Scouting The Free Agent Market: Luis Ayala

(Drew Hallowell/Getty)
(Drew Hallowell/Getty)

Three years ago, the Yankees gave veteran right-hander Luis Ayala an opportunity to bring his career back from the dead. He had not been an effective big leaguer in four years (or a big leaguer at all in two years) when they signed him to a minor league deal, but he impressed in winter ball and the team gave him a chance. Ayala wound up making the club and having a strong season in a middle relief role.

The Yankees now find themselves in a similar situation as three years ago. They need some bullpen arms and Ayala remains unsigned, looking for a job. The Tigers, Indians, Orioles, Red Sox, Rays, Dodgers, Giants, and Phillies have all expressed interest in him according to Tim Dierkes and Chris Cotillo, enough teams that he is holding out for a multi-year contract. I’m not sure if that will happen at age 35 (36 on Sunday), but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Does a reunion with Ayala make sense for the Yankees? Let’s look at what he has to offer.

The Pros

  • Since resurfacing with the Yankees three years ago, Ayala has remained effective and pitched to a 2.58 ERA and 3.85 FIP in 164 innings. He’s been outperforming his FIP pretty much his entire career. At this point we have to say it’s a skill, not a fluke.
  • Ayala is a classic sinker/slider guy who gets grounders (51.4% since 2011) and limits walks (2.58 BB/9 and 6.8 BB% since 2011). His trademark sinker continues to sit right around 90 mph.
  • He hasn’t had a platoon split these last three years. He’s held righties to a .311 wOBA (53.8% grounders) and lefties to a .318 wOBA (48.3% grounders) since 2011.
  • Ayala has done it all out of the bullpen, so he has experience in a number of roles and is versatile. He closed earlier in his career, he’s been a setup man, a mop-up man, a middle reliever, you name it. Hooray flexibility.

The Cons

  • Ayala is a low strikeout pitcher (6.15 K/9 and 16.1% since 2011) and his strikeout rate is slowly trending in the wrong direction: 6.27 K/9 (16.7 K%) in 2011, 6.12 K/9 (15.9 K%) in 2012, and 6.00 K/9 (15.0 K%) in 2013.
  • Although his overall platoon split is small, lefties have been giving Ayala a harder time in recent years. They tagged him for a .301 wOBA in 2011, a .322 wOBA in 2012, and a .346 wOBA in 2013. He might devolve into a pure righty specialist in 2014.
  • Ayala is no stranger to the DL. He missed more than two months with an axiety disorder last year and he spend a month on the sidelines with a shoulder problem in 2011. Ayala also had shoulder (2003) and elbow (2005-2007) problems earlier in his career.

The Yankees and Ayala are already familiar with each other from their previous marriage, so both sides know what they’re getting into. The team knows what he is like in the clubhouse, knows his medical history, all that stuff. Ayala knows the coaching staff, a bunch of guys on the team, and the expectations that come with wearing pinstripes. I don’t think that stuff is a huge deal — especially when talking about a middle reliever on a short-term deal — but it’s not a negative.

When the Yankees let Ayala walk following the 2011 season, I was totally cool with it because he is exactly the kind of pitcher you want to cut ties with a year too early rather than a year too late. He’s since gone on to have two strong seasons with the Orioles and Braves, so his success in the Bronx was not a one-year fluke. The declining strikeout rate and decrease in effectiveness against lefties are red flags, no doubt about, but not big enough to scare me away from a one-year deal. Multiple years though? No thanks.

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Yankees interested in re-signing Luis Ayala

Via Ben Nicholson-Smith, the Yankees remain interested in re-signing the worst sub-2.00 ERA pitcher in baseball history, Luis Ayala. Well, technically that nickname doesn’t apply anymore thanks to that three-run homer he allowed to Evan Longoria in Game 162 last year, which knocked his final ERA up to 2.09.

In all seriousness, Ayala was perfectly fine given his role, which was basically the last guy in the bullpen for most of the season. He did it with ground balls (50.0%), not with strikeouts (6.27 K/9 and 16.7 K%) or even by limiting walks (3.21 BB/9 and 8.6 BB%). The Yankees have two open spots in their bullpen and Ayala — who turns 34 on Thursday — would fit decently into one of them, but this isn’t a situation where they have to go nuts to sign him. Five other clubs reportedly have interest in signing him, and anything more than a few hundred grand or so would really be pushing it.

Eight Yankees file for free agency as offseason begins

The 2011-2012 free agency period officially started at 12:01am ET this morning, and eight Yankees have filed for free agency: Luis Ayala, Eric Chavez, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Andruw Jones, Damaso Marte, Sergio Mitre, and Jorge Posada. Free agents can talk to other teams right now, but they can not receive any offers until 12:01am ET this coming Thursday. Adam Rubin has the full and official list of free agents as supplied by the players’ union.

The 40-man roster is now at 35, but Colin Curtis still needs to be activated off the 60-day DL.

What Went Right: Noesi, Wade, and Ayala

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

We’ve seen it every year of the Joe Girardi era. The Yankees finish the season with a bullpen that looks a whole lot different than the one they started the year with, and 2011 was no exception. Injuries and poor performance always play a part in that, but it’s also a two-way street. The guys that do the replacing have to perform well enough to stick around. Let’s look at three surprise contributors to the team’s bullpen this past season…

Hector Noesi

The Yankees rotation was a bit of a mess early in the season, leaving the bullpen to pick up a lot of slack. Guys like Amaury Sanit and Buddy Carlyle came and went, but when the Yankees first called up Noesi on April 13th, he didn’t pitch. He sat around in the bullpen until being sent back down nine days later. Noesi re-emerged from the minors on May 13th, and this time he got his chance. His first appearance came five days later,and he responded by throwing four scoreless frames in extra innings against the Orioles to earn his first big league win.

Noesi continued to get looks in long relief, including a six inning, two-run outing against the Red Sox on June 7th, and he even worked some one inning, higher leveraged spots from time to time. Two late season starts while the Yankees were lining up their playoff rotation didn’t go so well, but he made a strong impression by posting a 4.09 FIP in 56.1 IP overall. His swing and miss rate (9.4%) was strong enough to forecast improvement to his 7.19 K/9 going forward, no matter what role he’s given. The Yankees have Noesi on a strict pitch count in winter ball as he makes up for all the innings he lost while pitching out of the bullpen.

Cory Wade

(Elsa/Getty Images)

Signed to a minor league pact after being released by the Rays in mid-June, Wade made just a single appearance for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate before being summoned to the big leagues. He made a great first impression by retiring the first 12 men he faced in pinstripes, and with both Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano on the shelf with elbow injuries, Wade quickly stepped into the seventh inning role.

All told, Wade pitched to a 2.04 ERA with a 3.76 FIP in 39.2 IP for the Yankees. He was true to form with a low strikeout rate (6.81 K/9), low walk rate (1.82 BB/9), a high homerun rate (1.13 HR/9), getting by with dead fish changeups and lazy fly balls. Wade had a rough finish to the season, allowing back-to-back walk off hits to the Mariners and Blue Jays in mid-September before surrendering Dan Johnson’s game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth inning of a final game of the season, but that’s not enough to erase all the good. Wade is still under team control for another four years, including at the league minimum in 2012, so the Yankees did a fine job of plucking a solid middle relief option off the scrap heap.

Luis Ayala

One of many players the Yankees brought to camp on minor league contracts, Ayala had a strong showing in Spring Training (one run, nine strikeouts, zero walks in 11.1 IP) and earned one of the last Opening Day roster spots. A mid-April lat strain sent him to the DL, but Ayala returned in early-May and was arguably the best last-guy-in-the-bullpen in baseball. He racked up a 2.09 ERA (4.19 FIP) in 56 IP, relying on his 50% ground ball rate to survive.

We joked all year about how Ayala was the worst sub-2.00 ERA pitcher in history (he had a sub-2.00 ERA until the last game of the season), but he truly was a solid pitcher given how he was used. His 0.89 gmLI (Leverage Index when entering games) ranked 117th out of the 134 qualified relievers, meaning he did most of his work in low-leverage, blowout situations. Someone has to throw those innings though, and Ayala did a fine job when called upon. It would be a surprise if he returned next season (this is exactly the kind of guy you get rid of a year too soon rather than a year too late), but Ayala was a positive contributor to the 2011 Yankees.

Yankees announce ALDS roster

Here is the Yankees’ ALDS roster:

Infielders: Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Eduardo Nunez, Eric Chavez

Outfielders: Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Andruw Jones, Chris Dickerson

Catchers: Russell Martin, Jesus Montero

DH: Jorge Posada

Starters: CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia

Relievers: Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Cory Wade, Boone Logan, Luis Ayala, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes

The year of magical pitching

You could almost taste it. Cliff Lee was going to sign, Andy was going to come back, Hughes would take a step forward, the bullpen would stay healthy and the Yankees would have one of the most dominant pitching staffs in baseball and march towards a 100-win season. It sounds idealistic in retrospect, but at certain junctures this winter it didn’t seem all that far off. Of course, it didn’t quite play out that way. Cliff Lee signed up for the inferior transit system and culture of Philadelphia, Andy retired, and Hughes got hurt and took half of the bullpen with him. And then something funny happened. Brian Cashman made a bunch of little moves, earning screams from the haters, and a lot of them actually worked. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but in 2011 the new market inefficiency has been whatever Cashman says it is.

In the bullpen, Cashman picked up Luis Ayala on a minor-league deal, and while Ayala did make a brief trip to the disabled list in April he’s pitched very well out of the pen. He’s given the Yankees 22.2 innings, giving up 19 hits, 8 walks and striking out 18. He’s getting groundballs at a very nice rate, almost 50%, and he has an ERA of 1.25. Even though his BABIP is relatively normal he has a super-high strand rate and a lower HR/FB ratio, which means his xFIP of 3.77 is likely more predictive of his future performance than his ERA. Regardless, he’s been a useful cog for the team so far nonetheless. The other surprising reliever has been Cory Wade, profiled extensively by Mike here. As Mike noted, he has obvious limitations but he’s a very nice minor league depth move at this time of the year. He’s found his way to the major league roster and he’s pitched perfectly so far, allowing no hits over 3 innings and striking out 3.

In the rotation the hot story right now is Brian Gordon, who pitched 5.1 innings of two run ball against Texas on Thursday, walking three and striking out three. Some wanted Hector Noesi to take this spot, but the organization didn’t feel that he was able to provide the necessary length for a starter given that he has been pitching in relief. Others wanted one of David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell or Adam Warren didn’t get the opportunity to start the major league level. In a piece reviewing Gordon’s performance at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe quoted his fellow Pinstriped Bible author Steven Goldman as getting quite upset about this, saying, “The only possible message is that they will never be good enough, that the Yankees are so deeply suspicious of their own prospects that they would rather take someone else’s trash over their own treasure.” Yet as Jaffe so aptly noted, this isn’t the only possible message the organization is sending the young bucks:

The glass-half-full take on Gordon’s addition is that at no cost, Cashman alertly added another arm to the organizational larder at a time when the Yankees have two starters and two key relievers on the disabled list, with zero guarantee that Colon, Phil Hughes, and Rafael Soriano will be effective and bulletproof the rest of the way

The other two scrap heap rotation pickups are obvious. The first is Freddy Garcia. Despite the fact that he always seems on the verge of getting lit up, Freddy Garcia has been an entirely serviceable fifth starter for the Yankees this year. He has a strikeout rate of 6.38/9 and a walk rate of 3.25/9 to go along with his ERA of 3.63. He doesn’t get a lot of fly balls, and so he lives and dies by his ability to command the ball well and command it low in the zone. He’s managed to throw 72 innings for the Yankees so far this year, and he threw 157 for the White Sox last year, so Sweaty Freddy may be able to keep chugging along all summer long.

And of course there’s Bartolo Colon, arguably the best pitcher on the Yankees until he got hurt. That isn’t meant as disrespect to staff ace CC Sabathia, but it’s remarkable how similar their lines have been. Sabathia has a 3.28 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 3.50 xFIP, a 2.89 K/BB ratio and a 47.3 GB%, whereas Colon has a 3.10 ERA, a 3.34 FIP, a 2.99 xFIP, a 4.00 K/BB ratio and a 47.3 GB%. Colon has struck out more than a batter per nine innings more than Sabathia, but Sabathia has an obvious edge on innings over Colon. But whether or not he compares favorably to Sabathia only demonstrates how spectacular Colon has been on the year. For $900,000 the Yankees have gotten some of the best pitching in baseball this year. To say that he’s exceeded expectations is an understatement. He’s been the $2 scratch-off ticket that wins you a cool grand.

After an offseason that saw the Yankees throw yet another gigantic contract at yet another highly regarded free agent, only to see him go elsewhere, Brian Cashman has shown a remarkable ability to create and preserve depth in the rotation and the bullpen by picking up starters on the cheap and snatching other extraneous pitchers off the lower rungs of the depth charts of other teams. 2011 is a season in which a lot could have gone wrong so far. At times it feels like this team is walking a high wire. But it’s also a season in which a lot of what Brian Cashman has touched has turned to gold. It’s true that you don’t count on these things lasting forever. Is Cory Wade really a shutdown reliever? Is Brian Gordon anything but an organizational arm capable of filling in for a few starts? Will Sweaty Freddy’s stream of junkballs really baffle hitters for another hundred and forty innings? It doesn’t seem likely, and that’s why it’s good to hear that the front office isn’t resting on its laurels and counting on the current crew to take them into October. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that the contributions of the cast-offs have proven vital to this team’s early season success.

Feliciano has setback, Ayala to disabled list

Via Jon Heyman and Marc Carig, Pedro Feliciano suffered a setback to his strained rotator cuff during today’s throwing session and will have an MRI tomorrow. I wouldn’t wait around for him, there’s a decent chance he won’t be pitching for the Yankees anytime soon. For shame. In other news, Luis Ayala is hurt as well, and he’s headed to the disabled list with a strained lat. Not sure who will be replacing him on the roster, but it’s unlikely to be Andrew Brackman, Steve Garrison, or Ryan Pope. The first two are making minor league starts tonight, and Pope’s on the minor league DL himself. Could it be … Mark Prior time?