Mailbag: Killer B’s, Igawa, A-Jax, Culver

I’ve got four questions this week, three of which deal with a current or former Yankees prospect. The other has to do with a guy taking up space in the minors. Remember to send in your questions via the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.

Boom or bust? (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Joe asks: Do you think there is any chance the Yanks keep and develop all of the Killer B’s?  I know the odds of all three reaching their ceiling and staying healthy are long, and as you or Joe or Ben said last week don’t fall in love with your prospects, but it be nice to see them all on the big club.  What % do you think it will occur?

If you’ve got three pitching prospects of that caliber, my general (and completely amateur) rule of thumb is that one will reach (or at least approach) his ceiling, one will fall short of his ceiling but still be a productive big leaguer, and the third will be a complete bust. The Yankees exceeded that with Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy, turning them into two viable big league starters and a reliever. Look back at the Red Sox five years ago; they got an ace, a reliever, and a bust out of Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, and Craig Hansen.

I’d expect Manny Banuelos to approach his ceiling, Andrew Brackman to fall short of his ceiling but be a useful player, and Dellin Betances to be the complete bust out of the Killer B’s. Nothing personal, it’s just that Dellin’s health record scares me. That said, I fully expect them to trade one of those guys, probably sometime this year. The big league team needs pitching right now, and the Yankees have some high end pitching depth and can afford to move one of those guys.

Of course I’d love to see all three of them stay with the team and flourish in the big leagues, but the odds are so stacked against it. I’d give it less than a 50-50 chance that all three will stay with the Yankees for the next few years, and less than a 5% chance that all three turn into productive players. Prospects will break your heart, the Killer B’s are no different than the hundreds that came before them.

Nicolai asks: If Kei Igawa was blocking somebody from being promoted to Scranton, could the Yankees just send him down to Trenton, Tampa or Charleston?

Yep, absolutely. The Yankees actually sent him all the way down to High-A Tampa for two starts in 2007. Igawa’s not blocking anyone from anything.

A different Joe asks: I was listening to the Yankees game and it was the Tigers radio crew. They claimed A-Jax would be a 15 homer and 40 SB guy this season. I personally don’t see this happening at all. Any thoughts on it?

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

This year? No way, not in Comerica. Austin Jackson has 17 homers total in his last 1,816 plate appearances dating back to 2007, so I don’t see a sudden spike happening. I could definitely see 15 homers at his peak, maybe even 20, but 2011 is too soon for that. If Jackson did pop double-digit homers this year, that would mean everything went right for him and he even squeezed in an inside-the-parker or three. Of all the projection systems out there, only CAIRO and ZiPS have him hitting more than six homers, and both forecast seven.

I like Jackson and there’s no doubt that he’s an above-average player, but expecting 15 homers out of him this year is a bit much. Even the 40 steals is a bit of a question mark (27 last year), but it’s not as unbelievable as the power numbers. Just for some perspective, only three different players have had a 15-40 season in the last three years, and Carl Crawford was the only one to do it twice.

Anthony asks: What’s the projection for 2010 first rounder Cito Culver as a major leaguer? Does he have the potential to be a solid starter on a high caliber team?

Culver’s long-term value is going to lie mostly in his glovework, which, luckily, is really really good. Is he going to be Derek Jeter? Absolutely not. Is he going to be Cesar Izturis? Eh, maybe. It’s always possible. I think the best case scenario for the Yankees’ 2010 first round pick is an above-average defensive shortstop (probably not Gold Glove caliber though) that hits for average, draws some walks, and steals some bases. Culver doesn’t have much power and doesn’t project to down the road, but he’s switch-hitter with some contact skills, and he did manage to a walk in nearly ten percent of his plate appearances in his pro debut last summer.

If I had to put numbers on it, which I hate doing, I think his offensive ceiling is something like .300/.360/.400, right around a .350 wOBA. Culver also has the speed and skills to steal a healthy amount of bags, maybe even 40+ in his basestealing prime. Stick that at shortstop over 600 plate appearances with say, +4 or +5 run defense, and you’ve got a four win player. Again, that’s not Derek Jeter, but that’s a player good enough to start on a championship team. Of course, Culver has a long, looong way to go to live up to that potential.

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Mailbag: Igawa, Garcia, Double-A, Mets, Pujols

This week’s edition of the mailbag brings queries about Chris Garcia, the difference between minor league levels, the ghost of Kei Igawa, and then the Mets and Red Sox. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send in a question.

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Bruce asks: It’s funny (but not really) that after all the money thrown at Kei Igawa that he’s never even mentioned as a possible desperation move to fill the fifth slot in the rotation. He’s got to be the highest-priced “organizational player” ever.

Yep, Igawa was a spectacular bust, and it shows you how little faith the organization has in him by not even mentioning him as a candidate for the back of the rotation. Hell, he didn’t get an invite to Major League Spring Training, he’s with the kids in minor league camp. Igawa’s contract comes off the books after the season, and the only reason they haven’t gotten rid of him yet is because if they do so, they’ll get stuck paying the luxury tax on his contract. There’s no harm in having him soak up innings at Triple-A, but that’s pretty much the only thing he’s qualified for these days.

Cody asks: Whatever happened to Christian Garcia? I know he had TJ surgery last season and then the Yankees released him. Any chance they bring him back if all goes well?

Good timing on this question, Chad Jennings posted an update yesterday. Allow me to quote…

Once a highly touted pitching prospect in the Yankees system, right-hander Christian Garcia was released last season after a series of injuries derailed his promising career. The Yankees are aware that Garcia, 25, has been working out and plans to throw for scouts, but I was told today that the Yankees have no plans of bringing Garcia back to the organization.

Garcia blew out his elbow in his first start last year, so he’s about nine or ten months out from his second Tommy John surgery. The kid just couldn’t stay healthy, and there’s really no reason to believe he ever will. I don’t fault the Yankees for not wanting to bring him back at all. It’s a shame, he had a great arm.

Joseph asks: With all of the talk of Brackman having an outside shot of the rotation, it had me thinking which was the harder transition from leagues in the minors. Is it from High-A to AA or from AA to AAA.

The biggest jump is Triple-A to MLB, no doubt about it, but in the minors only, going from Single-A to Double-A is probably the biggest jump. Double-A is the first time hitters will consistently run into pitchers that have some sort of game plan and can throw a breaking ball for strikes, while pitchers will regularly face batters that will lay off stuff out of the zone or sit on a 2-0 fastball. It’s not so much that the physical talent is that much better in Double-A than Single-A, it’s that the preparation and experience is. That’s why they say Double-A is the great equalizer. If a kid does well at that level, chances are he’ll have himself a nice big league career.

Omar Good-bya (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Chris asks: If the Mets completely fall apart and spend very little over the next few years could they create heavy debate about being a team in NYC and collecting a revenue sharing check? I can see this becoming a battle in the next CBA if a team like the Mets, in a massive media market spends very little. This situation may spur on a salary floor. What do you guys think?

I don’t think that’ll happen. The Mets, as far as I know, are profitable in terms of ticket sales, merchandising, advertisements, etc., and that’s what revenue sharing payments are based on. Even with the Madoff stuff, the team would really need to fall in the dumps to start getting some revenue sharing money. With a nine-figure payroll, it won’t happen anytime soon.

Matt asks: With the recent Albert Pujols contract negotiations, I have begun to think about what his value is. It seems to me that the value of a win is greater the higher above replacement it is. Doesn’t it make sense that a player who is worth 7 WAR is more valuable than 2 players who are worth 7 WAR together simply due to the fact that the team will have another position available which they can fill with another player. Because a player like Albert Pujols gives you equal production to that of two good players while still allowing you to fill that extra position with more value, shouldn’t he make more than the total value of the two good players’ contracts?

Yep, exactly. You said it perfectly, one great player is better than two pretty good players. The more wins you’re getting out of a player, the higher a cost. You might pay, say, $3M per win for a one or two WAR player, but once you get into Pujols territory, $7M or $8M per win becomes the norm. It’s not a linear scale.

Reg asks: Although most people are conceding the AL East to Boston, there has been little mention of the fact that they lost Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. True, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez may make up the offensive punch but Youkilis is not the defensive third baseman Beltre was. Also, there are questions re pitchers Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Do you think that the Red Sox should be odds-on favorites to (a) win the AL East or (b) advance to the World Series?

a) Sure, I think they’re the favorites in the AL East right now, I don’t think you’ll find anyone that can put up too much of an argument otherwise. They’re not going to lap the field or win the division by like, ten games. The other four clubs are too good for that to happen, but I feel comfortable saying they’re the best team in AL right now.

b) Nope, I’ll always take the field when asked that. The Yankees, Rays, White Sox, Athletics, Rangers … all those clubs could take down the Sox in a five or seven game playoff series. Do they have a really good chance of going to the World Series? Sure, but odds-on favorite? Nah.

Why Kei Igawa is still a (Scranton) Yankee

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

There’s no denying that one of Brian Cashman‘s biggest mistakes has been the acquisition of Japanese lefty Kei Igawa. After getting blown out of the water on the bidding for Daisuke Matsuzaka by the Red Sox, Cashman and the rest of the brain trust turned to Igawa, who was coming off a five season stretch with the Hanshin Tigers where he topped 200 innings four times (172.1 IP the other year) and posted a 3.14 ERA, 8.59 K/9, and 2.47 BB/9. He wasn’t going to be the ace Dice-K is was supposed to be, but he was expected to solidify the back of a rotation that featured the likes of Shawn Chacon, Sidney Ponson, and Darrell Rasner the year before.

The Yanks won Igawa’s rights with a $26,000,194 bid during the posting process; the extra $194 was an ode to his league leading strikeout total in 2006. They then gave him a five year contract worth $20M, but have gotten basically nothing out of him. Igawa’s Yankee career consists of 71.2 innings of 6.66 ERA, 6.19 FIP, 5.74 xFIP pitching, totaling -0.2 WAR. It’s quite literally $46M flushed down the toilet.

It’s not like the Yankees haven’t had a chance to unload Igawa, either. The Padres claimed the lefty off waivers back in August of 2007, he was part of the Johan Santana trade talks, ditto Mike Cameron, and the Cubs even showed some interest in him as recently as this offseason. None of that materialized, and in hindsight, yeah they should have just let the Padres have him and the $17M or so left on his contract. The Yanks still believed Igawa was salvageable and wanted to try to extract value out of him, but of course that never happened.

Late last night in one of his classic Heard This tweets, Buster Olney said that one reason why the Yanks have yet to deal Igawa is because doing so would cost them big time against the luxury tax. Ben and I couldn’t exactly figure out how that would work (neither could Maury Brown), but Jayson Stark explained the situation back in May:

At least now, you see, Igawa doesn’t count against their luxury-tax payroll because they were able to dump him off the 40-man roster. But if somebody actually wanted him (not that there’s any indication of that), the Yankees would have to pay virtually his entire salary. And that would pull all those dollars back onto their luxury-tax bill, to the tune of a 40 percent tax on whatever they’re paying.

In other words, one GM said, “They have huge incentive not to trade him, even if they could. So he’s one of the all-time stuck-in-purgatory cases.”

Essentially, if the Yanks trade Igawa and eat any of the money left on his deal, it counts against their big league payroll and thus the luxury tax. As long as he’s in the minors and not on the 40-man roster, which has been the case for more than two years now, his salary does not count towards their Major League payroll. The luxury tax isn’t cheap, 40% for every dollar on the payroll in excess of $170M, so they’d be looking at $2.2M in extra luxury tax if they deal Igawa today and ate every dollar left on his deal. That’s pocket change for the Yanks, but is it worth paying on top of Igawa’s salary just to get rid of him? Nah.

There’s a lot of venom towards Igawa and his sunglasses for obvious reasons, but I dunno, having him in Triple-A doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others. It’s not like he’s blocking an actual prospect, he’s just the veteran swingman/long man that every Triple-A team employs to soak up miscellaneous innings here and there. Does it suck that the Yanks still have to pay him another $4M next year? Sure, but they’re stuck paying that money anyway. Might as well get something out of him.

So until his contract expires after next season, Igawa is stuck in Scranton, not wanted by the Yankees, not wanted back in Japan. His occasional appearance in DotF is a reminder of just how poorly this deal turned out.

Salvaging a bad investment

In an effort to get any sort of value out of one of the Yanks’ worst investments of the last decade, the team is going to try out Kei Igawa as a left-handed reliever only, Joel Sherman reported today. The winningest pitcher in Scranton history has two more seasons left with the Yankee organization, and the team has so far received nothing out of him. He is 2-4 with a devilish 6.66 ERA in 72.1 forgettable Major League innings.

For Igawa, this isn’t the first time his name has come up as a relief candidate. Joe explored the idea in late January. In AAA last year, he both struck out 7.44 lefties per 9 IP while his mark against righties was just 6.44. His walk splits — 0.80 per 9 IP vs. lefties against 3.10 BB per 9 IP vs. righties — are more pronounced. While his career splits are not as drastic as his 2009 splits were, he has more success vs. lefties than righties throughout his years in Scranton. Either way, Igawa isn’t on the 40-man roster, and the Yanks are in no rush to put him there. I don’t expect much to come of this.

Extracting value from Kei Igawa

Since 2006, when George Steinbrenner granted him autonomy over baseball operations, Brian Cashman has signed four free agent pitchers: Andy Pettitte, Kei Igawa, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Three out of four represents an excellent mark, especially considering the crop of free agent pitchers the team signed in the few years before ’06. Still, the one stings a bit. The Yankees bid $27 million when the Hanshin Tigers posted him, and it seemed like overpayment at the time. That fee, plus his five-year, $20 million contract, add up to quite the blunder. But can the Yankees salvage something in deal’s final two years?

If Igawa plays any role for the 2010 or 2011 Yankes, he’ll do it from the bullpen. The Yankees have built plenty of rotation depth, leaving Igawa somewhere around sixth or seventh in line for an open rotation spot. Even if the Yankees suffered six separate misfortunes, of which there’s an outside chance, they might not turn to Igawa. There’s little in his track record which suggests an ability to get through a major league order multiple times with limited damage. But perhaps he can prove of value pitching in short bursts out of the bullpen.

At The Hardball Times today, Jeff Sackmann examines minor league starters who might make quality major league bullpen candidates. After all, since many, if not most, relievers were starters who failed, a number of these middling starters will eventually make the move. Identifying them now can perhaps expedite the process. The Yankees, as we know, prefer to develop their young arms as starters, but we also know that they will move a starter to the bullpen if the need arises. With Igawa, it might be the only way to extract even a modicum of value.

Sackmann identified three qualities which might suggest an easy bullpen transition. First, that they pitch well the first time through the order. Or, as I’ll examine, that they pitch well in their first inning of work. Second, they have a large platoon differential. This goes hand in hand with the short bursts, and matters much more for a lefty like Igawa. If he’s only coming in for a few batters, chances are that more than half will be lefties. And third, he pitches well out of the stretch. So how does our K-man stack up?

The only area where Igawa doesn’t rate well is in his FIP the first time through the order. In lefty-lefty situations last year Igawa posted a 2.54 FIP, inducing 40 percent ground balls. He strikes out more lefties, but more importantly he walks far fewer — just four over 169 lefties faced last season, while he walked 38 out of 491 righties. Predictably, he allows far more home runs against righties as well. With men on base Igawa actually pitches a bit better than with none on, with a FIP of more than a run lower. This is mostly attributable to his home run rate with runners on, an important factor for a reliever. Of the 260 batters he faced with men on, he allowed just five home runs, while 17 of 400 batters with the bases empty took him out of the park.

Using Igawa’s minor league splits, there is evidence that he can pitch well in short bursts as well. While Sackmann rated him 3 on a 5-point scale in that category, he based it on the pitcher’s first time through the order. But most relievers won’t face nine hitters. In Igawa’s first inning of work he boasts a 4.08 FIP, his best mark of any inning in which he faced more than 100 batters in 2009. He induces more ground balls and fewer line drives, and allows fewer home runs. He also showed this tendency during his brief major league stint in 2007, performing far better in the first inning than in any other.

These numbers, of course, provide no guarantee that Igawa could succeed even in a limited role. They do, however, suggest that the Yankees could do worse than giving him a shot. As it stands Boone Logan is the second lefty out of the pen, but the Yanks could cut him loose if he pitches like he has over the last couple of years. At that point they might stick with Damaso Marte as the sole lefty bullpen arm, but they could certainly give Igawa a shot. There’s little harm in it. They have just 38 men on the 40-man roster, and could have up to three open spots if they end up returning Jamie Hoffman to the Dodgers. It doesn’t look like they’d have to make much of a sacrifice to get Igawa on the roster.

Most of us have a set opinion of Igawa, based on his 2007 performance. It’s pretty clear that he won’t work out as a major league starter. The Yankees, however, probably want to get any value out of him that they can at this point, and there are numbers that suggest he could capably fill a bullpen role. With open 40-man spots, why not give him the chance? Worst case he sucks and they send him back to AAA. If they need to remove him from the 40-man at that point, I don’t think they’ll mind letting him walk as a free agent. But before it comes to that, I’d like to see him get his shot.

Credit: AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Johnson deal finalized; Igawa actually wanted?

By now, it was just a formality, but the Yankees have officially signed Nick Johnson for the 2010 season. The left-handed on-base machine will earn $5.5 million next year as the team’s DH, and the deal includes a mutual option for 2011 at the same base salary. Johnson said earlier that he was willing to give up his desire to play the field in order to join the defending World Series champions. That’s what I like to hear.

In other Yankee rumors, Mark Feinsand dropped an interesting Tweet this morning. Prior to landing Vazquez, the Yanks were talking about Carlos Zambrano, and the Cubs were willing to take on Kei Igawa’s contract. The Kei-meister has two years and $8 million left on his deal, and the Yanks have never seemed too concerned with trading Scranton’s all-time winningest pitcher. I can’t quite figure out why.

Kei Igawa sets his very own record

In a rather dubious fashion, Kei Igawa tied a Scranton record yesterday, and in a few days, he’ll be the sole owner of the mark. PeteAbe with an assist from Chad Jennings, reports that Kei Igawa’s 26th win of his three-year stint at AAA Scranton ties the franchise record. He and Evan Thomas, a career minor leaguer with the Phillies organization, share this dubious distinction.

After the game, Igawa, stuck at AAA forever, kept his achievement in perspective. I can’t tell if he’s being somber or sarcastic. “As long as there is a record that I have chance of setting, it’s something the process to get through,” he said. “It’s a stepping stone, not a final goal of mine.”

Got that? Kei Igawa’s final goal is not to be the most winning Japanese pitcher in the history of the International League or Scranton’s most successful starter. I’m glad he cleared that up.

For his in-progress AAA career, Igawa is now 26-13 with a 3.56 ERA in 51 starts. He’s striking out over 7 per 9 innings and has a WHIP of 1.21. These decent minor league numbers though have not translated into Major League success. With the Yanks, he is 2-4 with a devilish 6.66 ERA in 16 games. Opponents have hit a stunning .302/.386/.549 off of the lefty. He was removed from the 40-man roster in 2008 and hasn’t seen Yankee pinstripes since a one-inning cameo last June. He is still under contract for the next two seasons.

At this point, there’s no real way to sugar coat the Yanks’ decision to sign Kei Igawa. They forked over $46 million for his services, and I doubt he’ll pitch another Big League inning before his contract ends following the 2011 season. While Peter Gammons once blamed Ron Guidry for tinkering with Igawa’s motion and alleged that the Red Sox would put in a waiver claim, that statement seemed more delusional than ever when Igawa passed through waivers last year.

Meanwhile, it is accepted knowledge that the Yanks decided to sign Igawa instead of taking a shot on Ted Lilly for four years and around $40 million. Lilly is third in the Majors in victories since then and 12th in strike outs. Ouch. This might just have been one of the worst Yankee decisions of the last five years.

But as we wait for the game to begin in a few hours, we will tip our caps to Kei Igawa. He now owns an American baseball record. It might be a dubious one, but it is a record indeed. The sad part is that he’ll probably have another two and a half seasons during which he can build on it.