Yankees Awake From Offseason Slumber

Did anyone really believe the Yankees would make it through the entire offseason without a flurry of activity in one form or another? In two separate moves, the Yankees turned a point of weakness into one of strength. Instead of a rotation that consisted of C.C. Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and a collection of misfits and question marks, they now feature a rotation that includes Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda. That leaves the fifth spot in the rotation (which is one of the most overrated parts of the team) as the only one left to be determined. Factor in that Manny Banuelos could claim that spot sometime over the summer, and the Yankees instantly become World Series contenders, if not favorites. Easily lost in the shuffle is that Jose Campos, a high ceiling prospect is headed to the Bronx with Pineda. Of course both came at a cost, and that cost was Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. The fantasy impact is big, so let’s take a look at the fall out.

It’s not the sexy move the Yankees made, but signing Kuroda was a smart one. All the warnings of moving from the National League to the American League apply, and trading Dodger Stadium for Yankee Stadium is a negative fantasy move, however, he has the skill set to succeed in spite of these changes. Kuroda has historically coaxed groundballs at a high rate (48.6 percent groundball rate for his career), though, last year was an outlier from the norm (43.2 percent groundball rate). He pounds the strikezone, 2.18 BB/9 in 2011 and 2.10 BB/9 for his career, and strikes out batters at a tick above league average rate, 7.17 K/9 and 19.2 percent strikeout rate for Kuroda in 2011 versus 7.13 K/9 and 18.6 percent strikeout rate for league average. Expect his strikeout rate to swing to a tick below league average, but don’t consider that a death knell to his fantasy value. He’ll be backed by an offense that finished second in Major League Baseball in runs scored in 2011, which is encouraging for owners chasing wins. Kuroda is much the same in fantasy as he is in reality, a great glue guy for a rotation. He’s unlikely to garner many headlines, and won’t win owners fantasy titles in 2012. He’s equally unlikely to lose owners titles.

The juicy news that captured the hearts, minds, and attention of baseball freaks and geeks is the rare youth for youth deal of Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos. The minor piece headed to the Yankees is Campos, who is 19 (as of July 27) and spent all of 2011 in Low-A ball. He toyed with hitters there striking out better than a batter per inning, 9.41 K/9, and walking few batters, 1.44 BB/9. Those rates resulted in a 6.54 K:BB and a 2.32 ERA that is supported by his 2.38 FIP. John Sickels of Minor League Ball recently rated Campos as the fifth best prospect in a really good Mariners farm system giving him a “B,” grade. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus echoed Sickels ranking, placing him fifth on his list as well awarding him a three star grade. Both Sickels and Goldstein gush about his fastball, which sits in the low-90s and hits the mid-90s frequently, and love that he has such outstanding control of the pitch. They also both note his secondary pitches need a lot of work. He has a high ceiling, but is far from a sure thing in terms of reaching his potential. Still, the Yankees should be delighted to get a lottery ticket like Campos with Pineda.

Pineda is the big get for the Yankees. He had as good a rookie year as any one could have reasonably hoped for tallying a 3.74 ERA (3.53 xFIP) and 1.10 WHIP with 173 strikeouts. Pineda’s 9.11 K/9, 24.9 percent strikeout rate, 2.89 BB/9, his WHIP, and his xFIP led qualifying rookie pitchers last year. More impressive is that his strikeout marks were good for the top 10 amongst all qualifying pitchers. He did this all using mostly a two pitch mix of his fastball and slider. Texas Leaguers credited him with throwing a four-seam fastball, a cutter, and a two-seam fastball in addition to just a “fastball.” Judging by the average velocity, 89.7 mph, a far cry from his 94.7 mph to 96.3 mph average velocities on his other fastball offerings, it is likely those slower fastballs were misclassified change-ups. Adding the slow fastballs to what was classified as a change-up yields a 8.5 percent usage for the pitch. It’s easy to see why he didn’t throw his change-up often. It generated a sub five percent whiff rate, and scouting reports have always pegged it as lagging behind his slider. That said, when you can throw a premium heater and swing-and-miss slider like Pineda can (18.6 percent whiff rate on the slider), you have a bit of wiggle room to iron the kinks out of a third pitch.

Pineda has a flyball centric batted ball profile (44.8 percent flyball rate) that was fine for Safeco Field, but will lead to a few more taters at Yankee Stadium. As prime years Johan Santana can attest, a pitcher can get away with giving up home runs if they are able limit free passes and miss bats. Any short term value lost by a possible uptick in ERA is offset by swapping being backed by the league lowest scoring offense of the Mariners for the juggernaut Yankees. Yes, it is dangerous projecting wins given their volatility and team dependance, however, the likelihood of winning games is simply greater when backed by a significantly better offense.

In order to part ways with a cost controlled high ceiling arm like Pineda, who already has succeeded in the majors, and to a lesser extent a low minor league level raw talent like Campos, the Mariners needed a healthy return. They got just that in Montero and Noesi. Noesi ranked ahead of Yankees rookie darling Ivan Nova on Sickels top-20 list for the Yankees prior to the year and on Baseball America’s list as well. Goldstein ranked him directly behind Nova. All had them in the same general area. Noesi began the year by starting four games in Triple-A for Scranton Wilkes-Barre before being summoned to serve in the bullpen for the parent club in mid-May. He’d make two more appearances in Triple-A (August 31 and September 3), but would finish the year with the Yankees. In all, he made 30 appearances spanning 56.1 innings for the Yankees, of which just two were starts. His performance wasn’t anything to get excited, and scouting reports prior to the season suggest he projects as a back of the rotation arm. That makes Noesi’s value greater in real life than fantasy.

Moving on, Montero is the name Mariners fans and fantasy gamers should care the most about moving to the north west. He’s a “catcher,” in name and development only. Montero’s long term home should, and likely will, be first base or designated hitter. For now, he’ll continue to don the tools of ignorance for the Mariners and retain (or gain in leagues he’s only utility eligible) the all important “C,” eligibility designation.

Regardless of his defensive home, Montero can flat out rake. No one in the scouting industry has questioned his hit tool, and I’ve read projected 70 grades on both his hit and power tool. He has hit at every level of the minors, and made his major league debut in September. Montero’s cup of coffee was fresh, and sweet. He ripped four home runs and slashed .328/.406/.590 in 69 plate appearances. Suffice to say, he’s ready for a full season worth of at-bats in the majors in 2012.

What to make of his new home digs? Well, three seasons into new Yankee Stadium’s existence it is safe to label it a hitter’s paradise. Safeco Field is certainly distinctly different than a hitter’s paradise. Where Yankee Stadium increases run scoring and home run production, Safeco Field reduces both. What may come as a surprise is that Safeco Field wasn’t nearly the home run hitting hell on right-handed batters that it had been in previous season’s according to Bill James ballpark index. On the flip side of the coin, most of power benefits felt at Yankee Stadium are by left-handed batters. This all adds up to good news for Montero, and not nearly the damming blow it would seem at first blush. Montero is an elite dynasty league option, and a pretty darn good re-draft one too.