Montero, Pineda, Kuroda all gain value?
Silent no longer are the New York Yankees.
Fourteen weeks and a day after being dispatched by the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series, the Yankees, traditionally one of the most active teams during the winter, finally made a splash Friday. And boy, was it a big one -- with a capital "B" -- involving not only a trade, but also a free-agent signing.
In a rare trade of youngsters, the Yankees acquired soon-to-be-23-year-old (he turns that age on Jan. 18) right-hander Michael Pineda, along with minor league right-hander Jose Campos, from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi.
Then, moments later, the Yankees further bolstered their rotation -- something widely regarded as their biggest weakness a year ago -- by announcing the signing of free agent Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million contract.
Talk about upending fantasy rankings. It could be argued that the three most significant names involved all improved in terms of fantasy value.
Pineda is the headliner. Though he actually finished lower on the 2011 Player Rater than new fellow Yankee Kuroda -- Kuroda was 24th among starting pitchers and 101st overall, compared to Pineda's 38th and 137th -- Pineda is one of the game's most exciting, up-and-coming right-handers. An All-Star as a rookie after beginning the season with a 3.03 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9.00 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and 72.2 quality start percentage (13-for-18) during the first half, Pineda quickly became one of the more desirable commodities in keeper leagues, earning a generous No. 52 ranking overall in my midseason keeper top 250.
Pineda's second half, however, wasn't so promising; he managed quality starts in just six of 10 appearances (60 percent) and had a 5.12 ERA and 1.22 WHIP as the Mariners aimed to keep his workload in check. To a degree, that was to be expected; as the Yankees had done in seasons past with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, with similarly disappointing results, Pineda's careful workload management made him a clearly less attractive second-half asset. At season's end he had tossed 171 innings, 31 2/3 more than he had ever thrown before in a professional season.
With the Yankees, Pineda gets an instant boost in terms of run support, joining a team that averaged nearly two full runs more per game in 2011 (1.92 to be exact); the Yankees averaged 5.35 to the Mariners' 3.43. Bullpen support will be another plus; the Yankees' relievers collectively posted a 3.12 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, compared to the Mariners' 3.61 and 1.31 marks.
At the same time, what value Pineda might gain in the win column is negated by a possible increase in ERA and WHIP. Among qualified starters, his 43.4 percent fly-ball rate ranked 16th in the majors, which is a problem for a pitcher moving to Yankee Stadium. In the venue's three-year history, 20.6 percent of the fly balls hit to right field became home runs. Fortunately there's a plus for Pineda, something to stave off panic: When left-handers pulled the ball to right field against him -- a sample of 98 balls in play -- 58.2 percent of them were grounders, 21.4 fly balls. Right-handers, meanwhile, hit fly balls 54.2 percent of the time when hitting to right field -- a sample of 59 balls in play -- but only one resulted in a home run.
It's actually stamina and health that should worry Pineda's prospective owners more than the ballpark shift, as this is a pitcher who was limited to 47 1/3 innings due to elbow problems in 2009, and whose three greatest single-season innings totals as a professional are 171 (2011), 139 1/3 (2010) and 138 1/3 (2008). Assume he'll enter spring training fine, but projecting more than 190 innings from him remains risky. It's why Pineda rises only two spots among starting pitchers in my rankings, from 26th to 24th, and 10 spots overall, from 104th to 94th. It's an improvement in value, but don't let Yankees hype take control here.
Kuroda, meanwhile, doesn't have quite the fly-ball tendencies that Pineda does, having generated ground balls 49.0 percent of the time and fly balls 35.2 percent the past three seasons combined. And like Pineda, he wasn't terribly apt to surrender them in the direction of Yankee Stadium's short porch; left-handed hitters -- with a sample of 296 plate appearances -- pulled grounders 63.2 percent of the time, flies 20.6 percent, though right-handers -- in 160 PAs -- did hit flies 46.9 percent of the time when going the opposite way (as with Pineda, only one resulted in a home run).
Kuroda, like Pineda, would also benefit in terms of run support; the Dodgers averaged 3.98 runs per game in 2011, 1.38 fewer than the Yankees. The primary concern with the right-hander is advancing age; he'll turn 37 years old before Opening Day and has three disabled-list stints on his four-year Major League Baseball résumé. Originally my No. 49 starting pitcher, Kuroda improves slightly to 46th, and he improves from 188th overall to 178th.
As for the Mariners' reported haul, both Montero and Noesi stand to receive expanded roles with their new team. Originally ticketed as the Yankees' DH, Montero will either occupy that role full-time for the Mariners, or be used in some sort of rotation between DH, catcher and first base and still play every day. Don't underestimate his increase in playing time; while the Yankees had veterans such as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, who might have needed the DH spot for "rest" once or twice a week, the Mariners lack such a player who would stand in the rookie's way.
Montero should challenge 600 PAs in Seattle, and his brief stint with the Yankees late last season showed his bat is polished enough for the big leagues. In his prime, he'll be a 30-homer power source, though in spacious Safeco Field, he might have to settle for something closer to 25. But here's what's to like about Montero's move northwest: It probably guarantees him at least 100 more PAs than he'd have received in New York, which pads his counting numbers; in a thinner lineup it'll be easier to move up in the order; and perhaps most importantly, he'll stand a better chance at earning catcher eligibility sooner with the man blocking his path being Miguel Olivo, rather than workhorse Russell Martin.
Though Montero moves up only three spots in my rankings following the trade, from 136th to 133rd, he's a safer investment today.
Noesi could be the sleeper of the deal. Though hardly a top prospect, he has the skills of a possible No. 4/5 starter long-term, and adapting to the majors at Safeco rather than Yankee Stadium should prove easier. The Mariners should give him a chance to earn a rotation spot; his 3.68 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 3.05 K's-per-walk ratio combined between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors as a pro back him up as a viable late-round AL-only target if he wins one.
One other thing to consider following Friday's news: The Yankees now face some roster questions, with their rotation packed and their DH spot wide open, and that could have a fantasy impact on some of their other players, current and future.
With DH now open, expect rumors to swirl that free agent Prince Fielder could be on the Yankees' radar; more likely they'd look to sign a cheaper option to help fill some of those at-bats. Johnny Damon could be an attractive pickup, creating a possible Damon-Derek Jeter platoon at leadoff -- Damon faces the righties, Jeter the lefties, with the other at the bottom of the order facing their poorer sides -- a potential plus in terms of runs/RBIs in the heart of the order. Jeter and Rodriguez both benefit slightly, because in the absence of a regular DH, they can play there to remain fresh.
The rotation, however, is now overfull, and that's before getting to prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances. Between Pineda, Kuroda, A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, the Yankees have six candidates for four spots, meaning another trade could be in order.
Burnett and Hughes might be most likely to suffer should the Yankees stand pat. On skills, Burnett is most deserving of a demotion to the bullpen, which would eliminate him from even the deepest AL-only radar. Hughes, however, has experience in the bullpen and could be a candidate to return there. Monitor the Yankees' plans during spring training; these two become riskier picks, and as it stands now, Banuelos and Betances might not see New York at all before 2013.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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