One Way To Improve the Pitching Staff

When the Yankees surged early in the year, they did it largely on the backs of the pitching staff. Hiroki Kuroda was pitching like an ace, CC Sabathia hadn’t fallen apart, David Phelps came on strong, and Phil Hughes pitched very well in a number of his starts (though got creamed in others). Even Andy Pettite had pitched well, and when he got hurt the Yankees got pretty competent performances in his absence.

This is no longer the case. Since the Yankees tumbled out of first the pitching staff has performed considerably worse, leaving the Yankees in fourth place and six games back of the Wild Card. Worse, they have no games remaining against five of the eight teams ahead of them in the AL standings. If they’re going to fight their ways back into this they need a 1995-esque run, which means running the board against AL East opponents.

The Yankees have addressed one area of weakness, finding a platoon partner for Lyle Overbay in Mark Reynolds. That should give them some additional firepower against lefties, which they sorely need. Yet it won’t be enough on its own. They need plenty of other help to leapfrog four teams and slide into the second Wild Card slot. The pitching staff represents one area where they could make a solid improvement.

Earlier today we learned that Phil Hughes is willing to pitch out of the bullpen next year. My only question is, why wait? Hughes’s 4.97 ERA ranks 43rd out of 46 qualified AL starters. He’s averaging a hair more than 5.1 innings per start. His woes also didn’t start this year. Since his return to the rotation in 2010 he ranks 49th out of 63 qualified starters in ERA. Things have gone downhill since then, as he ranks 39th out of 42 since 2011.

The problem is that the Yankees don’t have a viable replacement at the moment. Adam Warren could perhaps fit the bill, but he’s still an unknown at this point. Brett Marshall hasn’t exactly earned a spot with his AAA performances. Vidal Nuno is on the DL, as is David Phelps. Michael Pineda would have been nice here, but chances are we won’t see him pitch again this year. If the Yankees want to make such a transition, they’d have to look outside the organization.

A couple of well-known pitchers have cleared waivers in the last few days. First is left-hander Erik Bedard, the last remaining Astro earning more than $1 million. His overall season doesn’t look much better than Hughes’s, so that could be an exercise in futility. The other name is quite a bit more interesting: Dan Haren.

Like Bedard, Haren has struggled this year. His 4.82 ERA is actually higher than Hughes’s. Yet that doesn’t tell the whole story. Haren actually had a 6.15 ERA through his first 15 starts, but then went on the DL with right shoulder inflammation. That must have been truly bothering him, because he has been downright phenomenal since his return on July 8th: 2.30 ERA in 43 innings, meaning he’s averaging over six innings per start. Opponents are hitting .191/.250/.283 off him, and he’s struck out 42 while walking just 10.

For their part, the Nats are in a much worse position than the Yankees. They might have fewer teams between them and the second Wild Card (just two), but they’re also 9.5 games back of it with 42 games left to play. Their only chances against teams ahead of them (Atlanta notwithstanding, because that’s simply not happening) come with the last two series of the year, against St. Louis and Arizona. Oh, and they’re under .500 120 games into the season. If they can get even a C prospect and salary relief for Haren, they might as well try.

For the Yanks, the time has come to grasp at straws. That’s exactly what the Mark Reynolds acquisition represents. They’re looking at what’s available and adding where they can. Adding Haren, and moving Hughes to the bullpen, should help shore up both aspects of the pitching staff. They could jettison its weakest member, Joba Chamberlain, in hopes that Hughes not only performs better, but can become a reliable part of the setup crew, as he was in 2009.

(As an added bonus, if the Yanks get this done before the doubleheader Tuesday, both Haren and Hughes are lined up to pitch. That would work out better than having to call up Marshall [assuming David Huff gets DFA’d to make room for Reynolds today].)

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Martino: Hughes open to pitching in relief next season

Via Andy Martino: Impending free agent Phil Hughes indicated a willingness to pitch out of the bullpen next year. “I feel like pitching at this level is a blessing in any way,” he said. “So if teams value me as a starter, that’s great. If not, and that’s their opinion, we’ll see what happens. We will see how it shakes out.”

Hughes, 27, has an ugly 4.97 ERA (4.71 FIP) in 125 innings across 23 starts this season. He’s never not be awesome in relief — 1.44 ERA (1.93 WHIP) in 56.1 innings, most coming in 2009 — and at this point it’s clear he’s best suited for a bullpen role. The Yankees are losing Mariano Rivera to retirement and Joba Chamberlain (and Boone Logan?) to free agency this winter, so they will need to dig up some replacement relief arms. I’m guessing the team will cut ties completely, but there would definitely be a place for Hughes in the bullpen going forward.

Phil Hughes and his looming contract — Take 2

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Back in May, I took a shot at predicting Phil Hughes’s upcoming contract. Ultimately, at the time, I figured Phil’s next contract would wind up looking comparable to Edwin Jackson’s deal, or roughly four years and $52M (with guys like John Lackey or Anibal Sanchez representing the best-case scenario for Hughes if he was fantastic this season). Unfortunately for Phil, a lot more of the season has gone by since I first posted on this matter, and most have it has been negative, at least as it pertains to his contributions. So, have circumstances changed? Let’s take a look.

At this point, it seems very unlikely that New York will offer an extension to Phil for good reason. He’s been pretty terrible this season. At 4-10, Hughes has pitched to a 4.87 ERA (4.67 FIP) and has accumulated 0.8 fWAR — a mark well-below-average. That’s pretty lousy. In terms of peripherals, he’s striking out 7.38 batters per nine innings (good but not great), and walking 2.67 per nine (again, good but not great). His strikeout rate is about in line with where it normally is (1.57 HR/9), which is decidedly not great.

Phil’s looked especially feeble recently, having surrendered five runs in each of his last two starts while being driven out of each game before the fifth. I think the case could be made pretty convincingly that the last time Phil actually helped the team was July 2nd, when he limited the offensive juggernaut that is the Twins to one run over seven innings. Hughes isn’t quite as useless as Joba Chamberlain right now, but he’s close.

And so enters the qualifying offer into the discussion. Basically, the team has the option to offer Phil a one year agreement at roughly $14M for next season. There are some “pros” for choosing to this path. First, next year’s rotation is in shambles. CC Sabathia has to be considered a question mark. Who knows whether Hiroki Kuroda or Andy Pettitte will be back. That doesn’t leave much beyond unproven arms such as Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, and David Phelps. Hughes isn’t perfect by any means, but at least that’s one less question mark … well, sort of anyway.

Second, and for all you optimistic types, maybe Hughes puts up better numbers next season; they can’t be worse right? Aside from benefiting the team, a rebound raises Hughes’ personal value, which in turn could lead to a better return should the team try to trade him next season, or at the very least, make everyone a hell of a lot more confident about re-signing him again moving forward. Third, should Hughes decline the qualifying offer, it’d ensure the team gets a nice compensation pick in the first round. The con is pretty self-evident of course; the team could wind up paying $14M for more of what they’re getting right now, which is a perfectly legitimate concern.

After performing so poorly this season, I’d have to imagine Hughes would strongly consider the qualifying offer should New York pose it. That’s $14M in the bank right now, and he’d still be young enough to get a decent paycheck in 2015 if he could rebound a bit next season. Unfortunately, 2015 looks to have more competition on the free agent market, but you have to figure most of the big names (i.e. Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer) will be unavailable when the time comes as teams will look to lock up their young stars. If for some reason the qualifying offer doesn’t appeal to Hughes, he could test the free agent market after this season, which seems less competitive.  For what it’s worth, if Hughes tests free agency now, he’ll be one of the younger arms available which will probably work to his favor.

Maybe Phil is seeking a change of scenery. Everyone knows he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher. Maybe a place like San Diego or Minnesota makes a lot of  sense for him going forward, and maybe he’s willing to take his chances elsewhere if circumstance allows. Unless Phil finishes the season very strong, I don’t see any team giving him the Edwin contract (though I’ve certainly be wrong before). Perhaps, a Wandy Rodriguez arrangement is plausible though in the open market – say, something in the vicinity of three years and $30M. After all pitchers are always in demand, and it only takes one team to jack up the price. I could see a team offering Hughes a two-year, $26M gig (similar to Ryan Dempster) too. What I don’t envision is any team offering a one-year rebound opportunity that looks more appealing than the Yankees qualifying offer. As far as the dollars, some of the examples listed may feel inflated considering his overall production. Unfortunately, supply and demand will create just such a dilemma.

What happens with Hughes after the season?

2013 Trade Deadline Open Thread

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The non-waiver trade deadline is 4pm ET this afternoon, so between now and then there will be a plethora of rumors, speculation, moves, and more. Some of it might even involve the Yankees. I would hope so at least, given their laundry list of needs and spot on the fringes of contention.

Yesterday we learned … not a whole lot. Depending on who you ask, the Yankees may or may not be in the race for Alex Rios, Michael Young, Hunter Pence, and Mike Morse. We do know they are prioritizing a right-handed first baseman to platoon with Lyle Overbay, but that’s really it. They could really use a third baseman, plus the catching position and starting rotation could stand to be upgraded as well. Those are lower priority needs right now. A righty first base bat and third baseman are the top two items on the shopping list.

We’re going to keep track of all the Yankees-related rumors leading up to the deadline right here in this post, so make sure you check back often between now and 4pm. You should come back after that as well; some deals aren’t announced until later in the afternoon. All of the timestamps below are ET.

  • 3:56pm: The Yankees have “nothing of consequence in works.” [Rosenthal]
  • 3:41pm: The Yankees are “not getting traction” in talks with the Phillies about Young. They also spoke to the Braves about Hughes, but they’re unlikely to make a deal. [Buster Olney & Sherman]
  • 2:59pm: New York is optimistic they will have a deal done before the deadline. Deal for who or what? No idea. [Sherman]
  • 2:49pm: The Yankees have received two offers for Phil Hughes and are considering them. No word on the teams or other players involved. [Bob Nightengale]
  • 2:02pm: The team has indeed been told Young is willing to accept a trade to New York, apparently. Back and forth we go. [Mark Feinsand]
  • 1:57pm: The Yankees aren’t getting very far in their search for a third baseman. They don’t have much interest in Placido Polanco, who is very available. [Ken Rosenthal]
  • 1:49pm: Young has still not changed his mind about waiving his no-trade clause to come to the Yankees, but the team remains hopeful about acquiring him. [Andy McCullough & Jon Heyman]
  • 1:31pm: A team official said everything is “all quiet” as of right now. That’s bad. [Sherman]
  • 9:30am: The expectation is that the Yankees will do something today, even if they only flip Joba Chamberlain for a prospect. The team expects Curtis Granderson and possibly Alex Rodriguez to return soon, and they don’t want overlapping parts. [Joel Sherman]
  • The Yankees had their eyes on Alberto Callaspo before he was traded to the Athletics last night. They liked that the switch-hitting infielder was signed through next year ($4.875M) given the uncertainty surrounding A-Rod and the general need for an improved bench. [Sherman]
  • Once the deadline passes, New York will be in great shape to make waiver trades given their spot in the standings. They’ll have a higher waiver priority than the other serious wildcard contenders, giving them a better opportunity to acquire (or block) pieces in August. Some consolation prize. [Buster Olney]

Rosenthal: Yankees have yet to receive an offer for Phil Hughes

Via Ken Rosenthal: The Yankees had not received any trade offers for right-hander Phil Hughes as of yesterday. The team has reportedly been “aggressively pushing” him on the market in hopes of landing a bat, though that was before the recent Alfonso Soriano trade.

Hughes, 27, has a 4.58 ERA (4.64 FIP) in 112 innings across 20 starts this year. To no one’s surprise, his home/road splits are rather drastic. The Yankees aren’t exactly blessed with a ton of pitching depth at the moment, and if they’re not going to get a decent bat in return, they should just hold onto Hughes for the second half. No point in making a move just to make a move.

Mailbag: Hughes, Soriano, Wells, Konerko

Got five questions for you today. If you want to send us anything throughout the week, the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the way to go.

Former Ranger Mike Olt. (Ed Zurga/Getty)
Former Ranger Mike Olt. (Ed Zurga/Getty)

Alex asks: Guys, do you think that with the haul the Cubs got for Matt Garza, the Yankees could reasonably expect to obtain a Mike Olt type of prospect for Phil Hughes? Obviously the package would be less than what the Cubs got for Garza, but using the framework, could the Yankees get a pretty solid return for Hughes?

Olt, whose stock is down quite a bit this year, ranked 44th on Baseball America’s midseason top 50 prospects list. I like him less than that and think he’s more of a 75-100 prospect, but my opinion doesn’t matter. Teams have their own internal evaluation of every player and that’s most important.

Pitchers similar to Hughes — that means a back of the rotation starter due to become a free agent — who have been traded at the deadline in recent years include Ted Lilly, Joe Saunders, Joe Blanton, Jason Marquis, Erik Bedard, and Jake Westbrook. Hughes is by far the youngest of the group, but age doesn’t really matter when you’re talking about a three-month rental.

The trade return for those guys ranges from a big league reliever (Saunders for Matt Lindstrom), one good but not great pitching prospect (Westbrook for Corey Kluber), four fringe prospects (Bedard), a promising young big leaguer (Lilly for Blake DeWitt), and a borderline non-prospect (Blanton). No one on par with Olt, obviously.

This is a seller’s market though, mostly because more teams are in contention thanks to the second wildcard and no one wants to sell. If you have an asset like a back-end starter, you might be able to fetch more than expected. An Olt-caliber prospect is probably the best-case scenario for Hughes. I do think the Yankees are going to keep him unless they get a legit big league bat in return, however.

John asks: Who is considered — at this point in their respective careers — a better defender in left field, Alfonso Soriano or Vernon Wells?

Soriano was a complete disaster in left field when he first made the transition from second base, but he’s worked really hard to improve out there over the years. Experience helps as well. UZR has rated him a bit above-average in recent years while DRS has him a bit below-average. I prefer DRS personally, but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I don’t watch enough Cubs games to say if one jibes with the eye test more than the other.

Wells was never as good as his reputation as a Gold Glover, but both UZR and DRS agree that he’s been ever so slightly above-average in the field since shifting to left three years ago. He’s graded out as below-average in center for a half-decade now. I’ve been pretty underwhelmed with Wells’ defense, particularly his range, but I suppose it is better than the typical left fielder. Defensive stats aren’t precise enough to argue over fractions of a run and whatnot, and at this point I think Vernon’s the better defensive left fielder. Not by a ton though.

Jeremy asks: Hey Mike, what about Paul Konerko? Tradeable, right-handed, free agent next year…

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Joe had a Konerko kick for a few weeks a while back, but I would go nowhere near him. For starters, Konerko has been dealing with some nagging back problems this summer, at one point receiving six (!) injections. Back trouble for older players (he’s 37) is a total dealbreaker for me.

If that wasn’t enough, Konerko really isn’t hitting this year. He’s at .248/.315/.365 (84 wRC+) with seven homers in 295 plate appearances, though he does have a stellar 149 wRC+ against southpaws in limited time. The strikeouts are up (15.3%), the walks are down (8.2%), the power is gone (possible related to the back trouble) … lot of red flags here. If Konerko was hitting like he did last year (26 homers and 132 wRC+), I’d be all for it. At this point I’m staying far away.

Chris asks: Much has been made of teams handing out monster contracts lately, primarily because the term comes back to bite teams in the long run. Could the solution to this be not allowing teams to control players for longer but shorter? Would MLB and the players union be willing to allow free agency after six years from the draft or two years on a team’s 25-man roster (whichever comes first)?

Baseball’s salary structure is very … weird. Players make the least amount of money during what is usually their best years — their first six seasons, during pre-arbitration and arbitration — and the most when they’re on the decline. The MLBPA would absolutely be in favor of anything that moves free agency up, which means the owners would be very much against it. They only like things that keep costs down. Small market teams would have a hard time competing if their best players could leave after two years. It would be impossible, really.

The only “solution” to prevent getting burned by long-term contracts is to not hand them out. Even if you moved free agency up, teams would still overpay for decline years. That seem inevitable. Whenever a huge contract is handed out, like seven or eight years, a lot of times the GM is assuming he won’t be around for the final few years of the deal, when it tends to go really bad. Many of these contracts are handed out with the idea that the worst part will be someone else’s problem. I have very little pity for clubs who get saddled with a long-term deal gone bad. They make their beds, they have to sleep in it.

Mark asks: Do the Yanks need make it priority #1 to acquire a long-term solution at third base this offseason (or before the trading deadline) as it is all but assumed that Alex Rodriguez will be banned for either 150 games or permanently starting either now or next year? Or is it another year of stop-gap temporary players and pray that either A-Rod is back at age 38/39 and that Eric Jagielo is hopefully ready by the 2015 season?

The Yankees shouldn’t count on Jagielo at all when planning the future of the third base position. He was just drafted and even though he’s polished and expected to climb the ladder quickly, he’s still in short season ball and so very much can go wrong before be makes it to the show. It’s the nature of the beast.

I think priority #1 should be finding a long-term shortstop, but third base is pretty much priority #2. This season confirmed it. They can’t count on A-Rod anymore and there are no real third base prospects on the immediate horizon, so they’ll have to look outside the organization. Finding that young guy to hold down the position for the next half-decade won’t be easy, so they’ll probably have to settle on stopgaps for the time being. Hopefully none with chronic back problems this time. Who knows, maybe Jagielo will emerge before they make any kind of trade for a long-term answer.

2013 Midseason Review: Grade D’s

We’ve spent some time dissecting the team’s performance through the first half of the year. Mike wrote about the A’s, the B’s, and the C’s. Notice he left me with the scrubs – the D’s!* Well, at least the D’s aren’t the F’s. Am I right?

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

David Phelps
I know some of you might protest our decision to give Phelps a “D” grade. Whether you’re lobbying to give him a “C” doesn’t make much of a difference though — it doesn’t change reality. He’s not been great overall despite some solid starts. It’s also funny, in a peculiar kind of way, how quickly the shine wears off of a guy.

Anyway, Phelps has pitched to a 5.01 ERA (3.85 FIP) and has been worth 1.1 fWAR thus far. He’s struck guys out at a decent rate (8.17 K/9) and hasn’t given up too many long balls (0.87 HR/9). Phelps has allowed a few too many free passes though (3.48 BB/9) and gives up more hits throughout his starts than one would ideally prefer.

Consistency has been the issue here. Despite several quality starts, Phelps has seen his numbers balloon thanks to some really awful games (particularly of late). He allowed four earned runs in 6.1 innings against Minnesota, nine runs against Baltimore (in 2.1 innings!), and four runs to the Mets in a third of an inning. On one hand you can look at Phelps a bit less critically when you consider that he is and always was expected to be a back of the rotation type of arm. One other hand, results are results. Sorry, David.

Phil Hughes
Getting tired of reading about Phil Hughes yet? Well, we all know the story here – frustrating inconsistency topped off by too many home runs surrendered (1.58 HR/9, here’s the list of pitchers with the most HR surrendered — good to know the Yankees have two guys cracking the top 15). Through 102.1 innings, Hughes has pitched to a 4.57 ERA (4.48 FIP), and has been valued at 0.9 fWAR. In terms of peripherals, he’s striking out 7.74 batters per nine and has limited the walks (2.29 BB/9).

Despite very legitimate concerns over next year’s rotation, it seems pretty clear the Yankees are willing to part ways with the once-heralded Hughes. If they don’t trade him for a bat by the deadline, they’ll give him the qualifying offer after the season, which he probably won’t accept. The funny thing is, as maddening as Hughes has been, he’s still capable of throwing the occasional gem and should he string together some solid starts through the remainder of the season, you know some team will decide he’s worth committing a lot of dollars and several years too. It’s a shame it hasn’t really worked out in New York but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Chris Stewart
This is a tough break for Chris. He’s basically producing at a reasonable level, I argue … for a backup catcher. The problem is he isn’t a backup catcher. After the Yankees elected to forego Russell Martin for Francisco Cervelli, the most obvious predicament in the world occurred. Cervelli was injured and the team had to figure out where to go from there. That’s when Chris Stewart stepped in as the every day guy.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

So what happens to a guy like Chris Stewart when he’s forced to play day in and day out? Well over 197 plate appearances he’ll hit .241/.316/.306 (.282 wOBA, 77 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR). He’ll take a decent number of walks (9.1 BB%) and will put the ball in play frequently (14.2 K%). He’ll also hit for no power whatsoever (three home runs, 0.65 ISO). Defensively, I think he’s generally regarded favorably. Again, I would argue that none of these stats are necessarily bad, they’re just not good.

To put it in perspective, the Yankees catchers collectively rank twentieth in all of baseball in terms of fWAR (1.1), twenty-fourth in wRC+ (68), and twenty-fifth in wOBA (.275). Obviously, not all of this production is Stewart’s doing, though he’s logged far and away the most innings behind the plate. Basically, the production the Yankees have received from their catchers ranks in the bottom third of all of baseball in just about every meaningful category.

Vernon Wells
Remember when Wells hit .300 with six home runs through April? Remember when folks were wondering whether Cashman was actually a genius for taking on one of the worst contracts in all of baseball? Yep, that didn’t last long. In completely predictable fashion, Wells turned back into the pumpkin he’s been for years — that is to say a grossly overpriced fourth outfielder.

Overall, Big Vern has batted .238/.276/.371 (.282 wOBA, 73 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). On the plus side, he’s been generally pretty good in the outfield defensively despite a few questionable plays of late. On the down side, he’s managed to hit only four home runs since April. He’s also hit in the heart of order basically all season, even during his putrid May slump.

Given the amount of exposure he’s seen thus far, it’s not surprising he’s shown noticeable splits either (batting .207 against righties). Back in late May, I wrote about Vernon and what we could expect moving forward. Long story short, the conclusion was that he most certainly wasn’t the player we saw in April, and hopefully also not the guy we saw in May. I think this still holds true. Unfortunately, what we can expect is a “D grade” player who was brought to the team out of necessity. Hopefully, he’ll be used more sparingly going forward when and if Curtis returns.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Travis Hafner
First, let me start by saying that I for one am shocked that Hafner has made it to this point. I was expecting Pronk to pull a Kevin Youkilis and suffer some season-ending injury after the first month or so. Surprisingly, he has generally kept himself in the lineup despite some nagging injuries here and there (most recently a foot contusion that happened during batting practice). Unfortunately (and much like Wells), Hafner has been lousy since May and he too, has shown noticeable splits as to be expected.

Overall, Pronk’s batting .218/.314/.407 (.317 wOBA, 97 wRC+) and has been worth exactly 0.0 fWAR through 277 plate appearances. He has knocked 12 balls out of the park though, which is second on the team to only Robinson Cano (though Lyle Overbay and Wells are right behind him with 11). Hafner continues to take his fair share of walks (11.2 BB%) while striking out at a fair pace (26.0 K%).

Pronk was brought on board for one thing: his job is to mash. The thinking was simple. As long as he’s healthy (or at least relatively healthy), he’ll hit the ball. This hasn’t really been the case though. He’s struggled a lot. He’ll need to turn it around for the rest of the season as the Yankees need some much needed depth in the batting the order.

*Mike did not stick me with the D’s. It just worked out that way because of timing. Actually, I claimed the F’s too.