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The Rotation: I Believe The Children Are Our Future

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On November 19, 2008 @ 10:10 am In Cliff Corcoran,Hot Stove | Comments Disabled

Ryan Dempster signed a four-year, $52 million deal to remain a Cub, while rumor has it the Yankees plan to offer A.J. Burnett $80 million for five years (fortunately one Yankee official has already dismissed those figures as “nonsense”). I’ll take a closer look at the Yankees’ options for outside pitching help tomorrow. Today, I want to look at the Yankees in-house options and prospects in an attempt to give some perspective to the proceedings.

2008 Yankee Starting Pitchers

Mike Mussina 34 3.37 1.22 4.84 5.6
Andy Pettitte (L) 33 4.54 1.41 2.87 2.4
Darrell Rasner 20 5.40 1.56 1.74 1.1
Chien-Ming Wang 15 4.07 1.32 1.54 2.3
Sidney Ponson 15 5.08 1.62 1.21 0.9
Joba Chamberlain 12 2.76 1.30 2.96 2.4
Ian Kennedy 9 8.35 1.96 1.00 -0.4
Phil Hughes 8 6.62 1.71 1.53 0.3
Carl Pavano 7 5.77 1.49 1.50 0.2
Alfredo Aceves 4 2.74 1.22 1.13 1.0
Dan Giese 3 3.78 1.01 2.60 0.5
Kei Igawa (L) 1 13.50 3.25 n/a -0.3
Brian Bruney 1 0.00 1.00 4.00 0.2
13 pitchers 162 4.58 1.42 2.24 16.2

*Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Against Replacement: a Baseball Prospectus statistic based on win expectancy and adjusted for run support and the strength of opposing lineups that essentially measures wins above replacement level.

Removing the free agents, Rasner, who was sold to Japan, and Bruney, whose lone start was actually a preemptive relief appearance as Joe Girardi attempted to out-smart an early-season rain storm in Kansas City, the 2008 starters still in the organization are:

Pitcher Age* GS ’08 ERA WHIP K/BB SNLVAR
Chien-Ming Wang 29 15 4.07 1.32 1.54 2.3
Joba Chamberlain 23 12 2.76 1.30 2.96 2.4
Phil Hughes 22 8 6.62 1.71 1.53 0.3
Alfredo Aceves 26 4 2.74 1.22 1.13 1.0
Ian Kennedy 24 9 8.35 1.96 1.00 -0.4
Dan Giese 31 3 3.78 1.01 2.60 0.5
Kei Igawa (L) 29 1 18.00 3.66 n/a -0.3

*on Opening Day 2009

Even in that group, Giese is a career reliever, who successfully experimented with starting in triple-A last year, but is more likely to return to the bullpen, and Igawa is a three-time loser in pinstripes who is unlikely to get another chance without first having a breakthrough in the minors. Given the struggles of Kennedy and Hughes last year, the innings limits on Hughes and Chamberlain (both of whom will likely be capped at 150 frames in 2009), and questions about Hughes’ durability, it’s clear that the Yankees need outside help in the rotation for next year.

That said, in stark contrast to the first base depth chart [1] I posted the other day, the Yankees do have pitching on the way in the minor leagues. To begin with, the only pitchers on the above list who will be in their 30s by this time next year are Giese and Igawa. Wang and Chamberlain, despite making just 15 and 12 starts respectively, were among the Yankees most valuable starters in 2008, with Chamberlain tying Andy Pettitte in SNLVAR despite making 21 fewer starts. Hughes remains the youngest pitcher on the list, and at 22 is just a year younger than top 2008 draft pick and former Stanford star Jeremy Bleich.

Hughes added a very effective cutter to his resume after returning from his rib injury last year and finished the season with a very strong eight-inning start for the big club. Still, he has been inconsistent in the Arizona Fall League (though he’s really there just to increase his innings for 2008) and the Yankees would be justified in starting him in Triple-A again in 2009 given his struggles this year and his still very young age. Still, he should ultimately make a significant number of starts for the Yankees in 2009 and be an important part of the 2010 rotation along with Wang and Chamberlain.

That already leaves just two more spots in the 2010 rotation, with many more arms on the way. Kennedy, a lesser prospect to begin with, was worse than Hughes in the majors this year, but better than him in Triple-A. Kennedy may need at least a half season if not more in Triple-A to regain both his game and the team’s confidence in his abilities, but he remains a potential mid-rotation starter, and pitched well for the Yankees in three starts at the end of the 2007 season. There’s a very real chance that he could be an important part of the 2010 rotation as well, leaving just one spot.

Enter Alfredo Aceves, a Mexican League product who raced through the Yankees system last year and profiles as a back-of-the rotation starter. Like Jorge Campillo, another Mexican League product who emerged as a reliable starter for the Braves this year, Aceves has no dominant pitch, doesn’t throw especially hard, and is unlikely to ever really dominate anyone, but throws strikes, does an excellent job of mixing his wide variety of pitches, and can keep opponents off balance. At worst, he’s an improvement on the Sidney Ponsons of the world. At best, he could be a solid number four or a very strong number five in a rotation led by Chamberlain, Wang, Hughes, and Kennedy and/or one of this winter’s free agents.

And that’s just the guys who have already made major league starts for the team. In Tampa last year, Zach McAllister, the Yankees’ third round pick behind Chamberlain and Hughes in 2006, posted a 1.83 ERA while walking just 13 men in 88 2/3 innings. McAllistar, a big righty drafted out of an Illinois high school, posted those numbers in High-A as a 20-year-old in his first year of full-season ball after similarly dominating the Sally League in the first half of the season. Given 2009 in Double-A and 2010 in Triple-A, McAllister could join the Yankee rotation in 2011 without being rushed.

Behind him is yet another 2006 draftee, towering Brooklyn native Dellin Betances. Also 20, also in his first year of full-season ball, Betances started the 2008 season very raw after having thrown just 25 innings for short-season Staten Island in 2007, but by the end of the year he appeared to have put it all together. In his final 11 Sally League starts, Betances struck out 71 men in 60 1/3 innings while walking just 19 (a 3.74 K/BB) and allowing just one home run. He might be a year behind McAllister, but given his talent, he could catch up quickly.

Suddenly, we’re looking at a 2011 Yankee rotation that has the potential to be overstuffed from homegrown talent alone: Wang, Chamberlain, Hughes, Kennedy, McAllister, Betances. Even if Betances doesn’t arrive until 2012, signing just one free agent to a four-year deal squeezes two of those pitchers out of the 2012 rotation. Wang will have reached free agency by then himself, and surely at least one of these pitchers won’t pan out, but even if Wang leaves and one of the kids flops, signing just one starter to a long-term contract this winter books the 2012 rotation solid and gives the team a surplus of viable starters as soon as 2010.

And there’s still more talent in the system. Eighteen-year-old Dominican righty Jairo Heredia struck out 95 in 102 1/3 innings while posting a 3.25 ERA as Betances’s teammate in Charleston this year. Again, that’s an 18-year-old having success in A-ball, and, I should add, sporting a strong groundball rate. Top 2007 pick Andrew Brackman, the 6-foot-11 righty out of North Carolina State, is shaking off the rust from his Tommy John surgery in the Hawaiian winter league as you read this. The rust is evident, but he has struck out 36 men in 34 innings and has held righties to a .176 average. He’s about to turn 23 and could wind up in the bullpen, but as a former college hurler, he could also continue to start and move quickly once he gets back up to strength.

Speaking of college hurlers, top 2008 pick Jeremy Bleich, a lefty out of Stanford who idolizes Andy Pettitte and profiles like a left-handed Ian Kennedy with more of a bulldog attitude, has been dominating in Hawaii, going 3-1 with a 2.05 ERA and 31 strikeouts against nine walks and a lone homer in 30 2/3 innings. Bleich should start the 2009 season in full-season ball, and, like fellow college arms Chamberlain and Kennedy, could move quickly toward the Yankee rotation.

Here, then, is a list of the Yankees’ top pitching talent under the age of 25, a list that doesn’t include such names as Alan Horne (who will be 26 in January and had a disastrous, injury-riddled 2008 season), Chase Wright (a lefty who will be 26 in February, but is coming off a solid year split between Double- and Triple-A after an unfortunate stint in the majors in 2007), Erick Hacker (the latest addition to the 40-man roster, he’ll be 26 in March and is coming off a strong Double-A season), Jason Jones (who turns 26 tomorrow, also looked good in Double-A Trenton last year and had two solid starts for Triple-A Scranton as well), Phil Coke (another 26-year-old who had a good year in Trenton last year then dominated in the major leagues in September after being moved into the bullpen), or Christian Garcia (a 23-year-old righty who can’t stay healthy, but spent last year with Tampa and pitched very well when he did):

Pitcher Age 2008 Stats
Level ERA K/BB
Joba Chamberlain 23 MLB 2.76* 2.96*
Phil Hughes 22 AAA 5.90 3.44
Ian Kennedy 24 AAA 2.35 4.24
George Kontos 23 AA 3.68 2.67
Zach McAllister 21 A+ 1.83 4.77
Dellin Betances 21 A 3.67 2.29
Jairo Heredia 19 A 3.25 2.21
Jeremy Bleich (L) 21 HWB 2.05 3.44
Andrew Brackman 23 HWB 5.56 1.44

*as starter only

The one name on that list that I haven’t mentioned yet is George Kontos, another 2006 draft pick (fifth round) and a Northwestern product like current Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Kontos seems more on par with the Jason Joneses and Phil Cokes of the world, but he’s still just 23, has a 3.16 K/BB ratio in two and a half minor league seasons, and is within shouting distance of the major leagues. He bears watching, even if, on raw talent alone, he’s the least of the nine pitchers listed above.

Nine pitchers. Maybe Brackman winds up in the pen. Maybe Kontos is nothings special. Maybe one of the others flops or is derailed by injury. Maybe Jairo Heredia doesn’t mature the way one might hope. That still leaves five top-flight pitching prospects in the system, a full rotation’s worth, and that doesn’t count the five 26 year olds I mentioned above, Aceves, or Chien-Ming Wang.

Though things look sparse at the major league level right now, the Yankees are simply awash in pitching from an organizational perspective. An overenthusiastic effort to sign several big-money free agent starters to long-term contracts this winter will serve only to stifle the cheap, team-controlled talent set to arrive in the near future. In contrast, the Yankee system is nearly barren when it comes to everyday player prospects. Center fielder Austin Jackson is the only notable hitting prospect in the organization to have played above the Sally League, and catcher Jesus Montero is the only prospect in the system who projects as an elite run producer at the plate.

Given that stark discrepancy, the Yankees free agent focus should not be on pitching, but on hitting. Whenever an elite run producer becomes available while still in his 20s, the Yankees absolutely must prioritize that player in order to compensate for their failure to properly stock the farm system with bats. When such a player becomes available at a position of existing need at the major league level, as is the case with Mark Teixeira this offseason, the Yankees have an obligation to their fans and the future of the franchise to sign that player.

It’s quite possible that none of the young pitchers listed above will mature into the sort of dominant ace that CC Sabathia has become, but then again, one might. In fact, more than one might. There is, however, no chance of any player in the Yankee farm system maturing into an all-around defensive and offensive weapon on par with Mark Teixeira. If Brian Cashman is serious about the team-building process he began in the winter of 2005, if Hal Steinbrenner is serious about allowing Cashman to execute his vision, the Yankees must immediately revamp their plans to focus on signing Teixeira.

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[1] first base depth chart: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2008/11/17/first-base-tex-in-the-city/

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