FoxSportsâ€™s Dayn Perry did me a favor. Mere hours after my Pavano commentary, he went ahead and posted his â€Top 10 Spring Training position battlesâ€. Contained therein is issue of the Yankees fourth and fifth starter spots, and of course Pavano is included. This gives me segue to ponder what happens if Pavano â€“ or Igawa for that matter â€“ doesnâ€™t pass muster this spring.
Many Yankees fans would immediately bring up Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner, who both performed well during brief stints with the team last year. However, the problem with judging them on their 2006 performance is the small sample size: Karstens pitched 42.2 MLB innings, Rasner just 20.1.
Beyond their brief performance, which shouldnâ€™t be used for anything beyond determining their output, both have spotty minor league track records. Rasner in particular is troubling. I expressed enthusiasm when the Yankees picked him up off waivers from the Nationals prior to the 2006 season, mainly because of his low walk rate. Rasner made significant progress on that front during his minor league career. In his final NCAA season with Nevada, he walked 4.24 batters per nine over 104 innings, far from a number that will find success in pro ball. However, he showed greater command immediately, walking 3.08 per nine over 104 innings in A ball. The next year, in A+ ball, he walked 2.34 per nine over 119 innings. In AA the following year, Rasner walked a mere 1.94 batters per nine over a career-high 150 innings. Jim Bowden released him after the season, though.
Now, Iâ€™m not the biggest Bowden fan. In fact, I feel that heâ€™s the worst GM in the game, and a look at the Nationals rotation and farm system does that opinion justice. But to release a player who continues to improve his control year by year is just absurd without further reason. Even Jim Bowden isnâ€™t that dumb. So what was it that spurred his release?
While his control has increased with each promotion, his ability to strike out hitters has faltered. This, of course, is not a good sign, especially when there is a definite correlation between a greater level of competition and a lower strikeout rate. In his final college season, Rasner struck out 9.43 batters per nine, a very pretty mark that surely helped offset his shaky control. In his first full season of pro ball, that rate declined to 7.69. Okay, fine; thatâ€™s an acceptable drop-off for a first-year professional player. Upon his promotion to A+, though, it declined to 6.64 per nine. In AA, it dipped to 5.75 per nine. This rate of attrition does not bode well for a professional player, and it was seemingly cause enough for the Nationals to release him.
Unfortunately, Rasner didnâ€™t get enough work in 2006 to judge progress. His largest sample, at AAA, was only 58.2 innings, hardly anything by which to judge him. His strikeout rate did rise to 7.74 and his walk rate continued its healthy decline to 1.69, but that could have been cause by a number of factors relating to a small sample size, most notably luck. In his short MLB stint, Rasner posted a more than acceptable walk rate of 2.21, though his strikeouts were under 5.00, which brings back his earlier trends upon promotion.
In his favor, he has always kept balls in the park. Heâ€™s not a groundball pitcher (has broken relatively even over his minor league career and during his brief major league tours), yet has consistently kept his tater rate at around 0.60 per nine. One would expect an increase by playing in the AL East, but at least heâ€™s got a good starting point.
Karstens faced a similar trend upon promotion to the upper level minors and eventually to the majors. His transition from A ball to AA was rather smooth, going from 7.53 K/9, 2.01 BB/9 and 0.71 HR/9 to 7.83 K/9, 2.24 BB/9 and 0.85 HR/9. He was having an excellent start to his second year in AA (8.15, 1.70, 0.49), but had a bit of trouble adjusting to AAA (5.86, 3.67, 1.10, though both are samples of just 74 innings). Despite the trough transition, he was called up as an emergency starter in August, and by results didnâ€™t fare badly â€“ a 3.80 ERA in 42 innings. He didnâ€™t walk a ton (2.32 per nine), but his strikeout rate was Wangian (3.37), and he remained, as he was in AAA, susceptible to the tater (1.27).
A common sentiment among Yankees fans is that Rasner should be the frontrunner for the next open spot in the rotation. The reasoning is that heâ€™s older and therefore closer to a finished product, and because the Yankees have expressed concerns about Karstensâ€™ endurance (related to his twig-like six-foot-three, 170 pounds â€“ though Yankees.com has him listed now at 175). However, this just isnâ€™t the case.
Rasner may find his place in a teamâ€™s bullpen eventually, but to consider him a candidate to start in the Bronx just isnâ€™t reasonable. Heâ€™s demonstrated a consistent drop in strikeout rate upon each promotion, which doesnâ€™t normally translate into major league success. Yes, his walk rate has dipped, too, which helps matters. However, in order for that to work, Rasner would have to induce the groundball, which he doesnâ€™t on a consistent enough basis. Given a larger MLB sample size, I would predict a significant increase in home runs, especially in the AL East.
Karstens, on the other hand, hasnâ€™t demonstrated that kind of consistent dip from level to level. Yes, he fared worse upon promotion to AAA and then MLB, but both of those promotions came during the same season. His hot start at AA in 2006 may be indicative of Karstensâ€™ ability to settle in once heâ€™s at a certain level for a while (or it may be a small sample size). NOTE: See comments for correction.
The endurance factor shouldnâ€™t really be an issue for Karstens. He pitched 130 innings between college and Staten Island in 2003, 138.2 innings in 2004, 169 innings in 2005, and 190.1 last year. This steady growth is healthy for a young pitcher, and should afford him the endurance to hit the 200-inning mark this year between AAA and the majors, especially if his off-season workout regimen produces the desired results.
The problem with Karstens may be his lack of an apparent out pitch. This, of course, cannot be measured by the numbers, but it does put his rough upper level transition in perspective. You can get by in the lower minors with decent stuff and good control, despite the absence of an out pitch. This factor is usually exploited in AA, though Karstens didnâ€™tâ€™ seem to face it there. At AAA and the majors, though, it became more noticeable.
We can only hope, though, that the Yankees have the flexibility to start Karstens in Scranton. Better to start him off easy and use him when the inevitable emergency start is needed rather than rush him to the majors where, if his peripheral trends from 2006 continue and he hasnâ€™t developed an out pitch, he would get lit up. Regardless, heâ€™s a better option than Rasner, who the Yankees at this point are better off priming for a career in the bullpen.