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The Rotation: Can’t Buy Me Love

Yesterday I looked at the state of the Yankee rotation and of the organizational starting pitching depth as it stands right now. Today, I want to try to figure out which free agents best fit into the Yankees plans for 2009 and beyond and how.

To begin with, I want to rerun my chart of the returning 2008 starters, but I’m going to add one name to it. With Mike Mussina’s retirement confirmed (though not yet official), the Yankees are all but guaranteed to bring Andy Pettitte back on a one-year deal. Though Pettitte had a poor year in 2008, I support this move for two reasons. The first is that a one-year deal essentially serves as a stop-gap as the Yankees’ pitching prospects continue to mature. Joba Chamberlain is ready to start the 2009 season in the Yankee rotation, but though the Yankees have nine intriguing starting prospects in their system, none of the other eight is fully ready just yet. Even Phil Hughes would benefit from starting the season at Triple-A. A one-year deal for Pettitte gives Hughes (or Kennedy, or even George Kontos) time to refine his skills, then gets Pettitte out of the way for that pitcher to join the rotation in 2010.

Second, Pettitte’s poor 2008 season wasn’t all that poor and was weighed down by an ugly second half that Pettitte blamed on his failure to follow his usual offseason conditioning program due to a desire to stay out of sight in the wake of the Mitchell Report’s December 2007 release. Even still, Pettitte threw 204 innings, won 14 games, and posted an ERA just a tick below league average. After 22 starts, Pettitte was 12-7 with a 3.76 ERA. He then went 2-7 with a 6.23 the rest of the way. Over his entire career, Pettitte’s second-half ERA has been nearly a half run lower than his first-half mark. I’m willing to give Pettitte the benefit of the doubt given both his durability (four straight seasons of 200-plus innings) and the roster flexibility his one-year deal would provide following the 2009 season.

And so, our starting point for this discussion is this:

Pitcher Age* GS ’08 ERA K/BB SNLVAR
Chien-Ming Wang 29 15 4.07 1.54 2.3
Andy Pettitte (L) 36 33 4.54 2.97 2.4
Joba Chamberlain 23 12 2.76 2.96 2.4
Phil Hughes 22 8 6.62 1.53 0.3
Alfredo Aceves 26 4 2.74 1.13 1.0
Ian Kennedy 24 9 8.35 1.00 -0.4
Dan Giese 31 3 3.78 2.60 0.5
Kei Igawa (L) 29 1 18.00 n/a -0.3

*on Opening Day 2009

Given the above list of “in-house” pitchers (pending Pettitte’s signing, of course), if the Yankees were to land CC Sabathia, which would be a no-brainer addition should Sabathia accept the team’s offer, the 2009 rotation would look like this:

Sabathia (L)
Wang (R)
Pettitte (L)
Chamberlain (R)
Aceves/Hughes (R)

I’d be content to stop there, with Aceves available to start the season in Hughes’ place and to compensate for Chamberlain’s 150-innings limit once Hughes (or Kennedy, etc.) arrives to take over the fifth spot. But what if Sabathia decides that returning to his home state and getting the opportunity to become one of the game’s best-hitting pitchers is more valuable to him than Yankee dollars? And is there a way for the Yankees to provide some more insurance in that fifth spot that might allow them to leave Hughes in Scranton for a larger portion of the season and hold Aceves in reserve in case of an injury to one of the top four?

There are roughly 50 major league starting pitchers on the free agent market right now, with only Ryan Dempster having signed, re-upping with the Cubs for $52 million over four years. I won’t bother you with all 50, as at least half of them are sub-Ponson level dreck (i.e. Horatio Ramirez and Jason Johnson, both of whom pitched primarily in relief last year), perpetually injured (Mark Prior, Matt Clement), or as in the case of future Hall of Famers Mussina and Greg Maddux, retired. Tom Glavine and John Smoltz will only pitch for the Braves if they return, and are also both 40-somethings coming off injury. Randy Johnson is another 40-something who, despite having a solid 2008 season, simply will not return to New York. Curt Schilling, yet another 40-something coming off injury and like Glavine and Smoltz a retirement candidate, has said he would not follow Johnny Damon’s lead by turning traitor on the Red Sox. Carving all of those pitchers out of the list and stopping before we get down to Ponson and his ilk, we get this list (all stats from 2008):

Pitcher Age* GS ERA+ K/BB SNLVAR
Derek Lowe 35 34 131 3.27 6.9
Ben Sheets 30 31 139 3.36 6.2
A.J. Burnett 32 34 105 2.69 5.2
Oliver Perez (L) 27 34 100 1.71 4.4
Randy Wolf (L) 32 33 93 2.28 4.3
Braden Looper 34 33 102 2.40 4.2
Odalis Perez (L) 31 30 101 2.16 3.2
Paul Byrd 38 30 98 2.41 3.0
Jon Garland 29 32 91 1.53 1.9
Brad Penny 30 17 68 1.21 0.7

*as of Opening Day 2009

This is hardly the most exciting list of alternatives, and in an of itself justifies the Yankees’ seemingly outlandish offer to CC Sabathia (which, I should point out, I’m in favor of, even if I think the team should make Mark Teixeira an even higher priority). Still, there’s a chance Sabathia will sign elsewhere, and if he does, Lowe is cleary the next best option. I say that despite the similarity of his line above to that of Ben Sheets because of the disparate injury histories of the two pitchers. Lowe has made 32 or more starts in each of the last seven seasons. Sheets–who finished the 2008 season on the DL with elbow trouble and was unable to take the ball in the NLDS or as the Brewers’ Wild Card chase came down to the season’s final weekend–had not made more than 24 starts in any of the three years leading up to his walk year this year.

It will be interesting to see just how far Sheets’ stock drops as a result of this most recent elbow injury. Given his recent history, anything more than an incentive-based two-year deal would be too much. However, the word is that a two-year deal is about all Sheets is likely to be offered. Supposedly there is no structural damage in Sheets’ elbow. Given the choice between a five-year deal for A.J. Burnett, who has made more than 25 starts in a season just twice in the last six years, and a two-year deal for Sheets, I’d take my chances on Sheets.

To me, the most surprising name on the above list, and thus the biggest sleeper in the group, is former Mets closer Braden Looper. Just compare his line above to that of Burnett, who currently stands as one of the Yankees’ top targets. A career-long reliever who had last started as a 22-year-old minor leaguer in 1997, Looper was moved into the rotation prior to the 2007 season by a desperate Cardinals team and pitched well enough that year to remain in the role. He was even better in 2008, regaining most of the losses he suffered in his strikeout and groundball rates in 2007, and thus putting most of his rates as a starter in 2008 in line with the career marks he compiled out of the bullpen. Looper’s nothing more than a league average innings-eater, but he’s likely undervalued given his short track record as a starter, and he has a record of durability having made either 60 relief appearances or 30 starts in each of the last ten years.

The three lefties on the above list all come with their own individual warnings. Odalis Perez only averaged 5 1/3 innings per start in 2008, which was his first season with more than 140 innings pitched since 2005 and his first season with an ERA+ in the triple-digits since 2004. Prior to making 33 starts last year, Wolf hadn’t made more than 23 since 2003 due to a variety of injuries. Again, Sheets is a far more desirable option among these pitchers with spotty attendance given the fact that he brings a high-reward with his high level of risk.

Oliver Perez is a very different case. Just 27, he’s made 30 or more starts in four of the last five seasons, but two years ago ten of those starts came in the minors due to his poor performace in the majors. His poor K/BB rate is entirely the fault of his alarming walk rates (105 walks or 4.87 BB/9IP in 2008), which is a big red flag. Perez is a frustratingly inconsistent pitcher, who could easily pull a Jeff Weaver in the Bronx (or become the Yankees’ answer to Daniel Cabrera), though he does have the advantage of having already endured two and a half seasons in New York, including two late-season collapses by the Mets. Still, the Yankees are already up to their eyeballs in young, raw pitching talent. What they need is someone to hold down a spot in the major league rotation until that talent is ready, not another project pitcher who needs on-the-job training.

That brings us down to Paul Byrd, an aging junkballer who is good for some league average innings-eating, but will get absolutely torched every so often and is an inferior alternative to Looper, and Jon Garland, whose youth, World Series ring, and pair of recent 18-win seasons have made him overvalued (he made $12 million in 2008), though he does earn points for durability (32 or more starts seven years running). The big warning flag on Garland is the fact that his strikeout and walk rates have been converging over the past couple of seasons. Indeed, his K/BB above is the worst on the list, save for Penny, who was injured last year.

Penny is an interesting case and straddles the line between the viable candidates above and another group of veterans coming off injuries. In 2006, Penny started the All-Star Game. In 2007, he was third in the NL Cy Young voting, posting a 151 ERA+, and compiling 7.3 SNLVAR, though with a still-underwhelming 1.85 K/BB. This year, he was derailed by shoulder problems, and it’s telling that the Dodgers declined his $9.25 million option earlier this month. Penny is one of the sextet of pitchers who started for the Marlins earlier this decade and has since been plagued by injuries. The others include Burnett, Dempster, our pal Carl Pavano, Matt Clement, and Josh Beckett.

Penny brings to mind Freddy Garcia, who had the great misfortune of needing surgery on his labrum and rotator cuff just as he was becoming a free agent a year ago. Garcia spent most of the year unsigned while rehabbing his arm and finally caught on with the Tigers at the end of the year, making three middling starts for Detroit. Now 33, Garcia has made just 14 starts over the past two seasons and was only slightly above league average in 2006. Other notable pitchers who returned from injury in 2008, though with underwhelming results, include Pavano, Mike Hampton, Bartolo Colon, and Pedro Martinez, none of whom deserve anything more than a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. Certainly it’s possible that some team will look brilliant for signing one of these reclamation projects to an incentive-laden deal, but I wouldn’t want to count on any one of them for anything. After that bunch we get into the Ponsons and Livan Hernandez’s of the world, or start speculating about the effectiveness of a 39-year-old Jon Lieber who spent most of 2008 pitching in relief.

As far as the free-agent market goes, that’s all there is. Given that, I think the Yankees should limit themselves to Pettitte plus a maximum of two pitchers from among Sabathia and those listed in the table above. Assuming the Yankees sign either Sabathia or Lowe to be the big addition to the rotation, but not both, I’d recommend either a two-year deal for Ben Sheets, whose ace potential is worth a short-term gamble, or a low-cost offer to Braden Looper to eat innings at the back of the rotation with the understanding that he could always move back into the bullpen once the kids are ready. What the Yankees shouldn’t do, is sign multiple starters to long-term deals, thereby blocking their in-house talent at the major league level, and most of all, they should stay the hell away from the overrated and chronically infirm A.J. Burnett.

Categories:  Cliff Corcoran  Hot Stove

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1 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:07 am

I still say we should stop at Sabathia

2 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:13 am

No Pettitte either?

3 monkeypants   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:18 am

Yeah, that is one ugly-ass list, and one that brings home the sobering reality that re--re-signing Ponson is not an impossibility.

4 Bum Rush   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:20 am

That's some superb analysis right there. Great find on Looper.

Sabathia and Pettitte is exactly right. Those are also two easy contracts to lay out the parameters. If they grab Manny too (instead of dumb contract to a 1B), that's a fine off-season and for right around the $65 million you say they have to burn.

Lowe is right as a backup to Sabathia.

I also agree on Sheets. But would you give him a third, or even a fourth, year? I could see a few teams getting in on him with the risk/benefit involved. When should the Yanks drop out?

5 monkeypants   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:22 am

Boy, I was sort of hoping that Pettitte would be allowed to move on, but maybe his season last year wasn't too bad. 200 even league-average innings is nothing to sneeze at. Also, if (and it is still a big if) they sign CC, who is also a workhorse, they can break up the starts by Joba and Hughes, which will tax the BP.

6 monkeypants   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:27 am

Ah, Bum Rush returns. I'll ignore the swipe at the potential 1B contract ; ) (on which we certainly disagree), but I am on the same page with you regarding Sheets, et al. I would not go for more than one or two years with any of the second tier pitchers: they are all simply placeholders. Maybe a team option for Sheets for third year, but if someone else wants to give him a guaranteed contract for three or four years, see ya.

7 Raf   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:29 am


If they were option years, or triggered by incentives, sure I'd give him a 3rd or 4th year.

8 monkeypants   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:30 am

[7] Hey, stop trying to steal my material. : )

9 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:31 am

Bum Rush, I'd drop out at that third year. I'd offer him as much money as he wanted for the first two, but refuse to add the extra years. A team option for the third would be okay, though, as monkeypants says.

10 Chyll Will   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:32 am

I was waiting for a long time for an educated opinion about Sheets, Thanks Cliff! My instincts alone say yes to him, and your reasoned analysis justifies it. If the Yanks signed CC, I'd do a Jon Leiber-type situation with Sheets. Now if only they reasonably approach a contract offer the same way, but seeing how things have been played recently, I don't see how that's even possible, never mind likely...

But no to even Lowe and certainly anyone else, considering Lowe is seeking a long-term deal that will take him far into ineffectiveness, and the need for a MLB-ready starter (if CC signs elsewhere) would outweigh the gamble on a rebound from health issues/poor season. Suck it up, Cash and Co., you painted yourself into this corner. I would consider Lowe if only CC were not signed and if after three years at best the rest (if necessary for a deal) were team-player options, which is to say he's not coming one way or the other.

And yes Pettitte, one mo' time.

11 Raf   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:34 am

Looks like Aaron Heilman's wants to be a starter again... It appears he forgotten why he was moved to the bullpen in the first place?

If we're looking @ placeholders, I wouldn't be against picking up Paul Byrd on the cheap.

12 Chyll Will   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:36 am

I guess I'll be playing the role of reverb in this post, huh? >;)

13 tommyl   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:37 am

But Cliff, AJ throws soooo hard. And he's turned a corner. Girardi's comments the other day were pretty frightening in that regard, sounds like Kyle fetish all over again.

14 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:39 am

[2] I meant of the new FAs. I'd keep Pettitte, but only for one year.

15 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:45 am

[11] I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but I'm really not a fan of signing or trading for so-so pitching. I think if the team wants a Byrd-type, its much cheaper and easier to find someone in the system. I think FAs and trades should be reserved for much better acquisitions.

16 Bum Rush   ~  Nov 20, 2008 11:48 am

@ 8.9

Cool. Now if only the Yanks are on the same page as us!

On Burnett, if they sign him I can at least talk myself into his AL East splits. But, yeah, that's not going to be a fun contract.

Otherwise, what are the reservations on Sabathia to keep him from top priority status over a very good, but not HOF-worthy, 1B? It's not simply the innings load, is it? The guy's never had any arm troubles.

17 BobbyB   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:08 pm

Losing Mussina really gums up the future. I's still convinced Joba should be a reliever and that makes the situation worse. THey still missed the baot with Santana last season. You're going to need two lefties in your rotation to keep a high winning percentage in Yankee Stadium. I bet if one of you stats guys checks, the Yankees were always winners when they had 2 or more Left handed starters. IT certainly was true during the recent dynasty years.

18 Chyll Will   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:11 pm

[16] Not his arm so much as his legs and knees. CC's a Big Dude, bigger than Wells even, so you look at a similar situation, especially considering that CC is a power pitcher, and all power pitchers depend on their legs. His girth will be a big issue (no pun intended, really), like it or not, on the far side of 30. Yeah, Wells did some great stuff in that timeline, but his last go-round was painful to watch, and if you keep CC around that long, you might end up seeing it over again.

That's the risk I think about, but it's far outweighed (nope, not intended!) by what he brings now with young pitchers in tow. At his peak, the youngsters should be in good shape to take it from there.

19 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:15 pm

They do have Eric Milton somewhere in the system, don't they?


I feel dirty.

20 Raf   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:21 pm

[15] You can never have too many arms. It was expected that Kennedy & Hughes could throw league average innings, and that didn't work out too well. Byrd is certainly a better option than, say, Pavano or Ponson.

21 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:23 pm

BobbyB, correlation is not causation. In 2000 the second lefty in the rotation was Denny Neagel. They won because of him? The 1982 Yankees had three lefties in the rotation (Gator, Rags, and Tommy John--three very good lefties) and won 79 games.

22 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:24 pm

I know you're kidding, Matt, but Milton's a free agent again anyway.

23 Raf   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:25 pm


It certainly wasn't true during the non-dynasty years, of which there are more of..

24 bzorn22   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:26 pm

The only two free agents that I can see signing at all are Sabathia and/or Lowe. To get anyone else on that list you will have to overpay and there is no real point in overpaying for Looper or Perez or Sheets or any of the rest.

25 Raf   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:26 pm

Perhaps I should hit F5 before I post? :)

26 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:34 pm

[20] Those people tend to stay around long past their expiration date on this team. We were still trying to get blood from the Ponson stone until the very end,

27 Bum Rush   ~  Nov 20, 2008 12:52 pm


Sure, but even at the end of a 6 year contract he'll be 33. That's fantastic for an ace pitcher, especially a power arm that seems to be getting better and better and has never been injured. I see exactly zero reservations.

28 Raf   ~  Nov 20, 2008 1:06 pm

[26] I'd be willing to take on Byrd if it means no Ponson in 2009.

29 Diane Firstman   ~  Nov 20, 2008 1:12 pm

Moose made it official ..... Yankee news conference at 4 p.m. today. :-(

30 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 1:12 pm

I'd be willing to take on Ted Bundy if it meant I'd never see Sidney Ponson in a Yankee uniform again.

Sadly, I'm sure he'll be back once or twice before its all said and done.

31 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 1:16 pm

Interesting thought that I realized today. There's a halfway decent chance that SEVEN of the best pitchers of the last 20 years all retire before April next year (Maddux, Mussina, Schilling, Glavine, Smoltz, Martinez, Johnson) which would wipe out the entire old guard of pitching.

The only one who I'm pretty sure won't retire is Johnson. But ST could bring anything.

32 ms october   ~  Nov 20, 2008 1:24 pm

matt i was thinking about this too the other day.
it's pretty impressive.
might have an impact on who gets in the hof - certainly will make someone like moose have to wait a bit longer.

33 Chyll Will   ~  Nov 20, 2008 1:26 pm

[31] I think Pedro's pride tries to wrangle one more year from Omar, and then Pedro's body retires before the All-Star break.

34 Mattpat11   ~  Nov 20, 2008 1:29 pm

[33] I think if Pedro gets cut in Spring Training, he's done.

35 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Nov 20, 2008 3:31 pm

I imagine that if Galvine and Smoltz retire along with Maddux, Smoltz's entry will be easier because the writers will want to put all three in together.

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