Friday, February 4, 2011

Yankees Brainstorming Potential Pettitte Replacements

Andy Pettitte has retired. While the Yankees are clearly disappointed that Andy Pettitte decided to retire, they're not the type of team that wallows in their own self pity.  In the face of adversity, they pick themselves up and move on.  That's why it's not surprising to hear that the Yankees have already started to kick around a few names as possible replacements for the stoic lefty.  According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, those names include Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir, Wade LeBlanc, Clayton Richard, and Gio Gonzalez.

Obviously, this isn't the final list, but its a start.  Rosenthal's report isn't clear as to whether they've actually started exploring these options, or if they just had a brainstorming session.  At first glance, it seems like a mixed bag.  Kind of underwhelming.  Still, the list is probably worth analyzing (rather than tossing it off) to see if there are any viable candidates to replace Pettitte.  Just for the sake of wasting some time, let's take a look at each of the five candidates Rosenthal mentioned in his tweet.

Scott Kazmir

Armed with a plus-fastball, good slider, and above average change up, Scott Kazmir used to be one of the top left-handed pitchers in baseball.  While he was never had good control, he was blessed with the ability to avoid contact and induce whiffs.  As a result, he racked up high strikeout totals, which helped minimize the effect of his high walk rate.

In 2008, his fortunes started to change when he suffered from an elbow injury in Spring Training.  From that point forward, Kazmir started to not only lose velocity across the board, but also allow greater levels of contact.  Not coincidentally, his elevated contact rate was directly responsible for his strikeout rate bottoming out.   Furthermore, his once acceptable GB/FB ratio had been replaced with one that was much heavier in terms of fly balls.  As a result, Kazmir was not only allowing far more hits, but also more home runs.  These factors combined with an already mediocre walk rate, are a recipe for disaster.  Not surprisingly, Kazmir's ability to pitch effectively has been severely compromised.  

While Kazmir's successful past (in particular as a Red Sox killer) might seem alluring to the Yankees, it's probably better that they pass on him.  Last season he pitched so poorly, he was considered to be a below replacement level pitcher (-0.8 fWAR).  Moving to the stacked, ultra-competitive AL East isn't likely to change that. 

Joe Saunders

With the Angels in 2008 and 2009, Joe Saunders put up some surprisingly good primary stats.  Unfortunately, his primary numbers didn't mesh up well with his peripherals, and he wasn't able to sustain his performance.  The problem with Saunders is that he doesn't do a lot of the things that make a pitcher successful over the long haul.  He allows too much contact; doesn't induce enough strikeouts and swinging strikes; and a sub-par walk rate (in comparison to his strikeout totals).  While he does a good job keeping the ball on the ground, this ground ball rate (45.8% for his career) isn't high enough to compensate for his other flaws.

Saunders has four pitches (fastball, slider, curve ball, change up), but none of them register as "plus" pitches; his change up flashes plus.  Without a true plus pitch that induces whiffs, it's unlikely he'll ever reduce his contact rate (86.4% in 2010) to a point to where he can be anything more than a number five starter.  Even though Saunders might be a better pitcher than the four candidates currently have duking it out for the final two rotation slots (Garcia, Nova, Mitre, Colon), he will not only have a cost in salary ($5.5M, but also in prospects.  Those two factors alone make Saunders cost prohibitive. 

Wade LeBlanc

As for Wade LeBlanc, there's not a whole lot to write about him.  Like Saunders, he's a protypical crafty-lefty that tries to get by on finesse and guile.  Up to this point, his strategy has only been moderately successful.  Despite pitching half of his games in the ball park facetiously known as Petco National Park, he somehow managed to find a way to post both an ERA over 4.00 and an HR/FB rate (11.6%) that exceeded the league norms in 2010.  LeBlanc is primarily a fly ball pitcher without an "out" pitch, which makes him very susceptible to the long ball.  By moving to either a hitter friendly park, or at least one that's neutral but leans homer-friendly (like Yankee Stadium), LeBlanc could end up seeing his ERA/FIP skyrocket to the point where he's no longer a useful pitcher.  In fact, after three seasons hovering at or below the replacement level, you could argue that he's not as useful pitcher as he is now.  While LeBlanc is likely to be making a salary at or slightly above the league minimum, it's probably smarter for the Yankees to go with one of the four candidates they already have in place.

Clayton Richard

Clayton Richard is another crafty-lefty type of pitcher.  Despite this fact, I tend to like him a little more than the previous two pitchers I discussed.  While Richard doesn't miss a lot of bats, he does a much better job at coaxing ground balls and inducing strikeouts.  Richard has command of five pitches, which includes a very effective fastball (worth 22.3 runs on Fangraphs pitch type scale) and a solid cutter that breaks in on the hands of right-handed hitters.  The only pitch in his repertoire that's disappointing is his change up.  With some refinement, he could turn it into a much more effective weapon.  If he can do this, he might be able to push his ground ball rate above 50%, which would go a long way towards securing his long-term viability as a major league starting pitcher.  My primary concern with Richard is his high walk rate (3.48 per nine innings in 2010).  While his walk rate did drop significantly in comparison to his 2009 rate, he'll need to show he can improve that rate even further before I could support him moving to the extraordinarily patient AL East.  He could be a decent fit with the Yankees down the line, but it's still a year or two too early to move him just yet.

Gio Gonzalez

Gio Gonzalez is my favorite pitcher of the bunch.  There's so much to like about this kid.  He's young, misses bats, induces ground balls, and has tremendous stuff.  Gonzalez has a three pitch repertoire that features a fastball that flashes plus and sits 90-94 (and touches 95-96); a knee buckling 11-5 plus-curve ball that induces a lot swinging strikes; and change up that's primarily used as a show pitch and could use some refinement.

Despite all of his positive qualities, Gonzalez is not without his drawbacks as well.  Unfortunately, like Scott Kazmir, he has a tendency to allow walks in bunches.  While that's a pretty big problem, it's one could have a relatively easy solution.  During his three seasons in the major leagues, there's one area in particular where Gonzalez has strugged--first pitch strikes (53.4% versus a league-wide average of 58.5%).  If he can somehow find a way to bring his first pitch strike rate up to the league average, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a corresponding 10-15% drop in his walk rate.  While this adjustment would only be the first of many that Gonzalez would need to make towards improving his control, being successful in this endeavor would go a long way towards showing he can be the top of the rotation starter many scouts predicted him to be.

As far as the Yankees making an attempt to trade for him, I say go for it.  While yes, I have concerns about his control, Gonzalez's stuff is so good that I think he's worth the risk.  I wouldn't trade Montero, Brackman, or Gardner for the kid, but I would certainly consider moving Nova, Romine, Heathcoat, or Nunez for him.

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