Losing Chien-Ming Wang Not That Great a Yankee Loss

July 24, 2009

Recent news came out that New York Yankees starting pitcher Chien-Ming Wang was shut down again after experiencing shoulder pain while throwing off of flat ground*. Reports have Wang possibly out for the season.

*Can someone please explain how throwing off flat ground helps a pitcher? In games, pitchers throw off 10 inch high mounds, not flat ground. So when I see that a pitcher is rehabbing by throwing off of flat ground, it makes no sense. If your shoulder or elbow doesn’t hurt off flat ground but hurts when you get on the mound, does it make you feel better?

Losing Wang for the balance of the 2009 season really isn’t a big deal for the Yankees. It’s not like Wang was pitching well when he was healthy. What good are “giving a team innings and a veteran presence” when those innings and that presence aren’t very good?

Why isn’t it a big deal? Because Wang was never in the Yankees long term pitching plans.

Despite back to back 19 win seasons in 2006 and 2007, the Yankees did not offer Wang a long term deal. They only renewed Wang for $489,500 for 2007 and went to arbitration in 2008, where Wang lost.

Instead of signing Wang to a multi-year deal, the Yankees fought Wang in the arbitration process, even gloating after their “win” in court. Wang received $4 million that year and avoided arbitration in 2009, signing for $5 million.

Although he still was completely under Yankee control for the next several years, and before Wang was hurt last year in Houston, he had the highest winning percentage of any  pitcher in Major league history with at least 50 career wins. His record entering 2009 was 54-20, for a .730 winning percentage.

If most other clubs had Wang and that record, they would have signed Wang to an extension which carried him through his arbitration years and the first couple years of his free agency. Why then did the Yankees not want to secure Wang’s services through his first couple years of free agency?

The Yankees felt Wang was not as good as his record indicated. The Yankees were waiting and wanting Wang to regain his prior form this season, then trade Wang mid-season to a contender for prospects.

Sinkerball pitchers almost NEVER have long, successful careers. The problem with sinkerball guys is that when their pitches stop sinking, the get hit hard–like Wang has this season. They usually do not have any other pitches to fall back on. When Wang was ultra-successful a few seasons ago, he was mixing in his 95 MPH four-seam fastball, and locating his slider better.

The idea for the Yankees was to promote their younger pitchers in 2009, but to wean them into the rotation. They didn’t want to thrust Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy into the fire as quickly as they did last season. Brian Cashman knew of the innings limitation on the young guns and the team needed to have more than five starters this season.

It is a similar concept which Minnesota did last year, using Livan Hernandez to give them depth early on until they could bring up Francisco Liriano mid-season.

With Wang gone by mid-season, both Hughes and Kennedy would be in the rotation with CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte paving the way. Another choice for innings from the rotation was Alfredo Aceves, a nice versatile option.

Envision all four younger guys combining for the last two rotation spots.

After Joba’s innings would be eaten up by August, he would then go to the bullpen. I know the New York papers on Friday had the Joba innings limit thing, but we were on it back in April.

And the Yankees have some really good arms coming up through the system, too. I love Zach McAllister, and despite the Yankees putting him on the minor league DL, he will be in the Bronx by the 2011 season–if not sooner. He is a strike throwing machine. I always love to push young pitchers.

The one thing that hurt the Yankees grand plans were the injuries. Nobody saw Kennedy’s aneurysm or Wang’s shoulder issues. Another thing was Hughes’ dominance in the pen. His pen success only goes to show that it is much easier to be a reliever than a starter, making starters much more valuable. It also shows that patience is needed with young starting pitchers such as Joba, Hughes and Kennedy.

Since Wang is now hurting again, don’t expect the Yankees to tender him a contract for 2010. He wasn’t in their plans for the second half of 2009 and shouldn’t be in their plans for 2010.

Would Ian Kennedy Be Better Off With Another Organization?

February 5, 2009

Ian Kennedy was the Yankees first pick in the 2006 draft and was highly recommended to draft guru Damon Oppenheimer by Kennedy’s college coach at University of Southern California, Oppenheimer’s alma mater. That coach was Mike Gillespie, who eventually managed the Yankees short-season squad in Staten Island for a season. Kennedy rose quickly through the minor leagues, getting his first taste of the big leagues in 2007.

Coming out of spring training last season, Kennedy was given the No. 5 starter job in the Yankee rotation. That decision proved dreadful as Kennedy limped out of the Bronx with an 0-4 record and 8.17 ERA in 9 starts.

Meanwhile, entering that same 2008 season, Andy Sonnanstine was in the Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation. He was a Rays 13th round pick in 2004 and, like Kennedy, dominated the minor leagues with a 25-10 record and 2.56 ERA. His WHIP (walk and hits to innings pitched) was a ridiculously low 1.000 in his three plus years in the minors.

Kennedy though is a more polished version of the Rays’ Sonnanstine; same type fastball, better change up and decent curve. Based upon his college pedigree and advanced command and better stuff, Kennedy even has a higher ceiling than Sonnanstine.

Sonnanstine transformed from a 6-10, 5.85 ERA, 77 ERA+ season in 2007 to a much improved 13-9, 4.38 ERA, 102 ERA+ last season. Sonnanstine’s success derives from that he doesn’t walk anybody, just 37 in 193.3 innings last season. He only walked 75 batters in 495 minor league innings.

Why did this improvement happen? Because Sonnanstine was allowed to pitch without worrying about his next start.

Also, the Rays defense improved. Sonnanstine doesn’t “miss many bats” but pitches to his defense. In 2007, the Rays ranked 30th in defensive efficiency, converting a smaller percentage of batted balls into outs than any other team. In 2008, the Rays finished first in team Defensive Efficiency, a remarkable turnaround.

Essentially, his defense made him look better than he actually was, but he is still a quality back-end guy because of his pitching smarts and command. The improvement in his defense helped improve his traditional numbers dramatically, perhaps making him look better than he really was.

Kennedy, as well as Phil Hughes, was pitching in front of a poor defense, which ranked 25th in the majors, 12th in the AL and last in the A.L. East in Defensive Efficiency. Essentially, the Yankees’ defense in 2008 was not good, and was one of the most overlooked parts of New York’s failure to reach the post season.

However, Kennedy basically pitched very poorly, allwoing an unusual (for him) amount of walks, and lots of home runs. His pinpoint control and complete mound presence was often missing.

Plus, the Yankees (and their fans) have little patience for young players, especially young pitchers.

What Kennedy needs is a team (like the Rays did with Sonnanstine) that will give him the ball and let him pitch without the inning by inning scrutiny he receives in New York. The Yankees also need to improve their defense. In the non-steroid era of today’s game (its really funny writing that after today’s admission by Alex Rodriguez), defense, youthfulness and speed have become primary factors in team success. Last season, the Rays showed how important all three are to winning.

Kennedy’s success throughout his career has been when his control is on. He needs to trust his stuff and have a better mound demeanor, which helps improve the image in the minds of umpires, an often overlooked part of pitching success.

Maybe the Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres or Houston Astros have that patience. What the recent free agent signings of CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte does is relegate Kennedy to AAA Scranton for the beginning of 2009, a level where he has dominated and need not have to prove anything.

Kennedy is a major league caliber pitcher and needs a major league rotation to prove himself. No more minor leagues, he doesn’t need “more seasoning.” In fact,  Kennedy was ready for the majors right out of college.

If the Yankees were smart, Kennedy and maybe Hughes would have been allowed to again pitch in New York and not Scranton, but unless injuries occur, Hughes and Kennedy together in the Yankee rotation is not going to happen. Kennedy should then be allowed to pitch well this season in Triple A Scranton and then moved for a needed young position player.

The Brewers have several good ones available (3B Mat Gamel, C Angel Salome, but especially SS Alcides Escobar) and the Yankees have a recent history with Doug Melvin in Milwaukee. Not to mention their December discussions regarding Melky Cabrera for Mike Cameron.

The Brewers are light in pitching and the Yankees are light in Derek Jeter replacements for the future. It is a match made in baseball heaven.

When Kennedy gets a chance to pitch every five days without constant scrutiny, he will become that effective pitcher the Yankees drafted in the first round in 2006.

Best way to Build an MLB Team? Draft and Develop or Free Agency?

December 27, 2007

All the talk of Tony Romo, Jessica Simpson and T.O. (the Player), the New England Patriots drive for perfection, last minute Christmas shopping and the final playoff rush in the NFL has temporarily pushed the MLB hot stove league talk to the side burner.

Although the rampant speculation has subsided, and Dan Haren has been traded, there are still two Grade A pitchers available via trade: Minnesota’s Johan Santana and Baltimore’s Erik Bedard.

Luckily for those two guys, they were not named in the Mitchell Report or fans would be clamoring to have their records expunged. If one or both (or even none!) of these guys are traded before the 2008 season, each scenario would have a big impact on the division races.

While Santana and Bedard would arrive on their new team via trade, both could become free agents within a year (Santana) or two (Bedard) unless a long term deal can be reached. Any agreement to a long-term deal with Santana or Bedard essentially makes them “free agent” signings, with the added insult of giving away 3 or more young players.

Oh, the lack of patience of the major league teams with young players!

For Santana, the New York Yankees are dangling youngsters Philip Hughes, Melky Cabrera and a lower-level pitching prospect. The Boston Red Sox are considering sending three youngsters plus Coco Crisp to Minnesota, while the New York Mets might be willing to trade three or four (maybe more!) of their top young prospects.

Imagine, all that talent going out the door just for the privilege of spending $120 million dollars for Santana or slightly less on Bedard.

Why do teams continually want other teams’ players instead of developing their own talent? Why didn’t any teams want Bedard after the 2005 season when he was only 6-8, coming off a 6-10 season a year earlier? Where were the pro scouts for other organizations in their analyis of this kid?

Bedard is desired now because the Orioles allowed him to develop as a pitcher.

Late in 2007 much of the focus in the New York area was on the collapse of the New York Mets. Despite the Mets’ woes and the Philadelphia Phillies surge, the most interesting race might have been in the National League Central division. Why?

This race between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs showed the two methods of building a team going head-to-head.

For the last month of the 2007 season, the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs waged a seesaw battle for first place, with both teams having to fight off the pitching deprived, but pesky St. Louis Cardinals for much of August. Both the Brewers and Cubs had minor leads in the division, with the Brewers actually “plummeting” to third place for a short while.

The Cubs eventually won the Division and advanced to the playoffs before the inept pitching decisions of Lou Piniella likely cost them the series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

But what really interests me is how both those teams were constructed. The Cubs stocked their squad with expensive free agents, with no less than nine players on their roster arriving via the free agent route (plus free agent manager Lou Piniella), while the Brewers forged a winning team through solid drafts–the Smith Barney, old-fashioned way of “earning it.”

The Cubbies only have one position starter (shortstop Ryan Theriot) and two starting pitchers (Rich Hill and Sean Marshall) who were drafted by the franchise. Before the 2007 season the Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano to an 8 year/$136 million dollar contract and pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to high-dollar contracts. 

In addition, the Cubs took on the hefty salary of catcher Jason Kendall ($13MM per year) – one of the most unproductive offensive position players in recent memory, all the while 24-year-old Triple-A catcher Geovany Soto was awaiting his opportunity. In two strong moves several years ago however, the Cubs traded for offensive stalwarts Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

While starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano was signed as an amateur free agent and has been with the organization since being acquired, most every other starting player was signed away from another team.

The Brew Crew, meanwhile, can boast of having either a first or second round draft pick from 1999 through 2005 starting in the field or on the mound. In fact, their entire 2007 starting infield of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Ryan Braun were all first or second round picks, as were starting pitchers Ben Sheets and Yovani Gallardo.

Many scouts feel Gallardo has better “stuff” than even the aforementioned Phil Hughes of the Yankees. In addition, starters Bill Hall (6th round) and Corey Hart (11th round) also made significant contributions in 2007.

If you included former 1995 first round pick Geoff Jenkins to the mix, there were seven former top picks making major contributions to the Brewers run for a division title. (Jenkins has since signed as a free-agent with the Philadelphia Phillies.)

Chicago’s 2007 total salary was approximately $105 million, roughly 50% above Milwaukee’s approximate total of $72MM. Was this salary gap worth the 2007 Central Division title and quick first-round exit in the playoffs? The Cubs have since continued their feeding frenzy in the free agent market by signing Japanese OF Kosuke Fukudome to a four year, $48 million contract.

Is Chicago’s future brighter or are the Brewers, despite not making the playoffs in 2007, better prepared for the future? What is the best way to build a team? The draft and develop route or the free agent market?

If you want to win championships, draft and develop. It has been proven time and time again.  

Since 1970 when Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, and became Major League Baseball’s first official free agent, there have been hundreds of high priced free agent acquisitions…but only a handful of FA signings have helped a franchise improve enough to win a championship.

In 1974, the Yankees were second in the AL East and signed Jim “Catfish” Hunter to the first big free agent contract. Two years later, the Yankees won the American League pennant. The following off-season, the same Yankees signed “the straw that stirs the drink,” bringing in Reggie Jackson to a power-starved lineup.

The Yankees moved on to win the World Series in 1977 primarily due to Reggie’s largesse, but the teams nucleus were bred from the draft (Thurman Munson, Roy White and Ron Guidry) and shrewd trades for young talented players (Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Ed Figueroa and Mickey Rivers).

The Yankees were a team on the brink and both Hunter and Jackson, the established veterans, put the franchise over the top. In 1978, the Yankees brought in another high-priced free agent, Rich Gossage, and the Bronx Bombers won a second straight title.

Since the glory days of thirty years ago, however, the Yankees’ free agent signings have largely been busts. From Britt Burns, Steve Kemp, Danny Tartabull and Don Gullett to the most recent signings of Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano and even Johnny Damon, the Yankees have basically thrown money away since they have not won a World Series title since 2000.

During the 2007 season, the Yankees’ surge was sparked by Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and young pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, all products of the now talent-laden farm system. Sorry Yankee haters, but this bodes well for the franchise’s future.

And the Yankees want to trade several of these kids away?

In 1990 the Atlanta Braves also had a strong nucleus of young players built through the draft with David Justice, Jeff Blauser, Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, plus a great trade three years prior for a young John Smoltz. That 1990 season brought a last place finish in the National League Western division with the team taken over mid-season by Bobby Cox.

In the off season they signed free agent Terry Pendleton to provide much needed leadership. All Pendleton did was win the NL MVP award, leading the young Braves to the World Series. This signing paved the way for the Braves to dominate for the next two decades, highlighted by a World Series victory in 1995, where another free agent signing (Greg Maddux) helped anchor that impressive young pitching staff.

Some could also point out that when the Florida Marlins signed Pudge Rodriguez prior to the 2003 season, his defensive prowess helped solidify a very young pitching staff. The Marlins went from fourth in the National League East in 2002 to World Series Champions during Pudge’s first year.

However, these instances are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the hundreds of major free agent signings almost never result in the ultimate goal – winning championships. Sure, a big signing might produce big numbers for the player and make the General Manager look good, but if the team does not reach the playoffs and a title isn’t won, is the signing worth the money spent? Or would the money be better spent drafting and developing young talent?

Since free agency started, all the mini-dynasties have occurred via draft and develop. Practically all the players from the 1971-1974 Oakland A’s were drafted and developed, as were Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the mid 1970’s.  In both organizations, those players who weren’t drafted were acquired via trades like pitcher Ken Holtzman for the A’s and Joe Morgan for the Reds.

The mini-dynasty the Yankees had in the late 1990’s was the result of home grown talent in Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, plus trading for younger players entering their prime, such as Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson.

Do any of the Major League general managers notice this trend? I say some do, but most do not. Most GMs would rather make a big splash for the media and the fans by signing a free agent rather than developing a prospect. Go ahead Omar Minaya, sign Kyle Lohse to a four year deal for $40 million. You will get your 200 innings, but you will also likely get your sub-.500 record. You can probably get that in 2008 from Philip Humber, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Mulvey or any combination of the three – for a lot less money! 

Teams want the “quick fix” via free agency, but many recent draft picks have the talent to be promoted to the majors very quickly, providing winning baseball AND lowering salaries. Jacoby Ellsbury, John Lester and Jonathan Papelbon are three recent draftees who helped the Boston Red Sox to the 2007 World Series title. These young players can then be signed for longer term deals a few years later, deals historically at lower than market rates, further saving money for the team.

Current teams poised for long term stability and success are those teams which utilized young talent down the stretch such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, those young Milwaukee Brewers and even the New York Yankees. These are all teams which have an abundance of farm-raised talent in their starting lineups.

Even though the 2007 Brewers missed out on the playoffs, this franchise, rather than the Chicago Cubs, is headed in the right direction to win long term. Fielder, Weeks, Hardy, Braun, Gallardo, Sheets and Hart should be with the team for quite some time.

Also, the Brewers’ 2007 1st round pick, power-hitting Matt LaPorta, did very well in the minor leagues and projects to be in the majors by 2009, if not sooner. A double whammy is that LaPorta was drafted by the Cubs several years ago but opted to go college instead. So while Soriano, Lilly and Marquis are the quick fixes, the Cubs likely will not win a World Series title any time soon and would be better off developing their own talent. 

Keeping your own players reduces yearly salaries, establishes confidence with fans over home-grown talent and builds tradition within your organization. Teams should save their money on expensive free agents just so they can “give me 200 innings” or “hit us 35 home runs,” as very few teams actually buy their way to World Series titles.  

The Orioles had patience and allowed Erik Bedard to develop, similar to the Atlanta Braves giving a young Tom Glavine time to prosper. Those teams looking to trade 3 or 4 prospects for Bedard might be better off keeping their players and having their own version of Bedard in a couple of years.

As a Yankee fan I am willing to be patient. I want Chamberlain, Kennedy and Hughes to content to be in next year’s rotation. They may not win the World Series, or heaven forbid, make the playoffs for one season, but allowing these three guys to pitch together for a full season would benefit in future years.

The pattern of drafting and developing your own talent is tried and true and provides for long term success for the franchise and the fans. Those General Managers who see this trend (like Doug Melvin of the Brewers) will keep their jobs, while those GMs (Omar Minaya?) who don’t open their eyes will be looking for employment.