April twenty-fifth, twenty twelve is no doubt a date which shall live in infamy within the Yankees Universe. Early that afternoon, news broke that Michael Pineda had suffered a labrum tear and would miss the rest of the season. The situation could have been worse – rotator cuff damage has effectively ended careers and Pineda’s rotator cuff is clean – but the prognosis is the nonetheless shaky. Hours later Phil Hughes failed to get out of the third inning against the Texas Rangers, surrendering four earned runs and picking up his third loss of the season. Nearly five years after losing a no-hit bid to injury in Dallas, Hughes is a shell of his “Baby Rocket” self. David Phelps came on in relief and promptly surrendered three earned runs in two and a third innings, marking the worst outing of his short career.
In short, things went to hell on Wednesday, and they haven’t gotten any better since. Hughes’ time as a starting pitcher may be nearing an end. With Andy Pettitte on the way back and Phelps, Wednesday’s outing notwithstanding, looking strong so far this season, Phil could be pushed to the bullpen. Off the field things are not that much better. Joba Chamberlain is still recovering from a gruesome spring injury that has sidelined the big righty for the rest of the season. In minor league news, top prospect Manny Banuelos has pitched just five and a third innings this season and is sidelined with injury yet again. Dellin Betances has surrendered nearly as many earned runs as he has pitched innings, his control still holding back top of the rotation stuff that may never see big league success.
The bottom line is that, as EJ Fagan outlined yesterday, the Yankees are not very good at developing, signing, trading for, or otherwise possessing top of the line starting pitching. This is despite a decade-long quest to outspend, out scout, out draft, and out sign the competition, to compete with a behemoth in Boston, and teams like Tampa Bay that have succeeded ten-fold in developing this kind of pitching. Whenever this point is made though, there is a common contention. The Yankees aren’t very good at developing pitchers, but nobody really is, right? Of course there are outliers like Tampa, and like the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants. But pitchers are lottery tickets. They get hurt, they burn out, they’re figured out and that’s that. How, then, is the league doing in their quest to develop top of the line starting pitching?
Of the above mentioned pitchers, Hughes was probably the best prospect, followed closely by Chamberlain, and then Pineda who in a bigger market may very well have received similar hype. Hughes peaked at fourth on the 2007 Baseball America top prospect list. Chamberlain peaked at third in 2008. Pineda only made on appearance, as the sixteenth prospect in baseball heading into last season. All were comfortably within the top-20 prospects in Major League Baseball. While Pineda cannot yet be considered anything resembling a failure, and while there are differing positions on the possibility of success with Hughes and Chamberlain, none have yet returned the kind of value the Yankees had hoped.
Between 2005 and 2011, Baseball America published seven lists and ranked 40 pitchers within the top-20 prospects in baseball. Four pitchers appeared twice, by my count, meaning the average list had between six and seven such pitchers mentioned. These pitchers have succeeded or failed to varying degrees. Some have been unmitigated success or seem almost certainly headed for that fate. Some pitchers have had stretches of brilliance but faced adversity. Then there are the unmitigated failures, or simply those who have done little to meet expectations, and finally the pitchers for whom today is far too early to pass judgement. Here they are, categorized.
Too Early to Call (13 pitchers) - Neftali Feliz, Brian Matusz, Martin Perez, Jeremy Hellickson, Julio Teheran, Aroldis Champan, Jameson Taillon, Shelby Miller, Matt Moore, Michael Pineda, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Chris Sale.
These pitchers appeared on the 2010 or 2011 lists and have had too little, if any, Major League experience to be evaluated at this date. They are not included in the below success rates. Of these pitchers, Feliz, Chapman, and Sale have had promising starts to their careers in the bullpen, but little starting experience. Pineda and Hellickson have had promising starts to their careers in the rotation, but Hellickson still has much to prove and Pineda is of course a big question mark going forward. Brian Matusz could very well make the list of failures in a year, but given the strength of his rookie season and his lack of experience I will give him the benefit of the doubt.
This leaves us with 27 pitchers to evaluate on Major League track-records.
This list reads like a who’s who of Major League top line starters and Cy Young contenders. I don’t imagine I’ll receive a bit of argument on the first five or six names and I think most would consider Hanson and Price fairly established big league pitchers at this point in their respective careers. Stephen Strasburg has faced a bit of adversity but is, at the moment, one of the best pitchers in baseball. Finally the Bumgarner, 22, has quietly made 56 big league starts and sports a 3.09 career ERA.
Essentially, these are pitchers who for a year or two looked almost certain to reach a level of stardom as a starting pitcher but have since suffered some degree of adversity that has either completely or partially derailed their careers. Anderson, Cahill, and Matsuzaka are tough to categorize, though Matsuzaka and Cahill, along with Billingsley, Kazmir, Buchholz, and Liriano were all serious Cy Young contenders at one point or another. All have had better and longer stretches of success than the pitchers in our final group.
It’s tough to call most of these guys unmitigated failures. All of them are young and with the exception of Adam Miller and McGee all have had some success in the Major Leagues. Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, and Joba Chamberlain have been third or fourth starters. In the case of Hughes and Chamberlain, there has been even more success in relief. But these were top-20 prospects, future aces, and none of them have come close for any extended time to living up to that billing.
The first thing you notice about the above list is that yes, prospects are really hard to evaluate. Pitchers can be especially hard. But when you hit with a top of the line pitching prospect, you hit it big. You have a nearly two in three chance of coming out with a pitcher who will contend for at least one Cy Young award, a greater than one in three chance of developing a consistent top of the rotation starter. But with the exception of Cahill, and potentially Buchholz and Matsuzaka and Niemann, there isn’t much true middle ground. There aren’t many third starters on that list. Those who fail will do so in spectacular fashion.
The Yankees right now are oh-for-two with this kind of talent. Considering that Hughes and Chamberlain were truly the best of the best, it’s even more egregious. If Pineda is unable to return to form, if Banuelos does not develop the way we think he can, we will have to wonder whether the Yankees are doing something terribly wrong with their top pitching talent. The Yankees have struggled and look poised to continue to struggle in this department. But it’s not like most teams are perfect. The Rays, for example, have had three pitchers fall into the final category. The difference is that the Rays had seven chances, and hit on Price, for a time on Kazmir, and seem poised to hit on Hellickson and Moore. The Red Sox, who have their own pitching woes, were able to develop Jon Lester and trade for Josh Beckett. The Blue Jays have developed a string of lesser pitching prospects over the past few seasons. And so on, and so forth.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t expect the front office to be perfect when it comes to developing this kind of pitching talent. No one is, no one will be. But we can expect more. The rest of the league does decidedly better than the Yankees nearly 70% of the time when it comes to top-20 pitching talent. 17 of 25 pitchers with unquestionably more valuable careers than the Yankees’ Hughes and Chamberlain since 2005. There’s still hope for Pineda, and for Banuelos, but this kind of talent comes along rarely. The Yankees have been lucky and persistent in acquiring said talent. They’ve simply failed to deliver. That failure needs to be corrected, or a competitive team with a payroll under $189 million will be pipe dream.