2011 Season Preview: Feliciano and Logan

(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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2011 Season Preview: Joba & Robertson

(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.

2011 Season Preview: Rafael Soriano

(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.

2011 Season Preview: Mariano Rivera

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.

2011 Season Preview: Fourth and Fifth Starters

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.