Nick Swisher can brighten up any clubhouse

It’s hard to imagine the 2009 Yankees without Nick Swisher. Relegated to fourth outfielder status heading into the season, Swisher became the full-time right fielder after Xavier Nady blew out his elbow and hasn’t looked back. He’s en route to what could be the best season of his career. His 59 extra base hits must have Kenny Williams wondering why the hell he traded him for Wilson Betemit and Jeff Marquez last winter.

The Yankees traded for Swisher because they thought they could get a productive player on the cheap. It was certainly a gamble of sorts, as Swisher had a horrible season in 2008. Not only did the Yanks win the gamble, but they got a dividend on their investment. Not only did they get a productive player, but they got a unique personality who brought life to the rigid Yankees clubhouse. That might not add to the team’s baseball output, but it sure makes for a great story.

Swisher is no stranger to stories. He played a big role in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, the blue chip prospect that even Billy Beane, he who drafted Jeremy Brown in the first round, couldn’t pass up. Scouts and sabermetricians alike loved Swisher for his approach and his power, and it was only after a few breaks that he even fell to the A’s. Once he made the majors, it was inevitable that he’d become a reporter’s dream.

Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated captured Swisher perfectly with a lede he wrote in 2006:

Nick Swisher is good. He is home-run-beltin’, sideburn-wearin’, nonstop-talkin’, bear-hug-dispensin’, self-proclaimin’ good. His coaches know it, his teammates know it, and most of all Swisher knows it.

The sideburns don’t fly in the Bronx, but other than that Swisher is the same guy now as he was then. It seems as though the Yankees clubhouse has come to embrace it. They have been portrayed as a rigid bunch over the years, but the off-season additions, especially Swisher, have seemingly helped turn that around. At least Johnny Damon thinks so:

“He’s had an impact on the clubhouse,” adds Johnny Damon, whose locker is next to Swisher’s. “When I came over, I mean, this place was kinda dead, you know? I almost had to watch everything I said. I didn’t want to upset anyone. But having characters in here has helped everyone. It’s kind of like how Kevin Millar helped me in Boston – we changed the way things were in Boston, but it took another guy to put it full throttle.

“It’s completely different in here now. It’s great, we’re in this new stadium and there’s a lot of room to have fun.”

Even better is what Andy Pettitte has to say about young Swisher. “Nick loves to talk, that’s for sure.” This recalls one of my favorite Swisher stories of all time, as relayed by Ballard:

In college two of his teammates offered him $50 if he could stay quiet for a long bus ride back to Columbus. “It was the hardest thing for me to do. I wanted to just shoot myself,” he says. “But”–and here he brightens up–“I got my 50 bucks, boy!”

While this was meant to be an upbeat post about the most ebullient Yankee, Swisher’s charity work also deserves a nod. He has his own charity, Swish’s Wishes, which is “dedicated to enriching lives and lifting the spirits of children who are facing vital health issues while providing care, comfort and support through the most difficult of times.” He also works with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and has donated hair to women who have lost theirs from cancer treatments — an homage to his grandmother, Betty Swisher, who died of brain cancer in 2005. A list of Swisher’s charity work is available on his website.

It might be early morning, but hey, it’s a Friday, so I propose a toast to Nick Swisher. The Yanks got him for next to nothing, and he’s been an important cog in a high-powered offense. Whether he’s slamming a walk-off home run or taking a key walk, Swisher is contributing to this offense and to the clubhouse. So let’s crown his ass. He is who he thought he was.

A great big Swisher bear hug to The Yankees Universe for the tip.

The Hideki Matsui Appreciation Thread

Hideki MatsuiIt’s hard to believe that Hideki Matsui is just about to wrap up his 7th season in pinstripes. The three-time MVP of the Japanese Central League came over to the states as a free agent prior to the 2003 season, signing for just $21M over three years. He introduced himself to New Yorkers by slugging a grand slam in the 2003 home opener, his very first game in front of the Yankee faithful. Although he lost out to Angel Berroa for the 2003 Rookie of the Year Award, the team can’t complain about the return on the investment at all, as Godzilla played in every single game over those three seasons and compiled a .297-.370-.484 batting line in that time.

After proving to be supremely durable and so dependable at the plate, the Yanks couldn’t afford to let Matsui walk as a free agent after the 2005. They brought him back on a four year, $52M deal, but Hideki battled injuries in years one and three of that deal. He broke his wrist on a fluke play in 2006, landing the wrong way as he slid for a ball in the outfield. Matsui’s string of 1,768 consecutive games played came to a sudden halt, as did his Major League record of 518 consecutive games played to start his big league career. All those years of playing every day on the turf in Japan started to take it’s toll on Matsui’s knees, and he missed considerable time in 2008. Despite all that, Matsui still hit .291-.372-.469 in the first three years of that four year deal.

For the first time in his career, Matsui entered the 2009 season as a bit of a question mark. No one was sure how his knees would hold up or if he’d even be able to play the field at all. While he hasn’t been able to roam the outfield, and while his knees have acted up from time to time, Matsui has been nothing short of tremendous as the Yanks’ every day designated hitter. Among DH’s with at least 200 plate appearances, Matsui ranks second in OBP (.365), second in SLG (.521), first in OPS (.886), first in homers (25), first in RBI (82), first in total bases (207), and first in BB/K (0.87). His overall line of .277-.369-.509 gives him his best OPS over a full season since 2004, and of course, there’s the big hits.

If he’s not busy ripping walk-off homers like he did against the Orioles on July 20th, then he’s probably preoccupied with launching two homers and driving in seven runs against the Red Sox like he did on August 21st. Matsui’s a pretty quite and unassuming guy, so maybe he’ll just hit a two-run homer to the tie the game while someone else gets the walk-off glory, like last night. And amazingly enough, Matsui has continued to pound lefthanders again this year (.958 OPS vs LHP, .855 vs RHP), something he’s done consistently throughout his career. The guy is just a hitting mahcine.

We don’t know what the future holds for the marriage between Matsui and the Yankees, as the team wants to get younger and more athletic while Godzilla gets older and couldn’t be any more immobile. Whether or not you want to see him back next year (see the poll below), let’s take this chance to thank Matsui for all he has done for the Yanks. All the big hits, the consistency, the quiet professionalism, the whole nine. Thanks, Hideki.

Should the Yankees re-sign Hideki Matsui after the season?
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Photo Credit: Robert Beck, SI

A little bit about Freddy Guzman

There’s a new member of the New York Yankees, so let’s introduce him. Before yesterday’s game, the Yankees added OF Freddy Guzman to the 40-man roster and summoned him to the majors. The 28-year-old switch-hitter hadn’t appeared in a major league game since September 30, 2007, before he pinch ran for Jorge Posada in the eighth inning last night. Now, according to the Yankees, he’s in consideration for a postseason roster spot.

It’s been a long journey for Guzman, not just throughout his nine-year pro career, but also this season alone. The Bronx is his fifth stop in 2009 after stints with AAA teams in four organizations. He’s stayed employed through the years because of his speed, which, to paraphrase Mike, can be rated as “really fast” on the 20-80 scale. He got on base at a decent clip in the minors for a guy with no pop, but he’s not expected to maintain that in the majors. If he was, another team would have given him a longer look.

(I also found out, just after publishing this, that Guzman had at one point falsified his identification. He was previously known as Pedro De Los Santos, and had listed his birth date as August 8, 1983. His actual birthday is January 20, 1981 — the day Reagan was inaugurated.)

The Padres signed Guzman as an undrafted free agent in 2000, but apparently held him back from playing that year. The first recorded stats I see for him are with short-season Idaho Falls, San Diego’s rookie-level team, in 2001. He performed quite well in a small sample at that level, putting up a .866 OPS while playing against guys mostly younger than him. It’s tough to project under those circumstances, but success is success. For him to fail at that level might have derailed his career early.

Guzman hit three levels in 2002, starting at low-A ball and moving up to short-season and advanced-A. He posted a .341 OBP with low-A, but markedly dropped off as he faced tougher competition. Still, it was enough to earn him the No. 3 spot on San Diego’s prospect list, according to Baseball America. He started 2004 off with a bang, posting a .375 OBP at advanced-A and earning himself a promotion to AA. There he tallied a .368 OBP in 205 plate appearances. It was enough for the Padres to give him a shot, and he made his major league debut on August 17.

Things didn’t go so well for Guzman, who saw less and less playing time in September, though he did get two hits in each of the Padres final two games. Unfortunately, it would be more than a year until Guzman would play in a game that counted, at any level. He suffered an elbow injury which kept him out for the entire 2005 season.

After success in his brief return, to the tune of a .348 OBP, the Padres traded him to the Rangers in what amounted to a nothing deal. Cesar Rojas went with him, and the Padres received John Hudgins and Vince Sinisi in return. None of those players have been of any consequence. Guzman took to his new environment, hitting .282/.375/.345 Oklahoma, Texas’s AAA affiliate in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. He was rewarded with eight plate appearances at the end of the season for the Rangers.

Another decent season followed in Oklahoma, .269/.358/.363. The Rangers again rewarded him with a call-up, this time involving six plate appearances. At this point it was clear what kind of production you could expect from Guzman: not much. He had only 98 major league plate appearances, but Guzman’s type has floated around pro baseball for ages. He has seductive speed, but not enough power. Without power he has trouble drawing walks at the major league level, which depress his OBP. Guys with speed don’t do much good unless they’re getting on base.

In December of 2007, the Rangers dished Guzman to the Tigers for 1B Chris Shelton, who is most famous for hitting 10 home runs in April 2005 and doing nothing much since. After deciding he’d not make the Opening Day roster, the Tigers placed him on outright waivers, but no one claimed him. The Tigers put him in AA. After tearing up Erie of the Eastern League (.281/.362/.446), Detroit moved him up to AAA Toldeo, where he fell back into line with expectations, .270/.329/.378.

After the season Guzman became a minor league free agent and signed with the Mariners. His 2009 journey began with Tacoma of the PCL, but after disastrous results — .214/.244/.310 in 45 PA — the Mariners released him in early May. The Red Sox snapped him up later that month, but the results were similar with AAA Pawtucket. From there was onto Norfolk, Baltimore’s AAA team, where he experienced even worse results. The Orioles, obviously having no use for the outfielder, dished him to the Yanks on August 31 for cash and a player to be named later.

Strangely, after releasing Guzman, the Red Sox acquired Joey Gathright. The latter might have more major league experience than Guzman, but it’s difficult to discern a difference between the two speedsters. Yet it’s their speed, and their speed alone, which might earn them postseason roster spots. That’s what Joe Girardi said yesterday. The Yankees, needing only 11 pitchers on the postseason roster (probably using 10 tops), could add a second speed threat to the bench with their extra spot.

A speed threat on the bench is a luxury in October, and one the Yankees can certainly afford. But can they spare two spots to speedsters? It seems as though Melky Cabrera is the starting center fielder, with Gardner coming in every once in a while, rather than any kind of set platoon. He’s one guy who can pinch run in close and late situations. Do the Yankees need another?

Right now, the odds are against Guzman making the roster, but things can change between now and October 7. If Melky starts to falter and Gardner starts more in center, perhaps the Yankees will think it worthy to have a speeders for whom they can pick spots. If Gardner’s starting, the Yanks obviously can’t use him to pinch run for Posada or Matsui in a difficult spot. The presence of Guzman would afford them that luxury. I guess it will come down to how the team plays down the stretch, and how the Yankees think they can best use their extra position player.

Photo 1 credit: Lauren Long / The Post-Standard

Photo 2 credit: Robin Buckson / The Detroit News

The incredibly streaky Melky Cabrera

Posts like this always open with an admission of our collective position on Melky Cabrera, as if it needed restating. It is plainly clear that we don’t like Melky as the everyday center fielder. He has had his high points, but the lows are abominable. It is best to have someone else sharing time with him out there, which is why Brett Gardner is an important component to this team. When Melky’s going badly, Gardner can step in and at least lend his speed.

The latest Melky complaint came on August 18. On August 2 he had hit for the cycle, and in the subsequent 56 plate appearances took a nosedive, hitting .115/.161/.173. Small sample or not, it was a terrible stretch in which the Yankees essentially had a pitcher in the ninth slot. Worst of all, Gardner was still on the disabled list, so there were few options to spell Melky. Jerry Hairston got some games out there, but not with any frequency. It was clear the Yankees were going to ride out Melky’s slump.

That appears to have been the right move. Melky has surged since the 19th, hitting .348/.392/.464 in 75 plate appearances. The greatest part of his onslaught has come in September, where he boasts a .419/.471/.581 line in 34 plate appearances. His slump is over, and with the return of Brett Gardner, perhaps the Yankees can stave off another one before the end of the season.

It would be foolish to think that Melky will avoid another slump like the one he experienced in August (.223/.364/.350). He’s had the up-and-down syndrome from month to month since 2007. It makes for an incredibly deep lineup some months, when he can hit (but not run) like Curtis Granderson. It also makes for a short lineup other months, where he hits like Willie Bloomquist. That’s what makes the Melky experience so frustrating at times. We’ve seen him do so much better.

There’s certainly hope for Melky’s future. He’s only 24 years old and has had to learn on the fly at the major league level. When he’s bad he’s really bad, but when he’s good he can be an above average center fielder. Just look at his numbers in July. Over 86 plate appearances he was .289/.372/.447, and his BABIP was only .290. In April it was .324, and in May, when he had a totally acceptable .777 OPS, it was .356. It obviously dropped in his down months, but he did have a good month with an average BABIP. I don’t think anyone would complain if Melky started hitting .289/.372/.447 every season.

Every player streaks and slumps. It’s part of the game. But not every player has a hot month followed by a month-long drought. Not every player puts. up a .819 OPS one month and then follows it up with .613 the next. Over the years we’ve seen Melky develop his game a bit, mostly his power. The next step in his development will be to even out some of this streakiness. If he can avoid the sub-.700 OPS months, he’ll have a place on this team for quite some time. But if he continues to streak and slump in the manner he has over the past three years, it’s going to make for a rough ride in the future.

Sorting out September callups

SHELLEY SMASHMan, you know the season is  almost over when we start talking about possible September callups. In case you don’t know what those are, teams are allowed to expand their rosters on September 1st, which allows them to rest their regulars and get a look at some younger players. Because these guys aren’t on the active roster by August 31st, they are ineligible for the postseason roster. Teams can still finagle them on there if there’s an injury, though, which is exactly what the Angels did with K-Rod back in 2002. So who are the Yankees going to call up in September this year? EJ Fagan at TYU already took a shot at figuring out who it would be, and now it’s my turn.

Now, one thing to remember is that not all Sept. callups actually happen on Sept. 1st. Last year, the Yanks only called up two players on the 1st – a third catcher in Chad Moeller and another arm in Phil Coke. Melky Cabrera was recalled three days later, after the minor league regular season ended. David Robertson, Phil Hughes, Humberto Sanchez, Frankie Cervelli, and Juan Miranda weren’t brought up until the minor league playoffs ended in the middle of September.

In 2007, essentially the same thing happened. Ian Kennedy and Alberto Gonzalez were recalled on the 1st, and it wasn’t until the minor league season/playoffs ended a week or two later that the likes of Tyler Clippard, Sean Henn, Kei Igawa, Matt DeSalvo, Jeff Karstens, Bronson Sardinha, and Ross Ohlendorf were brought up. 2006? Same thing. Wil Nieves, Jose Veras, and TJ Beam on the 1st, everyone else in the middle of the month. Obviously this year’s team is in a different spot since they’re so far out in front, but they have a history of throwing their upper-level affiliates a bone and letting them keep their best players for a playoff run.

Assuming they stick with this trend, don’t expect to see much action next Tuesday. Frankie Cervelli seems like a given to add that third catcher, ditto Ramiro Pena since the team only has three bench players right now. As for another arm, Jon Albaladejo seems like the logical choice since he can give some length and has been on the NY-SWB shuttle all year. Remember that the team is also likely to get Brett Gardner back off the disabled list around this time, so that’s like calling up another outfielder.

Anthony Claggett, Edwar Ramirez, Mark Melancon, Juan Miranda, and Shelley Duncan are already on the 40-man roster and have been in bigs before, so they seem like locks for a call up once Triple-A Scranton’s playoff run ends. After that though, things get tricky. Chris Garcia, Ian Kennedy, and Kevin Cash are on the 40-man, but are out for the season with injuries sustained while playing in the minors. The team can’t slide them over to the 60-day DL to free up 40-man spots because of that, so there’s basically three dead spots they have to maneuver around. There really isn’t anyone else DFA’able in there, and it would be pretty stupid to cut someone like Sergio Mitre just to add another pitcher likely to perform at a similar level while paying both salaries.

Zach Kroenke and Mike Dunn are two lefty relievers that have had tremendous seasons in the minors. Kroenke, drafted by the Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason but returned in Spring Training, is holding lefthanders to a .169 AVG against and can go multiple innings if needed. Dunn is holding all batters to a .218 AVG against and has struck out 94 in just 70.1 IP. Both guys were reportedly told that they would head to the Arizona Fall League if they didn’t receive a Sept. call up, which, if nothing else, tells us that they’re at least considering bringing them up. I think Dunn has a leg up because he’s already on the packed 40-man roster.

Wilkins DeLaRosa is another lefty bullpen option on the 40-man, but his performance has been up and down between injuries this year. I don’t see it happening. The only other player on the 40-man roster not accounted for is Andrew Brackman, and he hasn’t done anything to deserve a call up. It’s a shame, really.

The other group of players they could consider for possible Sept. call ups are the players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter. Generally speaking, high school draftees from 2005 and college draftees from 2006 are eligible this year, so that means players like Austin Jackson, Kevin Russo, Ivan Nova, and Mr. Kroenke. I don’t remember the Yankees ever calling a player up in September before he had to be added to the 40-man, and I don’t see that happening now given how crowded the roster is. It’s more likely that you’ll see these four guys, plus DeLaRosa and Brackman possibly, come up to the Bronx to work out with the team and hang around the clubhouse and stuff, but without being activated. They’d then have to watch games from the stands since they can’t be in the dugout. The Yanks do this with a few guys every year, and some alumni include Phil Hughes, JB Cox, Alan Horne, and Jeff Marquez.

So just to recap, look for Cervelli, Pena, and a pitcher like Albaladejo to be brought up immediately, with Dunn, Melancon, Edwar, Shelley, Miranda and Claggett to follow once the Triple-A Scranton season/playoff run is over. Realistically speaking, the Yankees just need enough position players in September to make sure they can rest everyone in the infield as well as Johnny Damon at the same time down the stretch, and that would be possible with Hinske, Hairston, Pena, Miranda, and Shelley. They’d also need just enough arms to soak up maybe 50 innings tops, mostly in blowout games and spot starts once a playoff spot is clinched. This group accomplishes all of that.

Photo Credit: Antonelli, NY Daily News

Cano vs. Pedroia

The New York-Boston rivalry goes beyond wins and losses, extending down to the individual players. In the 90’s it was Jeter vs. Nomar, a few years ago it was Posada vs. Varitek, and nowadays you’ve got Cano vs. Pedroia in a second base matchup. Both are obviously tremendous young players, but they go about their business in different ways. Jack Curry spoke to injured Mets infielder (kinda redundant, no?) Alex Cora about which player he’d prefer, to which he essentially said Pedroia because “people are going to say [Pedroia] is going to show up every day and [Cano] might not.”

That mentality comes through again in this conveniently timed follow-up by Joel Sherman.  Sherman polled seven executives about which second sacker they’d take, and all seven said Pedroia because he “has better makeup and gives his all every day.” He also noted that several execs “kept telling me Cano was erratic on D,” which Sherman (and I) disagree with. There’s certainly merit to guys who play hard all the time, but there’s no denying that Cano has more more talent and raw ability, and both articles reflect that.

Let’s not pretend that there aren’t some stereotypes involved here. The Dominican Cano is often be called lazy, or boneheaded, or something along those lines when he has the audacity to fail at something in a game of failure. Pedroia, short and white, fits the mold of a “grinder” and someone that “plays the game the right way,” something you absolutely never hear about non-caucasian players. But just look at last night’s game, when Pedroia was thrown out at third by ten feet trying to stretch a double into a triple. What would have been said about Cano if the roles were reversed? And then of course, there’s this.

Look, Robbie Cano is a great young player who’s guilty of the occasional brianfart. After an MVP season last year, Pedroia now lags behind Cano in AVG (.296 to .311), SLG (.440 to .499), OPS (.811 to .842), XBH (47 to 54), and VORP (27.5 to 29.4). Pedroia’s great, but the reputation far exceeds the reality right now. When it comes to Robbie, I think this great quote from Bossman Junior fits him perfectly (Upton was talking about himself at the time, but it still applies):

“Just because of the way I carry myself, some people say I’m lazy. I’ve heard that my whole life. Or I don’t work hard, or I don’t play hard sometimes. I can’t help that I make some things look easier than they really are.”

Jeter not thinking about his next contract, though he probably is

Mark Feinsand has a bit up on his blog about Derek Jeter and his contract which expires after next season. We’ve discussed this plenty on RAB in the past, taking the angles of salary, contract length, and defensive position. Those are all factors that will play into the negotiations, which in all likelihood won’t happen until after next season. That’s just how Brian Cashman seems to operate. If he’s not going to negotiate ahead of time for Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, he probably won’t for Jeter.

Jeter, for his part, is saying all the right things, as is his wont. He’s worried about this year, and that it’s “unfair to think about what [he’s] going to be doing years from now as opposed to trying to help [the Yankees] win this year.” It’s typical Jeter-speak, and we shouldn’t expect anything else at this point. He’s been talking like this to the media for years because it’s disarming. It doesn’t mean it’s actually what he’s thinking.

Like the rest of us, Jeter has likely thought about life after 2010. How could he not? Maybe he shuts it out during the season and concentrates on baseball — and if that’s the case, it’s working. But what about that long off-season? If he didn’t think about his contract last off-season, he’s probably going to think about it after this season. After all, he has but one year left on his contract, and they’re not doling out contracts like they did in 2001 (unless you’re Hank Steinbrenner, who by all appearances is out of the picture).

We’ve all thought about this. Will Jeter take a pay cut? How many years will he want? Most importantly, how far apart will he and the Yankees be? Those are all questions we’ll be asking in earnest at this point next year. Thankfully, right now we can sit back and enjoy the ride. Jeter is with the team now, and he will be next year.

Just to tack my two cents onto the end of this, I think a perpetual mutual agreement, with a team option and then a player option behind it could be the kind of creative deal that could get this done. A mutual option for, say $16 million, and if that’s declined by one party it goes to a player or a team option for a little less (probably would go to the declining party). If that’s declined, it goes to the other party for a little less. That would keep Jeter in pinstripes and keep the team from having to commit a significant chunk of payroll, in the present and future, to him.