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November 1, 2005

Should the Yankees pursue a starter this offseason?
by SG

According to Brian Cashman, the Yankees will not be pursuing a starting pitcher this offseason. With 7 starters currently on the roster, I guess this makes some sense. The question is, are the seven starters on hand people you can count on in 2006?

First off, there's Randy Johnson. He had a disappointing season by his standards, but according to VORP, he was the 11th most valuable pitcher in the American League. A strong finish pushed his season numbers to respectability, and I would guess he will decline a little next year but still be an effective starter. He's an injury risk, but he did not got on the DL last season despite some nagging injuries.

Next up, there's Mike Mussina. He's owed a ton of money (his contract was heavily backloaded) and has had elbow issues and declining effectiveness the last two seasons. Provided he can also stay healthy, he should be able to put up 180-200 innings of league average pitching.

Chien-Ming Wang defied his low K rate to have an impressive debut. What's interesting was that prior to going on the DL with what was termed as anything from shoulder inflammation to a minor rotator cuff tear, Wang's stats looked like this:

Innings: 83.1
Hits: 79
HR: 7
BB: 22
K: 31

K/9: 3.3
BB/9: 2.4
HR/9: .76
FIP: 4.34

After returning on September 8, they looked like this:

Innings: 33
Hits: 34
HR: 2
BB: 10
K: 16

K/9: 4.4
BB/9: 2.7
HR/9: .55
FIP: 3.93

So his ERA went up, his walk rate increased slightly. However, his K rate increased and his HR rate decreased, and his FIP (fielding independent pitching, which is calculated using (HR x 13 + BB x 3 - K x 2)/IP + 3.2 and is supposed to figure out the pitcher's performance taking out his defense) went down. It's a rare pitcher who can survive with a K rate as low as Wang's was this year, but his minor league K numbers are decent. As a sinkerballer who throws 95-96 mph, his stuff is similar to Kevin Brown's. Brown's K rate was fairly pedestrian when he started out, and he seemed to do ok. Wang's minor league BB/9 and K/9 are better than Brown's were, which is another positive indicator. The concern with Wang is his past shoulder issues and the injury this year.

Then we have two pitcher who were both questionable signings last offseason, and who both got hurt. Carl Pavano, missed a lot of time early in his career with various injuries, before throwing two straight season of over 200 innings for the Marlins in 2003 and 2004. After starting last year 4-2 with a 3.69 ERA, he made five more starts going 0-5 with a 6.46 ERA. It certainly did not seem likely that Pavano would repeat his great 2004.

K/9: 5.9
BB/9: 2.2
HR/9: .85
FIP: 3.83

K/9: 5.6
BB/9: 2.0
HR/9: .64
FIP: 3.55

It looks like he was unlucky in 2003, and lucky in 2004. What's weird about Pavano's 2005 was his 2.89 ERA on the road last season, where he allowed batters to hit .276/.310/.468. At home, his ERA was 6.89 and batters hit .354/.396/.558. From 2002-2004, his home ERA was also higher, 3.96 to 3.32. Maybe Carl should sleep in a hotel when he's home. Anyway, if he's over his injury issues, I think he can be a league average starter for 200 innings, which is a fine thing, if not necessarily worth $10 million a year.

The second pitcher who was a questionable signing was the infamous Jaret Wright. He failed his first physical but passed his second, and the Yankees gave him a 3 year deal. This is often pointed to as the biggest flaw in the Yankees' player acquisition model. Without being able to develop their own cheap alternatives to fill out their big league roster, they end up having to overpay for mediocrity in weak free agent markets. Teams are getting smarter about locking up their young starters, like Minnesota with Johan Santana and Milwaukee with Ben Sheets, which is reducing the quality of available free agents in the off-season. Wright has a good sinking fastball, but his control is pretty bad and his health is a concern. He's never exceeded 193 innings in a season, and he's only had a season with an ERA under 4.38 once. I'd be curious to see if the Yankees would consider putting Wright in the bullpen, an area of obvious concern.

Lastly, there are two pitchers who saved the Yankees' season. Shawn Chacon, who was brilliant as a Yankee with a 2.85 ERA in 79 innings. Chacon has had some injury concerns in his career, and was actually moved to the bullpen by Colorado in 2004 due to those concerns. For his career, Chacon has pitched 631.1 innings, with an ERA+ (park-adjusted ERA compared to league average) of exactly 100. His stats in Coors shed some doubt on his true talent ability, but it's probable that they understate it if they do anything. He used to have a 92-94 mph fastball, but this year he was usually in the 88-90 range. If that fastball returns, I think he can be a very good starter, and if it doesn't, I think with his curve and his cutter he can still maintain his league average performance.

Aaron Small went 10-0 with a 3.20 ERA after starting the season with a 4.96 ERA in Columbus. He's not that good, but he was great last season and unless the Yankees can con someone into a centerfielder for him, they're probably best off hanging onto him and sticking him in the bullpen as a long man and injury insurance.

The recurring theme with every single one of these pitchers is a history of injuries. This is a big flashing warning sign. The Yankees need rotation depth, because the chances of significant missed time from this crew is pretty damn high.

So, what's out there this offseason?

Sorted in descending order of ERA+
Roger Clemens, rhp (211.1 innings, ERA+ of 221 in 2005)

Clemens will either retire or stay in Houston, so he's not an option. I have a feeling he'll try to hang around to see if he can play with his kid who was drafted by Houston in June.

Kevin Millwood, rhp (192 innings, ERA+ of 143 in 2005)

Millwood had a very good year for Cleveland, but his agent is Scott Boras and he'll be looking for a big payday. He's good but not great, and the Yankees supposedly have concerns about his mental toughness ( I hope that's not based on his W/L record).

Jarrod Washburn, lhp (177.1 innings, ERA+ of 131 in 2005)

He had a good season this year, but he's a fly ball pitcher without particularly great stuff, and probably the best lefty on the market, which means he's going to be expensive.

Kenny Rogers, lhp (195.1 innings, ERA+ of 130 in 2005)

Kenny's getting cantankerous in his old age, and cameramen everywhere should be afraid. So should smart teams. He's appears to be a jerk and he's got some of the crappiest stuff in baseball right now. His season screams fluke to me.

Paul Byrd, rhp (204 innings, ERA+ of 112 in 2005)

A solid pitcher with mediocre pitches, but not someone I'd really consider.

A.J. Burnett, rhp (209 innings, ERA+ of 110 in 2005)

The best arm in this year's free agent class, with a 100 mph fastaball and one of the nastiest curves you'll see. He's another guy who has injury issues, and his results have never caught up to his stuff. He'll likely get Pavano-type money, and neither is worth it right now. There's a chance something could click for this guy and he could become the best pitcher in baseball, but I wouldn't take the risk to find out. Baltimore would be smart to sign him, he's from the area and they've got Mazzone now.

Matt Morris, rhp (192.1 innings, ERA+ of 104 in 2005)

He left his 95 mph fastball on the operating table. I'm not a big fan.

Jamie Moyer, lhp (200 innings, ERA+ of 101 in 2005)

He'll likely either stay in Seattle or retire, and I can't say I'm all that broken up about it.

Byung-Hyun Kim, rhp (148 innings, ERA+ of 97 in 2005)

The man who started the mass exodus out of Beantown. He's not a starter in my mind, his splits the second and third time through the order indicate as much.

Jeff Weaver, rhp (224 innings, ERA+ of 96 in 2005)

Been there, done that.

Jason Johnson, rhp (210 innings, ERA+ of 94 in 2005)

Another guy with pretty good stuff and pretty middling results. I wouldn't consider him.

Brett Tomko, rhp (190.1 innings, ERA+ of 92 in 2005)

A guy that they nicknamed Bombko? Pass.

Shawn Estes, lhp (123.1 innings, ERA+ of 92 in 2005)

I still remember Mad Dog Chris Russo saying that he'd rather have Estes than Andy Pettitte. Someone should call him and remind him of that.

Jose Lima, rhp (168.2 innings, ERA+ of 62 in 2005)

Lima time is long gone. I'd sign his wife though.

This list of free agent pitchers stinks. I wouldn't sign any of them, and I think the Yankees are smart to say they will not either. If they avoid the temptation to do anything here, it will be a positive indicator to me that Cashman's bold talk about changing the way the Yankees are going to go about building their team was not just talk.

There is definitely some concern about their rotation given their past injury histories, but I am hopeful that they have some contingencies in place. Small would be one. A little further down is Matt Desalvo, who went 9-5 with a 3.02 ERA in AA Trenton this year, with 151 K in 149 innings. Scouts don't like him because he is undersized and his stuff is not great. John Sickels had a good writeup about him here. His scouting report:

Physically, DeSalvo is not imposing. He’s listed at 6-0, but looks shorter, more like 5-10. But while he’s not a big hulk on the mound, he has great mound presence, in the sense of being in charge of the game: he exudes confidence. His fastball is usually at 87-89 MPH, sometimes a notch higher at 90. That’s not blazing velocity, but the pitch has good sinking action, and he’s able to hit spots with it, working both the inside and outside corners with precision. His second pitch is a very good changeup. His slider is erratic, sometimes very good, sometimes a bit below average, but even when the slider isn’t working, he’s been able to survive with the fastball and the change. He has a deceptive delivery, and hitters seem to have a difficult time getting a good read on him. In this sense, he is similar to Yusmeiro Petit in the Mets system, who racks up the strikeouts due to deception rather than pure velocity. From the perspective of the traditional scout, DeSalvo lacks the size and fastball to be a top-notch prospect. Otherwise, he is a very solid all-around pitcher who does the little things well and helps himself win.

He should start the season in Columbus this year, and will likely be the first choice to be recalled if/when the Yankees need a starter. I'd also hope that perhaps Sean Henn will be a year older and wiser, and can get helped by Joe Kerrigan (if he is on the staff) to harness his ability, which would give them a second option. Even further down, is Tyler Clippard, who pitched mainly for Class A Tampa last year although he did pitch one scoreless inning for Columbus. Sickles rates him as a B+ prospect. He'll probably start the year in AA, so I doubt he'd be much of an option before mid-season at the earliest.

Basically, this is an extremely long-winded way of saying that I DO NOT think the Yankees should pursue a starter in this offseason, and that they have the contingencies in place to take that stance. Their priorities are CF and the bullpen, which I think makes sense. B.J. Ryan or bust!