Rumor Round-up: Lee, Greinke, Downs

Slowly, slowly, the Hot Stove League is beginning to heat up…

Rangers to offer Lee five years

If the Yankees want to sign Cliff Lee, they’re going to have to make a significant commitment to him. While George A. King reported yesterday that the Yanks seem to have an easy path to landing Lee, today, he notes that the Rangers are set to offer five years to Lee. King believes the Yanks are willing to go six years for Lee at around $23 million per, and the Rangers are not expected to meet that offer.

The Rangers, says King, will try to convince Lee that he’s better off in a state that features lower taxes and is closer to home. But Lee seems to want the dollars. If it’s only about the money, the Yankees will land their guy, but I can’t be the only one nervous about paying yet another guy on the wrong side of 30 more than $20 million annually through 2016.

Yanks wary of Greinke’s Bronx desires

Yesterday afternoon, we reported on a rumor involving Zack Greinke. Supposedly, the Royals’ ace claimed he was amenable to pitching in New York despite earlier reports to the contrary. In the same King story linked above, The Post scribe notes that the Yanks are still wary of Greinke’s make-up. The Yanks, he says, “don’t buy it.” They believe he “does not want to pitch under the burning lights of the Yankees’ universe.” The Bombers are also unwilling to give up Jesus Montero, and it is believed that any package would start with the Yanks’ young stud.

Scott Downs, Type A, too costly for Bronx bullpen

With Damaso Marte out until forever at least the All Star Break, the Yankees want to find another southpaw to complement Boone Logan. To that end, Scott Downs is an appealing target. He’s been very effective for the Blue Jays for the past six years, and lefties in 2010 were just 12 for 79 (.152) against him.

Yet, the Yankees, says Ken Davidoff, will probably not pursue him. For one, Downs will turn 35 shortly before Opening Day, and for another, he’s a Type A free agent who declined arbitration. If the Yanks sign Cliff Lee, they’d give up a second-round draft pick for Downs, and if they don’t land Lee, Downs would cost them a first-rounder in a talent-rich draft. Cashman, says Davidoff, “doesn’t want to give up the draft pick.” Giving Downs the Damaso Marte money he’ll want and having to surrender a draft pick makes this alluring free agent simply too costly.

Is Scott Downs worth the cost?

(Chris Gardner/AP)

If we’ve learned anything about the free agent market in the past few years, it’s that buying relief pitchers often leads to disappointment. Even Damaso Marte, who had been a solid pitcher throughout his career, crumbled after signing what was essentially a free agent contract. Chan Ho Park, who shined in the Phillies pen during the 2009 season, flopped horribly in 2010. The stories go on seemingly forever, extending back to the days of Paul Quantrill. Yet there’s always the temptation with at least one reliever on the market. This year it’s Scott Downs.

I’ll put this bluntly: I want Scott Downs in the Yankees bullpen. The guy is simply a beast. He strikes out his share of guys, he avoids walking too many batters, he keeps the ball on the ground, and he limits balls that leave the park. During the last three seasons he has produced a 2.83 ERA and 3.16 FIP, placing him easily within the top 20 relief pitchers of that period. What’s even better is that he’s a lefty who can hold his own against righties. But is he worth the cost to the Yankees?

Again, I’ll be blunt: No. It pains me to type those two letters. Downs is such a perfect fit for the 2011 bullpen. The Yankees need another lefty. Downs can fill that role, as well as a late-innings setup role. But the downsides to signing him outweigh the potential benefits he’d have over a replacement.

1. He’s a Type A free agent. The Blue Jays will undoubtedly offer him arbitration. He made $4 million in 2010, so even a $1 million raise makes him an affordable relief pitcher. If he declines, he’ll cost an acquiring team a first round draft pick. Chances are that will be a second rounder for the Yankees, but that might be even worse. Because the Yankees will almost certainly decline, for the third straight year, to offer any of their own free agents arbitration, they’ll receive no supplemental draft picks. That would push their first pick in the draft into the triple digits. That’s no way to build a strong farm system.

2. He’ll turn 35 before Opening Day. Even handing Downs a deal in the mold of Marte’s would be a risk, since it would mean he’d be on the team through his age-37 season.

3. His performance brings no guarantees. You can say this to varying degrees with any player, really, but especially with relief pitchers. Downs has been tremendous in the last four years. In fact, in the last three years only four relief pitchers have a better ERA than Downs: Joakim Soria, Mike Adams, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Mo. Only five relievers have a higher ground ball percentage, and Downs has a very low HR/FB ratio to go along with that. But that means nothing heading into next year. One bad year can make this a bad deal overall, especially when it involves a pitcher of Downs’s age.

On a one-year deal, Scott Downs would be the perfect addition to the Yankees’ bullpen. But as a Type A free agent he just doesn’t fit. Maybe, just maybe, the Yankees and Jays can pull off something similar to what the Braves and the Rays did last year after Rafael Soriano accepted arbitration. But considering the intra-division implications, I’m not sure that happens. Scott Downs could make a very nice setup man for a contending club next year. I’m sad it won’t be the Yanks.

Link Dump: Catcher Defense, Downs, Greinke

Need some help passing the time? I got you covered…

Catcher Defense Rankings

Over at Beyond The Box Score, Matt Klaassen posted catcher defense rankings for the 2010 season using a weighted formula that includes stuff like throwing errors and passed balls and what not. Unsurprisingly, both Frankie Cervelli and Jorge Posada ranked near the bottom. Cervelli was tied with Jeff Mathis (Nichols Law poster boy) and Ryan Doumit for dead last at -9.4 runs, while Posada was right behind them at -8.6. Frankie and Jorge placed 119th and 117th out of 120 qualified backstops, respectively. Ho boy.

Don’t expect the Yanks to pursue Scott Downs

We know that Brian Cashman wants to add another lefty reliever to his bullpen this offseason, but Ken Davidoff says not to expect him to pursue Scott Downs. Downs held left-handed batters to a .241 wOBA last year, but he’s a Type-A free agent that will surely be offered arbitration by the Blue Jays. Cashman simply doesn’t want to surrender a high draft pick to sign a guy that will pitch about four percent of the team’s total innings next year. Can’t say I blame him. I’m sticking with my Randy Choate endorsement.

Blue Jays check in on Greinke

Zack Greinke is unlikely to accept a trade to New York, but the Jays are interested in seeing if he’ll go north of the border. Bob Elliott (h/t MLBTR) reports that Toronto has put a call in to the Royals about Greinke as well as Alex Gordon, though nothing is remotely close to happening. Dayton Moore is supposedly asking for a king’s ransom for his ace and with good reason, but if the Jays are willing to part with Kyle Drabek and Travis Snider (my speculation), you’d have to figure they’d get Kansas City’s attention. Imagine a staff headlined by Greinke, Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, and Brandon Morrow. Yikes.

Rockies interested in Vazquez

Talk about a match made in what-the-hell-are-they-thinking heaven. Troy Renck (again, h/t MLBTR) says the Rockies are interested in signing two-time former Yank Javy Vazquez to solidify their rotation. Forget what happened in 2010, even if Javy rebounds back to his career norm, he’s still a fly ball pitcher (41.3% over the last four years, skewed by his 34.8% mark in 2009) that would be going to a homer haven park, humidor or not. Vazquez wants to pitch on the East Coast to be close to his family in Puerto Rico, so I can’t imagine he’d entertain the thought of joining the Rockies. Still, what the hell are they thinking? Does not compute.

Baseball America on Yankee prospects

Although the list hit the intertubes last week, BA officially released their list of the top ten Yankee prospects yesterday. Accompanying the list was a chat with author John Manuel and an article on the team’s pitching depth. Both are subscriber only, but here’s the gist: the Yankees have a ton of depth when it comes to middle-of-the-rotation and back-end starters thanks to a strong player development system, but expect them to trade a few guys to maximize value since those kinds of arms have little value to a perennial contender. Adam Warren was mentioned prominently in that scenario. That’s what farm systems are for, to plug holes and make trades, and the Yanks certainly have the inventory for that.

The extremely high asking price for Scott Downs

After a strong start, the Toronto Blue Jays have faded back to their usual fourth place spot, barely hovering above .500 and 12 games behind the Yanks. So as the trade deadline arrives, the team will probably try to move some of its more valuable parts. To that end, Scott Downs, their 34-year-old lefty reliever having a decent season, is in high demand. Downs has thrown 42.1 innings over 47 appearances and is sporting a 2.34 with 10 walks and 35 strike outs. Lefties are hitting just .182/.308/.309 in 65 plate appearances against the southpaw, and both the Yankees and Red Sox are rumored to be very interested.

There is but one problem: The Blue Jays are asking for the world. According to Jon Heyman, Toronto asked for Jesus Montero, a laughable proposal, and George A. King says the Blue Jays wanted Joba Chamberlain. (Toronto has reportedly asked for Casey Kelly or Jose Igelsias from the Red Sox for their reliever.) Downs would be a great addition to the bullpen with Damaso Marte out and Boone Logan as the club’s only left-hander, but at that price, the trade isn’t not even worth discussing. Outside of the greats, no reliever — and particularly not a 34-year-old — is worth a player of Joba’s or Montero’s caliber.

Possible trade target: Toronto’s bullpen

We’re a little more than halfway through the season, and it’s now painfully obvious that the Yankees need some help at the back of the bullpen. The setup crew that helped the team to the World Championship last year has been largely inconsistent (or hurt) this year, and even the depth pieces in Triple-A have been unimpressive. Jon Albaladejo might be able to help, sure, but when three-sevenths of the big league bullpen is Chad Gaudin, Chan Ho Park, and Dustin Moseley, it’s going to take more than one move to right this ship.

The trade market for relievers is usually full of retreads or one year wonders, but there’s one team out there with three effective bullpen arms to market before the trade deadline. That team is the free falling Toronto Blue Jays, who have gone 11-20 over the last month or so.

Photo Credit: Mark Duncan, AP

Let’s start in the 9th inning and work our way back. The Jays have made closer Kevin Gregg available, re-routing a scout to Seattle to over the weekend, perhaps to check out the Yanks. I’m not sure who Toronto would want off the Yanks’ big league roster, or perhaps I’m better off saying I’m not sure who Toronto thinks they’ll be able to get off the Yanks’ big league roster, maybe Colin Curtis or Ramiro Pena. It won’t be anyone more than that, I think we can safely say.

The 32-year-old Gregg is a capital-C closer, meaning that he occupies the high profile role without the guarantee of being effective. He’s actually been better than ever this season, with a 3.67 FIP and 3.88 xFIP through 34.1 IP, better marks than what he posted during his best years with the Marlins. Gregg has always missed bats (8.91 K/9 since 2007) and his strikeout rate is a career high 9.70 K/9 this year, but his walk rate is far too high for an end-game reliever at 4.72 BB/9, a full walk over his career rate. We really don’t have any reason to expect Gregg to be any better than that going forward, and his skill set screams a more experienced version of David Robertson. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Photo Credit: Chris Gardner, AP

Setting up Gregg has been the lefty-righty tandem of Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, both of whom have served as Toronto’s closer at one time or another in the past few seasons. Downs is enjoying yet another fine season in a career full of them, locking things down to the tune of a 3.14 FIP and 3.58 xFIP. He’s not just a LOOGY either, and believe it or not he’s actually performed better against righties than lefties over the last season and a half. With a walk rate that has gotten progressively better over the last four seasons, Downs has limited the free passes to just 1.93 BB/9 this season, though it’s worth noting that his swinging strike rate is down to 6.7% (lg avg is 8.4%), a career low.

Frasor, on the other hand, is having the worst season of his career in terms of ERA, but we all know that’s no way to judge a reliever. His strikeout rate is at an all-time high (9.87 K/9), ditto his ground ball rate (50.5%), though the walks are abnormally high at 4.67 BB/9. The 32-year-old righty has run into some bad luck in terms of BABIP (.376) and  strand rate (65.8%), which explains the high ERA, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that as a reliever, he simply might not accrue enough innings to have those totals regress to the mean. He simply might be in the middle of one of those bad luck relief years. It happens.

Contractually, these guys are pretty much all in the same boat. All three can become free agents after the season, though Gregg’s contract has an option for 2011 and 2012. Downs is owed $1.8M the rest of the way and the only projected Type-A free agents of the bunch, while Frasor are Gregg are projected Type-B’s and owed $1.19M and $900,000 (with a $750,000 buyout of the option), respectively. Even if you’re assuming a half-a-win performance after the trade (pretty darn good for a reliever), you’re looking at about $3.5-4M worth of trade value according to Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator, which is worth slightly less than a Grade-B position player prospect according to Victor Wang’s research.

Photo Credit: Steve Nesius, AP

The Yankees have plenty of depth behind the plate and in the middle infield, as we learned in the Cliff Lee non-trade, so they could surrender someone like David Adams or Corban Joseph or Reegie Corona without missing a beat. The last time the Yankees and Blue Jays made a trade was the George Steinbrenner mandated Raul Mondesi swap, but of course Brian Cashman is in charge now and Toronto is under a new regime. Whether or not Alex Anthopoulos would be open to trading one of his bullpen pieces within the division remains to be seen (he reportedly wanted more in return to deal Roy Halladay to an AL East team, but that’s an extreme circumstance), but frankly he’d be foolish not to. It’s just a reliever, and his priority should be getting the best return possible.

I’m a big Scott Downs fan, so I’d prefer him over either Gregg or Frasor, but I’m not sure if Joe Girardi would be open to using him as a normal reliever instead of just having him face lefties. Gregg is the better of the two righthanders, given his long track record of missing bats. I’m always skeptical of trading for relievers given their penchant for sucking at the drop of a hat and for no apparent reason, but if the Yanks are going to make a move for bullpen help, these three probably represent the best available options.

If you are a reliever, the Yankees are interested in acquiring you

Late last night some schmuck at MLBTR mentioned that the Yankees were taking a look at Blue Jays closer Scott Downs, perhaps the most underappreciated reliever in the league. Downs is just the latest pitcher we’ve heard connected to the Bombers, joining the likes of Chad Qualls, Huston Street, and many others.  It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Yanks will acquire some sort of arm for the stretch run, we’re just not sure if it’ll be a starter or reliever.

Of the bullpeners we’ve seen connected to the Bombers, the lefty Downs is by far the best. Dude has a 2.08 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP over the last three years, pitching almost exclusively in high leverage spots, and he’s more than a LOOGY too, making him that much more valuable. Toronto’s not just going to give this guy away, but adding Scott Downs to any staff makes them better.