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.

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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.

Bidding farewell to Ian Patrick Kennedy

Signing free agent relief pitchers to large, guaranteed contracts is a high-risk maneuver. The Yankees have learned this over the years, as they’ve signed previously good relievers only to see them falter in pinstripes. Steve Karsay, Paul Quantrill, and Kyle Farnsworth come immediately to mind. The former two had varying degrees of success, but ultimately were not worth the investment. One pitcher who did work out was Tom Gordon, and for a number of reasons. Not only did he mostly pitch effectively in 2004 and 2005 while setting up Mariano Rivera, but he paved the way for the 2006 draft.

After the 2005 season, the Yankees offered Gordon arbitration, but he declined, eventually signing with the Phillies. Even though the Yankees sacrificed their own first round pick that winter by signing Johnny Damon, they picked up the Phillies’, and then a supplemental pick between rounds one and two. With those the Yankees drafted Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain, both of whom shot through the minors and pitched for the big league club in late 2007.

Chamberlain was the high-ceiling, risk pick. Other teams backed off because of a triceps injury, but the Yankees could afford to pounce in the supplemental round. Kennedy was the safer pick. As Mike said on draft day:

Solid pick, but very safe and conservative. He’s not far away from the Bronx. He’s a bit undersized (6’0″, 180) and he doesn’t throw hard, but he’s a winner and strikeout machine.

Mike also described his ceiling as a No. 2, but that was based on Kennedy recovering his fastball speed. After sitting 92-93 in his first two college seasons, Kennedy dipped to 89-91 his Junior year. The point is that Kennedy was never supposed to be a top of the rotation starter, a la Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. He was the middle of the rotation, possibly back of the rotation guy who had the command to succeed in the bigs.

We didn’t see much of that command. In Kennedy’s 2008 audition it looked like he was downright afraid to put the ball in the strike zone. It’s a shame, because that was one of his strengths. Without that, he predictably failed. Then came the injuries. Though he only lasted a little bit in the majors in 2008, he pitched just 77 minor league innings because of back troubles. His innings total was even lower in 2008 because of an aneurysm in his right armpit. No, Kennedy didn’t do himself any favors in 2008, but he also didn’t catch any breaks.

I think Chad Jennings has a great take on Kennedy. He’s seen him pitch more than any of us, and comes in with a great conclusion to Kennedy’s pinstriped career: “Two bad months in the big leagues — as a 23 year old with one year of professional experience — is hardly enough to judge Kennedy as a pitcher.” He goes onto describe Kennedy’s recovery this fall; he’s working in a two-seam fastball and has started to use his curveball to induce bad contact rather than a swing and miss.

We’ve always liked Kennedy at RAB, hence “Save the Big Three.” But, as many people pointed out at the time, it was really, “Save the Big Two and think hard about what you do with Kennedy.” He was never a player who would hold up a trade, and after two years of ineffectiveness and bad luck, the Yankees decided not to make him an obstacle in the Curstis Granderson trade. It was probably in their best interests. But I’m definitely going to miss Kennedy. He could have played a role on this team.

Open Thread: KLaw on the Granderson trade

There are still some minor details left to hammer out, but the Yanks, D-Backs, and Tigers have all agreed on the framework of a three-team trade that will send Curtis Granderson to the Bronx, Edwin Jackson to the desert, and various prospects to MoTown. From the Yanks perspective, it’s basically a swap of Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, and Phil Coke for Granderson, the rest is just details.

As always, Keith Law checks in with his take at the four-letter. It’s subscriber only, but I’ll quote the Yankee-relevant parts:

The Yankees also come out ahead simply because they haven’t given up much of value, and in exchange they get an above-average everyday centerfielder. Curtis Granderson is a good defensive centerfielder who hits right-handers well, is a plus runner and gets unanimous raves for his personality. In two of the last three years, however, he hasn’t cracked a .500 OPS against left-handed pitchers and his pitch recognition problems against southpaws look like they’ll be very hard to correct, meaning that the Yankees need to consider a right-handed-hitting centerfielder to caddy for him against at least good left-handed starters. That (hypothetical) two-headed monster would be among the better centerfield solutions in the American League. It’s good they got that player for Jackson, who right now projects as more of an average everyday centerfielder; Coke, a middle reliever who had lost Joe Girardi‘s trust anyway; and Ian Kennedy, who at the very least wasn’t going to crack the Yankees’ rotation again.

Should be noted: Granderson is due $25.75 million over the next three years, including the 2013 buyout.

As a prospect guy, it’s tough to see Jackson and Kennedy go, but it’s a move the Yanks really couldn’t pass up. Jackson isn’t a finished product, and the Yanks essentially swapped him for a guy that represents his best case scenario in terms of value. It would have been real nice to have Kennedy around for depth next year, but that’s the cost of doing business. Coke? Easily replaceable.

By no means is Granderson perfect. He certainly has his flaws, especially against lefties, but he’s a monumental upgrade over the Yanks’ incumbent centerfield tandem. This shouldn’t preclude the Yanks from seeking out a leftfielder, because much of Granderson’s value stems from his production at a premium position. Here’s what Joe wrote about the move at YES Network.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. The Isles are in action, and The Quest For 1-81 continues in Chicago. Anything goes, so have at it.

Yankees set to acquire Curtis Granderson, pending physicals

The rumor started late last night and developed throughout the day. Now it’s close to official: the Yankees have agreed to acquire centerfielder Curtis Granderson from the Tigers in a three team trade. Here’s the breakdown of who will get what:

To Yankees: CF Curtis Granderson

To Tigers: LHP Phil Coke, CF Austin Jackson, RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Dan Schlereth

To D-Backs: RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Ian Kennedy,

Joel Sherman says that removing lefty reliever Mike Dunn was a key for the Yankees, who now have some leverage to use against free agent Johnny Damon. Sherman adds that the trade may not be finalized today because “minor details, mainly medicals, take time, must be worked thru.”

In Granderson, the Yankees will get a 28-year-old centerfielder coming off a 30 homerun, 20 steal season. However, he can’t hit lefthanded pitching at all (.210-.270-.344), and his once superb defense is now just slightly above average. The Yanks also pick up some major cost certainty, as Granderson is signed through 2012 for a total of $25.75M, plus there’s an option for 2013. He’s also familiar with Derek Jeter, having played with him during the WBC.

To get Granderson, the Bombers gave up their top prospect coming into 2009 in Austin Jackson,  who hit .300-.354-.405 in Triple-A this year. Ian Kennedy’s last act as a Yankee will be pitching a scoreless 8th inning in a meaningless late season game against the Angels, while Phil Coke will be remembered as the guy that gave up two homers in one World Series inning. The move makes a dent in the Yanks’ pitching depth, however the Yanks can make up for some it with the player they take first overall in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft.

Dave Cameron at FanGraphs calls the deal “almost too good to be true” for the Yanks.