Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Mott Haven Pressure Cooker: The Future of the Yankee Rotation

As this playoff series has shown, the Yankees have a myriad of problems. Despite have 95 regular season wins; this is a team not too far from some serious mediocrity.

Begin with the aging core of the team. Jeter, A-Rod, Posada, and maybe Pettitte and Rivera—all of them view their best days in the rear-view mirrors. The 2011 Yankees rotation is Sabathia, Hughes and then, who? Is Posada done as a catcher? Is Jeter still a shortstop? Who takes over for Mo? All serious questions.

One serious problem is the age of the rotation. Assuming the Yankees back the dump truck full of cash on Cliff Lee’s front lawn, the Yankee rotation, minus Phil Hughes—will all be on the wrong side of 30 (with A.J. Burnett on the very wrong side and in free-fall decline). And again, that’s assuming Andy Pettitte returns. If he doesn’t, do the Yankees promote Ivan Nova? How patient will fans and management be with him assuming he has the normal growing pains of a young pitcher (see Joba Chamberlain’s development and you’ll get your answer of how patient)?

All of this is based on a lot of assumptions—assuming Pettitte returns; assuming the Yankees sign Cliff Lee. The long/short of it: The Yankees pitching is a mess.

And the reason for all this is the Yankees reliance on free agent pitching. The Bronx—both fans and management—are both extremely impatient and hostile with learning curves from young pitchers.

Here’s a list of young pitchers the Yankees have cultivated after Andy Pettitte: Phil Hughes. Want me to read that list over again? (Chien-Ming Wang could have been another one, but his body self-destructed.)

Here’s the (non-complete) list of pitchers the Yankees signed/traded for who didn’t reach expectations/flamed out when brought to the Bronx.

Kenny Rogers
Kevin Brown
Randy Johnson
Hideki Irabu
Denny Neagle
Sterling Hitchcock (former Yankee prospect)
Jeff Weaver
Jose Contreras
Jon Lieber
Javier Vasquez (twice)
Esteban Loiaza
Shawn Chacon
Al Leiter (former Yankee prospect)
Sidney Ponson
Cory Lidle
Donovan Osborne
Jared Wright
Carl Pavano
Kei Igawa

And a host of others. The record shows that more times than not, the Yankees receive a Carl Pavano when they were hoping for David Cone. What the Yankees seemingly don’t account for is that success in Kansas City, Pittsburgh or Arizona does not equate to success in the Bronx. The microscopic inspection of every conceivable detail, the stratosphere-high expectations, the media, the late October pressure—it’s a different animal in Yankee Stadium than in Miami. And many pitchers, from Kenny Rogers to Javier Vasquez—just can’t handle it. heck, Randy Johnson is a future Hall of Famer, won 303 games and had a lifetime 3.29 ERA. His ERA as a Yankee—4.37.

Yet the Yankees seem to keep trying to buy their rotation instead of cultivating one. Now, surely there were some prospects that couldn’t cut it, and flamed out. But it’s also true that the Yankees don’t exactly develop their prospects, nurse them and grow them; rather giving up on them and trading them for older players. Here are just a few of some recently traded young pitchers who succeeded elsewhere: Ian Kennedy (9-10, 3.84 ERA, Arizona Diamondbacks), Ross Ohlendorf (an unbelievable 1-11 record, but a respectable 4.07 ERA, Pittsburgh Pirates), Tyler Clippard (11-8, 3.07 ERA Washington Nationals). And then there’s the trade of former Yankee prospect Ted Lilly—who just signed a big multi-year contract with the Dodgers—for Yankee washout Jeff Weaver (5.35 ERA with the Yankees, now struggling for a job as a journeyman).

If the Yankees sign Cliff Lee this offseason—and this is not a plea for them not to—he will turn 33 in the middle of the season. A.J. Burnett will be 34 by the start of the season, Sabathia will be 31 come mid-season, and Pettitte will qualify for Social Security. That’s a lot of guys on the wrong side of 30.

And that’s not necessarily where the Yankees would like to be (never mind the expense of a veteran staff). The best staff ERA in the AL? The Oakland A’s. They are also the youngest staff in the AL with an average age of 26. The next best staff is Tampa with an average age of 28. The oldest staff in the AL—the Yankees and their incomplete rotation doing it a disservice here in October with a 6.55 ERA against Texas in the playoffs.

This is not to say that youth equals great pitching. It is to say a healthy base of homegrown talent, with a sprinkling of acquired talent, is the safest way to grow a team. With the Yankees though, that equation is reversed; the Yankees use free agency as a base and sprinkle a couple of youngsters here and there.

More times than not, that method doesn’t work. Last year, the Yankees spent hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents and won a championship. Have no doubt, Yankee fans, it was a lucky mix of timing and flukes: Jeter and Posada bucked old age for career-type years. Unlike most big-ticket free agents, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira didn’t try to do too much to earn their big checks and had banner years. A.J. Burnett worked well under the shadow of Sabathia and stayed healthy and performed well out of the pressure-packed spotlight. The schedule provided an extra day off for the Yankees so they could utilize a three-man rotation (the only reliable starters they had) for part of the playoffs. And Alex Rodriquez on some sort of cocktail of intensive psychotherapy and self-delusion exorcised his playoff demons and came through when his team needed him. That fluky luck...except for Sabathia...not so much in 2010.

And this is the predicament the Yankees get themselves into over and over again. They trade away young prospects, purchase a number of free agents, or trade the prospects for them—and then, more often than not, when the veterans don't live up to expectations in the Mott Haven Pressure Cooker, the Yankees find themselves without anyone to fill out their rotation. So they have to turn to Sidney Ponson and Esteban Loaiza. For all that money spent, they can't find a decent fleshed-out rotation. Not a way to head into the playoffs. Not a recipe for longterm success.

So that’s the pickle—the Yankees don’t have the time or inclination to suffer the growing pains of a young pitcher and let him grow to a reliable, Yankee-Stadium-tested starter, so they go out and buy one—right now, dammit!

But what do the Yankees do for next season? Ignoring the holes on the field, the Yankees potentially have serious holes in their rotation—and again, that’s assuming A.J. Burnett bounces back and Andy Pettitte returns and pitches effectively. Well, regardless of whether they win the World Series or get knocked out by the Rangers, the Yankees have a number of choices. The easiest prediction is they go after Cliff Lee. Assuming they get him, would he survive in Yankee Stadium? He most likely would and like Sabathia, would be an asset—assuming (there’s that word, again) he doesn’t get injured/old quickly.

But what about the long-term future? Do they grow Ivan Nova, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances and Hector Noesi? Or do they grow impatient and trade them like Ian Kennedy, Arodys Vizcaino and Zach McAllister? (Those guys, along with Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Melky Cabrera, brought the Yankees Curtis Granderson and Javier Vasquez.)

The winning thought could be; there should be a healthy mix of both. If there is a chance to sign CC Sabathia—weight the risks and rewards and then go after him. But add him to a staff that includes Ted Lilly, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Andy Pettitte. And not Javier Vasquez and A.J. Burnett.

The Yankees have a number of hard choices this winter. It will be interesting to see which direction they take.

1 comment:

blmeanie said...

I think with Hughes and Joba you have 2 STARTERS that are very young and ready to grow. Now the Yankees are likely to throw Joba out in a trade to get somebody (to your point) but 2/5 of the rotation IMO should be guys with 5 or less years in the majors. Always grooming 2/5 to be the veterans of tomorrow.

Good article.