Snakebitten

(Schilling photo by The AP; Johnson photo by Harry How/Allsport; IPK photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty; Haren photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty)

In the aftermath of the Arizona Diamondbacks non-tendering Joe Saunders — the mediocre left-handed pitcher who was the only Major Leaguer in the package sent by the Angels to the Snakes for Dan Haren in July 2010 — last month, it occurred to me that despite the fact that the franchise has only been in existence for 14 seasons, there’s a strong possibility that the Diamondbacks have been the greatest off-the-field thorn in the Yankees’ side of any team in Major League Baseball in recent history*.

* Though it’s not as if they’ve been pleasant to deal with between the lines either, given that they were responsible for perhaps the most heartbreaking loss an entire generation of Yankee fans have ever experienced in the form of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard stories detailing a mutual dislike on the part of former Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo and George Steinbrenner, both known for their hard-nosed ownership styles, and as best I can tell the problem initially stemmed from a now-famous meal shared by Steinbrenner and David Wells in January 2002, in which the Boss re-signed Wells four days after the burly lefty reached a handshake agreement with the D-Backs.

This incident no doubt left Colangelo steaming, and it would come back to bite the Yankees in the 2003-2004 offseason, as the team desperately needed to upgrade a rotation that was losing three-fifths of its members. The Yankees were very interested in Curt Schilling, but the talks didn’t go anywhere as Arizona’s asking price — which appeared to include both Nick Johnson (coming off a 2.1 fWAR season) and Alfonso Soriano (5.0 fWAR), at the very least — was rightly deemed excessive. It’s unclear who Cash may have been willing to part with, and whether talks ever progressed between the two teams, but before they even had a chance to Theo Epstein and Boston swooped in, joined the Schillings at their Thanksgiving table, and somehow convinced the Diamondbacks to trade Schilling, coming off thee seasons in which he racked up 7.6, 9.7 and 5.9 fWAR, respectively, for a package headlined by Casey Fossum and rounded out by Brandon Lyon and minor leaguers Jorge De La Rosa and Michael Goss.

In a vacuum I suppose that’s a fair amount of talent for Boston to have surrendered, but in hindsight it turned out to be an absolute steal for the Red Sox, as Fossum was basically never an effective pitcher again following the deal; Lyon’s carved out a career as a pretty good middle reliever, the most fungible asset in all of baseball; De La Rosa’s been a #3-ish starter at best in the National League and Goss never made it to the Majors; while Schilling accumulated 17.8 fWAR in four seasons with the Sox while helping lead the franchise to its first World Championship in 86 years and another three seasons later.

While you could drive yourself crazy playing the what-if game, it’s probably fairly safe to say things would’ve unfolded quite a bit differently had the Yankees acquired Schilling that offseason instead of the Red Sox.

Of course, the Yankees finally did get a Diamondback ace of their own the following offseason, in Steinbrenner’s long-coveted Randy Johnson. The Big Unit had a strong debut season in pinstripes in 2005, but was pretty mediocre in 2006, and famously flubbed both of his postseason appearances. Fortunately the Yankees likely didn’t regret the cost to acquire Johnson — Javier Vazquez, coming off an execrable first season in pinstripes, along with Brad Halsey and Dioner Navarro — especially considering that prior to the deal being executed Robinson Cano had been a long-rumored chip in a potential Johnson trade, but in hindsight I think this can still be considered another low point in the Yankees’ and Diamondbacks’ mutual history.

Following his disappointing 2006, the Yanks decided they’d had enough of Johnson — who, as it so happens, expressed a desire to return to Phoenix — and shipped him back to the Diamondbacks for nothing special in Alberto Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, Ross Ohlendorf and Luis Vizcaino. I suppose receiving four warm bodies for a pitcher who appeared to be well past his glory days is somewhat commendable, though Johnson still went on to put up two more decent (if injury-plagued) years out in the desert, while the 2007 and 2008 Yankee pitching staffs weren’t exactly anything to write home about.

The Yankees and Diamondbacks hooked up again in December of 2009, in the three-way trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York and shipped Ian Kennedy to Arizona, a deal that also saw Detroit send Edwin Jackson to the D-Backs but also gain Austin Jackson and Phil Coke from the Yankees and heist Max Scherzer from the Snakes. Two years later this would appear to be the rare three-way trade in which all involved parties appeared to benefit. I’d do this deal all day every day, although it somehow figures that Arizona would wind up turning Ian Kennedy — who I maintain would never have become a 5.0 fWAR player in the Bronx — into a frontline starter.

This brings us back to the Saunders-Haren trade of July 2010. Granted, the Angels also sent Tyler Skaggs — currently ranked by Baseball Americas as Arizona’s 3rd-best prospect — Patrick Corbin (10th in the system) and Rafael Rodriguez to the desert in the deal, so it’s not quite as cut-and-dry as just “Saunders-for-Haren,” but given that Saunders wasn’t even retained by the D-Backs a mere year-and-a-half after being acquired, while Dan Haren has been a top 10 pitcher in baseball the last two seasons, it’s difficult not to wonder how things might have played out had the Yankees and Diamondbacks managed to consummate a deal.

It’s difficult to say given that all we really know is that Joba Chamberlain‘s name was the primary one bandied about during the trade talks of July 2010. If we were to try to build a comparable package to the one Arizona received, the Yankees’ #3 prospect at the time (per our own Mike Axisa) was Manny Banuelos, while #10 was Jose Ramirez. At the time, would you have been willing to trade a package of Joba Chamberlain, Manny Banuelos, Jose Ramirez and some low-level filler for a 29-year-old Dan Haren? Pretty sure I’d have been willing to pull the trigger on that one.

Again, we have no idea whether something like that was ever offered and/or whether it would have been an acceptable haul for Arizona, but on paper it seems like a pretty fair swap, especially when you consider that Saunders has been worth 2.7 fWAR in two full seasons of starting while Joba has been worth 1.8 fWAR in a season-and-a-half of relieving during that same time period. You have to figure Arizona almost certainly would’ve given Joba the chance to start that the Yankees never will, and the Yankees would’ve had a right-handed ace to complement CC Sabathia.

Of course, at the end of the day the majority of this is hearsay and conjecture, and there’s no way of really knowing whether Arizona has had it in for the Yankees over the years. However, as I’ve illustrated above, the two teams’ transaction history — and it certain cases, lack thereof — would make me considerably wary of doing business with Arizona in the future.

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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: Colon, Options, Nady Trade, Big Three

I’ve got five questions for you this week, each bringing something unique to the table. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the way to go if you want to send in questions.

Like a boss. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Findley asks: What are the chances that Bartolo Colon makes a start for the Yankees this season? And how would he fare?

I will say small, maybe 10% or so. The Yankees seem to like him in that Al Aceves role (even though we’ve only seen him in long relief so far), the versatile bullpen guy that could give you three outs or three innings. We also have to remember that his velocity has declined steadily during his outings (here’s his velo graph from game one, game two, and game three), maybe from lack of conditioning/fatigue, maybe from being physically unable to hold that velocity over 80-100 pitches. The guy had some major shoulder problems, you know.

I suspect that if he did start, Colon would be average at best. Six innings and three or four runs seems like a reasonable best case scenario, and finding a guy to do that shouldn’t be too hard. I wanted Colon to start the season in the rotation and think he should be there, but that’s only because I think he’s better than Freddy Garcia.

David asks: It seems like so called “toolsy” guys are a dime-a-dozen in the minor leagues. Athletic shortstops who have a great glove but nobody is real sure if the bat is ever going to show up. Obviously some of these guys even make it to the bigs (like Nunez/Pena). So, is it safe to say that predicting what a guy is going to be able to do in the field is a helluva lot easier than predicting his hitting ability? IE if you see a slick fielding high school guy, is it a much smaller leap to assume that guy will be able to do the same things in the big leagues? By comparison, some guy who can hit home runs off HS pitching (or hit for average for that matter) seems like much more of a crap shoot to project (hell, I even hit a few dingers in my day).

Hitting a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing to the do in sports, so yeah, projecting offensive ability is tough that projecting defense. That doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk though. Players get bigger and might have change positions, which has a big impact on their future defensive value. The professional game is faster than anything these guys saw in high school and in college, so routine grounders aren’t so routine anymore. That said, the athleticism and reflexes needed for fielding a little more obvious than those needed for hitting. When it comes to batting, you’re talking about guys seeing breaking balls for the first time, getting pitched inside for the first time, using wood bats for the first time, etc. There’s a lot that can do wrong there.

But then again, I’m no expert, so I wouldn’t take my word as gospel. It just seems like projecting defensive ability would be a helluva lot easier than projecting whether or not a guy could hit Major League caliber pitching.

Charles asks: Is it possible for a team to exercise future club options early? For instance, is it possible to exercise Buchholz’s club options now, then trade him to another team if they could receive a good deal in exchange? Strictly hypothetical, not logical.

Just about all of these options have windows during which they must be exercised/declined, and that’s usually within ten days after the end of the World Series. Sometimes the contract will stipulate that the team has to decide on an option a year ahead of time, like the Blue Jays had to do with Aaron Hill’s 2012, 2013, and 2014 options this year. They had to either a) pick up all three before the start of this season, or b) forfeit the 2014 option all together. They passed this time around, but can still exercise the 2012 and 2013 options after this season.

Sometimes there’s no window and it’s anytime before the player becomes a free agent. I know the Phillies picked up Jimmy Rollins’ option a full year before they had to. Frankly, I think Buchholz would have more value without the options picked up in your hypothetical scenario. Instead of trying to trade a 26-year-old with five years and $30M coming to him with two club options, they’d be trying to trade a 26-year-old with seven years and $56M coming to him. I’d rather not have the options picked up and keep the flexibility.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Brian asks: So apparently the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is already calling the Pirates the winners of the Nady/Marte trade of a couple years ago. Is it still too early to tell who won? Granted Nady is gone and Marte likely wont pitch again this year, but Tabata has only played MLB level ball for a couple weeks now. And we did get that magical post-season out of Marte in 2009.

I think the Pirates won this trade rather convincingly. Xavier Nady predictably turned back into a pumpkin after the trade, and then he missed basically all of 2009 with the elbow injury. Damaso Marte‘s been a complete non-factor for New York outside of two weeks in October and November of 2009. If you want to fWAR this, the Yankees acquired exactly one win the trade.

As for Pittsburgh, they’ve already gotten two okay (1.1 and 0.9 fWAR) seasons (285 IP total) out of Ross Ohlendorf, not to mention a pair of up-and-down arms (393.1 IP combined) in Jeff Karstens (0.8 fWAR) and Dan McCutchen (-0.7 fWAR). Jose Tabata’s the real prize as a legitimate everyday outfielder. He’s not (yet?) the star we thought he’d become and probably won’t ever turn into that guy since he’s a corner outfielder with little power, but he can hit (career .336 wOBA) and is dirt cheap for the foreseeable future. He’s already been worth 2.7 fWAR by himself, and has a good chance of being a four win player this season.

The Yankees probably don’t win the 2009 World Series without Marte’s great relief work, so in that respect they “won” the trade. But in terms of value added and subtracted, the Pirates kicked their asses, even if none of three pitchers turns into anything better than what they are right now.

Tucker asks: Who would you say has been the most productive big leaguer out of the old big three (Joba, Hughes, Kennedy)? I’m leaning Kennedy but Hughes is right there.

I think it’s Joba Chamberlain and not particularly close. Let’s look at their big league resumes in general terms…

Joba: one full season as a starter (2009), one full season as a reliever (2010), one full season as a reliever/starter (2008)
Hughes: one full season as a starter (2010), one full season as a reliever (2009), one half season as a starter (2007 and 2008 combined)
Kennedy: one full season as a starter (2010), one half season as a starter (2007 through 2009 combined)

Hughes has a leg up on Kennedy because of his relief stint in 2009, and Joba has a leg up on Hughes because of the 2008 season he split between the rotation and bullpen. If you want to get technical and compare fWAR, then Joba (7.5) leads Hughes (6.0) by a sizable margin and IPK (3.0) by a mile.

Who would I want long-term? I’d take Joba if I could move him back into the rotation. If not, then give me Kennedy. Phil’s missing velocity and stuff this year raises a pretty big red flag. Four months ago I would have said Hughes without thinking twice about it. Funny how that works.

Mailbag: The Killer B’s vs. The Big Three

Viva la The Big Three. (Cataffo, NY Daily News)

Dan asks: How excited should we be about the Killer B’s (Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman) in comparison to how we were a few years ago with the Big Three (Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy)? Also, when can we expect an impact at the major league level?

The first thing we have to remember is that we’re talking about a group of very different pitchers here, so it’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison. Just speaking in general terms, Brackman, Betances, and Joba are all pure stuff guys. Hughes and Banuelos are a combination of stuff and polish, while Kennedy is all polish. The Killer B’s have a higher collective ceiling only because IPK drags down The Big Three, not that he’s a bad pitcher or anything.

Another difference is health. Both Brackman and Betances have had major elbow surgery in the not too distance past, but none of The Big Three have gone under the knife. Well, Kennedy did for his aneurysm in 2009, but that was a non-baseball thing, like Banuelos’ appendix. Then there’s performance. Hughes, Kennedy, and Joba completely smoked the minors, not a single one ran into any kind of rough patch where they struggled for a month or so. Brackman, as well know, sucked in 2009, and Betances had been pretty inconsistent prior to the elbow. The track records are on opposite ends of the spectrum as far as I’m concerned.

If I had to pick between the two group of pitchers at their respective prospect status peaks, I’d take Hughes-Joba-Kennedy eight days a week and twice on Sunday. Hughes and Joba we simply the two best prospects of the six, and at his peak Kennedy was a better prospect than either Brackman or Betances. In terms of hype, which is really what the question boils down to, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Big Three were more hyped and anticipated. Like I said, they all destroyed the minors, and that alone is enough to drum up some excitement. And remember, the Yankees were in a very different place a few years ago. The rotation was crap and here we had three young and exciting arms coming to save the day. That adds fuel to the fire as well.

As for when you can expect The Killer B’s to make an impact, I think Brackman’s the first one to debut, likely as a reliever in the second half of 2011. I suppose if he performs well enough and the Yankees have a need, he could come up as a starter, but there are a few guys ahead of him on the pecking order. Both Betances and Banuelos are 2012 guys at the absolute earliest. Neither has much experience at Double-A, so they still have to clear that hurdle and then deal with Triple-A. Banuelos will probably beat Betances just because he’s better and is more advanced as a pitcher, but Dellin has a 40-man roster spot to his name.

Best part of it all? The Yankees have five of these six guys, so no matter who you like best, we all still win. Developing not one, but two trios of pitching prospects like this within four years of each other is rather awesome if you ask me.

Link Dump: Park, IPK, Jeter, BP Rankings

These links have a lower Spring Training ERA than Jon Albaladejo … combined.

Chan Ho hurts his hiney

Doing his best Carl Pavano impression, Chan Ho Park suffered what was called a “sore glute” while getting his running in today. The Yankees canceled his planned live batting practice session this afternoon as a precaution, and he’ll throw tomorrow instead. Park, along with Mariano Rivera and Damaso Marte, should get into their first Spring Training game in a week or so.

Moving to the NL doesn’t guarantee Ian Kennedy success

When the Yankees sent Ian Kennedy to Arizona as part of the Curtis Granderson trade, the immediate thought was that the former first round pick would enjoy some immediate success in the senior circuit. Surely, the lack of a DH and the the three pitcher’s parks in the NL West would be kinder than the AL East, but as our own Joe P. mentions at FanGraphs, IPK’s fly ball tendencies don’t fit to well with Chase Field, where he’ll do the majority of his pitching in 2010 (presumably).

With Brandon Webb likely to start the season on the DL, the Diamondbacks currently have IPK penciled into their third starter’s spot. Yikes.

Could Derek Jeter become the greatest Yankee ever?

I’m inclined to say no, but Anthony McCarron of the Daily News makes a long and convincing case. For what it’s worth, Jeter is 60th all-time with 68.7 career WAR. Babe Ruth? Try 172.0 career WAR. I’d call that an uphill battle.

Baseball Prospectus’ Organization Rankings

As prospect season comes to a close, the last set of rankings we’ll see are BP’s rankings of the thirty farm systems (subs. req’d). The bottom half was posted today, and the Yankees came in at number 26 overall. While the presence of Jesus Montero gives the team a bonafide superstar prospect, the knock against them is that none of their upper level pitchers have high ceilings, and they don’t have any position players close to contributing (besides Montero). They do note, however, that the team has several prospects in the lower minors that could take a big step forward this season.