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.


Why Is Freddy Garcia and Not David Phelps Getting the Start Monday Night ?

June 28, 2012

The New York Yankees had a mixed day on Wednesday afternoon. First, they lost both CC Sabathia (leg) and Andy Pettitte (broken ankle) to the disabled list, but held on the beat the Cleveland Indians 5-4 and sweep the three game series.

Sabathia will likely miss only two starts, and will come back within a week after the All-Star break, while Pettitte is likely done for until mid-September. The word is Pettitte is gone for only six weeks, which takes the injury out to mid-August, but the way the Yankees run injury rehabs and “stretch out” programs, it will be AT LEAST another month after his ankle heals before Pettitte will take the hill in a major league game.

So, the Yankees can easily place Andy on the 60-day DL to clear a spot on the 40-man roster as he will not be back until September.

If the Yankees are still cruising through their division and best overall record in late August, why even rush Pettitte? Remember the 2010 season, when Andy had to make three minor league rehab starts in Double-A Trenton? The Yankees were worried about bringing him back too soon. How do you think they will be two years later for a 40-year-old Pettitte?

One pitcher who piggybacked Pettitte during that 2010 Thunder post season was Adam Warren, who will get one call up to replace CC/Andy. Warren struck out 10 New Hampshire hitters that evening in six innings.

NOTE: As I write this, I see tweets from several Yankee beat writers saying Warren and Ryota Igarashi will get the two call ups. I thought the Yankees were going to call up David Phelps and Warren. The call ups SHOULD be Phelps and Warren. But due to the Yankee organization “build up” process, since being sent down on June 14th for David Robertson, Phelps only has 5.1 innings under his belt, in High-A no less. Can we let these kids throw the god damn baseball? So, in the last MONTH, Phelps has less than six innings pitched.

Pathetic.

However, I still believe Phelps is ready.

Warren will now likely get at least two or three starts. Beginning with his first start tomorrow night, if Warren does well, he will continue to pitch until he has one bad start. That is the Yankee way. If he doesn’t do well immediately, the Yankees will promote Ramon Ortiz or David Phelps, whenever Phelps is ready.

GM Brian Cashman stated that if Phelps was “stretched out,*” he would have received the call rather than Warren.

*Oh, man how do I hate this term.

Then why wasn’t Phelps ready? Again, I do believe Phelps is ready, as ready as Garcia is now. But why did it take seven days for Phelps to even take the mound in a game when he was sent down on June 14th? I know players returned to the minors have three days to report, but the Yankees could have nudged Phelps to get to Tampa right away so he could begin pitching.

Any why in Tampa and not Triple-A, but that is another story.

Phelps started on June 21st and threw two innings. Two. Then he started again on June 26th, and threw 3.1 innings, using 55 pitches. According to the above linked report, Phelps will throw 65 pitches in his next start. Only 10 more pitches than his last start? By the time the Yankees let Phelps be ready for a real start, it could be mid-July. I am half-kidding but it will be close to that time at the rate they are going with 10 pitch increases.

And why does Phelps need to get stretched out even more when Garcia only threw 32 pitches yesterday plus a few dozen more in the bullpen afterwards. Isn’t Garcia around 55 pitches, too?

I don’t understand why Garcia is getting starts. Is it loyalty to the “good soldier” who has not said boo since being demoted to the bullpen or because Garcia is a veteran who is more trusted by manager Joe Girardi? I think it’s a bit of both, but despite a good 2 plus inning performance yesterday, Garcia still hasn’t been that good as a starter this season.

But he has been pretty effective as a reliever. Why not leave him in that role? It was similar to Sergio Mitre a few years ago, who was terrible as a starter in 2009 and early 2010, but thrived in a relief role most of 2010 when he was moved to the bullpen as long man. But when Mitre was pressed back as a spot starter due to injuries, he regressed back to his usual starter suckiness.

I have the feeling that “Starter Freddy” will come back quickly.

Why not have Phelps throw 80 pitches, and not 65, in his next start? Like the start Garcia is getting Monday night. That is all the pitches Garcia is likely going to be allowed to throw, unless, of course, he gets bombed early. It’s not like Phelps hasn’t thrown this year, and in his appearances, he has thrown much better than Garcia. Phelps and Warren are the future, especially when the Yankees are at their self-assessed $189 million cap for 2014.

The Yankees babying of these pitchers is getting brutal, and with the recent demotion of Dellin Betances, it appears their methods with minor league guys do not work very well.

However, if Phelps was allowed to pitch the way he should have been, Phelps could have started throwing a couple days after being sent down. Let’s say June 17th, then again June 21st, then again June 26th. Phelps then Phelps could already have been at the 80 pitch plateau, and ready for Friday or Monday.

I see quite a few Yankee fans worrying about the loss of their two veterans. Pettitte has surprised me this season, as I did not think he was going to be as effective as he has shown. I saw tweets and heard analysts saying the Yankees lost their “two best pitchers.” Well, guys like Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova have also been pretty darn good for June. Plus, the high octane offense and very good bullpen gives the Yankees some breathing room.

I would have gone with Phelps and Warren to anchor the two spots (at least until CC returns in two weeks), and leave Garcia in the role which he is performing well.  Warren will go tomorrow night and Garcia will start Monday.

And whenever Phelps gets “stretched out,” he should get the nod over the eventual ineffective Garcia, like he should have had already.


What Happens if Andy Pettitte Falters During his MLB Comeback?

May 13, 2012

Today marks the long anticipated return of New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who has done his best Michael Jordan impersonation by retiring then un-retiring. His first start back is conveniently against the weakest hitting team in baseball, the Seattle Mariners. They are near the bottom of all the slash categories and near the top in strikeouts.

The Mariners are a good place to start for anybody, but especially a veteran stalwart coming off a year and a half absence and whose stuff in several minor league starts was not all that impressive.

Bet Ivan Nova wishes he were getting the ball today.

Coming back from a long absence is not easy. Some examples of success were Michael Vick’s return after missing two full seasons due to jail time, and running back Paul Hornung’s comeback was successful after he and Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 NFL season for betting on football games. Both cemented their HOF credentials after they returned. Jordan’s comeback to the NBA was good after his stint as a baseball player. It goes to show what a tough sport baseball really is when the best athlete in the world at the time couldn’t cut it on the diamond.

And in baseball there were dozens of former players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others who successfully came back to the game after serving for years overseas in World War II.

But all of those players weren’t 40 years old.

Pettitte’s last game in pinstripes was in the 2010 ALCS in a Game Four start against the Texas Rangers.  He allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings, suffering the loss in an 8-0 Rangers win. The Rangers were only up 2-0 entering the 9th inning but the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold them, with David Robertson allowing five runs. It got so bad that Sergio Mitre even pitched!

Pettitte allowed a two-run home run to Josh Hamilton and that was it.

It was a sturdy performance by Andy, and he kept the Rangers hitters off balance all night, mixing his curve and cutter in and out, but rarely breaking 90 MPH.

Now after that long layoff, reports had Pettitte topping out at 87 MPH during his comeback starts, with his fastball generally in the 83-85 range. That might not get it done against major league hitters, especially if he isn’t locating very well. Pettitte hasn’t exactly had good performances against the minor league hitters he has faced, getting knocked around much more as his pitch counts were rising.

His last start a week ago saw him allow eight hits in five innings, allowing five runs, three earned. And his only Double-A start saw Pettitte also allow three earned runs with seven hits in five innings. But strangely, expectations are better for Pettitte while facing much better hitters.

I think all of us probably kind of expect that we’re going to see Andy Pettite (sic), what we’re used to seeing,” Girardi said. “A guy that grinds out starts. That has the ability to get double plays. That doesn’t panic out there. I think you can only go back on what you’ve seen from him. It’s not like he’s trying to reinvent himself. I think his stuff is going to be pretty similar to what he had when he walked away in 2010. That’s kind of what I feel. Will I be right? I hope so, but we’ll find out.”

But what if Pettitte isn’t that guy again, the guy who was 11-3, 3.28 ERA his final season? What if the major league hitters get fat pitches over the middle of the plate, and flat cutters with no bite like the 2012 minor league hitters were seeing? What if Pettitte allows five earned runs today in 2 2/3 innings? It would be easy to demote Phil Hughes back to the pen or David Phelps back to Triple-A if the kids were really bad, but would it be easy to give up on a Yankee icon?

GM Brian Cashman and Girardi will definitely give Andy another start or three, likely many more as it seems his spot in the rotation now is secure.

But what if that type of performance continues where he was the way Hughes started the season, or God forbid, the way Freddy Garcia started? Start after start of getting knocked around, with a good performance here and there for effect? Does Andy get the benefit of the doubt because he is a veteran with 240 career wins?

If Andy falters, my feeling is that Girardi will give Andy as many starts to “right the ship” and “find his stuff” all to the detriment of the Yankee bullpen and record.

When all the Pettitte comeback talk was on back in February, I wrote that the Yankees should be doing this for Pettitte’s October experience. I offered they Yankees should let Pettitte work in slowly, getting in to some game after the All-Star break and working towards a post season start. The team needs to find out how Nova would do in his second season, they needed to find out if Hughes can become the starter everyone expected.

Then Michael Pineda got hurt, Garcia bombed and Hughes was roughed up in his early starts. All hell broke loose in Yankee-land and Pettitte’s time frame was pushed up.

It is not like Hughes has continued his decline or Phelps (2 GS, 8.2 IP, 2 ER, 8 Ks, 4 BB) has been terrible in his time on the mound. These kids have been pretty good so far. Although it is not been reported yet (Girardi never says any concrete until after it happens), but it is likely Phelps will go back to the bullpen, or maybe even Triple-A to “get his innings up” similar to how Eduardo Nunez was sent down to “play SS full-time.”

Pettitte was brought back for his experience but now he is “needed” to solidify what was once perceived to be a formidable rotation. I still believe the rotation is fine as it is, and gives the Yankee kids like Phelps some much needed major league starting experience.

I hope Pettitte does well and helps lead the Yankees to the post season. But the odds are not great for similar success he had in 2010, and if he does not perform well, things could get ugly quickly for the Yankees and one of their icons.


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.


David Phelps Should NOT Be Just a Short Term Solution

May 1, 2012

I was in the midst of writing a “Girardi Needs to Yank Garcia from the Rotation” piece when the Yankees announced Sunday that Freddy Garcia is being removed from the rotation. He will not make his next scheduled start and will remain as the mop up guy* in the bullpen.

  • As opposed to the 9th inning guy (Rivera), the 8th inning guy (Robertson), the 7th inning guy (Soriano), the 6th inning guy (Wade/Logan), the LOOGY (Rapada), and multi-inning guy (Logan/Wade).

In a related transaction, Triple-A starting pitcher D.J. Mitchell, who many feel could be a good, multi-inning reliever, has been promoted with Cody Eppley, who has thrown well since he was recalled last week, was sent down to make room for Mitchell. Since Eppley threw 3 innings yesterday, he was likely not available today or tomorrow, and with Phelps also not likely available due to his three inning stint yesterday, he wasn’t available either.

They still have 13 pitchers on their 25 man roster. That is at least one too many.

With Cory Wade and now Garcia in the bullpen, why the need for Mitchell right now? Did Girardi expect CC Sabathia to get knocked around early today?

The bringing up of Mitchell told me that he will not be the starting pitcher the next Thursday (Garcia’s next scheduled start). And after the game we hear that Phelps will indeed start in Garcia’s stead.

That is a great move, with Phelps GETTING a role in the Yankees starting rotation is long overdue.

I say getting because the way the Yankees have developed their own starting pitching (not good) with ways most other successful teams do develop starting pitching (pretty good) is completely different.

The Yankees force their young pitchers to pitch well in the minor leagues, and then pitch extremely well in spring training to “earn” your spot. After you “earn” your spot, then a Yankee pitching prospect needs to pitch like an ace right off the bat to keep that rotation spot. Then that kid has to pitch well again the NEXT spring training to keep that spot.

What other team (besides the Yank-Mees) in their right mind would force a 16 game winner in the prior season to have to EARN a spot in the rotation for the next season the way the Yankees made Ivan Nova do this spring training. There was serious talk in late March of Nova being sent to minor leagues after his sub-par spring training. The minor leagues! Ship out a kid who won 16 games last year, with an ERA well below 4.00.

And all that might not even get you a sniff of the major leagues, since the Yankees are always seeking to “improve” their rotation each year with the biggest name free agent available.

Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays develop their pitchers. Each of their current starting pitchers were brought up in the middle (or end) of their first major league season to start games when the Rays needed them.  Then that guy was inserted into the starting rotation for the next season, and in several instances veteran starters were traded away to allow these kids that opportunity. Guys like Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel (who seems to have turned his career around) were shipped out to allow new starters an opportunity.

Same thing has been done in San Francisco and Texas.

So after a career minor league record of 38-15, 2.61 ERA, Phelps has now been granted an opportunity to start a major league baseball game, AFTER he had to “earn” that spot this spring training to get on the major league roster. I have written about Phelps many times before, most recently here but now people are finally realizing this kid is pretty good.

http://nybaseballdigest.com/2012/03/05/david-phelps-impresses-on-the-mound-what-else-is-new/

He throws strikes with four pitches, moves the ball nicely around the zone and can blow the ball by hitters when he needs to.

However, despite his four quality appearances out of the bullpen, he also had two outings where he allowed three earned runs in each. It was in these two games which Phelps has given up three of his four home runs allowed. In fact, five of his seven runs allowed have been caused by the four long balls.

I am sure that has really destroyed that precious xFIP.

It is these two outings which has many in the blogosphere very nervous. Let me break down these two appearances.

In the Boston game on April 21st, Phelps allowed six hits, three ERs while walking one in four innings. His ERA for that game (6.75) is less than Phil Hughes ERA of 7.88 this season and well below Garcia’s. This game saw Phelps give up a bunch of ground ball singles, a double and a two-run home run to Cody Ross, who he had whiffed in a prior at bat. He also retired Adrian Gonzalez twice including getting him to hit into a double play.

I guess Phelps was just lucky on that grounder.

Anyway, he was ahead of most of the hitters that game as he was in the Texas game. But in the Texas game, Phelps allowed two solo home runs, three walks (2 IBB) in 2.1 innings. He threw good pitches which were hit out, a 1-1 up and in fastball to Mitch Moreland, and a 0-2 low and away fastball to Mike Napoli. Both pitches weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be, but weren’t great fat pitches to hit either. I actually thought he should have bounced a curve ball to Napoli 0-2 after getting ahead on two straight fastballs.

There are times when a pitcher can make the most perfect pitch (and up and in and low and away fastballs are two great pitches), but if a hitter is looking for a particular pitch they can still hit it very hard. That is why it is imperative to get ahead (which Phelps consistently does), which forces many hitters to expand the strike zone.

I am not making excuses for Phelps, but despite two “bad” outings, he didn’t pitch as bad as the numbers suggest.

I saw Phelps throw in his last outing. He moved the ball in and out; throwing the ball very well against a pretty good lineup. Just ask Garcia, he’ll agree. Phelps jammed Miguel Cabrera on and inside fastball on the black and had Prince Fielder pout in front on an outside curveball, which induced the slugger to bounce into a double play. He threw a 3-1 changeup to get Phelps also set up Austin Jackson like he was a little leaguer, striking AJax out on three pitches, finishing him off with a high fastball which Jackson swung through.

It is not practical for the Yankees to not have another young arm in the rotation. Most successful teams continue to produce solid starting pitching, many of whom are not even first round pick. And if the Yankees feel they will sign Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke next year for contracts well over $100 million (the way Hamels is throwing, he might command near $200 million), then they are nuts. As a west coast guy, if Hamels did become a free agent, he will never sign with the Yankees. And after the crap Michael Pineda endured this spring training, Greinke will run far away from the Bronx.

Who else is a possible free agent? A Joe Blanton, Kyle Lohse or Brandon McCarthy? Please.

And what type of Mat Latos or Gio Gonzalez deal are you going to swing now since your biggest trade chip, Jesus Montero, was shipped out to Seattle?

There is a great strong chance Hiroki Kuroda and/or Andy Pettitte will not be around next season due to cost (Kuroda) and effectiveness (Pettitte). And will Phil Hughes begin to fulfill all his promise as a starting pitcher and become a fixture in the Yankee rotation?

The best situation for the Yankees is to develop and use another pitcher from their system in their starting rotation. And that doesn’t include a rehash of the 40 year old Andy Pettitte. Ivan Nova has proven he belongs, and it is time for the Yankees to allow Phelps a similar opportunity. He has been their best minor league starting pitcher since he has entered their system. 

If the choice is between a 25 year old David Phelps with a four pitch arsenal to both sides of the plate or a 40 year old Andy Pettitte who can barely break 86 MPH, and from what I have seen and heard throws many his pitches over the middle of the plate, the choice is very easy.

Phelps has shown he can get out many of the game’s best hitters, and has the composure, confidence and repertoire to succeed at this level. There is no reason why he shouldn’t be GIVEN the balance of starts this season.

David Phelps needs to not be a short term stop gap and become part of the long term solution.


New York Yankees: Can They Pry Away Zack Greinke From the Kansas City Royals?

October 11, 2010

I want to preface this by saying that I heard from a friend who was at several of the Kansas City Royals instructional league games/practices/workouts last week. All the general talk amongst Royals people was Zack Greinke and if he will be traded this offseason.

Greinke has a contract which runs through 2012, when he will be all of 29 when he reaches free agency.

But general consensus of those associated Royals employees was NO, Greinke would not be traded this offseason. The most likely scenario is he could be moved during the 2011 or even 2012 trade deadline.

And the Royals would want top dollar in trade value if and when he might be traded.

The same questions arise when a pitcher of Greinke’s caliber (and prime age) might become available via trade:

1) What teams have the financial capability to pony up the type of money to bring on $26 million over the next two seasons and possible demands via an extension?

2) What team has the type of prospects, especially Major League-ready pitching prospects, which a team like the Royals would want back in trade?

There are the typical teams which have the dollars, such as the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves and both Chicago teams. But none of those teams has anywhere near the prospects that several other teams do.

The Mets’ and Red Sox’s systems are not that deep, the Angels just traded for Dan Haren and like their top system guys and the White Sox appeared to have traded their entire farm system for Jake Peavy and Manny Ramirez.

The Braves have quaite a few young pitching prospects, but they are at lower levels, and the Royals want at least one arm with Major League ready talent. The Florida Marlins have tons of good top level and Major League prospect players, but they are in the same boat as the Royals.

They keep their young guys to replenish the Major League team with good, young and cheap talent. In fact, the Marlins followed the Royals’ lead by signing their top pitching stud, Josh Johnson, to a multi-year deal. Guys like Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez, Chris Coghlan, and Chris Volstad are not going to be moved to take on more payroll.

The Cardinals have a few good young pitchers in their system and also have the somewhat disgruntled Colby Rasmus possibly available. If Tony LaRussa returns to St. Louis, could Rasmus be part of a deal for Greinke? 

Probably not. The Cardinals might not have enough money for their own guys. They need to re-sign Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter (at least one of the two) and Albert Pujols to longer deals in the next year or two.

The Tampa Bay Rays inquired about Greinke this past trading deadline, and would have done a deal if available. They have the prospects and were willing to handle the current salary structure.

But I believe they were looking for in-season help, and while not looking to trade this offseason, the Rays could possibly try and work something out next season if the need arises. Tampa seems pretty satisfied with what they have now. 

David Price, Matt Garza, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and probably Jeremy Hellickson taking over for James Shields, who also could be traded, provide Tampa with a formidable rotation for 2011.

There are just not that many teams which have the financial and prospect capabilities to pull off this type of trade.

Well, except one.  

The New York Yankees have the money. And with the player development side built up behind General Manager Brian Cashman, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and Senior V.P. Mark Newman, they now have one of the top farm systems in all of baseball.

I don’t care what Baseball America says or how they rank the Yankees. The pinstripe parade of young talent has already produced quality Major League talent, and is strong at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, especially in the area of pitching.

Good arms like Manny Banuelos, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, Hector Noesi, D.J. Mitchell, and Ivan Nova not only provide the Yankees with multiple arms ready to contribute in the Bronx, but also valuable trade bait to obtain top major league talent.

There are only so many spots open in a Major League starting rotation, and the Yankees, with their penchant in spending money on Major League arms, are not going to keep all this talent in house.

It is just not possible. They can keep several of these kids in the Minor Leagues for a few more seasons, but most need to be brought up or moved. No way they all get their Yankee chance.

They already tried to trade Warren as part of the Cliff Lee deal this past July, adding him when Seattle balked at the injured David Adams. And I still believe the Mariners made a terrible decision by taking the Rangers deal over that of the Yankees.  

I have seen most of the above Yankee farm hands pitch several times and while many are keepers, most are trade chips.

I love Banuelos, Warren, and Phelps, and with his power fastball and knee bucking breaking pitch, I believe Brackman is more suited to a late inning relief role. Betances is good, with great strikeout capabilites, but I do not believe he has the strike zone command yet to be the top of the rotation starter most others believe.

Most guys look at the size and wow factor and deem them “high ceiling” guys. Power guys get all the attention, but guys who get hitters out with an array of pitches are better suited in the majors. I like my starting pitchers who can throw consistent strikes to both sides of the plate and have command within the strike zone.

Like Banuelos, Warren and Phelps.

I have seen Dellin pitch several times, he is a nice kid, but throws too many fat pitches over the middle of the plate. He does not have that great command right now, and I don’t believe he can get that down the road.

But he can be one of the key chips to get Greinke from the Royals. Why? Because many others believe he is a top of the rotation starter. 

He had a good season coming back from Tommy John surgery, and with Cashman coming out saying he was possibly “the best pitching prospect we have ever had,” his value might be highest right now, especially with the history of arm injuries.

And since Brackman is better suited for the pen, and ready for the Majors sometimes in 2011, that makes Joba Chamberlain expendable, too. The Royals want two top pitching guys and the Yankees have that in Betances and Joba.  

And Phil Hughes isn’t going anywhere.

I would package those two right handers and and any positional prospect not named Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, J.R. Murphy, or Gary Sanchez. While I am not enamored with Romine, I do believe that the young catcher would be more valuable traded for a need sometime next season.  

But will the Royals trade their ace?

The Royals have several young pitchers who are very highly rated in Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, Christopher Dwyer, and John Lamb, all left-handed and all who did well at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, a very tough park to pitch. Will Smith and former top pick Aaron Crow are also in the mix.

Throw in former top picks Mike Moustakas at third base and Eric Hosmer at first base, and the Royals have pitching and sluggers to anchor what looks like a solid core of young players, ready to all contribute in 2012.

And that is the rub. Do the Royals keep Greinke around to provide mentorship (and a right handed arm) for all the youngsters or do they trade him an help replenish with more Major League ready talent?

They will never be able to pay Greinke that type of big time money he will be due in 2013, and will save about $26 million over the next two seasons.

The trade would benefit the Royals. They would definitely allow the somewhat local product Joba to be a starter again, and he and Betances would add two right-handed power arms to the flurry of lefty pitching talent on the rise. As the Minnesota Twins proved all year, Joba would fare much better in the weaker A.L. Central.

The Royals will not really be a good team with Greinke now, they will not be able to afford him in two years, and they could get two power arms and a position player in return. If I were the Royals, I would shoot for the versatile Eduardo Nunez.

Besides recent first round pick shortstop Christian Colon, the Royals do not have another top middle infield prospect in the system. But if the Royals really want a catcher, then Romine is also expendable, maybe in addition to the two pitchers and Nunez. 

The Royals would be best suited to trade Greinke and the Yankees have the prospects to make the trade.