Oh, what a night! Michael Corleone, er, Brian Cashman, handled all rotation business in one night, trading Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos, and before the dust had settled they signed Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million deal. The two moves transformed the Yanks’ rotation from solid =with a couple of question marks to dominant.
The trade is a rare, good old-fashioned baseball trade — each team received something they needed. The Yankees have a powerful offense, and the Mariners have plenty of pitching. In acquiring Pineda, the Yankees added a young pitcher who strikes out batters by the bushelful. Pineda was just one of 11 pitchers who threw 100 innings last season and struck out better than nine batters per nine innings, and none of the other 10 were Yankees. In fact, using the 100 inning threshold, the Yanks have only had two pitchers top a 9.00 K/9 in the past decade — 2002 Roger Clemens and 2008 Joba Chamberlain (remember that guy?). Pineda is less than a week shy of his 23rd birthday, and under team control for the next five years, all of which is great news for the Bombers.
That’s not to say that Pineda doesn’t come without warts. Now that he is moving to a park with shorter fences in the corners — Safeco’s left-field foul pole is 331 feet from home, right field is 326, while Yankee Stadium is 318 and 314, respectively — Pineda’s fly-ball tendencies could get him in trouble. Only five qualified pitchers had a lower GB/FB than did Pineda last season. From a GB/FB perspective, he does represent a bit of a departure for the Yanks — since new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, 11 of the 14 Yankees pitchers to throw 100 innings in a campaign have had a GB/FB of better than 1.00. Two of the three that were under, 2010 Phil Hughes and 2011 Freddy Garcia, turned in two-win seasons, but I think Cashman and Co. have loftier designs for Pineda.
Pineda may also need to refine his mix of pitches, as he was essentially a two-pitch guy last year. The Pitch f/x numbers have him throwing either his four-seamer or slider 90.2 percent of the time. The choosier hitters in the AL East may sniff this out and wait for a fastball to groove — a dangerous strategy considering how hard he throws, but not an impossible one given how straight he throws it. Pitch f/x had his fastball as slightly worse than Chad Billingsley on a per 100 pitch basis, and that’s likely due to the fact that if you could catch up to the heater, you could hit it hard. Pineda will be successful, but he could make things easier on himself by working to refine his changeup so that it is more than the show-me pitch it was last year.
Whether these concerns turn out to be major or minor will determine whether or not Pineda is a #2 or a #3 starter, but #3 should be his floor. There has been concern about his platoon split, but his 3.82 xFIP against lefties ranked 42nd out of 119 qualified pitchers last season — this is not a glaring weakness. The pitcher who ranked 41st was Matt Cain. And while him leaving the cozy confines of Safeco has to be a touch concerning, it wasn’t an issue last season — his 3.51 xFIP at home was nearly identical to his 3.55 road xFIP, and his 3.26 road FIP was even better than his 3.62 home FIP. Now, one season of platoon splits should be not held up as definitive proof of anything, but the point is that we should put away our jump to conclusions mats for the time being.
Of course, Pineda wasn’t the only move the Yankees made. In landing Kuroda for $10 million, the Yankees will now have three pitchers who ranked in the top 30 in xFIP last season (CC Sabathia, Pineda and Kuroda). As I wrote in December, Kuroda didn’t generate as many grounders as he did last season, but he still was on the dirt-trodden side of the GB/FB spectrum. Kuroda is also quite efficient — his 3.21 K/BB may not be better than Sabathia, but it’s a far piece better than anything A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, Garcia or Hughes has to offer.
The deal for Kuroda is especially a coup considering the low price in both dollars and years. Contrast his deal to the one Mark Buehrle signed, or the deals inked by Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell, and you can see that the Yankees made out well by waiting.
Big picture, the Yankees have solidified four slots in their starting rotation. Sabathia remains the top dawg, and behind him slot Pineda, Kuroda and Nova in some order. Burnett, Garcia and Hughes will vie for the fifth spot, with Hughes looking to be the low man on the totem pole. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances could theoretically factor into the mix, but since neither has more than 35 innings of Triple-A ball under their belt, they’re likely ticketed for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
If they so choose, the Yankees could keep the two losers of the fifth-starter derby on the team and in the bullpen. Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Boone Logan and Cory Wade should make up the front five members of the ‘pen, but the last two spots look to be up for grabs, and could easily go to two of Burnett-Garcia-Hughes.
The Yankees had a good rotation last season — their starter WAR of 16.7 ranked sixth in the Majors. But some of its success, mainly in the persons of Nova and Bartolo Colon, may have been unsustainable. By acquiring Pineda and Kuroda, they should be just as formidable as a group, and there is a good chance the rotation ends up in the top three in 2012. Conservatively speaking, they should be worth at least three more wins combined than the pitchers they are replacing, and could easily push that to five wins. And even though the Yankees have enough credit to buy out Moe Greene and everyone else in baseball, when you consider that they didn’t pay full price for either player, it makes their acquisitions that much sweeter. So much for that quiet offseason.
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