee great Don Mattingly was also up for the job, and the team had to decide between a fan favorite or the ex-player who was seemingly the smarter baseball mind. At the time, I thought they made the right choice, but Girardi’s first year in pinstripes wasn’t an easy one. The team suffered through numerous injuries, and the skipper wasn’t as forthcoming with information as the media had hoped him to be. When the Yanks finished third for the first time since the early 1990s, Yankee fans wondered if the team had picked the right guy to lead the pack.
Last year, though, it all clicked. With an overhauled pitching staff, a healthy lineup, a great bullpen and a deeper bench, the Yankees captured their 27th World Series Championship, and while we raised our eyebrows at some of Girardi’s pitching and pinch running moves, what he did to lead the team obviously paid off. That happy guy you see at right hoisting the trophy deserved it.
So what then did Joe Girardi do last year? Well, for starters, he employed 106 total different batting lineups, well below average for the American League. He used 97 pinch hitters, the 8th lowest total in the game. His runners attempted 124 stolen bases — tenth highest in the Majors — and were successful 101 times. He called for the sac bunt just 49 times and saw it executed successfully 63 percent of the time.
On the pitching front, Girardi used nine different starting pitchers and 21 relievers, including Nick Swisher. His pitchers averaged 96.8 pitchers per game, 11th overall, and threw just four starts of 120 pitches or higher. He made 461 pitching changes, 15th most in the league, and 304 of those relief appearances were scoreless ones. Girardi also asked his pitchers to issue just 28 free passes, 21st overall.
In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.
On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.
Of course, Girardi has some decisions to make as well this year. He has to decide how to clear up the left field logjam. He has to determine how to get both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain ready to contribute as starting pitchers in 2011. In a way, coming off a World Series win and with the future of the organization approaching something of a crossroads, 2010 may be Girardi’s toughest year as a manager, and he’s a lame duck to boot.
In 2009, Girardi pressed the right buttons and had the right pieces to win. The team is again assembled to be a 2010 AL powerhouse, and Girardi just has to keep his cool about him while making sure the kids are progressing properly. As long as the skipper doesn’t tense up, the team should be just fine with him at the helm, and he will, in all likelihood, be back in 2011.
The days of the 11-man pitching staff seem behind us. Bullpen specialization, combined with managers employing a slightly quicker hook for starters, makes teams more comfortable with seven available bullpen arms rather than six. This becomes a big deal when creating a 25-man roster. In the AL it means a shallow bench. Eight position players plus a DH leaves just four sports for reserve players, one of which must be a backup catcher. Teams must be cautious, then, when choosing their bench players.
Thankfully, the Yankees have the personnel to make the bench work. While both Nick Swisher and Nick Johnson start at other positions, they can fill in for Mark Teixeira at first if needed. They also have a number of players in the system who can play the other three infield positions, making only one of them necessary for the 25-man roster. That leaves one spot for a reserve outfielder and one spot for a pinch hitter. The bench need not necessarily work that way when the team breaks camp, but it should end up that way soon enough.
Last season the Yankees started the year with a heavy bench, even with A-Rod sidelined with his hip injury. The only consequence was a downgrade from Cody Ransom to Ramiro Pena, not a huge one at all even considering Pena’s rookie status. In the outfield they had Melky Cabrera and Nick Swisher, both starters the previous year. It’s tough, actually, to build a better bench than that. It was probably the Yankees’ best in five or more years. Xavier Nady‘s injury thinned it out in April, though, and the team had to react. They later traded for Eric Hinske for pinch hitting purposes. The bench, again, seemed strong.
This season the Yankees’ bench doesn’t appear as strong as 2009, but it still provides the Yankees with what they need. Ramiro Pena or Kevin Russo will serve as the all-purpose utility man, Brett Gardner or Randy Winn will serve as a reserve outfielder and possibly half of a platoon, Francisco Cervelli will back up Jorge Posada, and Marcus Thames will get at-bats late in games mixed with the occasional start against a lefty. That doesn’t seem too bad at all. Perhaps the Yankees will seek a better pinch hitter than Thames come mid-season, but he’s a serviceable option to start the season.
Even though solid, the bench doesn’t come into play a lot, especially the utility infielder. Robinson Cano played 161 games, Derek Jeter played 153, and Alex Rodriguez, a year removed from his surgery, likely won’t take as many days off. This should limit the utility infielder to 100 plate appearances or so through August (there’s no telling what happens in September when rosters expand). If the winner of Pena/Russo doesn’t hit, or has problems in the field, the Yanks can swap them. The actual difference it makes, though, will be marginal. There will be chances in the outfield, as the left field situation doesn’t seem quite settled. Also, since neither Brett Gardner nor Randy Winn carries a heavy bat, a pinch hitter could get late-game opportunities.
Just how do the projection systems view the Yanks’ four bench players? Mike already covered Winn in his left field preview, so here are the remaining three.
The average projections seem fairly reasonable. Thames, as we know, is all power and not much else. That could make for a good bench player, at least to start the season. If he doesn’t prove effective, the Yankees can go shopping in June. That yielded Eric Hinske last year and could easily net them a similar player this year should the need arise. Pena and Cervelli appear perfectly reasonable for their roles. Cervelli could see more playing time, depending on Jorge’s situation.
Again, the Yankees’ advantage is that they don’t need the bench for very much. Pena will give the infielders a day off, while Winn will spell the outfielders. Thames will come up when the team needs a long fly and Gardner or Winn is due up. Those all seem like very limited roles. Cervelli is the only one who figures to play regularly, though we hope not too regularly. He’s fine as a backup. Hopefully that’s the only role he fills this season.
Mariano Rivera pitches during Game 6 of the 2009 World Series. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
For the fifteenth consecutive season, the Yankees know that during home games when they have a lead in the ninth, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” will begin playing over the Yankee Stadium public address system. The Yankees know that Number 42, Mariano Rivera, Number 42 will come slowly walking off the bullpen mound. He will hit the edge of the outfield and start jogging, slowly and confidently, toward the infield. He will make his warm-up tosses, and he will go about his business as he has done 526 times in his career.
I don’t need to toast Mariano in this post. Regular RAB readers know how much we adore and worship at the Altar of Mo. We know we’re seeing something special every time Rivera comes into the game, and we know we have witnessed greatest unfold since Rivera made his mark in the 1995 ALDS. He is the Yankee Dynasty, an all-time great who will be enshrined in Monument Park and Cooperstown sometime before, say, 2020.
Last year, Mariano was just as good as ever, and it was, in a way, surprising. He threw the last pitch at old Yankee Stadium and a few weeks later, underwent a shoulder procedure to clear up some calcification in his pitching arm. The early going was rough; he allowed back-to-back jacks for the first time in his career. Yet, by year’s end, he sported a 1.76 ERA in 66.1 innings. He allowed 48 hits, walked 12 and struck out 71 while notching 44 saves. Father Time is impervious to Mariano.
Going forward, though, what can we expect from Rivera? He’ll be 40 and one of the top five oldest players in the Junior Circuit this year. Time, as Mick Jagger once did not sing, is not on his side, and Yankee fans will one day have to come to grips with the world without Mariano Rivera.
For now, though, we can ignore that scary future and check out his projections. As a 40-year-old closer, Rivera appears to be doing very, very well for himself. Take a peek (and click to enlarge):
Overall, Rivera’s numbers do show signs of decline; that is, after all, to be expected from a pitcher his age. Still, those numbers are very comforting. His 2.74 ERA would be his highest total since only 2007 when early-season woes resulted in an ERA over 3.00. The strike out numbers remain high; the walks remain low; and the long balls remain few and far between.
There is, of course, still the question of who will follow Mariano and just how much the Yankees will miss him. Mariano Rivera last year had a WAR of 2.0, and for closers, that’s high. But even the worst closers were around only 1.5 wins worse than Rivera. Sure, 1.5 wins could mean a lot in the AL East, but it isn’t life and death. I love Rivera more than any other Yankee I’ve seen in my life, and while his postseason presence is irreplaceable, his regular season results are not. It isn’t realistic to assume the Yankees can find another Mariano Rivera, but the team will have a closer once Mo retires.
This year, though, we don’t worry about that. We see Rivera, healthy and feeling good. We see Rivera throwing easily; we see projections that look rosy; and those familiar guitar strains will soon enough fill the air. Exit light. Enter night. Take my hand. We’re off to Never Never Land.
Building a bullpen is a far from an exact science. After enjoying the left-right tandem of Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson in front of Mariano Rivera during the late-90′s, the Yankees stumbled through the overpaid (Steve Karsay, Kyle Farnsworth), the overworked (Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, Scott Proctor, Luis Vizcaino), and the overmatched (Tanyon Sturtze, Juan Acevedo) before going back to the drawing board. They left the overpriced retreads in the past, and instead began hoarding interchangeable (and cheap) relievers with good stuff. Now in it’s third year, the bullpen plan has yielded some long-term pieces, and allowed the team to bring in establish veterans to fill in the gaps rather than carry the torch.
Joe Girardi will have his choice of relievers to use in the late innings this season, perhaps led by the soon to be 25-year-old David Robertson. Part of the epiphany draft of 2006 that has already produced five big leaguers, three pieces of trade bait, and one other player on the team’s 40-man roster, Robertson came into his own once he was called up from Triple-A Scranton for good last May. After getting his feet wet by striking out four batters and allowing just one hit in his first four innings following his callup, Robertson struck out 15 of the next 34 batters he faced, and by the end of August he was sporting a 13.28 K/9 and an ERA around 3.50 (3.28 FIP).
Because of the depth in the bullpen, Robertson was routinely used in the 6th and 7th inning of close games and to finish off contests when the team had a bit more of a cushion. He led the American League with a 12.98 K/9 (min. 40 IP), and only twelve AL relievers bested his 3.05 FIP. Although he appeared in only five games during the postseason, Robertson escaped a bases loaded, no out situation against the Twins in Game Two of the ALDS, and won Game Two of the ALCS with an inning-plus of scoreless relief.
The biggest negative about Robertson’s game is that he can get a little too liberal with walks, though his 4.7 BB/9 last year was a full walk worse than his 3.6 minor league mark. It’s worth noting that he did cut his walk rate down to just three batters per nine after July 24th last year, covering his final 21 innings (out of 43.2 total, so basically half his season workload). Robertson’s strikeout rate is right in line with his minor league performance, though his .347 BABIP in 2009 was pretty high, so maybe his .226 batting average against stands to come down some. He also shows a reverse split (3.70 FIP vs. RHB, 2.74 vs. LHB), which is always pretty nifty.
Here’s what the projection systems say…
That’s a quality relief pitcher right there. The walks are still high because of his limited big league track record, but the strikeouts are through the roof as well. As a fly ball pitcher, Robertson will always be a bit homer prone, though that’s hopefully something that can be improved with age. The projected performance is better than what most teams have available for their 8th inning, but there’s a chance K-Rob won’t be anything more than a 7th inning guy in the Bronx this year.
After pitchers and catchers showed up for work in Tampa, the Yankees jumped all over an undervalued free agent and signed 36-year-old Chan Ho Park to a one year deal worth just over a million bucks. A middling starter for most of his career, Park has posted a 3.29 ERA (3.70 FIP) with a 7.55 K/9 and a 2.30 K/BB ratio in over 120 innings as a reliever in the last two years. His velocity clearly plays up in relief, and last year he stranded all but four of the 21 runners he inherited (81%). Let’s look at the projections…
Park’s projections are a little screwy because of the time he spent as a starter in recent years, but rest assured, the Yankees will use him exclusively in relief (unless there’s a meltdown of biblical proportions in the rotation). Even if Park were to pitch to his projection, the Yankees could deploy him in low leverage situations or easily boot him off the roster. However, I suspect Park will outperform his projection, and will likely fill a role similar to what Al Aceves provided in 2009.
In addition to Robertson and Park, the Yankees also carry one of the game’s best lefty relievers in their bullpen. After battling shoulder trouble and general ineffectiveness early in his stint in pinstripes, Damaso Marte proved his worth and showed everyone what he was capable towards the end of 2009 and into the playoffs. He posted a 5.62 ERA after coming off the disabled list in mid-August, but that’s misleading because four of the five runs he allowed came in one disastrous outing. Overall, he had a 2.58 FIP and a 7.88 K/9 after returning, and went on to be nearly perfect in the postseason, retiring all but the first two men he faced.
At 35-years-old and a veteran of 540 big league appearances, Marte has proven to be death to lefthanders. He’s held them to a .197-.294-.287 batting line against during his career, and was even better than that in 2009 (.120-.214-.280). If he stays healthy, which is admittedly far from a given (shoulders are scary), Marte will be a major weapon in a division that features such lefty mashers as Adam Lind, Nick Markakis, Carlos Pena, and the corpse of David Ortiz. His performance against righties has improved as his career has progressed, but with guys like Robertson and Park aboard, Girardi shouldn’t have to deploy him against hitters of the opposite hand too often.
Let’s see what the five freely available projection systems have in story for Damaso…
Clearly, the projections see Marte working primarily as a lefty specialist, hence the low innings totals but relatively high number of appearances. Much like every other pitcher, limiting Marte to specific and specialized situations will only increase his effectiveness. At $4M, he’s the sixth highest paid pitcher on the team and most expensive non-Mo reliever, so he’ll be expected to pitch more than capably in whatever capacity he’s used.
The Yankees head into the 2010 season with a three-headed monster at the back of their bullpen, and that doesn’t even include Aceves or the loser of the Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain fifth starter battle. It’s clear that the team views Robertson as a long-term fixture, maybe even a future closer, while Park is just a short-term fill in, the product of a market inefficiency. Marte is under contract for at least the next two years, but contract status is a mere formality. All three of those guys are capable of handling late inning duties by themselves, yet the Yankees have the luxury of being able to deploy all three.
Photo Credits: Marte via Tony Gutierrez, AP; Robertson via Matt Slocum, AP; Park via Kathy Willens, AP
Photo credit: Tony Dejak/AP
In 2008 the Yankees featured one of the best bullpens in the American League. It got its share of work, racking up 543.1 innings, mostly because of the team’s decimated starting staff. Even still, it led the league in K/9 and K/BB, finished second, by .001, in OBP, and finished third, by .002, in WHIP. Trying to build off that success, the Yankees brought back many of those successful relievers in 2009, including Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Brian Bruney and, to a lesser extent, Jon Albaladejo and Phil Coke. The experiment turned foul pretty quickly, as the group allowed 55 runs, 51 earned, in 71 April innings.
Bruney had been lights out, but hurt his elbow mid-month. Edwar had faced 44 batters and allowed 11 hits, including three home runs, and walked eight. Hitters against him posted a ridiculous .306/.432/.583 line. Veras seemed a bit more snakebitten, a 1.09 WHIP vs. a 5.73 ERA, but he also walked way too many hitters. Albaladejo had allowed seven extra base hits to the 48 batters he faced. Clearly, something had to change in the Yankees’ bullpen, or else the current crew would blow games for the next five months.
It’s easy to cite Phil Hughes‘s move to the bullpen as the reason the unit ended up among the AL’s best in 2009. He was absolutely lights out pitching in relief, allowing just nine runs, eight earned, in 51.1 IP, striking out 65 along the way. Even though his hit total was ridiculously low, 31, he still managed a sterling 1.93 FIP. Yet the bullpen transformation came before Hughes made his move to the eighth inning in July, even before he moved to the bullpen in June. The real change came at the beginning of May, when the Yankees recalled Alfredo Aceves from Scranton.
Through his first two months he helped stabilize the bullpen, allowing just eight runs over 33.1 innings. The runs came in clumps for the most part, two in a 4.1-inning appearance against Boston and three against Texas. Of his 18 appearances in May and June, 13 were scoreless. He allowed just one run three times, twice in completely meaningless situations. He did experience a few hiccups in late July and August, probably related to back soreness. Overall his season went well, though.
Aceves’s soft-tossing style might make his performance seem like smoke and mirrors, but by secondary metrics he performed very well. His FIP sat at 3.75, mostly because he walked so few batters. He still struck out a decent amount, 7.39 per nine innings. His curveball and changeup proved effective swing and miss weapons. His walk and strikeout rates will help him in the future, when opponents will likely improve upon their .260 BABIP against him.
Another area where we might see some regression from Aceves is his home run rate. He allowed 10 home runs in his 84 innings, or 1.07 per nine innings. That might seem high, or average at best, but Aceves accomplished this while allowing a ton of fly balls. Of the 242 fair balls opponents put in play, 116 of them were fly balls, while another 42 were line drives. That led to an 8.6 percent HR/FB ratio, below league average. This is reflected in his xFIP, 4.09. Thankfully, that’s still a quality mark.
In terms of future success, Aceves’s willingness to throw all of his pitches should continue to help him. He threw just 43 percent four-seamers last year, mixing in a cutter, curveball, and changeup for the remaining 57 percent. The cutter appears to be a good straight fastball alternative, as he trades two to three miles per hour for a few inches of break. His curveball is strong, with a deep vertical drop. Lefties seem to have trouble against his changeup. In fact, Aceves performed very well against lefties in 2009, a huge plus if he can continue it in the future.
How do the projection systems see the Yankees’ potential swingman in 2010?
It looks like most of the projection systems expect Aceves’s hit total to rise, consistent with DIPS theory. We’ve seen it happen to countless relievers. They come on and perform very well in one season by not allowing many hits on balls in play. Then the next year their luck starts evening out, and they’re all the worse for it. Thankfully, Aceves compensates with a low walk rate, though all the systems project that to rise as well. ZiPS is clearly the most pessimistic, forecasting increased home run, hit, and walk rates and a declining strikeout rate.
Given his pitch repertoire, however, I expect Aceves to once again provide a solid option out of the bullpen. Maybe he breaks camp as the fifth starter, though I still doubt it. He’ll probably make a spot start or two during the season as well. Even if his BABIP does rise to the league average, he should still provide quality innings out of the pen. He won’t be as key to the unit’s success as he was last year, but he certainly strengthens the bullpen corps.
It seems like just yesterday, but it was actually way back in early 2007 that Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain were nothing more than a pair of exciting, yet unproven pitching prospects sitting in the Yankees’ farm system. Fast forward to today, and the unproven part of the equation still holds true to some extent, yet both players have lived what feels like a baseball lifetime since they last appeared on any prospect list.
Despite being just 23- and 24-years-old, respectively, Hughes and Joba have each experienced a roller coaster of success and failure in just a little over two years of big league service time. Hughes dealt with both injury and ineffectiveness as a starter before hitting his stride out of the bullpen last year, while Joba enjoyed success out of the bullpen before finding out that life isn’t easy as a starter in the AL East. It wasn’t always pretty, but the duo combined to provide the team with 243.1 innings of 4.14 ERA quality pitching on it’s way to the 2009 World Championship.
But that was then and this is now. The reality of life going into the 2010 season is that there is just one rotation spot for these two players. The one that doesn’t get that spot faces an uncertain fate. More than likely he’ll end up back in the bullpen working in some unknown capacity, but an assignment to Triple-A is not out of the question. Even though the Yankees are in a perpetual win-now mode, their decision will have an impact beyond 2010 because of where each player is in the development process.
Joba started last season as the number five starter, but he was quickly bumped up to number four status when Chien-Ming Wang‘s shoulder betrayed him. Working with reduced velocity, he entered the month of August with a shiny 3.58 ERA but a not great 4.33 FIP, though he struggled the rest of the way – not coincidentally, once the Joba Rules took effect – and finished the season with a 4.75 ERA that damn near matched his 4.82 FIP. It was certainly not what the Yankee faithful expected out of Joba, but I think we need to keep in mind just how unique his situation is. Just five other pitchers his age have managed to throw 150 innings in a single season in the AL East during the wildcard era, and just two of those five were able to post a better than league average ERA (Scott Kazmir in 2007, Jesse Litsch in 2008).
The bad news is that four of those five pitchers would make at least one trip to the disabled the very next season, and collectively their ERA would go from 4.40 ERA (4.28 FIP) to 4.74 (4.79 FIP). The lone survivor of the group is Edwin Jackson, who went from a 5.76 ERA (4.90 FIP) in 161 IP as a 23-year-old in 2007 to a 4.42 ERA (4.88 FIP) in 183.1 IP as a 24-year-old in 2008. Even though his ERA dropped nearly a run and a half, his core peripheral stats remained the same, suggesting that he didn’t improve much as a pitcher, if at all. If he does end up serving as the fifth starter in 2010, history is not on Joba’s side when it comes to a breakout.
Let’s see what the projection systems say…
Well, these don’t really do us much good. CHONE projects Joba to work strictly in relief next season, while CAIRO and ZiPS see him splitting time between the rotation and bullpen. If we completely remove the CHONE projection, we get a 4.15 ERA (3.99 FIP) and 1.42 WHIP in 156.1 IP as a (mostly) starter. These things are really unpredictable for young players with limited track records, so this don’t shed much light on anything.
Really, the most important thing to know about Joba heading into the 2010 season is that he’s finally stretched out and the Joba Rules are no more. Between the regular season and playoffs last year, he piled up 163.2 innings, putting him on track for 190-200 next year. If the Yankees send Joba back to the bullpen for the entire season, all that hard work over the last two years will have been for naught.
As for Hughes, he’s in an even weirder place than Joba. After making six good starts and one complete stinker last season, he moved to the bullpen and literally became the best setup man in the business. He held opponents to a .172-.228-.228 batting line out of the bullpen, posting a gaudy 1.40 ERA (1.94 FIP). All told, Hughes threw 111.2 innings last season (majors, minors, playoffs), his most since a career high 146 IP in 2006. There’s really very little precedent for a pitcher as young as Hughes having that kind of success in the bullpen over that long of a period of time, except for maybe former Halos’ closer Francisco Rodriguez, who last started a game in A-ball.
Time to turn to the projections…
Well these don’t really do much for us, but we knew that would be the case going in given Hughes’ unsettled track record. CHONE is the only system to go out on a limb and project him exclusively as a starter, while the other systems go the part-time starter/part-time reliever route. The Yanks have maintained that they envision him in the rotation long-term, so we’re in very muddy water here. If Hughes spent all of 2010 in the rotation, he would likely be looking at cap of 150 innings or so, putting him on track for his first unabridged season in 2011. I think we all know that Hughes can be a successful reliever if he returned to the bullpen in 2010, though maybe not as dominant as he was last year. As a starter, we really have no idea what to expect.
So the Yankees have a pretty big decision to make. They are stuck in the enviable position of having two high-ceiling players on the right side of 25 for one rotation spot. Of course, the Yanks could always call an audible and decide the best team going forward features both Hughes and Joba in the bullpen, but that would be a major upset. Both players are expected to be core pieces of the rotation going forward with the fallback option of becoming quality late-game relievers. The 2010 season is just the next step in developing both Hughes and Joba into cornerstones pitchers.
Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP