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March 29, 2007

Looking Ahead to 2007: The Yankee Bullpen
by SG

Opening Day is less than just around the corner, so it's time to wrap up my 2007 Yankees previews with a look at the Yankee bullpen. Last year, Yankee relievers pitched a total of 510 innings, and ended up being about 3 runs above average collectively as a group. The bulk of that was the performance of the incomparable Mariano Rivera and Scott Proctor finally getting results that matched his talent.

This year's collection of bullpen arms has quite a bit of promise, but just like it has since 1996, it starts with The Sandman.

Mariano Rivera had another outstanding season in a career full of outstanding seasons. Over the last four seasons, Rivera's ERA has not topped 2. In 303 innings, he has an ERA of 1.69. There were two minor issues in 2006 that might be of some concern going forward. The first was a drop in his K rate. Rivera's K rate dropped from 80 in 78.3 innings in 2005 to 55 in 75 innings. Rivera's K rate has fluctuated throughout his career, so I don't think is a huge issue. The other issue was some elbow soreness that he had at the tail end of the season. Rivera eventually recovered after some time off and pitched well at the end of the season, and so far this spring he's been outstanding, so this is also a minor concern.

Rivera is difficult to project accurately. Projection systems are designed to work with the aggregrate population of baseball players, but Rivera is unique. He's consistently outperformed the league with regards to his batting average against on balls in play. He controls the HR better than most pitchers when you compare his ratio of HRs/flyball to other pitchers.

Rivera's projections for 2007 are still solid.

Rivera's 2006 was worth 23 runs above average. Most of the projection systems predict a falloff(except ZiPS), but as I stated above that's at least partly because of how hard it is to predict someone like Rivera. That being said, Mo is 37, and at some pont he's going to start slowing down.

This spring, camp started with noise about Rivera testing free agency. Part of that was surely the emotional response to seeing Bernie Williams not being brought back. With his new changeup, and playing for his next and perhaps final contract, I think Rivera is primed for yet another excellent season. If that happens, the Yankees will pay him what he is worth, and hopefully we'll get to see Rivera closing games in the new Yankee Stadium.

In 2006, Kyle Farnsworth showed why he drove Cubs fans nuts for years. When Farnsworth is on his game, you wonder how anyone ever hits him. Unfortunately, too often he was either not on his game, or fighting a balky back and unable to pitch. Farnsworth still delivered one of the most enjoyable moments of the season, when he worked out of a bases loaded jam (induced by his own crappy control) to catch David Ortiz looking at a full count slider with two outs and the bases loaded and the Yankees up by two in Fenway.

Farnsworth's not a lights-out reliever like Tom Gordon was. He'll have his moments, good and bad, and may not be the primary setup man in 2007 depending on how the people behind end up performing. Here are Farnsworth's projections for 2007.

Last year, Farnsworth's 4.64 RA was exactly average for a reliever, so he was average overall. Farnsworth projects to be a bit better than that this year. He has the talent to be even better than that, and the inconsistency to be worse. Like most Yankee fans, I'll be holding my breath whenever he comes in.

One of the biggest stories of 2006 had to be the emergence of Scott Proctor. Acquired in the Robin Ventura trade of 2003, Proctor has always had a good fastball, but bad command and mediocre secondary pitches had led to him being tatooed in the Yankee pen in 2004 and 2005. Proctor wasn't expected to make the team out of spring training until injuries got him on the roster. After a rough debut, losing a game in Oakland, Proctor became one of the most valuable Yankee relievers. He pitched often, and pitched well. Like many, I felt he was being overused, and I also felt he was pitching over his head. However, he actually improved as the season went on.

Last year was way out of line from everything in Proctor's prior performance history, which is reflected in his 2007 projections.

Projecting pitchers is often an exercise in futility. In the case of someone like Proctor, it's tough to know how much of last year was a fluke, and how much of it was a genuine change in his talent/ability. We won't know that until we see more. Proctor's looked outstanding this spring, and I'm starting to think he's at least somewhat for real. Even if he falls back towards his projections, he should be a useful part of the pen in 2007.

Luis Vizcaino seems like a decent middle reliever, but I doubt he'll be much more than that. Historically, he's exhibited a reverse platoon split.

vs LH: .229/.310/.400
vs RH: .249/.321/.427

He projects to be around average, which is fine.

I can't shake this feeling that Vizcaino = Felix Rodriguez, but hopefully it turns out better than that.

Mike Myers was supposed to be the Yankees' answer to David Ortiz. Not only did that not work out, but Myers was actually better against righties last year. There's a lot of noise in a single year's splits, so I'd expect Myers to revert to form this year.

When projecting Myers, you have to remember that he's a tactical option, and shouldn't really be assessed in terms of his overall production towards preventing runs.

Myers is in the last year of a two year deal, and I'd imagine that if he doesn't do the one thing he was brought in to do early on, he may get buried in the back of the pen or even released.

Brian Bruney throws gas. Unfortunately, it doesn't often go where he wants it to go. Bruney's still pretty young, and has been pretty nasty this spring, fanning 14 in seven innings, with just two walks to go with it. His control keeps him from projecting very well.

Bruney's the wild card in the pen to me. He could end up being the second best reliever in the pen if it clicks for him. Even if it doesn't, there's nothing wrong with having inconsistent guys who can strike people out around in the pen. If I had to pick one guy who could blow his projections away on the pitching staff this year, it'd be Bruney.

Ron Villone may or may not be a Yankee this year. Most of you know the deal with Villone. Great first half, horrible second half. Whether it was overuse or regressing back towards his mean, the real Villone is probably somewhere in the middle. I don't think Villone has any upside, but you could do worse with a long reliever/mop up guy.

Villone's looked lousy this spring. He may not have anything left.

If Villone doesn't make the Yankees, it'll likely be because Sean Henn does. Henn's been in the Yankee organization for what seems like decades, and has been fighting his way back from a pretty severe arm injury and surgery a few years ago. Henn used to deal in the high 90s, but now he's more of a lows 90s guy. He hasn't impressed in his brief major league stints, but a move to the pen may end up helping him find his niche.

Henn doesn't project as well as Villone for 2007, but sometimes you have to balance the needs of the present with planning for the future. Is the .5 difference in projected ERA really worth not finding out what you have in Henn for future? Henn will be 26 in April, it's probably time to give him a shot or let him go. With the news that he has a fourth option year, he also gives the Yankees roster flexibility, something that has often been an issue for the team.

The Yankees used the theory of sunk cost to acquire Chris Britton from the Orioles after picking up the option on Jaret Wright's 2007 contract. Britton had a decent season with Baltimore last year, but I have this nagging concern that Orioles fans didn't seem to care that he got traded. He's not a particularly hard-thrower, but works in the low 90s, and looks like he'll start the year in the minors after a shaky spring. He should get some innings this year and projects pretty well if he does.

Britton's struggled this spring, which has helped make the decision to farm him out easier.

Although he may start his season in the rotation, I'm listing Jeff Karstens in the bullpen since if all goes well, he'll be a long relief candidate. That's not a slight on Karstens, but if the Yankees plans go well, he's just not as likely to be good as any of the projected starting five.

Karstens looked much better than the guy who finished 2006 this spring until his last two starts. He had better velocity (91-92 on his fastball, compared to high 80s last year), seemed to have a sharper hook, and he was getting more grounders. While I think making judgements based on spring training stats is not smart, visual observations of players (especially pitchers) can be pretty useful. I like Karstens a lot more this year than I did last year, and it's primarily because his stuff now looks like it's major league quality.

The elbow issue he's having now complicates any assessment of him. It's tough to know if the Karstens we saw most of the spring just reverted to form recently, or if the stiff elbow was to blame. His projections seem harsh, but Karstens did have a 4.28 ERA in AAA last year, although he was outstanding after a rough start. I think Karstens will be useful reliever/spot starter this year, and am cautiously optimistic that he will exceed his projections.

Last on the list, Darrell Rasner. See Jeff Karstens. As far as I'm concerned, they're basically interchangeable, and will probably get moved up and down as needed all year.

Rasner projects a bit better than Karstens, but Karstens seems to have the organization's attention more than Rasner.

So what do all the numbers and projections mean? Here's a comparison of last year's pitching staff to this year's projections. I adjusted the innings totals of some of the pitchers to try and make them line up with last year.

Despite pessimistic projections for Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina relative to last season, improved depth replacing some really bad contributions by Aaron Small, Shawn Chacon, and others should put the team in a position to end up with a better overall pitching staff. The rotation isn't spectacular, but it should be solid enough to get through the regular season. Whether they'll be pitching well when October starts is the $190 million question.

Link to all projections.

So, with all the previewing out of the way, let's see where the Yankees end up. When I looked at the Yankee bench I summed up the projections for the position players on offense and defense. They came out to 142 runs above average on offense, and 32 runs below average on defense. Add in the pitching staff's projected 44 runs above average, and the team ends up at 156 runs above average. So they project to be about 16 wins above an average team, or a 97 win team overall. You can knock off a couple of wins if you want to add in some more replacement level pitching, but this is still a damn good team. If Phil Hughes and/or Roger Clemens replace some of the worse innings in the projections above, they could be even better than that.

Should be a fun season, and it's only three days away.

Cheap Plug Alert: I wrote an article for the Hardball Times previewing five questions that will tell the tale of the Yankees in 2007.

Breaking News: Abraham - Yankees Set Roster From Peter Abraham's great Yankee blog:

LHP Sean Henn, C Wil Nieves and 1B Josh Phelps are on the team.

No word on yet on the No. 5 starter other than that RHP Jeff Karstens is headed to the DL.