Sports Outside the Beltway

Yankees Big Three in 2008

It seems us hardcore Yankee fans (notice it’s not YankeeS fans) are looking forward to 2008 more so than any other season in a long time. In 2007, we saw that our top prospects were not over-hyped as Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy lived up to or exceeded expectations. The only dampers were Hughes’ three-month injury that spoiled an important developmental year and Joba’s loss of control for one inning in the playoffs that essentially ended the series. Assuming none are traded, all will be important pieces of the ball club in 2008 and well beyond. With their potential production for the next decade at stake, Yankee management is taking every precaution to ensure the Trio can and will contribute for as long as possible. While this may hamper the 2008 team due to innings limitations, it is a necessary evil to maintain the viability of the Big Three (could the group have a more boring nickname?) and the team as a whole for years to come.

In what way should the Trio be used, in what way will they be used, and what can we reasonably expect from them?

First we have to look at their innings totals in 2007 between the minors and majors, how much those increased from 2006, and how much we can expect from them this year:

Hughes pitched 72.2 with the Yankees, 5.2 in the playoffs and 37.2 in the minors = 116 total innings pitched. That’s exactly 30 fewer innings than 2006 (due to the pulled hamstring and the ensuing ankle sprain). With the knowledge that he pitched 146 innings in 2006, it’s possible he could be stretched to 170 innings.

Joba pitched 24 with the Yanks, 3.2 in the playoffs and 88.1 in the minors = 116 total. That’s 11 fewer than 2006, when he threw 89.1 at Nebraska and 37.2 in the Hawaiian Winter League. He probably won’t be stretched beyond 150, but some put it up to 170.

Kennedy pitched 19 with the Yanks and 146.1 in the minors = 165.1 total innings. He threw almost exactly 30 more innings than he did in 2006 (101.2 at USC, 2.2 in the minors and 30.1 in Hawaii). He’s ahead of the others, so we can reasonably expect 195 innings this year.

We saw how safe management played it last year with the ‘Joba Rules’, even in the midst of a pennant race. Going by the ‘Rule of 30’ (supported by Rick Peterson, Will Carroll and Tom Verducci) none of the Trio will be allowed to reach 200 innings in 2008. If we assume we’ll get 200 each from Wang and Pettitte, who each topped 200 in ’07 (counting the playoffs), it would still require about 550 innings from the remaining starters. The 2007 Yankees compiled just 921 innings by starters, 27 fewer than the AL average of 948 – a reasonable goal for the upcoming season. This is especially true considering starter-friendly Joe Girardi is now manager and the bullpen is currently weak. 948 innings pitched equates to 182.2 innings over three pitchers (not doable with the Trio) or 137 innings over four (very doable). (I always think of George’s secretary when I hear ‘doable’.)

With this in mind, and assuming that any or all of them will outperform Mike Mussina (of the 5.15 2007 ERA), the Big Three should be used to their maximum innings limits. That means no more than 150 innings for Hughes and Joba, and 200 for Kennedy. (Of course, if they should have low pitch counts, their limits could be extended. Wang went from 150 innings in 2005 to 218 in 2006.)If we say the Trio will average six innings per start, that would allow the former duo to start 25 games each and Kennedy to start 33 games. Great, pretty much a full season from Kennedy and over two-thirds from Hughes and Joba. However, it still leaves about 50 starter innings unaccounted for, hence a number of spot starts will be needed from Mussina or the hot hand of the moment – perhaps someone from Scranton like Alan Horne, Steven White, Kei Igawa or Jeff Marquez. That would require a kind of 5 ½-man rotation, going something along the lines of:

1. Wang
2. Pettitte
3. Kennedy (due to higher innings limit)
4. Hughes (assuming his limit is only 150 innings)
5. Joba (an April rotation that is 100% homegrown!)
6. Mussina

Moose will need to fill in for Hughes and Joba (alternately) roughly twice for every four times through the rotation. However, with off days, it would drop to about eight starts throughout the season. This maximizes our best starters, minimizes our worst (sorry Moose), and keeps the Trio within their individual innings limitations.

The problem with tandem starting (i.e., having Joba pitch four innings followed by Hughes going four too every fifth game) is that neither pitcher builds up significant arm strength. We want these guys to head into 2009 able to pitch at least six innings per start. They won’t start as often in my rotation, but when they do it will be treated pretty much as a normal ‘go as long as you can’ start. If Joe, Cash and Co. ever get concerned with the kids over-extending themselves, that’s what Moose and Scranton are for.

I haven’t yet touched on the argument that Joba should be a reliever because it just doesn’t make sense (unless it’s only done to limit innings), but to summarize (as RAB did excellently on Tuesday): 150 vs. 75 innings (and the difficulty that brings when trying to increase Joba’s innings again in 2009 (of course, that’s not a problem if he becomes a full time reliever)), four average to plus-plus pitches, the ability to maintain velocity late into games, the difficulty of finding/acquiring a ‘True #1 Ace’ (™) starter, and the ever-present fail safe option: if Joba does fail at starting, he can always fall back to relieving – pitchers don’t just fall back to starting. Make no mistake, the long-term plan is to make Joba a starter. That said, using Joba as a reliever through the first month or two wouldn’t be terrible, but converting him back to starting (a transition that could take a month by itself) is much harder than going from starting to relieving – that conversion wouldn’t happen until late in the season, and then what would happen in the playoffs? Would the Yanks try to convert him back to starting on the cusp of the playoffs? Or would they force (maybe) their best starter to stay in the pen?

As far as the playoffs go, there probably won’t be any restrictions (just as the ‘Joba Rules’ were lifted last year in October), so no worries there.

The benefit of the 5.5-man rotation is that these questions don’t have to be answered. Moose is part of the team whether we like it or not, but he can be effective as a long reliever and spot starter (and occasional set-up man if Farnsy, LaTroy, etc. need a rest) so as to not waste a roster spot. It also allows Hughes, Joba and Kennedy (all better than Moose) to start throughout the year, gaining valuable experience that can’t be gleaned from relieving, never having to transition between roles, limiting innings to ensure their health, and allowing the team to have one of the best long relievers/spot starters in baseball. This assumes they remain healthy, which is always a crap shoot, but there’s no guarantee that Wang, Pettitte or even Johan Santana will either.

Example of the 5.5-man rotation (assuming no off days):

Hughes 1
Joba 1


Moose 1


Then back to Week 1.

These proposals are all well and good, but the Yankees seem to be leaning toward giving a spot straight out to Mussina and letting the Trio fight for the two remaining spots. That is unfortunately what I believe will be the case this year (at least going into the season), with the probability of the odd-man out pitching in Scranton (or out of the pen) to limit his innings then coming up to the Bronx around mid-season to spell Mussina. Management and fans need to have patience – I truly believe the pen will be above average by mid-season: Albaladejo will be solid, Farnsworth out of the windup will cause less heart attacks, Ohlendorf brings his nasty stuff, Edwar will improve his command (call me an optimist), and later in the year the possibilities of Alan Horne, Humberto Sanchez and Mark Melancon stepping into important roles. The problem with Joba in the pen is the fear that he’ll be so good that management (read Hank Steinbrenner) and the average fan will only see the short-term success (as a great set-up man) instead of the long-term possibilities (perennial Cy Young candidate).

Before we cast off Moose completely, we should evaluate whether he will have a worse 2008 than any of the Trio (in other words: what should we expect from the Big Three this year)?

Scores of scouting reports have been written on the Trio, most of them glowing, but it’s their track records that will ensure their short and long-term success. Let’s start with Hughes. The ‘popped’ hammy was an absolute killer – Hughes was going through his usual ‘adjustment game’ that he has at every level (the first game in which he dominates), only to have the fairytale night cut short by a serious injury that sidelined him until August, and he didn’t hit his stride again until September. Based on the following evidence, we can expect 10-15 wins and an ERA around 4.00 in 150 innings.

Exhibit A: consensus top pitching prospect in all MLB heading into 2007 as a 20-year old;
Exhibit B: nearly threw a no-hitter in his second ML game;
Exhibit C: dominant minor league stats through 2.5 seasons – better than Clay Buchholz at a younger age with a better size/frame and mechanics;
Exhibit D: an average AL pitcher (4.46 ERA, 100 ERA+) as the youngest pitcher in all baseball (and counting the playoffs, his ERA drops to 4.14);
Exhibit E: the Yanks best starter in September and October (coinciding with Dave Eiland joining the team?);
Exhibit F: for what it’s worth, ZIPS projects him to a 3.70 ERA in 141 innings.

As for Joba, he’s been a starter his entire college and professional career until July of last year. It was great to see him excel in a relief role (the best ERA+ in history among pitchers with at least 24 innings) but how will he fare in the rotation? The Yanks top prospect as ranked by Baseball America, John Sickels, along with every other prospect publication, we can expect a season similar to Hughes’: ERA around 4.00, 150 innings. He’ll get hit more as he loses velocity and batters see him three and four times a game (compared to 1-2 inning relief stints), but his high strikeout rate will limit the damage.

Kennedy is a very interesting case – he doesn’t have the stuff of Hughes or Joba but at this point is a more ‘polished’ (as Dave Eiland put it) pitcher, possessing command of four pitches with the most college and pro experience. Oh, and he was named 2007 ‘Minor League Pitcher of the Year.’ That said, there’s no way he pulls off another 1.89 ERA season, and while he has the ability to have a better 2008 than either Hughes or Joba (because of the higher innings limit and ‘polish’), I see a year along the lines of 4.40 ERA over 190 innings.

As for Moose, he wasn’t as bad as his ERA would indicate. Outside of three horrendous starts in August, his ERA was under 4.50. But he will be 39, so an ERA between 4.50 and 5.00 over 50+ innings sounds about right.

Sorry for the length of this opus. It was intended to top out at 500 words (the LoHud version) but ballooned to 2000 due to the sheer enthusiasm I experienced writing it. Perhaps by the time you’re done reading, pitchers and catchers will have already reported to Tampa…



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