Mailbag: Clemens, Ichiro, Bullpen, Wang, Tanaka

Six questions and six answers this week. The best way to send us anything is with the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.

(Matt York/Getty)
(Matt York/Getty)

Mark asks: After seeing the Giants end their brief mini-divorce with Barry Bonds this spring, do you think the Yankees should break the ice with Roger Clemens and invite him to an Old Timers’ Day? I would ask about inviting him to Spring Training as an instructor as well, but that looks to be impossible as long as he’s employed by the Astros.

I think these two situations are a little different. Bonds and the Giants were never on bad terms; he was at the ballpark all the time these last few years, and they’ve had him throw out the ceremonial first pitch and stuff like that. This spring is the first time he rejoined the team in an official capacity (special hitting instructor), but it’s far from the first time he’s been around the club since he was forced into retirement. Bonds still is and always has been beloved in San Francisco.

The Yankees have kept their distance from Clemens for whatever reason, maybe due to all the performance-enhancing drug stuff that went down after his career (which forced Andy Pettitte to testify). There was never any tension between the two sides, right? Maybe something happened that we don’t know about. I would like to see the team invite Clemens back for Old Timers’ Day — he did win two World Series, four pennants, and a Cy Young in pinstripes, after all — but it seems like he has been intentionally cast aside. I don’t get it. Am I forgetting something obvious? This feels like something that should have happened a while ago.

Dan asks: How aggressive are the Yankees being in moving Ichiro Suzuki? He’s a decent 4th outfielder, but it honestly seems like Zoilo Almonte is better at this point (and maybe you want to see if he can be an everyday player in the next few years). Would they be willing to eat more than half of Ichiro‘s contract to move him? Or in the alternative, move him for a similarly overpriced, underperforming player in a position of need?

The Yankees have been shopping Ichiro for weeks but I don’t know how aggressively they’ve been pushing him. We’ve heard they were open a trade involving a player making a similar salary (J.J. Putz, most notably) and I assume they’d be willing to eat part of his salary to facilitate a trade. Saving a few million bucks that could be put towards a reliever or a midseason pickup would be a net gain.

I think Almonte could step right in and do a comparable job to Ichiro, perhaps providing less on the bases and in the field but a little more at the plate (wouldn’t having a switch-hitter available off the bench be nice?). If Zoilo doesn’t cut it, maybe Russ Canzler or Dean Anna would. The Yankees have some options. Some team is going to lose an outfielder to injury at some point this spring (Cameron Maybin and Andy Dirks are already hurt) and that could result in more interest in Ichiro. At this point, I think they’re stuck starting the season with him on the bench.

Paul asks: The Yankees are hoping Michael Pineda gets the 5th starter spot. Let’s assume he does. Does that make the bullpen David Robertson, Matt Thornton, Shawn Kelley, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, Preston Claiborne? Maybe Nuno stays stretched out in AAA and Dellin Betances makes the team (though that leaves only one lefty in the ‘pen)? Any other potential BP arms I’m missing?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Joe Girardi has already confirmed both Phelps and Warren will make the team in some capacity, so if Pineda wins the fifth starter’s job, those two will be in the bullpen. In that case, I would think Nuno would go to Triple-A to remain stretched out as the sixth starter. Girardi has said they’re open to keeping him (and everyone else) as a reliever though. If Nuno goes to the minors, it would clear the path for Betances, Cesar Cabral, Matt Daley, Manny Banuelos, or whoever else in addition to Claiborne. Betances has performed well in camp so far but we still have more than three weeks to go before the last few spots in the bullpen need to be finalized. A lot can change.

T.J. asks: I know it is early, but with the close of Spring Training, there will be an inevitable roster crunch. Do you see some trades taking place for some relief, or do you think we will just have to risk losing some middle-tier prospects? No pun intended, but that relief, will probably turn out to be spots in the bullpen for non-roster pitchers.

The 40-man roster is really tight right now. Short of a trade that sends Ichiro or one of the catchers (Austin Romine? John Ryan Murphy?) away for a non-40-man piece, the Yankees are going to have cut someone who is potentially useful to clear a roster spot. Right now, the most likely candidates to me are Nik Turley, Ramon Flores, and Anna. That’s really it. There are no 60-day DL candidates right now either. The Yankees might have to clear 40-man spots for Scott Sizemore, Daley, or Canzler if they make the team, but otherwise they have enough 40-man pieces to fill out the roster. Eduardo Nunez could sit on the bench while Betances, Cabral, and/or Claiborne fill out the bullpen.

Spencer asks: Why did the Yankees not express interest in Chien-Ming Wang earlier before he signed with the Reds?

The Yankees had Wang in Triple-A for a few months last season, so they got a first hand look at him. He wasn’t very good (7.67 ERA and 5.42 FIP in 27 innings) with the Blue Jays after being released, and this winter he had to take yet another minor league contract. CMW will be 34 later this month and he has not been an effective pitcher since hurting his foot in Houston back in June 2008. Injuries completely ruined him. The Yankees gave him a shot last year but he proved not to be worth it. Time to move on, that’s all.

Bill asks: I’ve seen a lot of ink saying Masahiro Tanaka should be the third starter. Assuming CC Sabathia is 1 and Hiroki Kuroda is 2, shouldn’t the Yanks put someone between Tanaka and Kuroda because of the similarity of their pitching styles?

I honestly don’t think this is that big of the deal. The rotation will be thrown out of whack by off-days and rain outs and whatnot at some point in April, so it’s only a matter of time before Kuroda and Tanaka get separated. I think the whole “their style is too similar to pitch back-to-back” is a bigger deal within an individual game (replacing a fastball-slider pitcher with another fastball-slider pitcher, for example) and not necessarily day after day. Maybe it would be beneficial to split Kuroda and Tanaka up in the rotation, but I think that will happen organically at some point early in the season anyway. To be honest, I’m more focused on having Tanaka start one of the first three games of the season because I’d like to see him get off to a good start, which he is more likely to do against the terrible Astros than the slightly less terrible Blue Jays.

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Chien-Ming Wang opts out of contract; signs with Blue Jays

Right-hander Chien-Ming Wang has exercised an opt-out clause in his contract and the Yankees have granted him his release, the team announced. I guess he had more opt-out clauses than the five that were originally reported. Ken Rosenthal says he will sign with the Blue Jays and join their rotation next week.

Wang, 33, pitched to a 2.33 ERA (3.36 FIP) with 58% ground ball rate in 58 innings across nine starts for Triple-A Scranton this year. Rumor has it he was seeking a big league contract before opting out of his contract, and it looks like Toronto is willing to give him one. The Jays are dealing with a ton of pitching injuries and need the help. The emergency of Vidal Nuno and Michael Pineda‘s encouraging rehab pushed Wang further out of the picture, so it’s no surprise he opted out. Oh well.

Sherman: Wang will opt-out only if he has Major League offers

Via Joel Sherman: Chien-Ming Wang‘s agent has told the Yankees his client will only opt-out of his minor league contract on Friday if he has a Major League contract offer in hand from another team. Friday is the second of five opt-out dates in CMW’s contract. The next three are June 30th, August 10th, and August 31st.

Wang, 33, has pitched to a 2.65 ERA (3.40 FIP) with a 58% ground ball rate in 51 innings spread across eight starts for Triple-A Scranton this year. Sherman hears his stuff is nowhere near its 2006-2007 levels — no surprise following the torn shoulder capsule — and he’s unlikely to find that big league job in the next two days. The Mets are one team Sherman says has no interest. So, barring a big surprise in the next 48 hours or so, CMW will remain in the organization for at least another month.

Yankees place Joba Chamberlain on DL with oblique strain

3:38pm: Brian Cashman confirmed Joba suffered the injury warming up on Tuesday. He called it a “mild” strain, for what it’s worth. A decision has not been made about who will be called up, but it definitely will not be Clay Rapada or Chien-Ming Wang according to the GM. Rapada can be called back up to the big leagues starting tomorrow.

2:44pm: The Yankees have placed right-hander Joba Chamberlain on the 15-day DL with a right oblique strain, the team announced. The DL stint is retroactive to April 28th, so he is eligible to return in a week and four days. Obliques are tricky though, he could easily be out longer. David Robertson missed a month with an oblique issue last year, for example.

Joba, 27, warmed up on Tuesday but did not appear in the game, as our Bullpen Workload page shows. I guess that’s when it happened. He pitched in three straight games last weekend and there was no indication he was hurt. No word on who will take his place on the roster just yet, but Cody Eppley seems like a safe bet. Joba has pitched pretty well this year (3.86 ERA and 3.45 FIP), especially of late. Shawn Kelley seems likely to assume seventh inning duties along with Boone Logan.

Chien-Ming Wang and irrational optimism

The Yankees handled most of their offseason pitching business back in November, when they re-signed the veteran trio of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda. With David Phelps set to serve as the sixth starter and Michael Pineda on his way back from shoulder surgery, the team had some depth. They did, however, spend some time looking for a veteran seventh starter type to stash in Triple-A, just someone to have around in case all hell broke loose. It wasn’t a huge priority, but it was definitely an item on the agenda.

It wasn’t until late-March, near the very end of Spring Training that the Yankees found their seventh starter. They signed former ace Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract after his solid showing in the World Baseball Classic and impressive private workouts for the team in Tampa. The sinkerballer has since made three starts for Triple-A Scranton (0.95 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 59% grounders) and declined to use the first opt-out clause in his contract earlier this week. The next opt-out date is a little less than a month away.

Wang, 33, is nowhere near the pitcher he was during his 2005-2008 heyday with the Yankees. Injuries, most notably surgery for a torn shoulder capsule in 2009, have sapped some heat from his trademark sinker, which used to regularly sit in the 93-96 mph range. Reports from his last Triple-A start indicate he touched the 90-91 mph, which is a step up from where he was in his first two outings. The television gun during the WBC in March had him right around 90 mph, but TV guns are not to be trusted.

“(It was a) cold night, but his fastball velocity was only 87-88, with some sink … Not the Wang of old. Threw strikes, but not impressive for me,” said one scout who had seen CMW recently to Andy Martino. Torn capsules are no joke, no one has ever come back from one and had the same kind of success they had before the injury. That’s a list of pitchers that includes Mark Prior, John Maine, Johan Santana, and Rich Harden.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Despite all of that, I find myself cautiously optimistic about Wang’s ability to contribute to the big league team at some point this year. I’m certain that feeling is mostly nostalgia-driven, but he did somewhat resemble the CMW of old during the WBC — thanks to the plethora of quick ground ball outs — and is showing decent velocity in the upper levels of the minors. I’m not sure what more we could ask for at this point.

The Yankees have some questions at the back of the rotation right now thanks to Ivan Nova‘s triceps and the general uncertainty surrounding David Phelps and Vidal Nuno. Add in Andy Pettitte’s and Phil Hughes‘ recent back trouble, and it’s not a stretch to think the team may have to call on Wang at some point this summer. Will he show enough to earn that shot, and furthermore, will he stick around long enough to take advantage of it? If he continues to pitch well in Triple-A and settles into that 90-91 mph consistently, I have to think some teams will come calling with big league offers when that next opt-out date comes around in a few weeks.

Something about Wang being back healthy and back in the organization makes me irrationally happy. Irrationally happy and hopeful. I know he’s so very unlikely to help the team in a meaningful way this year — he hasn’t been an effective big leaguer since hurting his foot in 2008, remember — but the fan in me wants to see him and that sinker in pinstripes having success. At the same time, I know that if Wang does resurface in the Bronx, it’s because something will have gone wrong elsewhere on the pitching staff. CMW is pitching well enough and showing encouraging velocity in Triple-A right now, and as tough as it is, we have to be careful not to get our hopes up too much.