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Goldman: Filling the Bullpen

The Yankees don't need a big star, just some good guys
01/23/2008 8:02 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com

Rivera is returning to the bullpen this year.(AP)
BULLPEN ALMOST FULL
(BY PAUL MCCARTNEY, AVAILABLE AT STARBUCKS)

We're full of fun with an empty bullpen, and as Sister Fingers used to say, an empty bullpen is the Devil's playground. In 2007, American League pitchers threw 20,178.1 innings. Starters threw 13,278 innings, or 66 percent. Relievers threw 6900.1 innings, or just over one-third of the available frames. Because Yankees' starting pitching was erratic, their starter-reliever divide had a slight slant towards the pen. Overall, the Yankees pitched 1450.2 innings. The starters ate up 921 of them, or 63 percent, leaving the relievers with 529.2 innings, or 37 percent. The Yankees had to squeeze 51 more innings out of their pen than did the average ballclub, and they weren't good ones. With a more efficient starting rotation, Sean Henn and Edwar Ramirez vanish in a puff of wins.

A number of last year's relievers are no longer New York property. Mike Myers and Scott Proctor were let go long ago. Luis Vizcaino has gone off to give up three-run homers for the Rockies. Ron Villone is a free agent, though one assumes that, like a burrito, he could still recur. Joba Chamberlain is likely a starter. Colter Bean has finally been granted minor league free agency; Jim Brower took that route to the Cincinnati Reds. Altogether, roughly 224 relief innings, or 42 percent, have skipped town. Let us acknowledge that after Mariano Rivera the 58 percent that remains included much in the way of Henn, Farnsworth, and Bruney, the law firm you never want to consult, not even if you've been hit by a bus while swallowing your daily dose of Vioxx. In other words, the 2008 Yankees have to replace or get unexpected improvements from more than half the bullpen.

The main offseason imports don't have much of a pedigree, but that's all right, because bullpens are so random that it is often not worth spending money on big names. Any GM tempted to spend big bucks on name-brand middle relievers should just turn his TV on to ESPN and take a long gander at Steve Phillips-that's where the compulsive collection of relievers will get you, out of the front office and onto a set where the smarter baseball fans, to paraphrase George Harrison, turn down the sound and say rude things about you. Thus has Brian Cashman and the Young Elephants given us LaTroy Hawkins, Jonathan Albaladejo, Scott Strickland, Heath Phillips, and Billy Traber-the last three non-roster invitees to spring training. These will be joined by the fruits of the minor league system, any of whom could be expected to win a job.

A few too many Quadruple-A types will take up time in spring training this year-Heath "Another" Phillips or Scott Patterson might prove to be that sought-after non-commodity, free talent, but more likely they'll just eat up innings and distract from the team promoting younger, less experienced, but harder throwing alternatives.

In the last entry over on the Pinstriped Blog side, we talked about the move of Joba Chamberlain from the bullpen to the rotation and why that should be a benefit. We can briefly revisit that here. First, we have to be conservative in our expectations, because we're not replacing the Joba that allowed just two runs in 24 innings. We're replacing a more realistic pitcher who, like all pitchers, gets hammered a couple of times a year. Maybe he's still very, very good if he's not being devoured by flies, but he's human. Once you realize that, the problem of replacing Chamberlain in the setup role becomes a much less daunting proposition, one more approachable by rolling the dice the Yankees are doing, because you don't have to find the God of Relievers, just a good one.

PS: The replacement won't be LaTroy Hawkins, who had a low strikeout rate in front of a terrific defense last year. Want to measure the difference between Derek Jeter and a good glove at short like Troy Tulowitzki? Last year, right-handed batters hit .097 when they pulled a grounder to the left side off of Hawkins. By comparison, Chien-Ming Wang allowed an average of .163 on grounders to the right side. It doesn't sound like much, but we're talking about a lot of extra runs.

CANO: I WILL BREAK YOUR PIGGY BANK
Arbitration item today from Jon Heyman of SI:

Another player who went for the downs was Robinson Cano, whose request for $4.55 million was more than power hitters Justin Morneau and Matt Holliday ($4.4 million) got in their first year of eligibility. The Yankees bid $3.2 million.

What's the Latin for, "Don't compare apples to oranges?" Caveat, fruit vendor? Despite the misbegotten MVP award in his past, Morneau is not a standout offensive player in the class of first basemen and designated hitters. Holliday is a standout offensive player, but he had just arrived at that status in 2006, his last season before arbitration (his first two seasons were of the 120-game, good-not-great variety). It also seems silly to quibble about $150,000, but I suppose it is factually true that Cano asked for more. Neither player is a standout with the glove.

Not only has Cano become a very good defensive second baseman, but he hits well above the overall group of keystoners. In 2006, American League (that is, the guys in the harder league) second basemen hit .280/.332/.395. Cano hit .342/.365/.525. In 2007, AL second basemen hit .284/.339/.416. Cano hit .306/.353/.488. He's not perfect for reasons that we've frequently discussed, but he's a very valuable property who will play next season at 25. The only question about him is if he will have a quick, Rennie Stennett/Carlos Baerga-style peak or continue to grow and become something even better.

Being corner defensive players, Holliday and Morneau have to go further to exceed their competition than does Cano. Baseball Prospectus has a stat called Wins Above Replacement (WARP, natch) which depicts how many wins a player's hitting and fielding was worth to his team beyond the worst available replacement (a fringe major leaguer or Triple-A vet). Here are the first three seasons for the three players we've been discussing:

Player
MORNEAU
HOLLIDAY
CANO
Season 12.13.35.5
Season 29.45.38.7
Season 38.39.311.8
Total19.817.926.0

It's not that Morneau and Holliday don't have value. They clearly do. It's just that a second baseman who can hit like an outfielder is more valuable than an outfielder who can hit like an outfielder (but no more, which roughly describes Holliday was in his first two years), or a first baseman who doesn't hit as well as the best players at his position. If anything, Cano's bid is conservative, not greedy.

KNOBLAUCH TO CONGRESS: "GET STUFFED"
(WELL, HE SHOULD)

Last week, I ranted a bit on the subject of contempt of Congress and how there might be consequences for you, me, or Roger Clemens for blowing off the Supreme Legislature, but not if you're part of the government. Congress has subpoenaed Chuck Knoblauch after he didn't sign up for a deposition. I don't know if the principle of equal justice carries any weight in this country, but if the solons of Washington bully the diminutive ex-second baseman, he can always call their bluff: "Why pick on the little guy," he might say, "when you coward out on the big fish?" Ace blogger Glenn Greenwald of Salon picked up on the same Harriet Myers/Knoblauch discrepancy. We are truly living in strange times. If Knoblauch didn't sneeze away the money from his playing days, he's richer than Croesus. But, in these days of "them" and "us" he qualifies as a man of the people.

HERALDING A NEW MASTER
I have never hidden my unbounded admiration for the word portraits painted by my good friend Alex Belth of Bronx Banter. This week he posted a four-part series on longtime Yankees employee and children's book author Ray Negron. It's a must read for anyone who wants to understand the behind the scenes world of the Yankees from the 1970s until now. Negron has been there for all of it, often becoming the holder of secrets-not that has earned him any breaks beyond the initial one that brought him to George Steinbrenner when he was young. As Alex writes, "Ray Negron is one of George's Guys-he's an inner circle guy, a made man. This doesn't mean he's had it easy. Being close to Steinbrenner means enduring the Boss's abuse. There have been fights and angry breakups, always followed by forgiveness and reconciliation. 'One minute he can tell me, "Shut up, you don't know what you're talking about," says Negron. 'Ten minutes later, he's complimenting me.'"

Read it now (part one can be found here because my guess is that in a year you'll have to pay for it in your copy of "Best American Sportswriting 2008."

SCOTT SPEZIO, ARE YOU LISTENING?
Thanks to the surgical wound in my throat, I can't shave any further south than my chin and I fear that I will soon begin to resemble Horace Greeley. Horace hasn't been hip in a long time-in fact, he lived just long enough to find out that almost everyone on the continent found him to be terminally unhip, at which point he had the good taste to die. I would like to avoid this fate-that was the whole point of the surgery after all-so I am trying to pass off this small handicap as the cultivation of a new fashion trend: the "soul neck."

If some of you gentlemen in the audience would help me out a little by letting your whiskers grow, maybe dying the resultant tract some bright colors, I can avoid ridicule and stigmatization. Then, this fall, when various 23-year-olds come to bat in the World Series sporting lush crops on the underside of their heads, you can turn to the guy next to you and say, "Shelley Duncan is such a poseur. I had a soul neck months before he did." We can be hot, guys, I know it.

Or maybe the whole thing is just disgusting and we should drop it altogether.

CHAN LETTER
(OR HOW I FOUND A NEW OLD DYLAN SONG I DIDN'T KNOW I LIKED)
1. Read a review of Chan Marshall's new covers album in the Sunday New York Times.
2. Headed over to Allmusic and discovered that she had a prior covers album. Noticed a Bob Dylan song I didn't recall, "Paths of Victory."
3. Reached for my copy of Dylan's Complete Lyrics, found it was written around the time of The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963-1964) but not released by Dylan at that time. Correctly figure it must be on the first of The Bootleg Series.
4. Listen. Mmm. It's a piano and harmonica number with a old-fashioned rollicking feel, a combination of hobo song and hymn:

The morning train was moving,
The humming of its wheels,
Told me of a new day
Coming across the field

Trails of troubles,
Roads of battles,
Paths of victory,
We shall walk.

5. Listen several more times.
6. Recommend to readers.
7. Start again tomorrow, in a different vein, with Nick Lowe.

Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Bible appears weekly on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel is available at Amazon.com and a bookstore near you, as is "Mind Game," about the intellectual conflict between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Steve's Pinstriped Blog is available weekdays on YESNetwork.com, and more Steve can be found at Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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