No sooner had I put the finishing touches on yesterday's piece than I got a phone call from my pal Nick. He sounded so somber as he asked, "Did you hear the news?" that I was bracing myself to learn of some tragic death. In that context, the Javier Vazquez/Nick Johnson deal
was a relief from such gravitas. It wasn't much of a shock, either; the Yanks' determination to trade their young first baseman/DH had become a foregone conclusion, and the local newspapers had been buzzing about the imminence of the deal.
As I wrote yesterday, I have mixed emotions about the trade, which sent Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera, and reliever Randy Choate to the Expos for Vazquez, a 27-year-old righty who's a potential ace. I hate to see the Yanks trade Johnson, who posted a .422 OBP in 2003 and is already a heck of of a hitter. He was one of the few young, cheap players left in an aging, expensive lineup, and the best homegrown prospect they had to show for themselves since the bumper crop of '95-'96 that helped fuel their championship run (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza). With Jason Giambi's knee deteriorating, Johnson provided ample insurance at first base, not to mention the hope that he could develop into a Giambi-esque hitter.
But if they were going to trade him, sending Johnson far afield is a better thing than trading him to an AL rival (not that they considered that), and Lord knows, the Expos could use a break. Acquiring Johnson and freeing themselves from the potential of Vazquez's contract keeps a glimmer of hope open that the 'Spos can re-sign Vladimir Guerrero within their absurd MLB-imposed budgetary constraints. And while I think Johnson's got a ton of potential, he's not without his drawbacks. At 25, he'd shown an alarming fragility and a tendency to sustain hand and wrist injuries. A fractured hand cost him 61 games in 2003, he missed three weeks with a bruised wrist in 2002, and he spent all of 2000 on the DL with a mysterious wrist injury that was never fully explained. He's also a bad-body type, seemingly destined to carry his baby fat until it becomes a bit less charming. His defense is average but unspectacular.
My friend Nick, who has a vested interest in watching Johnson develop into the best ballplayer bearing their shared first name, likes to speculate that Nick the Stick could develop power as Giambi has over the course of his career. For fun I did a quick comparison of the two by age (as of July 1 for each year). For purposes here, plate appearances (PA) is just at bats plus bases on balls because peripheral stats aren't uniformly available via the web (here's Giambi
and here's Johnson
Age Level PA 2B HR OBP SLG Age Level PA 2B HR OBP SLG
19 A 371 14 17 .466 .538 19 coll. ?? ?? ?? ??? ???
20 AA 543 33 14 .525 .548 20 coll. ?? ?? ?? ??? ???
21 DNP -- injured -- 21 A- 50 3 3 .440 .610
22 AAA 440 20 18 .407 .462 22 A 386 16 12 .430 .470
MLB 74 2 2 .308 .313
23 MLB 426 15 15 .347 .402 23 AA 220 9 6 .319 .363
AAA 201 20 4 .388 .500
24 MLB 394 19 14 .422 .472 24 AAA 224 26 3 .441 .537
MLB 204 7 6 .364 .398
25 MLB ??? 25 MLB 587 40 20 .355 .481
26 MLB ??? 26 MLB 574 41 20 .362 .495
What does that show? Not a hell of a lot. Johnson is ahead of Giambi's pace at developing into a major-leaguer because he's been playing in the minors since age 17 (which I didn't include), while Giambi wasn't drafted until after two years of college at Long Beach State
and a stint on the '92 US Olympic team. But Giambi was hitting a lot more doubles and had higher raw slugging percentages despite the difference in levels, and he's showed a lot more durability since entering the majors. Until Johnson can put up a full season that's comparable to Giambi's '96-'97 seasons (ages 25 and 26 above), I'm not sure I'm buying the comp, and I do think the physical differences between the two are considerable.
Beyond Johnson, I don't think Juan Rivera will amount to much that can't be easily replaced. He showed a bit more promise in the 185 major league plate appearances he got in 2003 (304 OBP/.468 SLG) than in the 91 he got in 2002 (.311/.361), but he lacks plate discipline and he'll be 26 in April (five months older than Johnson). On the trade market, he had shown that he wasn't valuable enough to command anything in return that could help the Yanks at the major league level. Choate should have been a serviceable lefty out of the Yankee pen , but Joe Torre never took to him and the Yankee org had yo-yoed him between AAA and the majors so often over the past four seasons it had to drive the poor guy nuts.
And say this for the Yankees (again): they're getting the best pitcher on the market, a guy who's better than any of the free agents available, and who's still pretty young at 27. He's got the things you like to see in a pitcher: a high K rate (9.4 per 9 IP) and excellent control (4.2 K/W ratio). He's not ground-ball dependent (a plus with the shaky Yankee D), not gopher-happy. Except for the lack of postseason/pennant race experience, you couldn't engineer a better fit for the Yanks right now.
The concern is his usage. He was second only to Kerry Wood in Pitcher Abuse Points
this season. I spoke to Will Carroll about him last night and he says that Vazquez is a guy who doesn't have a great build for a pitcher and that he tends to develop minor injuries (such as a calf strain or a blister) or fatigue and requires occasional extra rest, but that the good news is that he responds well. Will writes today
that Vazquez is a "bright yellow light," which is a bit alarming, but adds that the Yanks know how to deal with fragile pitchers. Furthermore:
Over the last four seasons, he has been able to pitch over 200 innings with effectiveness. Given he started that streak at age 22, one could look at Vazquez's history as a ticking time bomb or as proof that we have a new member of the Abuse Sponge Club (Livan Hernandez, Proprietor). Vazquez is also the poster child for V-Loss. After any long rest, his velocity and movement on his fastball recover quickly, pointing to fatigue, not injury, as the culprit in his occasional lapses.
As Will notes, the Yanks won't push him as hard as the Expos did. While Vazquez threw 231 innings for the Expos, no Yankee starter threw more than Mussina's 215 -- roughly an inning less for every two starts. The Yanks have more incentive to protect such a valuable commodity -- both for the postseason and for a longer-term deal, should they choose to pursue one. And since the deal wasn't contingent on the two parties agreeng to an extension, the Yanks have a chance to wait and see what develops. The trade will look like a disaster if Vazquez comes up lame in 2004, but it will look even worse if they sign him to a $40 million deal and he develops rotator cuff or elbow trouble a year down the road.
The nut of the deal is this: the Yankees gave up a fragile hitter (Carroll: "it speaks volumes that 'prospect' is still often the word used to describe him. The second-most used is 'injured.'") of questionable defensive value but great potential for a pitcher who's just jelling into one of the top hurlers in the game. Given the Yankees rapidly aging core, dearth of young bargaining chips
, and potential for taking on a lousy bat in centerfield (Kenny Lofton?) to replace him (with Bernie Williams slotting to DH), that's a bit troublesome, but it's a deal whose principle is sound: it's much easier to find a good-hitting first baseman than it is to find a near-ace pitcher. "Youneverknow" what could happen with regards to injuries to either key player in this deal, but I think it's a defensible move.
• • •
Yesterday's DIPS/rotation piece got a great reception; it was a Clutch Hit
on Baseball Primer and brought about 1000 people to the site, a week's worth of traffic in a day, and enough praise to make my head swell a litte.
I want to point out a few things. This is the third batch of data that has been analyzed using DIPS 2.0, and the old war-horse is showing its cracks. There's data that suggests that groundball pitchers have more control over the outcome of balls in play than flyball pitchers, and things like that which I'll be covering this in more detail when I do my full-scale rollout later this month. Nevertheless, DIPS remains a handy way to quickly evaluate pitchers and quantify the things they do which show up as repeatable skills. I didn't invent the system; I'm standing on the shoulders of the giant -- Voros McCracken -- who did, and have gleaned a lot from the people who've taken the time to kick the tires in the various stathead-related forums online. I'm doing my part to keep the stuff in the public eye, but I'll be just as happy when somebody else comes along with an improved version of this fine tool.
I got some very good feedback on the piece from one of those tire-kickers, MGL (Mitchel Lichtman), who has done some impressive work
on Baseball Primer and elsewhere, including the defensive metric Ultimate Zone Rating (which came up
a few days ago).
MGL chided me for including Won-Loss records, which -- given the broader audience I envisioned for the piece -- I used to provide a context of perceived value and something for the less stathead-oriented folks to latch onto before being bombarded with rate stats. Somebody might know Pettitte won 21 games last year, but do they realize his season wasn't necessarily more productive than Curt Schilling, who won 8? Once we sort those dERA's,the W/L records end up looking pretty random, and that's a good thing to show people, I believe.
Another of MGL's criticisms was the use of only one year of data, a decision I made due to both time constraints (I got hold of the spreadsheet last Friday and wanted to pull something together before the Yankees struck; I won the race by about 15 minutes) and to my lack of facility with larger sets of data. Once you get two seasons of the stuff, you're either working with databases or doing a ton of sorting by hand, something I don't have the patience for. Another reason is that in McCracken's original work, he was comparing two single consecutive seasons, and made no claims which considered multiple years of data together. I've simply replicated his methodology because I don't have any proof beyond one year's worth of data.
Anyway, MGL's criticsms were gentle and well-intentioned, so I was quite flattered. Moving along, there are a few more pitchers I wanted to add to the comparison:
• Ted Lilly, who showed signs of blossoming
at the end of the season, was traded
by Oakland to Toronto a couple of weeks ago.
• Eric Milton, who missed most of 2003 with a knee injury, was traded
by Minnesota to Philadelphia earlier this week.
• A.J. Burnett missed most of 2003 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. His injury caused a lot of finger-pointing
and precipitated the firing of Florida Marlins manager Jeff Torborg and the hiring of Jack McKeon, so I guess things worked out pretty well in the end. Burnett is on the same accelerated rehab plan that Yankee prospect Brandon Claussen was on, and there's been speculation that he would be nontendered
by the cash-poor but pitching-rich Marlins. Since their trade of Derek Lee, that situation may be resolved, but there's a good chance he may be wearing another uniform come springtime given the bad blood between him and the Marlins brass.
• Chuck Finley, a free agent last winter, missed all of 2003 for well-publicized personal reasons and an inability to find a contract to his liking. Normally a 41-year-old pitcher who took a season off wouldn't rate a mention, but Finley's strikeout rate of 8.2 per 9 IP was second only to Roger Clemens in last year's free agent class, and that's the kind of thing that's worth keeping in mind.
Here are those four pitchers; Lilly's stats are for '03, Finley's for '02, and the other two guys are blended, with Milton pitching 17 innings in '03 and Burnett 23:
Player W L IP ERA K/9 WHIP K/W HR/9 BABIP dERA
C Finley* 11 15 191 4.15 8.2 1.37 2.2 0.6 .313 3.43
A Burnett 12 11 227 3.44 8.9 1.23 2.1 0.6 .265 3.64
T Lilly* 12 10 178 4.34 7.4 1.33 2.5 1.2 .288 4.22
E Milton* 14 9 188 4.64 6.1 1.16 4.1 1.2 .279 4.41
The arbitration-eligible Burnett, who made $2.5 million last year and at best won't get a pay cut, would be a financial steal if the Marlins don't keep him, and because he's doing his rehab with the Yankees' secret weapon in Tampa (an outcome of the spat with the Fish heads), they might have an inside track. Lilly is a decent pickup but he's got lousy mechanics and reported attitude problems, and unless the Blue Jays do something about their defense (they were 25th in Defensive Efficiency, a hair ahead of the Yanks), he may suffer on their turf. It's tough to know how much to discount Finley's missed season or even if he's truly interested; San Diego
has been mentioned as a possible destination, and Anaheim, where he made his star, is always a possiblity. At $9 million for an essentially league-average, fragile pitcher, Milton is grossly overvalued, but he may benefit from leaving the turf of the Metrodome. But if the Phils think he's Kevin Milwood's equal, fuggedaboutit.
One more name has come up several times, that of Cuban defector Maels Rodriguez, a 24-year old who can reportedly hit triple digits on the radar gun. I don't know any more about Rodriguez than I've read
in a few articles, and have very little data on him other than stuff like this:
The righthander's fastball topped 100 mph when he was 20 years old and he struck out 263 - setting the Cuban league record - three seasons ago.
But last season he pitched only 113 innings, and rumblings of an injury problem cropped up when he was left off Cuba's Pan Am Games team as well as the Olympic qualifying squad.
Like everybody else, I've heard conflicting reports as to whether the injury was legit or a ploy to prevent him from defecting. So I'll say only this: if he demonstrates that he's healthy in his audition next month (as the above article mentions), and the triple-digit claims are true or nearly so, the Yanks are sure to be players for him -- even with the interest of the 29 other teams. But I doubt George will spring for Contreras money unless they've lost Pettitte, closed the door on Colon and seen the Red Sox making eyes at hiim. If that happens, all bets are off.
Remaking the Yankees for 2004, Part I: The Rotation
You can never be too rich or have too much pitching, as the adage goes, and so the New York Yankees entered the 2003 season as they had the previous one
, with a surplus of starters and no shortage of controversy surrounding manager Joe Torre's options. After jerking him around in the second half of 2002, Torre had promised Jeff Weaver a spot in the starting rotation for '03, but Uncle George's Christmas gift of a fine Cuban cigar
-- namely Jose Contreras -- complicated that promise, as did the presence of Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, a less-favored Cuban combustible. Hernandez was traded to Montreal in mid-January
for relief help, but with the well-established (to say the least) Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and David Wells in front of them, Weaver and Contreras seemed destined for a summer pitted more against each other than against opposing hitters.
Weaver started the season in the rotation, pitching like a fifth starter. His ERA elevated into the 5.00+ stratosphere for the final time on May 15, never to descend. He held his spot in the rotation because Contreras got off to an even poorer start in the bullpen; on May 20, five outings into his big-league career, the Cuban's ERA stood at an appalling 15.63. But two scoreless outings later, Conteras drew a spot start in place of injured David Wells and blanked the Detroit Tigers on two hits over seven innings. He was annointed the fifth starter while Weaver was sent to the bullpen. But after one more impressive outing, Contreras strained his shoulder
and needed the Tampa cure.
Weaver returned to the rotation, and it was as if he'd never left. The bombings kept coming, interspersed with the faintest glimmer of competence. When Conteras returned in late August, there was no doubt as to the order of things; it was back to the pen with Weaver and his 5.80 ERA. Conteras pitched well for the final month of the season except for a seven-run drubbing at the hands of the Red Sox in his second outing off of the DL. He drew brief consideration as a postseason starter from Torre, but Joe opted for Wells when push came to shove, just like Joe always opts for "his guys."
The front four of Mussina, Pettitte, Clemens, and Wells took the Yanks all the way to the World Series, but as December dawns, only the Moose is guaranteed to return wearing pinstripes. Clemens has retired, and Pettitte and Wells are free agents. Pettitte has drawn serious interest
from the Houston Astros, who'd like to entice him to pitch closer to his Deer Park, TX home. Wells is preparing to have back surgery so that he can pitch again, either for the Yanks, his hometown San Diego Padres, or some other daring franchise. Contreras and Weaver are still around, and Jon Lieber, a 34-year-old righty who had Tommy John surgery in August 2002, is signed as well. Lieber worked out with the Yanks late last summer, but was never added to the active roster.
Here's how the 2003 Yankee rotation performed:
Player W L IP ERA K/9 WHIP K/W HR/9 BABIP dERA
Clemens 17 9 211.7 3.91 8.08 1.21 3.28 1.02 .291 3.71
Contreras 7 2 71.0 3.30 9.13 1.15 2.40 0.51 .264 3.36
Mussina 17 8 214.7 3.40 8.18 1.08 4.88 0.88 .287 3.18
Pettitte 21 8 208.3 4.02 7.78 1.33 3.60 0.91 .320 3.50
Weaver 7 9 159.3 5.99 5.25 1.62 1.98 0.90 .343 4.31
Wells 15 7 213.0 4.14 4.27 1.23 5.05 1.01 .297 4.15
League AVG 4.53 6.11 1.38 1.93 1.11 .290
The last two columns stand for Batting Average on Balls in Play and Defense Independent Pitching Statistic ERA, two concepts that go hand in hand and which I've used before
in this context. I went through all of this last year
, and will do so again in a large-scale DIPS 2003 rollout later this month, but for now here's the gist: pitchers have less influence over the outcome of balls in play than we give them credit for, and we can do a better job of evaluating a pitcher's future performance by concentrating on the defense-independent things he does -- strike batters out, walk them, plunk them, and give up homers -- than we can by considering the effects of the defense playing behind him in converting batted balls into outs.
Defense Independent Pitching Statistics work from the assumption that since controlling the outcome of balls in play isn't a replicable skill -- one year's numbers don't have much correlation with the next year -- we can substitute a slightly adjusted league-average peformance in that department. With that in place, we then work from his K, BB, HBP and HR rates to reconstruct the pitcher's stat line to yield a DIPS ERA (dERA) that actually correlates better with a pitcher's future ERA than the actual ERA does. It's complicated, it's controversial, and no, I didn't make this stuff up. It's all out there and it's been somewhat accepted by the stathead community even as its inventor, Voros McCracken, has taken his work behind the proprietary curtain of the Boston Red Sox and left us with several unanswered questions. That's a story for another day; if you're unfamiliar, I suggest you start with the above links to get some background. The formula I'm using here is DIPS 2.0
, but I've used actual batters faced pitching (BFP) instead of estimating. I've also used one-year Park Home Run Factors
which I derived via ESPN's team splits pages. It would probably be less reckless of me to use three-year PHRF's, but really, it doesn't make very much difference in this context.
Back to the Yankees, there's a lot to be taken from the above chart. With the exception of Weaver, this was a very solid collection of starters. Four of them had strikeout rates at least 1.5 per nine innings above the league average. Four had K/W ratios of better than 3 to 1. All of them had homer rates below league average. Keeping the ball out of play, keeping runners off base, and keeping the ball in the park when contact is made are all ways to minimize the damage done by a bad defense. And make no mistake, the Yankee defense was pretty bad. The Yanks as a whole were near the bottom of the majors in (26th out of 30) in Defensive Efficiency
. They turned only 69.8 percent of balls in play into outs, compared to the AL average of 71.0. In other words, they yielded a .302 BABIP compared to the league's .290. On four of the six pitchers above, this shortcoming didn't have much effect overall; their dERAs are within 0.25 runs of their ERAs. On the other hand, Pettitte and Weaver were particularly poorly supported by the Yankee defense, giving up a high number of hits on balls in play. Their dERAs are considerably lower than their ERAs, by half a run in Pettitte's case and by over 1.5 runs in Weaver's case. It's reasonable to expect some improvement from both.
Now, with Clemens gone, Pettitte and Wells free agents, and Lieber projected to join the rotation, here is what the Yanks are left with (using Lieber's 2002 stats):
Player W L IP ERA K/9 WHIP K/W HR/9 BABIP dERA
Contreras 7 2 71.0 3.30 9.13 1.15 2.40 0.51 .264 3.36
Mussina 17 8 214.7 3.40 8.18 1.08 4.88 0.88 .287 3.18
Weaver 7 9 159.3 5.99 5.25 1.62 1.98 0.90 .343 4.31
Lieber 6 8 141.0 3.70 5.55 1.17 7.25 0.96 .296 3.43
That ain't gonna cut it, not in an AL East that includes a pesky blood rival with a one-two punch of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. The Yanks know it, so they're looking to add at least one and probably two front-line starters, with re-signing Pettitte a strong possiblity. In addition to being one short of a standard five-man rotation, the above foursome is all right-handed, and if you're the New York Yankees, you simply don't go into the season without at least one southpaw in the mix -- another factor in Pettitte's favor.
I took a look at all of the free agent starters I could pick out from the Transaction Guy
's list of those who filed. To this I added a smattering of pitchers who are or have been the subject of trade rumors this winter. Some of these guys have already been traded (such as Schilling) or signed (such as Kelvim Escobar), but I'm including them to present a broader picture of the market this winter. They're sorted by DIPS ERA below, and I'm rounding a few things to keep the chart a bit simpler. Asterisks denote lefties:
Player W L IP ERA K/9 WHIP K/W HR/9 BABIP dERA
C Schilling 8 9 168 2.95 10.4 1.05 6.1 0.9 .297 2.69 traded to BOS
K Brown 14 9 211 2.39 7.9 1.14 3.3 0.5 .289 2.93 trade rumors
W Alvarez* 6 2 95 2.37 7.8 1.08 3.6 0.5 .286 3.00
J Vazquez 13 12 231 3.24 9.4 1.11 4.2 1.1 .280 3.10 trade rumors
A Pettitte* 21 8 208 4.02 7.8 1.33 3.6 0.9 .320 3.50
M Batista 10 9 193 3.54 6.6 1.33 2.4 0.6 .307 3.59
K Millwood 14 12 222 4.01 6.9 1.25 2.5 0.8 .285 3.71
R Clemens 17 9 212 3.91 8.1 1.21 3.3 1.0 .291 3.71 retired
K Escobar 13 9 180 4.29 7.9 1.48 2.0 0.7 .325 3.82 signed by ANA
S Ponson 17 12 216 3.75 5.6 1.26 2.2 0.7 .286 3.82
G Rusch* 1 12 123 6.42 6.8 1.75 2.1 0.8 .381 3.95
G Maddux 16 11 218 3.96 5.1 1.18 3.8 1.0 .282 3.98
B Colon 15 13 242 3.87 6.4 1.20 2.6 1.1 .272 4.01
A Ashby 3 10 73 5.18 5.1 1.47 2.4 1.0 .329 4.03
O Perez* 12 12 185 4.52 6.8 1.28 3.1 1.4 .294 4.08 trade rumors
J Thomson 13 14 217 4.85 5.6 1.30 2.8 1.1 .298 4.11
D Wells* 15 7 213 4.14 4.3 1.23 5.1 1.0 .297 4.15
K Rogers* 13 8 195 4.57 5.4 1.42 2.3 1.0 .314 4.30
J Burkett 12 9 182 5.15 5.3 1.37 2.3 1.0 .302 4.38
J Suppan 13 11 204 4.19 4.9 1.31 2.2 1.0 .285 4.40
C Lidle 12 15 193 5.75 5.2 1.43 1.9 1.1 .300 4.46
J D'Amico 9 16 175 4.77 5.1 1.40 2.4 1.2 .305 4.50
S Hitchcock* 6 4 88 4.72 7.0 1.40 2.1 1.4 .287 4.71
D Oliver* 13 11 180 5.04 4.4 1.45 1.4 1.0 .296 4.71
S Reynolds 11 9 167 5.43 5.1 1.49 1.6 1.1 .311 4.73
R Reed 6 12 135 5.07 4.7 1.36 2.4 1.4 .293 4.74
F Garcia 12 14 201 4.52 6.4 1.33 2.0 1.4 .273 4.79 trade rumors
J Lima 8 3 73 4.91 3.9 1.45 1.2 0.9 .291 4.84
B Anderson* 14 11 198 3.78 4.0 1.29 2.0 1.2 .280 4.95 signed by KC
P Hentgen 7 8 161 4.09 5.6 1.29 1.7 1.4 .256 5.05 signed by TOR
S Estes 8 11 152 5.73 6.1 1.74 1.2 1.2 .329 5.15
B Tomko 13 9 203 5.28 5.1 1.52 2.0 1.6 .314 5.21
J Halama* 3 5 109 4.22 4.2 1.41 1.4 1.5 .263 5.31 signed by TAM
R Helling 8 8 155 5.17 5.7 1.37 2.2 1.8 .284 5.43
P Abbott 1 2 48 5.29 6.0 1.53 1.2 1.5 .267 5.53 signed by TAM
I Valdes 8 8 115 6.10 3.7 1.54 1.6 1.8 .307 5.60
J Haynes 2 12 94 6.30 4.7 1.86 0.9 1.3 .320 5.61
G Stephenson 7 13 174 4.59 4.7 1.30 1.5 1.5 .248 5.71
K Appier 8 9 112 5.40 4.4 1.46 1.3 1.7 .266 5.93 signed by KC
P Astacio 3 2 37 7.36 4.9 1.77 1.1 2.0 .312 6.44
Average 10 10 164 4.45 6.0 1.35 2.3 1.1 .295 4.33
Brian Cashman must have the same spreadsheet I do. The starters the Yanks have explored via trades -- Schilling, Javier Vazquez, and now Kevin Brown
-- are right at the top of this list, better than the free-agent pickings. And for good reason -- they're superstars, or in Vazquez's case, should be (look at that strikeout rate and the K/W).
Cashman's reasoning is sound. This is not, as a whole, a very impressive group. Their ERA is a hair above the major-league average of 4.40, their strikeout rate a hair below. They've got considerably better control, however, with a 2.3 K/W rate compared to the majors' average of 1.9. But once you skim the cream off the top, you're not left with much. Conisder that only 14 of the 40 pitchers here had K rates above the major league average of 6.4 per 9 innings, and one of them is retired. Of the top five in K rate, three of them are Schilling, Brown, and Vazquez, guys on the trading block, and a fourth is Clemens. So only 10 out of the 36 available free agents had above-average K rates. More than any other stat, this says that this is a pretty thin market, full of Granny Gooden
types and Grade F meat (mostly circus animals, some filler)
and thus beneath the Yanks' radar. Notice how several of the guys at the higher end of the dERA projections are already signed -- guys like Brian Anderson, John Halama and Pat Hentgen, whose luck on balls in play disguised some of their crapitude. These guys knew that any deal they came across was a good one, and they took the bait. Twelve of these pitchers have rates below 5.0; if you can't strike out five guys per nine innings, you're living on borrowed time.
There's a shortage of credible lefties for the Yanks to consider after Pettitte. You've got the fragile Wilson Alvarez, the been-there-done-that Wells, Sterling Hitchcock, and Kenny Rogers, and cannon fodder such as Glendon Rusch and Darren Oliver to go with a couple of already-signed guys. The only semi-viable alternative the Yankees have to Dandy Andy -- who looks especially worth the money in this context -- is via a trade for somebody such as the Dodgers' Odalis Perez, who is on the block. Unless the Yanks go far beyond this list, they'll not only sign Pettitte, they'll almost certainly work a deal to bring Wells to camp to see if he's got anything left after back surgery.
Another guy near the top of the list is Miguel "Shitty Poet" Batista, who the Yanks have considered as a Ramiro Mendoza-like swingman. But with their recent and pending bullpen signings (Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, Felix Heredia, and Gabe White), this may no longer be an option, and with the D-Backs having traded Schilling, re-signing Batista may be a higher priority for them than before.
So who's left for the Yankees to consider? A lot of it depends on whether you believe whatever's coming out of agent Scott Boras crack-hole. The Phils have offered Kevin Millwood
a three year deal worth $9 or $10 million per year, but Boras says that he's seeking 5-7 years at $13 million per. Put down the freebase pipe, Scott.
Brown, another Boras client, is said to be willing to waive his no-trade clause to come to the Yanks, but the Dodgers are giving mixed signals
as to whether they're really interested. Brown is owed $30 million over the next two years, and the Dodgers are relatively deep in pitching but have an offense that looks as though it was cobbled together from the survivors of a shipwreck. With $30 million, they could make some serious headway to add a hitter like Nomar Garciaparra, Pudge Rodriguez, or even Alex Rodriguez... okay, that's the Dodger fan in me daydreaming. Back to reality... a deal centering around Brown and Jeff Weaver has been discussed, but so has including either Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson. A Brown-for-Weaver-and-prospects swap is a no-brainer even given the surly starter's notoriously fragile makeup, but if the Yanks need to dig any deeper than that, they would do better to consider Vazquez if they're determined to go the trade route. Whether they should consider trading Sori or Nick the Stick is a whole 'nother story I'll get into when I cover the Yankee offense. As for the deal in question, at least one report
says it's a dead issue.
Once upon a 1992
, Greg Maddux (another Boras client) was a great idea for the Yankees. And up until his last couple of years, he would have still been a good idea for the Yanks. But his time as a premium pitcher appears to have passed; he'll be 38 in April, his ERA was a run higher than his career mark, his strikeout rate was in the low 5's for the second consecutive year, and he doesn't go very deep into ballgames. He's not a Clemens or Schilling-like power pitcher, but he's going to be looking for something at least in the ballpark of $14 million he made this year, especially with Boras calling the shots. Pass.
The 31-year-old Bartolo Colon has intrigued the Yanks for quite awhile; I wrote about him several times
last winter. Depending upon which measure you use, according to the Bill James Handbook 2004
, he is either the fastest or second-fastest pitcher in the AL, with an average fastball of 93.4 (second to C.C. Sabathia's 93.9), the most pitches above 100 MPH, and the most above 95. That said, he doesn't strike all that many batters out anymore:
Year IP K K/9
1998 204 158 6.97
1999 205 161 7.07
2000 188 212 10.15
2001 222 201 8.15
2002 233 149 5.75
2003 242 173 6.43
car 1389 1120 7.26
His drop in strikeouts has been attributed to a conscious change in pitching style designed to preserve his arm, and there may be something to this. Here's his K rate alongside the number of pitches per batter:
Year K/9 #P/PA
1998 6.97 3.72
1999 7.07 4.05
2000 10.15 4.01
2001 8.15 3.85
2002 5.75 3.66
2003 6.43 3.59
car 7.26 3.82
Conscious or not, the relationship is clear -- he's cut back on his pitches. Comparing 2003 and 2001, he made 34 starts in each season, but threw 20 more innings in '03 despite throwing ony 37 more pitches, and his ERA was 0.19 lower. And while Colon's conditioning habits concern the Yanks -- the buoyant 240-pounder doesn't seem to be cutting back on his fruit pies -- he gets a relatively clean bill of health
, with no history of arm trouble, but occasional "cranky back" woes. He's a horse capable of gobbling 230 innings a year, and a good enough pitcher that the Yanks should consider signing him.
Sidney Ponson is another beefy boy who, on the surface, the Yanks might consider as a cheaper alternative. The Aruban knight is 27, doesn't have a great K rate or great control, but he's coming off a career high 17 wins, and is a free agent for the first time. On the other hand, this guy has miles on his arm, and I mean miles.
He was throwing 200+ innings and complete games as a 22- and 23-year-old. Baseball Prospectus injury expert Will Carroll was unequivocal regarding Ponson; he red-lighted him in his Orioles Team Health Report
this spring, and wrote the following:
The words "torn labrum" are beginning to be the most dreaded in pitching. The diagnosis is a sure ticket to a red light. Few players - if any - come back fully from the injury and the medical treatment is so hit and miss that nearly half the players that have one procedure are forced to have a repeat procedure before returning to the game. Sidney Ponson tore his labrum at some point in 2000 when he was worked mercilessly in his age-23 season. Looking back at the stats, one can almost see the drop-off happen. It's a wonder he's been able to remain effective with such an injury--it's another data point in the argument for non-surgical treatment of labrum injuries. It's my educated guess that Ponson is limited to about 80% of his potential value due to the injury. If that's not enough, Ponson dealt with bicipital tendonitis for nearly half the  season. It's less likely now than two years ago that Ponson will break out, and more likely that he will break down. In another case of what might have been if sports medicine was more science than art, Ponson should be one of the main exhibits.
Despite the 216 innings Ponson racked up this season, Ponson is a disaster waiting to happen. Is it any wonder Baltimore is interested in re-signing him?
Perez showed flashes of brilliance for the Dodgers in 2002, with a 15-10 record and a 3.00 ERA in 222 innings. But that performance was aided by a .247 BABIP, and so when he returned to earth in that category, his numbers declined. Gopher problems didn't help; his home run rate increased by 60 percent. He's still young, 27 next June, he strikes people out, and he's got decent control. As a lefty, he could be a decent fit for Yankee Stadium, where he'd get more protection against the longball. Even so, he's a groundball pitcher, and the Yankee defense won't do him many favors. But if the pinstriped pursuit of Pettitte goes pfffft, or if the team can pry him from the Dodgers without surrendering Sori or the Stick, he's worth a shot.
Alvarez would be a daring move. He'll be 34 and coming off of a fluky-looking four months of light usage in Dodger Stadium. He'd always been a failry laborious pitcher, one whose lack of control (career 1.6 K/W) costs him a lot of innings and energy. I didn't see him at all last year, so I don't know what changed for him other than being healthy. It worked, but I'm not sure I'd pay to see if it works again outside of Chavez Ravine.
Pettitte put together the best stretch of his career with a 16-2, 3.29 ERA run after June 8, and capped it off with a 3-1, 2.10 ERA postseason in which he looked every bit the icewater-peeing ace of a championship caliber ballclub. He's gone from being a straight-up Tommy John-family
lefty to being a hybrid of a TJ and a power pitcher, and his control has gotten better in the process. He's had elbow problems here and there, and Will Carroll said
he worries that every pitch he sees Pettitte throw might be his last (silly Will) but he's always been able to avert surgery through rest and rededication to proper mechanics. The longer the Yankees hold onto him, the greater the chance that someday he'll be rehabbing on their watch (what was that about Tommy John?), but given the way the Yanks throw dollars around, signing him after the season he had should be a no-brainer. And speaking as a Yankee fan, come hell or high water, I'd rather Pettitte were in pinstripes.
Wells is a different beast. He gets by on pinpoint control and a sheer devil-may-care willingness to throw strikes and let hitters do their worst, and when his back is right, that's more than enough. But his bad back crapped out at precisely the wrong time, doing as much to cost the Yanks a championship as Joe Torre's mismanagement in Game Four. He'll be 41 and coming off of his second back surgery in three years, and he may not even be ready for spring training. If the Yanks can come up with another lefty option that doesn't break the bank or wreak havoc on the roster, they should take it and let Wells finish his career elsewhere. Push comes to shove, he'll be available at the trading deadline for a warm body or two.
Beyond that, we've got the Thomsons, Burketts, D'Amicos and Suppans of the world, anonymous Johns and Jeffs who would look great in the middle of somebody else's rotation. The Yanks won't have to go this low unless the bottom falls out by June, so I'll spare the analysis for now.
Roughly in order, here's how I'd rate these guys in terms of their priority for the Yanks. Expect them to pick two:
1. Pettitte: losing him creates not one but two problems in that they're without a lefty starter.
2. Colon: a solid choice who just might flourish with more stability, and all he costs is money.
3. Brown: if getting rid of Weaver is an option in a deal, the Yanks should be on it like white on rice.
4. Vasquez: the price in trade may be too high, but this is a heck of a pitcher.
5. Perez: young and intriguing, he could really benefit from Yankee Stadium.
6. Maddux: a stretch given the Yankees other needs and weaknesses.
7. Wells: not much reason to push their luck further.
8. Alvarez: might be worth a sniff, but don't expect much.
Though many of the Yanks deals regarding relievers are done, I'll take a look at the overall relief market in the coming days.
• • •
By now the news is everywhere that the Yanks acquired Javier Vazquez
for a package consisting of first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera, and reliever Randy Choate. I'll have more to say on the deal tomorrow, but for those of you who have read this far, I'll give you my quick take.
Like most Yankee fans, I have mixed emotions about this deal. I hate to see them trade Johnson, who is already a heck of a hitter and who may well get even better. But if they're going to trade him, sending him to the NL is better than trading him to a team where he can bite them on the ass 10-19 times a year, and Lord knows the Expos could use a break. Also not to like: as Clifford's Big Red Blog
points out, with this deal the Yanks are tapped for young, major league-ready prospects (unless you think highly of Erick Almonte and Jorge De Paula, in which case I've got some oceanfront property in Utah to sell you). With their rapidly aging lineup, any breakdown next summer leaves them pretty screwed if they need to upgrade.
But say this for the Yanks: they're getting the best pitcher on the market, a guy who's better than any of the free agents available, and who's still pretty young at 27. High K rate (9.4 per 9 IP), excellent control (4.2 K/W ratio), not ground-ball dependent, not gopher-happy. Except for the lack of postseason/pennant race experience, you couldn't engineer a better fit for the Yanks right now.
About the only concern is the mileage on his arm. As readers pointed out in one of the Baseball Primer thread, Vaz was second only to Kerry Wood in Pitcher Abuse Points
this season. And if he breaks down in 2004, this deal is going to look awful from the Yankee standpoint. But there are no guarantees with any pitcher. As Will Carroll said in a recent interview on Rich's Baseball Beat
, "Pitching is almost literally a coinflip proposition, injury-wise. Just over half of all pitchers will be on the DL at some point in a three-year period and some of those will be serious--elbow reconstruction, torn labrum." Since this deal wasn't contingent on Vazquez signing an extension, at least if he breaks down in '04 the Yanks will save themselves from throwing another $40 million down the hole. And there's plenty of doubt about Johnson's ability to stay healthy over a 162-game season. The great philosopher Joaquin Andujar said it best: "Youneverknow."