Archive for Bench
In the mid 2000s the Yankees had a penchant for building weak benches. Players such as Matt Lawton, Bubba Crosby, Mark Bellhorn, Miguel Cairo, Craig Wilson, Nick Green, and Wil Nieves routinely sat near Joe Torre during those years. It wasn’t exactly a fatal flaw; the Yankees did manage to make the playoffs basically every year in that span, and it’s not as though the bench makes a huge difference in the postseason when a team has nine clearly superior starters. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Yankees actually managed to assemble some talent to back up their starters.
While the 2009 bench, highlighted by Erik Hinske and Jerry Hairston, was built through mid-season trades, the 2011 bench, perhaps the Yankees’ strongest in a decade, came fresh out of the box on Opening Day. In a way the Yankees got lucky there. The circumstances happened to line up. They needed a right-handed fourth outfielder, since two of their three starters were lefties and the other was a switch-hitter. A left-handed infielder came in handy, too, because most of his work came spelling the right-handed Alex Rodriguez and the switch-hitting Mark Teixeira. It was mere chance that a solid-hitting right-handed outfielder, Andruw Jones, and a reclamation project infielder, Eric Chavez, happen to be not only available, but willing to take on a reduced role.
For the most part, the bench moves worked out. After struggling in the first half, Jones came back with a huge second half performance. Chavez did miss considerable time with a foot injury — worse, because it overlapped with Alex Rodriguez’s knee surgery — but he still managed to hit .263/.320/.356 when healthy. Considering the playing time available and the playing time they actually got, Jones and Chavez were two of the better bench players in the entire league last year.
It’s tough to mete out actual bench players. We can look at plate appearances, but there are so many variables that we can’t control for. Some bench players turn into starters when the player they back up gets hurt. Some players begin the season as a starter only to lose the job. There are also mid-season call-ups who are actually starters, but end up with a number of plate appearances similar to a bench player. And, of course, some bench players do get hurt, and others are so bad that they’re replaced — in which case neither of a team’s backups might fit into a plate appearance range. This is a long way of saying that it’s tough to place Chavez and Jones among their peers.
Keeping the above caveats in mind, Chavez fared very well compared to other infielders who got between 100 and 250 plate appearances in 2011. His .320 OBP in 175 PA ranked seventh in that group, all but a couple of the players ahead of him were injured starters (Casey Blake) or late call-ups (Brett Lawrie, Jason Kipnis, Dee Gordon). Using the same parameters for outfielders, Jones fares even better. His OBP ranked third among that group, and his SLG ranked second (by 25 points to a guy whose BA was 80 points higher). You can sort it out any way you want, but when you look at non-starters and compare them to Jones and Chavez, they come out looking great.
This is actually a remarkable feat for the Yankees, especially considering these players came from the free agent market. After all, who wants to sit on the bench while Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano play every day? Perhaps Jones made sense, because he could play platoon caddy to Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson. But before that the Yankees have had pretty solidly set outfields, which hurt the market for free agent backups. Remember, before the 2009 season both Hinske and Hairston signed elsewhere. It took a trade to get them in pinstripes, and even then it lasted just half a season.
The Yankees failure to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima now re-opens the door for Chavez, and the Yankees would do well to bring him back. He’s not ideal in many ways, particularly his penchant to land on the DL every year, but seeking out bench players is essentially choosing which ones have the most manageable flaws. If Chavez can avoid hurting his foot while running the bases, he could be one of the more productive infield options, both offensively and defensively. It’s hard to see any options on the free agent market, or any worth their price in a trade, who has the potential to add as much as Chavez.
(And that’s most certainly a commentary on the quality of bench players and not on Chavez himself.)
If the two sides don’t work out a deal, it won’t threaten the season. The Yankees will simply roll with Eduardo Nunez as their all-purpose infielder and perhaps carry another lefty, say Chris Dickerson, on the bench. But given their current options and needs, Chavez seems a nice fit. He’s not going to hit like a starter, but of course, few if any bench players do. He can, however, provide production superior to his direct peers. That’s really what matters in this situation. While there’s plenty of risk involved, he is once again a nice fit for the Yankees.
Word first surfaced last month that the Yankees are interested in bringing back Andruw Jones. With the bench and the rotation the only pressing items on Brian Cashman‘s Winter Meetings to-do list, the Jones issue figured to resurface. As if on cue, Jon Heyman this morning mentioned the Yankees’ interest in Jones. This hopefully portends a deal in Dallas.
Jones fits the Yankees needs well. With Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson in the outfield, a right-handed fourth outfielder makes the most sense. That is, if Joe Girardi is going to spell either one of them, he can do so against left-handed pitching and gain the platoon advantage at the same time. This works even better for Jones, who mashes lefties — in the last two seasons he has produced a .401 wOBA against left-handed pitching.
A look at other free agents yields few players at Jones’s level who would accept a part-time role. Mark DeRosa has been injured for almost all of the last two years, Ryan Ludwick has a reverse platoon split, Reed Johnson has trouble staying on the field, and Josh Willingham is likely seeking far more playing time. Those are only four examples, but they basically describe every other free agent on the market. Jones is the perfect fit: a bench player who can play passable defense while hitting left-handed pitching.
The only wrench in the plan could come from Jones’s desire for more playing time. There’s a chance that a lesser team could offer him the promise of more time in the outfield. Even the Red Sox could potentially offer him a decent amount of playing time, since their current outfield is all left-handed. Even if he enjoyed his time in New York, he could still yearn for the days when he roamed center field every day. While that would certainly be a corner spot in 2012, there’s a chance that some team could believe him valuable in a role that would get him 300-400 at-bats. With the Yankees it’s uncertain that he’d get even 250.
With an off-season that has moved slowly, a Jones signing would be a welcome sight. He’s not a key cog to the 2012 team, but he does fill a role that the Yankees need. There appears to be some level of mutual interest, so perhaps there’s hope of getting a deal done this week. With lefty-mashing fourth outfielder crossed off the list, the Yankees will have little left to accomplish this off-season.
While many have given Andruw Jones his proper due for a terrific 2011 season off the bench, a closer review of his numbers made me wonder just how good his year was in a historical context. Granted, the bar for past Yankee bench players’ performances is a low one, but a look at every player who has played for the Yankees since 2002 shows that Jones — with a .371 wOBA and 1.4 fWAR — was probably the best non-full-time player on a Yankee roster of the past decade.
Jones of course was brought in to fill the Marcus Thames lefty-masher role, and rather thoroughly obliterated expectations. Unlike Thames, he unfortunately didn’t also have a surprisingly strong campaign against same-side pitchers (only a .316 wOBA vs. righties), but he of course torched lefties (.400 wOBA) while — again, unlike Thames — actually contributing on defense.
Indications are that Brian Cashman is interested in a return engagement with Jones, and while on the surface that seems like a strong move for the 2012 bench, it’s also probably a bit of a reach to expect that Jones has another .371 wOBA year in his bat going into his age 35 season.
Given the team’s relative struggles against northpaws this past season, it may might make some sense for the Yankees to buck orthodoxy and look into signing a right-handed hitting reserve who can actually hit right-handed pitching. I realize that no team in MLB is likely to actually specifically target a bench player with a reverse platoon split given everyone’s obsessions with matchups, but I don’t see why we have to limit ourselves to right-handers who can only hit lefties. The Yankees already destroy left-handed pitching as it is.
Reviewing the list of potentially available righties who fared well against RHP in 2011 yields two interesting names: Reed Johnson (.359 wOBA vs. RHP in 157 PAs), and Nolan Reimold (.360 wOBA vs. RHP in 207 PAs). Personal favorite Josh Willingham also fits the bill, though it seems incredibly unlikely that he won’t get a starting gig somewhere.
If it seems like the Yanks have been looking at Johnson forever, it’s because they pretty much have — back in the 2009-2010 offseason, there was a fair amount of speculation about the Yankees possibly looking at Johnson as the right-handed component of a left field platoon. Remember, this was before Brett Gardner established himself as a capable everyday player. Johnson wound up signing a one-year, $800,000 contract ($250k in incentives) with the Dodgers and had a terrible year, putting up a .287 wOBA over 215 PAs. He was abysmal against righties (.235 wOBA) and serviceable against lefties (.342). Johnson then signed a one-year, $900,000 minor-league contract with the Cubs last offseason, and wound up turning in a .354 wOBA in 266 PAs, with the aforementioned .359 wOBA vs. righties and .347 against lefties.
However, a deeper look into the numbers shows that the .359 wOBA was quite fluky, as Johnson’s a career .312 wOBA hitter against righties in over 2,000 PAs. Signing Johnson in the hope that he’ll be an asset against RHP is likely wishful thinking unless he all of a sudden figured out how to hit righties at age 35. That said, if the Yankees don’t bring Jones back, Johnson could probably fill the designated lefty-masher role, as he is the owner of a career .363 wOBA against LHP.
The 27-year-old Reimold’s a bit more of an interesting case. He burst onto the scene in 2009, and raked to a .365 wOBA over 411 MLB PAs after beginning the year utterly annihilating AAA (.530 wOBA in 130 PAs). Reimold took a huge step backwards in his sophomore season, breaking camp with the team but slumping horribly out of the gate, and bottomed out at .205/.302/.337 on May 11 before being demoted to AAA. Reimold hit OK after his demotion, though didn’t exactly light the world on fire (.341 wOBA in 401 PAs) and was recalled in September more due to rosters expanding than really deserving it. Reimold finished the year even worse than he began it, posting a woeful .212/.229/.303 line over the season’s final month.
Reimold began the 2011 season back in AAA, and didn’t really do anything to distinguish himself (.332 wOBA) but got called up anyway in mid-May and stuck in the bigs for the remainder of the season, ultimately posting a .341 wOBA across 305 PAs (including finishing the year out strongly with a .426 September wOBA). As previously noted, that full-season wOBA consisted of a .360 mark against same-sided pitchers (though strangely only a .295 mark against lefties), and Reimold has been a slightly reverse-platoon hitter throughout his brief MLB career, with a .345 mark against righties compared to .332 against lefties.
Now, I’m not saying Reimold is the answer to the team’s bench prayers — nor would he be particularly easy to acquire, given how loath Peter Angelos is to trade with the Yankees — but given that he’s spent the last two seasons still trying to reacquire his 2009 mojo, perhaps a change of venue would be beneficial. As to what Reimold would cost, I have no idea, but value-wise he’s probably not worth more than perhaps a B-level pitching prospect.
Again, the likelihood of the Yankees and Orioles actually consummating a deal is slim to none, but if new Oriole GM Dan Duquette was willing to talk and the price was right, the Yanks could do worse than considering Reimold (10.3% career BB%) for a seat on the bench.
When the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez to a ten-year contract following the 2007 season, one of the points often raised in his favor was his durability. Alex had played in at least 146 games and batted at least 638 times in every season but one from 1996 through 2007. Sure, ten years was much too long and the deal was likely to look ugly before its conclusion, but at least Alex could be counted on to play every day. However, starting with a quad strain that caused him to play in just 138 contests in 2008, our preconceived notions about Alex’s health began to fall apart and their lack of logic was exposed.
When it comes to players on the wrong side of 30, injury problems can often crop up suddenly and linger for years, and Alex has proven to be no exception. In the four seasons since signing that contract in 2008, Alex has played in 138, 124, 137, and 99 games respectively, and has spent much of his “healthy” time battling various nagging ailments. It is fair to expect Alex to miss 25+ games per season moving forward, as he is not getting any younger and has a chronic issue with his hip that crops up every so often.
Being that Alex has become injury prone but remains an important part of the Yankees offense, it would behoove Joe Girardi to treat him very gingerly in 2012. He should be given frequent days off, and should occasionally be used as the DH to keep his bat in the lineup while allowing him to avoid the rigors of playing defense. This plan requires the Yankees to have a caddy on hand for Alex, someone who can be counted on to provide 50 games or so of adequate performance with the stick and to avoid total embarrassment with the leather. There are a number of players who loosely fit this description, so let’s take a quick look at them, RAB style:
Pros: He is a strong defensive third baseman, and he showed flashes of his old self at the plate in 2011. If clutch ability is your thing, he came through in some big spots for the Yankees last season.
Cons: Eric finished with a 79 wRC+, as his hot start was overshadowed by a very weak finish to the season with the lumber. Chavez cannot be counted upon to stay healthy, so you end up needing a caddy for your caddy. When Eduardo Nunez is that player and is throwing the ball all over the yard, you have a problem.
Pros: Betemit can hit, with a 107 wRC+ for his career, and he does it as a switch hitter.
Cons: Switch-hitting is not quite as valuable as it first seems when his 79 wRC+ as a RHB is considered. Furthermore, while he can technically stand with a glove at all of the infield spots, he is not good at any of them, and third base may be his worst position.
Pros: Wigginton is a league average hitter who can provide solid power off the bench. He has experience at every defensive position except CF and C.
Cons: Hitting for power is about all he can do with the bat, and he is poor defensively no matter the position. Also, he’s not a free agent, so the Yankees would have to swing a trade with the Rockies to get him.
Pros: DeRosa, when healthy, is a league average hitter who can actually do a decent job in the infield and the outfield.
Cons: DeRosa has been hurt for most of the last two seasons, and when he did make it onto the field in 2011, it seemed that his power had abandoned him at a gas station somewhere between St. Louis and San Francisco.
Pros: Blake is one of the more consistent hitters on this list, with a 105 wRC+ for his career and no season under 95 wRC+ since 2004. He is a solid defensive 3rd baseman, and has had success in right field as well.
Cons: The usually durable Blake battled a number of injuries in 2011, and was limited to 63 games played. He will turn 39 during the 2012 season.
Pros: Carroll gets on base, with a very solid .356 OBP for his career. He is a good infielder and can fake the outfield as well.
Cons: Carroll has little power, which probably makes him more of a utility infielder and a redundancy with Eduardo Nunez on board.
Jerry Hairston Jr.
Pros: Hairston is wildly inconsistent with the bat, but when he is on, he makes a good backup infielder who can field a number of positions.
Cons: Much like Carroll, Jerry is more of a utility infielder type. The Yankees believe they already have their Hairston in Eduardo Nunez. They need to find the 2012 version of 2009 Eric Hinske, and Hairston just does not fit the mold.
Pros: When healthy, he is a switch hitter who can hit both righties and lefties, with a particular aptitude for hitting right-handed pitching.
Cons: He has not been healthy since 2007, and is weak defensively at every infield position. Much like Chavez was coming into 2011, Guillen is a total wild card and is not someone who can be relied upon to stay on the field.
Pros: Prado is quite easily the best hitter on this list, with a wRC+ of 117 or more in 3 of the last 4 seasons. He is also a very solid defensive third baseman.
Cons: Prado had a rough 2011, dealing with nagging injuries that resulted in a 85 wRC+. More importantly, he is not a free agent, but the Braves have made it known that they would like to shed his salary and have made him available.
Conclusion: Most of these candidates are fairly similar in terms of overall value, and the one player who is likely a cut above (Prado) is not a free agent. The Yankees could stay inside the organization and go with Brandon Laird, which would likely be the cheapest move, but he has yet to hit well above AA and is not great defensively. Brian Cashman might find himself in an Eduardo Nunez-induced coma if Laird flops and Rodriguez subsequently hits the DL.
Among the free agents, Casey Blake seems to be the safest bet to perform adequately offensively and defensively, as he should provide strong defense at third and could contribute close to league-average offense as well. That said, there are certainly sound arguments against signing a 38 year old who spent much of 2011 injured, and a reasonable case could be made for any of the listed players. Brian Cashman has a large group of candidates to sift through, and hopefully he finds one who can allow Joe Girardi to feel comfortable resting A-Rod on a regular basis.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the Yankees started the season with a legitimately strong bench. In recent years they’d begun the season with various cast-offs before seeking upgrades throughout the summer, but this year they targeted pieces for the bench in free agency and had a strong reserve corps from the get-go. Part of that had to do with $20M+ worth of Cliff Lee money burning a hole in the team’s pocket, obviously.
Although Frankie Cervelli missed the season’s first month a broken foot suffered in Spring Training, his absence and Gus Molina’s presence wasn’t that big of a deal because all those April off days allowed the team to play Russell Martin almost every single game without running him into the ground Tony LaRussa-Yadier Molina style. Eduardo Nunez made a strong impression in limited action early on and has since done fine work as medium-term fill-ins for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. The other two pieces on the bench have seen their seasons go in opposite directions.
The Great Eric Chavez … Who Ain’t So Great Anymore
When the season started, Chavez looked like the replacement for Nick Johnson‘s vacant DL spot. He made spot starts at first and third bases in the first two months of the season, hitting .303/.410/.424 with more walks (six) than strikeouts (three) before injuring his foot legging out a triple in Detroit on May 5th. Chavez was only playing once or twice a week and he wasn’t hitting for much power, but he was putting together solid at-bats and contributing to the offense when he did play. His defense, particularly at the hot corner, was stellar. As far as bench players go, the Yankees had hit the lottery.
The foot injury kept Chavez out for more than two full months, and when he did return in late-July, he kept on hitting. He had eleven hits in his first 32 at-bats back, including his first homerun of the season, which prompted the Yankees to bench Jorge Posada and make Chavez the regular DH against righties. That lasted all of three games before Alex Rodriguez returned from the DL and promptly hurt his finger on a diving defensive play (forcing Chavez to play third), but his bat went silent after that. In his last dozen games, a total of 42 plate appearances, the former Athletic has just six hits and three walks (one intentional), leading to a .158/.220/.211 batting line. His season line has fallen to an unimpressive (but still solid) .262/.327/.350 in 113 trips to the plate.
That Bum Andruw Jones … Who’s Pretty Awesome
Andruw did a fine job of introducing himself to Yankees’ fans, clubbing a homerun in his first plate appearance of the season. It was all downhill after that for Jones, who hit just .195/.278/.356 before the All-Star break and .231/.315/.446 against lefties, the very demographic he was brought in to combat. Many fans were wondering why the Yankees didn’t just re-sign Marcus Thames in the offseason (without bothering to look at his performance with the Dodgers, I assume) or promote the righty hitting Greg Golson/Justin Maxwell given Andruw’s struggles as the fourth outfielder.
With a little help from his mother, Jones has completely turned his season around and is hitting .345/.463/.764 overall (.350/.469/.700 against lefties) in the second half. His seven homers since the break are more than guys like Paul Konerko, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Bautista even though he’s got about one-third the plate appearances of those four. Jones has gone from a bit piece to an important cog in the offense (especially against southpaws) thanks to his revival.
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The season started with Chavez as the hot bench bat and Jones as the guy no one really wanted to see at the plate, but injury and some help from mom have reversed those roles. Now it’s Jones with the hot bat and Chavez that’s flailing away at everything. Of course, we have to remember that this is all small sample size stuff, it’s just the nature of the job. Because of that, cold streaks can turn hot in very short order, and vice versa. With any luck, Chavez will get back on track before the end of the season and the Yankees can head into a potential playoff series with two legitimate weapons off the bench, one from each side of the plate.
For years, the Yankees employed a utility infielder basically because they had too, but they never really used the poor guy. Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez were in the primes of their careers and very rarely took a day off, so the reserve infielder was just kind of there for emergencies. Cano is still very much in his prime, but Jeter and A-Rod have slowed down as they’ve gotten into their mid-30′s. They’re getting more regular rest (even if it’s just a half-day as DH) and injured more frequently, so the backup infielder has become increasingly important.
Eduardo Nunez has been the primary infield fill-in this season, and he’s been surprisingly productive. Maybe it’s only surprising to me, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with low expectations for the backup infielder. In 214 plate appearances this season, Nunez has hit .273/.325/.407 with 16 steals in 21 attempts, a .330 wOBA that is about five percent better than league average. His strength is simply getting the bat on the ball; his strikeout (9.8%) and contact (89.6%) rates are both substantially better than the league average (18.4% and 80.9%, respectively). After walking in just 5.6% of his minor league plate appearances (5.2% above Single-A), Nunez has upped that to 7.0% this season. His defense at short and third (primarily) has been sketchy (UZR hates him with a passion), but he seems to have improved of late, particularly on throws. Perhaps it was just a matter of getting regular reps.
I think it goes without saying that Nunez has been the Yankees’ best utility infielder in quite some time, but just how much better? Let’s look back at the last few seasons and the guys the Yankees had coming off the bench whenever they needed to replace someone on the diamond…
2009 & 2010
Ramiro Pena: .253/.283/.305 … 3.8% BB … 16.3% K … 11-for-13 in SB attempts
It was pretty surprising when the Yankees took Pena, a career .253/.311/.315 hitter at Double-A, north out of Spring Training in 2009, skipping the defensive specialist right over Triple-A. He performed about as well as could have been expected, flashing some leather and falling just short of his ZiPS projection (.249/.296/.332). Pena did end up back in Triple-A later in the 2009 season, giving way to trade deadline pickup Jerry Hairston Jr., who hit .237/.352/.382 in 93 PA with New York. Pena was the primarily utility infielder for all of 2010 though, with Kevin Russo and Nunez making short cameos.
Wilson Betemit: .265/.289/.429 … 3.0% BB … 28.3% K … 0-for-1 in SB attempts
Before the days of Nick Swisher in right field, Betemit was the guy entrusted with resting the regular infielders. He definitely has some pop in his bat and showed it during his time with New York, clubbing 13 doubles and six homers in 189 PA during 2008 (a .164 ISO). The problem is that he was generally a statue on defense and Grade-A hacker incapable of putting together a tough at-bat, or so it seemed. He was also valueless on the bases. Cody Ransom made a late season cameo and won the heart of Ian O’Connor by hitting a homerun in each of his first two at-bats in pinstripes. He hit .302/.400/.561 in 51 PA late in the season.
Miguel Cairo: .252/.308/.318 … 6.6% BB … 16.7% K … 8-for-9 in SB attempts
Can you believe that Cairo is still playing? It’s crazy, and he’s actually performing quite well (.321 wOBA) for the Reds at age 37. Good for him. Anyway, Cairo was consistently ineffective for New York except for that ridiculous 2004 season when he took over the regular second base job thanks to his .336 wOBA. Cairo’s defense was about average, but the Yankees got tired of his act in 2007 and released him in mid-August. They had acquired Betemit at the trade deadline to assume backup infielder duties, and he hit .226/.278/.417 with four homers in 92 at-bats down the stretch.
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Previous reserve infielders include Cairo and Nick Green (2006), Rey Sanchez and Andy Phillips (2005), and Enrique Wilson (2004). All of them, including the 2007-2010 crop above, were pretty terrible and certainly worse than what the Yankees are running out there now with Nunez. ZiPS projects Eduardo to hit .266/.307/.371 (.305 wOBA) with seven steals in nine attempts the rest of way, which seems reasonable if not a little disappointing. I’m still not 100% sold on Nunez as a future everyday player, but he’s certainly been better than I expected, and it’s come at a good time because the Yankees needed him more than anticipated.
The Yankees continued the long and painful process of phasing Jorge Posada out yesterday, informing their long-time catcher that his playing time will decrease because they need to put their best lineup on the field and he’s not a part of it. “[We'll] try some different things [at DH],” said Joe Girardi before yesterday’s game, a pretty good indication that they’re going to rotate people in and out of the spot for the next few days and maybe weeks. That’s all well and good, but now the Yankees are working with a roster that offers very little flexibility.
Due to the team’s six-man rotation situation, the Yankees are currently carrying 13 pitchers on the 25-man roster, which means only three bench players. Before yesterday those three guys were Frankie Cervelli, Andruw Jones, and either Eduardo Nunez or Eric Chavez. Now it’s Cervelli, Jones, and Posada, basically a backup catcher/emergency infielder, a platoon outfielder, and a platoon DH. You can’t do anything with that, especially if the Yankees are committed to not playing Posada more than once or maybe twice a week.
“Eventually we will probably get to 12 pitchers,” said Girardi. “That will give our bench more versatility. We are not a club that necessarily pinch-hits a lot, we are not a club that has to make a double switch. The bench in the American League, the versatility isn’t used a ton. Our thought moving forward is that some of our guys’ day off will be DH days.”
I’m in favor of the six-man rotation, at least temporarily to give Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova innings at the big league level while CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, and Freddy Garcia all get a little extra rest heading into the season’s final month and (potentially) the postseason. It’s going to hinder the roster construction but only if the Yankees let it. There’s no reason to carry all three of Hector Noesi, Luis Ayala, and Cory Wade on the roster, so send one down for an extra position player. Noesi is the easy choice there, let him start in Triple-A to build innings and what not. A six-man bullpen isn’t the end of the world.
The Yankees also have the option of using the phantom DL to open a roster, basically coming up with a fake injury. They did this to a certain extent with Lance Berkman last season, though that whole situation started with a legit injury. He hurt his ankle running through first base in Kansas City and was only going to miss a few days, but the Yankees placed him on the DL and kept him there for two weeks until Sept. 1st. Perhaps Jorge will feel something in his back during BP this week and needs some time off. It’s not the most ethical thing in the world, but teams do it all the time and the Yankees should at least consider it.
Roster spots are precious like outs in a game because there is a finite amount of them. The Yankees do a great job of not making outs, but right now their 25-man roster is completely inflexible. They’ve been shooting themselves in the foot by keeping the unproductive Posada around for this long, so they might as well hold onto him until the rosters expand in three weeks. He might still be useful as a veteran pinch-hitter against lefties, but that’s pretty much it. The roster right now is basically the regular starting nine, the rotation, three or four core relievers, and half a dozen 25th men. It’s tough to work with that.
Alex Rodriguez will miss the next month or so after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee today, leaving the Yankees will a huge hole in their lineup. Even though he hasn’t been hitting for power, A-Rod was still very productive from the cleanup spot, hitting .333/.387/.417 in 93 plate appearances since his last homerun. The Yankees can replace his stats (they may luck out and find someone to match that production but the odds are against it), though they won’t replace the way his presence impacts the game. Alex is one of those rare players that changes the game from the on-deck circle, and no backup infield does that.
Reports over the weekend indicated that the Yankees prefer to replace A-Rod from within, but they’ll at least kick the tires on outside options. The most popular trade candidate seems to be Aramis Ramirez, but he’s a complete non-option. He can definitely hit, no doubt (.298/.346/.497), but his contract says his $16M club option for 2012 turns into a player option if he’s traded. That’s a total deal breaker, there’s no reason for the Yankees to take that on for a six-week stopgap. More realistic options include Melvin Mora and Kevin Kouzmanoff, but they’re not guaranteed to outperform the guys already have in the organization.
The obvious in-house replacement is Eduardo Nunez, who did a fine job filling in for Derek Jeter a few weeks ago. The team has already indicated that he’ll get the bulk of the playing time in A-Rod’s absence, but there is one other option: Brandon Laird. Gerald’s little brother is already on the 40-man roster and is having an okay but not great season at Triple-A. He’s hitting .268/.297/.418 overall with ten homers, though it’s worth noting that he’s been playing better of late: .299/.325/.470 in his last 243 plate appearances, .292/.320/.503 in his last 153 plate appearances, and .311/.321/.584 in his last 78 plate appearances. No, he’s doesn’t walk much, but that’s life.
Laird does his best work against southpaws, tagging them for a .300/.337/.525 line this year (.258/.284/.383 vs. RHP) with a similar platoon split through his career. Not only does have a plethora of experience at third base, but he’s also played plenty of first base and the Yankees have had him dabble in left field over the last ten months or so. It’s probably not a coincidence that his first career game in right field came two days ago. Laird won’t win any Gold Gloves, but he won’t embarrass himself and should make all the routine plays, just not the spectacular onces. My guess is that with a full season’s worth of playing time, he’d probably be 5-10 runs below average with the glove. Not awful, but his bat is good enough that he should be better than replacement level.
For all intents and purposes, this is why the Yankees protected Laird from the Rule 5 Draft last winter. He’ll never ever ever be a starter on this team (barring disaster, anyway), so he serves two purposes: trade bait and an injury fill-in. If he performs well enough at the latter, maybe he snags a bench job for a while. There’s no doubt he’s better than Ramiro Pena, especially offensively, so the Yankees could swap the two and use Laird two or three times a week, primarily against lefties. That way Nunez could spell Jeter and Robinson Cano (or even get a day off himself) without completely sacrificing offense. He’d also be the fifth outfielder and backup first baseman as well.
This is exactly the kind of situation teams carry players like Laird, to fill a temporary hole on the big league roster. ZiPS projected a .250/.297/.424 batting line at big league level before the season, which would be a minor miracle in my eyes. The minor league equivalency of his Triple-A performance is .234/.261/.355 overall and .268/.285/.398 over his last 243 plate appearances. That’s a .295 wOBA or so, and maybe optimal usage (i.e. limited exposure to righties) gets him up to a .310-.315 wOBA, basically league average. I’d rather give Laird a chance to do that than stick with Pena, who we all know will be awful. Sorry Ramiro, nothing personal.
This isn’t quite a long-term fill-in situation but it’s not short-term either, let’s call it medium-term. It’s the perfect chance to try Laird out and see what the kid can do. If he flops, then fine, the Yankees will have essentially lost nothing because his replacement (Pena) is also terrible. If mean really, if not now, then when? Come Thursday (when the games start back up), there are two moves I want to see: Pena down and A-Rod to the disabled list, replaced by Laird and (I guess) Chris Dickerson. Nunez gets the majority of the playing time but Laird sees semi-regular at-bats against lefties. The bench would be the non-useless quartet of Laird/Nunez, Dickerson, Andruw Jones, and Frankie Cervelli. This is why they put Laird on the 40-man during the offseason, to use him in spots like this.
As the Yankees searched for bench help this past offseason, one of the names we heard them connected to Bill Hall. He was coming off a damn fine season for the Red Sox (18 HR, .342 wOBA) and apparently the brain trust thought he could do the same in pinstripes. Hall eventually took an offer from the Astros, turning down a chance to come off the Yankees’ bench in favor of playing every day. Can’t say I blame him.
Well, the Houston experiment did not go well. Hall hit to the tune of a .269 wOBA with two homers and 55 strikeouts in 158 plate appearances with the Astros before they released him over the weekend. GM Ed Wade called the signing a “failure in judgment,” opting to eat the $2.25M left on Hall’s contract (approximately $2M in remaining salary this year plus the buyout of next year’s option) instead of hoping for a rebound in performance. That means any team can now sign Hall for the pro-rated Major League minimum (peanuts), and the Yankees have a second chance to add him to the team.
I have no problem picking up any player on the cheap, so in that sense I’m on board. The real question is why should we expect Hall to bounce back from his awful start and be worthy of a roster spot? The reality is that last year was an outlier for him, just look at his year-by-year wOBA …
Hall was fantastic back in 2005 and 2006, earning himself a fat four-year, $24M contract from the Brewers, but he’s been damn near replacement level since. Except for that one year with Boston. It wasn’t a Fenway Park thing (.346 wOBA at home, .334 on the road), it wasn’t a BABIP thing (.300 BABIP in 2010, .311 career), and it wasn’t a batted ball profile thing. His HR/FB rate was an unsustainably high 17.0% compared to a much more normal 13.1% for this career, so maybe that was behind the good year. Whatever it was, it’s not exactly something any team should count on happening again.
Late last week Joe wrote about the option of improving the team by upgrading the utility infielder, but Hall can’t replace Eduardo Nunez (assuming the idea is to send him down to Triple-A so he can play regularly) because he hasn’t played shortstop since 2006. Yeah, he stood there for 36 innings last year, but that was the only time he’s played the position in five years. Plus his defense at second is terrible, I’m not sure why it would be better on the other side of the bag. He’s more of an emergency shortstop more than anything, not a guy a team could legitimately use there. Andruw Jones has a) done nothing to lose his job, and b) is better than Hall anyway, so they’re not going to change fourth outfielders. The Yankees could use him in place of Chris Dickerson, but then they have no left-handed bat on the bench. Not a huge problem, more of an inconvenience. I assume that would be his way onto the roster.
Like I said, bringing Hall in for the pro-rated minimum is a perfectly fine move, but I really don’t see enough of an upgrade to consider it a no-brainer, an “oh my goodness they have to go out and get this guy” kind of move. If they sign him, great. If not, well no big deal. Hall’s more name value than substance, has been for more than four years now.
Prior to last night’s loss to the Mets we heard that Eric Chavez is slowly but surely making his way back from a deep bone bruise in his foot and has not walked with a limp in days. He’s still a few weeks away from returning though, and the Yankees have been short a viable pinch-hitting option and true backup first/third baseman since he hurt himself legging out a triple in Detroit. Two players were dropped by their teams within the last 24 hours, so let’s see if either is capable of filling that bench role for the Yankees while Chavez is on the mend…
Russell Branyan (released by Arizona)
We’ve watched Branyan hit some absolute moonshots at Yankee Stadium over the last few seasons, like this one off Javy Vazquez or this one off A.J. Burnett or this one off Chad Gaudin or this one off Al Aceves. He’s managed to hit seven homeruns in just 12 games (11 starts) at the newest version of Yankee Stadium, including six (!!!) last year alone. The D’Backs cut him because he had a .285 wOBA as the third wheel in a first base platoon that included former Yankees Juan Miranda and Xavier Nady.
Cartilage damage and miscellaneous stiffness in his back has limited Branyan to just 256 games (out of 368) since 2009, but more importantly they’ve relegated him to first base and DH. He hasn’t played third base since 2008 (276 defensive innings) or a corner outfield spot with any regularity since 2007 (79.1 innings), so his value is limited. Despite the poor showing in the desert, Branyan’s underlying skills are still the same. He’s never had a sub-.220 ISO or walked in fewer than 10% of his plate appearances in any season in which he came to plate 100 times or more. It’s the standard three-true outcomes package, 50.6% of his career plate appearances have ended with a homer, a strikeout, or a walk.
Dan Johnson (designated for assignment by Tampa Bay)
Johnson is another guy that has killed the Yankees over the last year or so, memorably hitting these two go-ahead homers homers (in the same game) last September. He started the year as Carlos Pena’s primary replacement at first but was so bad (.165 wOBA) that he eventually lost the job to Casey Kotchman (!!!) and did little more than pinch-hit or spot start before getting the axe yesterday.
There’s no way to spin that horrible performance into something positive, yeah his BABIP was low (.133) but that doesn’t explain why he all of a sudden decided to start swinging at 26.4% of the pitches he saw out of the zone (16.3% career). Johnson’s track record consists of patience (12.9% walk rate) and power (.169 ISO in the bigs but .253 in nearly 2,000 Triple-A plate appearances), and unlike Branyan he can actually play third. He’s played 45 games at the position since the start of 2010 (majors and minors) and although he’s not a great defender there, he can at least stand there and fake it every once in a while.
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Neither Branyan or Johnson is a perfect fill-in for Chavez, but then again Chavez isn’t exactly perfect either given his propensity to get hurt. Too bad we can’t combine Branyan’s offense with Johnson’s health and versatility, that would be the best solution. Branyan would only cost the league minimum, though Johnson said he’d like to stay with the Rays’ organization if he clears waivers, so he’s unlikely to elect free agency. The Yankees would have to claim him off waivers, which would mean assuming his $1M salary for the rest of the season. That money is no big deal, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Ultimately, either guy would just be stepping in until Chavez returns, but we have to remember who we’re dealing with. It sounds like Chavez will be back sometime next month, but he could easily be out longer than that given his injury history. Having a semi-capable replacement like Branyan or Johnson could end up being more important than we realize.