With Pettitte Out of the Picture, Yanks Turn Their Focus to the Num

Now that Andy Pettitte has officially retired, the Yanks can kick their fifth starter pursuit up a notch – and the Sox can breathe a bit easier.

After signing Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia to minor league contracts, New York has a few extra options to compete with Sergio Mitre for the fifth slot.

Bartolo Colon shouldn’t be much cause for concern around the rest of the division. Though he did earn a few major accolades earlier in his career, he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the MLB since ’09 and hasn’t been effective since the 2005 season. If he does find a way to pitch effectively, it will surely surprise everyone. But hey, competition is competition.

Freddy Garcia, on the other hand, is an interesting name. The King of the Comeback, every year it seems as if Garcia’s career is over — only for him to rise from the ashes to mediocrity and mild relevancy. This year could be another one of those years and, given how surprisingly good he was last year (157.0 IP, 4.64 ERA/4.59 xFIP), he could actually be the Yankees’ fifth best starter — and a league average one at that.

We’ve got him posting a 4.67 expected ERA this season (adjusted for the AL East bats), which would place him well above Mitre in the fifth starter chase. However, the Yanks look to have room for only one on the active roster, and Spring Training or the stipulations of their respective deals might dictate who gets the slot. If one or the other has a minor league option or Opening Day opt-out clause, that could very well dictate who gets the slot.

Then again, both players are injury prone, so their agents may decide the best course of action is to wait it out in the minors until a slot inevitably opens.

Only time will tell.

Other than the in-house options, pundits have been throwing around the idea of a possible trade. One of the more popular names has been Joe Blanton, who has been lost in the shuffle among Philadelphia’s rotation of future Hall of Famers.

Blanton would be a nice fit for any team, especially one with championship aspirations in need of a fifth starter. At the number five slot, he would provide very good production — his expected ERA last season was a 3.98.

Much of the bump up in his expected ERA comes from an uncharacteristically high 32.0 O-Swing percentage. If that number falls to his previous levels of production, his expected ERA would have fallen closer to 4.40, which is a more reasonable expectation for the hurler.

Assuming that is his true performance level, Blanton doesn’t seem to be much of an upgrade over Garcia at number five — especially considering the league and division switch. Taking that into account, it seems like the right move that the Yankees will take the wait-and-see approach on their in-house options.

Ranking the Division’s Starters

In preparation of pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Traning, we thought we’d rank the AL East’s starting rotations.

Unsurprisingly, the division has a great cache of starting pitchers, as most hurlers rate average or better when compared to the American League average.

After putting all the pieces together, the Rays narrowly edged the Sox for the top slot. Though the Sox trumped Tampa with superior talent, Josh Beckett’s injury concerns dropped the staff enough to fall to No. 2. The Blue Jays followed closely in the third spot as Brandon Morrow looks to rise into the upper tier this season. The Yankees, with one of their worst rotations in years, take the fourth spot while Baltimore finds itself far in the rear.

Here’s the breakdown:

Boston Red Sox

Proj. ERA Grade

1 Josh Beckett 4.02 B
2 Jon Lester 3.29 A+
3 John Lackey 4.25 B-
4 Clay Buchholz 3.75 A-
5 Daisuke Matsuzaka 4.66 D+

Wildcards can be good or bad. In Beckett’s case, it’s bad since he doesn’t have that “pleasant surprise” aspect that a Drabek or Morrow have. He can still be the Beckett of old, but he’s damaged goods until he proves otherwise.

Lester is as good as it gets. He’s among the best in the MLB and, until Price repeats his 2010 season, he’s the cream of the crop in the AL East. Nothing more to see here.

One of the team’s “big free agent splashes” in the ’09 offseason, Lackey’s splash was a bellyflop. He’s been trending down for years and 2010 was the season where it all caught up with him. We see it continuing, albeit slightly improved from last season.

Is Clay Buchholz the class of the American League? Some say unequivocally yes, some say unequivocally no. It’s really a lot more complicated than that. His peripherals weren’t any better than Matusz or Lackey, but his plate discipline indicators and ground ball rates put him in Romero territory. We think this is the year he “really” puts it together — and have ranked him as such.

At this point, Daisuke is who he is — a pitcher with good talent who can’t stay healthy. Without health problems he’s probably a C+, but he’s earned this grade until he proves he can stay on the field.

New York Yankees

1 C.C. Sabathia 3.62 A
2 A.J. Burnett 4.40 C
3 Phil Hughes 4.08 B
4 Ivan Nova 4.11 B-
5 Sergio Mitre 4.88 F

Sabathia is the undisputed number one in the Yankees’ rotation, but he’s not quite in Lester’s territory since he doesn’t possess elite peripherals. In terms of likely production in the upcoming season, we like Price better, but Sabathia grades out as equal since he’s been doing it for years.

Burnett had an awful season last year, posting a 5.26 ERA. Up until then, he was an excellent #3 or solid #2. Now, that’s all up in the air. He probably should have been close to a run better in 2010, but we aren’t ready to say he’s set for a full recovery. Key to a rebound will be a bounceback in command. Until then, he’s suspect.

If Phil Hughes had even an average groundball rate, the Yankees would have the best 1-2 punch in the division. Instead, Hughes is more of a solid #2 or very good #3. He’s got the pedigree to add a little more, but in terms of production, the only difference between Hughes and Brett Cecil are the pinstripes.

Nova has a chance to rival Hughes for the #3 role this season — a chance. However, he needs to repeat his performance to win over skeptics, so he’s been graded as such.

Mitre would be better suited to minor league depth or long relief, but the Yankees might have to roll him out there every fifth day. He has the talent to be an MLB average or below average hurler, but he earns the lowest rank in the division because he can’t stay healthy. A liability, pure and simple.

Baltimore Orioles

1 Jeremy Guthrie 4.72 D+
2 Brian Matusz 4.31 B-
3 Jake Arrieta 4.41 C+
4 Brad Bergesen 4.59 C-
5 Chris Tillman 4.81 D

The Orioles enter 2011 leaning heavily on a number of young arms. Though Jeremy Guthrie is the nominal “number one,” he’ll have to finally yield to the youngsters this season. Brian Matusz looks poised to take over that top spot, though his runaway fly ball percentage (45.5 percent, career) will cap his ceiling.

Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta both have good potential, but need work hitting the strike zone and missing bats. Tillman had the uglier ERA (5.87 to Arrieta’s 4.66) but both were equally underwhelming. Arrieta should be solidly average this season. Tillman’s more of a work in progress. Brad Bergesen has always been the awkward, freckled stepchild of the bunch — never getting the respect or notoriety he deserves — but he has a chance to emerge as the club’s second best starter this upcoming year. Ground balls and no walks is always a recipe for success and Bergesen has just that. He’ll improve on an ugly 4.98 ERA this coming season.

Toronto Blue Jays

1 Ricky Romero 3.73 A-
2 Brandon Morrow 3.92 B+
3 Brett Cecil 4.11 B
4 Kyle Drabek 4.28 B-
5 Jesse Litsch 4.71 D+

In a league where the ground ball is king, Romero is one of the leading contenders for the throne. Bringing at 26.5 percent ground ball rate to the mound every night has its benefits. Without a lower Z-Contact rate, it may be difficult for him to walk among the AL elite, but he sits comfortably among the league’s second tier of starters.

Morrow will be a great duke to Romero’s king, but he needs to rein in his BABIP (.342 in 2010) and wildness. Regardless, he has the most room to grow of nearly anyone in the division and with some improvement in command could rival Romero for the number one spot. We like him as a solid #2 right now, with room to improve.

Cecil is very good as number three starters go, as his low-4s ERA is well above average for AL starters. His biggest challenge will be maintaining an excellent 32.8 O-Swing percentage. If he proves unable, he’ll fall a bit but should still be above average.

Kyle Drabek is difficult to pin down, as his three starts and 17.0 innings don’t lend themselves to comparison. He could be good or he could struggle like most rookies. He’s got great stuff though, which should help him make a mark this season. We like him to post a low-4s ERA and just a shade below Cecil.

The Blue Jays round out the rotation with Jesse Litsch at number five. The minor league standout had a breakthrough 2008, but has been poor since. We see the talent to be league average this season, but uncertainty drops him down a notch. His performance will be held together with a good groundball rate and recovery in his zone percentage, but you can do a lot worse at #5.

Devil Rays

1 David Price 3.31 A
2 James Shields 4.38 C+
3 Jeff Niemann 3.99 B+
4 Wade Davis 4.54 C
5 Jeremy Hellickson 3.89 B+

In 2010, Price took a giant leap toward the top of the AL pecking order. Though he didn’t quite pitch up to the level of his 2.72 ERA, he was still among the top in the MLB. Expect that trend to continue in 2011 as he becomes a perennial Cy Young contender. We see a low-3s ERA (3.31 to be exact) — one of the best in the league.

James Shields slides back in at number 2, but he lacks consistency. Though he has the stuff and the peripherals to be a prototypical #2, he gives up too many home runs to be reliable there. We see a slightly above average hurler who could step up a grade if he can avoid the monthly 10-run outings he delivered in 2010.

Jeff Niemann was only slightly above average last season but we see him to be a borderline 4.00 ERA hurler. His K/9 and BB/9 should both improve going into next season and he could emerge as the #2 in front of Shields next year.

Wade Davis had a great season in 2010, but outperformed his peripherals by about half a run. We don’t see that changing a whole lot and should be a shade above league average this year.

Hellickson has a chance to be sensational, as he showed last year in 30+ innings. He’ll be entering his first full season this year and is in a great situation in Tampa. He should have some ups and downs, but, overall, we expect a lot — think high 3.00s ERA.

The Yankees’ Precarious Starting Rotation

The Yank’s Woeful Rotation

After failing to sign their top priority free agent, Cliff Lee, missing out on trade target Zack Greinke, and facing the possible retirement of Andy Pettitte, the Yankees find themselves scrambling for back-end rotation starters.

The 2011 season could see the weakest Yankee starting rotation in years. If the season were to begin today, they would be forced to plug unproven youngster Ivan Nova and retread Sergio Mitre into their fourth and fifth slots. Though both are talented and can get by in the Majors, they each carry question marks as to their reliablility and fit on a championship caliber team.

Ivan Nova

Turning 24 on Wednesday, Nova has long been touted as a high-ceiling starter but one who has been unable to turn his impressive stuff into results. Equipped with a low-to-mid 90s fastball, a good curveball, and a good change, New York has been waiting for Nova to deliver on his potential for years. Those results haven’t come and, until then, he’ll be merely another guy with potential who is short on results.

In the meantime, it looks almost certain that Nova will begin the season in the Yankees’ rotation — whether that’s as the number four (where he stands today) or as number five, if Andy Pettitte returns. And, unfortunately for Boston, he does seem capable of handling these responsibilities.

Despite New York’s concern, Nova does have a nice skill set. He induces ground balls (at a 51.4 percent clip last season), controls the free pass to an acceptable degree (3.64 BB/9 in 2010), and doesn’t destroy his productivity with poor BABIPs and HR/FB rates.

Furthermore, he put up decent plate discipline indicators, which suggest better performance to come. With average contact rates and good-enough control, he should be able to post a K-rate in the mid 6s and a low 3s BB/9. All told, he looks like a pitcher who could put up a low-4s ERA — his expected ERA last season was a 4.11.

Even with a less-than-stellar strikeout rate, Nova looks like a relatively good pitcher for a #4 or #5 spot in the rotation. The main rub with Nova is that he’s unproven, as New York likes to point out his inconsistent minor league ERAs and subpar K:BB ratio in 2010. He has the tools to succeed, however. And, if he had better strikeout and walk ratios in the minors, he’d seem like more of a sure thing; the kind of young pitcher whom you wouldn’t mind taking his lumps as a #5 a la Clay Buchholz in 2008.

Until he proves himself, however, New York will dread his turn in the rotation and view him as a chink in their armor.

Sergio Mitre

While New York is has a reasonable level of concern in the prospect of relying on Nova, the guy they are really worried about is Sergio Mitre.

If today were 2007, Mitre would be a fine option as a back-end starter. He has good groundball skills, is stingy on the free passes, and has the talent to hold down a middle-of-the-rotation gig.

But it’s not 2007 — and Mitre is not the starter he was just three years ago. While he still has the control and ground ball rates he did three years ago, he has serious durability issues and has reverted to his troublesome HR/FB numbers of years past.

When teams cast a player in a starting role at the beginning of the season, durability suddenly becomes a very important asset to possess. For a team void of depth, it becomes even more important. Given that propensity for injury, Mitre would be a much better fit as a long reliever or reserve starter who could fill in for someone else’s injury.

Performance could be an issue for Mitre, as his potential HR/FB rates have caused some serious volatility in his projections, ranging from a 4.58 to a 5.08. That alone is cause for concern. But, when you have no depth and you’re anticipating injuries in your rotation, the performance of your front five might not be your biggest problem.

In the end, the Yankees will do everything they can to avoid plugging Mitre into the front five. Today, though, he stands as the Yankees’ biggest barrier to making the post season.

5/7 Online Seats Game Thread: Red Sox’ Rivals Return

The biggest rivalry in baseball returns tonight as the Boston Red Sox begin their second series of the year against the New York Yankees. The first meeting between the two titans saw the Red Sox draw first blood on opening night, while they ultimately fell short of the series victory. Tonight, Terry Francona will send his ace Josh Beckett out to the hill to take on Phil Hughes at Fenway Park.

The Days Turn Into Night, Or Do They?

For those Fenway Faithful who have committed themselves to watching every pitch of the 2010 season thus far, you have endured exactly 1,196 minutes of baseball – 19.9333 hours. Mazel Tov.

Long games have certainly become a trend in MLB, a phenomenon that is being discussed across the board. Just last night, Orel Hershiser and Joe Morgan were posturing possible reasons for the seemingly exponential delay of pace this year. But is the trend all that new?

The real question isn’t which rope to hang ourselves with, especially compare it when you compare it to ghosts of opening week’s past.

Herb Brooks and Neil Diamond Stop By, Sox Take Season Opener

New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox

On a night when the Boston marketing department pulled out all the stops, the players on the field managed to match them every step of the way.

There was no shortage of excitement in this one. From Neil Diamond’s 8th inning appearance to Pedroia’s two-run bomb, this game had everything and more. Even Herb Brooks and Pedro showed up which, early on, seemed to be the only exciting parts of the game.

I, myself, was forced down the street to Buffalo Wild Wings before the game due to a blackout on MLBTV – missing the NESN broadcast – and jotting down game notes on a napkin. Though I try to avoid chain restaurants when watching the Red Sox, it was nice to see the Red Sox Faithful well-represented in Colorado – and just as intolerant as in New England of the crap Yankee fans will try to pull.

Nonetheless, it was a classic, back-and-forth matchup that had plenty of surprises, late heroics, and everything you could want in an Opening Day salvo.

Though cruising through the bottom half of the first inning, Beckett got roughed up early. Noticeably absent was his usual dominating stuff – which should have been an easy holdover from his strong spring. Having difficulty finding the plate and falling behind in the count often, he found himself “Yanked” after just 4.1 IP, walking three while striking out only one. Yielding five earned over his inefficient 94 pitches, the silver lining is that he wasn’t hit as hard as the overall line suggests. Other than two second inning home runs, many of the Yankees’ hits found holes or were just out of the reach of defenders – especially up the middle in the fourth…

And the Season Begins…

MLB Florida Marlins vs Boston Red Sox

And the season begins…

There’s no doubt the bureaucrats “got it right” on this one – pairing the league’s biggest rivals in the 2010 MLB opener. All signs point to a classic, fit with a marquee pitching matchup, palpable hatred on both sides, and the two best teams from the past decade kicking off the new one.

Josh Beckett takes the hill against C.C. Sabathia as the two AL East juggernaughts begin their annual battle for divisional supremacy. Get to your TV at 8:00 pm sharp – or 6 pm if you’re like me in the Mountain Time Zone – and prepare to watch baseball at its finest.

Keys of the Game

Starting Pitcher

Coming off a strong spring, striking out 22 in 19.1 innings while walking just 5, Beckett certainly has the edge over Sabathia, who has looked sluggish in 18.2 IP thus far (15 K, 8 BB). Though spring stats are rarely an indication of long-term success, they are a good indicator of a hurler’s readiness at the season’s onset. If C.C. continues to struggle with his command, he could be in for a long night. Expect Beckett to be sharp as the team gets off to an early lead in the first few innings.

AL East Sleepers: New York Yankees

Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York

For a team that won the 2009 league championship while standing atop the AL East leaderboards for much of the past decade, the team would seem, at first glance, bereft of sleepers.

Not so, however, even for these ’09 defending champions. A favorite even at this early juncture in Spring Training, the club could get even better by the time the season rolls around.

SP/RP Phil Hughes

Hughes is – and for quite some time has been – one of the best young pitchers in affiliated baseball. It was not so long ago – three years to be exact – that Phil Hughes was the best pitching prospect in the game, edging out Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey for that honor.

Though hamstring injuries and bouts of wildness slowed down his progress during the ’07 and ’08 campaigns, Hughes came back with a vengeance last season, reminding all bystanders why he was once such a highly touted prospect.

Still just 23 years old, the Yankees owe it to Hughes and to themselves to give the hurler another shot at a full-time rotation gig. Worth 2.2 wins last season, that number could easily swell to four or five if he pitches up to his potential…