Link Dump: Prior, Obliques, Projected Standings

Some random linkage on a rainy afternoon in the Tri-State…

Prior's still in Tampa, working his way back. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

A brief Mark Prior scouting report

Right-hander Mark Prior was the feel good story of Spring Training this year, striking out a dozen batters and allowing just one run in 8.2 innings. He was clearly a shell of his former self, but his stuff was good enough to get guys out. Baseball America’s Jim Callis passed along an updated scouting report on the former phenom in this week’s Ask BA: “Prior’s fastball usually ran from 87-91 mph, his breaking ball and changeup were nothing special, and neither was his control (five walks) … Prior will need more fastball and a quality second pitch if he’s going to help New York in a relief role later in the year. I’m rooting for him, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

The Yankees have until mid-June before Prior’s opt-out clause becomes an issue, so there’s no rush to make a decision. He recently appeared in back-to-back games for High-A Tampa and came out of that okay, but he’s obviously got a long, long way to go.

Even more on oblique issues

We’ve heard quite a bit about oblique injuries early in the season, as a number of Yankees missed time in Spring Training because of them. They’re not alone though, oblique issues have become an epidemic around the league. Fourteen players have already hit the disabled list with oblique injuries this season, and Michael Schmidt of The New York Times is trying to figure out why. We’ve heard about imbalanced training already, and another theory is that players are going from offseason training to game conditions too quickly. The Yankees were playing Grapefruit League games less than a week after position players reported. It could also be a classification issue since a lot of these injuries were just called abdominal or ribcage strains in the past. Whatever it is, there’s a lot of money being wasted on the disabled list, and you can be sure teams will get to the bottom of it.

Update projected standings

Before the season, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system projected the Yankees to finish third in the AL East with an 87-75 record. The Red Sox occupied the top spot at 93-69 while the Rays trailed at 88-74, but because of their 2-8 starts, the playoff odds for Boston and Tampa Bay have taken a significant hit. In an ESPN Insider piece, Szymborski shows that updated ZiPS projections call for the Sox to finish 86-76 now, one game back of the Yankees in the division. The Rays are now projected to finish third at 85-77. A 2-8 start certainly isn’t the end of the world, but that’s ten games each team won’t get back, and that absolutely takes a bite out of their playoff hopes.

If nothing else, look at it this way: the Sox came into the season as the favorite in the division and understandably so, but the tangible benefit of being four wins better than New York in terms of roster construction is gone, if it ever existed in the first place.

The wannabe lefty

Earlier today we learned what makes David Robertson so effective: his extension. But did you know he’s ambidextrous? No, he’s not Pat Venditte, who will throw with both hands in game, but as Dan Barbarisi explains, Robertson shags fly balls every day using a glove on his right hand, firing balls back to the infield with his left. He’s even worked out an arrangement with Brett Gardner, who gives D-Rob his gloves to break in during batting practice. No, Robertson isn’t close to throwing left-handed in a game, he’s just working on it as a hobby. “If I can do it with my right hand, I can do it with my left hand. Why not?” said David. “I’m pretty ambidextrous. I just can’t write left-handed. That’s my only problem.”


About that 2003 stuff…

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Once the Yankees failed to sign Cliff Lee, they shifted into salvage mode and grabbed what they deemed to be useful players on the cheap. Among that group was fifth starter Freddy Garcia, long man Bartolo Colon, bench players Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez, and reliever Mark Prior. As each signing trickled in, a familiar wisecrack was bestowed from the masses: “they’d win if it was 2003!” The joke came in various forms, but the one constant was 2003 for whatever reason. People were fixated on that year. So, naturally, the question becomes: what’s so special about 2003 anyway?

This is a convenient place to start since it’s Prior’s first (half) year in the bigs. He came up in late May and pitched to a 3.16 FIP in 116.2 IP, striking out 11.3 batters per nine. Colon was in the middle of a six-year stretch of 4-5 fWAR seasons, splitting a 3.73 FIP in 233.1 IP between the Indians and Expos. Sweaty Freddy was already a vet at age 25, with 87 big league starts to his credit. His second straight Opening Day assignment was followed by 223.2 IP of 4.01 FIP pitching. That’s a fine three-man pitching staff right there.

Jones’ .377 wOBA was the second highest of his career at the time, and the 15.6 runs he saved on defense (!) was then the lowest full season total of his career (!!) by eight runs (!!!). Chavez was a young buck just coming into his own at the time (24 years old), but his .364 wOBA was his third straight year in the .360’s. He also saved nine runs with the glove, down four from the year before.

(AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

Prior zoomed right past Beast Mode and went straight into F*ck Sh*t Up Mode this season, giving the Cubbies 211.1 IP with a 2.47 FIP. Over the last eight years, there have been only five instances in which a pitcher has posted a FIP that low in a single season (min. 180 IP). He was, as they say, redonkulous. Garcia had one of the worst full seasons of his career with a 4.82 FIP in 201.1 IP, and Colon was rather ordinary with a 4.11 IP in a crazy 242 IP. That’s the sixth most innings thrown in a single season by a non-Roy Halladay pitcher over the last eight years. Jones had another phenomenal year (.361 wOBA, 18.4 runs saved) but Chavez slumped with the glove, costing his team 5.2 runs defensively. He did provide another .360-ish wOBA (.365 to be exact), the fourth straight year. This is the year everyone keeps referring too, though Prior and Jones were the only real standouts.

Things started to go south for Prior in ’04, but he still managed a 3.53 FIP in 118.2 IP. Colon had the worst full season of his career (4.97 FIP in 208.1 IP), but Garcia had the second best of his career (3.67 FIP in 210 IP). Once again, Andruw was a monster, saving 24.3 runs defensively with a .351 wOBA. That’s his worst offensive performance in this here “study.” Chavez, meanwhile, had the best offensive season of his career thanks to a .383 wOBA, and he also saved eight-and-a-half runs at the hot corner. The Prior injury and Colon’s poor season really drag this group down.

Fatty vs. fatty. Fatty wins. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Jones stole the show this season, clubbing 51 homers and registered a .382 wOBA at age 28. He also saved 24.3 runs in center, resulting in an 8.3 fWAR effort that was second only to some guy named Alex among all position players. Colon won the Cy Young this year, but a 3.75 FIP in 222.2 IP is more really good than Cy worthy. Garcia (4.05 FIP in 228 IP) and Chavez (.342 wOBA, 7.1 runs saved) were solid but not brilliant. The ’05 season was Prior’s last hurrah, a 3.85 FIP in 166.2 IP. He made nine appearances in 2006 and hasn’t been back to the show since.

* * *

Now that we have an idea of what each player did during this completely arbitrary four year stretch, let’s recap it all using everyone’s favorite catch-all stat, fWAR…

While this fivesome did some fine work in 2003, the 2005 season is where it’s really at. Each player was worth at least three wins, and four topped at least 4.3 wins. The star-level performances aren’t there after Jones, but one star and four other above-average contributors is a recipe for success. So the next time someone says the Yankees would be doing great if it was 2003, make sure you point out that they’d be doing even better if it was 2005.

Mailbag: Slowey, Joba, Prior, Bunting!

Mailbag time. This week we’re going to talk about Kevin Slowey, Joba Chamberlain as a long reliever, Mark Prior‘s chances of making the team, and sacrifice bunting. My favorite strategy. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send your questions in throughout the week.

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Brock asks: Assuming that the MLBTR post about the Twins willing to accept Slowey for relief pitchers is accurate, would you support the Yankees if they went ahead with a move like this? Who would you be willing to give up?

We’ve gotten a ton of Kevin Slowey questions this week, so Joe and I addressed it in yesterday’s podcast. I also looked at him earlier this month. Slowey’s is clearly an upgrade over the dreck the Yankees have at the back of the rotation right now, but he’s a flawed pitcher. He has the lowest ground ball rate of any pitcher in baseball since his debut (31.6%), he has trouble against lefties (.354 wOBA against), and he’s been on the disabled list with an arm-related ailment in each of the last three seasons, including wrist surgery two years ago. That said, he’s young (27 in May), cheap ($2.7M in 2011), under contractual control through 2013, and he doesn’t walk anybody (1.46 uIBB/9 career). He’ll give up some homers, but at least the lack of walks will somewhat mitigate the damage.

As you said, the Twins reportedly want a late-inning reliever in return, and people have asked about giving up Joba. The two right-handers are at the same point of their careers contractually, so they’d be trading three years of Joba for three years of Slowey, so that works out well. However, I’m pretty sure the Yankees could stick Joba in the rotation right now and get Slowey-level production out of him. I also think he’s poised for a big year, though I still acknowledge that an average starter is more valuable than a top-end reliever. Maybe I’m just Joba-hugging too much, but I wouldn’t give that up for Slowey.

Given Slowey’s obvious faults, I wouldn’t trade for him unless the Yankees could get him on the cheap. The Twins have already lowered his value by sticking him in the bullpen, so there’s no need to pay market value for him. There’s no doubt that he’s better than Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Kevin Millwood, and Sergio Mitre, but I don’t see him as an “acquire at all costs” guy.

Drew asks: Okay so my friend and I got into an argument today about Joba. He is convinced that Joba can go out and throw 3 innings and be the long reliever if necessary. He said he throws only 60 pitches max, AND that in bullpen sessions he throws 60-100 pitches so his arm would be okay. I told him he is out of his freaking mind. Please set him straight and tell him he’s crazy.

I think every middle reliever, a guy accustomed to throwing one inning at a time, could go out and thrown three innings or 40-50 pitches in an emergency. That doesn’t mean it’s ideal though. Joba could certainly be the long reliever, but they’d have to stretch him out a bit, to at least 40 pitches or so. I don’t think he could just go right into the season as is and be expected to throw three innings at a time.

That said, Joba’s too good for long relief work. More than a strikeout per inning, fewer than three walks per nine, and a ground ball rate around 45% … that guy should be pitching in some kind of leveraged role, even if it’s just medium leverage.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Ellis asks: What’s up with Mark Prior? His stats look great this spring – is he in the running for a bullpen spot?

Nah, he apparently signed his contract knowing that he needs to go to Triple-A and prove himself. Prior has looked great in camp, but it’s only been a handful of innings against (mostly) minor league competition late in games. He has to show a little more against Triple-A caliber hitters (there’s a lot of Single- and Double-A players late in Spring Training games) and prove he can pitch on back-to-back days. Prior has looked way better than I expected and he’s definitely put himself in consideration for a call-up at some point, but he’s still got some more things to work on before that happens.

Vinny asks: While I know how you guys feel about sac bunts, in certain situations, would you advocate Jeter bunting more to cut down on his double plays? Obviously it would depend on the situation during the game, but I think we can all agree that giving away one out is better than grounding into two, both from an outs and a momentum perspective.

Yeah definitely, but like you said, it depends on the situation during the game. Early in the game, absolutely not, and probably not in the middle innings either. It would have to be late, seventh or eighth or ninth inning in a one-run (either way, leading or trailing) or tied game, where scoring that one run is the sole focus.

I hate sacrifice bunting, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless. Late in a game where one run can improve the team’s chances of winning so greatly, that’s when it’s a sound strategy. It defeats the purpose pretty much anytime after that.

2011 Season Preview: Miscellaneous Relievers

Heading into spring training it appeared that the Yankees had the bullpen all figured out. Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Pedro Feliciano, and one of the long man candidates potentially composed one of the best Opening Day bullpens the Yanks have had in years. But, as happens so often, some of them got hurt. While they all might be fine by Opening Day, they won’t remain that way all year. The Yankees will likely go through about a dozen relievers at various points. In today’s preview we’ll take a look at some of the ones near the top of the list.

Ryan Pope

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

A move to the bullpen last year did Pope good. Before that he was a middling starter who appeared to have little hope of cracking the big league rotation. A move to the rotation might have revived his career with the Yankees. It impressed them enough that they added him to the 40-man roster. That status alone could put him atop the list for a bullpen call-up. He’s probably not a future setup man or anything along those lines, but with some progress this year he could turn into a serviceable middle reliever.

Romulo Sanchez

The recent spate of bullpen injuries could benefit Sanchez, who previously appeared the odd man out. He’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league team they’ll have to place him on waivers. Since basically every team could use bullpen help, especially expected second division teams, it’s easy to envision someone taking a chance on him. The Yanks might avoid that situation if one of their relievers starts the season on the DL — and the team decides that Sanchez is a better overall option than Sergio Mitre.

I just wrote about Sanchez earlier this week, so for a more complete take check out that.

Sergio Mitre

The Yankees keep bringing back Mitre. Two years running they’ve non-tendered him, only to bring him back on a non-guaranteed contract. So apparently he likes it in New York, too. Unfortunately, he hasn’t proven much during his tenure with the team. In 2009 he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and last year he missed time with an oblique injury and otherwise wasn’t much used.

Since he has apparently gained the Yankees’ favor, I thought that he’d break camp as the long man. But as spring progresses we’ve seen indications that suggest otherwise. As we noted earlier this week, some scouts are convinced the Yanks will let Mitre go at the end of spring training. They do have a number of options for that last spot, and Mitre seems behind everyone in the competition. If he does make the team expect much of the same from 2010. That is, sparse usage in mop-up duty.

Mark Prior

The Yankees and Prior are on the same page, in that they both expect him to open the season at AAA to help him build up strength with an eye on a possible big league return. The most important aspect of Prior is that he’s none of the guys he has been in the past. That is, he’s not the phenom ace who led the Cubs to the 2003 ALCS. Nor is he the injury prone schlub who hasn’t pitched a big league game since 2006. He appears to be in decent health now, and his repertoire has necessarily changed.

If Prior stays healthy there’s a good chance he makes it back to the bigs in a relief role this year. It’s hard to say what he’ll do, because we don’t know what kind of pitcher he’ll become as he redevelops his game.

Steve Garrison

(David Goldman/AP)

Last September the Yankees claimed Garrison off waivers from the Padres, though it was too late for him to get into a minor league game. He’s not much of a prospect, but he is left-handed and on the 40-man, and therefore will get plenty of shots to crack the big league club, especially in relief. Mike wrote a profile of Garrison earlier this spring. An interesting note: if he starts the season at AA, he’ll be playing in front of his hometown crowd. He was born in Trenton, NJ.

Andrew Brackman

In the early days of camp Brackman seemingly impressed just as much as his fellow Bs. His groin injury cost him about a week, which is a big deal early in the spring. He pitched only 2.2 live innings before heading down to minor league camp, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about his closeness to the bigs. At some point he could take some turns in the rotation, but later it’s also possible that he breaks into the majors as a reliever.

His current arsenal certainly profiles well out of the bullpen. He features a 93-95 mph fastball that he keeps low in the zone, and an above average curveball. Baseball America notes that he also added a “nascent slider that shows potential,” but he’ll probably need to develop his changeup, something he’s struggled with, if he’s going to find success in the rotation. Without that he might be ticketed for the bullpen in the long-term. He might be ticketed there in the short-term, too, though that might not come until later in the season.

It’s tantalizing to imagine him in the bullpen come August. That 93-95 mph fastball could reach the upper 90s, and his curve could prove a devastating knock-out pitch. While ideally he progresses throughout the season and enters the rotation at some point, Brackman the reliever could provide plenty of value on his own.

Pulling for a Mark Prior comeback

I know exactly where I was the last time I saw Mark Prior pitch a Major League game and paid close attention to it. It was 2003, still two seasons before injuries would shelve him for the better part of five, and it was October. I had a week off for fall break, and I was visiting my grandparents in Florida. Earlier in the day, the Yanks had won Game 5 of their ALCS match-up against Boston to take a 3-2 lead in the series, and the evening action shifted to Chicago.

For many in the Windy City, October 14, 2003 is a day that still lives in infamy. The Cubs, thanks to Prior, were oh-so-close to the World Series. The 23-year-old right-hander, making his 33rd appearance of the season and with nearly 230 innings under his belt, carried a three-hitter into the 8th, and the Cubs had a 3-0 lead. Then, all hell broke loose.

Prior got Mike Mordecai to fly out before Juan Pierre doubled. Luis Castillo lofted a foul ball that Moises Alou seemed to track before Steve Bartman, oblivious to the game with his headphones broadcasting the radio feed, leaned over to interfere with play. While Alou later said he wouldn’t have made the catch, the Marlins had life. Castillo walked, and Ivan Rodriguez singled in a run. Miguel Cabrera reached on an Alex Gonzalez error, and after the 119th pitch of the 233rd inning of Prior’s season, Derrick Lee hit a game-tying double. Dusty Baker brought in Kyle Farnsworth, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As a Yankee fan watching the NLCS unfold, I was happy to see the Cubs go down but sad to see Chicago so victimized. The city and the team truly seemed cursed, but selfishly, I didn’t want to see the Yanks face Kerry Wood and Mark Prior three or four times in a potential seven-game World Series. Back in 2003, I kept having nightmares of a Schilling/Unit tandem but in Cubs’ uniforms. Be careful what you wish for when it comes to baseball, I learned.

After that game, the Cubs and Prior faded into and out of my baseball conscious. Over the next two years, he put together some mighty fine peripherals with a K/9 of 10.3 and a K/BB rate of 3.06. But he couldn’t stay healthy. He threw just 285.1 innings over two seasons and lasted just 43.2 disastrous innings into the 2006 season. He hasn’t made a Major League appearance since August 10, 2006, and has tried rehab and comebacks with various organizations and independent league teams.

This year, as we know, Prior is with the Yanks on a minor league deal. He’s 30 now and is hoping that he can restore himself to some semblance of use. He’s being considered strictly a reliever, and anything the Yanks get out of him at any professional level is a bonus. Still, I’m pulling for him. Of all the Yanks’ spring training invites, he’s the guy I most want to see succeed. He’s finally with the organization that drafted him in the late 1990s, and he’s basically pitching for the only career he’s ever known.

Over at LoHud tonight, Chad Jennings takes us inside Mark Prior’s arm. The one-time ace has pitching with a torn shoulder capsule a few years ago. Surgery can’t fix it, and he’s hoping it will hold up. “They’re trying to compare what I am today to maybe what I was in 2005 when I was last throwing the way everybody probably remembers me throwing,” he said to Jennings. “I can’t do it. I can’t compare it. I’m not the same person.”

Yet for all of his trials and tribulations, Prior seems to have a good attitude about him. He’s working to find his stuff, locate his fastball and stay healthy. So far, he’s emerged unscathed through one bullpen session, which might be more than anyone expected this early in the spring.

The Yanks, for their part, have a feint glimmer of hope in him. “I definitely think the stuff is capable, and I definitely think it’s there,” Larry Rothschild, Prior’s former Cubs pitching coach and current Yankee boss, said. “Is it what it used to be? Probably not. It’s kind of like apples and oranges, but I definitely think it’s good enough to get guys out, absolutely.”

So I’ll cheer for Prior and hope he can give something, anything, to the Yanks this year. Even a handful of appearances would be more than what he’s done in the past. It would be a great comeback story indeed.