Hughes will start tomorrow in place of Sabathia

As expected, Phil Hughes will start tomorrow in place of the injured CC Sabathia. It’s unclear if Hughes and David Huff will work in tandem as usual, or if they’ll be split up. I guess it depends on whether or not he’s needed in relief. The Yankees need to come up with a starter for Saturday unless they plan on throwing Hiroki Kuroda on short rest. Brett Marshall and Adam Warren could be options for that game.

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Non-Mariano thoughts following the off-day

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The final week of the regular season is upon us. To make the postseason, the Yankees need to win each of their final six games while the Rays, Rangers, and Indians win no more than two of their remaining games. Or something like that. Let’s see the Bombers hold up their end of the bargain before we start worrying about everyone else. Mathematically, the Yankees are still alive. In reality, they’re done. Such is life. Here are some random thoughts.

1. I’m not quite sure what the Yankees are supposed to do during this final week. I want them to play kids — Zoilo Almonte, J.R. Murphy, Dellin Betances, and Cesar Cabral, specifically — but mostly because I can’t bear to watch guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, and Joba Chamberlain any longer. Six games won’t tell us anything about the kids, or least not anything that should change our minds about their long-term potential and possible role in 2013. I’ve just about hit my limit with Ichiro and Stewart and Joba though. They’re unwatchable and there’s something to be said for having a watchable team. Forget looking at it as a fan, I can’t imagine all those companies paying big advertising bucks aren’t so happy with their bang for the buck this year. So please, for my sanity if nothing else, play some young players these last six games and make them interesting.

2. A team official told Erik Boland the return of Phil Hughes for next season “can’t be ruled out,” which is true of pretty much every free agent, really. That seems especially true for Hughes though because the Yankees will have an awful lot of pitching questions to answer prior to next season. If the price is right, the Bombers should definitely look to bring Phil back. The question is what’s the right price? He’s got a 5.07 ERA and 4.53 FIP in 143.2 innings this year, which is by far his worst (mostly) healthy season as a full-time starter. Hughes has alternated ~2 WAR seasons with ~0 WAR seasons since moving into the rotation four years ag0 and you’d be hoping for a rebound by re-signing him. A qualifying offer is out of the question at this point, but would one-year at $4M work? Maybe push it to $5M? I’m a) not terrible confident in the team’s in-house options, and b) in favor of adding as much pitching depth as possible this winter, so I’d definitely bring Hughes back for a year at $4-5M. The problem is he’ll probably get more on the open market — all it takes is one team to overpay.

3. You know how teams who have nothing left to play for — either because they’ve already clinched their postseason spot or have already been eliminated — will trot out a skeleton crew lineup in the final game of the regular season? I wonder if the Yankees will do that on Sunday. If they do, I’d probably use a lineup along these lines:

  1. CF Ichiro
  2. 3B Eduardo Nunez
  3. LF Wells
  4. DH Mark Reynolds
  5. 1B Lyle Overbay
  6. RF Zoilo
  7. 2B David Adams
  8. SS Brendan Ryan
  9. C Murphy

That … looks dangerously close to their regular everyday lineup, no? The only legitimate starting-caliber MLB players who would be sitting in that scenario are Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and Alex Rodriguez. There aren’t that many position player call-ups this year. Hiroki Kuroda lines up to start that day, but since he’s out of gas, the Yankees could start Brett Marshall and have him thrown three or four innings before a parade of September call-up relievers take over. I suppose that depends on what they do to replace the injured CC Sabathia this week.

4. With the understanding that the best team doesn’t always win the World Series, which postseason team do you think is most dangerous in a short playoff series? A lot of people will probably pick the Red Sox because they wrecked the Yankees (twice) in recent weeks or the Tigers because hey, they won the pennant last year, but I think it might be the Reds. Johnny Cueto is back from his third lat strain, so manager Dusty Baker will have two aces (Cueto and Mat Latos) and a damn-near ace (Homer Bailey) in his postseason rotation. Their lineup is crazy deep — particularly with guys who work deep counts and make pitchers to throw a lot of pitches — and their bullpen is really underrated behind Aroldis Chapman. Sean Marshall is back from the DL, lefty Manny Parra dominates same-side hitters, and Sam LeCure and J.J. Hoover are as good as any right-handed setup tandem in the game. Not big names, but big results. The Reds are probably going to have to play a wildcard play-in game, which could derail their season in an instant, but that is definitely not a team I want to play in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series.

The Hughes-Huff Tandem: An unconventional solution to a big rotation problem

Half a rotation spot. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Half a rotation spot. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

For the first four or five months of the season, the pitching staff carried the Yankees. The offense was nonexistent and the guys on the mound had to do all the heavy lifting. That same pitching staff has faltered in recent weeks — Chad Jennings did a great job breaking down the rotation’s recent performance yesterday — perhaps because they’re running out of gas after having so little margin for error earlier in the year. I imagine having to throw something close to a shutout every five days can wear on a pitcher.

The Yankees did not acquire a starter at the trade deadline — they did try to acquire Dan Haren last weekend, but to no avail — so they have had to improvise down the stretch. Since CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte are locked into starting spots no matter what and Ivan Nova pitched more than well enough in July and August to remain in the rotation, Phil Hughes was the odd man out. And deservedly so, he’s been terrible all year.

Unfortunately, the alternatives weren’t all that great. David Phelps (forearm), Vidal Nuno (groin), and Michael Pineda (shoulder) were all hurt, leaving David Huff as the only option. He pitched well in a handful of long relief appearances against last place teams but got destroyed by the Red Sox in his only start, so the Yankees opted to put Hughes back in the rotation with a twist — he and Huff would work in tandem. We saw it against the Orioles last week and Joe Girardi indicated over the weekend the tandem would remain intact.

The whole idea of a tandem starter system is to limit each guy’s exposure. The Yankees are cool with Hughes and Huff going through the lineup once (or once and a half), but the second and third times through are a concern. This calls for some obligatory stats, so here is what Hughes has done each time through the order:

Split G PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG BAbip tOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP 130 1168 107 268 64 6 27 89 250 2.81 .254 .312 .402 .305 92
2nd PA in G, as SP 128 1116 144 270 53 3 44 83 204 2.46 .269 .329 .459 .294 110
3rd PA in G, as SP 119 765 116 196 41 1 38 54 124 2.30 .282 .334 .507 .292 123
4th+ PA in G, as SP 22 37 0 5 0 0 0 0 4 .135 .135 .135 .152 -26
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/17/2013.

Now here is what Huff has done each time through the order:

Split G PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG BAbip tOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP 53 481 52 125 24 2 16 38 57 1.50 .287 .342 .462 .297 93
2nd PA in G, as SP 53 465 69 128 38 6 10 32 57 1.78 .303 .354 .492 .328 103
3rd PA in G, as SP 48 314 55 91 29 0 15 22 35 1.59 .314 .364 .569 .317 122
4th+ PA in G, as SP 7 20 3 5 0 0 2 4 2 0.50 .313 .450 .688 .250 171
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/17/2013.

This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison statistically. Going through the lineup the first time as a starter is different than doing it as a tandem starter. As a starter, you need to hold something back — usually the pitcher’s third pitch — to get through the lineup the second and third time. As a tandem starter, you can go all-out right out of the chute. There’s no reason to hold anything back because the other guy is coming out of the bullpen in an inning or two. It’s more of a reliever mentality and that would improve a guy’s performance, at least in theory.

The tandem starter idea sounds great on paper but it’s difficult to pull off most of the season because roster spots are limited. Using two pitchers to fill one rotation spot means either the bullpen or bench is going to be short. That isn’t an issue for the Yankees now because rosters are expanded, so Hughes and Huff can tag-team the fifth starter’s spot without leaving any other part of the team shorthanded. Girardi used each guy for three innings in Baltimore last week and the result was six combined innings of two-run ball, better than anything either Hughes or Huff could do on their own.

Now, the danger of using a tandem starter system is that you may be replacing an effective pitcher with an ineffective pitcher for no good reason. Who knows, maybe Hughes would have fired off five more scoreless innings had he stayed in the game against the Orioles. The more relievers you use in a game, the more likely you are to run into someone who just doesn’t have it that day, and that could be very costly. Same thing with the tandem starter system; the guy coming out of the ‘pen might be less effective than the guy who just left the game. That’s the risk.

Even though the Yankees were off yesterday and are off again next Monday, they can’t use the schedule to skip the Hughes/Huff rotation spot. If they could, I’m sure they would. The best they can do is push it back a day or two, but at this point they’re better off keeping everyone on turn to give the three veteran guys get an extra day of rest late in the season. By themselves, Hughes and Huff are obviously below-average big league starters. When smushed together in tandem system, they might actually be pretty good because they won’t have to go through a lineup multiple times. Considering the alternatives, it’s the best option the Yankees have.

Mailbag: Kuroda, Hughes, Bird, O’Brien

Five questions and four answers this week. If you ever want to send us anything, mailbag questions or links or comments, use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Dylan asks: If the Yankees re-sign Hiroki Kuroda next year, could they not have him start the season until end of May so he doesn’t hit a wall? They could have him get ready for the season in Extended Spring Training games. Has this ever happened in the league before for an older pitcher (besides when Andy Pettitte came out of retirement, but that wasn’t intentional for the Yankees)?

Although they didn’t sign over the winter with the intention of joining the rotation at midseason, this is basically what 2007 Roger Clemens, 2009 Pedro Martinez, and both 2012 and 2013 Roy Oswalt did. They didn’t find many offers in the offseason and waited until injuries struck and some contender needed pitching help in the middle of the year. Kuroda won’t have that problem this winter.

I do think there is some merit to the idea of holding him back until May — there was some talk of doing with Stephen Strasburg last year since everyone knew he was going to be shut down at some point — but games in April are just as important as games in September. Do you prefer to tack on the wins early or play catch-up late? The guy replacing him in April probably won’t be all that good, so I prefer the former. I think the solution would be lighten Kuroda’s workload from April through July by using off-days to skip or push back starts and take advantage of the All-Star break to give him close to two full weeks off. A phantom DL trip, basically.

Either way, I don’t like the idea of having one of the team’s best starters intentionally skipping a full month or two of the season. I’d rather just take my chances and hope he doesn’t hit a wall in that case. If you’re planning on getting say, 25 starts out of him instead of 32, I would prefer to get the 25 as soon as possible — you could always trade for pitching help at the deadline — and not run the risk of an injury turning those 25 starts into 12 starts or something.

JCK asks: If Phil Hughes dominates out of the bullpen down the stretch, do the Yankees have a chance to bring him back as a reliever in 2014? It would be nice to have 2009 bullpen Hughes in a post-Mariano Rivera world.

I think the chances of the Yankees re-signing Hughes as a reliever are small but still better than they are of them bringing him back as a starter,  which are basically zero. There are only 22 games left in the season and I don’t think that’s enough time for Phil to show he can be truly dominant out of the bullpen like he was in 2009, especially since each game is so important and guys like Preston Claiborne and David Robertson will soak up the more crucial innings. Hughes might just be a mop-up man this month. Heck. Joe Girardi went to Joba Chamberlain over him last night. So yeah, I do think there’s a chance he’ll come back of a reliever, but that chance is still very small. Hard to see Phil returning to the Bronx next year in any role.

Tarik asks: Can you put Greg Bird‘s season into perspective? Is he a legitimate hitting prospect? Is 20 too old for Low-A? Thanks.

Marc asks: Is there any chance Greg Bird could fake the corner OF and spot starts at catcher? Like a poor man’s Ryan Doumit, cause his bat is legit and it would be great to get the most value outta him.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Going to lump these two together. First things first: 20 is absolutely not too old for Low-A. It’s perfectly age appropriate if not slightly young for the level (he turns 21 in November).

Secondly, Bird hit .288/.428/.511 in 573 plate appearances this year, a 170 wRC+ than was the eighth best in all of minor league baseball among players with enough plate appearances to qualify for their league’s batting title (not counting the unaffiliated Mexican League). Four of the seven guys ahead of him were in short season leagues with fewer than 260 plate appearances (including Gosuke Katoh at 172 wRC+), another was a 29-year-old journeyman in Triple-A (Chris Colabello at 196 wRC+), and the other two were two of the best prospects in the game (George Springer at 174 wRC+ and Miguel Sano at 172 wRC+). So, simply put, Bird was one of the absolute best hitters in all of minor league baseball this year regardless of age and level. He mashed.

Tyler Austin hit .322/.400/.559 (~163 wRC+) last season, which actually might be more impressive than Bird’s season considering he was promoted from Low-A Charleston to High-A Tampa at midseason. The talent pool in the second half of full season leagues tends to get watered down because all the best performers get promoted and replaced by guys coming up from a lower level. Jesus Montero‘s best minor league season was 2009, when he hit .337/.389/.562 (~169 wRC+) between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton as a 19-year-old. That’s definitely more impressive than what Bird this year in my opinion considering his age and the levels. Before that, you have to go all that way back to the holy grail of minor league offensive seasons to find a better performance in the Yankees system: 1999 Nick Johnson, who hit .345/.525/.548 with Double-A Norwich. Minor league wRC+ data doesn’t go back that far, but I think it’s safe to say that was close to if not above 200 wRC+. So yeah, Bird mashed in a way very few others have in recent years.

Earlier this week, Jim Callis said Bird has “legitimate power” while Keith Law added “he does have plus raw power,” so we have some consensus there. The Yankees would have tried him in the corner outfield before sticking him at first base if he was capable of doing it, but the back problem that moved him out from behind the plate might be making his mobility an issue. Bird has to prove he can hit at the upper levels of the minors, which makes him no different than every other Single-A prospect in the history of the universe. The offensive bar is very high for first base prospects though — it takes Prince Fielder or Eric Hosmer potential to be a truly elite first base prospect — so Bird will continue to get the short end of the prospect stick. He hit way more than was reasonably expected this season, now let’s just sit back and see what we does next year with High-A Tampa before we start worrying about where he fits into the team’s long-term plans. To be honest, Doumit pretty much sucks and I’m hoping Bird is something much better than that. Versatility is overrated.

Jon asks: With Pete O’Brien being an error machine at third, do you think he could still move to RF? He should have the arm and his bat should easily profile right?

O’Brien runs like a catcher, so I don’t see how a corner outfield spot would work. Most likely, he’ll be a first baseman/DH who can fill in at third or catcher in a real pinch. He’s a prospect because of his big right-handed power, which is something that is in very short supply these days. Righty hitting/righty throwing first baseman is not the sexiest profile in the world, especially considering there are concerns about O’Brien’s approach at the plate. The best right/right first basemen in recent history — Albert Pujols, Paul Goldschmidt, Paul Konerko, Allen Craig, Derrek Lee, Kevin Youkilis, Richie Sexson — all had disciplined approaches that upped their offensive production. More than a few of those guys (Pujols, Lee, Youkilis, Sexson) were top notch defenders as well. The only member of that recent right-right first base group who has stuck in the big leagues despite a poor approach is Mark Trumbo. Trumbo is a flawed hitter and an mediocre player overall because of his defense, but I would be thrilled if that’s what O’Brien turned into. I’d sign up for it today.