Results tagged ‘ Phil Hughes ’

Three pitchers, two rotation spots

joba_052809.jpgBEWARE THE SWINGMAN
Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes. Three pitchers for two rotation spots. Each time one pitches well, or pitches badly, or pitches at all, the argument starts up again as to how  to best dispose of each of them. The drumbeat becomes insistent, as if there had to be an answer right now, as if there’s a switch for each player, with position A “starter,” and position B, “bullpen,” and as long as the switch is hovering between the two something is not right in the universe.

In truth, there is a third setting, “neither,” which worked for baseball for years and year, in an era in which a stifling uniformity hadn’t removed the possibility for all creativity or initiative in the way teams are run and constructed, before a self-defeating overspecialization of relief pitching had caused Major League staffs with detritus that would previously never have escaped the minors. Players objected to the uncertainty and the suppression of their individual numbers, but the Yankees won approximately 14 pennants by keeping that switch in neutral.

With more quality pitchers than they had rotation spots, Yankees managers Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel planned a more complicated pitching staff, using certain pitchers against certain teams, skipping the lefties in Fenway Park, or going out of their way to use them in Detroit, letting them rest against the clubs that hit them well. It worked terrifically. The 1939 Yankees, on the short list for greatest team of all time, used nine starters. Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez largely stayed in rotation, but every once else swung between the rotation and the bullpen. Only Ruffing threw more than 200 innings, this in a season where the league leader in innings pitched came in just under 300. Most of those pitchers found out they were starting when they reached the clubhouse and found a ball under the cap in their locker.

In the 1950s, Casey Stengel initially had a rock-solid rotation fronted by the famous trio of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Eddie Lopat, augmented by Tommy Byrne, and soon joined by Whitey Ford. Starts were distributed in a fairly standard manner.  As those pitchers faded, the rotation became more elaborate. In 1953, the world-champion Yankees had only one pitcher, Whitey Ford, make 30 starts. Twelve other pitchers took turns. The 1954 rotation is like a Jackson Pollock painting. In most seasons thereafter, the Dynasty staffs look a lot like that of 1939, with two pitchers — usually Whitey Ford and somebody — staying in rotation and everyone else being called upon as needed. In 1958, Ford made 29 starts, Bob Turley made 31, and no else made 20. Ford and Turley both pitched over 200 innings; no one else pitched even 140 innings.

The insight here is that some pitchers are better in 150 innings than they would be in 200, but would be wasted throwing only 80 innings out of the bullpen. Thus you have a sixth starter, or a seventh. Present-day baseball doesn’t have a place for that kind of pitcher, though Joe Torre did have one for awhile in Ramiro Mendoza. Everyone is a specialist, either a starting specialist or a relief specialist. That’s fine for some — you want to get every inning you can out of CC Sabathia — but as for almost everyone else on the planet, one-size-fits-all solutions, or even two sizes, are too limiting.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what I don’t know in presenting this argument:

1.    How changes in the schedule affect a team’s ability to play fast and loose with its pitchers.
2.    How changes in pitcher usage affect a team’s ability to swing their pitchers.
3.    The impact of swinging on pitcher health.
4.    Whether the pitchers would stage an outright rebellion over such variable usage.

Factor #2 is of particular interest. The complete game is now virtually dead. While the great Yankees managers, particularly Stengel, were willing to go to the bullpen as necessary, they were still far more likely to let a starter finish up a game than any manager would be today. Just pitching a year at random, the 1958 Yankees threw 53 complete games. This was just a bit above average for that season. Last season, the Yankees had one. This means that while McCarthy or Stengel could anticipate that roughly once or twice a week nine of their ten pitchers would get a complete rest, meaning the swingers who recently started wouldn’t be called on to relieve, thereby allowing them to rest or leaving them available for the next spot start. That is obviously impossible today.  

Assuming that these factors can be dealt with, or safely ignored, the Yankees really don’t need to be making aggressive decisions about Wang, Chamberlain, or Hughes short of just doing what seems most productive on a day-by-day basis. That any of them have a specific role on the team should be of greater interest to the pitchers themselves than a dispassionate Yankees management. That means that any of them could be a starter, a reliever, or both. Remember, just because things are presented as they way there are doesn’t mean they’re the way they have to be. Pitcher usage in baseball has always been highly mutable. We haven’t yet reached optimal usage, and in some ways may be running away from it. Those saying that the Yankees are not using their pitchers the right way need to stop being so dualistic and realize that there is no right way, only the way they’re being used right now.

MORE FROM ME
Wholesome Reading continues to be wholesomely updated with new entries, and will be throughout the weekend. Warning: politics!

A world of extremes for Hughes

WHAT IS THIS, RED LOBSTER?
I understand that it was Memorial Day, but red caps? Red is a patriotic color? You go whisper that at Joe McCarthy’s grave and see if his rotted hands don’t shoot up out of the ground and drag you down under the dirt. Besides, the Yankees just looked plain undignified.

aceves275_052609.jpg… On the other hand, if you win all your red-cap games by 10 runs, maybe red caps can be fashionable.

PHIL HUGHES, SO NEAR AND YET SO NEAR
Assuming the Yankees don’t use Thursday’s day of rest to skip a rotation spot — and Joe Girardi hasn’t done that so far this year — Mr. Hughes will next pitch Sunday at Cleveland. He’s made one career start at Jacobs Field and did very well, throwing six innings of one-run baseball back on August 10, 2007. The Indians don’t have quite the same roster now — Hughes won’t be striking out Kenny Lofton twice this time around — but the meat is the same. Cleveland has one of the league’s most strikeout-prone lineups this year, something that could play into Hughes’ hands. Parenthetically, they also sent down Matt LaPorta, one of the top power prospects in baseball, who had mostly rented space on their bench over the last few weeks. Very wasteful, especially when the players currently in his positions, Ryan Garko and Ben Francisco, are not current or future world-beaters …

Back to Hughes: Monday in Texas was just a taste of his abilities, and the trick for the Yankees and Hughes himself will be to exploit his talents more consistently. I know that seems obvious, but Hughes has been either all or nothing in his brief career. When Hughes is on, he’s been dominant. In his eight career wins, his ERA is 1.44. In his losses, it’s 11.53. Now, all pitchers have this sort of split between their best days and their worst, but Hughes has been particularly extreme. The difference has largely been one of control: On the bad days, Hughes can’t get his pitches over, his walk rate shoots up, and the home runs follow. That said, when it works it really works; a more typical ERA in winning games is something in the 2.00s. The Right Stuff Hughes is overwhelming. On yet another hand, part of a starting pitcher’s job is to give his team to win whether he has the stuff to pitch a no-hitter or not. Hughes isn’t there yet.

Hughes should eventually have fewer days when he’s just a glorified batting practice pitcher, but it’s difficult to say when things will click into place, or if further Minor League experience would be a help or a hindrance. The only thing that’s certain is that the upside is huge and there’s no sure way to get at it except to keep trying. Right now, bad days have actually outnumbered the good (with “in between” outnumbering both). American League pitchers make a quality start just under half the time this year — the rate has stayed fairly constant since 2005. For his career, Hughes’ rate is 33 percent. When he’s good he’s very good, when he’s bad he’s worse, and if he could just shift a few of those bad ones onto the good or even “Mr. In-Between” pile (the guy Johnny Mercer said you don’t mess with), the Yankees would have a star on their hands.

It could be that Texas was the beginning of the shift, and that Cleveland will be continuation of it, or maybe Hughes struggles again and the counter resets. Patience is obviously warranted.

BRIAN BRUNEY HEADS BACK TO THE DL …
… Another stay for Brett Tomko. The battle for relief help as the trade deadline nears is going to be intense. Many of the teams that have dropped out of their division races have done so in large part because of their lack of quality relievers. Sure, the Nationals will trade you one of their relievers, but do you want one? (Nightmare scenario: Ron Villone’s scoreless 11.1 innings this season suddenly makes him attractive trade-bait.)  Sure, the Rockies may want to move Huston Street, and there might be a couple of other semi-attractive hurlers out there, but it’s definitely going to be a seller’s market. As I stated in a previous entry, the Yankees would be best off if they aggressively sorted through the David Roberstsons (welcome back, Dave) and Mark Melancons of the world now so they know whether they have to go hard after relief help or they can save their chips for bigger game. Thus my minor-key carping about Tomko: he’s not part of the solution set, and he’s taking up the roster spot of someone who very well may be. Who better to spend trash time innings on, a 99-year-old vet or a kid who might show you something?

MORE FROM ME
?    For those with access to Baseball Prospectus, I’ve got a bit up on the worst offenses of all time, springboarding from the current Giants. No Yankees on the list, though I could have dragged in the 1913 team, I guess …

?    Wholesome Reading has been updated, with more to come on the evolving Supreme Court and Prop 8 situations. Warning: Politics!

Scouting Porcello and explaining Joba

porcello_250_042909.jpgCHIEN-MING WANG’S DAY OFF
(A PHIL HUGHES FILM)

Having seen the real Phil Hughes for the first time since that wonderful, fatal start in Texas, the Yankees face another important test as next generation starters Joba Chamberlain and Rick Porcello (born in Morristown, N.J.) face off in Detroit. The former first-round pick has had mixed results in three starts; he’s been competent, not dominating. As in the Minors, his strikeout rate has been light (the Tigers restricted his repertoire in the sticks, but that shouldn’t be a problem now).

However, he has a bit of the old Chien-Ming Wang kicker: his fastball sinks, resulting in a high grounder/fly ball ratio. The trouble has been that when Porcello — who, we should note, is so young he can’t legally buy a drink — is that when he misses his mistake leaves the ballpark. He’s given up five home runs in just 18 innings. Over 20 percent of his flies allowed have left the park, a crazy high ratio. Note that these are the only extra-base hits he’s allowed and that he’s been stingy with the walks, so when he doesn’t elevate, it’s just like trying to build an inning against Wang Classic — it takes three singles to score a run, four to score two, and that’s difficult for any team to do before they make three outs.

The Hutt also has something to prove tonight, as some mediocre starts combined with poor work by the relief corps has renewed calls for Chamberlain’s bullpen parole to be revoked. The basis for the argument revolves around reduced velocity, but that’s not really at issue. In 12 starts last season, Chamberlain struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings. In his career as a reliever, he’s struck out 11.9 per nine innings. This doesn’t seem like a significant tradeoff given that in the latter case the Yankees were getting two innings of Chamberlain and in the former they were getting five, six, or even seven. The team gains multiple innings, gives up one or two strikeouts because Chamberlain is trying to save his stuff, as Christy Mathewson said, for the pinch. Fair enough.

This year, Chamberlain has made three starts and has struck out 6.2 batters per nine innings. The league average is 6.7. The change in role from relieving to starting does NOT account for this difference, especially given Chamberlain’s starting strikeout rate of last season, or, for that matter, his strikeout rate as a starting pitcher in the Minor Leagues. Chamberlain could be hoarding his stuff like an obsessive-compulsive squirrel going through a fit of paranoia about winter in Nome, and it still wouldn’t account for what is practically a 50 percent drop-off in K rate. In short: if things don’t change for Chamberlain tonight against the Tigers, the Yankees may be forced to confront another pitching problem.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Just a little experiment in format today…

? White Sox 2, Mariners 1: It’s got to hurt when Chris Jakubauskas throws a comple game and you still lose. Meanwhile, only the fact that it’s the first game of a doubleheader excuses Jerry Owens (.091).

? Seattle 9, White Sox 1: And in Game 2 the Sox confront the reality that they’ve been playing baseball for eight hours and have scored only three runs. On the other side of the field, Endy Chavez is down to .305, which means he’s gone 4-for-27 over his last seven games. No one could have expected that. Note also Felix Hernandez, 4-0, 2.38 ERA. — and still just a few weeks past his 23rd birthday.

? Braves 2, Cardinals 1: When you consider the Braves’ batting order, you realize that they’re missing a big hitter, and it’s not just that catcher Brian McCann is on the disabled list. They were in on Garrett Anderson when they should have been in on Adam Dunn or Manny Ramirez, and in the latter Ted Turner days, when they were both rich and rational, they would have been. Instead they settle for pot luck in a pot luck division — that is, maybe they’ll win and maybe they won’t, but it could have been a sure thing. On the Cards side, Yadier Molina got me wondering, through an indirect route, what the record for fewest runs scored/most plate appearances combo was. It turns out there are many candidates who were worse than his 485/37 last year, for example 1972 Angels shortstop Leo Cardenas, who batted second, sixth, and seventh and scored just 25 runs. He came to the plate 602 times. With .223/.272/.283 rates not much is going to happen. Molina was much better than that. I remain baffled that Del Rice batted Cardenas third 17 times that year, but my faith in the laws of physics is reassured by the Angels’ going 5-11 in those games. In all others, they were 70-69, which says something.

? Rangers 5, Athletics 4: It wasn’t Mexican Swine Flu, but seemingly every Athletic to get into this game got hurt. It’s not surprising when Nomar Garciaparra twists an ankle and heads for the DL, and the loss is only a blow to notional depth given that even when Eric Chavez is playing, he’s not playing (and he’s not playing now). Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when most valuable Athletic Mark Ellis heads for the DL is well, but that’s where he’s off to as well after straining his calf… The decisive run in the game came when Jason Giambi let a grounder go through his legs. In 100 years of Giambi in pinstripes, I can remember many misplays, and I’m sure plenty of them contributed to losses, but it’s harder to recall a game where the connection between Giambi’s iron glove and a loss was so obvious… The A’s are hitting .233/.310/.314 overall, which makes the Hitless Wonder White Sox of 1906 look like Murderer’s Row.

? Angels 7, Orioles 5: Dave Trembley was ejected for arguing a balk in this one, and his fury was something to behold, and unsurprising given just how quickly his team is falling away after the Yankees gave them some false hope in the opening series… Batting .196/.226.294 on April 21, Howie Kendrick has turned it on, going 8-for-19 with three doubles and two home runs in his last five games (.421/.450/.895). He’s taken but one walk on the season, though, and until he has the same awakening that Robbie Cano has apparently had, he’s only going to be as good as his batting average.

? Indians 9, Red Sox 8: The winning streak had to end sometime, just as the Indians are due to win one or two. It only hurts because the Sox made three errors in the game, resulting in three unearned runs, and they got kicked with Brad Penny on the mound and they have better options whenever they want to use one. Dear Cleveland: Kelly Shoppach has regressed, as ever he was doomed to do, you’re back to catching Victor Martinez again, and Matt LaPorta is tearing it up in the Minors. Heck, Ben Francisco isn’t hitting either. Why Ryan Garko? Love, Steve.

? Phillies 7, Nationals 1: I was asked if it was too soon to start playing “Nats Math,” where you start figuring out scenarios where they might lose 110-120 games. I don’t think it is, if only because it’s difficult to see where they’re going to find ways to improve. There’s only so much talent trading a damaged Elijah Dukes or a benched Josh Willingham or an impotent Austin Kearns is going to bring you. 

Phil Franchise feeling the heat

hughes_250.jpgNO PRESSURE, KID
Only Phil Hughes can save the Yankees’ season, or so it seems on the eve of his first start of 2009. It’s a dramatically unfair place for a 23-year-old to be, but somehow, some way, the Yankees need to get this season started. It’s ironic that the Yankees bent over backwards to make Hughes unnecessary this past offseason. They didn’t want to depend on him. Now, until they see consistency from their other starters, not to mention anything at all useful from Chien-Ming Wang, they’ll feel lucky to have him to depend on.

The irony here is that pitching wasn’t necessarily the problem last year. With patience, the Yankees might have continued to mature their youngish staff and gotten by. The offense was the sector that looked to be problematic going into this season. As it turns out, the correct answer is, C: All of the above. As has been the case since the decline of the last dynasty, inattention to depth has beggared the big club and could continue to do so all season long.

That’s the injury front. More interesting is the club’s weird inability to hit with runners in scoring position. As you’ve no doubt heard, the team is hitting .223/.320/.346 in such situations. Robinson Cano, who has been so good overall, has batted .192 with runners on, and he has had more runners on in front of him than any other Yankee. He’s hitting .419 with the bases empty. Johnny Damon has hit .200, Hideki Matsui .125. Damon has come up with 11 runners on third, tied for most on the Yankees, and still has just seven RBIs on the season. The two center fielders have been execrable, with Brett Gardner hitting .143 in 14 at-bats and Melky Cabrera hitting .083 in 12 at-bats. It would help if the club could stay out of double plays. They’ve grounded into 18 in 154 possible opportunities, a slightly above-average rate. Below average would obviously be better. The worst culprit on the Yankees has been Melky Caberera, who has hit into three GDPs in eight possible situations, or 38 percent. The league average is 10 percent. The best is Mark Teixeira, who hasn’t hit into a single twin-killing in 22 opportunities.

This situation is almost certainly transient, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Playing with the most basic run estimators suggests that the Yankees have failed to score about 10 runs that they might have scored had their hitting with runners on been more representative.

HERE LIES AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER

Steven Jackson sent back to the Minors to make room for Phil Hughes. Eight games and nary a touch. Way to show confidence in the kid, Joe.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)

?    It was very odd seeing Barry Bonds calmly chatting in the booth during last night’s Dodgers-Giants game. Having recently read “Game of Shadows,” I was conditioned to believe that he was more likely to kill someone than have a normal conversation.

?    Dexter Fowler looked like he was going to be a valuable player for the Rockies even before he stole five bases off of the Padres on Monday night. Ironically, though he had 101 steals in 334 Minor League games, it didn’t look like baserunning was an area in which he might distinguish himself. Over the last two seasons, he stole 40 bases but was caught 19 times, an unimpressive rate. The last time a Yankee stole five bases in a game? It’s never happened. The Yankees have had a player steal four bases in a game 18 times, most recently Tony Womack in 2005.

?    Scary Fly-Ball Guy Jeff Karstens gave away three baseballs to the Brewers on Monday in just five innings. That’s the problem with being a Scary Fly-Ball Guy: eventually they either have to take you out of the game or risk a national ball shortage.

?    Emilio Bonifacio: now batting .266/.301/.342. Welcome to Replacement Level Theatre.

?    You’d think that former Nats GM Jim Bowden being of such low repute would buy Manny Acta some time in Washington. The mess there isn’t his fault.

?    I find that Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” is kind of depressing for a bouncy pop standard. I like when that happens, when concert-goers are swaying and singing, “La la la life is brutal and unfair!”

?    I know Matt Wieters has barely played, but with Gregg Zaun 6-for-50 and the franchise flailing at the box office (just 10K at Camden last night) can they wait much longer to bring him up?

MORE FROM ME
Today at Baseball Prospectus, in an article open to non-subscribers, I discuss the anxiety problems of 1930s catcher Babe Phelps and compare them to those of someone I’m very close to… Me. 

Right the Wang, go with Hughes

wang_250_042409.jpgWILL YOU, WON’T YOU, WILL YOU, WON’T YOU JOIN THE DANCE?
That’s the question being asked about Chien-Ming Wang today, as the Yankees ponder what to do with their unpleasantly elevated groundballer. Despite yesterday’s extended Spring Training action, which featured an uncharacteristic 11 strikeouts, the Yankees’ brass were not impressed by Wang’s work against the Phillies’ most minor Minor Leaguers. Reports from the front suggest that Wang’s velocity was down and his sinker was still not operating at its proper depth. Every human capable of typing is now intimating that Phil Hughes (3-0, 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings, three walks, 19 strikeouts) will take his scheduled Tuesday start against the Tigers.

This is as it should be. You can throw out Wang’s strikeouts against toddlers and tyros in the Minor League depths — however screwy Wang’s main offering is right now, a Major League-quality slider and changeup is tough for a kid to beat. The Yankees weren’t looking for an artistic success here, they were looking for sinking heat, and they didn’t get it, at least not to their satisfaction. The Yankees are talking about building up Wang’s arm strength, but one wonders what they can truly do about it if Spring Training wasn’t a good enough opportunity for Wang to recoup. Further, if Wang’s arm doesn’t snap back, can Wang find a way to be successful at a lower velocity?

As I pointed out in a previous entry, despite the groundball fillip in Wang’s very vanilla game, history is working against him. It is very unusual for a pitcher with such a low strikeout rate to survive for any length of time — everything has to work perfectly for the balls they allow in play not to kill them. The only pitchers to throw over 1,000 career innings since 1990 with a strikeout rate of 4.5 or lower: Carlos Silva, Kirk Rueter, Ricky Bones, Bob Tewksbury, Brian Anderson, Zane Smith, Mike Moore and Steve Sparks. Pitchers with a lower strikeout rate relative to league in 500 or more innings, 1990 to present: Aaron Cook, Jimmy Anderson, Rueter, John Doherty, Silva and Horacio Ramirez.

Entering this season, Wang had the lowest ERA of any of these pitchers by more than half a run, though if he pitched at sea level, Cook would probably be right there with him. Ironically, Cook has also been battered this season — not to the extent that Wang has, but a 10.22 ERA still qualifies as a battering — for the same reason: his previously healthy groundball/fly ball ratio has crashed, presumably because he too is elevating his pitches.

The great advantage that Wang had was that, in allowing only about six percent of hits against him to go for extra bases, it was very difficult for the opposition to build a rally. He took doubles, triples, and home runs out of the game, meaning that in order to score even one run in a frame, the opposition had to hit three to four balls through Derek Jeter before Wang got three outs. With Wang having lost or misplaced this skill, the opposition has the potential for explosive innings restored. We should emphasize “lost” before “misplaced,” because this season’s breakdown may only be the culmination of a breakdown that was forming right from the beginning. Wang’s line drive rates have been rising and his groundball rates falling consistently since 2005.

Hughes is a strikeout pitcher. He took his lumps last year and he may take them again, but that is the way of young pitchers. John Danks was 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA as a 22-year-old in 2007. Last year he went 12-9 with a 3.32 ERA. Jon Lester’s ERA in his first 27 appearances was 4.68 … Jim Palmer’s ERA in his first two seasons was 3.54, which sounds great, except that the league ERA was lower than that.

Hughes will reward patience, be it for the Yankees or some other team in the event that patience is in short supply. Should he be able to avoid a permanently stuff-altering injury, his ability to get batters to swing and miss means that someday the length of Wang’s entire career will fit within the span of his, and that will be true if Wang can fix himself now or not. It will also give the Yankees a pitcher better adapted for postseason action. In evolutionary terms, Wang’s overspecialization limits his horizons. If Tuesday does turn out to belong to Hughes, it could, finally, represent the dawning of a new age.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Joe Torre may have another special team on his hands in Los Angeles (though it might not be too difficult looking special in this year’s NL West), and if they succeed, he’ll have the last argument in his already-signed, sealed, delivered Hall of Fame bid: that he couldn’t work with young pitchers (Chad Billingsley, for starters, is putting the lie to that). I’m still not convinced he wouldn’t get suckered in by Juan Pierre if Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier weren’t all hitting like it was 1930. Still, that’s my inference, not his action, so all credit to him. Also all credit to him for going to Jonathan Broxton for a 1.2 inning save in a close game (2-0) at Houston last night.

? Good for the Angels, beating the Tigers despite requiring a spot-start from extreme journeyman Matt Palmer, 30, after Darren Oliver hit the disabled list.

? In spite of myself, I am starting to believe that Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz — .320/.407/.622 in 46 games between this year and last — is for real.

? I think we owe it to Adam Eaton to point out his rare good starts. Last night he pitched 7.1 innings against the White Sox, allowing two runs, walking none, and striking out nine. The O’s should trade him while he’s hot. 

Pitch-perfect spring bodes well

mo_250.jpgPROMISING PORTENTS
This winter, the Yankees redesigned their pitching staff. While Spring Training statistics and results are generally unreliable and not worth becoming overly excited about, it is at the least a good omen that, through 30 contests, Yankees pitchers have the lowest ERA in the business at 3.41.

Again, exhibitions, with their half-games for regulars and weird weather conditions (the wet and wind in Florida, the dry, heated environment in Arizona) don’t give us a very reliable picture, particularly in a year in which the WBC diluted Spring Training games by sucking off scores of Major League regulars. Further, some of these very effective innings have been pitched by the likes of Brett Tomko and Kei Igawa, who are unlikely to persist in their excellence were they even to make the team, while others were hurled by Phil Hughes and fellow prospects ticketed to the Minors. Even with these caveats, the bulk of the Major League staff has performed well.

There remains much that we do not know and cannot know, such as the long-term viability of pitchers who are traditional health cases, such as A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, or those that are recovering from injury, like Mariano Rivera (although if all healing pitchers looked as good as Rivera has this spring, most of them would be lining up to go under the knife). Still, so far so good. The offense has been good too, though the numbers aren’t as impressive as those of some Cactus League teams that basically play on the surface of the moon.

NOW THAT BRETT GARDNER HAS WON THE CENTER FIELD JOB…
…I’m wondering if he will ever hit another home run. There is something to the idea that he got a running start on the center field competition by lashing out at cold pitchers early in the spring campaign. Even if true, nothing is taken away from the consistency he’s shown, if consistency can be said to apply to 23 games and 55 at-bats. What is most striking, though, about the now-finished center-field competition is what decided it. In the end, Melky Cabrera played almost as well as Gardner did. To date, each has had 55 at-bats. Gardner has hit .364/.426/.636. Cabrera had hit .345/.419/.491. Each has drawn six walks. Gardner’s offensive edge comes down to one more hit, one more triple, and two more home runs. The differences aren’t significant, especially if Gardner’s power surge was truly an artifact of early spring. What’s left are a few things you can see in the statistics, such as Gardner’s speed, showing up in that extra triple and three more stolen bases, and his superior defensive capabilities. Once you throw in Cabrera’s poor 2008 and Gardner’s strong finish to the same, which disposed Joe Girardi towards him, it becomes clear that Cabrera would have had to out-hit Gardner by a significant margin to make this a real competition.

Gardner’s hold on the job is about as secure as Priam’s hold on Troy; there are enemies at the gate as long as Cabrera remains on the team. In the pressurized world of the Yankees, all it would probably take to throw the doors open to Cabrera is a 2-for-20 in the first games. It’s doubtful that Gardner will be shown the same tolerant patience that the Yankees lavished on, say, Kyle Farnsworth, or Cabrera himself.

Unless Cabrera’s nice spring represents some unexpected development in his abilities, I don’t expect him to get too many chances as a Major League regular from here on in, barring injuries. Every team has players like Cabrera, not particularly special talents who become regulars for a year or two out of need or inertia. Sometimes they play well for a time and fool you into thinking they could be more than the sum of their abilities suggests, but ultimately something better comes along and they are replaced. If they move on to other organizations, where that same need does not exist, they have a difficult time breaking into the lineup. Ultimately they become bench players or journeymen Minor Leaguers.

This is, on the whole, the fate of players whose offensive contributions are built around batting average, and when I say batting average I mean .290 and not .330. To be productive, the .290 guy has to hit .290 or better. The problem is, there are always years in which, due to luck, he will hit .260, and then the fellow is below average. That’s Melky, except that in 2007, when he hit .273, he was below average. Last year he hit .249, and he was a weeping wound. He’s still young enough to rebound and even find some consistency, but the odds are against it. Such a development would require him to find both the physical tools and the internal drive to exploit them. That’s asking a lot of a player, to grow his body and his mind.

THE UTILITY JOB (A BRIEF NOTE)
This corner is all for anyone but Angel Berroa, who is the anti-hitter, and if it’s a young guy so much the better. In case you haven’t checked out the 23-year-old Ramiro Pena, he’s a career .258/.316/.319 hitter in 334 Minor League games through the Double-A level. If Girardi is prepared to use Pena as the purest of defensive replacements, putting a bat in his hands only in blowouts, that’s not a problem. However, if injuries force Girardi to turn to the bench for any length of time, the Yankees will have to look elsewhere–Jose Molina is a better hitter at this moment. That said, Pena is a strong defensive player, reputed to have great range. It would be fascinating if Girardi had the guts–the sheer, General Patton chutzpah–to shake a NY institution to its foundations and utilize a late-inning defensive replacement for Derek Jeter.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
The White Sox waived Jerry Owens, which apparently makes Dewayne Wise their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. Tough to score too many runs when your leadoff man has a .290 OBP, which is what the Sox just signed on for… The Tigers picked up the speedy Josh Anderson from the Braves, which takes Anderson from shooting for Braves starting center fielder, a position for which he was under-qualified, to reserve outfielder on the Tigers and probable regular defensive replacement for Carlos Guillen in left. That’s something he can do… Really curious to see how Jason Motte does as Cardinals closer. He’s a converted catcher who can dial up his fastball, and his Minor L    eague strikeout numbers were amazing, with 110 Ks last year in just 67 innings… Rays owner Stuart Sternberg talked about holding the line on payroll in an <A HREF=”http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/rays/article987949.ece”>article</A&gt; this weekend. If the Rays’ budget isn’t going to rise along with its players’ salaries, than this particular threat to the Yankees is going to be short-lived, like Connie Mack’s 1929-1931 A’s. 

Another day, more stuff happens

hughes_250_022707.jpgTHAT’S JUST THE WAY IT WORKS
Can’t complain about the Yankees’ exhibition showing against the Rays on Thursday, and can’t get overexcited about it given that the Rays brought not their B or C squad but maybe Squad Q, the squad you turn to when all else has failed and the monsters are at the door, but not any time before that.

I was excited to see Phil Hughes’ cutter again, but the Yankees denied me, having the lad work on his other pitches, and two barely hit batsmen aside the results were just fine. Ditto bullpen-bound Phil Coke, who with Damaso Marte should give the Yankees a rare set of matched lefty long men, rather than the more ubiquitous pair o’ LOOGYs. Joe Girardi should keep in mind that “long man” is not equivalent to “infinite man” — he forgot with Marte a couple of times last season.

On the offensive side, it was a very good day for Jorge Posada, with a double and a home run, and that means it was a good day for the Yankees, as a resurgent Posada could be decisive in this year’s race. Again, let’s not get too worked up about the results of one game of DH-work and a home run against Chad Orvella, who looked so good a few years ago and looks so lost now. On the bad news side, Brett Gardner went 0-for-2, but then so did Melky Cabrera so we’ll say that Gardner is still ahead based on Wednesday’s home run.

On the Rays side, Squad Q did supply one clue as to why the former underdogs have a chance to repeat in the form of starting pitcher Wade Davis, a 23-year-old who reached Triple-A last year, putting up a 2.72 ERA in 53 innings. He throws in the 90s, he has a full complement of pitches, and there is currently nowhere to put him. The Rays have so many pitching options that unless they suffer an ’87 Mets-like staff-wide breakdown, they should be able to patch pretty easily should anything go wrong. You saw Davis whiff Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano on Thursday, and he’s surplus.

A NOTE OF DEREK JETER APPRECIATION
Jeter didn’t do anything special, but seeing him out there, realizing that he’s in the declining days of his career, made me feel a bit like I’ve taken him for granted at times. The cult surrounding Captain Intangibles is so fervid in its hero worship that it provokes the opposite feeling in the realist sector. It has become fashionable to criticize Jeter’s defense, and such criticisms are accurate and entirely fair. Still, the excellence of Jeter’s career should not be missed in the rush to paint a more accurate picture of him, and we should also not fail to acknowledge the sheer miracle of his existence given what the Yankees had at shortstop between 1950, Phil Rizzuto’s MVP season, and 1996, Jeter’s arrival.

With apologies to Tony Kubek, Bucky Dent and even the Scooter himself, the years where shortstop was something the Yankees dragged limply behind them, even when winning, far outnumbered those when they received the kind of all-around contribution that Jeter is capable of providing at his best. I grew up watching the Yankees try Paul Zuvella, Jeff Moronko, Bobby Meacham, and the occasional hotel clerk at short, while at the same time seeing all-time greats like Alan Trammell and Cal Ripken come through and batter the heck out of them whether at the plate or in the field. It seemed like it would never end. If Tony Fernandez hadn’t become injured in 1996, it never would have ended.

As we again debate Jeter’s defensive abilities and remaining offensive capabilities this year, let us remember the good years. And no, this doesn’t mean that the Yankees should sign Jeter to an extension after his current contract is completed. They shouldn’t.

THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Manny Ramirez rejected what seemed like a fair offer from the Dodgers on Thursday. Yesterday I wrote a story about Joe DiMaggio’s 1938 holdout. One thing I came across, but didn’t use in the story, was one of the top Yankees, either owner Jacob Ruppert or general manager Ed Barrow, saying of DiMaggio (I paraphrase), “His demands are just so ridiculous that we don’t really believe he’s holding out, we think he’s just trying to get out of spring training.” That seemed silly when I read it, especially because the Yankees and the Clipper were only $5,000 apart — for whatever reason, the team had decided it wasn’t going to compromise with DiMaggio no matter what, so they were trying to cast the blame on him. With Ramirez, though, I can almost believe it.

? Remember how I complained about Frankie Cervelli leaving Yankees camp to play in the WBC when he really needs the time with the team? The Royals are going to go through the same thing with Mark Teahen, who is heading out even though he’s trying to revive his career by making the transition to second base. That’s just wrong.

? It’s wonderful that the Tigers have a pitcher in camp named Fu-Te Ni. Globalism has its defects, but it’s wonderful to follow the game in the age of universal baseball.

? One more reminder that on Sunday at 2 p.m. I’ll be appearing with Kevin Goldstein, Christina Kahrl, and Cliff Corcoran for a Q&A/signing at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, New Jersey. Come for the baseball talk, stay in Montclair for the Yogi-ness and the great restaurant scene. That’s my plan. 

Pettitte and the perfect team

hughes_250_012709.jpgI said a good deal of what I wanted to about the return of Andy Pettitte in yesterday’s installment, and you said what you had to say in the comments. Then, in Brian Cashman’s phoner after the deal was announced, he echoed some of your comments about depth and how at some point the Yankees might still need to call upon one of their younger pitchers.

Still, Phil Hughes (pictured) and pals have clearly been relegated to Plan B, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Yankees are well fixed for Minor League pitchers, so depth was unlikely to be an issue. More pressing is the need to give those pitchers Major League experience so that when Chien-Ming Wang gets hurt again, or Pettitte’s always troublesome arm acts up, or A.J. Burnett experiences whatever happens to Burnett, they are ready to step in with more consistency than they showed in 2008. It is not overly optimistic to think that last year was the growing pains year for Hughes and Ian Kennedy, while 2009 could be the year they begin to deliver. Yet, that possibility seems to have been aborted.

Yet, there is no reason to be glum. On paper, the Yankees have put together a team that is going to be very tough to beat. If everyone does what they’re supposed to do, the rotation will be the deepest in the game, the bullpen will be solid, and the lineup… Well, the lineup may still have some problems, even if Jorge Posada is healthy. Robinson Cano needs to snap back, Derek Jeter needs to find the Fountain of Range — I mean Youth, and the outfield could be a complete wipeout.

That leads me to the question of the day, and one which I will probably center my Hot Stove show comments around this Thursday: on the phoner, Mr. Cashman was asked if he was now ready to retire for the winter. “I wouldn’t expect anything further at this stage, or anything significant,” he said.

Here are my questions: Should the Yankees be done? Has Cashman done enough? How would you evaluate the job that he and the Yankees did in preparing the team to contend this year? I’m not sure what the structure of this week’s show will be, but if it all possible I will read selected answers and respond on the air.

A-ROD/A-FRAUD/A-FROG/WHATEVER
I’m holding my comments on the Joe Torre/Tom Verducci book until I’ve actually read it, but it’s worth briefly revisiting Alex Rodriguez’s supposedly un-clutch performances. I can’t defend the guy’s personality or his teammates’ perception of it. That’s a different matter from what he does on the field. The fact is, except perhaps in very limited cases of piling on, all the runs generated by a player count. We make judgments as to a hit’s value using information that we could not possibly know at the time, which is to say the game’s outcome. It is true that if an A-Rod hits a home run with his team down 5-0 in the seventh, it’s likely that the home run won’t have any impact beyond the back of his baseball card.

However, game conditions change, and scores affect player behavior and managerial decision-making. A three-run shot with a 3-0 lead moves a game from in doubt to safe. That single tally in the face of a big deficit may bring a closer into the game who otherwise would have rested, or serve as the foundation block of a rally. You can’t really know until it’s all over. Naturally, it would be preferable if A-Rod chipped in a few more two-run shots when the team was down 1-0, but it is incorrect for anyone to imply that his stage fright in some of the big spots means that the rest of his contribution is without value.

Pettitte-O-Mania

pettitte_250_012609.jpgAs I take pen in paw here, reports are circulating that the Yankees are close to an agreement with L’il Orphan Andy Pettitte. This will no doubt make Andy’s many fans very happy, and for good reason, as he should be an asset this season. As I’ve written here several times over the course of the offseason, some of his second-half fade was attributable to very poor defensive support. It will also be fun to watch Pettitte add to a career which, while not of Hall of Fame quality, fits nicely into the wider but still relatively exclusive “Hall of the Very Good.”

That said, I do have some trepidation about the Yankees not reserving a spot for youth in the rotation. If Pettitte pitches the Yankees to a pennant, that’s one thing, but if not, at the end of the year he will (presumably) ride off into the sunset, leaving the team with nothing but memories. If Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves or anyone young was capable of giving the team something within ten percent of what Pettitte can, then the greater value would be in that pitcher gaining experience rather than the Yankees having a Cadillac in the Pinto part of the rotation.

ONE MORE MOLINA BIT FROM THE COMMENTS
…Before I close this subject until such time as Jorge Posada shows us the condition of his arm. This one is by “amdream23:”

You make two logical fallacies about Molina who would be fine as a full-time catcher with the Yankees, given their other hitting. You say he saved five runs based on throwing out 13 or so baserunners. But he didn’t play a full season so you should project that out further.

Second, what about the baserunners on first that didn’t try to steal since they knew he has a good arm? Isn’t there a deterrence effect? Rather than Molina, look at A-Rod’s failures. He excels in hitting mediocre pitching and padding his stats but chokes against good (never mind great) pitching. He’s another Winfield. The Yankees will never win in the playoffs with A-Rod anchoring the team.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, “am.” I thought a logical fallacy was something like assuming “after therefore because” or saying that fish can swim and so can Derek Jeter, therefore Derek Jeter must be a fish. No? I’m going to ignore the A-Rod bashing because it’s a non-sequitur in a discussion of catching, seems to suggest that we should somehow think Molina a better player than A-Rod. Maybe I’m misreading that, but it’s just weird. Finally, let us say this of Dave Winfield: yes, he had a miserable 1981 World Series, but not too long after leaving the Yankees he drove in the Series-winning runs for the ’92 Jays. Winfield was a terrific player and a lot of fun. His big sin with the Yankees was that he couldn’t pitch.

One logical fallacy I would like to stomp dead is the one in your first sentence: “Molina would be fine as a full-time catcher with the Yankees given their other hitting.” No. We should never look at it like that. It’s the worst kind of complacency, first because it says that a team can settle for mediocrity at a position provided that it did its job at the other positions, and second because it makes an assumption: “given their other hitting.” Every once in awhile, as with the Yankees in 2008, a team will spawn a couple of unexpected replacement-level hitters and suddenly the guy you could tolerate becomes the straw that broke the lineup’s bat — er, back. No, make that “bat.”

Let’s deal with MAD, Molina’s Alleged Deterrence. A full-season workload for most catchers is about 1200 innings, or about 140 full games. Molina caught 737 innings last season, so he got in about 60 percent of a full season. The Yankees played 1441 innings in total, so he took just a fraction over half of the team’s catching load. Now, here’s a very simple way of looking at things, but this is my take on all the baserunners that might not have run because Molina was in the game: they ran anyway. The average AL team saw 129 stolen base attempts last year — 94 steals, 35 caught stealing. Half of that would be roughly 65 attempts — 47 steals, 17 caught. Molina, though, saw 75 stolen base attempts. Another way of looking at it would be to say that the AL least year had .80 stolen base attempts per nine innings. Molina had .92 attempts per nine in the games he caught. Perhaps a lot of that was the pitchers, and had Molina not been catching even more runners might have gone, but that would be pure supposition.

Your request that we give Molina credit for the half-season he didn’t play won’t make him look any better. As above, he played roughly half a season, starting 81 games behind the plate and relieving in 16 more. If we simply double his playing time, we have a player who saved ten runs in dead baserunners and was roughly 30 runs worse than the average catcher and maybe 40 runs worse than the average hitter. Giving you more of Molina doesn’t make him any better; it just increases the damage.

FIXING A HOLE
I have a “Flight of the Conchords” song stuck in my head. I’m off to clear it out with some Beatles. 

Waiting on the 1 p.m. train to Stamford

pettitte_250_010809.jpgIt doesn’t quite deserve Gladys Knight, does it? While I wait, a few thoughts on Andy Pettitte.

Now, I am in something of a bubble while traveling, so if in the time I compose this dispatch Pettitte has re-signed with the Yankees, joined Joe Torre in Los Angeles, retired in a fit of Cajun pique, decided to discover Japan, or volunteered for the Roger Clemens Memorial Witness Protection Program, forgive me. YES is very generous, but they haven’t yet volunteered to subscribe me to a portable broadband service and I’d feel kind of Oliver Twist-y asking. I mean, I’m the only guy in the company with his own bunker. Sure, Bob Lorenz is a much bigger name than me, but when the blow down storms come, it’s me Bob is going to have to ask for a seat in the safe room. And he’s going to be very disappointed, because my chair sucks compared to his.

Earlier this week, I remarked that the Yankees need to leave a spot in the rotation open for youth. The most obvious candidate for that spot is Phil Hughes, but it could just as easily be taken up by Alfredo Aceves, Ian Kennedy, or a darkhorse candidate like George Kontos. The Yankees need the flexibility that youth generates, because as we’ve seen this winter, we’re entering a new paradigm when it comes to free agent action. The arbitration-based compensation system is dying.

Even the Yankees were reluctant to offer their departing free agents arbitration for fear that they would accept (in retrospect, had they known the Players Association was steering free agents away from accepting such offers, they might have been emboldened to take the chance). Simultaneously, those players who were offered arbitration have seen their possibilities dry up, because the buyers have finally, finally realized, decades into the free agent process, that a team’s chances of developing a decent player for a first-round pick, one that they control for the first six years of his career, are good enough that it’s just not worth forfeiting a pick for a player like Jason Varitek, who is going to come in for a year or two, be a character guy, and then retire.

With the pick you gave up for Varitek, you could have made a conservative draft pick, selecting the proverbial polished college pitcher who is not going to develop much but should safely turn into a solid four-five starter within those same two years. Given what four-five starters cost on the open market, it’s just not worth passing one up for a 35-year-old catcher. There really was a point at which teams did not get this. At one point the Montreal Expos gave up a first-round pick to sign a third-string catcher named Tim Blackwell. You could look it up.

As a result of this, hoarding old guys has less value than ever. It used to be that a departing vet classified as a Type A or Type B free agent would leave a parting gift in the form of a draft pick. Now, with clubs hesitant to buy into the system at both ends, when they depart all the leave is an empty locker. Bobby Abreu is going to play for another few years, but the Yankees will have nothing to show for it but memories of the many fly balls that went over his head.

This makes an Andy Pettitte something of a dead end in the life cycle. Sure, he might help the club to a pennant, but you can make a strong argument that the Yankees are close enough to that already that the marginal wins he provides over a youngster — we have to acknowledge that the big zero that the Yankees received from Kennedy and Hughes last year was an unlikely to be repeated fluke — are not only not worth the money but will also leave the Yankees naked when he finally heads off into retirement. He will have blocked off a youngster for small return, won’t be bringing a draft pick, retirement or no, and so when he’s gone, there’s a vacuum where there should have been the next guy standing ready.

Conversely, if the Yankees invest 20-25 starts in a young fifth starter this year, they might get 30 starts a year for the next five, at prices they control. There’s a lot of value in that achievement and not much risk. This is particularly true because given the team’s depth in young pitchers, they can pull the plug on any failing experiment very quickly. Hughes not working out? Back to the Minors and ring in a new Kennedy administration. Kennedy has a Bay of Pigs? It’s Aceves time. Aceves’s arm falls off? Try Kontos. The point is, at the end of the season you have something you didn’t have before, an additional asset to carry you forward into 2010.

SHOW TIME!
Having written that, I am mere minutes from heading into the YES studios to get my spray-tan. Once again, the show airs at 6:30 p.m., and I’ll be checking through your comments for juicy tidbits with which to wow Bob and the gang. See you in the bunker.