CC Sabathia, four days of rain, repeat?

How you feelin' big guy? Can I get you anything when you're back in the dug out? Want me to rub your feet? Cause I'll do that for you.

Yesterday I ran a post suggesting that there was no reason for the Yankees not to give Bartolo Colon another one year deal with the team. One point that came up in the post’s comments section is that the Yankees will enter spring training with a full rotation and that Colon would potentially block a younger, internal alternative for the sixth or seventh starter’s role. That got me thinking that it was high time for me to examine in more detail the current state of the 2012 Yankee rotation. Last year it was assumed that the Yankee starters would be a source of weakness for the club. Instead, the Yankees put one of the best starting rotations in the AL on the field. Without further ado, here’s a closer look at the players who may wind up starting for the Yankees.

1. CC Sabathia

Regardless of who else takes the mound for the Bombers, at least once every five days the team will be able to go toe to toe with anyone. I don’t have to rehash CC’s resume once more for the benefit of Yankee fans, but I’m going to do it anyway.

CC has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since 2006. He’s continued that trend with the Yankees. In three years in pinstripes CC has given the Yankees no fewer than 230 innings, an ERA+ of no worse than 136, and a FIP of no worse than 3.54. Last season was without question his best on the Yankees. Fangraphs argues that he was the best pitcher in the AL last year. The big guy figures to give the Yankees quality for the remaining seasons on his contract, and is about as sure a thing as you can get in sports to be one of the best pitchers in baseball once again in 2012.

2. Ivan Nova

Nova has become the poster child of the Yankees’ refusal to trust their own internal prospects to the extent that they should. Nova has given the Bombers a respectable arm at every level of the team’s organization, and still found himself fighting for his job last season. Fortunately for Ivan and the rest of us, the Yankee front office finally recognized his talents and anointed him the number two starter by season’s end.

Nova gave the Yankees 165.1 innings of 4.01 FIP baseball in 2011, after giving the team 42.0 innings of 4.36 FIP baseball the season before. But that doesn’t tell the full story. Nova was perhaps the best starter on the team once he returned from a stint in Scranton (right around when CC was losing steam after putting together one of the most dominant stretches of his or any career). Nova posted FIPs of 3.36, 3.00 and 3.74 in July, August and September. He introduced a slider to compliment his fastball, changeup and curveball, giving him a legitimate out pitch down the stretch.

Can Nova do it again? On the one hand, Nova has done a respectable job of rising to the occasion every time the Yankees have asked him to do so. On the other hand, Nova has always been something of an after thought in pinstripes. This season expectations will be waiting for him. The changed environment may impact him.

For my part I expect Nova to give the Yankees a full season’s worth of what he provided in 2011, something along the lines of 200 innings of 4.00 FIP baseball. He has been pitching for his job for each of the past two years and has finally earned his spot on the rotation. That boost in confidence should outweigh the downside of any increase in scrutiny. Nova would be a number three or four starter on a team with a deeper pitching staff, but under the circumstances I’m looking forward to watching him work.

3. Freddy Garcia

There is a reason that the Yankees are seen as having a weak starting rotation. When Sweaty Freddy is legitimately your number three starter then you have a problem. Garcia surprised everyone except perhaps his mother last year when he gave the Yankees 146.2 innings of 4.12 FIP baseball. That was good enough to earn another season with the team and to the extent perception is reality (numerically Colon was better) it allowed him to emerge as the team’s third best pitcher down the stretch in 2011.

Garcia is projected to regress a bit from his 2011 form, but he still figures to give the Yankees about 130 innings of 4.50 FIP baseball or better. That is far from what you want in your third best pitcher, but I’ll take that happily if those are my options.

4. A.J. Burnett

I’ve always liked who I’ve perceived A.J. to be as a person, so it pains to write this, but I’m sick of his act. If we know exactly what the team will get from CC at this point then we also know precisely what the team will get from A.J.: 185 or more innings of roughly 5.00 FIP baseball. At least he’ll give us a decent number of innings? I got nothing. Fact of the matter is that A.J. has been so bad these past two seasons that he makes the Yankee opponents as good offensively as the Yankees themselves, which is quite the feat.

Fortunately for us all, the Yankees appear to be as sick of Burnett’s antics as the rest of us. They are finally looking to shop Burnett, even if no one will conceivably take him. Hopefully this indicates an equal willingness to sit him if he struggles and give other options in the farm system a chance to show what they can do. We can only doubt A.J. until he shows us otherwise.

5. Phil Hughes

I predict that Phil Franchise will find himself permanently in the Yankee bullpen no later than 2013. Phil was meant to be such a good starting prospect because of an arsenal of secondary offerings that have not developed into plus pitches. Instead, he relies too heavily on his fastball and has only been a good starter for about half a season (although I also predict that Michael Kay and Joe Girardi will remind us 1,000 times next season that Girardi selected Hughes for the All Star team in 2010).

It is, however, that same fastball that makes him so good out of the bullpen. What Hughes did in 2009 is well documented, but he was also solid coming out of the ‘pen in the 2011 playoffs. Relieving allows him to do what he does best: rear back and launch his fastball up in the zone. I’d love to see Hughes finally figure it out this season, but I just don’t see it happening. Instead, I predict he loses his job not much later than June and finds himself permanently demoted to relieving. (For the record, my prediction accuracy is something like .017, so take that for what it’s worth.)

6. Hector Noesi

In my mind Noesi is permanently linked with Ivan Nova. He’s the other starter from Scranton that the Yankees had always been hesitant to give a shot, one spot behind Nova on the organizational depth chart. Last season Noesi finally got his chance. The results weren’t that bad. Noesi gave the Yankees 56.1 innings of 4.47 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 4.02 xFIP baseball. That’s about what Nova gave the Bombers in a similar role in 2010.

The Yankees noticed, and have been working to stretch Noesi out in Winter Ball this season. Noesi has prospered there and is now seen within the organization as a legitimate starting option in 2012. With the back end of the rotation as shaky as it is, Noesi will have another chance to demonstrate that he is a big league starter. Someone not named Carsten Charles will lose his spot in the rotation at some point next year and Noesi will be waiting. No one knows how he will do, but it is exciting to think that Noesi may emerge as another genuine Yankee starting prospect.

7. Adam Warren, David Phelps, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances

I’ve ordered the list of possible number seven starters this way intentionally. Warren and Phelps are said to be big league ready in some capacity while Banuelos and Betances are arms of the future requiring one more season of preparation. Any one of these arms will be given a chance to shine at some point in 2012. Banuelos is the team’s best pitching prospect, but his youth and relative lack of size mean that it may be another season until we see him on a regular basis. Betances has the stuff to succeed, but is wild while Warren and Phelps are seen as legitimate back of the rotation options moving forward.

No one knows what these guys will give the Bombers, but after years of being incapable of developing a starting pitcher internally, the Yankees suddenly find themselves with two young arms who will start in 2012 (three if you count Hughes) and four more waiting in the minors.

In this light two things become clear. The Yankees have only one starter the team can rely on 100%. After that they have a high upside starter on the verge of breaking out in Nova, a wily veteran pitching for one more season in the sun in Garcia and two of baseball’s bigger disappointments. Combining that analysis with the Yankees’ win at all times mentality and it becomes clear why there was so much speculation about C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish this offseason.

However, the second thing that is clear is that the potential Yankee rotation is as deep as it has ever been. As soon as 2014 the Yankee rotation very well may be Sabathia, Nova, Noesi, Banuelos and Betances, which is to say CC the leader and four internal options. That’s not wishful thinking. That outcome has about 25% probability. In light of that, if I were Brian Cashman I would have asked myself two questions before committing serious money this offseason:

1. Can my team compete for a World Series as is? The answer to that is a resounding yes. The Yankees were the best team in the AL last season and figure to be roughly as good as they were in 2011 once again.

2. If I spend $75-$100 million on Darvish or Wilson, are the Yankees suddenly the favorite to win the World Series? The answer to this is definitely not. These arms are good, but they are unlikely to be that much better than what the Yankees already have in Ivan Nova. That alone isn’t enough to make this team a sure thing title favorite. In light of that, I’d keep the $100 million.

The Yankees’ big league ready rotation is no stronger than it was last season, although it does come into spring training with fewer question marks. However, lurking beneath the surface is a bevy of potential starters who may be anchoring the rotation for a decade. Signing an arm like Wilson’s just doesn’t make a lot of sense for a team that can legitimately improve internally for less money. The Yankees are in as much of a rebuilding phase as they’ve ever been in. I too would choose to be competitive but not dominant this season in exchange for giving my young arms more openings to break through to the big leagues. The money they Yankees save, combined with the talent they’re developing means that they will have the opportunity to dominate again.

Also, I’d still sign Colon to a one-year deal.

Wants and Needs

It’s the holiday season, so of course gifts are on our mind. While we may celebrate different holidays and give/receive gifts in our own special ways, when it comes to the Yankees, we get a little greedy, don’t we? We want what we want for the team and we want it now. I wrote a post similar to this last year, so I thought it might be prudent to run down some wants and needs again.

This year, it seems that there aren’t many needs for the Yankees, but the two biggest ones blend perfectly with the wants. All the Yankees really do need to complete the 2012 roster are a number-two starter and a lefty-mashing, right handed hitting outfielder. The latter is more than likely going to be Andruw Jones, which I think we’re all okay with. He fits the role perfectly, did it perfectly last year, and there aren’t many good options other than him, internal or external.

As for the former, that upgrade to the starting rotation, it’s an obvious need, but how to fill it has been much less obvious. On my part, there have been a ton of wants, including Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, Roy Oswalt, John Danks, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Garza, C.J. Wilson, and even Edwin Jackson and Joba Chamberlain. There have been different degrees of want for each guy, but each of them could probably fit the need pretty well. But, the cost for all of these guys (non-Joba division) hasn’t been in a place the Yankees have liked. So what does one do when one both needs and wants something, but can’t find the right thing at the right price? Be patient. Wait.

Out of a combination of needing and wanting something comes desperation. From desperation comes foolish waste. If the Yankees don’t like what’s out there, they should just sit on their hands. Better to do that than to make a move for the sake of making a move. While flawed in some respects, the team the Yankees have right now is still pretty good. Larry touched on this in his Friday post at RAB:

Additionally, for what it’s worth — and depending on your opinion on forecasting systems, it may not be much — as rosters currently stand the Yankees are projected to win the AL East by both CAIRO (with a 94-68 record) and Oliver (92-70). While the usual projection caveats of course apply, and rosters will obviously change prior to opening day, that the Yankees would appear to have a roughly 93-win team on paper even if they don’t add a single piece the rest of the winter should be pretty heartening, all things considered.

The Yankees are in a good spot right now and even though we’ve seen them remain relatively silent over the last two months, the competition around them hasn’t exactly shot ahead. The Red Sox still have rotation issues that are similar to the Yankees. They have a strong front in Josh Beckett and John Lester, but have essentially no depth. Like the Yankees are counting on a young guy in Ivan Nova, the Sox are doing the same in Clay Buccholz, who has the added pressure of trying to stay healthy. The Blue Jays made a shrewd trade to acquire Sergio Santos, but haven’t done much else. The Rays have yet to make significant moves and the Orioles’ biggest move of the offseason was reassigning their pro-scouting department.

Without any big moves, save for extending CC Sabathia, the Yankees are still in a favorable position in the American League. They still have a tremendous lineup and a shutdown bullpen. The rotation upgrade hasn’t come yet, but there is still plenty of time before the season starts to add something else. And, as we all know, the team you come to Spring Training with is rarely the team you end the season with.

All Bartolo Colon wants for Christmas …

You'd be upset too if you performed well but lost your job anyway.

Slowly but surely much of the Yankee fan base and blogosphere is realizing that the Yankees will probably not make a splashy move this offseason, something I’d believed was likely for some time now. The reasons for this are both clear and sound. The Yankees really only need starting pitching. C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish were the best pitchers available and they are not guaranteed to succeed over the course of a five year contract. Given the Yankees’ considerable financial commitments already on the field any additional contracts need to be well reasoned. Failing that, it makes a lot of sense for the Bombers to bide their time.

But that doesn’t mean the Yankees can’t continue to add high upside, low cost veterans as they have over the past few seasons with considerable success. Freddy Garcia has benefited from this already. As we all know the Yankees signed Garcia to a one year deal last year and he gave the Bombers 145.2 innings of 3.58/4.12/4.34 ERA/FIP/xFIP baseball. That justifiably earned him another shot with the Yankees. Even if he can’t repeat his 2011 performance Garcia comes at such a low cost that he’s worth the risk.

If the Yankees are willing to dish out another contract to the slow-tossing Garcia, what does Bartolo Colon have to do to get some love? Colon was the other veteran addition the Yankees made last season. Originally he was meant to come out of the bullpen, but when Phil Hughes went down in flames Colon got his chance to start. And he excelled. Colon never gave the Yankees a FIP above 3.84 in any month until August, after he came back from injury.

There were some warts on Bart’s season, to be sure. He went down for a period with a hamstring injury, and wasn’t as dominant in his return as he was before the injury. But none of this changes the fact that if Garcia’s surprisingly strong season earned him another year in pinstripes then certainly Colon should get another audition as well. Fact of the matter is that Colon was better than Garcia. He gave the Yankees 153.0 innings of 4.00/3.91/3.64 baseball. In addition, his plus fastball and ability to warm up quickly make him an ideal option out of the bullpen if younger, more upside options such as Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes pitch to their potential.

Yankee fans (myself included) have come to expect the team to make splashy moves every offseason, for better or worse. That time may be over. The new collective bargaining agreement punishes teams for spending the way the Yankees did. An era in which the team begins working off many of the bad contracts it has handed out the last few seasons may be fast approaching. In that environment it only makes sense to dole out mega-bucks for players who will earn it, CC Sabathia type successes as opposed to A.J. Burnett style flops. All of that explains why the Yankees have been on the side lines this winter. But in that environment it shines a bigger spotlight on low cost, quick upside players such as Colon. If Garcia was good enough to get another year on the team then certainly Bartolo was good enough as well.

Happy holidays everyone.

Could expensive trade market create opportunity on Burnett?

Last goodbye?

There’s no doubt that Yankee fans have had their fill of Allan James Burnett over the past two years. Since signing with the Yanks for the 2009 season he’s been maddening, going from brilliance on one night to unwatchable the next. There’s been one excuse offered up after another, from Posada’s catching  to Dave Eiland’s absence to undisclosed family issues. We’ve had two off seasons where two different pitching coaches have worked with him on his mechanics, each time with the promise of a new and improved AJ the following year, who as we know has never showed up. If anything, his results have only become progressively worse year by year and the moments of brilliance fewer and farther between as his fastball slowly gives way to the effects of his 35 years of age this January. Oddly enough, the main concern Yankee fans had when he signed was his health, and that may be the only thing that hasn’t been a problem for him on the mound during his Yankee tenure. Most fans have long since given up on seeing the pitcher he was that final year in Toronto, and would love to find an exit strategy. After years of making excuses for him the Yanks finally seem to agree, recently letting it be known they would be willing to pick up part of his 16.5M annual salary over the next two years to facilitate a deal. Thus far, that offer seems to have drawn little interest. The general consensus on Burnett is that the Yanks are stuck with him. But the recent trade market activity and taking a broader view of the offseason leads me to believe there may still be some hope of moving him.

The recent trades of Mat Latos, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez have delivered on the sky-high asking prices their GMs have requested, each netting 3 of the receiving team’s top 5 prospects. This is the type of haul Yankee fans have long envisioned giving up for a King Felix, yet none of the pitchers traded this offseason are anywhere near the level of pitcher Hernandez is. There are reasons why these lesser pitchers have been fetching a King’s ransom, largely because they’re earning little and have multiple years of team control left. But it also reflects a reality of the new CBA. With the abolition of the Elias ranking system and reducing of draft pick compensation for free agents, it makes less sense to wait to deal players the year before they hit free agency. The package you fetch will be less since the acquiring team will have less draft picks coming back if the player walks. As such, teams are dealing a commodity they rarely ever did before, players who are making little and are years away from free agency. Even the John Danks extension plays into this. Faced with a market that would offer little for someone too close to free agency, GM Kenny Williams opted to sign Danks long term rather than deal him and fetch little. The new CBA also raises the bar on becoming a Super Two, so players with extended arb years like Gio Gonzalez will become an increasingly rare commodity. Add all of this up and you’re left with a very expensive trade market going forward.

That’s where Burnett comes in. This new CBA reality could make AJ Burnett more attractive as an alternative for a team that needs a pitcher and doesn’t want to deplete their farm system in a trade or doesn’t have the necessary assets to make a deal. Teams that back out of the sky-high trade market and lose out on top free agents will eventually come around to view Burnett as a plausible and possibly preferable alternative to the dregs of the FA class. But this won’t happen anytime soon.  More names will have to come off the board and I think the Yanks will have to offer to pick up more than the 8M they currently have on the table for the 33M owed. Of course there’s more than one way to pick up salary, namely by taking back an overpaid and under performing player in return. I would imagine the Yanks came up with that 8M number with someone like that in mind, since nobody could argue Burnett is a 12.5M per year pitcher going forward.

From a Yankee payroll standpoint, if you find a suitor and replace Burnett with Hector Noesi the impact on 2012 is negligible. Depending on how much salary the Yanks pick up in a deal and/or how much is coming back, you even free up the remainder of the money owed to AJ for an upgrade elsewhere. This was the rationale the Braves employed in dumping Derek Lowe on the Cleveland Indians and picking up 10M of the remaining 15M owed this season. The Braves have loads of young pitching ready to take his place and Lowe was a complete dud for them last year, so that deal had the effect of reducing their payroll by close to 5M. Burnett still has more upside left than Lowe does, one could see AJ still having a few good years left pitching in the NL West.  I’ve heard people say they think AJ is untradeable, but if the Braves could find a suitor for the washed-up Lowe than I have to think the Yanks can find a partner for Burnett.

Scout notes on Yankee prospects

Christmas has come early (or Hannukah has come on time, depending on your religious persuasions) for Yankee prospect followers, as Trenton Thunder beat writer Josh Norris has some great reports from scouts on his blog.  You should visit Josh’s site to get the full impressions, but he has info on a number of the Yankees’ top prospects.

This includes Mason Williams (compared to Brett Gardner with a better hit tool and more upside), Jesus Montero (“Hitting-wise, no big deal, he’s a no-brainer. … He might be Miguel Cabrera.”), Dellin Betances (“I think he’s got really good stuff, but he’s got to learn to harness it. I think he’s going to end up as a bullpen guy.”), as well as several others.  Josh is one of the best minor league beat writers, and is great at getting reports on prospects for his readers, so I encourage you to check out the blog or give him a follow on twitter.

Imagining a Yoenis Cespedes Acquisition

I’m on the record saying that Yoenis Cespedes is a poor way to spend a big pile of money, if his market price is as high as advertised. I still believe this, although the new CBA makes me a little more apt to endorse going big on super-risky guys like Cespedes. But since the word on the street is that the Yankees are either strong favorites for his services or aren’t interested at market price. Ignoring his absurd price for a second, I think it’s worth thinking a little bit about what the Yankees would do with him.

Cespedes was one of the best players in Cuba last season. He hit .333/.424/.667, and was selected to the league’s all star team as a center fielder. By all accounts, he is very fast, and has a pretty good arm. No one really knows if he’s truly good defensively in center, but he certainly displays the tools to man the position.

The Yankees would be very foolish to thrust Cespedes directly into the major leagues. We don’t know all that much about the competitiveness of the Cuban Leagues, but it’s definitely no NDB. I don’t care how talented he is, virtually no player can make that kind of leap in competition without some time to learn the North American game and adjust.

Where does he start his minor league career? Kendrys Morales started at High-A, but was quickly promoted to Double-A. He maintained an OPS of .879 there, and posted the same OPS when promoted to Triple-A one year later. It took him half a season to adjust to the major leagues, but has averaged a .838 OPS since.

Cespedes would probably take a similar path, but there is reason to believe he might have a slightly accelerated time table. He will be five years older than Morales was, and hit a little bit better during his time there. He also plays center field instead of 1st base, which means that a lot more of his value will be provided on defense. This is important, because fielding as a skill translates pretty quickly, especially in the outfield, across different levels of competition. Any value he provides on defense should be fairly constant. Add this all up, and I could see the logic behind starting Cespedes at Double-A Trenton, then quickly moving him up to Triple-A. This would set up for a very late 2012 (September?) debut/audition, and possibly 2013 starting job.

That 2013 target date is very important. Nick Swisher will be a free agent after the 2012 season, and Curtis Granderson will be in the final season of his contract. Brett Gardner will be 29 years old, and his own free agency will start to appear on the horizon. Mason Williams, even if everything goes well, will likely be at Double-A or Triple-A. The Yankees would be in a position to both try Cespedes in center field, shifting Granderson to right, while still having plenty of insurance around if he failed to hit or play the position well. If he can’t handle center defensively, they have the better of Gardner and Granderson to pick from while Cespedes plays a corner spot. And, if he completely sucks, resigning Nick Swisher is always an option. The Yankees get to take a high-dollar risk, but hold a bunch of options in reserve in case it does not work out.

The most important lesson in this intellectual exercise? Yoenis Cespedes is not an option for 2012. The Yankees do not need him in 2012, and it would be stupid to push him to the major leagues right away. If Cespedes is looking for a team to push him immediately to the majors, the Yankees would be silly to put a bid in, given their MLB-best outfield setup already in place. If Marc Craig’s report that the Yankees are out of the running is true, that could very well be the reason.