Scouting the Trade Market: Francisco Rodriguez

As the revolving door of the Yankee bullpen swung open on Friday night, it was hard to believe the rogue’s gallery of relievers who came out to stop the Mariners had been among the best in the game this year. Hector Noesi, Boone Logan, Luis Ayala — seventh best in the AL only when sorted by last name — all made their appearances and kept the Mariners scoreless. Only Mariano, the future Hall of Famer, faltered, and he along with Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson are the arms in which we trust.

So somehow, after 54 games and with $17.75 million worth of relievers on the disabled list, the Yankees have a great bullpen. The pen’s 2.88 ERA is tops in the AL, and their strike out and walk rates are both among the top four in the league. On the flip side, their relievers have thrown 159.1, and as Mike explored, their troika of top relievers is racking up the pitches thrown. The club will have to bolster its bullpen either within or without.

Enter Francisco Rodriguez: Yankee fans have never taken to K-Rod. He came out of nowhere to help down the Bombers in the 2002 ALDS, and he served as foil in the 2005 playoffs as well. As the Mets’ closer, he has had a tumultuous time in New York. He was, of course, on the mound celebrating as Luis Castillo dropped that pop-up, and he was arrested for assault last year in an altercation that caused a season-ending injury. He also one of the Mets’ prime trade chips.

This year, very quietly, K-Rod is putting together a stellar season. With his save in the Mets’ comeback on Thursday, he has now appeared in 27 games — and finished 21 of them — while posting a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings. He has allowed a hit per inning and 13 walks but has yet to surrender a home run and has alluringly struck out 27.

Now, the Mets are in a predicament with Rodriguez. He is making $11.5 million this year and holds a performance-based option for 2012 that’s worth a whopping $17.5 million. If he closes out 55 games this year and his two-year total of games finished tops 100, the option vests automatically. If not, then he is owed only $3.5 million, and that’s why trading him must be part of the Mets’ plan. They can’t afford to pay and shouldn’t be paying a closer $17.5 million, but he’s on pace for well over 60 games finished this year.

So how about the Yankees? At some point, you might say, the Yankees have to stop acquiring overpaid, one-inning relievers. It hasn’t worked out for them since the days of Steve Karsay, and yet, the Yankees are still doling out contracts to guys left and right only to see them wind up on the disabled list. Rodriguez, though, would be just a rental, and if the Yankees are willing to take on most of his remaining salary along with the $3.5 million buy out they will owe him when, as a non-closer, he doesn’t get to his games finished milestone, the price tag should be relatively cheap. Pick a second-tier prospect and adjust accordingly for cash contributions.

Of course, as we’ve noted over the last few weeks, the Yankees and Mets do not trade with each other too frequently. They last sent Mike Stanton to Queens for Felix Heredia in 2004 and before that, tried to plug Armando Benitez into the Bronx for a handful of disastrous games. For the Mets, trading their closer to the Yankees would be one of many potential white flags, and if they get no return outside of financial relief while the Yanks add K-Rod as a third set-up option, the Shea Faithful won’t be too pleased.

For the Yankees, though, K-Rod is another potential target. He just might be the most available reliever out there, and unless the club truly expects Soriano, Marte or Feliciano to return at full strength any time this season, he should be a potential trade target.

Scouting The Trade Market: Jose Reyes

(Photo Credit: Flickr user MissChatter via Creative Commons license)

It’s been a long, long time since the Yankees had to worry about finding a shortstop. Derek Jeter played the position brilliantly for a decade and a half, but his offense continues to decline as he approaches his 37th birthday (less than four weeks away) and his defense has never been highly regarded. They just signed him to a three-year contract that is essentially a four-year contract because of the player option, so finding a new shortstop less than four months into the contract is less than ideal. Then again, it’s not completely impossible.

The Mets are not in contention and several of their players figure to be up for grabs at the trade deadline. We’ve already looked at Carlos Beltran as a possible trade target, but now lets turn our attention to Jose Reyes. They may not have the money to sign him long-term, and cashing him in as a trade chip could be preferable to the two draft picks they’d receive if he left as a free agent. Let’s look at the pros and cons of the Mets’ shortstop…

The Pros

  • Still just 27, Reyes is in the prime of his career. He’s in the middle of the best season of his career, hitting .335/.382/.493 at a time when the average MLB shortstop is hitting .261/.318/.372, and his 19 steals are the second most in baseball. Reyes is a switch hitter with little to no platoon split both this year and for his career.
  • Both UZR and John Dewan’s +/- system rate Reyes as just about league average defensively over the last three-plus seasons. Above-average offense and average defense at short is a tremendously valuable player. In fact, he leads all big league shortstops in fWAR (2.9) and is seventh in bWAR (1.7).
  • Reyes is scheduled to become a free agent after the season, which should limit the return. Position players in their walk years usually don’t require huge packages in midseason trades, just look at the recent Mark Teixeira (Braves to Angels) and Matt Holliday (A’s to Cardinals) deals.
  • There have been indications from Reyes that he would like to stay in New York long-term, particularly because his kids are in school where he lives out on Long Island, and because the flights to the Dominican Republic are easy. That could make it easier to sign him to a contract extension this winter (the Yankees don’t negotiate new deals in season).

The Cons

  • Reyes has a bit of injury history, spending time on the disabled list for a thyroid imbalance (16 days) in 2010, a knee strain (137 days) in 2009, a stress fracture in his left leg (43 days) in 2004, a a thigh strain (77 days) also in 2004, and an ankle sprain (28 days) in 2003. Non-DL ailments include an oblique issue (2010) and tendinitis in his left leg (2009). The leg issues are the most concerning since his game is built on speed.
  • Derek Jeter. The Yankees will have to deal with the fallout of moving Jeter off shortstop and almost certainly out of the leadoff spot. Given the recent Jorge Posada spat, it figures to get hella ugly. If the Cap’n becomes a full-time designated hitter, what happens to Posada? There’s not an easy answer.
  • As I mentioned in the Beltran post, the Yankees and Mets simply don’t get together and make trades very often, especially not when it involves players of this caliber. Then again, Sandy Alderson is pretty ruthless and probably won’t care about the negative PR if the deal helps his team.

There’s a lot to like about the possibility of Jose Reyes in a Yankees’ uniform, even if it only ends up being a rental (they’d get draft picks if he signs elsewhere). On paper, it’s an easy to displace Jeter from shortstop and the leadoff spot, but you know it won’t be that way in real life. This is one of those situations where the team would have to approach him beforehand to explain what they were doing rather than just drop it on him after the media is made aware of it and what not. I think a Reyes trade is extremely unlikely, at least one that brings him to the Bronx, but it never hurts to explore the possibility to see if the pieces fits. It’s quite obvious they do, and the Yankees have the prospects to get it done for a Holliday-esque package.

Scouting The Trade Market: Derek Lowe

Three offseasons ago, everyone knew that the Yankees were going to make a major run at CC Sabathia. The rest of their starting pitching plans were a little unclear, but it seemed like a safe bet that they were going to pursue another free agent starter. They ultimately landed A.J. Burnett, but the other candidate was the sinkerballing Derek Lowe, who ended up with the Braves.

Atlanta has the most pitching depth in baseball, even after trading Rodrigo Lopez to the Cubs last week. Aside from their five Opening Day starters (Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and the currently DL’ed Brandon Beachy), they also had top prospects Mike Minor and Julio Teheran in Triple-A and the lesser known but still effect Todd Redmond. The Braves are very much in contention and maintain that they have no interest in trading Lowe, but everyone has a price. Let’s start with the cons…

The Cons

  • It’s hard to believe, but Lowe will turn 38 on June 1st. And with that age comes with a loss of velocity, as his famed sinker now sits more 86-89 than 89-91 like it did a few years ago.
  • Lowe would be more than just a second half rental. He’s under contract next season for the decidedly not team friendly price of $15M. He makes the same amount this year, so he’ll cost about $2.5M per month the rest of the way. That is no bargain.
  • It’s been more than six years since Lowe pitched in the American League or in a hitter’s ballpark.
  • Lowe’s recent DUI case was thrown out, but it’s still an unnecessary distraction and an obvious character flaw.

The Pros

  • Despite his age and declining velocity, Lowe is still really effective. His 55.8% ground ball rate this year is his worst since the data started being recorded in 2002, but it’s still a top ten mark in all of baseball.
  • Lowe is one of the most durable pitchers in the game, throwing at least 190 innings in each of the last six years and in eight of the last nine. In the one off year, he still made it to the mound for 182.2 IP.
  • Lowe’s strikeout rate has actually been going up over the last few years, and right now it sits at 7.79 K/9 with 9.2% swings and misses. Both of those are career highs as a starter. Those whiffs are the result of an increased using of his sharp slider, which is often mistaken for a cutter. He’s also throwing his changeup more than ever as well.
  • I don’t put too much stock in postseason track record, but it can’t be a bad thing that Lowe owns a 3.30 ERA in 76.1 playoffs innings since becoming a full-time starter in 2002. He’s also pitched in the World Series, for what it’s worth.

One thing to keep in mind: all those ground balls are great because dinky little seeing eye singles are better than the extra base hits that tend to result from fly balls, but the Yankees have a pretty poor defensively infield. Aside from Mark Teixeira, everyone is below-average now that Robinson Cano seemingly forgot how to use his glove.

Lowe’s contract is far from ideal, but you’d have to think the Braves would be willing to eat some of it to move him. They simply won’t get anything of value back if they don’t. Part of the problem is that Atlanta doesn’t have any obvious needs. Jason Heyward is out with a shoulder issue, but when he’s healthy their outfield is pretty much set (Heyward, Nate McLouth, and Martin Prado). None of their four infielders (Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Alex Gonzalez, and Chipper Jones) are going anywhere, and neither is catcher Brian McCann. They have pitching as well. Of course these things have a way of changing and quickly, but right now there’s no obvious trade match between these two clubs even though Lowe’s appears to be one of the better trade candidates out there.

Scouting The Trade Market: Hiroki Kuroda

(AP Photo/Charles Cherney)

There were not many viable free agent alternatives to Cliff Lee this past offseason, so when Hiroki Kuroda took himself off the market in November, arguably the second best free agent pitcher was no longer an option for the Yankees. The Dodgers currently sport the third worst record in the National League, and their -43 run differential says they’ve been the third worst team in baseball overall. Owner Frank McCourt is in the process of being phased out by MLB whether he likes it or not, and there are legitimate concerns about his ability to make payroll within the next week or two.

Just because McCourt might not make payroll doesn’t mean Dodgers’ players will be up for grabs. MLB will foot the bill and further push McCourt out, but they showed last year with the Rangers that they’re willing to be flexible with payroll in situations like this. That’s not to say they’ll be buyers at the deadline, but they won’t necessarily have to sell off everything not nailed to the stadium concrete. The Dodgers have some strong starting pitchers they could shop, but Clayton Kershaw is as untouchable is gets and I doubt they’re looking to move Chad Billingsley just weeks after signing him to an extension.

The trade deadline is just over two months away, so let’s get a jump on things by looking at Hiroki Kuroda, one of those pitchers that might actually be up for grabs…

The Pros

  • Kuroda has been consistently excellent since coming over from Japan. His 3.94 FIP this year is the worst of his career, but that’s still a fine mark. His unintentional walk rate has hovered right around two men per nine over the last few years while batters have swung and missed at his offerings at least nine percent of the time in all four seasons of his MLB career.
  • He also generates a healthy amount of ground balls, 50.4% for his career and 47.3% in 2011. Unsurprisingly, that’s helped keep his homerun rate to a manageable 0.78 per nine.
  • Kuroda throws pretty hard, with both his four-seamer and two-seamer sitting sitting comfortably in the low-90’s. The former tends to creep up into the mid-90’s as the season goes along. A mid-80’s slider is his primary secondary offering, and he’ll use a mid-to-high 80’s splitter as a changeup. He also started mixing in some upper-70’s curveballs this year after learning a grip from YouTube.
  • It’s a short commitment at a reasonable salary, the definition of a rental. Kuroda signed a one-year deal worth $12M this past winter, but his salary is only $8M. The other $4M is a signing bonus that will be paid out from 2012-2013. He can earn another $500,000 in incentives, but that’s no big deal.

The Cons

  • Kuroda is not young; he turned 36 in February and he does have a bit of injury history. He spent two weeks on the DL with shoulder tendinitis in June 2008 and then missed ~100 total days of the 2009 season with an oblique strain (two weeks), a concussion (two months), and a neck sprain (two weeks). The concussion was the result a line drive to the head, so that’s a fluke thing we shouldn’t count against him. An ugly start over the weekend (5.2 IP, 6 R) apparently had to do with a cut on his finger.
  • Despite some gaudy swing-and-miss rates (10.0% career), Kuroda has only struck out 6.59 men per nine innings in his career (6.89 K/9 this year). Left-handed batters have also been a little tough on him, though it’s not a crazy split.
  • Kuroda has a full no-trade clause, and the fact that he agreed to re-sign with the Dodgers during the exclusive negotiating period this past offseason suggests that he’s not in a rush to leave town.

There’s no indication that the (soon to be) MLB-operated Dodgers are looking to sell of any players right now, but Kuroda is probably their only big money piece with trade value. He’s pitched just as well on the road as he has at pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, and for what it’s worth his peripherals stats in eight interleague starts have been strong. Kuroda’s a power pitcher with playoff experience, and he’s been amazingly consistent in his three-plus years in the States. The Yankees haven’t had the best luck when it comes to Japanese starting pitchers, but Kuroda doesn’t carry the same risk as Hideki Irabu or Kei Igawa because he’s already made the transition to MLB and has proven himself to be an above-average starter. Now it’s just up to the Dodgers to put him on the market.

Scouting The Trade Market: Carlos Beltran

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The trade deadline is still more than two months away, but you can be sure every team in the league has already started the process of scouting potential trade targets and what not. The Yankees waited until right before the deadline to bring in Kerry Wood, Lance Berkman, and Austin Kearns last season, but the year before they jumped on Eric Hinske in June, about a month before the July 31st deadline.

We’ll take a look at several players that may or may not be available come trading time between now and the deadline, starting today with Carlos Beltran. This series isn’t intended to give a definitive “yes” or “no” on a player, but instead we’ll just present some pros and cons to see if the pieces fit. Sometimes they will, other times they won’t. Let’s go backwards with this one, starting the cons before the pros…

The Cons

  • Beltran has missed a total of 145 games during the 2009 and 2010 seasons with knee issues, including what was initially reported as microfracture surgery.
  • He will earn $18.5M this season and also has a full no-trade clause. That works out to about $3.08M per month, in case you’re trying to figure out the proration.
  • Beltran happens to play for the Mets, and the Yankees and Mets don’t get together for trades very often. Certainly not for major players like Beltran, anyway. It’s been almost seven years since the Felix Heredia-Mike Stanton swap, the last time these two clubs made a deal.  The David Justice-Robin Ventura swap in December 2001 is the last trade between the Yankees and Mets that I would consider significant.

The Pros

  • Despite the knee injuries and concern about his ability to stay healthy, Beltran has done exactly that this season. He’s started 35 of the Mets’ 41 games in right field, including a stretch of 21 straight games. He played all nine of innings in both games of a double-header during at stretch as well as a 14-inning game later on.
  • We can’t rely on the advanced stats to measure his defense in right because it’s so early in the season (-2.3 UZR but +2 DRS), but my informal poll of Mets’ fans on Twitter says he’s been “surprisingly good.” Beltran was one of the best center field defenders in his prime, and I assume the instincts are still in place even if the foot speed is not. I guess the most important thing is that the knee issues haven’t turned him into Marcus Thames with the glove, he’s still playable in the outfield.
  • Beltran can still hit, sporting a .286/.381/.564 (.404 wOBA) batting line so far. Even if you remove that three homer game against the Rockies, he’d still be hitting .273/.373/.492 (.388 wOBA), which is right in line with his .282/.360/.495 (.371 wOBA) career line. ZiPS projects a .273/.362/.474 (.365 wOBA) performance from here on out, for what it’s worth.
  • He’s a switch hitter without much of a platoon split (.368 wOBA vs. RHP, .384 vs. LHP in his career) and has long been one of the very best baserunners in the game. Beltran hasn’t attempted to steal a base this year (understandable given the knee), but he still scores well in first-to-thirds, moving up on wild pitches, etc.

Even though the Yankees started the season with a pretty set lineup, it’s obvious how Beltran could help them. Nick Swisher isn’t hitting in right field, and even though most of us expect a rebound to come at some point, he’s shown in 2008 that a bounceback isn’t guaranteed over the course of a full-season. There’s also the DH spot that could be open for a myriad of reasons. Jorge Posada could continue to stink, the Yankees could decide Jesus Montero isn’t ready/Jesus Montero might stink/Jesus Montero might get traded. It’s not all that tough to see where the Yankees could use Beltran.

The Mets already have that $18.5M set aside for Beltran’s salary this year, and I’m sure they’d be willing to eat some of it to move him. The more they eat, the better the return, that’s usually how this process works. Since Beltran (and Scott Boras) offered his services to the Yankees at a discounted rate years ago as a free agent, I’m willing to bet the no-trade clause would be a non-issue. I’m not going to speculate on what it would take to acquire him, but I think last year’s Berkman trade is a halfway decent comparable. Beltran’s a better player this year than Berkman was last, so we’d have to adjust upward of course. That at least that puts us in the ballpark and not the parking lot though.

The injuries to David Wright and Ike Davis could either speed up or slow down the Beltran trade process, depending on your point of view. The Mets could hold onto him and try to hang around in the race (or at least until one of the other marquee names gets healthy), or Sandy Alderson could get a jump on everyone else and try to sell high on Beltran early in the season. Either way, he’d clearly help whatever team acquires him.