Proof that Brian Cashman reads this blog:
Thursday I posted a rant that, among other things, said the Yankees shouldn’t waste their resources by trading for a relief pitcher and that they should stay away from Xavier Nady.
Friday, the Yankees traded four minor leaguers to the Pirates for lefty relief pitcher Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady.
Here’s the wacky part: I don’t hate the trade.
The thing is, the Yankees didn’t really give up anyone they couldn’t afford to lose. The four minor leaguers headed to Pittsburgh are pitchers Ross Ohlendorf, Phil Coke, and George Kontos, and outfielder Jose Tabata.
The names that jump out on that list are Ohlendorf’s and Tabata’s, so let’s dispose of the other two first. Coke is a lefty starter who has dominated in double-A over the last three months. That sounds like a lot to give up, but he just turned 26 and this is his first year above A-ball. What’s more, despite his success in the offense-suppressing environment in Trenton, there’s simply no room for him in Scranton, where the rotation consists of Ian Kennedy, Daniel McCutchen, Alfredo Aceves, Jeff Karstens and . . . well, Kei Igawa, but only because Alan Horne, Jeff Marquez, and Phil Hughes (who Brian Cashman recently said would be optioned after being officially activated from his current rehab assignment) are on the DL. George Kontos is three years younger than Coke, but he’s right-handed, hadn’t pitched as well in Trenton, and is similarly blocked by the organizational gridlock forming around the Scranton rotation. Besides, as young as the 23-year-old Kontos is, Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are younger, and Kennedy and Marquez are less than a year older, meaning the Yankees already have four right-handed starters his age ahead of him in the organization.
This same surplus of pitching talent in the high minors is what makes Ohlendorf expendable. One can criticize the Yankees for failing to use Ohlendorf in the sort of short-inning relief appearances they targeted him for in spring training, but the simple fact is that he was squeezed out of the bullpen by other minor league relievers who simply out-pitched him (Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, David Robertson, and Dan Giese). Converted back to starting in triple-A (Scranton has been going with a six-man rotation since the All-Star break), he pitched well, but not significantly better than he had been when the Yankees decided he might make a better relief pitcher. Of the four players traded, Ohlendorf is the only one with any major league experience, and he’ll be 26 himself in a week.
Once they’re all healthy, Horne and Marquez will likely slot into the two empty spots in double-A, and Hughes will take some extra time pitching for Scranton, more than filling the rotations at the top two minor league levels. Meanwhile, there’s more pitching on the way from the lower levels. In trading Ohlendorf, Coke, and Kontos, the Yankees have simply skimmed off their minor league surplus in the service of improving the major league team.
As for Tabata, he’s still just 19 and entered the season as one of the organization’s top prospects, but he’s had a dreadful season (.248/.320/.310) that has been further marred by some discipline issues and a something of a crisis of commitment during which he almost quit baseball. He’s also proven to be fragile, as each of his last two seasons was shortened by a hand injury and he heads to the Pirates while still on the DL with a hamstring strain. He’s clearly been passed by 21-year-old Austin Jackson as the organization’s top outfield prospect, and I suspect the Yankees are giving up on him, much like they did on 2005 first-round draft pick C.J. Henry when they made Henry the lead prospect in the Bobby Abreu trade at the 2006 deadline.
Of course, from a scouting standpoint, there’s no real comparison between Henry, an almost instant bust, and Tabata, who remains a prospect, but with Henry the Yankees seemed to smell bust before the blood was in the water and were thus able to cash him in before he lose his first-round luster. I suspect they’re doing the same with Tabata, an offense-first outfielder who has never hit for any real power (mL career: .291/.362/.382), hasn’t been able to cope with the crucial leap to double-A, and could simply not be the hitter he once was (or was expected to be) due to those hand injuries. I also think that the Yankees deeply regret not cashing in former top prospect Eric Duncan, another poor defensive player who largely stopped hitting upon reaching double-A at a young age and has never recovered, and were, justifiably, more willing to part with Tabata as a result.
So what the Yankees gave up isn’t much, which makes it easier to accept the fact that what they got may not be all that much either. As I wrote on Thursday, the Yankees just don’t need another relief pitcher. Damaso Marte would be a huge upgrade for a struggling bullpen, but the Yankees’ is not such a bullpen.
Worse than being somewhat redundant, Marte could actually prove a hindrance to the bullpen, even if he pitches well. One of the strengths of the Yankee pen has been Joe Girardi’s ability to spread the work around, thus minimizing the strain on any one pitcher. One reason he’s been able to do that is that the men he has in his pen behind Mariano Rivera are all largely interchangeable. Leaving out mop-up man LaTroy Hawkins (whom, I expect will finally be released to make room for Marte), the Yankee relievers are all very effective right-handed pitchers, and all but Kyle Farnsworth have excellent numbers against left-handed hitters. That means Girardi hasn’t had to lean on any individual pitcher for specific matchups, and because he hasn’t had to micro-manage his matchups, he’s generally able to use his relievers for a minimum of three outs at a time rather than for the fractions of innings that LaRussian bullpen management requires. More outs per appearance means less total appearances and thus less of a strain on the bullpen as a whole.
If Girardi uses Marte–who has a slight reverse split this year (lefties hit .255/.305/.364 vs. righties’ .200/.278/.283)–as just another dominant setup man who can pitch full innings and help spread the work around, he’ll be an obvious upgrade on Hawkins. However, if Girardi decides he now has a matchup lefty and starts managing batter-by-batter in the late-innings, it’s going to put a previously non-existent strain on the bullpen and could actually hurt the unit as a whole. If Marte does replace Hawkins, treating Marte as a LOOGY will effectively replace the member of the pen whose primary purpose was to eat up garbage innings with a guy who eats up almost no innings at all. The success of this half of the deal is thus in Girardi’s hands. The good news is that Girardi has thus far lived up to his reputation has an excellent handler of bullpens, so there’s reason to be optimistic.
As for Xavier Nady, yes, he’s having a career year, but I’m not convinced he’s going to hit as a Yankee. On his 29th birthday last November, Nady was a career .272/.327/.441 hitter against a league average of .271/.341/.435. He’s also a career .224/.290/.388 hitter in 215 at-bats against American League pitching. Something about Nady screams Craig Wilson to me. When the Yankees traded for Wilson at the 2006 deadline, he was a 29-year-old right-handed right fielder/first baseman from Pittsburgh with a career .268/.360/.486 line who had hit .212/.282/.377 against American League pitching. As a Yankee, Wilson hit .212/.248/.365.
Still, there are reasons to be more optimistic about Nady. To begin with, there’s that career year he’s having (.330/.383/.535 thus far). He’s also hitting .352/.419/.576 on the road, which means he’s not exploiting PNC Park in some unusual way. He’s also doing that despite a miserable line at Wrigley Field, the road park in which he’s hit most often. Finally, unlike Wilson, who came to the Yankees ice cold (.211/.231/.316 in July 2006 prior to the trade), Nady is red hot (.386/.403/.614 in July through Thursday’s games with a still-active 13-game hitting streak). If nothing else, Nady will produce more than Brett Gardner has out of left field and will prevent Johnny Damon from rushing back to the field and reinjuring his shoulder on a throw, but I don’t believe that the acquisition of Nady means that the Yankees have added a big bat to their lineup.
I don’t hate this trade, but I’m dubious. Poking around, it seems I might be the only one who is. Here’s hoping I’m the one who’s wrong.