Mailbag: Cruz, Phelps, Ichiro, Jeter, A-Rod

It seemed like we got an awful lot of questions this week, but I picked just four for the mailbag. Keep sending them in though, one of these weeks I’ll do a rapid fire mailbag with like, 12-15 questions. Please use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything at anytime.

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

J.R. and several others asked: With the bullpen not looking great, would Juan Cruz make sense?

I started thinking about this as soon as I saw that the Pirates had designated Cruz for assignment (he was officially released yesterday). The 33-year-old missed just about a month with shoulder inflammation but otherwise has pitched to a 2.78 ERA (4.19 FIP) in 35.2 innings for Pittsburgh this season. His strikeout (8.33 K/9 and 20.4 K%) rate was fine and his walk rate (4.79 BB/9 and 11.7 BB%) was high, just like every other season of his career. That’s actually his lowest BB% since 2006, if you can believe it. The fastball isn’t what it used to be, but PitchFX says he’s still running it up there in the 92-94 mph range.

Cruz has struck out just one batter in his last nine appearances (7.1 IP and 36 batters faced), which includes three appearances before the DL stint and six after. He’s struggled a little bit of late but nothing crazy. You do have to be skeptical anytime a team releases a reliever in favor of Chad Qualls, so perhaps the reason why he’s available is something we just don’t know as outsiders. The Yankees don’t have much bullpen help coming in September, so signing Cruz to a minor league pact with the promise of a September 1st call-up sure seems to make sense from where I sit. I guess it depends on the medicals more than anything.

Steve asks: Assuming Andy Pettitte returns successfully, what would David Phelps have to do the next month to win the postseason rotation spot over Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, and Freddy Garcia?

This was sent in before Nova was placed on the DL, so let’s remove him from the discussion. The easy answer is that Phelps would have to pitch phenomenally well the rest of the season, and I don’t mean slightly out-pitch Hughes or Garcia. Those guys have track records and will get the benefit of the doubt. Phelps would have to pitch like Hiroki Kuroda has been of late, I mean completely dominating each time out. That’s not easy to do.

Obviously a lot depends on the ALDS schedule and who the Yankees would be playing in a potential playoff series, but right now I would lean towards Garcia as my Game Four starter. Both Hughes and Phelps have shown not just that they can pitch in relief, but that they can be true weapons out of the bullpen. As an added bonus, both would be in position to contribute multiple innings in relief. The fourth starter is marginalized in the postseason — quick hooks, starting only when absolutely necessary — and I would rather let Freddy be that guy.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Donny asks: I doubt I am the first to bring up this idea, but with everyone working under the assumption that Nick Swisher is not re-signed, doesn’t Ichiro Suzuki make sense? I would think a one year deal worth $6-8 million would work with some kind of team option for 2014, no?

A few people asked this as well and I’m not really a fan of bringing Ichiro back. Maybe if they trade Brett Gardner this winter it would make more sense, but I doubt that happens. I’m not a fan of powerless corner outfielders — the Yankees would be lucky to get ten total homers out of Gardner and Ichiro next season if they’re both starters — no matter how much contact they make or how great their defense and base-running is. Having one guy like that in the outfield is fine, but two is really pushing it. If the Yankees let Nick Swisher walk, they’ll need to replace him with someone who can hit for some power, particularly against left-handers. That ain’t Ichiro.

Kevin asks: With all of the recent talk of Derek Jeter possibly breaking Pete Rose’s hit record, which do you think is more likely to happen at this point: Alex Rodriguez passing Barry Bonds or Jeter passing Rose?

Jeter is currently 999 hits behind Rose, so he’ll need another five or six really good years to become the all-time hit king. I’m talking 180+ hits a year on average until he turns 43 or 44. A-Rod, on the other hand, is 118 homers behind Bonds, which works out to another five or six really good years (20+ homers per season). Both seem improbable at this point but not impossible. I know which one I think is more likely to happen, but this question is screaming for a poll…

Which is more likely to happen?
Total Votes: 1627 Started: August 23, 2012 Back to Vote Screen

Open Thread: Juan Cruz signs, finally

esteban-germanI wanted the Yanks to sign Juan Cruz back in early January, but alas, they never showed serious interest in him and Cruz ended up with the Royals. The terms: 2 years, $6M guaranteed with a $4M option for a third year. The Diamondbacks received Kansas City’s second round pick (because the Royals’ first rounder is protected) and a sandwich rounder as compensation, giving them 5 of the first 44 picks and 7 of the first 62. They can do some serious damage this year. You can see the up-to-the-minute draft order at our 2009 Draft Order Tracker.

To make room for Cruz on the 40-man roster the Royals designated utility man Esteban German for assignment, and I hope the Yanks at least kick the tires on him. German has been outrighted before (by the A’s back in 2004) and has plenty of service time, so if he clears waivers he’ll have the ability to refuse an assignment to Triple-A and become a free agent. Obviously, that’s when the Yanks should look at him, and on a minor league deal only. There’s no way you give him a Major League deal or claim him on waivers (putting him on the 40-man).

Basically, all German offers is versatility and a replacement level bat, although in 2006 and 2007 he was a 1-1.5 win player off the bench. He’s only played 36 innings at short the last three years, but he’s seen plenty of time at second and third. Offensively, about the best you can hope for at this point is .260-.310-.340 with maybe a dozen doubles and a rare homer, but hey, if he’s willing to come in and compete for a job, why wouldn’t you do it? The more competition the better, I say.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. The Devils already won today, and both the Islanders and Rangers are in action tonight. The Knicks are also playing down in Miami. Oh, and here’s the box score of today’s game if you’re interested. Have fun.

Photo Credit: Dick Whipple, AP

Possible sign-and-trade mini-rant

In what could be the first step in an NBA-esque sign-and-trade move, the Twins made an offer to free agent reliever Juan Cruz late last night. Cruz, like The Orlandos (Cabrera & Hudson), has been having a devil of a time trying to find a job this winter because teams are unwilling to part with their first round pick to sign him, and now that Spring Training is underway his agent is really starting to feel the heat. You probably remember seeing the blurb earlier this week in which MLB basically said it would be willing to look the other way as teams try to circumvent the free agent draft pick compensation rules, and it’s looking more and more like this might actually happen.

Forget A-Rod and all the PED nonsense. If baseball is willing to essentially amend it’s rules with almost zero advance notice to the benefit of only some teams, then that’s the game’s biggest problem. The Yankees played by the rules and coughed up the draft picks needed to sign free agents this winter, ditto the Mets, Angels, and Dodgers, and now you’re telling me that other teams have a chance to operate under a completely different set of rules? Sorry, but that’s just not fair. If Juan Cruz wants to get paid, then he should have accepted arbitration. There’s a reason David Weathers and Darren Oliver have contracts for 2009 right now and he doesn’t. He doesn’t get to be above the system because his agent misread the economic climate. Life doesn’t work like that.

I swear, the Yanks (and the Mets, Halos and Dodgers as well) better raise some frickin’ hell if this is allowed to go down.

Rosenthal: I agree with RAB

It wasn’t long ago that Mike suggested that the Yankees sign reliever Juan Cruz. The reasoning: he’s a Type A free agent, which means teams will have to sacrifice a first round draft pick in order to sign him. The bottom 15 teams in the league would have to sacrifice a second rounder, but due to the signings of A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira, the Yankees would only surrender a fourth rounder. Hence, he’s more attractive to them than other teams. Ken Rosenthal covers this in his latest column.

Also on the ledger is Ben Sheets. Rosenthal thinks he “could be the Yankees’ answer to Brad Penny and John Smoltz, both of whom signed with the Red Sox for relatively low base salaries with the chance to earn significantly more through incentives.” It doesn’t appear Sheets is ready to take an incentive-laded deal, however. Matt Cerrone from MetsBlog has noted that Sheets seeks a two year deal worth roughly $18 million. The chances of that aren’t likely, unless the Brewers deem it a worthy risk.

Rosenthal cites “one executive” saying that Sheets will likely get one year and between $6 to $8 million, with incentives bringing the potential deal past $14 million. That’s more like it. Even better, Rosenthal suggests a “lucrative club option,” which would make the deal more attractive to any acquiring team. That way, they can retain Sheets’s services, albeit at a high price, if he stays healthy through 2009. If we’re talking one year, $7 million with $7 million in incentives plus a $16 million team option for 2010, the Yanks would have to give that serious consideration.

Then again, that all hinges on Andy Pettitte. Tom Verducci mentions the lefty in his latest column: “…though a baseball source said he has been weighing a lesser offer to return to the Astros.” This doesn’t seem likely, as Rosenthal quotes Astros owner Drayton McLane: “I haven’t had any discussions with Andy or any of his representatives at all. We’re up against our (budget) number right now.” Also, why would Pettitte take less than $10 million from Houston? I thought the reason Pettitte rejected the Yanks offer is that he didn’t want to take a hefty pay cut.

Rosenthal tallies the Yanks’ current payroll at $187.975 million, which includes 17 players. Presumably, this covers Xavier Nady and Melky Cabrera, who both avoided arbitration yesterday. Brian Bruney could bring that figure close to $190 million, with seven more spots left to fill on the 25-man roster. If Sheets made the full $14 million, that would bring the Yanks north of $200 million, but still lower than their official payroll total last year of $222.2 million (which I believe is calculated on August 21). Their Opening Day payroll would also clock in at under the $209 million they spent in 2008.

Cruz is a bit of a different situation. WIth Kyle Farnsworth commanding two years and $9.25 million, you’d have to think that Cruz would want more than that. Would the Yanks be willing to go higher than that, in dollars and years, to sign a reliever? I’m not so sure that’s in the works. It makes sense on many levels, and perhaps the Yankees would get a better deal because of other teams’ unwillingness to sacrifice a first rounder for Cruz. I would guess, though, that signing both Cruz and Sheets isn’t a likely scenario.

Still, picking up one could help the Yankees shore up the pitching staff. Both Sheets and Cruz offer plenty of upside, and both will cost the Yankees less in terms of draft picks than other teams. If Andy Pettitte continues his quest to get another $16 million, the Yanks could do worse than singing Sheets to an incentive-laden deal.

Stealing Juan Cruz

juan-cruzEarlier this week Buster Olney noted that baseball’s free agent compensation rules are working against some of the remaining free agents, pointing out that teams are reluctant to forfeit high draft picks for guys that are considered complimentary players. Jason Varitek and The Orlandos – Hudson & Cabrera – immediately come to mind. Another such player is Juan Cruz, the ex-Cubs’ prospect and Diamondbacks’ setup man. Having declined arbitration after making $1.9375M last year, Cruz hit the free agent market for the first time in his career this year with the Type-A designation stamped on his back. For most teams that means losing their first round pick, but the Yanks aren’t in that spot.

KLaw’s 7th best available free agent (sub. req’d), Cruz’s calling card has always been his control, or lack thereof.  Once considered the sixth best prospect in the game by Baseball America (back in ’02) because of his live arm, Cruz’s descent from future ace to setup man was due to his inability to throw strikes with any consistency. He threw strikes with only 58.6% of his pitches as a rookie in ’02, improving slightly to 61.1% in ’03 and 61.8% in ’04. He’s sat right around that level ever since. By no means is it a great strike rate, but in the last few seasons he’s established himself as effectively wild.

Like I said, Cruz has a seriously live arm. It works quick and easy, allowing him to pump fastballs that have averaged just about 94.5 mph the last few years. His slider is equally electric, sitting in the low 80’s with sharp break. He still has a hard changeup left from his days as a starter, but he rarely uses it (he threw it just 4.1% of the time last year). You can get a glimpse of how filthy Cruz can be in these highlight clips from 2006 and 2007, unfortunately doesn’t have anything from last season.

While throwing strikes and limiting walks are his weak point, Cruz’s biggest asset is his ability to miss bats. Hitters made contact on just 66.0% of the swings they took on Cruz’s pitches last year, down from 69.9% in ’07 and 77.4% in ’08, meaning he got tougher to hit as he entered his prime (which, obviously, makes sense). He allowed less contact last year than K-Rod (69.3%), Joe Nathan (70.0%), Jon Papelbon (77.2%), Mo (76.3%), Joakim Soria (75.1%), Carlos Marmol (73.6%), you name ’em. Opponents hit just .192 off Cruz last year, and his strikeout rate over the past two seasons is an ungodly 12.62 Kper9, the best in baseball by more than half a strikeout. His CHONE projection for ’09 is solid in case you’re wondering: 68 IP, 3.31 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 11.51 Kper9, $6.1M in value.

In a world where Kyle Farnsworth is guaranteed $9.25M in his age 33 & 34 seasons, locking Cruz up for say, $3-4M per year for his age 30 through 32 seasons would be a steal. The Nationals, Dodgers and Brewers (at least before they locked up Trevor Hoffman) have expressed interest in Cruz this offseason, and I suspect bullpen starved teams like Detroit and Texas may be lurking in the weeds. Having already coughed up their first, second and third round draft picks as compensation for Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, all the Yanks have to lose for signing Cruz is their fourth rounder, hardly a deal breaker (here’s a list of all the Yanks’ fourth round picks, basically a whole bunch of nothing). Combine that with the down financial market for free agents, and what’s not to like?

There’s no such thing as too much bullpen depth I say, especially when you’re talking about super high strikeout guys like this. I’d love to see the Yanks lock Cruz up, sit him next to Edwar Ramirez in the Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good Mariano Rivera Center for Relievers Who Can’t Pitch Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, and see what happens. They just might get something special out of it.