The Pitching Backup Plans

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

If you haven’t headed over to our Depth Chart page in a while, you might not have noticed that as of right now, the Yankees currently sport a five-man pitching rotation of…

  1. CC Sabathia
  2. Phil Hughes
  3. Ivan Nova
  4. David Phelps
  5. Adam Warren

If you’re optimistic, you can say Michael Pineda will take Warren’s spot sometime in June. If not, then I don’t know what to tell you. Either way, that’s not a championship-caliber rotation. The Yankees have some work to do this winter, and for the most part I think the pitching plan involves waiting for Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte to declare their love of pinstripes and sign nice little one-year deals to rejoin the team in 2013. That would be ideal.

What if that doesn’t happen though? It doesn’t take much effort to envision a scenario in which Kuroda decides to return to Japan and Pettitte decides to stay home with the wife and kids. The Yankees would really be in a bad spot if that happened because … well … look at that rotation above. Luckily this free agent class offers some solid rotation options, so the Yankees would have plenty of alternatives if things don’t go according to plan. Some of those options are better fits than others, however.

Zack Greinke
The undisputed best pitcher on the market, Greinke is probably looking at a contract worth $120M+ across five or six years. Matt Cain type of money. Fair or not, the Yankees are concerned about how the 29-year-old would fit in New York though. Greinke met with Brian Cashman face-to-face during the 2010 Winter Meetings in an effort to convince him that he wanted to pitch in the Big Apple, but no dice. Cashman wasn’t having any of it. There isn’t a team in baseball that couldn’t use a pitcher of this caliber in their rotation, but the combination of asking price and other concerns make Greinke almost a non-option for the Yankees.

Dan Haren
There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t want their team to take a one-year flier on Haren this offseason. He’s been an ace-caliber pitcher for the last half-decade or so and he’s still relatively young (turned 32 in September), which is all you could ask for from a free agent. That said, there are major red flags here. Haren has battled back trouble through the years and they caused him to hit the DL for the first time in his career this season, plus his fastball velocity has been declining for years.

The Angels were trying to trade Haren before having to make a decision about his option last Friday, but ultimately they came up with nothing and had to decline the net $12M deal ($15.5M option with a $3.5M buyout). The combination of the Cubs pulling out of the Haren-for-Carlos Marmol trade talks and the fact that no other club made a viable trade offer makes me think his medicals are looking pretty grim. You also have to look at it this way: if Haren is looking for a one-year, “re-establish my value” contract, why would he come to New York? A fly ball heavy pitcher in a small stadium in the AL East is no way to rebuild value. The Yankees should look into him because of his track record, but I don’t see Haren as a slam dunk no-brainer they should go all out to sign. Lots of risk here.

(Pool/Getty)

Anibal Sanchez
I’m a pretty big Anibal Sanchez fan and I consider him the best non-Greinke free agent pitching option this winter. He offers the best combination of youth (28), performance (3.70 ERA and 3.40 FIP since 2010), and durability (major shoulder surgery in 2008, but 195+ innings in each of the last three years). Sanchez made a brief cameo in the AL this season following his trade to the Tigers and he handled himself well, plus he impressed in his three postseason starts. Not the sexiest name but a rock solid pitcher. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about an appropriate contract, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a team gets an aggressive and offers the A.J. Burnett/John Lackey contract (five years and $82.5M). I highly doubt the Yankees would offer that much, but Sanchez would be my first target if Pettitte and Kuroda decline to come back.

Edwin Jackson
Keith Law said it best this weekend: “It’s time to accept that this is almost certainly what Jackson is going to be. He looks like an ace, holding mid-90s velocity or better for 100 pitches, but just turned in another season of good-not-great performance, this time entirely in the National League.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all, especially at age 29 and with his track record of durability (180+ innings in five straight years). I’m just not expecting Jackson to get any better even though he’s yet to hit 30. He would be my number two target behind Sanchez if Kuroda and Pettitte don’t come back, number three if Haren’s back checks out okay.

Kyle Lohse & Ryan Dempster
Lohse is going to get a significant contract this winter, maybe the biggest behind Greinke, but I wouldn’t touch either him or Dempster unless they’re willing to come real cheap. They’re two guys who have had most (all?) of their success in the NL and don’t operate with much margin for error. It’s also worth noting that Lohse received a qualifying offer from the Cardinals and would require draft pick compensation. Solid pitchers for sure, but not guys I would consider impact additions for the Yankees.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Jeremy Guthrie, Brandon McCarthy & Shaun Marcum
All three have their warts, but all three have some kind of track record of success in the AL. Guthrie is probably the safest bet while McCarthy is both the riskiest (very long injury history) and has the highest upside. Marcum’s kind of the in the middle. I prefer any of those three to Lohse and Dempster and would consider them solid additions on one-year contracts. Anything more than that is really pushing it.

Because he doesn’t really fit anywhere else, I’m going to mention Carlos Villanueva here. I’m a big fan (perhaps too big), but I like him best as a sixth starter/swingman. I wouldn’t want the Yankees to sign him with the idea of him making 30 starts and throwing 200 innings. I can’t see how anyone could expect him to do that in 2013.

Francisco Liriano, Joe Blanton, Joe Saunders, Scott Feldman & Roberto Hernandez
I wouldn’t trust any of these guys with a starting spot, at least not right out of the chute in Spring Training. To be honest, Liriano is the only one who is remotely intriguing to me. He’s still on the right side of 30 and has a year of ace-caliber performance in the not-too-distant past to his credit (2010). I consider guys like Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, Scott Baker, Kevin Correia, Dustin Moseley, and Jason Marquis to be minor league contract only options for the Yankees. This is the bottom of the pitching barrel right here, but thankfully there are plenty of other options out there.

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Heyman: Yankees exploring outfield market

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Yankees have been without Brett Gardner for all but nine games this season and they still have some concerns about his elbow injury according to Jon Heyman. He adds that they’re exploring the outfield trade market — moreso than the pitching market — and have spoken to the Diamondbacks about Justin Upton (yay!) and the Phillies about Shane Victorino (meh). Gardner will be back no earlier than July 27th.

I’ve written about Upton a few times in the past, including in last week’s mailbag. As I said when we first learned he was on the block, he’s the rare player you gut the farm system to acquire. Young (24!), right-handed power, speed, favorable contract … Upton offers it all. Unfortunately the Yankees are on his no-trade list and Heyman calls it a “major long shot.” Victorino, on the other hand, is a pure rental. The 31-year-old is having the worst offensive season of his career (93 wRC+) but is still a switch-hitter with speed (19 steals in 21 chances) and very good defense. Victorino is owed roughly $4.5M the rest of the season and will become a free agent this winter.

The Bombers have gotten by with Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones in left field during Gardner’s absence, but Heyman says they are concerned about wear-and-tear as the veteran duo spend more time in the field than anticipated. Victorino would be a fine fill-in if Gardner suffers a third setback, but as Brian Cashman said yesterday, the trade costs for even marginal upgrades are prohibitive at the moment. I doubt the Phillies will take a pair of Grade-B prospects for their center fielder when they can just recoup a pair of high draft pick after the season.

Heyman says the Yankees will monitor the Cole Hamels situation, but we’ve already heard that they have “no intention” of getting involved in a bidding war. They’ve also scouted Francisco Liriano recently, presumably since he’s returned to the rotation and has pitched exceptionally well. With CC Sabathia due back tomorrow, David Phelps stashed away in Triple-A, and Andy Pettitte scheduled to return in September, New York shouldn’t be desperate to add a starter. Frankly they need another quality reliever more than anything.

Scouting The Trade Market: Francisco Liriano

The Yankees have been hit hard by the injury bug this season, and that was even before they lost CC Sabathia (left adductor strain) and Andy Pettitte (fractured left ankle) in the span of about five hours yesterday. The two veteran left-handers join Michael Pineda (torn labrum) as starting pitchers on the disabled list, meaning the team’s minor league pitching depth — specifically the trio of David Phelps, Adam Warren, and D.J. Mitchell — will really be tested in the coming weeks.

Thankfully Sabathia is scheduled to come back right after the All-Star break, so he’ll only be out of action for two starts. Pettitte’s injury could keep him out until September and is obviously much more severe. Brian Cashman made it clear that the Yankees will cycle through internal options first, but a trade before the deadline is always possible. While Zack Greinke and Matt Garza grab all of the attention, a deal for a smaller name and lesser pitcher seems more likely. That would include Francisco Liriano of the Twins, who has been on the block for about three years now. We last broke down the 28-year-old southpaw as a trade candidate over the winter, so let’s take an updated look…

The Pros

  • Since rejoining Minnesota’s rotation last month, Liriano has pitching to a 2.41 ERA (2.39 FIP) with 40 strikeouts and 14 walks in 37.1 innings across six starts. He’s held batters to a miniscule .157/.248/.236 batting line and has been simply dominant.
  • Liriano’s fastball velocity — both two-seamer and four-seamer — has bounced back this season, with more than a mile-an-hour returning after a similarly-sized drop last year. His slider and changeup have been unchanged for years, though he has scaled back usage of the latter this season.
  • Even when he’s struggled through the years, Liriano has always been a dominant strikeout and ground ball pitcher. He’s at 8.83 K/9 (22.4 K%) and 45.1% grounders this season, right in line with his career marks: 8.93 K/9 (23.3 K%) and 48.0% grounders.
  • The left-handed Liriano is as tough as it gets on same-side hitters. He’s held fellow lefties to a .205 wOBA this season with an 11.42 K/9 (33.9 K%) and 55.9% grounders. Just dominant. His career numbers — .268 wOBA against with 9.61 K/9 (26.0 K%) and 60.6% grounders — are just as strong.
  • A pure rental with limited risk, Liriano will earn $5.5M this season before becoming a free agent this winter. That works out to about $917k per month from here on out.

The Cons

  • The reason Liriano had to rejoin the rotation last month was because he was so bad earlier in the year that he had to be demoted to the bullpen. He pitched to a 9.45 ERA (6.55 FIP) with nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (21) in his first six starts and 26.2 innings before moving to relief. In five relief appearances, Liriano posted a 4.91 ERA (3.47 FIP) with seven walks and nine strikeouts in 7.1 innings.
  • For all those strikeouts and grounders, Liriano continues to hurt himself with walks. His 5.05 BB/9 (12.8 BB%) is a career worst and the fourth highest in baseball (min. 70 IP). Last season he was at 5.02 BB/9 (12.7 BB%), so we’re now over 200 innings (205.2 to be exact) with a walk rate over 5.0 BB/9 (12.5 BB%).
  • He might shut down lefties, but righties are a different story. Batters of the opposite hand have tagged Liriano for a .357 wOBA this season, and his strong strikeout rate (8.00 K/9 and 19.4 K%) is negated by a terrible walk rate (5.67 BB/9 and 13.7 BB%). His career performance isn’t a ton better (.328 wOBA against).
  • Liriano’s injury history is quite lengthy. Since having Tommy John surgery in 2007, he’s missed time with forearm and elbow swelling (2009), shoulder inflammation (2011), and a shoulder strain (2011).
  • Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, any team that trades for him will not be eligible for draft pick compensation.

The Twins are certifiably terrible at 30-44 with baseball’s worst run differential (-95), and a few weeks ago they probably would have given Liriano away from free. He’s rebuilt some value since moving back into the rotation, but not enough to land Minnesota a quality prospect. The last three or four years aren’t going to be washed away by six nice starts, teams will still be skeptical about his ability to solidify their rotation down the stretch.

I am intrigued by Liriano’s potential as a shutdown left-handed reliever, which is a pretty great fallback option should the starting thing not work out (again). Then again, if the Yankees are going to trade for pitching help, I feel that they should trade for someone they know will be a clear upgrade and Liriano just isn’t reliable enough to say that. If the Twins are open to giving him away for a Grade-C prospect and salary relief while the Warrens and Phelpses and Mitchells prove ineffective, then the Bombers should probably get involved. Cashman & Co. won’t rush into any kind of panic move and even if they were, Liriano’s not a guy you acquire at all costs. The potential is tantalizing because you know there’s ace ability in there, but it doesn’t come out often enough.

Mailbag: Oswalt, Liriano, 2014, Jeter

Got five questions this week but only four answers because I lumped two of them together. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Steve asks: With the news that Michael Pineda is gone for the season and the way Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia are performing, can Roy Oswalt be an option for the rotation?

Sure, I definitely think he’s option. You have to be careful not to fall in love with the name though, because Oswalt is not the guy he used to be with the Astros. He has two degenerative discs in his back and has openly talked about retirement, plus he’s expressed a preference to play close to his Mississippi home. Oswalt has never pitched in the DH league full-time and has always been a guy that relied more on limiting walks (2.09 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%) and getting ground balls (47.3%) thank missing bats (7.35 K/9 and 19.8 K%).

I think Andy Pettitte‘s return has set the market price for Oswalt, a quality older pitcher voluntarily spending time away from the game. If the Yankees could get him on a low-risk minor league deal that pays him $2-3M if he makes the team, by all means do it. Heck, I’m sure he and Pettitte are pals after their time in Houston together, maybe that gives him more of a reason to join the Yankees. I just can’t see guaranteeing the guy anything without getting him in camp and having him throw to batters in the minors, proving that he still has something to offer.

Potter asks: If the Twins were willing to do it, would the Yankees think about a Francisco Liriano for Hughes trade? They both seemed to be going down the same path with their respective ball clubs and maybe a change of scenery would help. It can’t be much worse then what’s happening now.

Liriano’s been very bad this year — 22 runs and 39 baserunners in 16.1 IP with more walks (13) than strikeouts (12) — and the Twins took advantage of yesterday’s off-day to skip his turn in the rotation. I have zero confidence that Hughes can be an effective starter but I do think he can be a pretty good reliever because he is still able to blow his fastball by hitters in hitter’s counts. I have no faith in Liriano’s ability to be competent in any role, plus his salary is substantially higher ($5.5M vs. $3.2M). I’ll keep the “maybe he won’t suck as a reliever” guy rather than trade him for the “he’s awful at everything he does on a baseball field” guy. It’s been too long since Liriano was effective.

Grant asks: With Hughes pitching so far below expectations, Pineda out with an uncertain future, and Garcia, Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda all likely gone after 2012, what do you think the odds are the front office abandons the austerity plan and goes after Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels? As they get as close as they are to free agency, you have to think they’ll at least test it. Is it possibly contingent on Manny Banuelos‘ development?

Tyler asks: In your perfectly ideal situation, what do you picture as the Yankees roster these next few years to get under the luxury tax? Along the same lines, which prospects do you think are most important to develop in big leaguers to fit the 2014 and beyond Yankees?

(Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

I don’t expect the 2014 payroll plans to change after Pineda’s injury but I would not be surprised if they still pursued Hamels*. There’s a lot of money coming off the books both this offseason and next, and he is by far the best hope to add an elite hurler to the rotation. The Dodgers will definitely provide some stiff competition, but it’s doable. The problem is that the Yankees would have to skimp elsewhere, particularly in at least one corner outfield spot, the bullpen, and basically the remaining three-fifths of the rotation.

Unless you’re talking about a true cornerstone player, someone like Troy Tulowitzki or Evan Longoria or Matt Kemp, one injury should not throw a team completely off the rails. Especially an injury to a one-in-five starting pitcher and especially not the Yankees. Guys like Banuelos, David Phelps, Jose Campos, and Adam Warren are that much more important following Pineda’s injury because they are going to have to contribute something as starters, relievers, or trade bait. Same deal with Mason Williams and Tyler Austin as outfielders. The 2014 plan was going to take some creativity even before Pineda’s injury, now it’s just that much more difficult.

* Forget about Greinke, they’ve already declared him unfit to pitch in our fine city.

Alan asks: I just wanted to know your opinions on what you think realistic expectations are for Derek Jeter‘s numbers for the rest of the year. I admit, before the season started, I said I would be happy if he hit .280 this year. Now, do you guys think he could actually hit .310 this year? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but can he really approach his 2009 numbers at the ripe old age of 38? Thanks!

Well, I know for sure that he will not maintain his .420/.442/.642 batting line all season. Derek’s good, but he ain’t that good. I was thinking the same thing before the season, that a .280 average a .350-ish OBP would be fantastic. Now? He looks so good and is driving the ball so well that you can’t help but be optimistic. It’s not like he’s beating out infield singles and just slapping some ground balls through holes, the Cap’n is flat out raking. Line drives all over the field.

Jeter hit .334/.406/.465 in 634 at-bats back in 2009. He’s at 81 at-bats now, so to finish the season with a .334 average, he’ll still have to hit .322 the rest of the season. A .465 SLG would require a .439 SLG the rest of the way. I have a hard time expecting anyone to hit .320+ over any prolonged period of time, but can Jeter hit .300/.360/.430-ish from here on out? I definitely think that’s possible. Without questions, Derek’s resurgence as been the most exciting development over the last 12 months or so.

Scouting The Trade Market: Francisco Liriano

While speaking to reporters at a charity function yesterday, Brian Cashman said it was too early to know if the best pitching options were available via free agency or trade this offseason. “I haven’t talked to every team and I haven’t talked to every agent yet,” he said. “And I certainly haven’t had any agent tell me what they want financially.” Cashman has put preliminary calls in to the representatives for C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson, but nothing more than that. The trade market, as I wrote last week, can offer more cost effective alternatives.

After a disastrous 63-99 season, the Twins somewhat surprisingly fired GM Bill Smith earlier this week (surprising because it didn’t happen sooner), replacing him with long-time GM Terry Ryan. During his re-introductory press conference, Ryan said the team’s payroll will drop about $15M next season, which could mean that some of his players might be available in trades. One of the guys that could potentially be on the block is a name we’ve discussed quite a bit here in the past, left-hander Francisco Liriano. He’s always kinda been the black sheep in the Twins rotation, not conforming to their “let the hitter put the ball in play and get quick outs” pitching philosophy. Whether or not that makes him any more available, we don’t know. Let’s look at his qualifications…

The Pros

  • When right, the 28-year-old Liriano is a dominant strikeout and ground ball pitcher. He burst onto the scene with a 10.71 K/9 and 55.3% ground ball rate in 2006, then put together a Cy Young caliber season with 9.44 K/9 and 53.6% grounders in 2010. His walk and homerun rates those two years were 2.38 BB/9 with 0.67 HR/9, and 2.72 BB/9 with 0.42 HR/9, respectively. Batters have swung and missed on 12.7% of the swings they’ve taken against Liriano in his career, a ridiculous rate. Utter domination.
  • A true three-pitch guy, Liriano throws his mid-80’s slider and changeup regularly (~20% of the time) in addition to his low-90’s fastball, which he can sink a bit. He destroys left-handed batters, holding them to a .277 wOBA with a 3.12 K/BB ratio with 61% ground ball rate for his career. Only one lefty (former Yankee Juan Miranda) has taken him deep since August of 2009.
  • MLBTR projects a $5.7M salary for Liriano next season, his final trip through arbitration before becoming a free agent next offseason. It’s a reasonable salary and a short-term commitment.

The Cons

  • Pardon me while I get my Tim McCarver on, but as good as Liriano was in 2010, that’s how as bad as he was in 2011. Yes, he did throw a no-hitter against the White Sox, but he only made it to the mound for 134.1 IP and posted career worsts in K/9 (7.50), BB/9 (5.02), and xFIP (4.52). It was the second time in three years he pitched to a 4.00+ BB/9, 5.00+ ERA, and 4.50+ FIP.
  • Liriano has a lengthy injury history, with Tommy John surgery in late-2006 being just being the tip of the iceberg. He missed significant time in the minors with shoulder trouble, which is why he was thrown into the ill-fated Joe Nathan-A.J. Pierzynski swap. Forearm swelling and arm fatigue (requiring a cortisone shot) cost him three weeks in 2009, and more shoulder problems (soreness, inflammation, and then a strain) shelved him for a total of seven weeks in 2011. All arm problems. Yuck.
  • Because of all the injuries, Liriano has never thrown 200 IP in a single season. In fairness, he did top 190 IP in both 2008 and 2010 when you tally up the majors and minors. More than one out of every four pitches he’s thrown over the last three seasons has been a slider, and those are generally believed to wreak havoc on a pitcher’s arm when used so heavily.
  • To make matters worse, Liriano told Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson that he did not do his prescribed shoulder strengthening exercises last winter. It’s not the first time the team has had a problem with the lefty’s work ethic and conditioning, and that’s part of the reason why they never got serious about signing him to a long-term contract.

The Yankees have been connected to Liriano quite a bit over the last year or so, and they reportedly “dangled” the duo of Ivan Nova and Ramiro Pena for the lefty last winter. That would be an overpay now, simply because Nova had a strong rookie season and is under team control for five more years while Liriano had a poor and injury-filled season and is only under contract for one more year. I’m certain Minnesota would be interested in a Nova for Liriano swap, but it doesn’t make sense for the Yankees at this point. They should be looking to add to the rotation around Nova, not replace him.

The healthy version of Liriano is as good as it gets, a homer-suppressing left-hander with swing-and-miss stuff, but you don’t know what guy you’re going to get from year to year or even from start to start. That arm has been through quite a bit despite his relatively young age, and there’s a legitimate chance that any team that trades for him will get zero return. The talent is tantalizing though, and theoretically the price should be dropping given his poor season and one year of team control. There’s a lot of risk involved here but I think the Yankees should at least inquire, just in case the Twins are open to moving him for pennies on the dollar given his poor health and their impending payroll cuts.

Saturday’s Trade Deadline Open Thread

Gotta figure the next day and a half will be pretty hectic with rumors and trades and what not, so let’s start a thread for any Yankees-related stuff throughout the day. I’ll update this post and bump it to the top of the site whenever something noteworthy breaks, so the top bullets will be the latest info…

  • The Yankees bowed out of talks for Ubaldo four days ago after Colorado refused to let them perform a physical on the right-hander if they agreed to a trade. For what it’s worth, Jimenez is warming up to pitch against the Padres at the moment, so the report of him being scratch was erroneous. (Sherman)
  • Jimenez has been scratched from tonight’s start, and a deal appears to be done. He’s heading to Cleveland. (Heyman & Renck)
  • The Yankees took all the prospects Colorado wanted for Ubaldo off the table, and instead offered Phil Hughes and several others. The Rockies weren’t happy with that, so they turned to the Indians and sped up talks. The Yanks tried to sell it as troubled pitcher for troubled pitcher. (all Joel Sherman)

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Mailbag: Sizemore, Posada, Maxwell, K-Rod

Extra long edition of the RAB Mailbag this week, so I tried to keep the answers as short as possible. I figure short answers and more questions if better than long answers and fewer questions. Anyway, if you want to send in a question, just use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.

(AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

Mike asks: I know that starting pitching will be a priority but if Cleveland makes Grady Sizemore available this year should we go after him? What would he cost in terms of prospects?

Sizemore has been ridiculously good since coming off the disabled list (.390/.432/.878), but there are a few problems: 1) it’s a small sample, will it last?, b) Cleveland is actually good right now, I doubt they’re looking to sell right now, and c) you have to assume you’re only getting him for the rest of the year since his club option for 2012 becomes a player option if traded. He’s great and would be an upgrade over Brett Gardner in left, but the cost is likely to be greater than the return. Believe it or not, I’d rather rent Carlos Beltran than Sizemore, since the cost figures to be much lower.

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