The Hope for a Healthy and Productive Carlos Beltran [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

One year into his three-year contract, the Carlos Beltran signing looks like the position player version of the Randy Johnson trade: the Yankees got the right player, just nine years too late. Beltran’s first season in pinstripes was a disappointment for several reasons, mostly because he didn’t hit (95 wRC+) and was banged up just about all season. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Beltran, who will turn 38 in April, had offseason surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow after it hampered him from mid-May through the end of the season. He wanted to play through it and the Yankees were on board since the pain could be managed and the injury couldn’t get any worse, but in hindsight it was a mistake. Brian Cashman admitted as much after the season. Beltran should have just had surgery in May and been done with it.

Year two of Beltran’s contract offers the hope that, with the bone spur out of the picture, Beltran will get back to being productive and an asset in the middle of the order. After all, he hit .296/.339/.491 (131 wRC+) with 24 homers as recently as 2013. It’s not like you have to squint your eyes and look back five years for the last time he was an impact hitter. Beltran’s bat is a big factor for the 2015 Yankees.

Yankees Need: Damage Against Righties

Beltran is a switch-hitter and the vast majority of pitchers are right-handed — the batters faced split has sat around 75/25 in favor of righties the last few years — so the Yankee are going to count on him to do serious damage against them. I don’t just mean hold his own, I mean be a force. A middle of the order guy, a number three or four type hitter, hit for both average and power against northpaws. That kind of hitter. At this point of his career Beltran’s only redeeming quality is his bat. The Yankees need him to wreck righties.

Beltran Can: Still Produce Against Righties

Even while battling the elbow issue last year, Beltran still managed to hit .254/.331/.446 (118 wRC+) with 12 of his 15 home runs against righties. He also posted better than average strikeout (16.2%) and walk (9.5%) rates against righties, which is in line with his career numbers overall. Beltran didn’t put up 2013 numbers against righties (143 wRC+) but he was able to contribute from the left side of the plate even with the bone spur in his elbow.

The left side is Beltran’s more productive side and has been for years. (He’s a natural right-handed hitter, weirdly.) Last year he really seemed to struggle with inside pitches as a lefty batter and the data backs it up. Here are Beltran’s strike zone heat maps as a left-handed batter from 2012 through 2014 in terms of runs produced above average per 100 pitches (via FanGraphs):

Carlos Beltran Heat Maps-001The brighter the red, the more damage Beltran did against pitches in that particular location. The brighter the blue, the worse he did. Notice how the inner half of the plate (the right side of the heat maps) is nice and red in 2012 and 2013 before turning blue in 2014. He was five or six runs (per 100 pitches) above-average in certain inside spots in 2013 before dropping to two or three runs below-average in 2014. That’s a huge, huge swing from one year to the next.

Beltran’s bone spur was in his right elbow, his lead elbow as a left-handed hitter. That obviously could have played a major role in his sudden inability to hit inside pitches. Beltran simply might not have had the range of motion necessary — or at least have the necessary range of motion without discomfort — to hit those pitches. Or it could just be that he’s a soon-to-be 38-year-old player who is losing bat speed by the day and is no longer able to get around on inside pitches. We can’t rule that out either.

Now that the bone spur is out of his elbow, there’s at least some hope Beltran will better be able to handle inside pitches and thus improve his production against righties this coming season. He might not get back to where he was in 2013 or his overall 2011-13 level (139 wRC+), but something more than last year would be nice.

Yankees Need: Production Against Lefties

The Yankees are projected to have four right-handed hitters on the Opening Day roster: Alex Rodriguez, Chris Young, John Ryan Murphy, and Brendan Ryan. Only one of them figures to be in the regular starting lineup. That is not a lot of offensive firepower from that side of the plate, so the switch-hitters like Beltran (and Mark Teixeira and Chase Headley) are going to have to help pick up the slack. The AL East isn’t what it once was, the days of seeing David Price or Jon Lester every other weekend are over, but there still needs to be lineup balance and the ability to handle southpaws.

Beltran Can: Hopefully Halt The Decline Against Lefties

At this point Beltran is a switch-hitter in name only. The right side has been his weaker side of the plate for a few years running now and it’s only getting worse. Across the board his AVG, OBP, SLG, ISO, and wRC+ against lefties have been trending in the wrong direction since 2010. (His walk and strikeout rates have been all over the place.) Check it out:

AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+ K% BB%
2010 .292 .364 .646 .354 165 20.0% 9.1%
2011 .286 .338 .585 .299 153 17.5% 6.9%
2012 .276 .329 .538 .262 129 22.4% 7.5%
2013 .252 .281 .448 .196 100 15.2% 4.1%
2014 .196 .242 .322 .126 50 20.9% 5.9%

Yikes. Yes, the “bone spur in the elbow” caveat applies to last season, but leave 2014 out of it and that’s still a really scary trend. Even with a healthy elbow, why would I expect Beltran to be even an average hitter against left-handers this coming season? Hopefully he’ll rebound with a healthy elbow and top last year’s production, but I feel like it’ll take some BABIP luck to get back to a 100 wRC+ in 2015.

I doubt it’ll happen, but there’s an argument to made the Yankees are best off platooning Beltran with Young this summer. Or at the very least batting Beltran lower in the order against southpaws.

Yankees Need: “Just Don’t Mess Up Too Bad” Defense

In his prime, Beltran was an unreal center fielder with great range, tremendous reads, and a strong arm to back it all up. He wasn’t Andruw Jones but he was the next best thing. He was that good defensively. It’s been a very long time since Beltran was a plus defender though. You have to go back to his days with the Mets, basically. The Yankees are not unrealistic. They’ll again shade Jacoby Ellsbury towards right-center to help compensate for Beltran’s lack of range — having Brett Gardner in left allows that — and hope Beltran can simply make all the play he’s supposed to make. Right field in Yankee Stadium is relatively small. There’s not much ground to cover out there.

Beltran Can: Stand In Right Field For A Few Innings

Beltran has consistently rated as a below-average right fielder by the various defensive stats the last few years and that definitely matches up with the eye test. It’s not just a lack of range brought on by age and years of knee problems, there was was straight up laziness at times last year. I’m sure you remember Beltran getting caught standing around on this play last year:

The Yankees made a point of improving their defense this offseason and there’s no argument to be made that lifting Beltran for a defensive replacement (Young) in the late innings of a close game is not a smart move. Especially if the Yankees are leading. If they’re down a run and want to try to get Beltran an extra at-bat, fine. But if the lead is small and it’s the sixth or seventh inning, Beltran has no business playing the field. He’s that much of a liability. This is one aspect of his game that getting over the bone spur won’t improve. Immobility is immobility.

Speed, Defense, and the Possibly Not Fluky Power of Brett Gardner [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first three or four months of the 2014 season, Brett Gardner was the Yankees’ best position player. He signed a four-year, $52M extension in Spring Training and rewarded the team by hitting .284/.363/.467 (133 wRC+) with 15 homers in his first 462 plate appearances of the season. Gardner was a middle of the order hitter batting leadoff.

A late-season abdominal injury hampered Brett down the stretch — he hit .185/.232/.306 (46 wRC+) with two homers in his final 174 plate appearances — yet he finished the season with a still solid .256/.327/.422 (110 wRC+) batting line to go along with his typically strong left field defense. The abdominal injury was bad enough that Gardner had surgery after the season.

Coming into the 2015 season, Gardner is clearly a core player for the Yankees, and not just because he’s homegrown. He’s arguably their best all-around position player — no worse than their third best position player behind Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley — and will occupy a prominent lineup spot for the third straight season, likely leadoff or the two-hole. That comes with a lot of responsibility.

Yankees Need: The Table Set

Regardless of whether he bats first or second, Gardner is going to be tasked with setting the tone for the offense. The Yankees don’t have as much power as they once did, so now their offense is built on stringing together rallies, running the bases well, and old school run manufacturing. That starts at the top of the lineup with Gardner (and Ellsbury). Get on, distract the pitcher, raise some hell on the bases, and wait for someone else to drive you in. That’s Brett’s offensive job in a nutshell.

Gardner Can: Get On Base, Maybe Steal More Bases

Not counting his injury shortened 2012 season, Gardner has posted .345, .344, and .327 OBPs in his last three full seasons. And, as I mentioned before, he was sitting on a .363 OBP in early-August last year before the abdominal injury more or less rendered him useless. That’s Gardner’s game right there. He doesn’t hit for a high average — he’s consistently been in the .255-.275 or so range as a big leaguer — but Brett has always posted an above-average walk rate (8.8% last year, 10.0% career) and been an on-base guy.

The on-base stuff isn’t much of a question going into the new season. Gardner’s not old and he’s been getting on base at a similar clip his entire career, so there’s not much of a concern things will change this year. He’s fairly predictable in that regard. Stealing bases is another matter. Gardner stole 47 and 49 bases in 2010 and 2011, his first two full seasons, and then only 24 and 21 bases in 2013 and 2014, his last two full seasons. Furthermore, his stolen base attempt rate (steal attempts per opportunity) has dropped from 23.3% to 25.8% to 14.3% to 10.4% in his last four full seasons.

For whatever reason, Gardner simply isn’t stealing as many bases as he once did. Part of that is age — a 29-30-year-old player probably won’t attempt as many steals (or be as successful) as the same player during his age 26-27 seasons — and I’m sure part of it is injury. Gardner attempted 19 steals in the first half and only seven in the second half last season due to the abdominal injury. There are multiple factors in play here, at least one of which (last year’s injury) is in the rear-view mirror. Gardner’s job is to get on base first and foremost, and while the days of 45+ steals are probably over, I’m hopeful he can get back over 30 steals in 2015 with good health.

Yankees Need: More Of That Power, Please

After hitting a career-high eight homers in 2013, Gardner more than doubled that total with 17 long balls last year. It wasn’t just a Yankee Stadium thing either — he hit eight homers at home and nine on the road. Nine of the 17 were classified as “plenty” or “no doubt” by Hit Tracker too, meaning they cleared the wall by at least ten feet. Were there some cheapies? Of course. That comes with the ballpark. Brett hit more than a few bombs though. It wasn’t all luck. I don’t think anyone is expecting Gardner to hit 17 homers again in 2015, but double-digits? Yeah I think the Yanks are counting on that.

Gardner Can: Pull The Ball, Ambush Fastballs

Since the start of the 2013 season, eleven of Gardner’s 25 homers have come on the first or second pitch of the at-bat. Eight of those eleven (and 18 of the 25 overall) have come on fastballs. It’s become clear these last two years that Brett will pick his spots to sit on a fastball early in the count and straight up ambush. He’s not a power hitter by trade, so pitchers usually try to get ahead with fastballs, and Gardner has reacted by sitting heater and trying to go yard on occasion. Not all the time, just sometimes.

Furthermore, Gardner has also learned how to pull the ball in recent years, allowing him to better take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch and maximize his power in general. Hitters generally hit the ball with the most authority when they pull it. Here are Gardner’s percentage of batted balls pulled to right field in the air over the years:

2008: 15.6% (141 PA)
2009: 19.4% (284 PA)
2010: 20.7% (569 PA)
2011: 17.9% (588 PA)
2012: 10.0% (37 PA)
2013: 22.0% (609 PA)
2014: 30.2% (636 PA)

He’s pulled more balls in the air these last two seasons — especially last season, when only eleven qualified hitters pulled the ball in the air more often than Gardner — and that’s led to the uptick in power. Former hitting coach Kevin Long helped Robinson Cano become a superstar by teaching him how to pull the ball with authority and it appears he may have done the same with Gardner. Remember, Gardner wasn’t hitting nothing but cheapies. Most of last year’s homers cleared the wall with plenty of room to spare.

Between his tendency to ambush fastballs early in the count and his newfound ability to pull the ball in the air, there’s reason to think Gardner’s power display last season is for real. Maybe he won’t hit 17 homers again, I’m willing to bet that was his career power year, but maybe he won’t be limited to single-digit homers going forward. That’s assuming new hitting coach Jeff Pentland doesn’t make any drastic changes.

Yankees Need: Dominate In Left Field

The Yankees have morphed into a run prevention team and that starts in the outfield with Gardner (and Ellsbury). Left field in Yankee Stadium is not small like right field, there’s a lot of ground to cover out there, so Gardner’s speed and range is not insignificant. His defense allows Ellsbury to shade towards right to cover for the range-challenged Carlos Beltran, so having Gardner in left also helps improve the defense in right-center. The Yankees are going to have to keep opposing hits and runs to a minimum next year to contend, and Gardner is a huge piece of that puzzle.

Gardner Can: Play Strong Defense

Anecdotally, Gardner played very good defense in left field lat year but wasn’t quite as outstanding as he was in left field from 2010-11. The various defensive stats agree too. Here are the numbers:

DRS UZR Total Zone
2010 +26 +25.8 +26
2011 +23 +26.1 +23
2012 (only 15 games)
+1 +0.5 -1
2013 Played CF
2014 +3 +2.3 +1

So yeah, in his first full season as a left fielder since 2011, Gardner’s defense last summer did not appear to be as good as it once was. That doesn’t mean it was bad. He just went from arguably the best defensive left fielder in the game to slightly above-average. Gardner is clearly still an asset in the field, but his days as an otherworldly defender may be over.

Yankees Need: Stay Healthy!

This is pretty straight forward. Because he is one of their better players, the Yankees need Gardner to stay healthy and on the field. The Chris Young/Garrett Jones platoon would be a capable fill-in left fielder but a downgrade on both sides of the ball, as would minor league options like Ramon Flores and Tyler Austin. Gardner’s important! The Yankees need him on the field as much as possible.

Gardner Can: Stay Healthy, Knock On Wood

Aside from last year’s abdominal injury (as far as we know) and the oblique strain he suffered last in September 2013, Gardner’s major injures have been flukes. He broke his thumb sliding into second base in 2009, needed a wrist debridement after being hit by a pitch in 2010 (he played through it in the second half and had surgery after the season), then suffered a bone bruise in his elbow making a sliding catch in 2012. Hopefully Brett avoids anything unfortunate like that and can stay on the field in 2015. The Yankees need him.

Didi Gregorius and the Need for Defense and Development [2015 Season Preview]

Get off El Duque's lawn. (Presswire)
Get off El Duque’s lawn. (Presswire)

I don’t know if it was their top priority this winter, but finding a new starting shortstop was a very important item on the Yankees’ offseason shopping list. Derek Jeter retired and with no shortstop prospects on the cusp of MLB, that meant they had to go outside the organization. Free agency had some okay solutions and the trade market is always a bit of a mystery, so eh.

After reportedly making several trade offers for multiple shortstops earlier in the winter, the Yankees found their new shortstop in early-December, sending Shane Greene to the Tigers in a three-way trade that brought Didi Gregorius to New York. The Yankees had been trying to acquire Didi since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings, so it wasn’t a total surprise when they acquired him.

“They turned me down 10,000 ways over and I had to go through a third team,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings last week. “I went through a number of different teams who when I was dealing with them who told me, ‘I tried to get him, too.’ I tried to get him at the deadline. I obviously tried to get him over the winter. A number of failed attempts. And then other teams were conveying back to me their failed attempts.”

The Yankees also re-signed Stephen Drew to play second base this winter, and while he is a natural shortstop, he is not considered any sort of threat to Gregorius. The Yankees didn’t trade Shane Greene to get Gregorius only to pull the plug after his first slump. Didi will get a long look this year and have a chance to solidify himself as the club’s shortstop of the future. Let’s look at what the Yankees need from him and what he can realistically provide.

Yankees Need: Above-Average Defense

Let’s not kid ourselves here. Gregorius is a glove first player and the Yankees acquired him first and foremost because of his work in the field. Jeter was a tremendous player, but he stunk defensively, especially later in his career, and the Yankees clearly prioritized improving their infield defense over the winter. This is a pretty simple and straight forward request: Gregorius has to make all the plays he’s supposed to make plus some a Yankees’ shortstop hasn’t made in a long time.

Gregorius Can: Play Above-Average Defense, I Think

There’s a disconnect between the scouting reports and stats when it comes to Didi’s fielding ability. He came to the Yankees will a reputation for being a strong gloveman, but it could just be the infield version of Nichols Law, meaning he’s so bad at the plate his defensive reputation got inflated. Here are some scouting report tidbits from Baseball America (subs. req’d) over the years.

  • 2011: “He has a 65 arm on the 20-to-80 scouting scale that allows him to make any throw, often without needing to set his feet. His above-average speed and quick feet give him good range as well, though his hands are still somewhat erratic. Many of his errors come from a lack of focus and a tendency to rush plays.”
  • 2012: “Gregorius is a quality athlete whose best attribute is his arm, which rates a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale thanks to its strength and accuracy. He’s a plus defender with good range and a quick first step. His hands are his biggest drawback defensively and contributed to his 21 errors in 80 games in 2011.”
  • 2013: “He has smooth actions, plus range and a sniper rifle of an arm. His arm rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, allowing him to make plays from deep in the hole that other shortstops can’t.”

The scouting reports say Gregorius has defensive tools, yet UZR (-3.6), DRS (0), Total Zone (-7), and FRAA (-4.0) all say he’s been average or (mostly) worse in his 1,521.1 career innings at short. Inside Edge data shows Gregorius has been above-average at making difficult plays and below-average at making routine ones, which lends some credence to that whole “many of his errors come from a lack of focus and a tendency to rush plays” nugget from Baseball America’s 2011 scouting report.

When it comes to a player who has just about one year worth of MLB time at a position, I’m going to trust the scouting reports over the stats every time. Defensive stats are a wonderful tool but they are still very much a work in progress, and one year is not a big enough sample to say anything definitive. Gregorius might really be below-average! We’re going to find out this year. Until then, I’m sticking with the scouting reports that say he’s a strong defender.

Yankees Need: To See Some Improvement Against Lefties

In 724 career plate appearances, the 25-year-old Gregorius is a .243/.313/.366 (84 wRC+) hitter overall, including .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) against righties and .184/.257/.233 (33 wRC+) against lefties. If he performs like that against right-handed pitchers going forward, I think the Yankees would be thrilled. (His career spray charts against righties suggest Didi will benefit from Yankee Stadium.) They would be even more thrilled if Gregorius makes some strides against southpaws and shows he can be an everyday player long-term, not just the heavy side of a platoon as a left-handed hitter. Some sort of progress against lefties is a must in 2015.

Gregorius Can: Try To Improve Against Lefties

Didi has only 180 career plate appearances against southpaws at the MLB level and that’s not much, but those same scouting reports that praise his defense also note he’s struggled against left-handed pitchers throughout his career — “Being a lefthanded hitting shortstop is another positive in Gregorius’ favor, though he has struggled against lefties throughout his career,” said the 2012 write-up — so this isn’t a new trend.

The Yankees have already mentioned platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan, but that’s just silly. (Ryan has a 56 wRC+ against lefties the last three years!) If the club wants to shelter Gregorius and sit him against the toughest of lefties, the David Prices and Chris Sales of the world, then fine. But it shouldn’t be an outright platoon. The only way Gregorius is going to improve against lefties is by facing them. If he rides the pine against good but not great southpaws like Mark Buehrle, Wei-Yin Chen, and Wade Miley, then what the hell is the point?

Yankees Need: Some Excitement

The Yankees are a pretty boring team, wouldn’t you say? Masahiro Tanaka starts, Michael Pineda starts, and Dellin Betances appearances were by far the most exciting part of last year’s team. By far. Every once in a while Frankie Cervelli would pump his fist or do something goofy, but that was it. We couldn’t even laugh at Eduardo Nunez‘s helmet falling off every damn time he ran to first because he had been sent packing. So Didi, the Yankees and everyone else beg you to please inject some life in this group.

Gregorius Can: Play With Energy

Gregorius has a reputation of being a high-energy player though I’m not sure how true that really is because I haven’t seen him play all that much. Hopefully it is true. Everyone can play with energy though, especially a 25-year-old shortstop, so hopefully Gregorius is the kind of exciting, fun to watch player the Yankees have sorely lacked in recent years. If the Yankees are going to miss the postseason again, I would at least like them to be watchable.

(Just FYI: My alternate title was “In Which Didi Stands For Di-fense and Di-velopment.”)

Chase Headley and the Simple Goal of Being Dependable [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees went into the offseason with two third basemen and left with a completely different one. Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension ended and yeah, technically he’s still a third baseman, plus they had Martin Prado in tow as well. The team clearly (and rightfully) has little faith in A-Rod‘s ability to actually play the hot corner because he’s pushing 40, has two surgically repaired hips, and hasn’t played a whole lot the last two years.

So the Yankees proceeded as if Rodriguez was not a third base candidate this winter, though eventually they traded Prado to the Marlins for Nathan Eovaldi. Before they did that though, the club re-signed Chase Headley to a four-year contract worth $52M. Trading Prado probably wasn’t going to happen without Headley back in the fold first. New York wanted Headley back so much they caved into his four-year demand as well.

After coming over from the Padres last year, the 30-year-old Headley hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) with six homers in 58 games and seemed to be in the middle of everything. He also played standout defense at the hot corner and that’s his true calling card, not his bat. Overall, Headley put up a .243/.328/.372 (103 wRC+) batting line between San Diego and New York in 2014. What purpose does he serve in 2015? Let’s look.

Yankees Need: Dependable Offense

Thanks to Yangervis Solarte in the first half and Headley in the second half, the Yankees got a .254/.329/.404 (107 wRC+) batting line out their third basemen last year, which is pretty solid. It’s nothing that will carry a lineup, but that’s workable. My guess is the Yankees would be happy with similar overall production from Headley this year.

But, most importantly, the Yankees need Headley to be dependable near the middle of the lineup because all their big name middle of the order guys come with questions. Carlos Beltran is old and coming off elbow surgery. Mark Teixeira has been trending downward for years. Brian McCann was dreadful during his first year in New York. A-Rod? Good grief. The Yankees need Headley to be a mainstay and someone they can count on to produce from Opening Day through Game 162, no questions asked.

Headley Can: Offer Reasons To Expect More Than 2014

Let’s get this out of the way: 2012 Headley, the guy who put up a .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) batting line with 31 homers, is not coming back. It would be awesome if he did, but that very likely was Headley’s career year, and that’s okay. His 2013 season — .250/.347/.400 (114 wRC+) with 13 homers — was pretty good between a great 2012 and an average 2014.

Headley is still relatively young, certainly not at an age when you’d expect his bat to decline precipitously, and he’s moving into a much more favorable home ballpark. Going from Petco Park to Yankee Stadium should, if nothing else, boost his power numbers. They moved the Petco walls in recently but there’s nothing they can do about the marine layer that knocks the ball down at night. That’s the real problem.

When the Yankees acquired Headley last year, Brian Cashman said the team’s internal metrics measured an uptick in his “hit velo,” and we’re just going to have to take Cashman’s at his word. There’s no publicly available “hit velo” data aside from the stuff at Hit Tracker, which shows Headley’s six homers with the Yankees averaged 105.3 mph off the bat after his seven with the Padres averaged 105.6 mph. That’s only homers though, not all hits. Either way, the team has something telling them Headley is hitting the ball with more authority now.

Headley has always drawn a fair amount of walks and while he is a switch-hitter, he is very shiftable as a left-handed hitter (2012-14 spray charts). That’s taken a bite out of his batting average in recent years and you can be sure teams won’t stop shifting against him. But, between the walks and more favorable ballpark (don’t discount the mental “thank goodness I’m out of Petco!” factor), there’s reason to believe Headley can improve on last year’s 103 wRC+ and get him back to something close to his 114 wRC+ from two years ago.

Yankees Need: Sturdy Defense At Third Base

This offseason the Yankees set out to improve their infield defense. It was clearly a priority. Headley came over at midseason last year and was a breath of fresh air compared what the team had been running out there in recent years, the hobbled A-Rods and Solartes and Youkilises of the world. If the Yankees are going to contend this year, strong infield defense is a necessity, not a luxury.

Headley Can: Play Sturdy Defense In His Sleep

Defense is Headley’s specialty. He’s a gloveman before a hitter, and we saw that firsthand in the second half year season. I do think it’s important to note the defensive stats — all of ‘em, UZR, DRS, Total Zone, the whole nine — all love Headley, but last year they loved him more than ever. They had him saving something like 20+ runs in the field after having him in the 5-10 runs saved range from 2011-13. Defense is like offense, players can have a career year in the field. Headley’s a very good fielder. He’s probably not going to be as outrageously good as he was last year again though.

Yankees Need: Headley To Stay Healthy

Moreso than any other position, the Yankees don’t have a viable backup plan at third base should Headley miss an extended period of time. It’s hard to think A-Rod will be able to play the hot corner regularly, and the other options are Brendan Ryan, Jose Pirela, Cole Figueroa, and Jonathan Galvez. That’s … not very promising. Maybe A-Rod will show he can play the field regularly and exceed expectations. But unless that happens, Headley will be extremely difficult to replace if he gets hurt.

Headley Can: Stay Healthy, Hopefully

Headley’s injury history isn’t all that gruesome. He’s been on the DL three times in his career: once because he broke his pinkie sliding into a base (missed 44 days), another time because he broke the tip of his thumb sliding into a base (26 days), and another time with a calf strain (15 days). Unless Headley is a such a chronically bad slider that his fingers are always in jeopardy, there’s nothing recurring there to worry about.

Headley’s back, on the other hand, is another matter. He’s had on and off back trouble over the years but has never missed more than a handful of games at a time. In fact, he has missed 18 days total in his career due to back trouble, including four last summer. Of course, Headley did need an epidural last year — Cashman noted the “hit velo” spike came after the injection — and that’s worrisome. But, to date, the back has been nothing more than a minor nuisance. Hopefully it stays that way going forward. Aside from that, Headley has no lingering physical issues to worry about.

Yankees Need: Some Leadership

I don’t want to harp on this too much but it is worth noting. The Yankees not only waved goodbye to Derek Jeter this offseason, they replaced him with the very young Didi Gregorius. There’s a leadership void in the clubhouse and on the left side of the infield. Headley, as a relatively big free agent signing, will be counted on to fill some of that void.

Headley Can: Provide Some Leadership, Maybe, Possibly

Headley looks like a leader type, right? That’s good enough for me. By all accounts he fit in well in the clubhouse after the trade last season and I’m sure he’ll be able to help Gregorius with positioning and stuff. That seems leadership-y.

The Low Expectations for Stephen Drew [2015 Season Preview]

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

If he was two or three years older, the season Stephen Drew had last year might have been a career-ender. Players in their mid-30s don’t get to come back from that, at least not on a contract that guarantees them $5M. Seasons like that usually result in a minor league contract or a forced retirement.

Luckily for Drew, his 32nd birthday is still two weeks away, and his dreadful 2014 campaign comes with some built-in excuses. He turned down the qualifying offer and remained unemployed until the Red Sox mercy signed him in late-May, so he didn’t have a normal Spring Training at all. His minor league tune-up lasted only seven games as well.

Drew hit an unfathomable .176/.255/.328 (57 wRC+) in 145 plate appearances with the Red Sox, then, instead of getting his act together with some at-bats under his belt, he hit an even worse .150/.219/.271 (32 wRC+) in 155 plate appearances after being traded to the Yankees. The end result was a .162/.237/.299 (44 wRC+) batting line in exactly 300 plate appearances.

Before the Yankees traded for Didi Gregorius, it appeared Drew was the front-runner for the shortstop job since he would come super cheap and not require a long-term commitment. There were no perfect free agent shortstop solutions available, and if New York couldn’t trade for someone like Gregorius, they would stick with Drew, hope for a rebound, and keep the contract short.

But, even after acquiring Gregorius, the Yankees re-signed Drew because they had traded Martin Prado to get Nathan Eovaldi. Instead of playing short, Drew will play second, where he finished last season. It’s a classic one-year “prove yourself” contract, giving Drew a chance to show he’s better than last year in a favorable home ballpark. Time to look at the demand and supply.

Yankees Need: Catch The Damn Ball

It’s clear the Yankees prioritized improving their infield defense this offseason after last year’s disaster. They did that with Gregorius at short and Chase Headley at third, and they hope Drew can be the solution at second. Historically, guys like Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka are ground ball pitchers while Eovaldi is more or less a league average keep it on the ground pitcher. The Yankees want to support those guys with a strong infield defense, particularly up the middle.

Drew Can: Catch The Damn Ball, I Think

At the time of the trade last year, Drew had no experience at second base whatsoever. He had played shortstop his entire professional career and the Yankees more or less threw him to the wolves. Predictably, Drew struggled at first, especially turning double plays, but I thought he improved as the second half progressed. For what it’s worth, the Inside Edge data on Drew’s second base defense is promising, but we’re talking super small sample sizes.

The Yankees are not oblivious to Drew’s limited experience at second base (274 innings!). They understand he’s still a novice at the position and there will continue to be growing pains this year. But he is a legitimate big league shortstop defensively and they believe his skills and athleticism will translate to the other side of the bag. This is an experience thing, not a “lacking the tools” thing. There are several reasons to believe Drew can be a defensive asset at second.

Yankees Need: Something More Than Last Year Offensively

Including Drew, Yankees’ second basemen hit .227/.278/.357 (75 wRC+) in year one of the post-Robinson Cano era, which was somehow only the eighth worst production at the position in MLB. The bar has been set low. Really low. Really, really low. Just like expectations for Drew. The Yankees need as much offense as they can get but no one is realistically expecting Drew to be an impact hitter. They just need him to be something more than he was last summer.

Drew Can Provide: Maybe More Than Last Year?

I mean, Drew can’t possibly be that bad again, right? He hit .253/.333/.443 (109 wRC+) with 13 homers as an everyday player as recently as 2013. It’s not like he’s never been good at the plate. And besides, Drew is a dead pull left-handed hitter who should benefit from Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch:


Source: FanGraphs
From 2011-13, Drew hit .263/.348/.431 (112 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers and .204/.263/.340 (59 wRC+) against lefties, so he is a platoon player, but the Yankees don’t have a good platoon partner. (Brendan Ryan doesn’t really count.) The Yankees will live with automatic outs against lefties as long as Drew produces against righties. At this point, everyone seems to be in “he can’t possibly be that bad again” mode with Drew’s bat. I mean, he can’t, right?

Yankees Need: A Backup Plan At Shortstop

Make no mistake, the Yankees didn’t give up Shane Greene to get Gregorius only to bench the young shortstop as soon as he falls into his first slump. They’re going to give him a chance to sink or swim. So, in reality, Drew is shortstop insurance in case of injury or if Gregorius is sitting on, say, a 50 wRC+ come the All-Star break. The Yankees won’t — or shouldn’t, anyway — pull the plug on Didi at short if he has a rough April. Drew is a deep level backup plan, not someone who will make Gregorius look over his shoulder.

Drew Can: Be That Backup Plan

You could make a good argument Drew is the best shortstop on the roster right now. But he has no real future with the organization. Gregorius might. So Gregorius will play shortstop everyday and Drew will be that just in case guy. He’s perfectly capable of doing that.

Teixeira’s Last Chance for Redemption [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By the end of 2012, it was hard not to be sick of Mark Teixeira. Everything seemed rosy in 2009, the first season of his eight-year deal, but the good vibes didn’t last long. He still added pop to the lineup, but he lost a little something each season after that glorious Yankees debut.

At the end of 2012 everything fell apart. He’d produced the worst overall season since his rookie campaign, and had ended the year with a series of injuries. Then came the wrist injury that cost him 2013 — and, for all practical purposes, 2014.

The end result: a 106 OPS+ in just 1095 PA and 261 game in the last three years, compared to a 129 OPS+ in 2103 PA and 470 games in the first three years of his contract. At age 35, how can we expect anything changes in 2015?

There is perhaps one glimmer of hope. In 2014, while he was fresh, Teixeira produced a .930 OPS through his first 123 PA. There might be something left in his bat, although you wouldn’t know it by the rest of his season: a .642 OPS in 385 PA, including a .199 BA and .291 OBP.

The good news is that Teixeira focused on strength this off-season, knowing he had to provide some pop in the lineup. Which is ideal, because that’s exactly what the team needs.

Yankees Need: Power

Anyone who watched the 2014 Yankees for any decent stretch knows that they needed more power. True, they hit an above-average number of home runs, but they sorely lacked in the doubles department. The result was a .135 team ISO, 10th in the AL (though pretty close to average).

That might work for a team with decent on-base skills, but the Yankees ranked second-worst in the AL in OBP. It’s not as though the Yankees added a ton of offensive players who can get on base, so if they’re going to score more runs it’ll need to be through gappers and long balls.

Teixeira Can Provide: Power?

In theory a healthy Teixeira should be able to hit some baseballs over the fence. Even in 2012 he produced a .224 ISO, which was in line with his 2010 power. It’s tough to judge 2014, and impossible to judge 2013, because of his wrist injury. Add that to an admitted lack of strength training, and it might seem as though Teixeira can provide some pop this year.

Remember, Jose Bautista suffered a similar injury in 2012, which was a down year relative to Jose Bautista, as was his 2013. In 2014 he came roaring back to hit 35 homers and generally achieve Bautista levels of awesome. David Ortiz also suffered a similar injury in 2008 and it took him a few years to get back on track.

Both Bautista and Ortiz were close in age to Teixeira when they suffered the injuries, and they came back after some relative down time. So it is conceivable that Teixeira could start producing the power the Yankees need.

It’s just not something you go bet your life savings on.

Yankees Need: Infield Defense

One thing the Yankees did this off-season was dramatically improve the infield defense. It’s hard to imagine a worse infield D than Yangervis Solarte, Derek Jeter, and Brian Roberts, though the Yankees did put out some other putrid combinations throughout the year. That shouldn’t be the case in 2014.

While first base isn’t the most important of defensive positions, we’ve seen what a difference a quality first baseman can make. It was evident in 2009, when the Yanks went from Jason Giambi to Teixeira, from statue to vacuum cleaner. Teixeira might not be the most agile guy, but he makes all the plays he’s supposed to and then some.

In order to make the most of their defensive upgrades around the infield, the Yanks will need a solid first base anchor.

Teixeira Can Provide: Infield Defense

Again, he might not be the guy from 2009 who leaps to pick a surefire base hit out of the air. He might not be laying out to save every double down the first base line. But even in his seemingly hobbled state, Teixeira fielded a clean first base last year.

I’m not comfortable citing basically any defensive metric for first base, because a good first baseman has more than range. But the eye test says that he still has some chops around the first base bag. He doesn’t need to be spectacular. He just needs to field what’s hit his way and save a few infield errors.

Yankees Need: Base Runners

As mentioned earlier, the Yankees had the second-lowest OBP in the AL. Having few runners on base makes it difficult to score runs. If the 2015 Yankees are going to score more runs than the 2014 Yankees, they’ll need more runners on the base paths.

I don’t think this needs much more elaboration. Second-lowest OBP in the AL is pretty damning.

Teixeira Can Provide: No, Probably Not

It’s not that Teixeira doesn’t take walks any more. He doesn’t walk as much as he did from 2006 through 2008, but hey, he didn’t do that when he finished second in the MVP voting in 2009. Yet he still finished with a .383 OBP.

The difference, of course, is his ability to hit singles. He hasn’t done that since 2009, and it doesn’t appear that the skill will return to him. Which is fine, I guess, if he hits for power.

The problem is that Teixeira is almost certainly going to hit in the middle of the order. He needs to get on base when he’s not knocking balls over the fence, so that Chase Headley and guys hitting behind him have a chance. It’s hard to envision that happening for Teixeira, whose highest OBP in the last three seasons is .332.

Yankees Need: Health

The team isn’t that deep. Teixeira’s most promising replacement almost certainly won’t be ready until at least 2016. If they’re going to make a playoff run, they simply cannot afford the injury issues that buried the 2013 and 2014 teams.

Teixeira Can…Sorry

Counting on Teixeira to stay healthy is like counting on Joe Mauer to stay healthy. If you want a good laugh, ask a Twins fan about that.

The pressure’s on Didi Gregorius, but not because he’s replacing Derek Jeter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first few days of Spring Training have been predictably dominated by Alex Rodriguez. The focus on A-Rod has gone well beyond overboard. But, if there’s anything good to come out of the A-Rod attention, it’s that other players in camp have been able to get their work in and fly under the radar. That includes the team’s first new starting shortstop in two decades.

“People didn’t pay a lot of attention to (Didi Gregorius) the first few days of camp,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings over the weekend. “It could change as time goes on, but I’m sure it helped him to get comfortable a little bit earlier and get to know his teammates without having to answer a lot of questions.”

Gregorius is replacing Derek Jeter as the team’s starting shortstop but he’s not really replacing Jeter. It’s not like the Yankees picked between the two. Jeter retired and the Yankees needed to find a new shortstop no matter what. They could have taken the easy way out and signed a proven veteran like Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera, but instead they went young and traded for Gregorius. That’s all.

The “Didi replacing Derek” storyline is unavoidable the same way the same storyline was unavoidable when Tino Martinez replaced Don Mattingly, but so far Gregorius has said all the right things whenever the media has been able to tear themselves away from A-Rod. “I am going to play the game, that’s all. What Jeter did nobody else can do. If they compare me to Jeter, there is nothing I can do. It’s my choice if I want to get it in my head,” said Gregorius to Ken Davidoff.

Any pressure Gregorius feels this year should not come from being the guy who plays shortstop for the Yankees after Jeter. It should come from Gregorius himself because this season is a tremendous opportunity for him. He just turned 25 and he’s the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees (!) with no one coming from the farm system to breathe down his neck anytime soon. The job is his for the taking. He should be putting pressure on himself to capitalize.

Gregorius had a similar opportunity with the Diamondbacks two years ago — the opportunity to cement himself as an MLB regular — and he responded by hitting .252/.332/.373 (92 wRC+) in 404 plate appearances. That isn’t great by any stretch and I remain skeptical of Didi’s bat going forward, but I get the feeling the Yankees would be pretty happy with that kind of production from Gregorius this year. At least as long as he catches the ball and shows improvement against lefties at the same time. Besides, that would be a big upgrade over what Jeter gave them last season.

Being the shortstop that follows Jeter will not be easy. The microscope will be on Gregorius all year the same way it was on David Robertson when he replaced Mariano Rivera last year. There’s nothing Didi can do about that. That’s baseball. All he can go is play his game, the game the Yankees acquired, and work to develop into the best player he can be. Given the opportunity in front of him, Gregorius has a chance to cement his spot in the team’s long-term future, and that should be his goal. Not to make people forget the Cap’n.

“(Replacing Jeter) doesn’t bother me at all,” said Gregorius to Jennings. “I came here a little bit early so I could get to know everybody. I’m not worried about the attention. Of course I’m going to get interviewed no matter what I do, so it’s fine. When you guys come here, like right now, I’m going to answer you guys. Whenever you guys go talk to Alex, I’ll be waiting.”