Monday, January 16, 2012

Yankees rebuild their starting rotation; Mariners have a new best hitter

I know that last week I promised a breakdown of the Oakland A's rebuilding. I'm working on it, I promise. Also, I know that this is yet another post on the American League East. What can I say, this was the biggest news of the weekend. I suppose you can have your money back. 

As you probably know by now, the Yankees have reportedly signed former Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda to a one year, $10M contract. In an even bigger move, they traded their top prospect, Jesus Montero*, to the Seattle Mariners for starting pitcher Michael Pineda. Pineda and Montero are both potential franchise cornerstones, and making this deal took a lot of guts by both Brian Cashman and Jack Zduriencik.

*Note that I did not list a position for Montero. This is not an accident.

Going into the weekend, the Yankees rotation consisted of C.C. Sabathia and a lot of questions. Ivan Nova had a nice but inconsistent rookie season. He was the only sure bet for the rotation after Sabathia. Phil Hughes was injured and not very good in 2012. Freddy Garcia faded down the stretch. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances had inconsistent seasons at AAA. (Betances especially. He turns 24 in March, and had over 6 BB/9 and an ERA over 5.00 at Scranton. I really don't think he'd be considered a prospect if he wasn't a Yankee). And AJ Burnett stinks, despite what some others still would have you think.

So, going into the weekend, the crew of Hughes, Garcia, Burnett, Banuelos, Betances in was going to make up 3/5 of the Yankees starting rotation. Now? Depending on the health of the front four, they'll likely be counted on for less than 250 innings pitched, total.

First, the Kuroda deal. In four seasons stateside, Kuroda has a 3.45 ERA and a K/BB ratio over 3.0. He is coming off his best overall season in 2011, with a career best 3.07 ERA while setting career highs in innings pitched (202), and strikeouts (161). On the other hand, Kuroda is 37 years old, and gave up 1.1 HR/9 pitching for the Dodgers last year. If that's his home run rate in Dodger Stadium, what would he do in Yankee Stadium?

The Yankees don't need Kuroda to put up a 3.07 ERA though (and are paying him as such). If he can have an ERA in the 4.00-4.50 range and get over 180 innings, he'll be a 15 game winner and really stabilize the middle of their rotation. This seems a likely scenario. There's always a risk involved in signing any 37 year old pitcher, but Kuroda was as durable as ever last year, and a one year risk is pretty much a no-brainer.

One note - Kuroda had stated a preference to remain on the west coast, and even vetoed a trade to come east during the season. New York moves with a different speed than LA - this will be an adjustment. In general I think the transition to pitching in Boston/New York/Philly is overstated - almost everyone who is good elsewhere is good there - but there is the inexplicable occasional Kenny Rogers. Kuroda will probably pitch fine, but if he isn't, it will almost certainly be blamed on the transition.

On the other hand, you have to wonder what the heck every west coast team is thinking, don't you? Are the Dodgers so screwed up right now that they couldn't afford to keep a guy who wanted to pitch there on such a team friendly contract. The Mariners, A's and Padres may all be rebuilding, but all play in pitcher-friendly ballparks, and Kuroda got a team-friendly deal. It seems like he could've been a fit giving stability to those young rotations. The Giants and Angels get a pass, I suppose - the Giants need to spend their money on stuff other than the rotation, and the Angels have certainly not been cheap this offseason - but the other four west coast teams really dropped the ball here.

The Pineda-for-Montero swap is the much more interesting deal, with much longer-lasting implications. Both of these players have franchise player-type upsides. It's also something of a rarity in that it's a Yankees trade where money wasn't a primary concern with the trading partner. Montero is under control until 2017 (probably - I'm assuming an opening day roster spot), while Pineda will be after the 2016 season. Pineda will also be arbitration eligible a year earlier. But those considerations are a ways off - this was a pretty straight up baseball trade. The Yankees were the second highest scoring offense in the AL last year, and they needed young pitching. The Marniers were last in the league in runs, batting average, SLG, OBP and walks. They led in strikeouts. They had two offensive players with a WAR above 2.0.  That's not a park effect, it's an inability to hit. The Mariners had a young, unproven potential ace. The Yankees had a young, unproven, potential home run champ. It was a sensible deal, but far from an obvious one - none of the sources I know of had talked about it. The Yankees also included Hector Noesi, who appeared in 30 games last season.

So, how good are these guys? Michael Pineda, who turns 23 on Wednesday, was Baseball America's #16 prospect heading into the 2011 season. The biggest reason was his high-90's fastball, which was one of the most effective in the majors in 2011, generating an extremely low contact rate. The pitch averaged 94.7 mph, and batters made contact only 80% of the time when they swung (a very low rate for a fastball). Perhaps the more impressive development was his slider, which batters made contact with on only 62% of their swings. Getting batters to swing and miss is the most important thing a pitcher can do, and Pineda spent 2011 doing it as well as anyone. The result was a rookie season where he struck out 9.1 batters per 9 innings, second best in the AL. The 3.74 ERA (a mediocre 103 ERA+ in Safeco) showed some fatigue- his ERA gradually rose throughout the season. That's to be expected in any 22 year old as the league makes adjustments. Those swing and miss numbers are ace-like, and drew him comparisons with Pedro Martinez.

Note: These comparisons are dumb. Every Dominican pitcher with good stuff now gets compared to Pedro Martinez. At his peak from 1997-2003, Pedro Martinez was arguably the best pitcher of all time. Pineda could be significantly worse than Pedro and end up in the Hall of Fame. Also, Pineda's like a foot taller or something. They're really not all that similar, other than the fact their sliders are really tough on right handed batters. The comparison is unfair to both Pineda and Martinez.

So, he's a slam dunk, right? Well, not quite. He generated ground balls with only 26% of his fastballs, meaning it is an extreme fly ball pitch. He threw his fastball to lefties 62% of the time. Yankee Stadium is the best park in baseball for lefthanded hitters to hit home runs. You see where I'm going here. Pineda is going to need to generate a secondary quality pitch against lefties, or teams are going to go into the Bronx with lefty-loaded lineups. 

Still, what we're talking about is a very specific problem with a pitcher who is only 23 years old. Even if Pineda ends up giving up 25-30 homers a year in Yankee Stadium, his low walk rate and high strikeout rates that will go with it will likely keep his ERA somewhere below 4.00. If his changeup turns into a plus pitch? Then we're talking about a Cy Young candidate. As always, the injury possibilities of any young pitcher are there. That's especially true with Pineda, who pitched only 47 innings in 2009 because of elbow problems. Still, with a chance to acquire a much-needed #2 pitcher with ace potential to complement Sabathia, the Yankees were compelled to jump.

But, you ask, what about Jesus Montero? Wasn't he just the talk of the season with his monster September? Why is all of the talk we're hearing about Pineda? Doesn't Montero deserve some love? Montero was Baseball America's #3 prospect last season, and after he was called up he had a .328/.406/.590 line in 69 plate appearances. Isn't he as much of an impact player as Pineda, with much less of a chance of being a bust? 

Short answer no, with an if. Long answer yes, with a but.

For two years now, when talking about Montero, the conversation inevitably be drawn to whether or not he was a catcher. So let's get this out of the way right now. Jesus Montero is not a catcher. Say it out loud if you need to. It may help. 
In 2010, with Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli the nominal Yankee catchers, there were calls among Yankee fans to bring Montero up. "We don't care how bad he is at catching, we need SOMEONE there, and his bat will carry him." To that, I say, it becomes really easy to forget how good major league baseball players are at what they do. When we say someone is "bad" at something, we mean worse than other major leaguers. So when Yankee fans heard that Montero was a bad catcher, they thought of Mike Piazza or Mike Napoli. Their own Jorge Posada was never a good defensive catcher, and he was their for five World Series wins and 7 AL pennants. You can win with a bad defensive catcher!

But Jesus Montero is not a bad defensive catcher on the standard of other major league defensive catchers. He's not Mike Piazza or Jorge Posada or even Brandon Inge. A more apt description came from Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus. In 2010, when Yankee fans were clamoring for Montero, Goldstein said something along the lines that the Yankees would just as well served to put Lance Berkman back there.

Indeed, when watching major league quality baseball every day, it can become jarring to watch lower level baseball, where the skills and mechanics aren't anywhere near the same quality. While the difference between good and bad in MLB might be the slightest split second, hard for the untrained eye to notice, the difference between a mediocre but serviceable MLB player and someone who isn't is immediately striking. With Montero, he wasn't just bad at catching, he was strikingly far from being anything close to a major league catcher. 

To which I say: So what? Most of the best hitters in baseball aren't catchers. We don't criticize Albert Pujols for not being a catcher. The Yankees tried to make Montero a catcher, and he isn't. He's still a major league quality hitter.

The best comparison I can think of was, in the early 1990's, the Toronto Blue Jays had a slugging minor leaguer who they signed out of Puerto Rico and were trying to make into a catcher. The Blue Jays, of course, were a perennial contender, winning consecutive World Series in 1992 and 1993. They needed a catcher, and if this kid could catch, he'd fill a major spot for them. 

Of course, Carlos Delgado wasn't a catcher. Despite their efforts, it wasn't happening. His footwork and release were too slow, his pitch blocking too inconsistent. After a 17-year career where Delgado had a borderline-Hall of Fame-level .280/.383/.546, is anyone criticizing him for not being a catcher? No! He was a great hitter, and when he was ready for the majors, the Blue Jays let him hit. 

Montero is that type of talent. Still, the Yankees seemed ever-so-intent on making him a catcher, to the point where he NEVER played another defensive position in the minor leagues! I mean, doesn't that seem kind of silly? Shouldn't he have at least been practicing at 1B, 3B or the outfield? It was almost like giving him instruction at another position was admitting to the world that he couldn't catch. In so doing, they locked themselves into a corner - a young hitter who had only ever caught but couldn't catch.

There is a bias against putting good young hitters at DH. I guess it's seen as a dead-end street. It's fine to sign an old guy to DH, but putting a young guy there is taboo. It's a silly bias. Every AL team needs a DH, and having a crummy hitter there hurts you MORE than having a crummy hitter elsewhere, because that crummy-hitting SS can make up for it by playing quality defense. The bias against young designated hitters resulted in guys like Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz taking FAR to long to get the starting jobs that they deserved, and consequently will likely keep both out of the Hall of Fame.

In 2011, Seattle Mariners designated hitters put up an astonishingly poor .225/.316/.332 line. Montero, now 22 years old, has a .289/.351/.493 in almost 1000 plate appearances at Triple-A, where he has been one of the youngest players. Maybe he has the dreaded "old-player skills" that won't age well, but so what - he'll probably be a free agent going into his age 28-season, unless there's a contract extension forthcoming. What kind of player he'll be in his 30's is not the worry for the Mariners today. He has 35-to-40 home run type power, and is probably the best hitter on his new team already, with apologies to Dustin Ackley. 

So, who "wins" this trade? Obviously, when talking about two players in their early 20's, it's a little silly to make such a proclamation. I will say, though, that it is a sensible trade for both sides. Pineda is the higher risk player, both in terms of downside and injury possibilities. There's a chance he'll break down and be a total bust. On the other hand, Montero has very little of that risk - I'd be shocked if he doesn't turn out, at the very least, an above average MLB hitter (think .290/.375/.475 as a lower baseline, and go up from there). That said, good hitters are available more often than potential ace pitchers. If Pineda turns into the next Felix Hernandez or Pedro Martinez, he's worth more than any DH. Considering where both teams are coming from, this makes sense. The Yankees can take risks - they've spent big and lost before, and have finished first or second in their division 17 of the past 18 years. On the other hand, the Mariners already have the original Felix Hernandez, and really need a consistent bat in the middle of their lineup that they can depend on. 

Both teams are taking a chance, and you have to give them credit for not becoming overly enamored with their own prospects to the point they became blinded to their overall needs. Pitchers and catchers report in a month - who's excited?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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