Report: Yankees “stepping up” pursuit of Duchscherer

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

It appears as though the Yankees have found a target to help fill one of their pitching vacancies. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that the Yankees “are stepping up their pursuit” of right-hander Justin Duchscherer. We’ve seen the Yankees and Duchscherer connected before, at the 2009 trade deadline and then again last off-season. With a couple of questionable spots in the rotation, plus the perpetual need for bullpen arms, Duchscherer could fill a number of roles on the 2011 Yankees.

Duchscherer established himself as a quality relief pitcher from 2004 through 2007, when he produced a 3.69 ERA (3.81 FIP) in 256 innings. The A’s then decided to try him in the rotation, and it was for the most part a success. In 2008 he made 22 starts and pitched 141.2 innings to a 2.54 ERA (3.69 FIP). Unfortunately, that’s when injuries started to take hold.

During the 2008 season Duchscherer missed 62 days due to injury, 21 with a biceps strain and 41 with a right hip strain. The hip was the most problematic issue, since he had missed much of the 2007 issue after undergoing surgery on his labrum (similar to Alex Rodriguez). Duchscherer then missed the entire 2009 season after having bone spurs removed from his elbow. He returned to open the 2010 season in the A’s rotation, but after five starts he again needed hip surgery, this time on the left side.

Because of the injuries, and particularly because of his hip issues, it’s hard to imagine Duchscherer making much of an impact in 2011. While he has experience in the bullpen he apparently prefers to start, though for good reason. He suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and finds that the uncertainty of bullpen life worsens the condition. Considering his physical issues with starting, I’m not sure how well he fits here. Then again, with his combination of issues I’m not sure how well he fits anywhere.

We’ve yet to see anything regarding terms of a potential deal, but I’ll echo Larry from Yankeeist: there is no way this comes in a dime higher than the $1.75 million Duchscherer made last year, and could certainly be a split minor league/major league deal. I like Duchscherer and I think if healthy he can be an effective fourth starter on the team. But that’s a rather large if. The Yanks have the money, so they might as well go ahead, but I wouldn’t expect much from this move, much as I want to.

Why it’s Duchscherer, Sheets, or stand pat with the pitching staff

For a team whose priorities this off-season are pitching, pitching, pitching, the Yankees haven’t made many moves in that department. Re-signing Andy Pettitte has been their only pitching transaction, and while that’s an important one it doesn’t bolster the staff for the 2010 season. With the offense seemingly set, they will likely focus on pitching for the rest of the winter. But we could even see them stand pat in that department, if they don’t land one of two free agents.

Of the remaining free agent starters, only two make any sense for the Yankees. They’re also the two we’ve talked about since the off-season began: Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer. Anyone else would just provide depth, like Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin, and Al Aceves. That’s not a bad thing — the Yankees should look into acquiring as much pitching depth as they can afford. But Sheets and Duchscherer are the only two the Yankees should sign for the rotation.

Ben discussed the rotation situation last night, debunking an ESPN Radio report that claimed only one of Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain would be in the 2010 rotation. Brian Cashman cleared up the situation on Michael Kay’s radio show yesterday, and Steve from The Yankee Universe has the transcript, in which Cashman clarifies the misinterpretation of his words. ESPN, as it turns out, cherry picked a quote which, when put into the context of the question, doesn’t mean anything close to what they made it out to be.

Said Cashman on Kay’s show about the possibility of Hughes or Chamberlain starting the season in the bullpen:

If we went in with a starter that we actually like better, yeah. I have no problem with that. I mean we went into the playoffs with Hughes, Aceves and Chamberlain all in the bullpen. Why? Because we had guys we were giving the ball in the rotation , although it was a truncated rotation, we were giving the ball to guys we felt were more capable at that moment in time. So there’s no change in philosophy, as of right now, those guys are all starters. And if nothing changes, those guys are all starters. The question was ‘Well what if you get a starter?’ well, that means we have four, that means the remaining population competes for the final spot.

Who on the free agent market, other than Sheets or Duchscherer, could the Yankees possibly like better than the guys they already have? Chris from iYankees pointed to a GAKIII report mentioning Jarrod Washburn. Really? How can the Yankees possibly like Washburn more than the guys they have in house? Sure, he had a great first half, but he’s a fly ball pitcher who had the best outfield defense in the league behind him. His home run rate also dropped considerably, due mostly to a very low home run to fly ball ratio. Chances are he reverts to his career norms in 2010, which would not play well at all in Yankee Stadium.

Who else could they like more? Erik Bedard? He’s an injury case like Sheets and Duchscherer, and could provide as much upside, but his media aversion wouldn’t work well in New York. He remains perhaps the best possibility outside the aforementioned pair. Jon Garland? Same as Washburn, only he’s a righty, younger, and healthier. Doug Davis? Noah Lowry? Jason Marquis? Brett Myers? Joel Pineiro? I don’t see how any of them present the Yankees with better options. They’d just be fodder for depth, to be stashed away in the minors or in the bullpen. They’re not viable candidates to seriously compete for a rotation spot to start the season.

As it stands, the Yankees are fine with pitching. They’ll need to catch a few breaks, but they could go into the season with just a few tweaks and still have one of the league’s best teams. If they add a starter, it will probably one to demonstrably improve the rotation. For now, that appears to be Sheets and Duchscherer. Other options might work nice as depth, but as the British would say, they’d be redundancies.

Duchscherer on the mend from ailments physical and mental

Before the 2009 trade deadline, with the Yankees seeking a fifth starter, Justin Duchscherer seemed like an interesting option. He was in the last year of his team control, so even Billy Beane probably couldn’t get a huge return for him. Further suppressing his value, he hadn’t thrown a major league inning since August 18, 2008. He was on a rehab assignment before the trade deadline, so it appeared his return was imminent. While there were clear risks with his health, Duchscherer had proven over the past few years that he can succeed in the rotation and in the bullpen.

On deadline day, we learned that Duchscherer would miss his final rehab start. That always starts the trade speculation, but it turned out that Duchscherer missed his start for personal reasons. The deadline then passed, and we tucked away the Duchscherer talk until the off-season. Now that it’s here, the talks have started back up. But there could be an issue beyond injury that teams should consider when considering Duchscherer.

The personal issue that caused Duchscherer to miss his rehab start, Jerry Crasnick writes, was clinical depression. It’s a great read, not only on Duke, but on how depression affects ballplayers. We’ve seen it occur in a number of players in recent years, including 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. Thankfully, it appears that Duchscherer is over those issues, and is ready to pitch again in 2009. He hopes that is in a starting capacity.

Many teams are presumably interested in Duchscherer. He won’t require a lengthy and expensive contract commitment like John Lackey, and he provides plenty of upside. He was excellent out of the bullpen in 2005 and 2006, and then, after an injury shortened 2007, thrived in the rotation in 2008. He keeps his walks and his home runs low, always attractive attributes for a starting pitcher. In the bullpen Duchscherer displayed the same qualities, and even struck out over eight batters per nine innings. It appears he can work in any role a team has for him.

As Crasnick notes, Duchscherer’s depression might not be a big issue for interested teams. His agent, Damon Lapa, is optimistic that teams will see his depression as “more a ‘technicality’ than an ‘obstacle’ to overcome.” Duchscherer is ready to pitch, and that’s what matters to most teams. It also helps that he has come to grips with the disorder, saying he has embraced “unconditional self-acceptance.”

Even if depression isn’t a factor in signing Duchscherer, certain teams might not be a good fit. As friend of RAB Jonah Keri noted last week, small market teams might have an advantage with introverted players. While many of them can overcome social disorders, playing in a big market — especially in New York — might not be an optimal situation. Then again, Duchscherer has expressed a desire to spend more time with his six-year-old son Evan, who lives in New Jersey. The proximity could work in the Yankees favor.

From a pure pitching standpoint, I’m a Duchscherer fan. He’s not going to replicate his 2.54 ERA from 2008 — he’ll surely surrender more than 6.8 hits per nine innings, which will raise his sterling 0.995 WHIP. Even so, he had a 3.69 FIP in 2008, and a 4.28 tRA. He also keeps the ball on the ground, which means low home run totals. He’s no guarantee as a top of the rotation arm in 2009, and chances are he’s more of a mid-rotation guy. But the Yankees can use someone like that.

Can a pitcher diagnosed with clinical depression thrive in New York? I have no idea, but I don’t think that should hinder the Yankees if they want to pursue Duchscherer. If he thinks he can handle the spotlight in New York, he’s certainly one of the free agent pitchers worth the gamble. His ability to pitch both in the rotation and the bullpen can make him a valuable piece of the 2010 Yankees.

Could Yanks pursue Justin Duchscherer?

Save for the limited action he saw in the 2007 season, Justin Duchscherer has posted a good if not excellent ERA in each season he’s pitched with the Oakland A’s from 2003 through 2008. Yet fans outside the Bay Area aren’t necessarily aware of Duchscherer. He’s an under-the-radar type guy who quietly goes about his business, and goes about it well. Given his and the A’s current circumstances, he’s a prime candidate for a trade. There’s just one complication.

Duchscherer is a cut fastball (high 80s, low 90s), overhand curve, slider type pitcher. He strikes out a decent number of guys, around 8 per nine as a reliever and was at 6 per nine as a starter in 2008. He also doesn’t walk many people, 1.5 per nine as a reliever in 2006 and 2.2 per nine as a starter in 08. Even better, he keeps the ball in the park, allowing less than a homer per nine over most of his career. This profiles him as a solid option at both starter and reliever.

Why would Billy Beane want to trade this seemingly good pitcher? Easy answers: The A’s are out of contention, and Duchscherer is a free agent after this season. He also makes $3.9 million this year, so Beane could save over a million by shipping him elsewhere. He might as well. What’s worth more to the A’s right now, a million bucks and change, or having Justin Duchscherer on the team? Plus, a team might be willing to give up some kind of talent, probably in the form of a player to be named later.

Wait — why would the A’s only get a player to be named later? Duchscherer is currently hurt, and hasn’t pitched all season because of elbow troubles. In fact, he hasn’t pitched since mid-August last year. He just began a rehab program, and should get into a minor league game over the next few days. Yet, the trade deadline is fast approaching. If the Yanks wanted Duke, they’d have to trade for him as an injured player. That might not be bad — I’m sure the Yanks would like him rehabbing at their own facilities. It does mean an added level of risk.

If the Yankees want to explore this option, they need to get it done before the deadline. Why? Because once the calendar flips to August, players need to clear waivers in order to be traded — or they need to be claimed by a team willing to trade for them. The Yankees, hopefully still atop the AL East in August, probably wouldn’t get a chance to put in a claim. Another team that could use some pitching, the Boston Red Sox, would likely put in a claim, blocking the Yankees and opening themselves up for a trade.

There are other teams too, of course, and for that reason Beane might hold on until August. There’s risk in that, too, in that he could face a team just looking to block a potential trade. Beane could then foist Duke and his remaining salary on said team, but then he’d get nothing in return — in other words, he would have been better off having accepted a PTBNL at the deadline.

The injury makes it a complicated situation, as does the hip injury which kept Duchscherer out of action for most of the 2007 season. Still, it’s a decent gamble. No, Duke is nowhere near Roy Halladay (even though Buster Olney tries to pump up Duke by making the comp in numbers), but he’s a solid option for both the pen and the rotation. In fact, he might be better suited as a starter. Just check out this tidbit:

Duchscherer’s call to the rotation is actually a very interesting story. The A’s had kept Justin in the ‘pen, thinking that his arthritic hip wouldn’t be able to stay healthy over a 150- 200-inning season. But Justin, who apparently has a slightly nervous/anxious personality, found that the uncertainty of a late-inning role aggravated his IBS–Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS is an extremely common disease of the gastro-intestinal system; it causes bloating, cramping, gas, and diarrhoea. It’s a twentieth-century problem, brought on by stress. And you can imagine that pitching the eighth inning for an MLB team would be kinda stressful. During the middle innings, Justin, sensing that he would have to take the mound, protect a lead, and not embarrass himself in front of a national audience, would have to leave the bench and run to the washroom.

So the A’s made him a starter, thinking that the certainty of knowing exactly when and where he was going to pitch would calm him down and ease his GI problems.

So the dude has a lot of problems — elbow, hips, IBS — but when he’s on he’s a quietly solid pitcher. Any team could use one of those players. The Yanks should certainly explore this option.