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May 15, 2006

Prospectus Today

He's Baaaaaaack

by Joe Sheehan

So yesterday afternoon, instead of my usual routine of flipping through a number of ballgames, I had settled on the Yankees/A's tilt. I liked the pitching matchup, with one of my favorite young pitchers, Dan Haren, going up against someone who's been on everyone's mind lately in Randy Johnson. I was watching the game while packing for a short trip, walking in and out of the living room while catching snippets of Haren's excellent command and what was, for Johnson, a pretty good day after the first inning.

Sometime between socks and sport coats, I wandered into a nightmare. I actually thought that the Yankees had scraped the bottom of the barrel two years ago with Tanyon Sturtze, only to find that they could dig even deeper by calling upon Aaron Small. That both pickups worked out reasonably well didn't make the memory of seeing them on staff any less jarring. But at about 12:15 PDT yesterday, I saw something that made me realize there may be no end to the abyss.

Scott Erickson was on the mound.

I hadn't realized that Scott Erickson was still being paid money to pitch. Then again, I said much the same thing a year ago when he landed in the Dodgers' Opening Day rotation, and the year before that when he showed up on both the Mets' and Rangers' staffs. In fact, Erickson is approaching records for continued employment in the face of extreme incompetence.

Since 1999, when Erickson closed out his fourth consecutive 200-inning season for the Orioles and was worth five wins according to Clay Davenport's system, the right-hander has missed two complete seasons to injury, and those two are his best work in that span. When available to pitch, he's posted a 6.35 ERA across 335 2/3 innings. His low seasonal ERA is 5.55. In the four seasons in which he's pitched, he's struck out 139 men and walked 161, with Stuff scores ranging from a high of -11 to a low of -33.

Erickson's most recent performances are his worst. In 2004, he got hammered in brief stints with the Mets and Rangers--who actually traded for the guy at the deadline--to the tune of six starts, 27 innings, 38 hits, 20 walks and nine strikeouts, for an ERA of 6.67. Last year, a flood of injuries landed him in the Dodgers' rotation, an experiment that lasted eight starts. Before being sent to Las Vegas in August, he ran up a 6.02 ERA with a ridiculous 15/25 K/BB in 55 1/3 innings.

Now, I'm sympathetic to the idea that one bad year doesn't mean you're done. (I'd have a different job now if that were the case.) I'm even on board with the notion that there are things scouts can tell us about players that the numbers don't. But what kind of complete and utter ignorance of a track record is necessary to look at a 6.67 ERA and 24/45 K/BB over 82 1/3 innings the last two years and say, "nah, let's see what's he's got."

It's not like he's even pitched well in the minors the past few years. His Triple-A line in 2004 and 2005 was 17 starts with an ERA of 6.12 and a K/BB of 67/42. That's at Triple-A. The minor leagues. The next-best thousand guys. Erickson couldn't even get them out with any consistency. For Columbus this year, Erickson had a 4.24 ERA in a dozen relief appearances, with 11 walks and 11 strikeouts in 17 innings.

He's now pitching for a contending team with a $200-odd million payroll.

What do you think it's like for a guy like Heath Bell, who has pitched well in Triple-A for a while now, and intermittently well at the major-league level, to get sent down whenever he has consecutive bad appearances while watching Scott Erickson making three hundred grand again on nothing but wishes? Erickson isn't one of the 340 best pitchers in the world right now; I could make a strong case that he's not a legitimate Triple-A pitcher, either.

But he's got a job.

Erickson was actually effective yesterday, retiring five of the seven batters he faced and walking the other two. On the other hand, he threw just 17 strikes in 32 pitches. A's batters swung at 15 of his offerings and missed just one. There was nothing in the outing to indicate that he's much different from the guy who couldn't keep a job in 2005 or 2004. He's 38 years old and hasn't been valuable to a baseball team since he was 31; I don't expect that to change over the next few weeks.

I should make it clear that I have no problem with Erickson trying to continue his career. Jobs playing baseball are among the best in the world, and I know that if I had the ability to hold one--or if I could somehow convince people I did--I'd keep a death grip on it until the entire industry turned its back on me. Erickson, Rickey Henderson, Julio FrancoI think they should play as long as someone will give them a uniform. I don't think it's up to someone else to tell a person they shouldn't do what they love.

No, the criticism here is for the Yankee front office, which put itself into a situation where taking a look at Scott Erickson was a viable option. This organization has been completely unable to generate the kind of low-cost, high-value arms that you see populating bullpens in places like Anaheim, Minnesota, or St. Louis. That they turned to Erickson while once again ignoring Colter Bean (0.77 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings) highlights an organizational blind spot, both in development and in choosing guys for major-league roles.

Because of this, the Yankees now have a bullpen that belies their status as one of the game's premier franchises. Mariano Rivera fits, and Kyle Farnsworth is a legitimate late-inning reliever. But there's Small, and Erickson, and an awful lot of hope that a 29-year-old with a career ERA of 4.69, Scott Proctor, is for real, and Ron Villone, who hasn't had an ERA below 4.00 since 1997.

The corner outfield spots are getting all the attention, but the Yankees are just as vulnerable in the sixth and seventh innings as they've been the last few years, only now they are much less likely to win the 8-7 and 9-8 games at the plate. Put in all together, and it's a dangerous time in the Bronx.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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