Has Phil Hughes Finally Begun to Live Up To His Potential?

July 5, 2012

Well, he is at it again, that Phil Hughes. He is throwing the ball well and winning games for the New York Yankees. 

And despite an extremely shaky outing by Adam Warren in his major league debut last Friday night, the Yankee starting rotation hasn’t missed a beat since losing both CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte last Wednesday afternoon.

One of the keys has been the transformation of Hughes, once the golden boy of the Yankee farm system since his selection by the Yankees as the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2004 draft*. The expectations have always been high for Hughes, who had worked up to the 2007 No. 2 overall prospect in baseball by Baseball Digest.

*An interesting fact is the Yankees were awarded this pick as compensation for the loss of a free agent by the name of Andy Pettitte, who signed with the Houston Astros after the 2003 season.

With a “dead arm” and reduced velocity over the last couple years (along with less than moderate results), much talk centered on Hughes pitching out of the pen for his Yankee future. However, the Yankee brass always discussed Hughes as a starting pitcher and, to their credit, kept him in the rotation mix over the last several years.

With improved velocity this spring training, and better results, Hughes “won” the fifth starting spot in the rotation. However, after a disastrous start to the 2012 campaign, people promptly wanted Hughes out of the rotation.

I cannot even understand all those Yankee fans who wanted Hughes banished to the bullpen. Don’t people realize that five starts do not make a starting pitcher? Whatever happened to the “small sample size” bullshit we hear about every stinking day? Did that not count for Hughes in April?

Hell, even the great Catfish Hunter had a disastrous start to his Yankee career, losing his first four starts after signing that huge 5 year, $3.2 million free agent contract.

Hughes had issues early on, primarily allowing an inordinate amount of home runs. Of the 19 HRs Hughes has allowed this season, 13 have been solo shots, and almost a third (6), have come in two games, both losses. So, similar to Catfish, despite the large amount of HRs allowed, they haven’t really hurt since the damage was usually one run, or in Hughes’ case were siphoned off in two games*.

*And in one of these games, the June 20th Atlanta game,  the Yankees banged out four home runs, too. That Wednesday afternoon was a hot and humid day just ripe for the long ball.

I remember one time I was telling a scout one time about guy who hit two HRs in a game, real bombs which travelled well over the fence. True no doubters. The scout asked me if any other HRs were hit. I said yes, quite a few and the scout said that the two hit by the kid were nice, but if the ball was flying out like that on that particular day, there were likely other factors invloved which helped the long balls that day.

But then Hughes turned his season around during an innocuous start in Kansas City, where Hughes allowed three earned runs in 6.2 innings, striking out seven and issuing one free pass. He still gave up a HR, but it was two-out, solo shot in the bottom of the 7th. Due to a pitch count of 115, and although the hurler appeared neither gassed nor in trouble of losing the lead, General Joe promptly removed Hughes from that game.

Hughes has then gone on a roll, winning 8 of his last 11 starts, helping form a solid Yankees rotation. Some of the reasons behind Hughes’ surge are his ability to get (and stay) ahead in the count, locate his fastball, throw his curve ball for strikes, and overpower hitters with his fastball. Another huge move was Hughes scrapping his cutter.

While many pitchers are in love with their cutter, I feel this pitch is the latest fad, along the likes of the splitter. Hughes fell in love with his cutter, too, but hitters began to look for it, and pounced. This is a piece I wrote back in 2010 about Hughes getting too predictive with his cut fastball.  Hughes threw it too much and I feel that is one reason why he lost velocity on his fastball and began to get those arm issues. According to FanGraphs, Hughes has thrown the cutter only 4% of the time, if that much.

From what I have noticed, early in games Hughes has gotten ahead most of the time with his fastball, then has used his curveball more often on the first pitch to get ahead later in the games. In his last start against the White Sox, Hughes only got behind on the count 2-0 to two batters, the leadoff guy in the first inning and then to Paul Konerko with two outs in the 8th inning.

While still making a few mistakes here and there (Such as why would Hughes throw a 2-strike curveball to Michael Morse in 3rd inning of his Washington start while he was blowing him away with his fastball the entire at bat), by and large Hughes is pitching smarter and with sustained velocity. Hughes was still popping his fastball up to 94 in the 6th inning of his most recent start and in that Washington game a few starts earlier.

That is progress which the Yankees wanted to see from their young pitcher.

And I do not believe this progress is “small sample size” garbage because it derived from a change in approach and improvement in repertoire. Hughes felt the need to eliminate his cutter and focus on his best pitches, the stuff which advanced him to the major leagues in the first place. This approach allowed him to throw harder and boost confidence enough to challenge hitters, something Hughes shied away from in the past. 

I have seen very good major league hitters fail against Hughes’ fastball late in games when everybody in the world knew it was coming. A perfect example is the 8th inning Kevin Youkilis at bat in Hughes’ last start. This was a massive 8-pitch at bat in a 4-2 game in an inning where most people thought Girardi was going to go to the bullpen and not let Hughes even start the inning.

And Hughes came through with a one, two, three inning against Youkilis, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, the heart of the White Sox lineup. It is that inning which necessitated this piece.

What to do with Phil Hughes?

Of course he is going to be a Yankee starting pitcher for the next two years. He has earned that right, even though the Yankees might make him “earn” his spot again next spring. That is just a joke…probably.

But what about after 2013, when Hughes can become a free agent? Still only 26 now, Hughes will be all of 28 when he gets to free agency, and with a solid year or two under his belt, if Hughes reaches free agency, plenty of teams will be calling for his services. Similar to Cole Hamels this off season, Hughes would still be in his “prime” years. And If Hughes continues his stellar pitching through next season, the numbers tossed around might even be too big for the Yankees to handle, especially if they are resigned to their self-imposed $189 million payroll noose.

So, despite the basic team motto of no negotiations during the season, the Yankees should approach Hughes and his agent to talk a long term deal.

Even before Curtis Granderson and even before Robinson Cano. Having a set starting rotation is of utmost importance in today’s game, especially a home grown kid for below market cost.

So, where to begin on numbers? Hughes is already earning $3.2 million this season through arbitration and would likely command $6-10 million next year. Hughes is 26 and a general lookup of 26 year old pitchers who have signed pre free agent deals turned up this one:

Jon Danks, who signed a 5 year/$65 million deal this past off season, then struggled before he was hurt and placed on the DL.

Other guys near Hughes’ age and history who signed long term deals during arbitration include Jon Lester (24, 5 yr/$30M), Johnny Cueto (24, 4 yr/$27M), Josh Johnson (26, 4 yr/$39M), Justin Verlander (26, 5yr/$80M), Jonathan Niese (25, 4 yr/25M).

Lester, Cueto and Niese were all younger and less established than Hughes, while Verlander, Johnson and Jered Weaver (29, 5 yr/$85) and Matt Cain (27, big money) were all established aces of their teams and were paid as such.

Hughes is very similar to Danks, but I believe Danks was paid too much. Danks likely received what he did because his length of work as a starter was established for several years, but I believe Hughes is a better pitcher. Somewhere in the middle of Danks and Cueto/Lester is about right for a probably Hughes deal.

How about offering Hughes a 4 year deal for $40 million with a club option for a fifth year at a slightly higher salary? Work from there and negotiate as the situation permits. That would keep Hughes in pinstripes through his key years and give the Yankees a certainty on a cost structure. If Hughes wants much more and test the free agent waters, then keep him for the two seasons and bid adieu.

But if Hughes rejects a long term deal and wants to test free agency, I would use him for 120 plus pitches each start next season. Let him really earn his free agent money.

As I said earlier, it is a credit to the Yankees brass (Cashman/Girardi) that they had the gumption to stick with Hughes in the rotation. A handful of starts are never a certainty when dealing with young pitchers, but with his new approach, Hughes has clearly turned the corner and has become a more consistent and durable pitcher for the Yankees. From his improved confidence and challenging hitters, Hughes has upped his strikeout rate this season while also lowering his walk rate.

Aren’t we told by the saber guys that this is a predictor of future success?

Sure, Hughes will still have a clunker now and then, but so does every pitcher.

I talked on Mike Silva’s radio show early this spring that the Yankees needed to at least give Hughes the chance to pitch through the All Star break to determine if he had a future in the rotation. I also said if the Yankees continued to jerk Hughes around like they did with Joba, NO WAY Hughes was going to give the Yankees an option regarding free agency. He would walk, and likely walk to the West coast (where he is from) or maybe the Boston Red Sox, his favorite team growing up.

It is time for the Yankees to pony up to keep Hughes in pinstripes. His youth and internal upbringing are keys to the future success of the Yankees rotation. Of course, the team could choose to lean on David Phelps, Adam Warren and DJ Mitchell in 2014 and beyond, or go on a free agent pitcher spending spree.

But it might be wise to combine the two and let Phelps work into the rotation and spend money on guys like Hughes who have already come up through the system and established themselves.

After all the hand wringing over the last couple years, it would a shame for the Yankees to lose their “golden child” of their system after he finally began living up to his potential.


Adam Warren and Jose Quintana – A Review of Two Rookie Hurlers

June 30, 2012

I am prefacing this by saying I have seen Adam Warren pitch about a half dozen times, from Staten Island up through Scranton.

I have never seen him as bad as he was in his major league debut Friday night at Yankee Stadium. And I don’t mean bad by results oriented bad, but approach on the mound bad, stuff bad and command bad.

Warren can be a pretty decent major league pitcher, and it would be a mistake if the Yankees ended up giving Warren the Chase Wright treatment of permanent banishment to the minor leagues after one bad start to a major league career.

But that will likely happen. Look for David Phelps to get the missing CC start next week.

Warren did get the first two guys out in the first inning, but then walked the next two. Granted they were the biggest power hitters in the Chicago White Sox lineup, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, but attack the strike zone with two outs and no one on base! Solo HRs won’t kill you, but two-run shots will.

What I did notice was Warren has a pretty good change up last night, striking out the leadoff batter on a change up and throwing a 2-0 change to Dunn for a called strike after falling behind on two curve balls out of the zone. Memo to Warren and Chris Stewart: Adam Dunn takes a lot of pitches. He never faced you before and was likely going to take the first pitch you threw him no matter what.

With two outs and no one on, throw a 0-0 strike.

However, Warren only threw a couple other change ups in his 2.1 innings, which generated swings and misses or outs. I am surprised Warren didn’t throw more as the change up was the only effective pitch he had all night. I am also surprised the catcher, Stewart, didn’t call for more changes.

Warren was throwing his fastball with good velocity (up to 93) in the first inning, but the pitch lacked pop and the extra giddy-up required to get a fastball by major league hitters. What it also severely lacked was movement. It was as straight as an arrow. It was the lack of movement that allowed Dunn to receive that first inning walk. A 3-2 fastball was just off the inside corner, perfectly placed under Dunn’s hands, but with any tailing movement to the pitch, Warren probably gets the called third strike.

But Warren’s fastball was straight all night. I don’t remember Warren having that straight of a fastball, and he used to throw a 2-seamer once in a while, but never saw it last night.

Warren also had a very ugly slider/cutter* last night. In the past, I have seen this pitch get lots of swings and misses during his minor league stints. But it was always much tighter and with good, sharp bite and he often threw it for strikes.

*I saw Warren in back to back to back starts a few seasons ago. The first two were in High-A Tampa, which saw Warren dominate both games. He was then promoted to Trenton and I saw him that next week pitching in Double-A. He did a double take when I saw him in Trenton, “like what are you doing here, weren’t you in Tampa?” type look.  Anyway, we talked about his slider and he said it was not a slider but a combination slider/cutter, which I quickly said, “You mean like a slutter?” He laughed and said that it was funny I said that, because that is what his father called the pitch – the slutter. (His dad was in Trenton for his Double A debut, and, obviously as you saw on T.V. was in Yankee Stadium for his major league debut).

But last night, Warren often started the pitch out of the zone and the slurvy break just brought the ball further low and away, a very easy pitch for major league hitters to recognize and avoid. Last night’s slutter was more an A-ball type offering rather than a major league pitch. It has been better in the past and should (needs to) be better in the future.

Plus, if the hitters weren’t chasing the pitch, he needed to throw it for strikes early in the count to hitters. Just to show them he can and to begin to bring the strike zone back into play, to the hitter and the umpire. I am not a big Lou Piniella in the TV booth guy (too general, not enough insight) but he did say a couple things last night worth noting. One was that Warren needed to throw more strikes to keep the umpire on his side, especially as a major league debut guy. A young pitcher needs to establish the strike zone to the umpire.

Without that extra pop on his fastball, the White Sox hitters knew Warren couldn’t blow the ball by them. He may have been throwing up to 93 MPH, but it sure seems like David Robertson’s 90 MPH fastballs have more juice. When hitters know you can’t blow the ball by them, they sit on certain pitches and wait patiently until they get that pitch.

Perfect example is the double hit by Gordon Beckman in the second inning. Beckham easily fouled off two outside pitches, one maybe off the plate and when Warren came inside on 1-2, he stroked a solid double down the left field line on a 93 MPH fastball. As Warren had done often early, he worked outside early to hitters, and then came inside with two strikes. Beckham recognized this and patiently waited for the inside pitch he could handle, then…well, he handled it.

Warren walked only two batters (both in the first), but he was nibbling with his fastball all night, just missing off the outside corner. I suggest throwing the ball over the plate more, then working to expand the zone later in the game when you have established the zone to both hitter and umpire.

So to summarize, Warren had brutal stuff – a very straight , medium pop fastball, with no movement at all; a slutter with no bite, was recognized all night, didn’t get chased and wasn’t thrown for strikes; PLUS a seldom used change up which happened to be his best pitch all night.

As I said at the top, it was a very bad night for Warren in terms of approach, stuff and command, which obviously had terrible results on the scoreboard. He is better than what he showed last night, and I sincerely hope the Yankees (and their fair weather “fans”) given him another opportunity.

His opponent was Jose Quintana, who pitched last year for the Yankees High-A Tampa team, before being released in a 40-man roster crunch. Quintana was to become a minor league free agent, and needed to be placed on the 40 man roster at the end of 2011. But despite very good numbers in each of his prior minor league seasons, the Yankees chose to not keep Quintana.

Since the White Sox brought up Quintana, I have read a few reports how the Yankees blew it with Quintana, how he would be perfect fit with the major league team, etc. If the Yankees did offer their final 40 man roster spot to Quintana last winter, he would be no higher than Double-A Trenton and would never sniff the major leagues before 2014, if then. He would be on strict pitch counts and innings limits, placed on the phantom DL to limit his work and he would be buried behind all the arms at Scranton (including Russ Ortiz and now Chris Schwinden – lol).

The only chance Quintana would have had to pitch in Yankee Stadium was if it was for another team. Which last night it was.

The White Sox do things differently than the Yankees. They take risks, play young players and generally think outside the box. And they have patience with young players.

Actually, I didn’t think Quintana was all that impressive last night. He has slight movement to a nothing fastball, a weak breaking ball and so-so change up. But he has been successful thus far by keeping hitters off balance and locating his pitches well. Doesn’t sound like a Yankee pitching prospect, huh?

He has a smooth easy delivery and despite getting into a few jams last night, shows the poise of a 10 year veteran. He also trusts his stuff and throws strikes.

You know who Quintana should be? He is exactly what Yankee left handed pitching prospect Manuel Banuelos SHOULD be. But Banuelos is hurt again and has pitched only 24 innings this season.

What was impressive last night was rookie White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who confidently left Quintana in the game during the 6th inning. With an 8-6 lead, two outs and no one on base, a fielding error allowed a runner on second base, and there a right handed reliever warmed up in the bullpen. However, Quintana was allowed to pitch to Derek Jeter, a right handed hitter facing the rookie for a third time.

I guarantee Joe Girardi hooks a rookie starter in that spot, if he was allowed to start the inning at all.

Quintana calmly retired Jeter and finished his night. Ventura made a gutsy, good call leaving in Quintana. The worst case scenario the game becomes tied with a Jeter two-run homer. But more importantly Ventura gave a huge boost of support to his young pitcher, which not only helped last night but also in future appearances.


The Boston Red Sox Decline Was Accurately Predicted Before Last Season

May 11, 2012

Back in December 2010, I wrote this piece  indicating the Boston Red Sox were “trying to keep up with the Joneses” ie: the New York Yankees, when they traded for then San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

The premise behind the story was that the Red Sox didn’t have the kind of money the Yankees have, and they would likely fall the way of the old Soviet Union if they tried to keep up with the Yankees in spending. Paying tons of money and trading young kids to win now over the Yankees would make the Red Sox worse in the long run when their farm system becomes incapable of producing new players to fill in for their aging stars when those stars suffered declines or get injured.

I was ripped twice as hard about this story as I was in my Jason Bay Would Be a Huge Mistake for the New York Mets piece I wrote a year earlier. And Mets fans really ripped for that piece.

But in both instances I was completely wrong.

It really didn’t take as long as I originally thought for both those thought processes to prove fatal for each team.

The Boston piece was more about their thoughts on trying to outspend the Yankees rather than actually getting Gonzalez, but by using their top prospects for trades and signing free agents to win now. The Yankees spent lavishly after not making the playoffs in 2008, inking CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and AJ Burnett to over $400 million, then promptly won the World Series in 2009.

The Sox thought having overpaid superstars at every position would help them, so in successive big name transactions they traded for Victor Martinez (during 2009) and Gonzalez, plus signed John Lackey (5/82.5), Mike Cameron (2/15.5), Carl Crawford (7/142), Bobby Jenks (2/12) and Marco Scutaro (3/17) to multi-year free agent contracts. Josh Beckett was also re-signed to a big extension  (4/68) prior to 2010.

And before all this, Daisuke Matsuzaka has cost the Sox over $110 million for one good season. He missed most of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Scutaro has since been traded but Lackey, Crawford and Jenks have all been hurt, Beckett was good last season until he started drinking beer (1-2, 5.48 ERA down the stretch), and has his own problems this season*. In addition, they are now paying Gonzalez $21 million over the next six seasons.

* I was at the Winter Meetings a few years ago and was speaking with someone who knew Beckett pretty well, and told me a few pretty intersting stories from his Florida Marlins days. Let’s just politley say that Beckett isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

That is now $458 million to be paid out to five players (AGon, Beckett, Crawford, Jenks, Lackey) of which only one is now playing equal to what was expected. But did you also know that so far this season Gonzalez has the fewest number of extra base hits of any Red Sox starter with 100 or more plate appearances?

But, with all that outlay of cash and traded away young players) the Red Sox haven’t won a post season game since 2008. They haven’t even made the post season since 2009 where they were swept by the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS. Martinez didn’t help them win in that series, did he?

Here is a direct quote from my Gonzalez piece: “...the Red Sox do have a set pitching staff entering 2011 with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Beckett, Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Felix Doubront, who the Padres did not receive, is a very capable reserve starter.

That is it, though. There are no other starting pitchers in their higher up system who is any good. So the Red Sox have a top six with no others to complement them if there is an injury.”

They collapsed last season in September when they blew a nine game lead and most of that collapse centered on the lack of healthy and effective starting pitchers who could win just one game! Maybe Justin Masterson (traded for Victor Martinez) might have helped. Casey Kelly might have been good enough to come up from Double A and win one game. They also had some bullpen issues last year which Nick Hagadone (also traded for Martinez) might have helped. Hagadone is a hard-throwing lefty who has also been one of the Cleveland Indians best relievers this season with a 0.87 ERA, .484 WHIP and 8.7 K/9 ratio.

This year, under new manager Bobby Valentine, similar events are occurring to this organization, especially injuries and much ineffectiveness. Lackey is out for the season, Matsuzaka and Crawford have not played in 2012, Youkilis is hurt again (a nagging back injury), Jacoby Ellsbury is sidelined (again), and the starting pitching has been brutal.

Plus, in their quest to convert their top set up man Daniel Bard to the rotation, the two big arms looked on to fill the bullpens late innings, Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, are both not with the team. Bailey has been hurt all year and Melancon (who I really like as a reliever) was ineffective early and shipped to Pawtucket. Similarly, the player they received for Theo Epstein, Chris Carpenter – another late inning reliever, is also disabled.

And you probably thought only the New York Yankees had miserable results with pitchers they traded for?

And like last season, there is not a lot in the Red Sox minor league system that can help now. Sure, Will Middlebrooks was brought in for Youkilis and has performed well (can I throw out a SSS here?) but not many of their other top prospects are remotely close to helping out in 2013, let alone this season. When Ellsbury went down, the Sox had to trade for an almost finished Marlon Byrd; when the bullpen needed help, they turn to Vicente Padilla and Andrew Miller, one of the failed starters from September 2011. 

Now, the Red Sox look to bolster their offense with the promotion of Daniel Nava. Lol.

I am not saying that trading for Gonzalez was a bad idea in and of itself. Obviously, he is a quality player who can consistently put up big time, MVP caliber number each season. But he is committed to the first base position for several years, until David Ortiz is gone and then AGon will likely move to DH.

But with all that money spent with no titles, no ready prospects to fill in when injuries occur, was it really wise to try and spend like the Yankees and lose young players at the same time? If the Red Sox let Anthony Rizzo play at Triple-A last season and then come up this year, would the Red Sox be any worse than they are now? Which, of course, is mired in last place, a full 7.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays.

Was it worth it to try and buy a title last season?

It is interesting that both teams the baseball pundits thought would be in the 2011 World Series, the Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, didn’t even make that World Series and are mired in last place this season. Like the Sox, the Phillies lost key contributors Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, and after they traded many of their top prospects, they have no one to come up and contribute on offense. Plus, like the Sox situation with Crawford, the Phillies owe an already performance declining Howard over $100 million for next FIVE years.

But unlike the Red Sox, the Phillies do have a trio of tremendous starting pitchers in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.

Those teams which try to win every year by overpaying for talent eventually have problems when injuries and ineffectiveness occur. Too much money for very little return puts a damper on their current team and down the road when young kids are blocked by overpaid bums.

Most of the World Series championships won over the last 30 years have been won with home grown players who, when allowed to develop and contribute, provide their organization with quality value with quality play.  San Francisco won with their home grown starting pitching and Texas has been in the last two World Series with mostly young players who have come up through their system. Of course there are exceptions (like the 2009 Yankees), but these are exceptions and not the rule.

The Red Sox do have some promising kids in their system, but they are all down in the Low-A and High-A. It would behoove the Sox to allow these kids to develop and be ready for 2014 and beyond. Trading away any of these kids for an arm or big bat now will only continue the circle of idiocy. But one small issue like not being very good for a couple years might have to be stomached by Red Sox nation.

So, what to do? Let the kids play.

The Red Sox have an average age of over 30 for their team, way too old for the young game played today. The Sox need to get younger and use some of the tools they have in their system. The aformentioned Middlebrooks. Keep him in the lineup. Mike Aviles is a nice player, but is he your future at shortstop? You have a top prospect at Triple-A in Jose Iglesias. Why not let him play? From his days with the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, Bobby Valentine appears to work well with young players and wanted to have Iglesias as his starting shortstop at the beginning of the season, but was “overruled” by GM Ben Cherington. Ryan Lavarnway is a power hitting catcher who would fit nicely in Fenway Park.  

Time the change the attitude in the clubhouse.

When the Red Sox tried to win it all every year after year by obtaining Victor Martinez, John Lackey, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, costing themselves cost-controlled young talent and future draft picks, then re-signing the intelligently challenged Josh Beckett, the hierarchy put a process in place which could affect their ability to win over the next few years.

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I might believe that Theo Epstein, who conveniently left to become grand pooh-bah of the Chicago Cubs, did this on purpose.

My prediction of the Red Sox demise by not having quality young players to help in case of injuries to overpaid talent came to roost last season with no pitchers who could win a game down the stretch, and this downfall continues at the beginning of this season.

I am sorry Red Sox fans, but this case of Keeping up with the Joneses has pushed this team into pre-foreclosure status.


The New York Yankees are at a Crossroads

May 6, 2012

Well, the New York Yankees are at a crossroads.

And that was well before Mariano Rivera tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee.

I was talking with Mike on Saturday, saying how this Yankee team was in a serious situation. They have a veteran team, aging superstars and aging bench players. Guys right now are playing every day that weren’t signed this season to play every day.

An aging and expensive team in a young man’s game. And the team is only getting more aged and will be getting more expensive.

So, these Yankees are at that crossroads and there are several reasons for this.  

First, there are the exorbitant salaries paid to aging players whose careers are on a decline. You see the decline already. Alex Rodriguez and especially Mark Teixeira are in their decline phases of their careers, former top of the line talent now slowly sinking down the rope to the floor below.

I wrote about Teixiera here, saying if he doesn’t change his approach (not trying to pull every pitch), his carrer as we had known it is effectively over. And over and over again I see Alex beaten inside with moderate to advanced fastballs, indicating his bat speed is further slowing.

Two guys, who play the infield corners for the Yankees, earning a total of $51.5 million this year, are in slow to moderate declines. They are owed a combined $204 million over the next 4/5 years. I bet the Kansas City Royals wouldn’t trade their current infield corners, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer (who had all four RBI in last night’s game) for Alex and Teixeira, even if the Yankees paid upfront to the Royals all of Alex and Teixeira’s salaries for balance of their careers.

Second, there is the self-imposed salary cap of $189 million for 2014.

It is this number which the Yankees owners have said they want the team payroll to be in 2014. This number will allow the Yankees to avoid huge luxury tax monies required to be paid to MLB. Not that the Yankees couldn’t afford higher salaries and additional luxury tax monies. They could even get a rebate if they remain under that amount for 2015 also.

With the $78 million tied up in Alex, Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Derek Jeter ($8 million player option) for 2014, the Yankees would “only” approximately have $111 million available for 21 other players. And they still have to re-sign Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano to extensions likely to cost $15 million each on an annual basis. Then by 2014, players such as Joba Chamberlain, Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, David Robertson, Eduardo Nunez and Ivan Nova will all be eligible for arbitration or will be locked up for “below market” multi-year contracts.

That’s a lot of players important to the roster who will be making mucho more cash.

Third, the Yankees will very likely lose Russell Martin and Nick Swisher to free agency after this year. During every long Yankee run of titles, the team has a high quality catcher and right fielder. The Yankees have had such a history at catcher with Wally Schang (an OBP machine), Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada. In right field they had Babe Ruth, Bob Muesel, Tommy Henrich, Hank Bauer, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson and Paul O’Neill. But now, two important starters in highly Yankee-fabric positions of catcher and right fielder need to be replaced.

Both Martin and Swisher will likely command three year deals for $8-12 million per year. That might be too rich even for the 1% Yankees.

These open spots lead to the fourth reason the Yankees are at a severe crossroads. They have a severe lack of quality position player depth at their higher levels of the system. They have ZERO, repeat ZERO help on the way to fill any open starting position players for at least the next two seasons.

And I hope you aren’t saying to yourself, what about Zoilo Almonte, who impressed the spring training? Well, he wasn’t that good the first time playing at Double A, and it is a stretch to see him seriously contributing at the major league level until at least 2015. Other strong players such as Austin Romine (remember him?), David Adams, are always hurt, with Romine having chronic back issues. That isn’t good for a major league starting catcher.

All the other position players are three years away, and with the Yankees patient nature in developing young players, it may be even longer.

Yankee fans are now suffering through injuries, lack of production and, even though the playoffs were expanded, a feeling that they just might not be strong enough to make this postseason, let alone make a run to the World Series. New York fans, in particular most Yankee fans, have what have you done for me now relationship with their players.

Many have written that maybe the Yankees should have traded Gardner before last season when his value was highest; saying his success in 2010 was never going to be improved upon. But now they miss his OBP skills, speed and quality defense on an everyday basis.

After Swisher struggled again last October, almost all Yankee fans wanted to trade Swisher this past off season. But you see how Swisher and Gardner are very important to the Yankee lineup. Along with Jeter, they are the only two Yankee hitters who consistently go the away with pitches, opening up the field and therefore, getting more hits.

Now these same Yankee fans seriously wish both could come back from their injuries quickly. The New York fans love to react to those small sample sizes.

What the Yankees have done by playing the Ponzi scheme method of long term deals to players who are now aged and much less productive is coming home to roost. There is now dead money for guys, who aren’t producing up to their salary levels, will continue to decline and because of their salaries, would be blocking any young players the organization might have developed.

So, what to do?

The Yankees could continue with what they have always done and go with the veteran presence at most positions, eschewing young talent in their system and paying big dollars to players who are getting older, and will decline over time.

Let’s all admit it right now; the 2009 World Series title was bought with shelling out over $400 million to Sabathia, Teixeira and AJ Burnett. It sucks that the rules were changed in the middle of playing the game, and the luxury tax threshold was inserted. But that is the hand you are currently being dealt. Try to think of it as the Turn card in Texas Hold ‘Em improving the odds for your opponents.

The key for any team is to constantly work in young players with established veterans, letting certain veterans go free agent when they have kids ready for the majors. But the Yankees have not produced enough young players or given them a serious chance before pulling them, benching them or having fans ridicule them every time they make a mistake (like Nunez).

I say continue with letting David Phelps get starts, let Robertson now close and bring up another reliever (Chase Whitley) if they need a one inning type arm. I wrote about Whitley here. Since there isn’t a great need in the bullpen even with Mariano out, let Phil Hughes continue to start and get his innings in and see what you have over a full season.

You really don’t know what Hughes can do. Let the guy throw the ball as a starting pitcher. Starting pitching is the largest annual expense for teams, especially if you have to go out on the free agent market and attempt to sign a Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke type starter. Except for a game here and there, Hughes can barely make it out of the fifth inning most games because that he what he is used to throwing. That is the way he has been developed. Hughes has made 77 career starts and pitched 7+ innings only 13 times, most recently in his last start when Joe Girardi finally let Hughes throw 115 pitches, only the second time he has reached this plateau in his career.

In regards to the veterans on the team, offer Cano and Granderson semi-long deal of 4-5 years at $15 million each. First one to take it gets his money, the other needs to re-evaluate. With the self-imposed $189 million payroll, this is more important than ever. You can’t let a player dictate what the team can afford.

But if the Yankee brass decides they can withstand higher salariesand go over the $189 million threshhold, all bets are off. Sign away and watch the aging team get even older. The only way the Yankees survive is letting their kids play and develop. You know how the other way works now.

They might not make the postseason each and every year via development, but then again, this 2012 team is no lock right now either.


MLB Rumors: Texas Rangers or New York Yankees? Why Cliff Lee Ends Up In Texas

October 19, 2010

After last night’s performance, there is no way the Texas Rangers can let Cliff Lee walk as a free agent.

Even winning the World Series this season would not be worth it to the franchise if Lee walks, goes to a rival playoff team like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or even their division rival Los Angeles Angels*.

*I mean why not the Angels? They could sign Lee, then move the Dan Haren contract if they want. Then they would have a rotation of Lee, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Joel Piniero and Scott Kazmir. I say they can move Haren because I do not believe anybody would take Kazmir, or Piniero. Both are free agents after this year anyway, so the Angels would save on those contracts in 2012.

I also think Lee would get a kick out of dominating a weak A.L. West many more seasons.

But the Angels probably can use a solid bat in the middle of the lineup rather than another arm.

But how would Texas feel if Lee signed with the Yankees, as is expected by almost everybody on the planet?

Terrible. Like the rest of baseball.

That would then make the Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies the odds on favorites again next season to reach the World Series.

The Rangers need Lee to have the bonafide ace at the top of their rotation, and for him to keep working with C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, three more lefties in Texas.

It is not just Lee who does well when he is there. The other young pitchers also improve. Imagine Lee with another full season working with Wilson and now Holland?

With the combination of their current roster—plus one of the top minor league systems—if Lee stays, Texas will be tough to beat over the next five plus seasons.

But, as I said, most people believe that the Yankees are going to sign Lee. After what Lee has done over the last two post-seasons, it is a head scratcher if a team like the Yankees do not sign him.

They have the big market, the bigger money (they have many, many monies!) and good friends in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett already on the roster. I even wrote a piece some time ago singing the virtues of such a marriage.

Now I firmly believe it will not happen Yankee fans.

One, Texas will want him back very badly. With their ownership situation stabilized and a new T.V. contract signed, they also have many, many monies.

And Lee being from Arkansas appears to fit in nicely with the other southern boys in Texas.

But another reason why Lee will not be in pinstripes next season is that the Yankees can’t afford him on a seven year, $160 million Sabathia type contract. How many nine figure contracts can one team have? Even if they are the Yankees?

The Yankees have $145 million already tied up for next year, add $40 million more for Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and probably Andy Pettitte. Andy is not retiring, not after a game like he pitched last night. It is very tough to leave a game you played for so long, especially when the player is still performing at a high level.

And with the various arbitration cases of Phil Hughes, Joba and others, that is a lot of cash already spent. Plus Burnett’s contract is like an albatross around the Yankees luxury tax necks.

Adding another $20 million for seven more years of Lee pushes next years payroll to $205 million. Funny, but every time I saw Lee pumped his fist and smiling last night, I envisioned him counting higher and higher during winter negotiations.

And there could be lots of dead money for the Yankees next year, too.

What last night’s game solidified for me is that Alex Rodriguez can not play an adequate third base anymore.

He literally can not move to his left one foot to attempt to reach a ground ball in the hole. Several ground balls last night were not even hit that hard and got through there without Alex getting close.

Maybe that is one reason why Jeter seems to have limited range up the middle. He needs to compensate more to his right due to Alex’s limited range to his left. I did read this year that scouts have seen Jeter position himself in different spots this year, the first time all career he has done that.

Do not be surprised if Alex has more work done this off season on his surgically repaired right hip.

So if Alex has limited abilities in the field, he will need to be a DH sooner than expected, which limits his value for the money he receiving.

More somewhat dead money.

Too many older players on the roster already, more legendary Yankees to be signed this off season and too much dead weight money for Burnett and Rodriguez.

Doesn’t sound like it would be wise to add a 33-year-old pitcher to a $160 million contract guaranteed to age 40.

Brian Cashman is smarter than that and will try and work a trade for a younger, but still well established pitcher rather than try and sign Lee.

But rest assured, he will “remain in the bidding” to drive the price up for whoever lands Lee’s services.


New York Yankees: Looking to Do What the Tampa Bay Rays Could Not

October 18, 2010

Before the pennant races concluded, many people thought, and wrote, that the Yankees did not want to win the American League East because they did not want to to possibly face Cliff Lee twice in a five game series.

Once again, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

And the Yankees now have it.

They are in the same situation as the 2010 AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays were: Since they split the first two games in Arlington, they are now in a five game series against the Rangers.

And Cliff Lee is starting Game 1 and, if necessary, will start in Game 5.

Most Yankee fans thought they were getting a break when Lee had to pitch Game 5 in the ALDS and could not start Game 1 in Arlington.

I marvel at all the people who say that the Yankees should be happy that they got a split in Texas, “which is all they really needed, anyway.” Actually, the opposite is true.

When you win the first game on the road, nothing short of winning two should be acceptable.

It seems that Yankees fans (and many in the media) are already throwing in the towel in Game 3, assuming Lee will keep his masterful pitching performances going.

That may be the case, but it also can be far from the truth.

Lee has faced the Yankees three times this season, and is 2-0, 3.09 ERA. In the first game, Lee threw a complete game, allowing four runs while striking out only two hitters.

In his second start against New York, the Yankees rallied late, beating the Rangers in Texas. Although he struck out 11, Lee also gave up four runs this game. In his third start, Lee won 4-1, but walked three, his season high.

Twice in his three starts against the Yankees this year, Lee allowed four runs—so the Yankees have gotten to Lee this season. The issue in all three of those games this season was the Yankee starting pitching was atrocious.

Dustin Moseley, Javier Vazquez and Phil Hughes all were hit around by the opposition.

Even last year during the World Series, the Yankees lost twice to Lee, but after getting dominated in Game 1, they scored five runs off Lee in seven innings in his second start.

Again, by scoring five runs off Lee in Game 5 last year, they should have won the game, but A.J. Burnett was pretty bad that day.

I have all the confidence in Andy Pettitte tonight. The major league’s all-time winningest postseason pitcher is coming off a tremendous performance in the ALDS, but it was 11 days ago.

Unlike CC Sabathia, who has no command after longer rest, as he has gotten older, Pettitte is much better with longer rest between starts. Over the last three years, Andy is 4-2 with a 3.14 ERA on six-plus days rest, better than his overall numbers. 

Looks like a good pitching match-up to me, a game the Yankees can win. In Lee’s 28 starts this year, Lee has allowed four or more runs in 11 games. And in those games, the opposing team was not patient at the plate, working the count, but were aggressive early in the count.

Lee threw primarily fastballs the first time through the order in his two games in the ALDS. In Game 1 at Tampa Bay, he threw only fastballs in the first inning when the Rays loaded the bases.

At that point, the Rays stopped being aggressive and did not score.

If the Yankees are aggressive early, and look to attack the first pitch fastball, they can score runs. You can not “pitch count” Lee out of the game, but need to bang him around and knock him out.

If the Yankees get four runs off Lee, they will win tonight.

Be aggressive early and let Pettitte do his thing.


New York Yankees: A.J. Burnett Needs to Start In The ALCS

October 14, 2010

We now know the New York Yankees roster and their pitching rotation for the ALCS.

A.J. Burnett will start Game Four in Yankee Stadium. And while many people feel it is the wrong move, it is definitely the correct move for the Yankees to make if they want to advance to the World Series.

While many fans want CC Sabathia to throw games One, Four and Seven on three days rest, it would be foolish to heap that much on the big guy. With better performances by Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes in the ALDS, it would benefit the Yankees if all three of their ALDS starters were scheduled for two games each on regular rest in this series.

I would much rather have all three of the Yankees top starters pitching two games each than CC running out there three times. Overall, the Yankees starters are much better than the Rangers starters, even including Cliff Lee.

And including A.J. Burnett.

Other than Lee and Wilson, the other two Rangers starters are not that good.

Colby Lewis was an All-Star for the first month of the season, but has thrown for almost a full run higher in the second half. Tommy Hunter is two runs higher in the second half, and much better at home than on the road.

He pitches at Yankee Stadium in Game Four, going up against Burnett.

I wrote it was a mistake for the Yankees to keep A.J. on the ALDS roster because he was never going to be used. First, he is not a relief type pitcher as he does not throw consistent strikes, the key ingredient to being a successful relief pitcher.

Second, keeping A.J. off the ALDS roster would allow him to stay fresh by going down to Tampa and pitching in real games down there, keeping himself in pitching shape. It would

The biggest issue for starting pitchers is when they pitch with too many days rest. Their command suffers. A.J. will have had 17 days off from live pitching when he toes the rubber in Game Four Tuesday night.

And Burnett is already having issues with his command now that he back throwing to live hitters.

Sabathia had eight days from his last start of the regular season to his ALDS start. CC lacked command in that start, allowed five hits, walked three and missed his locations all game long.

David Price missed the same amount of days before his first ALDS start and had a similarly outing. His second outing in the ALDS (although he received another loss) was much better command wise.

So, AJ has to many days off. So why should he still get a start in the ALCS?

It will make the other starters better. The time period between their first and second starts will be on normal rest. While I believe Sabathia on nine days rest will struggle again tomorrow night, he will grind through that game, and the Yankees will come out on top.

He could go on three days rest.

And both Hughes, the up and coming young stud, and Pettitte, the aging but still very effective (and oftentimes dominating) lefty, will not be thrown on three days rest. The Yankees will not do that to their No. 2 and No. 3 starters, at least not in the ALCS.

If Hughes and Pettitte were going on three days rest, they would likely be limited in the innings they throw in their first games, probably six. Limited innings would severely put an added emphasis on the back end of the bullpen.

The bullpen has been good over the second half of the season. The Brian Cashman trade for Kerry Wood has solidified an already strong pen, and has appeared to lift the performances of most others back there.

But if Hughes and Pettitte become six inning pitchers, I do not know if the bullpen will be able to get nine outs per game not started by Sabathia. CC’s three day rest start in last season’s ALCS was an eight inning gem, but the other pitchers all had that extra day of rest and went on regular rest.  

No extra day this season. Hughes and Pettitte are not three day rest guys this season.

Not when they have a starting pitcher in Burnett who can possibly go out in Game Four and pitch a good ball game like he did last year in Game Two of the World Series.

But if bad A.J. shows up, hitting the barrels of bats, going deep into counts and walking hitters, Joe Girardi will pull him early in Game Four.

That is why Sergio Mitre is again on the roster, and was pretty good during the season coming in relief. In 13 relief appearancesof more than one inning, Mitre only allowed a run in four of them.

Mitre will likely keep the Yankees in the game if Burnett falters early, but if Burnett is on, the Yankees will have easier access to a second straight World Series.