The steep, but reasonable, price of Ubaldo Jimenez

It appears that the Yankees’ Plan C is continuing to evolve as expected. After the Phillies signed Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte retired, they were stuck in a holding pattern. With nothing of note immediately available on the trade market, the only reasonable plan was to fill the rotation with stopgaps and hope that someone unexpected hit the trade market around deadline time. At the time I thought that might be Chris Carpenter, but it turned out to be someone better. For the past week-plus we’ve heard non-stop talk about Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez, whom no one thought would become available this year. While the rumors started with interest from the Reds, the focus has shifted to the Yankees.

In pure player terms, Jimenez is exactly what the Yankees need right now. The pitching staff did a phenomenal job in the first half, but there are concerns going forward. While Colon’s and Garcia’s previous two starts aren’t necessarily a portend for the future, it’s certainly a possibility that their luck has run out. That would not only leave the Yankees searching for pitching, but top end pitching. Jimenez has been just that in the past two-plus seasons, with a 3.35 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 550 innings since 2009. Even more impressively, he has a 2.94 ERA and 3.04 FIP in 291 innings away from the hitter-friendly Coors Field.

In Jimenez the Yankees would get their No. 1a to Sabathia’s No. 1, and they’d have him at a steep discount through 2013 (he’ll surely void his 2014 option, as is his right if he’s traded). Given his talent and contract, the Yankees would have to part with a significant package of prospects to entice the Rockies. As Mike said in the obligatory Ubaldo post, think the original Dan Haren trade, which sent a legion of prospects to the A’s. We got a preview of a possible package over the weekend, when SI’s Jon Heyman noted the Rockies’ asking price: Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Ivan Nova. That’s steep for sure, but it’s really just a starting point. They’re in the driver’s seat, so they might as well ask for the moon. The Yankees, Heyman further notes, will not part with any of those three pitchers along with Montero in a trade. Folks, we have what appear to be real, live negotiations.

(Unless, of course, you believe Buster Olney, who says that the two sides haven’t exchanged names. But, given their track records from this past winter, I’ll actually trust Heyman on this one. Plus, having names in place makes for better discussion.)

Once both sides step back from their original stances, the progression is logical. The Yankees will remove one of the pitchers from the deal, most likely Banuelos, leaving the package at Montero, Betances, Nova, and presumably another prospect, likely someone in the No. 8 to 20 range on the Yanks list. That’s a deal I would green light. There are no guarantees in baseball, and that goes doubly for guys who have yet to play in the majors. Both Montero and Betances have major upside and could contribute to future Yankees teams. But they both have enough flaws to leave the Yankees concerned. Cashing them in for a proven No. 1 or 2 pitcher who is right in the prime of his career provides the difficult balance between winning now and winning in the future.

Of course, it’s unlikely that the matter unfolds that smoothly. Two obstacles could stand in the way from the Yankees perspective. First is the matter of Banuelos. He’s the top pitching prospect in the Yankees organization, and this morning Heyman dropped an interesting item: the Rockies want a chip better than Montero as the centerpiece in any trade. That would seem to indicate Banuelos (though it could mean Betances, since Betances has a slightly higher ceiling). The trade does change if the Rockies demand Banuelos in Betances’s stead. He’s a lefty and a good bet to be in the rotation sometime in 2012, so it’s easy to see why the Yankees would be reluctant to include him.

The second obstacle is Ivan Nova. He’s the Yankees No. 6 starter right now, and their only real backup plan who has major league experience. Trading him would make Adam Warren the best depth option, since they’re apparently set on leaving Hector Noesi in the bullpen. True, acquiring Jimenez would give them a rotation of Sabathia-Jimenez-Hughes-Burnett-Colon/Garcia, but that fifth spot will still be important during the stretch run — more important still, because Burnett is pitching more like a No. 5, and Hughes still has plenty to prove. I still think the Yankees should go ahead, but I would understand their reluctance to remove MLB-tested depth options.

Chances are nothing happens on this front. The Rockies shouldn’t be overly motivated to move Jimenez, given his team-friendly contract and ace-like pitching. The prospective Yankees’ package of a front-line pitching prospect, a power hitting prospect, and a major league ready pitcher might be enticing, but I’m not sure it’s far enough over the top for the Rockies to take. Anything more than Montero-Betances-Nova plus a lesser prospect would have to give the Yankees pause. While Jimenez would help, they simply can’t empty the farm for him. With all of these moving parts, it’s likely the Yankees will have to turn elsewhere for pitching help. But if they can strike a deal in which they retain Banuelos, I think it would behoove them, both for this year and the future, to pull the trigger. It’s not often that a pitcher of Jimenez’s caliber becomes available. Considering the dearth of free agent pitching in the coming years, and the trend of signing young pitchers to long-term contracts, this is a move the Yankee should make.

Kevin Goldstein’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects

Kevin Goldstein posted his midseason top 50 prospects list today (subs. req’d), and he has Jesus Montero ranked as the seventh best prospect in the game. “He has not yet put up big numbers this year,” said KG, “there is clearly a frustration factor as he has nowhere to go in New York. At some point, the Yankees just have to trade him and accept the fact that he’ll rake elsewhere.” Montero was third overall in his preseason list.

The Yankees placed three others on the list. Manny Banuelos ranked 14th (“remains a lefty with two excellent pitches in his fastball and changeup … poised for a big second half), Dellin Betances ranked 24th (“whispers about him possibly being better off as a late-inning reliever are becoming more common these days”), and Gary Sanchez ranked 39th (“shown impressive power for an 18-year-old … scouts [still] project him as an adequate defender”). The Rangers are the only other team with four top 40 prospects, the Royals the only other with four in the top 50.

Keith Law’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects

Keith Law posted a midseason ranking of the top 50 prospects in baseball (Insider req’d), and he has Manny Banuelos as the Yankees top prospect at number 18 overall. “He struggled with his command early after looking so good in the fall and spring,” said KLaw. “He has four walks against 24 strikeouts in his last four outings (19 2/3 IP), and that’s a positive sign.”

Jesus Montero dropped from number four in the preseason rankings to number 21, mostly because “[for] a guy who projects as a first baseman or DH … .289/.346/.418 isn’t an inspiring offensive performance given his history.” Law does mention that “I have to believe the power and patience are all still in there.” Dellin Betances jumped all the way from number 73 to 34 because he’s “a physical monster who doesn’t repeat his delivery well because he’s not that athletic but is missing bats this year on raw stuff.” Three top 34 prospects is pretty damn good even if Montero dropped, the Rays (three top eight guys, yikes) and Twins are the only other teams that can make that claim.

Baseball America’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects

Baseball America posted a midseason (half) update to their preseason top 100 prospects list, and you can see the list for free. You’ll need a subscription to see the analysis, however. Jesus Montero fell from number three overall to number eight, though they caution everyone to not “be swayed by [his] so-so first half, his hit/power tools are still the same.” Manny Banuelos jumps from number 41 to number 13 (“Was dominating in spring training, but stuff isn’t as firm now as it was”) and Dellin Betances from 43 to 26 (“Impressive stuff, but Betances rarely makes it look easy”). Gary Sanchez (preseason #30), Andrew Brackman (#73), and Austin Romine (#98) did not figure into the updated top 50.

BA also put together a stock up/down report (subs. req’d), with J.R. Murphy making the Stock Up section. “[Scouts] report he’s improved significantly on defense, as he threw out 27 percent of opposing baserunners and polished up his receiving. He’s still an offensive catcher, but he’s more of a catcher than ever before.” We’ve heard about the improved defense before. Brackman made the Stock Down section: “His fastball velocity remains inconsistent but has more consistently dipped into the average range … Brackman’s confidence has taken a hit, and scouts report he throws his curve when he most needs a strike.” One good, one not so good.

Mailbag: Cantu, Gordon, Gil, Wilson, Promotions

I skipped out on the mailbag last Friday because it was a day game, so let’s make up for it today. I’ve got a total of nine questions, so I tried to keep the answers brief. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar anytime you want to ask something.

(Photo Credit: LSUsports.net)

Tucker asks: Just curious, if the Yankees hadn’t signed Rafael Soriano, which pick would they hold and who was taken then?

The Yankees gave the Rays the 31st overall pick, which Tampa used to take LSU center fielder Mikie Mahtook. Keith Law and Baseball America ranked him as the 15th and 21st best prospect before the draft, and he figured to come off the board relatively early as one of the top college hitters available. Mahtook is likely to be a right fielder down the line, but he’s a righty hitter that offers good speed and should hit for averae and decent power. I’m not a huge Mahtook fan, but if the Yankees kept that pick and took him, I’d be thrilled. Huge value.

Bart asks: Do you think the Yankees take a chance on either Kazmir or Cantu now that they’re available?

Kazmir’s unquestionably a minor league contract only guy, no doubt about it, but I’m fairly certain Cantu is completely useless. He’s hit just .212/.287/.367 in his last 670 plate appearances, his defense at first and third is awful, and he’s swinging at more and more pitches out of the strike zone despite seeing fewer and fewer pitches in the zone. I’m surprised to see that he’s still 29, but I’d don’t see anyone on the bench I’d take Cantu over. I’d give anyone a minor league deal, and hey, Triple-A Scranton could use a backup first baseman/third baseman/designated hitter, so he makes sense in that regard. For the big league team though? Not right now.

Ben asks: I was wondering how the Yankees could have had a deal in place with Brian Gordon while he was still property of the Phillies organization. Is this not considered tampering? Is this type of thing okay with minor league free agents that have out-clauses? Just hoping for a clarification.

It’s a permission thing. The Phillies sent a memo to the other 29 teams last week indicating that Gordon had an opt-out and they were not planning to promote him to the bigs, which essentially gives teams permission to negotiate a deal with him and his agent.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user bridgetds via Creative Commons license)

Ryan asks: Would there be any merit to switching Granderson and Gardner in the OF? Other than having a “conventional” power hitting LF and a speedy, OBP oriented CF, would there be any defensive difference with Gardner in CF and Granderson in LF?

Certainly, I think there’s some merit to it. Brett Gardner appears to be the superior defender in terms of jumps and read and pure range based on the eye test, though Curtis Granderson is no slouch in that department. I like how the Yankees have brought Granderson in and have him playing a little shallower this year since his strength is going back on the ball. It’s impossible to trust Gardner’s defensive numbers in center only because his playing time has been sporadic out there, but I think the difference over the course of the season would be five or so runs saved by flip-flopping the two. Not negligible, but not a massive upgrade.

J.R. asks: Now that the season is more than 1/3 over, how would you rate Betances and Banuelos? Both seem to be doing well but walking a ton of guys.

They’ve both been fine, certainly not great but also far from terrible. We’ve know that Dellin Betances‘ control and command were question marks, they always has been, so his hit or miss starts (no walks in one, five in the next) were expected. Command was Manny Banuelos‘ calling card though, and he’s already walked ten more this year than last in 5.1 fewer innings pitched (five fewer batters faced). That’s fine though, remember he just turned 20 in Spring Training and is in Double-A. His age-appropriate level in Low-A right now. They both just need to keep working at it, but remember that Banuelos is still way ahead of the curve.

Conny asks: What’s the scouting report on Jose Gil? He’s having a fine season at Trenton as Romine’s caddy. He looks like he could be a good backup catcher. He seems to have a good throwing arm. He also looks like a capable offensive player, he has a little pop, can steal an occasional base. Is his hitting this season an aberration or has he turned a corner in his development?

It’s more small sample size than anything. He’s hitting .274/.368/.487 in 133 Double-A plate appearances, but it’s also his third straight year spending time at the level. Gil’s always done a good job of throwing attempted basestealers out (34% success rate in his career, which is fantastic), and that’s really I know about his defense right now. The Yankees clearly don’t think he’s going to become anything great because he’s just been a backup catcher that bounces between levels the last few years, filling in whereever a backstop was needed. I want to see more before saying his turned a corner, and a lot more at that.

Sam asks: If you need a stolen base, who would rather be on first? Nunez, Gardner, Martin, Granderson, or Cervelli (he’s veeeeery fast for a catcher, Suzyn)?

Eduardo Nunez and it’s not particularly close right now. For whatever reason Gardner just can’t steal bases anymore, at least not as well as someone with his skill set is supposed to. Granderson’s success rate isn’t all that great this year either, and I’m not going to ask a catcher to steal a base for me. Nunez has stolen eight bags in nine chances this year, and over the last two years his success rate in the minor is 78%. He’s the lesser of several evils right now.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user mjl816 via Creative Commons license)

Justin asks: I’ve heard rumors that C.J. Wilson is looking for A.J. Burnett money, obviously that’s a little steep but if he fell into the Jorge De La Rosa/Ted Lilly range do you think he fits this offseason since there is almost no other decent SP available?

If he falls into that range, which is three years and $35M or so, then I’d certainly want the Yankees to be all over him. I just can’t see it though. Wilson is a) the same age A.J. Burnett and John Lackey where when they hit the market, and b) he’s flat out better now than they were when they were free agents. There’s also the left-handedness to consider and the fact that he’s succeeded in a hitter friendly park. I won’t do it, but I think you can also make a case that Wilson will age better than those two since his arm doesn’t have nearly as many miles on it after spending all those years as a reliever. If he continues to pitch like he is now the rest of the season, I think that five-year, $82.5M contract is a starting point for he and his agent, not a settling point.

Zach asks: At what point in the season can we expect minor league promotions to begin? Who are likely candidates to move up for each level?

Very, very soon, as in this week. The High-A Florida State League played its All-Star Game over the weekend and the Low-A South Atlantic League will get its out of the way early this week, and that’s usually when these things start to happen. As for actual promotions, here’s what I’m guessing will happen…

  • 3B/OF Rob Segedin from Low-A Charleston to High-A Tampa
  • 3B Rob Lyerly from Tampa to Double-A Trenton
  • LHSP Josh Romanski from Tampa to Trenton
  • RHRP Chase Whitley from Tampa to Trenton

There will be several more promotions, but those are the only moves I see as absolute no-brainers. Calling up Jesus Montero and promoting Austin Romine from Trenton to Triple-A Scranton would make sense as well, but Romine’s injury threw a big wrench into that. Both J.R. Murphy and Slade Heathcott (currently on the DL) have cooled off after hot starts, but they’ve been in Low-A since for more than a full year now following last season’s early-June promotion. I say promote Murphy but not Heathcott. Slade has really, really cooled off (.209/.261/.287 since May 1st).

Banuelos and Betances are still walking guys and need to work on fastball command, and I don’t see any reason to rush them. Promoting them now just makes the command stuff more difficult since they’ll have to figure it out against tougher competition. And besides, the SWB rotation is pretty full at the moment. Shane Greene (currently at Charleston) and Kyle Roller (Charleston but currently injured) could be in line for promotions as well.

Lessons learned from pitching prospects

Billy Beane put it best when he said, paraphrased, that you need three pitching prospects in order to get one major league starter. One will get hurt, one will backslide, and one will succeed. This is precisely why, in RAB’s halcyon days, we so strongly argued that the Yankees should keep Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain. If they traded the wrong one, they could end up with nothing to show for their top three prospects. Keeping all three, however, gave them a good chance at having a young, cost-controlled pitcher in the rotation, which allows the further benefit of spending money elsewhere.

With the Yankees’ big three, it didn’t quite work out the way Beane described it. There were successes, injuries, and backslides, but those results were scattered among the three. Both Chamberlain and Hughes have gotten hurt, and, to a degree, have backslid — though, before news of Joba’s season-ending elbow injury, it was more that he backslid and that Hughes got hurt. Ian Kennedy backslid in ways, got hurt, and then succeeded, albeit in an environment dramatically different than that of the Yankees. There are still chances for Hughes, and even Joba, to succeed, but it’s still pretty clear that these guys followed Beane’s axiom.

At this point, the development of these three is behind us. Kennedy is finding success elsewhere, and while Hughes and Joba could still succeed to degrees, I’m not sure it’s particularly likely at this point. This shouldn’t be surprising, since it is the nature of pitchers. There’s a reason for TINSTAPP — there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. There are only pitchers. They all develop at different paces, and they’re all susceptible to the same pitfalls. WIth so much attrition among pitchers, teams absolutely need a block of high-end prospects if they’re going to get even one from the group.

This is relevant to the Yankees now, just as it was four years ago. They have a new trio of top pitching prospects in Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Brackman. Right away, it appears that they’re going to take a different tack with this new group than they did with the Big Three. Brian Cashman made that relatively clear yesterday, when he said there were no plans to bring them up as relievers to help patch a spotty bullpen. Chances are, they also won’t call upon them to help in the rotation, either. That is, unless they display a certain degree of readiness.

The situation the Yankees face now is somewhat similar to the 2007 season. They were a bit more pitching starved then, as was evident when they called up Chase Wright to take a few starts. Eventually, though, they went to Hughes, despite him having made just a couple of starts at AAA, and despite him having pitched a career high 146 innings in 2006, after just 86.1 in 2005. His injury appeared to be a freak one, but he was never quite the same after that. He had a few good appearances, including a season-saving one in relief during the ALDS, but in 2008 he completely lost it. There might not be a causal link here, but I’m sure that the experience has the Yankees preferring to err on the side of caution nonetheless — especially when you consider the other two.

Both Chamberlain and Kennedy came up in the 2007 season as well. Chamberlain was so completely dominant as a starter in A and AA ball that the Yankees thought he could help save their spotty bullpen. He was nearing his innings limit anyway, so rather than have him make a few more starts in the minors and pack it up in September, the Yankees decided to have him finish his workload in relief. Of course, we know that a starter’s workload is different from a reliever’s, and perhaps bringing him to his innings limit in high-leverage situations in the majors wasn’t the best idea. It did help them make the playoffs in 2007, though. It also excited a fanbase, inciting the starter-reliever debate that still hasn’t died. (And will be reignited as Joba rehabs from surgery.) Kennedy’s debut was less of a big deal, but his good, if lucky, September performances gave him a rotation spot out of the chute in 2008, an experience from which the Yankees have clearly learned.

This time around, the Yankees are going to let the prospects speak for themselves, rather than let team necessity dictate their development paths. I’m certain that if the Yankees brought Dellin Betances into Joba’s old role that he’d succeed. He throws gas and has shown a propensity to miss bats. He might have control troubles, but as David Robertson has shown, if you can strike guys out you can often mask those troubles. And yes, many starters have come up as relievers before breaking into the rotation. At the same time, we can’t just use a blanket statement like that to make and examine decisions. If a pitcher isn’t developmentally ready to start in the bigs, will relieving in the bigs help excel that development? Or will it just prepare him for life in the bullpen? These are all questions that have to be asked of individual pitchers, and cannot be determined by a rule of thumb.

The good news is that the Yankees have three top-flight pitchers in their minor league system who, if developed fully, can help the team for years to come. Of course, chances are that only one will help. The others will make the bigs, maybe, and maybe even show signs of greatness. But the chances are great that one will backslide, one will get hurt, and one will succeed. The only way to find out which is which, though, is to let them continue developing their games. It will hurt the 2011 team for sure. But it stands to help the future Yankees to a greater degree.

Mailbag: D-Rob, Jeter, Oppenheimer, RoY, More

I managed to keep the answers short-ish this week, so I squeezed in a few more questions than usual. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Tony asks: How much longer do the Yankees have team control over Robertson?

David Robertson rode the Bronx-Scranton bus in 2008 and finally stuck for good in May 2009. He’s in his final pre-arbitration year right now, and is under team control through 2014 as an arbitration-eligible player. So long story short, three more seasons after this one. That was easy enough.

Dan asks: So, this kills me to ask, but seeing as how I don’t think he’s been hit by one pie since the thing started, and I’ve pretty consistently watched him ground out late in games for the last few years, when was the last time Cap’n Clutch was really clutch?

There’s two ways we can quickly look at this. Just looking at Derek Jeter‘s “Clutch” score, he hasn’t been positive since 2006 (+2.33). He’s hovered between -0.11 and -0.85 over the last few seasons. I prefer WPA/LI, which uses win probability and leverage index to tell us how much the player contributed in the context of the game situations. Jeter last had a positive WPA/LI in 2009 (+1.41). Subjectively, I’ll say 2009. That’s the last time I was confident in Jeter getting the job done, so to speak, whenever he came to the plate in a “big” spot.

J.R. asks: Couldn’t Damon Oppenheimer be a great in house option to replace Cashman? I remember that another team wanted to interview him for a GM spot but that the Yankees wouldn’t grant him permission. (I’m not advocating it, just pointing out that the Yankees have an in house option).

This was sent in following yesterday’s post about contract non-news. Oppenheimer’s the best in-house candidate, and the Yankees actually blocked him from talking to the Diamondbacks about their GM opening over the winter. They had the right to do that, but I still thinking blocking a potential upward move is a dick move. Anyway, it’s either Oppenheimer or pro scouting director Billy Eppler, but neither has even assistant GM experience. Yeah, they’re candidates to replace Cashman, but they’re hardly ideal options.

Jonathan asks: What are the chances the Yanks have three guys play for ROY next year? Assuming those three are Montero, Banuelos and Betances.

I’m comfortable giving this one a big fat 0% chance. There’s a far better chance that one of those guys is playing elsewhere at this time next year, but even if they all are in the organization it’s unlikely all three will be up. Frankly if both Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are in the rotation all year in 2012 (which they would basically have to be to get Rookie of the Year consideration), then something has gone horribly wrong. There’s also a non-zero chance that Jesus Montero will cross the 130 at-bat rookie threshold this year. It would be pretty cool if all three guys were that good that soon, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

(AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

Ryan asks: What do you think of Grady Sizemore as a replacement in RF for Swisher after this year. He looks healthy, and as long as he remains healthy and productive, CLE will not be able to sign him long term after next year’s option. That would be a fun defensive outfield with Gardner, Granderson, and Sizemore, if not just a little too left handed.

I’ve written quite a bit about Sizemore already this spring, and my stance remains unchanged: he has to show he can produce and stay healthy. He’s been pretty good since coming off the disabled list (power heavy .413 wOBA), but it’s been 18 games and 84 at-bats. Let’s see him make it the rest of the season before we start thinking about acquiring him. The other question is how do you acquire him? His club option for 2012 turns into a player option if traded, so you can’t trade for him and expect him to stick around next year. If he’s worth trading for, then he’ll be good enough for a nice contract and will presumably opt for the open market. His bad start notwithstanding, right now I’d just pick up Nick Swisher‘s option and and go from there.

Rich asks: I was hoping you could shed some light on something different I’ve noticed about A.J. this year. Not only has his curveball lost some of it’s bite, but his fastball seems almost straight compared to the movement it’s had in years past. I know he’s made some obvious (and less obvious) changes to his mechanics and I’m sure Rothschild has had an influence, but what happened to all that movement?

Really? I think his curveball has regained some bite after it disappeared last season. PitchFX says the pitch had 5.7 inches of drop last year and 6.3 inches of drop this year. Just over half-an-inch, so it’s not a huge change, but a change nonetheless. Burnett got a swing-and-miss on the curve 14.1% of the time last year, and it’s up to 17.7% this year. A little more vertical movement and substantially more whiffs leads me to believe the bite is back, and even if it’s not, the pitch has been more effective this year based on the run values.

Anyway, PitchFX says he’s lost an inch of horizontal movement off his fastball, down from 5.1 to 4.1 inches. Perhaps it’s the result of the revamped mechanics, or maybe it’s a conscience decision to try to help him improve command. There were times over the last two seasons that it seemed like Burnett’s fastball was moving too much for his own good. It could also just be normal decline, pitches tend to flatten out as the guy gets older. Either way, A.J.’s been good so far this year, so I hope he just keeps doing whatever he’s been doing.