Archive for 2011 Season Preview

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Throughout the 2000s the Yankees could not find a suitable lefty reliever. They went through such middling arms as Felix Heredia, Gabe White, C.J. Nitkowski, Buddy Groom, Wayne Franklin, Alan Embree, Ron Villone, and Mike Myers. It wasn’t until they acquired Damaso Marte in 2008 that they had a quality lefty in the pen, but even that was short-lived. Assuming he misses the whole season, he’ll have pitched just 53.1 innings for the Yankees, though that does include his masterful World Series innings. This year, for what feels like the first time in forever, the Yankees will open the season with two lefties in the pen, Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano. Can they be better than the clown car of lefties the team has employed in the past eight years?

Best Case

Lefties make my arm hurt. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

While neither Logan nor Feliciano screams lockdown lefty, each has considerable upside. We saw that in effect last year with Logan, at least following his mid-July recall. From that point on he pitched 21.2 innings while striking out 25 and walking eight, leading to a 2.08 ERA against a 3.16 FIP. It might have been the most successful stretch of baseball in his major league career.

In the best case scenario Logan becomes a lefty who can pitch a full inning. That is, he can take both the lefties and the righties in the lineup with aplomb. That necessarily means relying more on his changeup, since the slider carries a large platoon split. But best case, Logan feels more comfortable throwing the changeup to righties, which makes his 93 mph fastball a bit more effective.

Logan’s ability to take on a setup role would allow Pedro Feliciano to match up against lefties only, which is likely his optimal role at this point. Even in his best years Feliciano hasn’t handled righties particularly well. Now that he’s 34 there’s little chance that he suddenly develops the skill. He has, of course, thoroughly dominated lefties. Even in 2008, his worst season since returning from Japan, he struck out 34 of 119 lefties faced while walking only eight. He might be good for only a batter, or two with an intentionally walked righty in between, but if he can shut down the league’s best lefty hitters the Yankees will have a quality return on their $8 million investment.

Worst Case

This is where things get ugly. While Logan impressed in the second half, his first half left plenty to be desired. At that point he looked like the Logan who had spend most of 2009 in AAA. He walked 12 in 18.1 IP while striking out just 13. Since the success we’ve seen from Logan comes in a very small sample, it’s entirely possible that he reverts to his walk-happy, homer-happy ways. That would leave the Yanks in a bind, since he’s out of options. Do they wait around for his stuff to return to second-half 2010 levels? Or do they cut bait and start the Scranton bullpen shuttle?

With Feliciano the worst case is a bit tougher. If he’s healthy it’s tough to see him performing poorly against lefties, since he has thoroughly dominated them. Instead, his worst case involves the Yankees paying the price for the Mets’ heavy usage. Who leads the majors in appearances during the last three years? That’s Feliciano, with 28 more innings than the next closest reliever, Carlos Marmol. In fact, there are only three other relievers within 50 appearances of Feliciano’s three-year total. While he ranks 49th during that span in terms of batters faced, he still warmed up and got into all those games. That has to take a toll on the arm.

Feliciano has developed a reputation as a guy with a rubber arm, but we’ve seen some of those guys go down in recent years. Scot Shields provides the most prominent example. That is to say that arms of rubber do eventually break. Feliciano is getting to an age where that might become a concern. While injury is a legitimate risk for every pitcher, it seems to be a greater risk for a 34-year-old pitcher who has appeared in at least 86 games in each of the last three seasons.

What’s Likely To Happen

If both Logan and Feliciano stay healthy they’ll likely both provide options against the tough lefties in the lineup. Maybe the lesser of the two can take two lefties, separated by a righty, towards the bottom of the order, while the greater takes the Adrian Gonzalez or the Travis Snider (he’s going to have a big year) of the lineup.

It’s not likely that Logan figures out righties, both because of his fastball-slider repertoire and his history of abysmal performances against them. His fastball can make you dream about him mowing down Carl Crawford, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez 1-2-3, but his history does not suggest it. Chances are he and Feliciano would go about it similarly: pitch to Crawford, pitch around Pedroia, and attack Gonzalez inside.

While the Yankees do have two quality lefties in the bullpen to open the season, they are still LOOGYs. That limits bullpen flexibility. The Yankees do have four solid righties behind them, which helps, but it still doesn’t make Logan or Feliciano any more effective against righties. The Yankees figure to get plenty of use out of them, but don’t expect them to pitch full shutdown innings. Nothing to see here: they’re just here for the lefties.

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(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Adding Rafael Soriano to the bullpen improved the team in more innings than just the eighth. By pushing last season’s setup duo of Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson into the middle innings, the Yankees are now able to deploy a pair of super-high strikeout relievers at a point in the game when most other teams are crossing their fingers. That’s a very real advantage for the Yankees, though it’s not enough to make up for the mish-mash of has-beens at the back of the rotation.

Middle relievers are typically the most replaceable part of the roster, and in the last three years we’ve watched the Yankees shuffle guys in and out of that role until they found something that clicked. They shouldn’t have to do that this year, hopefully correcting the early season bullpen woes that have popped up in each of the last few seasons.

Best Case

Looking at Joba and Robertson as one entity of middle innings relief, the best scenario is lock down work bridging the gap between starter and the big guys in the eighth and ninth inning. So many games are won and lost in those middle innings that the tangible effect of having what amounts to two setup men available for those innings could be three or four wins in the standings. That’s the best case, obviously.

Robertson’s performance has been pretty consistent throughout his three big league seasons; he’s always had a 10+ K/9, a walk rate near 4.5 per nine, and has surrendered close to one homer for every eleven innings pitched. His ground ball rate has hovered right around 40% as well. We don’t normally think of D-Rob as a consistent guy, but overall he is. His best case scenario is basically the best of his individual peripherals, meaning a ~13 K/9 (2009) and a ~4.40 BB/9 (2008) and a ~42% ground ball rate (2008). Put that together over 60 innings of medium/high-ish leverage work and you’ve got something very close to a one win middle reliever. That guys aren’t common.

Joba’s different than D-Rob because he’s bounced between starter and reliever so much, but for the first time in his career, he was able to come into camp knowing precisely what his role will be this season. It’ll be very tough for Joba to improve on his 2010 performance in terms of the process stats, meaning his peripherals. A 9.67 K/9 with 2.51 uIBB/9 and a 45.6% ground ball rate (2.98 FIP) is as good as it gets for relievers. His ERA sucked, but blame that on the well-below average 66.6% strand rate and .361 BABIP when runners were in scoring position. If those issues regress to league average (72.2% and ~.300, respectively) and he sees slight improvement in the strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates, we’re talking one of the ten best relievers in the game. Joba’s best case basically has him showing that Soriano was completely unnecessary, a high-leverage grunting and farting monster that invokes memories of 2007.

Worst Case

As is the case with relievers, they can be pretty unpredictable and start sucking for no apparent reason. Small sample size is a part of it, these guys just don’t throw enough innings in a season for their true talent level to win out, as is (usually) the case with starters. Aside from injury, the worst thing that can happen to Robertson would be his own fault, if he starts nibbling more and more. If he does that and his walk rate climbs over 5.00 BB/9 while the strikeout rate drops below one per inning (because hitters aren’t chasing anymore), then he’s going to have a problem and is no better than Brian Bruney.

For whatever reason, some people are acting like 2010 was Joba’s worst case. I guess it was in terms of ERA and stuff like that, but we’re smarter than that (I think). There are the standard concerns, like his strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates declining for whatever reason, but it seems like Joba’s worst enemy are expectations. If he puts up Daniel Bard peripherals in 2011, he will have gotten worse. Seriously. I guess the worst thing Chamberlain could do is pitch like he did as a starter in 2009 (7.61 K/9, 4.35 BB/9, 4.82 FIP) out of the bullpen, in which case he’s just a slight upgrade over Sergio Mitre and falls into that “only when losing” cache of relievers. There’s also this rib/oblique issue, and that could carry over into the season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

Like I said, relievers are incredibly unpredictable, so this section is nothing more than an exercise in guesswork. We’d like to think that we’ve seen enough of Joba and D-Rob to know what to expect out of them in 2011, but it doesn’t matter. Reliever volatility is a bitch.

One thing I do expect to see is some improvement in Robertson’s control issues. He walked 4.45 batters per nine in 2008 (30.1 IP), then walked 4.74 per nine in 2009 (43.2 IP), and then last year it was 4.84 per nine (61.1 IP), however intentional walks are inflating those numbers a bit though, especially since Robertson issued six of ‘em last year. If we take those out, we’re talking about a 3.86 uIBB/9 in 2008, 4.53 in 2009, and 3.96 in 2010. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not great, but it’s a better indicator of his ability. Robertson’s never going to be a control artist, but a walk rate right around four is tolerable.

To be honest, Joba just needs to keep doing what he did last year and the success will come. He struck guys out, didn’t walk many, got some ground balls, it’s just that some of the stuff out of his control didn’t go his way. I’m encouraged by his new mechanics, but that’s probably nothing more than Spring Training optimism talking. His velocity returned in the second half, so hopefully that’s sustainable. I fully expect these two to perform like they have over the last two years, at least in terms of the underlying performance. What happens with ERA is anyone’s guess.

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(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I think it’s fair to say that the three-year, $35M contract the Yankees gave Rafael Soriano was the most controversial signing of this past offseason. Hal Steinbrenner and his upper upper upper management buddies over-ruled Brian Cashman because they weren’t in love with the idea of using David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain as Mariano Rivera‘s primary setup men in 2010, plus the team had some of the money earmarked for Cliff Lee burning a whole in their pocket. The stars aligned just right for Soriano and Scott Boras.

Cashman came out and said he didn’t think forfeiting a first round pick and spending that kind of money on a relief pitcher was the best way to use resources (at Soriano’s introductory press conference no less), and he’s right. Multi-year free agent contracts for relievers almost never work out, with the only real exception in recent years being Rivera. For the one they call MFIKY to earn his money, he’ll have to not just repeat last year’s effort, but improve upon it.

Best Case

Relief pitchers can only be so valuable in the real world, even the great Rivera. The last two years of Soriano’s career are about as good as it gets for relievers; he’s racked up 3.6 fWAR total (1.6 in 2010, 2.0 in 2009), good for eighth best among all relief pitchers. He’s just a win-and-a-half away from the reliever fWAR leader (Brian Wilson), but he’s also just half-a-win better than guys like Rafael Betancourt and Darren Oliver. I don’t love WAR for pitchers, so if we use FIP, Soriano ranks tenth among all relievers at 2.66 over the last two seasons.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Soriano has nasty stuff, regularly using three pitches to attack hitters. His bread-and-butter is a 92-95 mph fastball and low-80’s slider combo, pitches that rated as nine and 7.4 runs better than average last year. A pitcher is usually lucky to have one offering that good, Soriano’s one of the few with two. His third pitch is a hard cutter that he throws mostly to left-handers, helping him solve those guys last season after a few years without answers. Hitters have swung and missed at Soriano’s pitches more than 12% of the time in his career, and missing bats is the name of the game when it comes to late-inning relief work.

In a best case scenario, you’re looking at Soriano returning to his 2009 form, when he had a worse ERA than he did in 2009 (2.97 to 1.73) but better peripherals (2.54 FIP, 2.99 xFIP vs. 2.81 and 3.81). A 2.50 FIP reliever throwing 70 innings of higher leveraged work (LI of around 1.60-1.70) is a two-and-a-half win player, and Soriano is capable of that if some things break his way. A three win season as a setup man is very hard to do, but not impossible.

Worst Case

Unfortunately, we’ve lived this nightmare before and know just how ugly multi-year contracts for relievers can get. There’s Steve Karsay (four years, $22.5M), Kyle Farnsworth (three years, $17M), Paul Quantrill (two years, $6.8M), and Damaso Marte (three years, $12M), all of whom inked their deals within the last ten years and all of whom ended (or will end) their Yankee tenures on the business end of the chopping block. History is not on Soriano’s side, and there are some warning flags.

Despite the high swinging strike rate, Soriano struck out just 8.23 men per nine innings last year, down nearly four full strikeouts from 2009 and about a K-and-a-half from his career average. Yes, there’s the NL-to-AL East switch to consider, but remember, as an eighth and ninth inning guy with the Braves, Soriano wasn’t facing opposing pitchers, he was getting pinch-hitters. His fly ball rate is also extreme at 49.8% over the last two years, a rate he’s maintained throughout his career. Despite the improvement against lefties last season, yet still has a ways to go before proving that platoon split (LHB had a .313 wOBA off him prior to 2010) is a thing of the past. That .199 BABIP last year? Don’t expect that to sustain itself either.

Oh, and then there’s the injuries. Soriano has never stayed healthy for three consecutive seasons in his entire career, and he’ll be shooting for that milestone in 2011. A history of elbow trouble (two surgeries, one of which was Tommy John) and shoulder issues reside  in the cons column. The worst case scenario is pretty much Farnsworth’s tenure in pinstripes, a homer prone faux-setup man that will strike out enough guys to remain useful, but not really qualified for late-inning, leveraged work. During his two-and-a-half years in New York, Farnsy was worth just half-a-win total.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

This part is very tricky, because you want to believe that Soriano is different from everyone else, that he’s not one of those flaky late-inning guys because he’s “proved himself” with the AL East winning Rays last summer. We’ve thought that before though, and I refuse to get caught in that trap again. There’s no denying that Soriano improves the team’s bullpen on paper though, there’s just no argument against that, especially when you consider the chaining effect that pushes the whiff-happy Robertson and Chamberlain into the middle innings, where oh so many games are won and lost.

Performance-wise, I don’t believe Soriano will be as good as he was last year again in 2011. The move from Tropicana Field into homer-happy Yankee Stadium will have a very real impact on his performance, and the dip in strikeouts is concerning. Ditto the super-low BABIP and historical struggles against left-handers. All told, if Soriano manages to stay healthy all year and puts up a 3.00 FIP in 70 innings, I’d take it in a heartbeat. The Yankees won 80 of 87 games when leading after seven innings last year, and three of those losses are attributed to Mo in one way or another. Soriano won’t be that big of an upgrade at the end-game, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless.

We can’t ignore the contract either. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the Yankees gave Soriano the ability to opt out of his contract after each of the first two years. He and agent Scott Boras are the ones in control here. With any luck, he’ll have a monster year and opt out in hopes of landing a huge payday as a closer somewhere. That should allow the Yankees to recoup the lost draft pick, assuming they offer him arbitration and the compensation rules aren’t changed in the upcoming Collective Bargaining agreement. Best case scenario: Soriano’s awesome in 2011 and heads elsewhere as a free agent after the season. Worst case: he gets hurt and the Yankees are stuck paying him for the next three years. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to envision this signing turning into a disaster than it is a masterstroke. It’s not fair, but Randy Levine & Co. made their own bed.

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Kathy Willens/AP)

One day Mariano will grow old. Years ago writers tried to predict his decline. A blip on the radar would inspire articles questioning whether he could continue dominating hitters. It still hasn’t happened. In fact, there have been fewer articles predicting his decline in recent years than there were wen he was in his mid-30s. He’s been that dominant in the past few years. 

In some ways, Mo’s 2010 was better than his 2009. His strikeout rate dipped, but so did his WHIP and home run rate. His numbers won’t stay this way forever, but he’s given no indication that he’s ready to slow down. 

Best Case

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Is there really a ceiling for Mo? Sure, he won’t pitch 80 innings and allow two earned runs, but his ceiling isn’t too far off from that. In an absolute best case, he’s probably good for 70 innings and a 1.50 ERA. That’s around his performance from 2008, when, at age 38, he produced the best ERA+ of his career. If anyone can repeat that task three years later, at age 41, it’s Mariano.

To hammer home the best case scenario, we can put Mariano’s performance at age 40 into context. Since 1980 there have been only 34 instances of a relief pitcher aged 40 or higher throwing 50 or more innings. Of those, only 19 have produced an ERA+ of 120 or higher. Mariano’s 238 ERA+ from last year ranks first on the list. That he could top that at age 41 boggles the mind.

Worst Case

Even the worst case scenario for Mariano this year isn’t devastating. Sure, there’s the minute possibility that he falls off a cliff, but that’s the case with every player. It’s the same thing with injuries. Any player at any time can suddenly decline in production or get hurt. But we’re looking for a more realistic worst case, rather than one that has Mo giving up homers and then getting hurt.

Mo’s worst case involves a few more blips than he’s had in the past few years. That is, maybe three weeks where his cutter isn’t cutting and he blows a few saves. Think 2007, but with a small blip mid-season and then another one later on, rather than him just starting slowly. The worst case also involves a few injuries. We know Mo is prone to soreness and spasms that keep him out for a few games. If things go wrong that could happen a few more times than it has in the recent past.

What’s Likely To Happen

The most likely scenario for Mo is far closer to his best case than his worst case. He’s been incredibly consistent in the past eight seasons, keeping his ERA under 2.00 in all of them except 2007. Even then he regained his dominant form after a rough April. Even at age 41, his most likely scenario has him pitching around 65 innings to a 2.00 ERA. Few closers will ever match that kind of production, never mind doing it year after year.

If this preview seems a bit lacking, it’s because there’s no need to dive into the case of Mariano Rivera. Since 1996 he has been the most beloved Yankee, and his folk hero status has only grown with time. What I find most striking is that while he is at an age where pitchers are watching games on TV, Mariano remains dominant. We’ve been lucky to watch him for the past 15 years, and I don’t think we can be reminded of that too frequently.

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

The Yankees currently have a few pitchers battling for two rotation spots, but it really comes down to three. For this preview we’ll look at the trio.

Freddy Garcia

Best Case

(Dave Martin/AP)

If only this were 2007. That year Garcia’s best case scenario was a solid No. 2 pitcher. But he hurt his shoulder that year and threw just 58 innings. Since then he’s struggled to stay healthy. The ray of hope here is that he threw 157 innings last year, which is more than he threw in the previous three years combined. He also produced serviceable numbers. That leaves some room for upside projection.

Last year Garcia had to acclimate himself to life with a sub-90-mph fastball. That’s not an easy adjustment for any pitcher — we can look to Javier Vazquez as an immediate example. Now that Garcia has something of a full season under his belt with his diminished arsenal, there’s a chance he can harness it and produce better results in 2011. We’ve already seen in spring training that he’s working on all four pitches. If he mixes and matches and uses his changeup to his his advantage, there’s a good chance he can top last year’s results.

The Bill James projections have him at a 3.89 ERA — though a 4.57 FIP — through 148 innings. That seems like an aggressive forecast for even a best case. But since Garcia is nothing but a prayer anyway, let’s peg this as his best case. The chances of it happening are maybe one in 100,000, but maybe the Yanks hit the lotto.

Worst Case

The worst case with a pitcher with Garcia’s injury history always involves considerable time on the shelf. With Garcia it would probably mean getting rocked during the month of April and then getting hurt. That would inflict the maximum pain. Not only would they get just a few starts out of him, but then they’d lose the chance for him to get into a groove and compensate for those poor performances.

While Garcia looks good now, and while he pitched decently at times in 2010, he provides no guarantees for 2010. His worst case is considerable — perhaps the worst of the three, since he stands the chance to cause the most damage. He likely has a longer leash than Colon, which could backfire for the Yankees.

What’s Likely To Happen

A player with Garcia’s stuff and injury history is tough to peg for a likely case, because there’s so much room for variance. I don’t think it’s likely that he starts 28 games again this year, but the Yankees don’t necessarily need that. I also think that if he does make, say, 20 starts, that he has a few very good ones in him. So where does that leave us for a likely scenario?

I’d say that the most likely case is between 15 and 20 starts with between a 4.30 and 4.60 ERA. Garcia showed last year that he can survive with a sub-90 fastball and his arsenal of secondary pitches. This year he brings more experience to the table. I think that raises the bar, if only slightly.

Bartolo Colon

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Best Case

If Colon breaks camp with the team he will have bad games. In the best case scenario he won’t have so many of those bad games, and they’re like four innings, five runs than two innings, seven runs. There’s also the occasional start where he gets a couple of lucky hops and some solid defensive plays and keeps the other team at bay. Mix in a few five- or six-inning, two or three run performances and it becomes a decent part of a season.

How big a part of the season? Colon is 38 and hasn’t been healthy since 2005. For him to make it through May would constitute a positive outcome. That would make for something like 15 starts at a 4.50 ERA — that magic number. Not bad, not great, blows some games, makes some a little easier. Marcel has him at 66 innings and a 4.36 ERA. The Yanks will take that early in the season. It could be worse. It could be…

Worst Case

Sidney Ponson circa 2006. In 2008 he might have had a 5.85 ERA, but he also had the occasional game where he’d walk more than he struck out, but only allow two or three hits and luck his way into a win. The 2006 version of Sidney Ponson was far more putrid. His best game was his first, four runs in 6.2 IP. After that it was some of the worst pitching I’ve had to endure since the early 90s.

If, after 16.1 innings, Colon, like Ponson, has allowed 20 runs — and has an OPS allowed of .988 — then I presume the Yankees will cut him. That’s a pretty putrid case by any measure. The only way it could get worse is if they let him continue pitching. Considering the implications of doing so while competing the AL East, I have faith that they will not. Ponson’s 2006 had better be the worst case, and even then I hope they’d cut it a bit shorter.

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s no fun saying it, but the most likely case if Colon makes the team involves him pitching a few terrible starts, a few serviceable starts, and then getting hurt. No one wishes injury on the guy, but let’s be realistic. He hasn’t been healthy since 2005, and it’s highly unlikely that changes after five years of injury and inactivity.

Ivan Nova

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Best Case

The book on Nova is that while he pitched well last season, he struggled when facing a lineup for the third time. That’s because he relied mainly on two pitches, throwing almost two-thirds fastballs and then mostly the curveball otherwise. If he works in his changeup more, and it’s even an average offering, his upside becomes considerable. His best case would have him resembling a No. 3 pitcher.

If we’re talking about Nova’s best case, and his best case makes him a No. 3-type pitcher, then his best case also involves him breaking camp with the team, since that’s how he provides the most value. That would make his season line something along the lines of 30 GS, 190 IP, 4.00 ERA. To say that would be tremendous is an understatement.

Worst Case

Nova’s worst case involves him impressing enough in spring training that they part ways with Colon, and then he bombs to start the season. Then, after a month, he goes back to AAA and the Yankees implement a revolving door. No one works out, and Nova comes back, only to pitch poorly again.

This is the risk involved with any unproven pitcher. This scenario isn’t particularly likely, but it’s still within the realm of possibility.

What’s Likely To Happen

Right not it appears as though the Yankees will build depth and start Nova in the minors. He’ll make up it, of course, since the Yankees won’t get through 162 games with just Colon and Garcia in the 4/5 spots. What’s likely is something similar to last year, with certain improvements.

With all this in mind, I’d peg Nova’s most likely case As somewhere between his Bill James and Marcel projections. That is, a strikeout rate in the mid 6s per nine, a walk rate in the high 3s per nine, a few home runs, and an ERA between 4.00 and 4.50. That might seem like a wide range, because it is. We know little about what Nova can do in the majors, so a wide range becomes necessary.

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

Hope. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As far as disappointments go, it’s tough to beat what A.J. Burnett did last season. I give him credit for making 30 starts and throwing 186.2 innings, though very few of those starts and innings were quality outings. A.J. set new career worsts in batting average against (.279), swing-and-miss rate (7.9%), strikeout rate (6.99 K/9), ERA (5.26), FIP (4.83), and xFIP (4.66). In the history of the New York Yankees franchise, even going back to when they were the Highlanders, that ERA is the highest by any pitcher who’s thrown at least 175 IP in pinstripes in a single season. Burnett wasn’t just bad, he was historically bad.

After whiffing on Cliff Lee and watching Andy Pettitte call it a career this winter, the Yankees need A.J. to be the $16.5M a year pitcher they’re paying him to be, now more than ever. Burnett has already altered his mechanics at the behest of new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, eliminating the swing of his front leg and instead driving it towards the plate. Whether or not the adjustments help in the regular season remain to be seen, but the early results in Spring Training are encouraging.

Best Case

For a guy like Burnett, it feels like the sky is the limit. His fastball still hums in at 93-94 mph with what looks like zero effort, and his curveball can be so good at times that it makes you wonder how anyone ever gets a bat on it. When prompted by the catcher, he’ll also throw a decent changeup just to mix something else in. The best season of A.J.’s career came during his final year in Toronto, when he amassed 5.5 fWAR and led the American League in strikeouts (231) and was third in innings pitched (221.1). Not only was he striking out well over a batter per inning, but he was also generating a ground ball on close to 50% of balls in play (48.5% to be exact).

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The best case scenario has Burnett being that guy again, so we’re talking about a strikeout an inning with a healthy dose of ground balls. Getting his curveball – a pitch that averaged 14.3 runs above average from 2005 through 2009 but dropped off to 3.9 runs below average in 2010 – back on track is on part of that process, as is finding the two inches of horizontal movement his fastball lost during the 2009-2010 offseason. Perhaps the new mechanics can help, and hey, perhaps they can make his stuff even better.

Burnett’s always been plagued by command issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean walks. His 1.21 HR/9 last season was his worst in four years and the second worst of his career, though that goes hand-in-hand with the added ground balls. Left-handers also gave him as especially tough time (4.78 FIP compared to 3.78 career). It’s easier said than done of course, but correcting these flaws (which really started to manifest themselves last season) will help get A.J. back into five-win form, an ace worthy of his paycheck.

Worst Case

Could it possibly get any worse than it was last season? Unfortunately, it can. For all his struggles, Burnett did manage to rack up 1.3 fWAR thanks mostly to his bulk innings, providing more value to his team than guys like Jeff Niemann (1.2 fWAR), Jon Garland (0.8 fWAR), and Randy Wolf (0.7 fWAR). A continued decline in strikeout and ground ball rates will bring him ever closer to replacement level, as will another increase in his homerun rate.

At 34-years-old, it’s likely that A.J.’s fastball velocity will continue its slow and steady decline, meaning the days of reaching back and throwing a fastball by a hitter in a jam are a thing of the past. Given his #LowPitchingIQ, all the refined mechanics in the world might not be able to help Burnett if his stuff continues its descent into mediocrity. As was the case with Phil Hughes yesterday, the 2010 version of Javy Vazquez is a fine approximation of what Burnett’s worst case scenario might look like.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

What’s Likely To Happen

Who knows? That pretty much sums up this part of the preview. A.J. is as unpredictable as they come; on his good days he’ll look like the best pitcher on the planet, on his worst you’ll wonder how he ever made it out of A-ball. He certainly doesn’t make it easy, that’s for sure.

It’s been all of two Spring Training starts, but Burnett said that his more compact delivery feels natural, so he doesn’t find himself thinking about it on the mound, which I suppose is progress. The lost velocity is very real, however he still averaged 93.1 mph with the heater in 2010. Even if he loses another mile an hour (getting down to 92) this season, that’s plenty enough for a big league starter. No excuses there. The curveball … I don’t know what the hell is going on there. After years of being a dominant pitch (at +71.8 runs above average from ’05-’09, the best in the game by more than 12 full runs), I have a hard time believing it just fell right off and become a below-average pitch in what amounts to an offseason. I expect some improvement there.

Call me (cautiously) optimistic, but I think we’ll see a Burnett that is better than what he was in 2010 this season, but perhaps not as good as he was in 2009. That would put him right around a 4.50-4.60 FIP, so let’s split the middle and call it 4.55. That would be the third worst full season of his career, but spread out over 30 or 31 starts*, you’ve got a two, two-and-a-half win pitcher. Would you take that out of A.J. this year? I would, but perhaps my expectations are too low.

* Funny how we aren’t really concerned about Burnett’s durability anymore, huh? He’s proven himself in that department over the last three seasons, that’s for sure.

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Mar
09

2011 Season Preview: Phil Hughes

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think there was anything more exciting to watch in 2010 than Phil Hughes coming into his own as a big league starter. He made every start without incident (except when they skipped him), made the All-Star Team, and tossed up an absolute gem in his first career playoff start against the Twins in the ALDS. There’s not much more anyone could have asked from the kid in his first full season as the member of a Major League rotation.

Heading into 2011, Hughes is no longer the young, interesting guy in the fifth starter’s spot. He’s being counted on as one of the team’s top three starters, and could very easily start the second game of the season behind CC Sabathia. There were plenty of positives as well as a handful of negatives to be taken away from last season, which is why pinning down what Hughes will do in 2011 is so tough.

Best Case

It’s very, very easy to dream on a young pitcher like Hughes. He was so dominant early in the season, with a sub-3.00 FIP in his first eleven starts and an ERA to match, that you can’t help but fantasize about him doing that over a full season. Hitters couldn’t catch up to his fastball or lay off the breaking ball in the dirt, and the cutter moved just late enough to induce weak contact or swings and misses. It was glorious.

Well, the best case scenario has Hughes repeating that level of performance over a full season. How would he go about doing that? By mastering a changeup, first of all, which would be akin to Jorge Posada suddenly turning into a Gold Glove caliber catcher. That pitch is what Phil needs to better combat left-handers, who tagged him for a .323 wOBA in 2010 and .343 over his entire career. Being able to consistently retire lefties will also help control the homerun issues that surfaced last in the season; 17 of the 25 homers Hughes allowed came off the bat of a lefty.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Developing a changeup and limiting the damage caused by left-handers would certainly be a step in the right direction for Phil, but we’re looking at the best case scenario here. For that to be realized, Hughes would also have to get back to being the ground ball machine he was in the minors, when he boasted a stellar 54.9% grounder rate. Strikeouts and grounders are a wonderful way to live life, and would vault the Yankees’ young right-hander into the game’s upper echelon of starting pitchers.

The last thing that needs to be addressed is durability. Hughes held up pretty well over the largest workload of his career last season, throwing 192 total innings between the regular season and playoffs. The Yankees say he’ll be without limits last year, so 200+ is no longer some nice round number to target down the road, it’s an expectation. If Hughes can boost his strikeout rate to eight per nine while keeping his walk rate around three per nine with a 50% ground ball rate, we’re talking about a right-handed Sabathia, a five win pitcher at the minimum and a seven win monster at the peak.

Worst Case

Young pitchers can be a risky proposition, especially when you stick them in the AL East. Hughes passed the test in 2010, but there were definite red flags down the stretch. He became very homer prone in the second half, allowing 17 long balls in his final 88.1 IP (1.73 HR/9). His strikeout rate dropped while his walk rate climbed as the season went progressed, and Phil’s two starts against the Rangers in the ALCS left a lot to be desired.

The worst case for both Hughes and the Yankees would be if those trends proved to be indicative of the right-hander’s true talent level instead of simply being a late season slump. In fact, the peripheral stats could continue to decline to the point where we’re looking at a pitcher struggling to get strike three or keep the ball in the park. The 2010 version of Javy Vazquez does a damn good job of approximating what Hughes’ worst case scenario would be this summer.

Beyond performance, there’s also the whole injury issue, which applies to any pitcher regardless of age, size, and track record. Hughes threw 80.1 more innings in 2010 than he did in 2009, and 46 more than his previous career high set half-a-decade ago. A jump like that can be dangerous, and one of the last things the team can afford this year is to lose one of their top three starters for an extended period of time.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

What’s Likely To Happen

The range of expectations for Hughes is pretty large this season. He could take his game to another level and emerge as one of baseball’s elite starters, or he could be replacement level cannon fodder. I don’t think many of us would be surprised if either happened.

Hughes has already said he’s aware that he hurt himself by not throwing his changeup enough last year, particularly early on, so I expect him to be a little more aggressive with the pitch out of the gate. That doesn’t mean he’s going to come out and starting throwing 25 a game, just enough to keep hitters off balance and honest. Phil doesn’t need it to be a bonafide put away pitch, just a show-me fourth offering that gives hitters something else to think about is plenty.

As Joe detailed a few months ago, most of the homerun issues stemmed from an ugly, eight-start stretch in the middle in the season. The Blue Jays were also especially unkind to Hughes, accounting for more than a quarter of his homers allowed despite being just 13.2% of his batters faced. He’s a fly ball guy (36.1% in 2010, 35.8% career), so homers are inevitable in Yankee Stadium, but giving up one homer for every ten fly balls like he did last year probably won’t happen again; that’s a rate just one-third of the game’s starters experienced.

One last thing I want to mention is that Hughes is still only 24 years old. That seems to get skipped over quite a bit. Believe it or not, talented pitchers that young have this weird, unexpected tendency to actually, you know, get better with experience. It’s strange, but trust me, it’s happened once or twice in the past. Hughes could improve his performance this season just because he has a better idea of what he’ll face as a starting pitcher over the course of a 162-game season.

If the Yankees get 175 IP out of Hughes with an FIP in the low-4.00’s like they did last year, it would be a win overall because he’ll be a productive starter. It’s reasonable to expect some improvement, though it might not be a major step forward. It could be incremental, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Kathy Willens/AP)

For half a decade the Yankees lacked a prototypical ace. Chien-Ming Wang came close, and in 2008 Mike Mussina did his best to lead the staff. But neither of them was truly that 220-inning workhorse ace that the team needed. That’s why the Yankees went after CC Sabathia so aggressively in the winter of 2008. The past two seasons have proven why that was a worthwhile pursuit. In the past two seasons Sabathia has thrown 467.2 innings and has led the team with a 3.27 ERA. Given the state of the pitching staff, they need more of that in 2011.

Best Case

(Paul Sancya/AP)

While Sabathia has been nothing but excellent for the Yankees, he’s definitely had better years elsewhere. From 2006 through 2008 he accumulated the most WAR among pitchers, 20.2. He also had the second lowest ERA, FIP, and xFIP in the league. Since different pitchers ranked ahead of him in each category, it’s pretty safe to say that he was the best pitcher in the league during that span. In 2007 he brought home the Cy Young Award, and in 2008 he had a legitimate chance at the Cy in the NL despite having thrown only half a season. That’s what happens when you put up a 1.65 ERA in 130.2 innings.

Since Sabathia came to New York a few things have changed. His strikeout rate has dipped a bit, and his walks have risen. In a way that’s to be expected, since he went from the AL Central, and a short stint in the NL Central, to the AL East. But in another way, he doesn’t have it as bad as, say, a pitcher for Baltimore. Since he pitches on the Yankees he doesn’t have to face the Yankees hitters, who have produced the best offensive numbers in baseball the past two seasons. In other words, while Sabathia’s numbers were going to dip to some degree with the move to the AL East, I think he has more in him than he’s produced in the last two years.

How high can he go? Last year Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young with 8.36 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, and 0.61 HR/9, leading to a 3.04 FIP. But it was his 2.27 ERA that won it for him. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Sabathia is capable of those fielding independent numbers. With a few breaks here and there, he can probably get his ERA below 3.00, but probably not to 2.27. It would add up to a Cy Young caliber season, since the Yankees offense figures to help him out plenty. From a purely best-case standpoint I can see CC going 23-7 with a 2.95 ERA. That would almost undoubtedly give him the Cy Young Award.

Worst Case

(Chris O'Meara/AP)

The whole idea behind acquiring CC, and paying him more than any other pitcher in history, is that he comes with a lower risk level than others. He is, to put it bluntly, a physical freak. Those are the kinds of guys you overpay for, because they don’t follow typical career paths. That is, where a typical pitcher gets hurt a certain amount of time and starts a decline at a particular age, physical freaks defy those definitions and boundaries.

There really isn’t a bad season on CC’s ledger. He produced ERAs around 4.35 during his first two seasons in the bigs, but he was 20 and 21 those years. His worst, by most measures, came in 2004, when he had a 4.12 ERA and 4.21 FIP in 188 innings. Since then he’s been magnificent, which makes it difficult to envision a worst case scenario. That is, I suppose, nothing but a good thing.

Injury is always a concern with pitchers. At FanGraphs, Jeff Zimmerman examined the odds of any pitcher hitting the DL in any given season, and the odds are quite high. He hasn’t hit the DL since 2006, and has only spent time on the shelf twice in his career. His heavy workload — he has thrown 720 innings in the past three seasons, second most in the majors — is always a concern. But Sabathia hasn’t shown much wear and tear from those years. Again, he’s a physical freak. Sometimes those guys can handle workloads that would absolutely break a regular old pitcher.

If I had to peg an absolute worst case, it would be a short 15-day DL stint combined with an ERA that matches his xFIP from the past two years. That is, about 190 to 200 IP at a 3.80 ERA. That’s how good Sabathia is. It’s hard to imagine him being any worse than that.

What’s Likely To Happen

As in most cases, the most likely scenario for Sabathia involves a combination of his previous two seasons. During those seasons he has pitched to a 3.27 ERA and 3.47 FIP, and has produced 5.7 WAR per season. I honestly think he has a better year in him, but that doesn’t make the situation any more likely. Sabathia has shown us plenty in the past two years, and that’s what we should use to forecast him.

Of course, a 3.27 ERA in 230 innings will be plenty for the Yankees. With an offense that will support him with plenty of runs, it will lead to many Yankees victories. That will run up his pitcher win total, which will again put him in the Cy Young conversation. Yes, Sabathia is so good that even the most likely scenario has him contending for the Cy Young Award. That’s why they’re paying him $23 million per season.

Long-term contracts for pitchers are always risky, but the Yankees did it right with Sabathia. He has been that workhorse ace that they’ve needed ever since Clemens, Pettitte, and Wells all departed after the 2003 season. There will be talk about his opt-out all season, but I suggest everyone ignores it. He’s in town for at least one more year, and even if he has his worst season in the Bronx it will still be a good one. He is the reason that the pitching staff hasn’t become an overwhelming concern.

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

As I mentioned two weeks ago, the Yankees will start the season with someone not named Jorge Posada behind the plate on Opening Day for the first time since 1999. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the lineup at all, he’ll just be there at a new position. The Yankees finally went ahead and made Posada their full-time designated hitter for the 2011 season, a move that’s been expected for a few years now.

Nagging injuries hampered Jorge throughout the 2010 season, though they were pretty much all fluky. A hit-by-pitch on the knee cost him a total of six days, a sprained ring finger suffered on a foul pitch cost him a day, and a fractured foot suffered on a foul ball cost him nearly three weeks. In between the injuries, Posada was his usual productive self. Yes, his batting average slipped to just .248, his lowest since 1999, but he still got on base 35.7% of the time and cleared a .200 ISO (.206) for the second straight year, fourth time in five years, and seventh time in the last nine years. Eighteen homers and production from both sides of the plate (.353 wOBA vs. RHP, .361 vs. LHP) is what he gave the team, and that’s pretty much all they ask of the guy.

Now 39, Posada is in the final year of his contract and what could very well be the final year of a career that will garner Hall of Fame consideration. He’ll be playing a new position  but will still be counted on for quality at-bats and production behind the heart of the order.

Best Case

Free from the rigors of catching, the best case scenario has Posada staying healthy enough to rack up 500+ plate appearances for the first time since 2007, when he was a 6.4 fWAR player. All that time at DH should help keep him fresh through all six months of the season, which would theoretically help his production. There’s certainly some merit to this, as Posada’s wOBA has traditionally peaked right around .400 in April and May before slowly slipping down to .370-ish in July, August and September since becoming a full-time catcher.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As an old player with old player skills and a surprisingly consistent career, why know exactly what Posada is capable of doing. We’ve seen him get on-base 40% of the time before. We’ve seen him club 20+ homers and slug north of .450. Expecting the .338/.426/.543 (.417 wOBA) monster from 2007 to return would be nothing short of foolish, but Jorge was a .285/.363/.522 (.378 wOBA) hitter as recently as 2009, and that approximates his best case offensive scenario. It’s better than his .275/.377/.479 (.369 wOBA) career average, and would qualify as Jorge’s third best offensive season since 2005.

The defensive upgrade behind the plate may end up being considerable, and the impact on the pitching staff could be as well. Yankees pitchers have traditionally performed worse with Posada behind the plate, but we just don’t have enough evidence to know how much of that is on that catcher. He’s not the guy throwing the pitch, after all. Either way, getting Jorge out of the catcher’s spot improves his offense and the team’s defense, a win-win. A designated hitter with a wOBA approaching .380 is better than a three-win player, a level of production Posada has cleared just once in the last three seasons.

Worst Case

Avoiding the abuse of the catching vocation is great, but adjusting to life as a designated hitter is easier said than done. Posada’s a career .223/.336/.358 hitter as a DH, which is not what any team wants from that position. He’s also well into his decline phase, and he could slip off the edge of the cliff at any moment. There’s not much to say about the worst case scenario for Posada; it has him clogging up the designated hitter spot with below-average offensive production, a .330 wOBA or worse. Jorge’s job is very simple. If he doesn’t hit, he’s hurting the team.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

Catchers usually turn into pumpkins around age 33 or 34, but Posada has managed to defy age for half-a-decade now. American League DH’s (taking out NL during interleague play) hit .252/.332/.426 last season, so simply repeating last year’s effort will give the Yankees an above-average player at that spot. Any improvement would be gravy, though at his age I’m not expecting any. A .350 wOBA would be better than what the Yankees got out of that spot in three of the last four years (2009 being the lone exception), so Posada’s break-even point isn’t exactly sky high as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t worry so much about his career production as a DH because we’re talking about just 351 plate appearances spread across a 14-year career. That represents less than 5.2% of his career plate appearances, and in fact, Jorge’s started more than ten games at DH in a single season just twice. Those 351 plate appearances hold very little predictive value.

Posada’s career is winding down, but the Yankees’ offense is in as good of a position to absorb his total collapse as ever. I don’t him to fall apart this year, but it’s a very real possibility. It wouldn’t sink the team, but it would certainly be sad to see such a great player crawl to the finish.

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

It remains one of Brian Cashman‘s finest trades. In early November, 2008, as a prelude to his big score in free agency, he traded Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez, and Jhonny Nunez for Kanekoa Texeira and Nick Swisher. Coming off a 2008 season in which he hit .219, Swisher must have been seen as a risk, since Ken Williams traded him for so little. That was an odd notion, considering Swisher’s numbers from his previous two seasons. It all played into the Yankees’ game, and they’ve benefitted greatly from the deal.

A year later Betemit left the White Sox while Marquez and Nunez had their shares of struggles. The Yankees, on the other hand, got a career year out of Swisher, who played a significant role on the 103-win regular season team. He did struggle in the playoffs, but his Game 3 RBI was certainly an important one. Swisher followed that up in 2010 with what was perhaps a better year. Hitting coach Kevin Long thinks that we can’t expect Swisher to be even better in 2011, because he was that good in 2010. Unsurprisingly, Swisher himself does not agree with that assessment.

Best Case

(Peter Morgan/AP)

Prior to 2010, Swisher had always been a low-average, high-walk, high-strikeout guy. That worked well enough for him. He hit for power and got on base frequently, which more than made up for the low average. But last season he displayed a more aggressive approach at the plate. He swung far more often than he ever had in his career. This led to a remarkably lower walk rate — just 9 percent, down from 16 percent in 2009 — but it also led to more hits. Swisher’s .288 batting average was a career high by a long shot. His OBP suffered a little bit, but the extra hits helped him provide more value at the plate — a 133 wRC+, which topped his 125 from 2009.

The best case, then, would have Swisher putting together the best of both worlds. That is, putting something like a .275 average on top of a 15 percent walk rate, while adding his 2009 power numbers to the mix. Working on a 650 PA scale, since it would represent a healthy season between the Nos. 2 and 6 spots in the lineup, that would mean a .275/.383/.525 line. That’s better than Swisher has ever hit in a season, which would mean a third straight career best year while in pinstripes. It’s also a realistic take on the best case. Considering what we’ve seen from Swisher, it’s not all that unbelievable.

Worst Case

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Chances are that Swisher has already seen his worst season. In Chicago he was moved both in the order and in the field. During his days in Oakland he was a corner outfielder who hit fifth or sixth in the order. The White Sox, noting his high OBP, put him in the leadoff spot. They also stuck him in center field, which, considering his speed and range, probably isn’t the best position for him. Those factors, along with a reportedly tumultuous relationship with manager Ozzie Guillen, played into Swisher’s only below-average offensive season.

Could he reach those depths again? It’s possible, but while he’s been in New York he has proved that 2008 was an outlier and nothing more. How low can Swisher sink, then? If we combine the low points for Swisher, 2009’s BA with 2010’s walk rate and ISO, we’d get .250/.317/.473. That would make him look fairly pedestrian. Injury is part of every player’s worst case, but with Swisher it’s not a big risk at all. He hasn’t hit the DL since 2005, though he did miss a number of days in 2010 thanks to a series of nagging injuries.

What’s Likely To Happen

The most likely case from Swisher is an approximation of his production from the past two years. He’s in his prime and, by his own indications, more motivated than ever. While he might not quite hit his lofty best case scenario, he probably won’t be a great deal worse. Think .265/.370/.500 or thereabouts. On most teams that would easily make him one of the three best hitters on the team, and on the bottom feeders he’d be the star. But on the Yankees he’s at best fourth.

In the last two years Yankees fans have had the pleasure of knowing Nick Swisher. He rubs some people the wrong way with his lively, talkative nature, but that doesn’t take away from his on-field production. He might be prone to the occasional bonehead play in the field or on the base paths, but day in and day out he’s a solid contributor to a championship team.

To close, I’ll leave you with a graph that we’ve seen plenty of in the past year or so. Click to make it larger.

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