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Tag: Starting Rotation

Young Guns

Over at Pinstriped Bible, our man Cliff takes a look at the Yankees starting rotation:

Of the pitchers who have yet to reach the majors, there are two basic groups, a quartet of middling arms that have reached Triple-A and the three Killer Bs, the team’s top pitching prospects, none of whom has spent a full season at Double-A. The former group consists of David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, Hector Noesi, and Steve Garrison, all of whom will be 24 this season. Noesi and Garrison are on the 40-man roster. Phelps and Mitchell are not. Garrison is the lone lefty. Noesi is the only fly-ball pitcher among the bunch. Phelps is the most ready having posted a 3.17 ERA in 11 Triple-A starts last year with an outstanding 4.73 K/BB. Per a recent conversation with Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein, Garrison is the weakest of the bunch, and none of them have stuff as good as Nova’s.

The other three arms, of course, are Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, and Andrew Brackman. I don’t expect the Yankees to jump any of the three of them to the majors given that they have combined to make just 20 Double-A starts, but if the Yankees get desperate enough during the season, and one of the above is simply dominating in Trenton, they may have no other choice, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, which we very well might given the fact that the Yankees would have difficulty fleshing out a four-man playoff rotation right now, never mind a five-man unit that will allow them to keep up with the Red Sox over a 162-game season.

[Photo Credit: Zimbo]

Pinstriped Bible Breakdown

One advantage of today’s game being canceled is that it gives me room to share this roundtable discussion about the fifth-starter competition and spring training competitions in general that Jay Jaffe and I participated in over at Steven Goldman’s Pinstriped Bible on YES. A quick sample:

Cliff: . . . what Girardi is looking for (I assume and hope) is execution of pitches, game planning, the ability to set-up hitters, work out of jams, miss bats, avoid hard contact, turn lineups over, etc. This is the one time of year when I agree with those who diminish the importance of statistics. The sample is indeed too small, thus one bad outing, due to the after-effects of the flu or fatigue toward the end of an outing in which the pitcher in question is extending his pitch count, can ruin an ERA. Also, as Girardi has said, the first couple of spring starts are really tune-ups in which starters don’t use all of their pitches and are just trying to build arm strength and get a feel for things. So for Hughes and Chamberlain, as well, the charge is to execute in a high-pressure situation, to show what they can do, but I don’t think that necessarily means the pitcher with the better ERA is going to get the job. If Joba continues to struggle but suddenly finds it in his last two spring starts and looks like the guy from 2007 again, I think the job will be, and should be, his.

Read the rest here.

Position Battles: Fifth Starter

There’s not a lot of intrigue in Yankee camp this year. The team arrives as defending champions and, as I wrote in my campers post, the 25-man roster is fairly predictable given the players in camp. Joe Girardi does have to work out how he’s going to distribute playing time in left and center field and decide on a basic batting order, but the roles of the players involved aren’t likely to change much no matter what he decides. The only significant suspense March holds for Yankee fans, save wondering if Nick Johnson can survive the month with all of his bones and ligaments intact, is in the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation. Fifth-starter battles are typically slap fights among assorted marginal minor leaguers and veteran retreads, but the battle in Yankee camp this spring pits the organization’s top two young arms against one another in a four-week competition that could have significant repercussions for the futures of both pitchers.

That would be a lot more exciting if there wasn’t as much fan fatigue over Joba Chamberlain’s pitching role as there is over Brett Farve’s flirtations with retirement, but it’s important to note that, for all of the debates, role changes, rule changes, and innings limits, the Yankees have Chamberlain exactly where they want him this spring, coming off a season of 160 innings pitched and ready to spend a full season in the rotation without having a cap placed on his innings pitched. For that reason, I believe that the Yankees are looking at the fifth starter’s job as Chamberlain’s to lose, though they’d ever admit it. Chamberlain is nine months older that Hughes and a season ahead of Hughes in terms of his innings progress (Hughes threw 111 2/3 innings between the minors, majors, and postseason last year; Chamberlain threw 100 1/3 in 2008). If Chamberlain claims the fifth-starter job this year, and the Yankees can find Hughes 150-odd innings, Hughes can follow Chamberlain into the rotation as a full-fledged starter in 2010 on the heals of the free agency of both Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez. If that happens, the Yankees will have established both young studs in the rotation before their 25th birthdays. They’re thisclose.

There are just two problems. First, Chamberlain got his innings to the right place last year, but his head and stuff seemed to go in the opposite direction. Second, getting Hughes 150 innings this year with Chamberlain eating up close to 200 in the rotation could prove to be as challenging as limiting Chamberlain to 160 last year.

Taking the latter first, the flip-side of the fifth-starter battle is the assumption that the loser will move back in to the eighth-inning role that both young pitchers have excelled at in recent seasons. In his 50 career major league relief appearances during the regular season, Chamberlain has posted a 1.50 ERA and struck out 11.9 men per nine innings while holding opposing hitters to a .182/.255/.257 line. Hughes, in 44 regular season relief appearances, all from last year, posted a 1.40 ERA and 11.4 K/9 while opposing batters hit .172/.228/.228. That sort of late-game dominance is hard to resist (thus the endless Joba debates), but both pitchers would be more valuable throwing 200 innings a year than 60, and given the impending free agency of Pettitte and Vazquez not to mention A.J. Burnett’s injury history, the Yankees have to resist slotting the loser of this spring’s competition into that role to such a degree that they’re unwilling to stretch him back out during the season, as they were with Hughes last year. Doing so would reset the clock on that pitcher’s journey toward the rotation and thus could severely damage his career path.


Edwar, Yogi, and Me

The big news out of Yankee camp today is that Edwar Ramirez was designated for assignment to make room for Chan Ho Park. Ramirez was out of options and a long-shot at best for a spot on the Opening Day roster, so the Yankees were going to have to do something with him by the end of spring training. This takes care of that bit of business early.

The big news yesterday was that Joe Girardi has set his pitching rotation for the first week and a half of the exhibition schedule. Chad Jennings has the full details, and I’ve updated our sidebar with the first week’s action. CC Sabathia will start the second game to put him on schedule for the season opener. Barring injury or setback, the regular season rotation will start with CC followed by A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and then Javier Vazquez. Pettitte won’t pitch in a spring training game until March 12, but will throw a simulated game on March 7 to get his work in and stay on schedule while Gaudin and Sergio Mitre work in the actual game.

Programing note: I’ll be doing my annual live blog on Friday, covering the third game of the spring, which will feature both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, in that order, on the mound.

Shameless self-promotion: This afternoon at 3pm I will be appearing at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center for an extended Q&A with Steven Goldman, Jay Jaffe, Kevin Goldstein, and Christina Kahrl to promote Baseball Prospectus 2010.

Andy Makes Five

It sure took them long enough, but the Yankees finally came to terms with Andy Pettitte yesterday, re-signing the veteran lefty to a one-year deal with a base salary of $5.5 million and incentives that could make the deal worth as much as $12 million. With that, the Yankees have the final piece of their 2009 rotation in place. Here’s a quick look at the Yankees’ projected starting five along with my thoroughly un-scientific innings and ERA projections for each pitcher:

Pitcher Proj. IP Proj. ERA
CC Sabathia (L) 230 3.20
Chien-Ming Wang 200 4.00
A.J. Burnett 170 4.40
Andy Pettitte (L) 215 4.20
Joba Chamberlain 160 2.90

Quibble with those projections however you want, but consider what they add up to: 975 innings of a 3.73 ERA. Last year the collected Yankee starters–that is every pitcher who started for the team all year, not just the top five–combined for just 898 1/3 innings and a 4.58 ERA. Meanwhile, team that got the best performance out of it’s starting pitchers in 2008 was the Toronto Blue Jays, whose starters combined for 1,012 2/3 innings of a 3.72 ERA. Given that, the Yankees could have the best rotation in baseball even with that underwhelming performance from A.J. Burnett, average performances from Pettitte and Wang, and the limit placed on Chamberlain’s innings total. The catch is that their two top rivals for baseball’s best rotation are the Rays (with David Price taking over for Edwin Jackson) and Red Sox.

Note that I expect Chamberlain, not Pettitte, to be the Yankees’ fifth starter because of the limit the Yankees will need to place on his innings. Chamberlain threw 100 1/3 innings last year. Tom Verducci’s Rule of 30 would suggest a cap of 130 innings this year, but I expect the Yankees’ cap to be around 150 frames, and for Chamberlain to surpass that slighly due to a solid performance. The one remaining flaw in Chamberlain’s game is an inefficiency stemming from his being both a strikeout pitcher and one who walked 3.5 men per nine innings last year. That inneficiency will likely limit him to an average of six innings per start (which is exactly what he averaged in the nine starts prior to his shoulder injury last year). At that rate, he could make 26 starts this year and still have thrown just 156 innings. If the Yankees keep him in the fifth spot and use the odd off-day to skip his turn, he should come in right on target.

Meanwhile, with Pettitte having now rounded out the rotation, Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves become replacement starters rather than potential fifth-starters. That’s good news for the Yankees as there’s a decent chance that at least one of the pitchers in the chart above will wind up throwing as many as 100 innings less than I’ve projected for him due to injury. Aceves is a classic sixth starter, a crafty, junkballing righty who relies heavily on his defense and staying one pitch ahead of the hitter. In scout speak, Aceves has great pitchability, but not much stuff. He’s not far removed from the pitcher he’s replacing in the organization, Darrell Rasner, and is thus better suited as a replacement than one of the organization’s top five starters.

Hughes, of course, is still a top prospect, but even before Pettitte signed, I felt that Hughes needed to start the year in Triple-A and spend a couple of months just getting his legs under him and his confidence up so that he could return to the majors with some momentum rather than start the year trying once again to prove he deserved to break camp with the big club. Remember, Hughes has made just two major league starts since last April, and while he was excellent in the second of those two, essentially beating A.J. Burnett head-to-head (though Jose Veras wound up with the win), it came in late September against a long-since eliminated Blue Jays team. Hughes developed a strong cut fastball while rehabbing his broken rib last year and pitched well, if inconsistently, in the Arizona Fall League. With Pettitte in place, Phil can now build on those two developments at Triple-A in the hope of becoming a mid-season injury replacement (I didn’t write “for Burnett,” but I thought it) and forcing Joe Girardi to make a tough decision in the second half. Remember, Hughes won’t be 23 until last June. He still has plenty of time to make the transition from Triple-A to the majors.

While I’m on the topic, I might as well address Ian Kennedy. I don’t think Kennedy, who is a year and a half Hughes’ senior, was ever going to be in the picture for the big league rotation this spring. He did enough to discourage Girardi and the team last year that he wasn’t even brought back as a September call-up. Kennedy needs to spend the year at Scranton letting his pitching do the talking and hoping for a chance to make his case for the 2010 rotation in September. The good news on Kennedy is that he supposedly found a new way to throw his curve after working with Scranton pitching coach Rafael Chaves last year and dominated the Puerto Rican winter league with the pitch. Kennedy’s big problem last year was his refusal/inability to use his curve in his major league stints, making him a very hittable two-pitch fastball/changeup pitcher without much heat on his heater and a resulting tendency to shy away from contact. If the improvement in his curve proves sustainable, he may well revive his prospect status, making the A.J. Burnett contract all the more regrettable for expensively clogging up the rotation.

Still, taking the short-term view, it’s hard to complain about the Yankees’ top five starters entering the season. The Yankees haven’t had an Opening Day rotation this strong since they were making annual trips to the World Series. They’ve paid a lot for the priviledge, but it just might pay off.

Penny For My Thoughts

I explore the similarities between the Yankee and Red Sox rotations in my new piece analyzing Boston’s deal with Brad Penny for SI.com. Check it out.

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


The Rotation: I Believe The Children Are Our Future

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 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.


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