Thursday, January 08, 2004

So long, Mo

First, I'd like to apologize for my absence the past couple days. I've been very busy and unable to sit down and get a post written. Today, I still don't have any real outstanding analysis or anything, but I'd like to talk about something that is not much of a surprise at all. According to WFAN, Mo Vaughn is not retiring, but he will not be able to play at all in 2004 and he probably won't be able to play baseball again.

In recent years, Vaughn's career has turned into a joke, but I'm very appreciative of what Vaughn did for the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox took Vaughn in the first round of the 1989 draft, and he made his major-league debut two years later.

Vaughn's first two seasons in the big leagues were not good as he hit .244/.331/.389 (.719) with 17 homers, 63 runs and 89 RBI in 187 games. Then, in 1993, he turned into the hitter who would anchor the Boston lineup for the next six years. He played 152 games and hit .297/.390/.525 (.915) with 29 homers, 86 runs and 101 RBI.

From 1995 through 1998, he was one of the most feared hitters in the American League, playing at least 140 games each season while posting an OPS+ of at least 145 each year. In those four seasons, he made the All-Star game three times, he finished in the top five in MVP voting three times, he finished in the top 10 in batting three times, he finished in the top six in OBP three times, he finished in the top 10 in SLG four times, he finished in the top 10 in OPS four times, he finished in the top 10 in runs twice, he finished in the top four in hits twice, he finished in the top five in total bases three times, he finished in the top 10 in homers four times, he finished in the top three in RBI twice, he finished in the top 10 in walks twice, he finished in the top 10 in extra-base hits three times, he finished in the top eight in times on base three times and he finished in the top 10 in OPS+ four times.

If you didn't feel like reading through that whole list, let me summarize it for you. From 1995 through 1998, Mo Vaughn was one of the best hitters in the American League. And he played for my favorite team. And I loved it.

He was this big, huge, intimidating guy, but he was as friendly as could be. My dad liked to call him a big teddy bear, but he was a teddy bear who could crush a baseball.

I remember being awed by the fact that Vaughn could contend for a batting title with that swing of his. That uppercut swing that spent so little time in the strike zone that it required perfect timing looked like a sure recipe for a low average and lots of strikeouts. Vaughn did strike out a lot, but he was able to hit .315 from 1993 through 1998.

I remember Vaughn leading the Red Sox to the playoffs for the first time in 1995, and then going hitless as Boston was swept in three games by the Cleveland Indians. And I remember three years later when Vaughn got his next chance in the playoffs, against that same Indians team, and smacked two home runs and drove in seven runs.

I remember the Opening Day walkoff home run that is alluded to on Vaughn's Baseball-Reference page.

I remember a lot of times when Vaughn made me a very happy Red Sox fan, and I'm truly appreciative of everything he did for the franchise over those six seasons.

I was sad to see Vaughn leave Boston after 1998. Even though I knew it would have been foolish for Boston to give him a contract similar to the one that Anaheim gave him, I was sad to see him go. And I'm sad that his career took such a turn for the worse, and that it now appears to be over.

He was a very, very good player over a six-year stretch with my favorite team. I hope his career is remembered for that and not for the fat jokes that dominated the end of his career.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Perfect he's not

Boomer on breaking his word

Last off-season, David Wells reached a verbal agreement to sign a one-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he would have filled the third spot in the rotation behind Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Instead of pitching for Arizona, however, he ended up helping the Yankees reach the World Series (and then he helped them lose the World Series by pitching just one inning in game five).

This off-season, Wells reached a verbal agreement to accept a minor-league contract with the Yankees that most likely would have turned into a major-league contract and a spot, part-time at least, in the rotation. Instead of pitching for New York, however, he will end up being the "ace" of the San Diego Padres rotation after signing a one-year deal that could be worth as much as $7-million with incentives.

Just as Wells' change of heart last year left Arizona with a dearth of starting pitchers, so will his change of heart this year leave New York with a dearth of starting pitchers, at least compared to what the Yankees are accustomed to having.

Last year, if you'll remember, one of the biggest stories heading into the season was how much depth the Yankees had in their starting rotation. Even after trading the broken Duke, Orlando Hernandez, to Montreal, the Yankees five-man rotation had seven applicants: Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, David Wells, Jose Contreras, Jeff Weaver and Sterling Hitchcock.

The first four each made at least 30 starts and pitched anywhere from above average (Wells) to great (Mussina). Weaver got 24 starts and was ineffective to say the least. Injuries limited Contreras to nine starts and 71 innings (he also made nine relief appearances) and Hitchcock got just one start in his 27 appearances before being traded to St. Louis in August.

And now only two of those pitchers remain: Mussina and Contreras. Three new pitchers have been added: Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown and Jon Lieber. Most teams would kill to have a rotation of Mussina, Vazquez, Brown, Contreras and Lieber, but the Yankees are not most teams.

The Yankees can afford to buy insurance policies, but at the moment they don't have any insurance on this rotation. And it is a rotation that could use insurance.

Mussina is as solid as they come. He has pitched at least 200 innings in each of the last nine seasons and he was just one-third of an inning from reaching 215 innings for the seventh time in nine years last season. He's very economical, meaning that his high inning totals do not come with outrageously high pitch totals. Other than the risk of a fluke injury that follows every player, Mussnia is not a risk to miss time.

Vazquez has been just as durable, pitching at least 217 innings in each of the last four seasons. Unlike Mussina, he is not economic with his pitches and many people feel that he has been overworked in his early years. However, he's shown no real signs of arm trouble and there are those who think he might be one of those pitchers who is a sponge for abuse. While he will suffer through arm fatigue from time to time, he may not be a real risk to be out for an extended period of time.

That leaves the other three pitchers, which is where the real trouble lies.

Brown pitched 211 innings last year, but he only pitched 179.1 innings in the previous two seasons combined. He'll be 39 years old when the season opens, and he has an injury history as long as his 6-foot-4 frame. Before those two injury-plagued seasons, Brown pitched at least 230 innings in five straight seasons for a total of 1209.2 innings. He's thrown over 3,000 innings in his career and at this point he's probably more likely to make 15 starts than he is to make 35 starts.

Contreras, as I said, was limited to just 71 innings last year due to injuries. Who knows what his pitching history looks like and who knows exactly how old he is? Could he make 35 starts and pitch 230 innings? Yes, he probably could. Could he be limited to 15-20 starts and 100-130 innings? Yes, he probably could.

Lieber did not pitch at all last year and was limited to 141 innings in 2002 by an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. There is absolutely no way to know how much or how well he'll be able to pitch for the Yankees because he hasn't been able to pitch for a year and a half. Before his injury, he was very durable for three years. If the Yankees get from him what the Cubs got from him from 1999-2001, they'll have the best fifth starter in baseball. But it's just as possible that injury and/or ineffectiveness could cut his season short.

So, the Yankees have two reliable arms and three large question marks. Every team, no matter how dependable its five starters, needs a backup plan in case somebody needs to miss a start for one reason or another. Last year, the Seattle Mariners were the only team to make it through the entire season using just five starting pitchers. Atlanta and Chicago both used seven starting pitchers and the Braves got 159 starts from their five most-used starters.

The average team last year used 10.6 starting pitchers and got 133.5 starts from its top five starters. Those numbers are obviously skewed by a few teams who had so few quality pitchers that their rotations were revolving doors all season, but it still shows how unlikely it is for a team to make it through an entire season without needing at least a dozen or so spot starts.

In fact, only six team last year (including the Yankees) did not need more than 12 "spot" starts. I suppose it's possible New York could fall in that group, but given the question marks in their rotation I think New York will be closer to five pitchers making 133 starts than five pitchers making 162 starts.

So, who will be making the 12-25 starts that are not made by New York's top five? Well, the best option for the Yankees would probably be to go out and sign another starting pitcher. If they really wanted to make a New York-sized splash, they could lure Greg Maddux to the Big Apple. That probably won't happen, but it's certainly possible that the Yankees will sign another starting pitcher or two before spring training opens.

If they don't, then the spot starter will probably be Jorge DePaula. DePaula gets some attention as a prospect, but I think that's just because he's the best thing the Yankees have left. He's 25 years old and he spent most of last season at Class AAA Columbus, where he pitched 167.2 innings while posting a 4.35 ERA with just 125 strikeouts (6.71 K/9IP) and 57 walks (.306 BB/9IP). He also served up 22 home runs (1.18 HR/9IP).

I'm not trying to knock the Yankees starting rotation, because it's very good. However, some people are getting ahead of themselves by saying it's better than last year's. The Yankees 2004 rotation will be better than the 2003 version if everybody stays healthy, but that's a very big if. And the rotation would look a lot more like 2003's if Wells was still around to be the fifth starter, which would allow Lieber to hang around as insurance.

Another effect of Wells changing his mind is that the Yankees do not have a single left-handed starting pitcher (even DePaula is right-handed). It's generally thought that when pitching in Yankee Stadium, it's better to be left-handed than right-handed. That may well be true, but as Brian Cashman said and Rob Neyer noted in his chat today, given a choice between a great right-hander and a good left-hander, you should always take the great right-hander. However, it's worth noting something in regard to the lack of lefties in the Bronx rotation.

The New York Yankees top competition for the AL East is the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees will face the Red Sox 19 times in the regular season, and possibly (as they did last year) seven more times in the playoffs. The Boston Red Sox hit .290/.365/.505 (.870) against right-handers and .285/.347/.456 (.803) against left-handers last year. That is at least part of the reason the Red Sox went 69-40 when a righty started against them and 26-27 when a lefty started.

Those splits might not be quite so extreme this year with Todd Walker being replaced by Pokey Reese and Mark Bellhorn this season, but it seems certain that the Red Sox will hit significantly better against righties than against lefties. For the team that is most concerned with defeating the Red Sox, it must be disconcerting to know that you always have to use a starting pitcher who throws with the hand the Red Sox prefer.

And yes, I'm aware that the Red Sox also do not have any left-handed starting pitchers. However, the Yankees split wasn't nearly as extreme (.791 OPS vs. lefties, .816 OPS vs. righties) and Gary Sheffield will make it even closer because he hits lefties much better than righties.

I was actually going to talk about what Wells' decision means for the Padres too, but I've already spent too much time talking about what it means for the Yankees. So, tomorrow I'll have more to say about Wells changing teams. If you're already tired of reading about Wells, I'm sorry. I promise that tomorrow will be the last time I talk about him for awhile.