Past Trade Review: Tyler Clippard

(From Flickr user MissChatter via Creative Commons license.)

Last year, as he continued his ascension as one of the league’s better setup men, Tyler Clippard earned a reputation. He cruised through the first half of the season with a remarkably low ERA, but he had a knack for allowing inherited runners to score. The Nationals’ offense also had a knack for scoring runs just after Clippard had blown a lead. That led to an 11-win season for a guy who pitched just 91 innings, all in relief and mostly in late relief. It begat the term, clipping a win, in which a reliever blows a lead but the offense gives him the win anyway. Last night he was at it again, facing one batter in the All-Star game and allowing a single, but benefitting when Hunter Pence gunned down Jose Bautista at the plate to end the inning. Prince Fielder homered in the bottom half of the inning, and so Clippard was awarded the W.

Only the youngest of fans doesn’t remember Clippard’s time with the Yankees. He was a 9th round draftee in 2003, and he quickly established himself by striking out a batter per inning or more through his first four seasons in the minors. His stuff wasn’t overpowering, but he mixed pitched and employed enough deception to fool minor league hitters. In 2006 he even tossed a no-hitter, which elicited this juvenile response from some amateur hack. Baseball America rated him the Yanks No. 7 prospect before 2007, right behind Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy. It was during the 2007 that he got his first taste of the show.

The Yankees had plenty of pitching problems that year, and by mid-May they absolutely needed a starter. Clippard was struggling in the upper minors — he had a 4.50 ERA between AA and AAA that year — but a need is a need. Clippard came up to start a Sunday night game against the Mets, and he got through it as well as anyone could have hoped: six innings of one-run ball, including six strikeouts. That earned him a longer look, though his next few starts didn’t go as well. After a failure in his repeat performance against the Mets — 3.1 IP, 5 R — the Yankees sent him back down to the minors. About six months later, he was no longer on the team.

That September the Nationals put on display one of their lesser regarded pitching prospects, Jonathan Albaladejo. He made a quick impression, striking out three in 1.2 innings in his debut appearance. He pitched very well that month, allowing just three runs while striking out 12 and walking just two in 14.1 innings. This came after he tore through AAA in a mid-season promotion. The Yankees, wanting to cash in while they could on Clippard, thought they could get a quality major league reliever in Albaladejo, and so made the swap that December.

Albaladejo definitely impressed the Yankees brass, as he broke camp with the team in both 2008 and 2009. There were circumstances involved in both instances, and he was soon after optioned to the minors. But they still liked his stuff, especially his sinking fastball. But with the results not coming, they had little choice but to stash him in the minors. Even in 2010, as he dominated as Scranton Wilkes-Barre’s closer, they hesitated to call him up. When they finally did they saw more of the same: not enough strikeouts, too many walks. After the season they released him and allowed him to sign with a Japanese team. His final tally as a Yankee: 59.1 IP, 4.70 ERA, 5.21 FIP, -0.2 WAR.

After the trade Clippard had his own set of struggles. He returned to AAA for the Nationals in 2008, and in 26 starts he produced a 4.66 ERA, which was in part because he walked far too many batters. This was a problem he faced in 2007 as well, making it seem like a longer-term issue. It didn’t help that he walked seven in 10.1 innings (two starts) during a brief call-up. He still had some promise, but things didn’t look optimistic. He was a guy with average, at best, stuff, and he couldn’t control it.

After the season the Nationals shifted him to the bullpen, and that’s where he began to shine. He pitched 39 innings in AAA in 2009, allowing just four earned runs while striking out 42 and walking 15. Something had apparently clicked. In late June they called him up to the big league club, and he never looked back. He continued to walk a ton of batters, but he compensated by striking out more than a batter per inning. A .197 BABIP helped get him through 2009, but in 2010 that went up to .284 and he was still reasonably effective: 3.07 ERA and 3.18 FIP in 91 innings. This year he’s been even better, lowering his walk rate by nearly a batter per nine while maintaining an 11 per nine strikeout rate. His 1.75 ERA is aided by his .184 BABIP and an astounding 99.4 percent strand rate, but by all means he has gotten the job done.

In the excellent interview with NoMaas, Yankees VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman said of Clippard, “The mistake we made was not seeing what [he] looked like in the pen.” It’s an understandable mistake, but it’s one that the Yankees probably won’t make again. Even the Nationals continued to view him as a starter for another year following the trade. It wasn’t until he had completely disappointed everyone in that role that they tried him as a reliever. Sometimes, that type of move sticks. The Yankees absolutely lost out on this trade, even though it seemed like a minor one at the time.

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Albaladejo, Sanchez, Miranda due for Sept. 1st call-ups

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees plan to recall Jon Albaladejo, Romulo Sanchez, and Juan Miranda when rosters expand on September 1st, with Colin Curtis a strong possibility as well. Wilkins DeLaRosa is barely holding onto his job in Double-A Trenton, so I wouldn’t expect to see him called up to give Joe Girardi a second lefty out of the pen. Hopefully Damaso Marte is healthy by then, because they don’t have any other southpaws on the 40-man roster.

The interesting situation involves the third catcher. Jorge Posada and Frankie Cervelli are the only two catchers on the 40-man at the moment, but a third catcher is a September call-up staple, especially for playoff teams that want to rest their primary backstop. Chad Moeller is the obvious candidate, but Sherman predictably opines about the possibility of calling up Jesus Montero. Personally, I don’t see it. The Yanks have plenty of options at designated hitter already, and I think the 20-year-old is better served playing every day in Triple-A Scranton during their playoff run than getting six or eight plate appearances a week with the big league team.

I want to see him in the show as much as an anyone, but I don’t think the time is now.

Yanks have few options for long reliever

The Yankees have two questionable pitchers scheduled for the next few games. Sergio Mitre hasn’t started a game since last year, and while he has looked mostly good in his 9.2 innings this year, he might not be long for the game. Even if he pitches well he has to deal with the fatigue factor, significant because he hasn’t pitched more than three innings since spring training. He appeared to tire late in his last appearance against Baltimore, leaving two sinkers up in the zone to the final batter, Ty Wigginton, who deposited the final one in the seats.

Then comes Javier Vazquez, who will make his first start since May 1 on Tuesday. He has yet to clear 5.2 innings this season, and even in his best start, a six-strikeout performances against the A’s on April 20, he left plenty of outs for the bullpen to cover. Maybe the layoff has afforded him the time he needed to rediscover his fastball command, but the Yanks can’t quite bank on that. They must prepare themselves for two consecutive short starts, just in case the worst case scenario becomes reality.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Under normal circumstances, the Yankees would have the situation covered. Al Aceves could pick up in long relief of Mitre tonight, and they could piece together a few appearances tomorrow if Vazquez continues to struggle. Romulo Sanchez then might be available on Wednesday to provide relief if the need arises. But with Aceves nursing a back injury sustained while pitching Saturday, the Yanks might have to look elsewhere for long relief. It would be one thing if this were an isolated injury. Aceves, however, has been battling back issues since the middle of last season.

As Marc Carig reports, Aceves might be ready to pitch in relief this evening. He woke up on Sunday feeling better, and with another day’s rest might be back in form. Given his recent history of back troubles, though, I bet the Yankees would love to give him another day off. That way he could still play caddy to Vazquez if needed. The team would still prefer to have a long reliever tonight, in case Mitre fades early or proves ineffective. No one currently in the bullpen appears particularly qualified for the role. Joe Girardi didn’t reveal much when asked about the possibility, but given the current roster construction it’s a strong possibility.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Who would they recall from Scranton, though? Mark Melancon would normally be a primary option, but today is only the seventh day after the Yankees optioned him. He’ll have to spend 10 days in the minors before they can recall him, unless they place someone on the DL. Since the Yankees will almost certainly recall someone from the 40-man roster, they’re left with just a few options. In fact, given the pitchers on the 40-man, they have just two.

First is a familiar name, Jon Albaladejo. He made a name for himself early in spring training by getting lit up nearly every time out. In 14 appearances for Scranton he’s pitched fairly well, allowing just three runs. Encouragingly, he has struck out 18, but also has five walks and two home runs, which bring his FIP to 3.57, much higher than his 1.76 ERA. He also hasn’t pitched more than 1.1 innings in any given appearance this year, so he might not be best suited for long relief right now. Knowing they can send him down the very next day, though, the Yankees might opt to recall him this evening.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The more interesting option is Ivan Nova. Added to the 40-man roster this winter after a strong 2009 season, Nova has started the season strong in Scranton. He has started six games, throwing 37 innings to a 2.43 ERA and 3.15 FIP. He also does a decent job of keeping the ball on the ground. The most telling sign that the Yankees are at least thinking about recalling Nova is how they’ve scheduled him. He last pitched on May 3. Zach McAllister pitched the following night. Last night, though, McAllister pitched again. That’s not to say that the Yankees did it because they planned to recall Nova. They have, however, kept the option open.

Again, with concerns about Mitre’s stamina, recalling a long man for tonight seems like a smart move. The Yankees already have 13 men on the pitching staff, so they can send out someone easily. Sanchez appears a likely candidate because of his workload last night, but I don’t think the Yanks should get in the habit of sending down guys who have pitched effectively. After another disappointing performance, David Robertson might spend some time in AAA. The Yanks could then recall an outfielder once they option Nova. A defensive option would certainly help keep Marcus Thames‘s outfield innings in check.

While it’s no lock that the Yankees recall Nova, it certainly makes a degree of sense. He’d be available to relieve either Mitre or Vazquez, and would allow the Yanks to take their time with Aceves. It’s encouraging that he has recovered so quickly from his injury Saturday, but there’s no reason to push it. The Yanks have some flexibility now, so they might as well use it to their advantage. Adding Nova as a long man would do just that.

First Half Review: Relief Pitchers

At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. First up we looked at the starting pitching, now it’s time to take a look at the relievers.

The expectations

The 2008 bullpen was one of the best in the business – ranking second in baseball in both FIP (3.82) and K/9 (8.66) – and the relief corps was expected to approximate that performance in 2009. The cast of characters was essentially unchanged, save a contract extension to southpaw Damaso Marte. Brian Bruney was set to join him as the primary bridge to Mariano Rivera, while rookie Phil Coke was primed to assume a key role. The rest of the pen was going to be filled out by a series of interchangeable parts, including Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Jon Albaladejo, and David Robertson.

The results

The results so far have been a mixed bag. The bullpen was dreadful in April, better in May, and flat out dominant in June. They currently rank second in the majors with a 1.26 WHIP (just one baserunner every 100 IP out of the league lead), yet their ERA (4.19) is just 22nd best in the game. The relievers have thrown the fourth-most innings in the American League, a number that has to come down to avoid a second half burnout. That burden falls on the starting rotation, however.

The bullpen’s revival is the result of the the massive turnover in personnel from April to June. Let’s touch on the major pieces.

Mariano Rivera

Coming off a fairly major shoulder surgery, Mariano has been as fantastic as ever in 2009. Of course he did experience a rough go of it early after giving up some homers, but since May 21st he’s posted a 1.86 ERA and a 0.67 WHIP. Mo’s 14.33 K/BB is far and away the best in the game (next best is Scott Downs’ 8.06 mark) and the best of his Hall of Fame career. It took a little longer than usual, but Mo’s in midseason form and is as good as ever. He’s the least of the team’s concerns right now.

Brian Bruney & Damaso Marte

Bruney came out of the gate pitching like a man on a mission, out to prove all the B-Jobbers wrong about the lack of a solid 8th inning option. He struck out 12 and allowed just three hits over his first nine appearances, but went down with an elbow injury in late April. After being out for four weeks, Bruney lied about being healthy and came back too soon, ultimately landing himself back on the disabled list for another four weeks. He’s been nothing short of terrible since returning, allowing opponents to tattoo him for a .930 OPS. Right now, he’s a part of the problem and not the solution.

Marte’s season is just 5.1 ugly innings long, as a shoulder injury has shelved him since late April. When he was on the mound he was terrible, but how much of that is because of the injury we’ll never know. Currently rehabbing in Tampa, there’s still no timetable for his return.

Phil Coke & Phil Hughes

After a dynamite showing last September, Coke looked like he was poised to become the shutdown lefty reliever the Yanks have lacked for years. Coke’s overall numbers are rock solid, as are his splits against lefties, but his season has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. He was very good in April, pretty terrible in May, but fantastic since June rolled around. The only member of the bullpen to stick on the 25-man active roster all season besides Mariano Rivera, it’s no stretch to call Coke the Yanks’ second most reliable reliever of 2009.

The other half of Michael Kay’s stupid little Philthys Club, Hughes moved into the bullpen after Chien-Ming Wang appeared ready to become an effective starter once again, and has done nothing but dominate. His numbers out of the bullpen (18.1 IP, 0.65 WHIP, .379 OPS against) are better than Joba Chamberlain‘s first 18.1 innings of relief in 2007 (0.82 WHIP, .467 OPS against), more evidence that if you put a good starter in the bullpen he’d be a damn good reliever. There’s not much to say here, Phil Hughes the Reliever has been tremendous.

Al Aceves & David Robertson

The dramatic turnaround of the bullpen coincides with Aceves’ recall from the minor leagues. His 40 innings of stellar relief work have been just what the doctor ordered, as he’s pitched in every role and succeeded in every situation. Robertson has had his moments, mostly in low leverage spots, but he’s been an effective super-high strikeout arm that can go multiple innings if need be. He’s been pretty much everything you could want your fifth best reliever to be.

Jon Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, Brett Tomko & Jose Veras

Edwar and Veras were two stalwarts in last year’s pen, providing rock-solid middle relief all summer. This year was a different story, as the two combined to allow 28 runs and 70 baserunners in 43 IP. Edwar soon found himself back in Triple-A while Veras found himself with the Indians after being designated for assignment. Albaladejo has been up and down while Tomko was mostly down, but both guys have mostly acted as the last man out of the pen. Neither has been great nor horrible, they’re just kind of there.

The Up and Down Crew

Anthony Claggett was terrible in his one outing and doesn’t figure to be back up anytime soon. Stephen Jackson didn’t even manage to get into the game in his eight days on the big league roster before ending up in Pittsburgh. Mark Melancon has been meh in his limited showings. Zach Kroenke, Romulo Sanchez, Amaury Sanit and others are stashed away in the minors awaiting their turn.

Expectations for the second half

With the success the bullpen has experienced over the last month or so, it’s tough not to be optimistic about the second half. However, a key piece in Hughes or Aceves (or both if it comes to it) could be lost if their services are needed in the rotation. Don’t be surprised if the team seeks out another relief arm at this year’s trade deadline. Regardless, the Yankees will need the bullpen to do the job consistently in the second half if they plan on making the postseason.

Yanks overcome walks, errors to finish sweep of Twins

Today’s game was not easy to watch. Those of you who missed it while at work were spared some frustration. The Yankees threw 151 pitches and the Twins tossed 164, and the teams combined for six mid-inning pitching changes. That’s a lot to cram into three hours and 18 minutes. Add in the Yanks committing two costly errors, walking in two runs, and using six pitchers, and it seems like a game they should have lost. In the end, the bats were able to overcome some sloppy play and the Yanks took their Metrodome finale, completing the season sweep of the Twins 6-4.

Al Aceves, making his first big league start since September of last year, didn’t pitch as well as many had hoped. He wasn’t terrible, especially for a guy making his first start since April. Trouble in the second inning upped his pitch count, and trouble in the fourth spelled his exit. He had allowed just one earned run at the time — an inexcusable down the middle fastball to Jason Kubel on an 0-2 pitch — but David Robertson walked in two more, leaving Ace with a line of 3.1 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K. Even the unearned run was partially his fault.

The Yankees executed a series of follies in the second inning which really led to both runs. The first was the aforementioned 0-2 pitch to Kubel. I’m sure Ace wasn’t trying to groove a fastball there, but he did and a hitter like Kubel is going to be all over that. It went out to dead center and cut the Yankees lead to 3-1. Folly No. 1. The second came two batters later. After a five-pitch walk of Mike Cuddyer, Ace threw over to first. He missed by a mile, moving Cuddyer to second. Folly No. 2.

While Folly No. 1 was frustrating and Folly No. 2 was annoying, Folly No. 3 was downright infuriating. The best you can say about Mike Redmond’s running is that he’s faster than Jose Molina. Yeah. He hit one hard to third, and the ball hit the seam. Cody Ransom stayed with it, though, corralling it with plenty of time to make an accurate throw. He pulled it, though, sending it wide of Teixeira at first and allowing Cuddyer to score. Despite missing two months, it was Ransom’s fourth error this season.

David Robertson committed Follies Nos. 4 and 5, which were even more infuriating than No. 3. He came into the game with the bases loaded, never an enviable task for any reliever, let alone a rookie. After avoiding the walk of Nick Punto, an affliction from which many Yankees pitchers have suffered this series, he put Span on first with four straight balls. 5-3 Yanks. Five pitches later, Matt Tolbert would take his base. Not only did this plate the fourth Twins run, but it brought up Joe Mauer with the bases loaded. How Robertson got him to ground out after being behind 2-0 is beyond me. I tried not to think about it too much, opting to wipe my brow and send thanks to the baseball gods.

Meanwhile, with the bullpen responsible for the remaining five innings, the Yanks could have used some more runs. A 5-4 lead just didn’t feel safe, not with Albaladejo in the pen in place of Aceves. Mark Teixeira was the only one who could deliver, sending a solo blast into the left field seats, ending his drought and the annoying comments about it being X at bats since he last homered. As of this writing, it has been one at bat since Mark Teixeira homered. Who’s counting with me?

Oddly enough, Girardi opted to stick with Robertson for the fifth. It seemed a curious move, sending out Robertson, who had just walked in two runs, to face the number four, five, and six hitters in the Twins’ order. He surprised by striking out Justin Morneau on three pitches, but got back to his inaccurate ways by walking Kubel on five. Finally Girardi had seen enough and called on Jon Albaladejo to get the last two in the fifth, and presumably all of the sixth. He delivered, striking out Cuddyer and Redmond, and then sitting down the Twins 1-2-3 in the sixth. With Coke and Hughes up and ready, the prospects of the bullpen finishing the game got a bit better.

They got a ton better when Coke shook off a leadoff bunt single by Joe Mauer to get Justin Morneau to ground out on the first pitch. He then struck out Kubel on just three. That’s five pitches, five strikes for Coke. He might have struggled with his command early on, but lately Coke has done nothing but work quickly and throw strikes. Coke’s last five appearances: 3 pitches, 2 strikes; 24 pitches, 16 strikes; 6 pitches, 4 strikes; 7 pitches, 4 strikes; 5 pitches, 5 strikes. He has allowed just one hit in that span and has walked none.

Phil Hughes again was Phil Hughes. He continued attacking hitters, a lesson we can only hope he takes with him when he eventually returns to the rotation. That was one of the frustrating things about watching him last year and even parts of this year. He’d try to hit corners, and when he didn’t he looked lost. From the bullpen he’s constantly getting ahead of guys, throwing strikes and letting them take hacks if they want. Most of the time their efforts are futile. In the eighth (after a gift out by Justin Morneau, gift-wrapped by Jorge Posada) he got ahead of all three hitters he faced, striking out the last two. The only semi-blip was against Jose Morales, but after going up 0-2 I think it was more Hughes trying to get out an inexperienced hitter with some junk pitches. In the end Hughes got him with ol’ number one, a 95 mph fastball up that Morales had no chance of reaching.

On the offensive side, the Yankees again got production from the bottom of the order. Cody Ransom walked with the bases loaded and drove in a run with a single. Brett Gardner bounced into a fielder’s choice that allowed a run to score and singled on a poorly placed Liriano changeup. The only other runs came on a Derek Jeter single to center, a bloop on the first pitch during Liriano’s long second inning, and the aforementioned Teixeira bomb. Those six runs ended up being enough for the staff, and the Twins’ four runs meant yet another save for Mariano Rivera.

The Yanks will now fly out to Anaheim to wrap up the first half of the season. Don’t be scared, though. While the Yankees haven’t fared well against the Angels in years past, this is just not the same team. They’re good, no doubt, but they’re just not as intimidating as even last year. They’ll face Jered Weaver, the only consistently good pitcher in the Angels rotation, sandwiched between struggling pitchers Joe Saunders and John Lackey. Taking two out of three would be a wonderful way to finish up before the break.

No action until 10:00 tomorrow night, so it’s time to relax. And you know what that means: A glass of wine, your favorite easy chair, and of course this open thread playing on your home Internet machine. So go on, indulge yourself. That’s right. Kick off your shoes, put your feet up, lean back and just enjoy the comments. After all, baseball soothes even the savage beast.