The Pitching Backup Plans

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

If you haven’t headed over to our Depth Chart page in a while, you might not have noticed that as of right now, the Yankees currently sport a five-man pitching rotation of…

  1. CC Sabathia
  2. Phil Hughes
  3. Ivan Nova
  4. David Phelps
  5. Adam Warren

If you’re optimistic, you can say Michael Pineda will take Warren’s spot sometime in June. If not, then I don’t know what to tell you. Either way, that’s not a championship-caliber rotation. The Yankees have some work to do this winter, and for the most part I think the pitching plan involves waiting for Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte to declare their love of pinstripes and sign nice little one-year deals to rejoin the team in 2013. That would be ideal.

What if that doesn’t happen though? It doesn’t take much effort to envision a scenario in which Kuroda decides to return to Japan and Pettitte decides to stay home with the wife and kids. The Yankees would really be in a bad spot if that happened because … well … look at that rotation above. Luckily this free agent class offers some solid rotation options, so the Yankees would have plenty of alternatives if things don’t go according to plan. Some of those options are better fits than others, however.

Zack Greinke
The undisputed best pitcher on the market, Greinke is probably looking at a contract worth $120M+ across five or six years. Matt Cain type of money. Fair or not, the Yankees are concerned about how the 29-year-old would fit in New York though. Greinke met with Brian Cashman face-to-face during the 2010 Winter Meetings in an effort to convince him that he wanted to pitch in the Big Apple, but no dice. Cashman wasn’t having any of it. There isn’t a team in baseball that couldn’t use a pitcher of this caliber in their rotation, but the combination of asking price and other concerns make Greinke almost a non-option for the Yankees.

Dan Haren
There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t want their team to take a one-year flier on Haren this offseason. He’s been an ace-caliber pitcher for the last half-decade or so and he’s still relatively young (turned 32 in September), which is all you could ask for from a free agent. That said, there are major red flags here. Haren has battled back trouble through the years and they caused him to hit the DL for the first time in his career this season, plus his fastball velocity has been declining for years.

The Angels were trying to trade Haren before having to make a decision about his option last Friday, but ultimately they came up with nothing and had to decline the net $12M deal ($15.5M option with a $3.5M buyout). The combination of the Cubs pulling out of the Haren-for-Carlos Marmol trade talks and the fact that no other club made a viable trade offer makes me think his medicals are looking pretty grim. You also have to look at it this way: if Haren is looking for a one-year, “re-establish my value” contract, why would he come to New York? A fly ball heavy pitcher in a small stadium in the AL East is no way to rebuild value. The Yankees should look into him because of his track record, but I don’t see Haren as a slam dunk no-brainer they should go all out to sign. Lots of risk here.

(Pool/Getty)

Anibal Sanchez
I’m a pretty big Anibal Sanchez fan and I consider him the best non-Greinke free agent pitching option this winter. He offers the best combination of youth (28), performance (3.70 ERA and 3.40 FIP since 2010), and durability (major shoulder surgery in 2008, but 195+ innings in each of the last three years). Sanchez made a brief cameo in the AL this season following his trade to the Tigers and he handled himself well, plus he impressed in his three postseason starts. Not the sexiest name but a rock solid pitcher. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about an appropriate contract, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a team gets an aggressive and offers the A.J. Burnett/John Lackey contract (five years and $82.5M). I highly doubt the Yankees would offer that much, but Sanchez would be my first target if Pettitte and Kuroda decline to come back.

Edwin Jackson
Keith Law said it best this weekend: “It’s time to accept that this is almost certainly what Jackson is going to be. He looks like an ace, holding mid-90s velocity or better for 100 pitches, but just turned in another season of good-not-great performance, this time entirely in the National League.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all, especially at age 29 and with his track record of durability (180+ innings in five straight years). I’m just not expecting Jackson to get any better even though he’s yet to hit 30. He would be my number two target behind Sanchez if Kuroda and Pettitte don’t come back, number three if Haren’s back checks out okay.

Kyle Lohse & Ryan Dempster
Lohse is going to get a significant contract this winter, maybe the biggest behind Greinke, but I wouldn’t touch either him or Dempster unless they’re willing to come real cheap. They’re two guys who have had most (all?) of their success in the NL and don’t operate with much margin for error. It’s also worth noting that Lohse received a qualifying offer from the Cardinals and would require draft pick compensation. Solid pitchers for sure, but not guys I would consider impact additions for the Yankees.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Jeremy Guthrie, Brandon McCarthy & Shaun Marcum
All three have their warts, but all three have some kind of track record of success in the AL. Guthrie is probably the safest bet while McCarthy is both the riskiest (very long injury history) and has the highest upside. Marcum’s kind of the in the middle. I prefer any of those three to Lohse and Dempster and would consider them solid additions on one-year contracts. Anything more than that is really pushing it.

Because he doesn’t really fit anywhere else, I’m going to mention Carlos Villanueva here. I’m a big fan (perhaps too big), but I like him best as a sixth starter/swingman. I wouldn’t want the Yankees to sign him with the idea of him making 30 starts and throwing 200 innings. I can’t see how anyone could expect him to do that in 2013.

Francisco Liriano, Joe Blanton, Joe Saunders, Scott Feldman & Roberto Hernandez
I wouldn’t trust any of these guys with a starting spot, at least not right out of the chute in Spring Training. To be honest, Liriano is the only one who is remotely intriguing to me. He’s still on the right side of 30 and has a year of ace-caliber performance in the not-too-distant past to his credit (2010). I consider guys like Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard, Scott Baker, Kevin Correia, Dustin Moseley, and Jason Marquis to be minor league contract only options for the Yankees. This is the bottom of the pitching barrel right here, but thankfully there are plenty of other options out there.

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Yankees had scout at Zack Greinke’s start today

Via Jon Morosi, the Yankees had a scout at Zack Greinke’s start against the Reds today (box score). Given their past history with Greinke, this was likely routine coverage more than anything else. A week or so ago we heard that they had someone watch Wandy Rodriguez as well.

About two weeks ago Joe wrote that the Yankees are likely to be connected to every available starting pitcher between now and the trade deadline just because. There’s no such thing as too much pitching — look at how quickly the rotation thinned out today — and getting involved could theoretically drive the price up for other interested teams. If the Yankees do add a pitcher before the deadline, I would be surprised if it was someone of Greinke’s caliber. A smaller depth move seems more likely.

Would signing Zack Greinke next winter really be that bad?

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty)

Throughout the 2011-2012 Hot Stove season we have frequently looked ahead to next offseason, with its presumed bumper crop of studly free agent pitchers, including (at the moment) Cole Hamels (age 29), Matt Cain (28), Zack Greinke (28), Francisco Liriano (29), Shaun Marcum (31), Brandon McCarthy (29), Anibal Sanchez (29), and Jonathan Sanchez (30). A handful of attractive names — James Shields (31), Gavin Floyd (30), Dan Haren (32) and Ervin Santana (30) — have club options, but said options are mostly reasonably priced and it seems unlikely that any of that quartet would be bought out.

Prior to the Big Trade, it was generally expected that the Yankees would be all over Hamels should he make it to free agency, and rightly so, as it’s not every offseason an elite left-hander makes it to the open market. The case for Hamels is a no-brainer: Since breaking into the league in 2006, Hamels is tied for the 13th-most valuable pitcher in all of baseball, producing a stellar 3.39 ERA/3.63 FIP/3.42 xFIP line over 1,161.1 innings with a beautiful 8.45 K/9 and 2.26 BB/9. The only left-handers ahead of him on that list are CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

So unless Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro somehow convinces Hamels to take a way-below market extension a la Jered Weaver — and it’s extremely difficult to envision this happening, as the numbers suggest Hamels could very well be in line for a $161 million CC Sabathia-type deal — or is able to convince Phillie ownership that they can indeed afford another $100 million-plus pitcher, next offseason’s pursuit of Hamels will likely rival both last winter’s Lee sweepstakes and the 2008-2009 Sabathia drama as one of the craziest ever. However, in the aftermath of the Montero-Pineda deal, an additional wrinkle has been thrown into the mix, namely whether the Yankees determine they can afford to add Hamels in light of all the talk of an austerity budget.

While I personally feel the Yankees would be nuts not to do whatever it takes to land Hamels, if they do decide the lefty is too pricey or doesn’t even end up becoming available, there’s another, arguably slightly better, younger (and perhaps most importantly, presumably slightly cheaper) option that seems an even surer bet to reach free agency next winter, and that’s former Cy-Young-award-winner Zack Greinke. While the lefty Hamels has commanded much of the attention, Greinke’s future availability seems to have gone somewhat overlooked, and so I thought I’d point out why he should be just as much of a Yankee target as Hamels, if not moreso.

For one, on that aforelinked list of most valuable pitchers since 2006, Greinke is above Hamels, checking in at 7th with a 3.41/3.14/3.39 pitcher triple slash in more than 200 fewer innings than Hamels along with a sterling 8.68 K/9 and equally drool-worthy 2.33 BB/9. Of those top 30 pitchers, the only hurlers with a higher K/9 are Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw and Jake Peavy, and the latter hasn’t been at that level since 2009. The only ones with superior FIPs are Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson.

This past season, Greinke — always a strikeout-heavy pitcher — upped his game to levels of even more ridiculousness, leading all of MLB with a career-high 10.54 K/9. His 2.98 FIP was 9th in the league, while his 2.56 xFIP was first. These are big boy numbers, and the only reason you likely didn’t hear more about Greinke’s huge year was because he started the season injured and was also betrayed by his defense, as his 3.83 ERA was fueled in part by the second-highest BABIP (.318) of his career that helped fuel the third-lowest strand rate (a below-league-average 69.8%) of his career.

The following chart helps underscore just how good Greinke has been since breaking into the league full-time in 2004 (as always, click to enlarge):

An increase in K/9 every season save one? That’ll do nicely. As he’s matured as a pitcher, Greinke also brought his GB% rate up from the mid-30%s to a career-high (and above-league-average) 47.3% in 2011. Given Greinke’s dramatic improvements on what had already been several very good pitching performances, I was also curious to take a look at his stuff:

Greinke has three legitimate weapons against righties in his four-seamer, slider and curveball, each of which generate above-average Whiff rates. Somewhat unexpectedly, Greinke’s heater has lost about 1.5mph since 2009, although this hasn’t seemed to hinder its effectiveness, as his Strike% and Whiff rate has improved in each successive year, while his In-Play% is on a three-year decline. It’s helpful to know that Greinke doesn’t need to be routinely dialing it up to 94mph to be successful with the heat, although it’ll be important to keep an eye on that velocity this coming season to see whether it takes another dip.

Greinke doesn’t really throw his change to righties, and per the PITCHf/x data he appears to have added a two-seamer in 2010, although again, given the myriad classification issues that frequently arise when analyzing this data, it’s possible there are some four-seamers being misclassified. Although the extremely low Whiff rates on the two-seamer would seem to indicate that this pitch is indeed a sinker. He went from throwing it nearly 30% of the time to batters on both sides of the plate in 2010, to under 10% of the time last season — I’m not sure what to attribute the decrease to, as the sinker appears to have helped him generate more grounders, but perhaps it’s as simple as Greinke wanting to further diversify his arsenal.

As you might expect, Greinke’s Whiff rates aren’t quite as robust against lefties, though they’re still plenty high. What he’s missing in four-seamer Whiff% he more than makes up for in Changeup Whiff%.

In sum, we have a pitcher who misses a ton of bats, has a knockout slider to complement his blazing fastball, and who also appears to have added a two-seamer/sinker to his repertoire to help spike his ground-ball rate. So essentially, Zack Greinke is a right-handed, younger version of CC Sabathia. I think we’d all happily sign up for that.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Greinke’s social anxiety disorder. I’m not a psychologist nor do I have any way of quantifying how his mental state might impact his performance, though it’s been speculated by many that Greinke may not have the intestinal fortitude to flourish under the microscope on the biggest stage in the world in the Bronx. Brian Cashman essentially echoed that sentiment during last offseason as the Yankees passed on acquiring Greinke via trade, despite the pitcher’s apparent protestations that he was indeed cut out for and eager to pitch in New York.

Even if the Yankees — and presumably, other teams — have concerns over Greinke’s head, the fact that the cost of acquiring him is just money and not prospects should help ease some of the worry. It also may help knock his price down. While the numbers indicate Greinke should probably be paid as though he were CC Sabathia, the questions about his make-up may hinder him from reaching that financial plateau. If Greinke can be had for, say, $108 million over six years ($18 million per is probably a conservative estimate) however, his market could end up depressed if GMs are afraid to pay him like an elite pitcher due to any lingering fears about SAD. Per FanGraphs’ much-derided $/WAR calculation he’s been worth an average of $25.6M per season since 2008), I don’t see any rational reason for the Yankees not to run with that deal all the way to the bank.

Scouting the Trade Market: Zack Greinke

In his RAB debut, Moshe wrote about the difficulties of trading for an ace. Issues such as service time remaining, rarity of elite talent, and fan perception play a role in these negotiations, and often render them fruitless. But, as he notes at the end, there is some hope for the Yankees to find a pitching upgrade on the trade market: “there [is] a bevy of second-tier pitchers nearing the end of their contracts, all of whom could likely be had for the right price.” Today, however, we’ll start with one such pitcher who has been, and still could be, an ace. That’s Zach Greinke of the Milwaukee Brewers.

A year ago the Royals put Greinke on the market after he requested a trade. Apparently he could no longer stand the constant losing in Kansas City and wished to pitch for a contender. That made the Yankees instant suitors, but they never made a serious play. Milwaukee swooped in and grabbed him, and the move paid off wonderfully. He produced a season that in many ways resembled his 2009 season, during which he won the AL Cy Young Award. Without an early-season injury (only 171.2 IP), and with a little more help from his defense (highest BABIP since 2005) and some better results on fly balls (highest HR/FB ratio of his career), his season might have looked a lot better than his 3.83 ERA might indicate.

When the Brewers acquired Greinke last season they were in the process of assembling a winner for 2011. With Prince Fielder just a year away from free agency they decided to go for it, trading many premium prospects for Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and then Francisco Rodriguez mid-season. Fielder is now a free agent, and while I think the Brewers could still retain him it’s far from a certainty. There’s a decent chance that they’re shut out of the top free agents, which could leave them in a bind. Both Greinke and Marcum hit free agency after the season, so if they don’t think they stand a good chance to contend in 2012 they could use one, or both, to further stock the farm system and reload for 2013.

While I consider these chance slim, the Yankees would certainly have to look into Greinke if Milwaukee made him available. In fact, late last week Vizzini at NoMaas made a case that the Yankees should make a run at Greinke. While I’m not totally on board with the idea — Nova starting the conversation — that’s mainly because of my “your trade proposal sucks” mentality. Really, the Yankees have a few chips, Nova included, who could provide the Brewers with steady value for five to six seasons. The Yankees would cash in that long-term value for a quick burst of Greinke, who could be worth six to eight wins in 2012.

Before hitting the pros and cons, I want to make clear that I do not see this happening. When I predicted the top 50 free agents I not only had Fielder returning, but also Aramis Ramirez coming over to play third base. That is, I think the Brewers make a splash again this off-season, with Greinke and Marcum approaching free agency, and then use their farm system to reload for 2013 and beyond. But if they do lose fielder and decide to begin that reloading process a year early, the Yankees should absolutely be in on Greinke.

Pros

  • He is absolutely an elite pitcher. While he disappointed in some ways following his 2009 AL Cy Young Award, he still put up peripherals better than most of his peers. Since 2009 he ranks fourth in the majors in FIP, fourth in xFIP, and, despite missing more than a month in 2011, sixth in WAR. The only place he falls short is ERA, but he’s had to deal with some poor defenses the last few years.
  • He misses bats, which is something the Yankees could use. In his career he has averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings, and in the last three years he has struck out a batter per inning.
  • He doesn’t walk guys. His 2.19 BB/9 since 2009 ranks 12th among all qualified starters. That’s even better than CC Sabathia, who ranks 30th with 2.58 BB/9. The Yankees would then have two high-strikeout, low-walk pitchers heading their rotation.
  • Last year, when seeking a way out of Kansas City, he reached out to the Yankees and expressed a desire to pitch in New York. That runs counter to one of the Cons listed below, but it’s pretty clear that the guy values winning above all else.
  • He’s durable. He pitched at least 200 innings from 2008 through 2010, and only missed the mark this year because of an injury suffered while playing basketball. If he can stay off the court, he appears capable of staying on the mound.
  • His disdain for the media can provide some interesting quotes and situations. It means zero for his on-field value, but it can provide some entertaining moments — a la Mike Mussina, perhaps.

Cons

  • It had to come up at some point, so let’s lead the Cons section with Greinke’s social anxiety disorder. It’s a well-known issue, though it’s tough to see how it has affected his performance since he returned to the mound in 2007. There will always be a faction of fans who think that his SAD will prevent him from pitching under the bright lights at Yankee Stadium, but that’s mostly armchair psychology. Only Greinke, and perhaps his doctor, knows if he can handle it.
  • For two straight years he’s had an ERA significantly higher than his FIP. There can be a number of reasons for this, but his strand rate stands out. He produced his two worst marks in 2010 and 2011. This probably isn’t a problem going forward — remember, he had some crappy defenses behind him — but it’s a red flag nonetheless.
  • Normally a bullet list should contain three points, but it’s hard to find negatives about Greinke. Maybe he continues to have a homer problem in Yankee Stadium after experiencing issues in Milwaukee. I dunno, if you want to crucify him for 16.2 playoff innings there’s that. But then again he pitches well against the Red Sox, in more career innings, so what are ya gonna do?

Chances are Milwaukee hangs onto Greinke and does battle again in the NL Central. After all, it’s not the strongest of divisions even if the World Champions play in it. But if they do lose Fielder and don’t sign an adequate replacement, they could look to move Greinke in advance of his free agency. If he does hit the market he could be a perfect fit for the Yankees.

Greinke made his case for a Yankees trade

(Morry Gash/AP)

From the outset of the off-season one thing was clear: the Kansas City Royals were going to trade their ace, Zack Greinke. While Greinke didn’t officially request a trade until sometime in December, it was pretty clear that he was unhappy in Kansas City, where he had endured a number of losing seasons and was in line for at least one, and probably two more before he reached free agency. When Greinke’s request became public, the Royals moved quickly.

Having missed out on the off-season’s top free agent, Cliff Lee, the Yankees became natural suitors for Greinke. Yet there were questions about his ability to handle the pressure of New York. It was common at the time to associate Greinke’s social anxiety disorder with an inability to pitch in the big city, but it’s tough for anyone who doesn’t know Greinke to make such a determination. Instead, Greinke’s own words that gave others pause. It was widely reported that he told friends that he couldn’t play in a big market such as Boston or New York.

Once it became apparent that the Royals would grant his trade request, Greinke apparently had a change of heart. SI’s Jon Heyman tells the story. It all started at the Winter Meetings.

But when he and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman met clandestinely in Orlando (Greinke’s hometown) at an off-site location during the winter meetings, Greinke’s desperation not to endure yet another losing season in Kansas City was such that he is said to have tried to convince Cashman that he wanted to come to New York. And that he could actually thrive in New York.

However, people who were briefed on that meeting said Cashman ultimately decided that Greinke’s first thought about New York was probably correct — that it wasn’t the best spot for him. Greinke told people the day he accepted his Cy Young Award in New York City that he didn’t think he could ever live in New York, and kept telling friends the same. But as the days dwindled this winter, he made his surprise plea to Cashman to make him a Yankee.

This passage makes it appear as though the Yankees didn’t make much of an effort to acquire Greinke when the Royals got serious about trading him. Cashman came away with an opinion, based on a personal impression, and the team agreed with him. I’m not sure if it was the correct decision, but now we know the process behind it.

Greinke could end up in New York yet. The Brewers have gambled significantly on the 2011 season, and if they fall out of the race by July they might consider trading off some of their players in an attempt to rebuild. Greinke could fetch them a decent bounty, since he would have a year and a half until free agency. Again at that point, after the 2012 season, Greinke could again seek out the Yankees as suitors. He’ll be just 29 years old for the 2013 season.

It’s still more likely that we never know what could have been between Greinke and the Yankees. For some that’s fine and good. His social anxiety disorder causes enough concern that it’s not worth the money, or prospects, to obtain him. Others, though, will always wonder how the socially anxious, but fiercely competitive Greinke would have fared in New York. (For a great take on that, read Joe Posnanski’s article on Greinke from this winter.) The man put his mindset in perspective with just a few words: “It’s fun to win.” That’s what we want to hear from current and future New York Yankees.