July 2009

Hairston gives Yanks options

J. HAIRSTON JR.
Say this for the acquisition of the utility man Jerry Hairston: the Yankees have bought into one of the great ball-playing families. Hairston’s brother, Scott, plays for the Athletics. His father, Jerry, was a pinch-hitter for the White Sox for roughly 63 years. His uncle, Johnny, got a cup of coffee with the Reds. His grandfather, Sam, played in the Negro Leagues and briefly made it to the Majors a few years after the color line was broken. There have been more Major League Hairstons than DiMaggios, Niekros, Boones or Bells.

The Hairston under consideration here is 33 years old and, but for a couple of fluke seasons, not much of a hitter. Playing for the Orioles in 2004, he hit .303/.378/.397 in 86 games. Last season he gave the Reds .326/.384/.487 in 80 games. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to his career marks of .259/.328/.372. Even those numbers don’t tell the whole story because Hairston spent 2006-07 hitting .198/.260/.271, then relied on the GAP for his comeback, batting .410/.471/.590 in Cincinnati’s home park. On the road, he hit only .252/.307/.396.

Fortunately, the Yankees didn’t acquire Hairston for his bat, but for his ability to move around the field. This season he’s played everywhere but first base and catcher. Although primarily a second baseman at the outset of his career, Hairston has enough speed that he can move around the field and play competently. Roster flexibility is a virtue, as long as one doesn’t plan on actually making use of it all that much. One assumes that this is curtains for Cody Ransom, which is too bad — as badly as the guy did subbing for A-Rod in April, it was good to see a journeyman get his shot, and he has been passable since coming off of the disabled list, batting .240/.345/.400 in 29 plate appearances. There is no guarantee that Hairston will hit better, but again, the trick is versatility: Ransom was a third baseman-shortstop. Hairston plays everywhere, giving the Yankees more bang for the roster spot.

The Yankees give up a 20-year-old Low-A catcher in Chase Weems in the deal, which isn’t too much given Hairston’s age, ability and one-year contract. Weems hasn’t shown much offensive ability in his 88 pro games, and even were he to blossom, the Yankees are deep enough in catchers that they shouldn’t miss this one.

I’ll be back later today with more trade deadline analysis.

They are what their record says they are

20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. WHITE SOX
              W-L  RS/G  RA/G  AVG  OBP  SLG  AB/HR  SB  CS   HR/9  BB/9  K/9
Yankees    14-6    5.6    4.4    .291    .375    .484    25    10    7    1.0    3.1    7.1
White Sox    9-11    4.8    5.0    .261   .328    .423    27    11    3    1.0    3.6    7.1

carlos_250.jpgThe White Sox are a .500 team. This is entirely appropriate. They have an above-average pitching staff and a below-average offense, and the combination of the two allows them to break even. The Yankees have the misfortune to catch them just as the White Sox have received what should be a boost to their offense thanks to the return of last season’s almost-MVP Carlos Quentin from a long stay on the disabled list. Quentin has all of six hits in ten games since coming back, but he did hit a home run in his most recent game.

The Yankees also get their first look at rookie third baseman Gordon Beckham, the eighth overall pick in last year’s draft. After just holding his own in his first month in the bigs, Beckham has turned it on in July, batting .337/.396/.539 this month. Interestingly, he’s struggled badly at home, hitting only .213 with no home runs in Chicago. His road production, .382/.451/.640, has been monstrous. He’s currently playing third base because that’s where the Sox needed him, but he could play second or even shortstop in the future… On the whole, the White Sox are an impatient club with some power thanks to the usual producers, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, and Paul Konerko. That core is rapidly aging, and the Sox are going to find themselves in a difficult transitional (read: losing) phase if they can’t find more youthful company for Beckham.

One possibility is catcher Tyler Flowers, who was picked up from the Braves over the winter for Javier Vazquez. He batted .302/.445/.548 at Double-A Birmingham before being moved up to Triple-A a little over a week ago. He’s not supposed to be a great defender, and A.J. Pierzynski is in his way, but if the White Sox are smart they’ll look at Pierzynski as just another thirtysomething who has to be moved–because he’s impatient, Pierzynski can be at his offensive best and not contribute that much. He’s having one of the best years of his career this season at .304/.330/.454, but that league-average OBP holds him back.

As the Yankees have four games with the White Sox, they not only get to send out their laundry, but also get to see the entire White Sox rotation with the exception of old pal Jose Contreras, who is currently leading the league in losses. Gavin Floyd has been an interesting case this year. His career-making turn last season came in part through crazy good luck on balls in play, and as many predicted, he’s had less fortune in that area, though he’s still getting some above-average returns–instead of .250, he’s around .280, still better than your average cat. He was hit very hard in April and May before suddenly becoming unhittable in June, putting up a 1.28 ERA in six starts. July has been more of a mixed bag.   

I have a suspicion the Yankees will do pretty well with 25-year-old Clayton Richard, a lefty who has just average stuff and control and has gotten by mostly by trying to make perfect pitches and being tough on left-handed hitters. If the Yankees bring up a right-handed bat for this game and Mark Buehrle’s start as well it wouldn’t be a bad thing, although if they didn’t it wouldn’t be a disaster either–lefties have hit Buehrle for good power this year. The same goes for Saturday’s starter, John Danks. Still, the Yankees will have their work cut out for them with Buehrle and Danks; the latter has pitched quite well this year except for a few rough starts in May, and in his starts over this month and last has posted a 3.05 ERA. You’ve no doubt heard about Buehrle lately, but it’s worth noting that he’s rarely pitched well against the Yankees. In eight career starts he’s just 1-5 with a 6.11 ERA, Yankees batters having hit .321/.363/.463 against him. We’ll see if those numbers hold up.

Trading day

clifflee_325_073009.jpgAs I write this Thursday morning, there are just two shopping days left until the non-waiver trading deadline falls and every deal essentially requires the approval of 29 other teams. Several deals dropped on Wednesday, though none had the participation of the Yankees (their sole transaction line was the release of the ungrateful Brett Tomko).

The Phillies picked up Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco (I hear Jeannette McDonald sing, “Ben Francisco, open your golden gates” every time I think of that guy, and it never fails to disturb me) from the Indians, the Tribe picking up several players who could be useful contributors in the near future but almost certainly won’t be stars, with the possible exception of New Jersey native Jason Knapp, a teenaged righty whose fastball reaches atmospheric escape velocity.

The Phillies now get another reliable, top of the order type who can not only help them maintain their current lead but can get them through the playoffs — Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, and Joe Blanton seemed like less than sure bet to get them through Round 1, let alone to the World Series. Lee, Hamels, and Happ seem like a much better bet, and a real threat to an opponent with too left-handed a batting order. The Phillies still have a problem too address, and solving it doesn’t involve blowing their remaining prospects on Roy Halladay, but finding someone who can supplant Brad Lidge at the end of games.

As good as Lidge was last year, the Phillies can’t blow their season on sentimentality. A reliever who is giving up two homers per nine innings pitched isn’t worthy of his job (just ask Edwar Ramirez). I’ve seen some commentary on the deal worrying about how the Phillies are going to accommodate their current rotation plus Rodrigo Lopez and Pedro Martinez. This is much ado about nothing; in the case of the former, the Phillies can thank their various gods that they got some good work out of junk pile pickup, and as for Martinez, his utility is purely theoretical at this point. If he can pitch, perhaps he can add some depth to the bullpen.

The Giants tried to bolster their slim wild card lead by pulling second baseman Freddy Sanchez away from the Pirates. It cost them their No. 2 pitching prospect, righty Tim Alderson. While I am not completely sold on Alderson’s future as an ace (his control is of the finest quality; his stuff isn’t), the Giants might have picked the wrong spot to fix — Sanchez will upgrade their production at second base if he hits at all, but in the grand scheme of things he’s not a big generator of offense (his current .334 on-base percentage is about league average), not even at his batting title best (back in 2006), and he’s just an average glove. The Giants could have tried to live with what Juan Uribe was giving them at second while addressing themselves to left field or even shortstop, where the five-time All-Star Edgar Renteria is having a miserable year. Parenthetically, if Renteria has a couple of decent years left in his bag, he’s going to finish his career with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 career hits and make for a really annoying Hall of Fame argument.

The Mariners acquired Ian Snell and Jack Wilson from the Pirates for reasons that are sort of hard to figure. They gave up five, count ’em, five players in the deal. Wilson has a superb glove, but while he should give the M’s more offense than they’ve gotten from their shortstops this year (.222/.249/.320, numbers that deserve a double-take and a whispered prayer), he’s only a career .269/.311/.376 hitter himself and the difference won’t be enough to make a real dent in the Mariners’ major problem, which is that the league-average offense is scoring 4.8 runs a game and they average 3.9.

For their trouble, the Pirates pick up quite a bit of depth. They get a futile shortstop placeholder in Ronny Cedeno, but the real haul is 25-year-old Jeff Clement, a former No. 1 pick who still has a lot of offensive potential (his .288/.366/.505 at Tacoma translates to .255/ .329/.462 in the Majors), especially if the Pirates can live with his defense at catcher. The three pitchers the Buccos got in the deal are lower echelon prospects, but when you’re the Pirates, depth is not a bad thing, as you need a lot of pieces to sort through if you’re ever going to build a competitive roster with the kind of budget that their city requires.

Finally, the Reds picked up outfielder Wladamir Balentien from the Mariners, who had designated him for assignment last week. Balentien looked like he might be a solid prospect a over the last couple of years, hitting for real power in the minors, but his plate judgment is so bad he may never be able to be a regular contributor. Still, he’s only 24 and has a career slugging percentage of .526 in the minors. The Reds, who suffer from the worst outfield production in the bigs, have a much better chance of gaining a lasting asset by playing Balentien than they do by giving more playing time to Laynce Nix — or Willy Taveras, though Balentien can’t play center field. Tavaras’ current .240/.279/.290 would qualify as among the bottom five seasons turned in by a regular outfielder in the history of the game were he to carry those rates through to the end.

GOOD TIMING
In his last 20 games, not counting appearances as a defensive substitute, Melky Cabrera has batted .317/.403/.444, numbers which include five doubles, one home run, nine walks, and only one double play hit into. Much like his running mate Robinson Cano, Cabrera’s hot and cold streaks can make him a frustrating player to watch; he’s seemingly at his best or his worst, with little in between. Last year that divide broke down as best in April, worst the rest of the year. At the very least, Cabrera is mixing it up a bit more this season, and you can’t fault his timing — his first hot streak this year came when Brett Gardner struggled out of the gate, the second after Gardner broke his thumb. Perhaps Cabrera is the kind of player who needs to be in fear of his job to play well. After all, had he continued to slump with Gardner on the shelf, Austin Jackson was just a phone call away.

TERROR IN A TINY TOWN
Yesterday, electrical storms rolled through the obscure village in which I lived and disrupted Internet service for a good chunk of the day; I couldn’t even get on line with my phone. I was quite fearful that the Yankees would acquire Babe Ruth in exchange for $100,000 and the mortgage on Fenway Park and I wouldn’t know about it, but Brian Cashman was good enough to hold off on making any moves. I just want to thank him publicly and let him know that I am back on line and he is free to proceed with any acquisitions he would like to make … as long as they don’t involve dealing Jesus Montero. 

Getting the best from everyone

SHOCKER
I don’t think I have single thing to complain about today. Analysis is about finding problems and advocating solutions, but everyone is playing well right now. Even Nick Swisher, who I’ve (reluctantly) become disillusioned with, pulled out of his slump with a two-homer day. To quote a line from John Lennon and the Beatles, “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s OK.” (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the happiest album about alienation, distraction and disconnectedness.) That’s not quite accurate, now that I think about it — I’ve always got something to say, and it’s not “Billlllly Shears!” Though I wish it was.

jeter250_072809.jpgANOTHER RUN AT AN MVP FOR JETER?
On last night’s broadcast, my fellow YES-man Michael Kay suggested that Derek Jeter is putting together a campaign worthy of the Most Valuable Player award. My first reaction was, “Nah,” first because Jeter’s year seemed to be in the good-not-great category, second because if he didn’t win the award in 1999 or 2006 he’s not going to win it now — voters go wild for RBIs, not runs scored — and third, because there are so many other good candidates. However, on further examination, the idea is not as wild as it at first seemed, though still unlikely.  

Thanks to his .402 on-base percentage, fifth in the American League, Jeter is having one of his strongest seasons. He hasn’t reached base 40 percent of the time since 2006, and has gotten there in only two other seasons, 1999 and 2000. He’s also fifth in batting average and second in hits behind Ichiro Suzuki. He ranks ninth in runs scored. He’s not having the best season of any AL shortstop — Jason Bartlett currently ranks him, but that’s going to change over time. Jeter also has had 120 more plate appearances than Bartlett due to the latter’s stint on the disabled list.

Still, the line in front of Jeter is long, and starts with two Twins, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The latter, a past MVP balloting favorite, leads the league in home runs and RBIs, which is usually enough to nab the award. In fairness to Morneau, he’s having a tremendous year, one that is far superior to his 2006, when he last won the award. Mauer has been the best all-around hitter in the league, but he has come back to the pack a bit in July. If the Twins can come back and win the AL Central, still a strong possibility, the M&M Minnesota boys are going to get an extra push, whereas if the Yankees hang on to win the AL East, Jeter will be perceived as one among a cast of talented performers.

Since an April batting line that was indifferent by his own standards, Jeter has hit .337/.418/.459. He’s going to have to top those rates the rest of the way to make a serious dent in the gaudier statistics put up in the Twin Cities. He seems a long-shot to get serious consideration, though it would be only fair if the voters stiffed Morneau to give Jeter an award just as they stiffed Jeter to give Morneau an award in 2006.

BRONSON ARROYO
Rumors surfaced yesterday that Brian Cashman has been burning up cell-phone minutes in calls to Cincinnati, trying to get the richly-salaried Bronson Arroyo for the Yankees’ rotation. The Bronse is under contract next year for $11 million, and there’s also a club option for 2011 at the same price, with a $2 million buyout if Arroyo’s presence is no longer desired. Thus the Yankees would get the right-hander for the remainder of his age-32 season, age 33 and potentially, 34. Arroyo is having a very strange year, in that he’s either unhittable or he has no idea how to pitch. That’s no exaggeration: In his wins he has an ERA of 2.19. In his losses, it’s 11.01. I asked the statistical geniuses at Baseball Prospectus if that differential was particularly dramatic, and indeed it is. Among pitchers with at least 10 decisions, it’s the second-largest spread in baseball this year behind that of Brian Moehler, who has an ERA of 2.62 in his wins and 12.13 in his losses. Felix Hernandez, Jason Marquis and Clayton Kershaw round out the all good/all bad top five. Pitchers with fewer than 10 decisions in this category include Brett Cecil, who has a 1.33 ERA in his wins and a 15.43 ERA in his losses, and Rich Hill, who is at 1.86 in his wins and 15.75 in losses.

If you’re the Yankees, which Arroyo are you going to see most often? There doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern to his periodic lapses into incompetence. This is a deal you might make only if Dave Eiland and the rest of your organizational pitching gurus view hours of tape and say, “We see the problem and we think we can correct it.” If not, the aggregate — a quality start half the time, a sure loss the other half of the time — may not be worth the money and the low-level prospects necessary to spring the pitcher from the Queen City.

MORE OF ME
My take on the Omar Minaya-Tony Bernazard affair can be found in my You Could Look It Up spot.

Yankees could get Washburn-ed in trade

washburn_250.jpgIn one of those unrequited love affairs that never seems to end, John Heyman reports that the Yankees have made inquiries about the availability of Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn. The Yankees are naturally impressed by Washburn given that he pitches like a Cy Young winner whenever they see him. Though his record against the Bombers is only 5-6 in 13 career starts, his ERA is just 2.76. If they’ve beaten him, it’s because he likes to give up home runs, and they like to hit them, but since he hasn’t allowed them many walks or hits overall, the overall scoring has been kept to a minimum.

Sergio Mitre doesn’t seem like much of an answer to the fifth spot in the rotation, and they are understandably nervous about pulling Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves out of the bullpen, though these worries may ultimately be self-defeating. The Yankees might be able to get through the remainder of the campaign without a reliable fifth starter, and they can certainly make it through the playoffs without ever calling the fifth starter’s name, but it might not be a fifth starter they really need. They might need something more. CC Sabathia has been inconsistent, Andy Pettitte alternates good starts and bad, with the result that his ERA since April is 5.17, and the Yankees also have to worry about Joba Chamberlain hitting a wall in September (whether through an innings limit or fatigue). Say Joba pitches poorly in the fall. That would make the playoff rotation Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and a lot fingernail-biting (new slogan: Sabathia, Burnett, and pray for a pedicurist). Adding a pitcher of Washburn’s abilities would help ease those fears.

The downside to such an acquisition is that Washburn is having his best year since 2002, and the Yankees would surely have to overpay for that. This is a guy who had a 4.69 ERA a year ago. However, Washburn’s contract status mitigates against a big return, as he’s a free agent after the season. Then, of course, there’s the entire question of if the Mariners want to run up the white flag on their borderline involvement in the pennant race.

Washburn is a fly-ball pitcher, which seems like a bad idea in Yankee Stadium II, although being left-handed he should be at a theoretical advantage in the new park. Indeed, left-handed batters can’t touch him, batting .172/.231/.273 in 137 plate appearances. This is well below his career rates of .239/.295/.389, but let’s take it at face value for the moment. Washburn has good control but is usually very proficient at giving up home runs, leading the AL back in 2003. One of the reasons that he’s having such a good year is that in his average season, over seven percent of the flies he’s allowed have left the building. This year, the percentage is down to five, the lowest rate of his career, and yet there is no corresponding increase in his groundball rate. That screams fluke, something that could change at any time.

Still, if you take his proficiency against lefties as gospel and figure his presence will tilt some opposing lineups to the right side, perhaps his fly ball tendencies are not too troublesome. Whereas left-handed batters are hitting a home run once every 19 at-bats at the new park, right-handed batters have hit them at a more manageable (though still high) rate of one every 25 at-bats.

All of the above still leaves the difficult question of who to deal. The Mariners need batters more than anything else, and the Yankees don’t match up well in that regard. Austin Jackson seems like the kind of overhyped player who would bring more in trade than he will the Yankees in production, but with the outfield in flux both now (with Brett Gardner’s injury) and in the future (with free agent departures), the Yankees probably need to hold on to him, while dealing a Jesus Montero for a Jarrod Washburn seems like the kind of deal that a general manager could spend the rest of his life apologizing for, like Lou Gorman and Jeff Bagwell. Montero hit another home run this weekend, bringing his Double-A line to .309/.366/.537 with nine home runs in 149 at-bats. That line is tempered by Trenton’s wholly impossible home park–Montero is batting .229/.280/.357 in the Garden State capital, but .380/.443/.696 on the road. If he was playing in a fairer home park, there would be a clamor to move this guy to Triple-A or the Majors now. Flags fly forever, but this is the kind of hitting talent that could get his number retired if the Yankees can just find a place for him.

20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. RAYS

W-L    RS/G    RA/G    AVG    OBP    SLG    AB/HR    SB    CS    HR/9    BB/9    K/9
Yankees       15-5      5.6       4.6    .290    .379    .473    25    9    8    1.0     3.0   6.9
Rays            10-10    3.7     4.7    .228   .315    .361    42    19     6    1.0    2.6      7.6

The Yankees have stopped stealing bases with any effectiveness, and that’s not going to change during Brett Gardner’s absence… This is a huge series for the Rays–the Yankees could knock them well back in both the AL East and wild card race. The Rays are lucky to have broken even on their last 20 games given their offensive slump. Other than the indefatigable Ben Zobrist and a rebounding Dioner Navarro,  the entire offense has shut down this month. Carl Crawford is hitting .257/.333/.351; Jason Bartlett .238/.342/.349; Evan Longoria .197/.289/.382; Carlos Pena .145/.294/.290. What this means, of course, is that they’re due. Fortunately, the Yankees have Burnett, Sabathia, and Chamberlain going so it won’t be easy for the Rays to break out. They too have their best pitchers going this series, sort of, kind of. The pitching rotation, which lands on James Shields and Matt Garza, plus Scott Kazmir, who is motivated to turn things around after five weeks on the DL. He’s made five starts since coming back and the results have been mixed, with a 5.08 ERA in 28.1 innings.

Thoughts for the weekend

MENTIONED THIS BEFORE, BUT IT’S STILL ON ME MIND
When CC Sabathia goes seven innings and strikes out four batters, I worry. Sabathia has a career rate of 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He’s averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine for the Yankees, which is average for an AL starter this year. Now, none of this matters much if Sabathia can pitch effectively while allowing batters to put more balls in play, and so far he has, in part because (and this is paradoxical given the propensities of Yankee Stadium II) fewer of the fly balls he allows are going over fence walls than they used to. Hand in hand with that is some good breaks on balls in play — coming into this year, batters hit .292 off of Sabathia when they put the ball in play. This year they’re hitting .272.

There are two troublesome aspects to this picture. First, a pitcher’s luck on balls in play can change. Second, when a pitcher’s strikeout range declines, it is sometimes (often) a suggestion that something is wrong — that a crash is coming. Sabathia’s velocity seems to be consistent with previous years, so we’re certainly not seeing any evidence of a physical problem there, but it’s still a difficult thing to accept and with which to be comfortable.

holliday250_072409.jpgHOLLIDAY (NOT HALLADAY)
Kudos to the A’s for getting a top prospect in Brett “The Walrus” Wallace from the Cardinals for Matt Holliday. Ever since Eric Chavez’s constitution vanished, the A’s have had a lot of filler at third base. With Chavez signed for one more year (plus an exceedingly painful $3 million buyout), the A’s may feel obligated to keep trotting Chavez out once a year to see if he can remain in an upright position for more than a game at a time, but in the long interim between appearances, they can try Wallace. A first-round pick last year, Wallace has hit .306/.390/.466 in the Minors in about one season’s worth of playing time. He hit .293/.346/.423 at Triple-A Memphis this year, which translates to .272/.321/.397 in the Majors — not great numbers, but then the A’s have gotten only .210/.289/.316 from their third basemen this year.

The problem with Wallace as a third baseman is suggested by the “Walrus” nickname. He’s not fat, he’s just shaped strangely for, well, anyone. He looks like two different people glued together, something like an average-sized person on top and Prince Fielder on the bottom. It’s not a sure thing that someone built like Wallace can play a quality third base in the Majors. So far, though, he’s hanging in, and it would be a huge bonus for the A’s if he can stick at the hot corner.

The A’s also picked up pitcher Clay Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson, but neither has the possibilities of the Walrus. Peterson hasn’t much power and unless you’re a plus defensive center fielder, that usually means a life sentence as a fourth outfielder. Mortensen is a starter right now, but given that he’s 24 years old and has had three years of mediocre results, one smells a trip to the bullpen in the near future. He too is a former first-round pick.

WANGERY INFINITY
It seems that Chien-Ming Wang is unlikely to pitch this year. This is sad on one level, and a break for the Yankees on another, because even if he were to pitch again in 2009, it was unlikely that he was going to pitch well, yet the Yankees felt obligated to keep trying. Given the hole in the rotation that Wang’s absence has created when combined with the team’s decision to bolster the bullpen at the expense of the starting rotation (see Phil Hughes and Alfie Aceves), their desperation was understandable, but Wang had reached the point where Sergio Mitre or anyone else would have been a better bet to pitch the team to a win. For the sake of both Wang’s career and the team’s chances in 2009, giving him a pass for the rest of the year is the right thing to do. 

Take a lesson from Colonel Jessup, Tomko

tomko_250.jpgTHE LAST TOMKO IS COMIN’ DOWN THE LINE
Yesterday, the intrepid Peter Abraham reported that Brett Tomko was bitter about being designated for assignment:

“I don’t think I got a fair shot,” he said. “I pitched great in spring training and didn’t make the team. I pitched great in the minors, got called up and didn’t get much of a chance. I understand other guys are pitching great. But it could have been different. I can’t see the point in coming back.”

In response, Joe Girardi said, “A lot of it was circumstances… We played a lot of tight games and we went with the guys we were using in those innings. It’s tough sometimes because you want to use everyone and get everyone innings.”

This was very gracious of Joe; I imagined him saying something more like Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men”:

“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you,’ and went on your way.”

Tomko might very well have said “thank you” to Girardi and Brian Cashman for giving any chance at all to a 36-year-old with who had not posted an ERA under 4.48 since 2004 and had an ERA of 5.07 and a record of 22-41 over his previous four seasons. Tomko has never been a good pitcher, and that he had 14 good innings at Scranton is meaningless when held against the nearly 1800 innings of his big-league career.

As rarely as Tomko pitched, there was good reason for Girardi’s reluctance to use him: you can’t have a reliever who gives up more than two home runs for every nine innings pitched. Close games get un-close in a real hurry and bad games get worse. Tomko can’t even blame Yankee Stadium II for his longball problems, as four out of five cannonades came on the road. Such results would seem to call for more humility. That’s not Tomko’s way–his career will be remembered more for tiffs with Jack McKeon, Don Gullett, Lou Piniella, and Felipe Alou than for his pitching.

MEANWHILE, THE COMPETITION II
In talking about the Adam LaRoche trade to the Red Sox, I forgot to take into consideration Rocco Baldelli as a right-handed alternative to J.D. Drew, but fortunately the Red Sox made another deal so I get to revisit the fellows from the Fens.

Theo Epstein’s second deal of Wednesday involved dumping shortstop Julio Lugo, who had been designated for assignment. Lugo sometimes hits well for a middle infielder, but doesn’t always–see his utter disappearance as a member of the Dodgers and Red Sox during the second half of 2006 and all of 2007–but he doesn’t give his team enough offense to make up for the fact that he’s a mediocre fielder.

Lugo still makes for a good pickup for the Cardinals because they’re locked in a tight race in a slack division (or maybe that’s a slack race in a tight division) and any little advantage they can claim could make an outsized difference. Due to Khalil Greene’s various problems and the general failure of various substitutes, Cards shortstops are batting only .251/.307/.356. Any good stuff in there was contributed by Brendan Ryan (.294/.328/.382, which is better than nothing without being great), but Ryan can’t be counted on to hit the rest of the way–he’s currently in a pretty good slump right now. A .271/.335/.390 career hitter, Lugo should be able to keep the Cardinals overall production at short on the good side of what they’ve done to date.

The Red Sox are picking up the rest of Lugo’s contract, which runs through the end of next season. In return, the Sox get a player they can’t really use right now, outfielder Chris Duncan, brother of Shelley. A left-handed power hitter who hasn’t hit for power since having back surgery (if not before), Duncan is a defensive disaster in the outfield, so even if he were to start hitting Terry Francona would have a hard time figuring out where to place him. He’s headed for Pawtucket right now, and he needs it–over the last two seasons, Duncan has played 163 games, or just over one full season, and he’s hit .237/.337/.361 with 11 home runs in 482 at-bats. A corner outfielder who does that is flirting with professional extinction.

20-GAME WATCH: ATHLETICS AT YANKEES

    W-L    RS/G    RA/G    AVG    OBP    SLG    AB/HR    SB    CS    HR/9    BB/9    K/9
A’s    9-11    5.0    4.6    .297    .354    .439    37    21   7    1.1    3.9    7.9
Yankees    15-5    5.4    4.6    .281   .370    .463    24    8    10    1.2    3.5    6.9

The numbers above make the A’s look like a better offensive team than they are; they’re distorted by their just-completed series with the Twins in which they twice scored in double figures. The A’s hit .376/.444/.573 in those three games, .281/.336/.412 in the other 17 games in our sample. That’s still a nice uptick from the team’s seasonal rates of .250/.321/.378. I credit the surge to the team’s sending Jason Giambi to the disabled list with a critical case of not being able to play baseball.

Despite the recent flurry of hitting, the main thing this A’s team has going for it is a young pitching staff which has exceeded expectations. If the Nationals had gotten this kind of performance out of their staff of randomly selected 22-year-olds, they’d be a borderline contender in the NL East. The A’s have the opposite problem, not enough hitting to support a surprisingly effective group. Thanks to the four-game series, the Yankees will get to sample the entire rotation with the exception of Trevor Cahill. New Jersey native Vin Mazzaro goes tonight (weather permitting), and he’s going to have problems in YS II–although his fastball reputedly sinks, he’s been pitching like a scary fly ball type and giving up home runs, with four balls leaving the yard in his last 14 innings, which is a rate that would frighten even Tomko.

Friday’s starter, lefty Brett Anderson, came to the A’s as part of the Dan Haren trade (ah, Dan Haren). Just 21, Anderson is a fastball-slider-occasional curve/change guy who throws in the low 90s and up. He’s taken a step forward in his last five starts, going 4-1 with a 1.15 ERA (including a shutout of the Red Sox). Opposing batters have hit .150/.216/.187 with no home runs in those starts. The Yankees have faced some very good pitchers in the last month–John Lannan, Josh Johnson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jarrod Washburn, Roy Halladay, Jared Weaver, John Lackey, Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson–Anderson is a challenge worthy of that group.

Lefty Gio Gonzalez was acquired from the White Sox as part of a package for Nick Swisher. He’s a fastball-curveball guy who was a first-round supplemental pick back in 2004, which suggests that scouts saw great promise in him. Certainly his career minor league strikeout rate of 10.3 per nine innings bears out that evaluation. Gonzalez brought the strikeout rate with him to the Majors, but his control stayed in the sticks. He’s walked 6.2 per nine innings in his brief career, which is the prime reason, along with a Tomko-licious
16 home runs in 61 innings, that he has an 8.41 ERA. He allowed four home runs in just 2.2 innings to the Twins in his most recent start.

Finally, 25-year-old Dallas Braden, a veteran on this staff, goes Sunday. Braden is your standard low-velocity lefty, and he’s a fly ball guy too. Despite the latter tendency, he doesn’t allow many home runs, but some of that may be due to park effects. His changeup makes him very tough on his fellow lefties–they’re hitting just .174/.225/.223 off of him this year. Joe Girardi doesn’t really have a good righty platoon bat on his bench, but if he did, Sunday would be a good day to play him. Maybe Shelley Duncan is free that afternoon… 

Meanwhile, the competition …


LaRoche-7-22-250.jpgThe Red Sox made themselves a nice low-key deal today, picking up first baseman Adam LaRoche from the Pittsburgh Pirates for two lower-echelon prospects. LaRoche is no star, but he does have home run power and has a career-long tradition of being a second-half hitter, batting .296/.357/.544 hitter in the second half. The Sox haven’t hit all that well this year, with Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay having the team’s only outstanding seasons at bat. In addition, Mike Lowell has been slowed by his recovery from hip surgery and has missed over 20 games. Since Youkilis came through the minors as a third baseman, the Sox can slide him over there and continue to get above-average production at the hot corner, but until now the benefit was small given the options to replace Youkilis at first. Mark Kotsay, Jeff Bailey, and Aaron Bates represent a drastic falloff from the ideal first baseman.

LaRoche should solve that problem, but it will be interesting to see how often he plays when Lowell is available. With David Ortiz locked in at designated hitter (his hot June seems to have bought him more time to live down his horrible first two months), the Sox have no room to get LaRoche at bats anywhere but first base–it’s too bad he can’t take the odd turn in right field for J.D. Drew, who is 6-for-44 over his last 12 games and hasn’t had a hit since before the All-Star break. As LaRoche is a career .249/.308/.435 hitter against lefties, the Red Sox won’t miss much if he sits against them, so there is something like the makings of a three-sided platoon here, with Youkilis bouncing around and Lowell taking some time off against right-handers. The overall upgrade in offense is very minor if LaRoche doesn’t have his usual second-half explosion, but his value would be a lot greater if Lowell must again hit the disabled list.

One alternative scenario could arise if the Sox see part of the benefit of this move as defensive. That is, the team feels Lowell’s defense at third has been so compromised by the surgery that they’re better off with Youkilis, no Mike Schmidt himself, playing there more often. The main thing wrong with that picture is that LaRoche isn’t a great fielder either.

The upshot for the Yankees here, in terms of the division competition, is that the Sox will no longer fall to the replacement level at first when Lowell is out and that they and other Sox opponents will see a few more late-inning at-bats for a left-handed hitter who can put the ball out of the park now and again as opposed to Kotsay, a player who has very little left to give. The impact of this could be small or it could be great. Consider that with Lowell out last October, Kotsay was Boston’s playoffs first baseman, and he killed them, going 10-for-40 in two rounds but failing to take a walk, hit a home run, or drive in a baserunner. In the ALCS, the Rays embarrassed him with good fastballs. If the Sox manage to avoid that fate–assuming the first-place Yankees allow them to get that far–they’ll have accomplished something.

The Sergio Mitre experiment

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
Tim Wakefield hit the DL with back stiffness today, so the Red Sox brought up Clay Buchholz to take his spot. The Yankees had a hole in their rotation, so they brought up Sergio Mitre. There’s a huge gap between a 28-year-old with a 5.36 ERA and a 24-year-old with a 5.35 ERA.

As I wrote about Mitre a few weeks ago, he’s a heavy ground-ball type who has never found consistency in the Majors due in large part to control problems — a pitch-to-contact type can’t walk three or four batters per nine innings and expect to succeed. There are simply too many balls in play with runners on base for the pitcher to garner consistent results. That said, Mitre’s control in the Minors this year has been tremendous, with just seven free passes in 54.1 innings, or 1.2 per nine innings. If he retains that kind of control in the Majors and still has his groundball mojo as well, he can be the late-career Greg Maddux.

The main reason that this will remain just a fantasy is that Mitre almost always showed god control in the Minors. His career rate in 110 games is 2.2 walks per nine innings. In the big leagues he’s either twitchier or more advanced batters manage to lay off his more borderline offerings. When batters have swung, they’ve hit .298/.361/.435. The light power is a token of his groundball approach. Unfortunately, the singles/walks combo has been damaging enough.

The Mitre experiment is worth trying, but if the early results aren’t good the Yankees can’t hang on for as long as they did with pointless reliever Brett Tomko, who was finally DFA’d to make room for Mitre. Pitchers can reinvent themselves, but when it doesn’t happen there’s little point in chasing. That’s something the Red Sox are proving with John Smoltz. Wakefield’s injury buys Smoltz some time, but until today the biggest favor the Sox were doing for the Yankees was pursuing the last ounce the 42-year-old had to give instead of trying to get the first ounce out of Buchholz. Now they’ll do both, still an advantageous situation for the New Yorkers. Should Buchholz establish himself before Wakefield is ready to come back or Daisuke Matsuzaka is ready to give his shoulder another try, the Sox will have enviable depth for the rest of the season.

The sweet Snell of success

YOU NEED A SCORECARD, DUDE
At one point in the run-up to the Old Timer’ Day festivities, I was standing on the third base line near a bunch of Yankees players that included Jesse Barfield, Oscar Gamble, and Ken Griffey, Sr. Behind me, some guy in the stands was shouting, “Hit one, Cecil!” He yelled that over and over again. I couldn’t figure out if he (A) thought that Cecil Fielder had come back to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day–he hadn’t, and though some of the aforementioned Yankees weigh a few stone more than in their glory days, none looked anything like Big Daddy and none were wearing his number; (B) assumed that because the Detroit Tigers were in town, Fielder had somehow come along with his old organization (nope); (C) that he was somehow making fun of my weight (seems like an esoteric way of going about it); (D) was having an acid flashback to 1997; or (E) had somehow gotten hold of a beer vendor at 10 AM. A little later, Mike Mussina and David Cone were standing on exactly the same spot, and I kept expecting the guy to yell, “Throw one, Jack Morris!” or “Strike ’em out, Willie Hernandez!” or “Run for another term, Jim Bunning!”

snell_250.jpgSNELL MAIL
Over the weekend, Baseball Prospectus’s John Perrotto reported that the Yankees have interest in Ian Dante Snell, the Pirates’ punching bag who was recently demoted to Indianapolis. This seems a bit odd at first, given that since posting a 3.76 ERA in 2007, Snell’s one truly solid year, his walk rate has exploded and his strikeout rate dropped, a big reason why he’s put up a 5.40 ERA in 245 innings going back to last year. On further examination, acquiring Snell starts to make a little more sense. First, if you’re down to trying out Sergio Mitre in your starting rotation, you have to show interest in everybody. Second, at 27 years old, Snell isn’t too old to get back on track, assuming there’s nothing seriously wrong with his arm. There’s also a psychological aspect to consider: six years in Pirates drag might be enough to ruin anyone’s approach. Finally, Snell has looked great in four starts at Triple-A Indianapolis. He’s allowed just one earned run in 26.1 innings, and in his first start after going down he struck out 17 Toledo hitters in seven innings. The strikeout numbers since then haven’t been nearly so dramatic, but clearly there’s something alive in Snell waiting to be woken up.

TAKING THE OUTFIELD TEMPERATURE (AN ONGOING SERIES)
Since the end of April:
Johnny Damon:    .273/.358/.517
Brett Gardner:        .303/.391/.455
Melky Cabrera:    .271/.328/.396
Nick Swisher:        .206/.336/.363

As you know, I’ve been a supporter of Nick Swisher’s from the moment he was acquired, but what he’s doing right now is not adequate. The average right fielder is batting .266/.341/.439. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if too many players of that quality are going to be made available by the trading deadline. One wonders if Brian Cashman has shown any interest in Josh Willingham of the Nationals.

20-GAME WATCH: ORIOLES VS. YANKEES

Team
W-L
RS/G
RA/G
AVG
OBP
SLG
AB/HR
SB
CS
HR/9
BB/9
K/9
Orioles 9-11 5.2 5.3 .263 .329 .404 41 9 4 1.2 3.4 6.0
Yankees 15-5 5.9 4.5 .292 .379 .481 24 7 8 1.1 3.5 7.1

Extraordinary that the Yankees are 15-2 when not playing at Anaheim… As I observed the last time the Yanks and Orioles tilted, there are a few reasons why the latter make more interesting viewing than they have in recent years, beginning with their young outfield of Nolan Remold, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis. None is older than 25, all are playing reasonably well (though not as well as they had been early in the season), and presumably will maintain their value long enough that if management is able to bang the rest of the roster into shape, they might be around to contribute to a competitive team. The Orioles also have some new faces on the pitching side, and even if they aren’t all world beaters, at least they’re not inflicting more laborious Daniel Cabrera and Adam Eaton starts on the world.

All three of the starters the Yankees face this week are under 30. On Monday night, the Yankees face the most interesting member of the group in David Hernandez, a 24-year-old who first came up at the end of May. A fastball/slider/changeup guy, Hernandez throws in the low 90s. In the Minors, he got a ton of strikeouts, 10.4 per nine innings since signing in 2005, but his Major League rate has been less than half that. He’s also still working on the whole control thing, and the Yankees will stress him by taking pitches if they’re smart. Hernandez had a quality start in each of his last two appearances. The opponents were the Angels and the Mariners, teams that don’t work counts.

Tuesday’s starter is Rich Hill, who once looked like he would be something special for the Cubs but has since fallen on hard times, which is kind of a redundant thing to say given that he pitches for Baltimore. He’s become spectacularly wild, and has made just three quality starts this year. His most recent start was among the three, a six inning, two-run outing against the Blue Jays on July 11. He walked just one. Finally, Wednesday’s starter is rookie Jason Berken. Berken has made one quality start this year. Unfortunately for the Orioles, it came in his second big league start. Since then, he’s been routinely pummeled, and has gotten out of the fifth inning just once. In eight June-July starts, opposing batters are hitting .325/.388/.503.

What do all three of these pitchers have in common? The Yankees have never seen them before.