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Kevins Are All Around

Kevin Millwood as a 1999 Atlanta Brave. Now, if they had gotten him then... (AP)

The Yankees have signed Kevin Millwood to a minor-league contract. Millwood, 35, has his remaining upside and negatives wrapped up in the same package. During the pathetic first three-quarters of Baltimore’s 2010 season, he gave every impression that his starts were merely rehearsals for retirement. After a decent start, he became the league’s punching bag. Perhaps a forearm injury was to blame, perhaps not, but the results were unequivocal, with batters hitting .310/.368/.496 against him in 20 starts through the end of July.

Then came Buck Showalter and, more importantly, an improved defense. In his last 11 starts, Millwood’s ERA was just 3.66, and batters dropped off to .260/.323/.399. Despite that improvement, his pitching hadn’t really changed—his strikeout rate was actually down from where it had been earlier in the season—and as well as he pitched during that span, including holding the Yankees to one run in seven innings on September 17, it would be foolish to assume that we can use his autumn to predict anything like success in the future. His declining stuff, strikeout rate, and generally poor results of the last five years should speak to us with greater volume. Since he led the American League in ERA in 2005, his seasonal ERAs have been 4.52, 5.16, 5.07, 3.67, and 5.10. He’s really been quite consistent.

There is nothing wrong with depth, nothing wrong with spending money if the Yankees want to spend it, and maybe Millwood will somehow have more at 36 than he did at 35. That said, I will repeat a refrain that I’ve sung many times over this winter and previous seasons: if an opening on the staff arises, and with Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon around, it’s almost certain that one will, if any argument can be made that a young pitcher is at an equal or greater state of readiness than Millwood is, it would be a true sin to give the start to the older man. With every start that young’un gets, the closer he may be to having a career. Unless Millwood is pitching to an ERA significantly below the league average, all he’s doing is absorbing chances for the Yankees to establish those youngsters and thereby expand their collection of short- and long-term major-league assets.

In short, there is a thin line between stocking depth and indulging in self-defeating behavior. Another potential example of same: the Twins may be looking to deal Kevin Slowey for bullpen help—he has been shut out of their rortation and is heading for the pen himself. It doesn’t seem as if the Yankees match up perfectly, but if the club is looking for starting pitcher depth with more upside than Millwood and pals, Slowey seems like a better bet. His stuff is far from exceptional and he tends to get hurt, but he’s less likely to walk a hitter than George Washington was to tell a lie. Right-handed hitters have a career .288 on-base percentage against him. Now, they have also slugged .459, but home runs are survivable when they’re solo shots.

Coaches and other optimists like to say of problem pitchers, "He’s just a couple of tweaks from getting better." Slowey will turn 27 in May and seems far more likely to be tweakable than a pitcher, or any pitcher, who has proved himself to be in a state of decline for years. Millwood was freely available and Slowey is not, but if the Twins don’t drive too hard a bargain, the latter would seem to be the Kevin with time on his side, both in terms of finding the league average this year and finding it again next year.

Jay, Cliff, and I will be here to chat with you next Wednesday, March 30, at 1 PM EST. Please join us for the Chat on the Precipice of the 2011 Season.