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.

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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.

Yankees sign Mark Prior

The one that got away has finally come home. The Yankees took Mark Prior with the 43rd pick of the 1998 draft, but he decided to attend college at USC instead. Three years later he was the consensus top talent in the draft, and after the Twins took Joe Mauer with the first pick the Cubs selected Prior. His career is well known from there, starting with dominance and seemingly ending with injury. Last week we heard that the Yankees and the Rangeres were looking at him on a minor league deal. Now ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that the Yankees have indeed signed him. There’s no risk to the move, though there’s also little upside. Prior is now 30 and hasn’t thrown in the majors since 2006. Since then he has thrown just one minor league inning, and that came last year for Texas’s AAA affiliate.

On the RAB Radio Show today Mike and I talked about taking as many chances as possible on guys coming off injuries. We wholeheartedly support this move.

Update by Mike (6:35pm): If Prior makes the team, he’ll earn $750,000 with the potential to double it in incentives. Chump change.

Yankees interested in Mark Prior

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees and free agent right-hander Mark Prior have mutual interest in what would surely be a minor league deal. Prior has not yet worked out for the team, though they have scouting him during his various independent league stints over the years. Prior did through one inning in Triple-A this past September (for the Rangers), his first action in affiliated ball since 2006. There’s no such thing as a bad minor league contract, but sheesh.

The Yankees, of course, drafted Prior 43rd overall in 1998 but the two sides could not come to terms with a contract. He then went to Vanderbilt for a year before landing at USC and eventually went second overall in 2001. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sunday Morning Links

A few morning links for your pleasure:

Growing up in New England there aren’t many baseball phenoms I get to follow.  While I now pay extra attention to Jeff Locke (wow does that Nate McLouth trade look bad), I hadn’t heard much about Jeff Allison in a while.  Allison was a big story in New England in 2003 when drafted but it was downhill soon thereafter.  Allison unfortunately went down the Josh Hamilton path and had serious problems with substance abuse.  Here’s a recent story on Allison, and it’s good to see that he has been sober for almost 4 years now.  He may never make it to the majors, but he’s come a long way since nearly dying twice of overdoses.  If the baseball story never pans out hopefully the human being side will.

There have been approximately 22,000 articles written this week on Johnny Damon potentially returning to the Red Sox, and then Johnny Damon refusing to return to the Red Sox.  Some people (idiots) ripped him and called him a coward, while others looked a little deeper.  Lee Jenkins had the best take that I read on it, and while Damon didn’t leave New York under the best of circumstances, there was never the animosity that was prevalent when he left Boston.  For a guy who has played for 5 teams (so far) in his career, at the end of it I think he’ll consider himself a Yankee.

We all know Stephen Strasburg is heading for surgery and baseball fans everywhere are saddened by it.  He simply is a talent that fans could rally around because he is truly a special to watch.  Here former phenom Mark Prior addressed the latest news on Strasburg from someone who has clearly been there.  Interesting note in the article is that Prior was recently clocked at 92 MPH.  Prior, once a Yankee draft pick is still trying to come back and while I would never rely on him, I’d love to see the Yankees take a flyer on him.  He is, after all, still just 29 years old.

While I’m not a big Rick Reilly fan he did a good job of telling the story of Jane Lang and her dog Clipper’s recent visit to Yankee stadium.  Not much to add to this but to drive home the fact that Hope Week has quickly become one of the best things about the Yankees season.  Some of the stories really make you reflect on how good you have things, and this is no different.