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.”

2015 Season Preview: The Power, Defense, and Leadership of Brian McCann

Opening Day is five weeks from today. Between now and then, we’re going to preview the 2015 Yankees by looking at what the team needs from individual players and what they can realistically expect.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first year of Brian McCann‘s five-year contract did not go according to plan last season. The just turned 31-year-old backstop did lead the Yankees with 23 home runs and play solid to excellent defense, but he hit just .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) overall and had too many no impact games. Everyone kept waiting for McCann’s bat to come around but it never happened.

Year two will be different, we hope. McCann was coming over from a different league last season and had to learn basically everything. New pitchers on his staff, new opposing pitchers, new ballparks, new coaches, the whole nine. He also had to deal with the pressure of receiving the largest free agent catcher contract in baseball history. I can’t imagine that was not in the back of his mind.

“(Coming to the Yankees) was the best decision I’ve made. Just to be able to lace ’em up for this organization is amazing,” said McCann to Ken Davidoff last month. “I didn’t play as well as I should have (in 2014). I didn’t get off to a good start. I had some mechanical flaws in my swing, and it took me four months to get it ironed out. It really did.”

McCann did indeed finish strong, hitting eight of his 23 homers in September, but he still only had a .222 AVG and a .281 OBP that month. That doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t iron out his swing, of course. Either way, McCann is being paid to be an impact player — on both sides of the ball at that — and the Yankees will need him to be one in 2015 to return to the postseason. Time to break down what the team needs from McCann and what he can actually provide.

Yankees Need: Offensive Impact

This goes without saying. McCann is going to hit in the middle order this coming season because he is the team’s top power threat — if not overall than at least left-handed — and has a history of being an above-average producer at the plate. He was a very consistent hitter from 2008-11 before hurting his shoulder in 2012, though he then rebounded to 2008-11 levels in 2013 following surgery. Then last year happened.


Source: FanGraphsBrian McCann

The Yankees don’t need McCann to put up huge numbers like Buster Posey. (Would be cool if he did though.) They just want the Braves version of McCann, the guy who hit .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+) as recently as 2013, and with some consistency. Day-to-day consistency in baseball is a myth — no .300 hitter gets exactly three hits every ten at-bats for example, or even hits .300 every month — but they want to see McCann not be invisible for weeks at a time again. McCann is healthy and not yet all the way over the hill in catcher years. An offensive rebound is not totally out of the question.

McCann Can Provide: Power

We do know McCann can still hit the ball out of the park. He’s hit at least 20 homers every year since 2008 — only five others can say that — and his pull happy swing is tailored for Yankee Stadium. In fact, 19 of his 23 homers came at home last year. Yeah, road production was a major problem. McCann’s late season homer binge was, if nothing else, encouraging because it did indicate something had clicked. He was hitting the ball with more authority.

The problem is McCann might not be able to provide much offensively aside from power. He’s a left-handed pull hitter and one of the most shifted players in the game. But, as I wrote in our Season Review last year, McCann went the other way more often in 2014 than he had in any season since 2008. He was trying to beat the shift last year and the result was a lot of average-killing weak contact — his 45.1% fly ball rate was the second highest of his career and 11.1% of those fly balls were infield pop-ups, a career high. Lots of lazy fly balls last year.

At this point of his career hitting for a decent average probably is never happening again. Teams aren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he bunts or sneaks a few singles through the left side. They’re going to take away his strength and they effectively did that last year because McCann seemed to make such an effort to go the other way. I’d like to see him pull the ball more in 2015. Stick to his strengths and try to rip it through or (preferably) over the shift. A full season of trying to go the other way had disastrous results.

McCann’s walk rate plummeted to a career low 5.9% last season but I’m not too concerned about that, to be honest. His in (28.3%) and out (59.4%) of the zone swing rates were actually below his career averages (29.4% and 62.2%), and his strikeout rate (14.3%) and pitches per plate appearance rate (3.83) were both his lowest since 2008. McCann put a lot of balls in play early in the count last year, hence the low walk rate. It could also be a sign he was pressing last year and not being as patient as usual. I think McCann’s walk rate has a much better chance of returning to his career rate (9.1%) than his batting average (.272) in 2015.

Yankees Need: Quality Defense Behind The Plate

The Yankees very clearly place a high priority on catcher defense. The only below-average defender they’ve had behind the plate over the last seven or eight years was Jorge Posada. Everyone else was regarded as a strong defender and the available stats backed that up. McCann is no different.

Last season, McCann threw out a career best (by friggin’ far) 37.1% of attempted base-stealers and that ranked third among regular catchers behind only Yadier Molina (47.8%) and Russell Martin (38.5%). He also rated well at blocking pitches in the dirt and pitch framing according to the various metrics. McCann has been one of the best defensive catchers in the game in recent years and he took it to another level last season thanks to the improved throw-out rate. The Yankees expect more of the same this summer.

McCann Can Provide: Quality Defense Behind The Plate!

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Given his reputation and skill set, the only reason to think McCann will not again be a top notch defensive catcher in 2015 is sudden age-related decline. He might not throw out 37.1% of attempted base-stealers again, that’s a really big number, but other catchers have improved their throwing under Joe Girardi and Tony Pena (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and McCann is now two full years removed from shoulder surgery. There’s reason to believe the throwing improvement is real. Otherwise available data has consistently rated him as excellent at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Defense is the one aspect of McCann’s game we don’t need to worry about.

Yankees Need: Leadership

Let’s face it, with Derek Jeter gone, the Yankees are going to have a leadership void this year. Maybe not all year, maybe someone will emerge as the new leader early in April, but right now there’s no Jeter in the clubhouse and that’s not negligible. Derek always seemed to be a lead by example type, not an in your face type, but leadership is leadership, and Jeter was undoubtedly a leader.

No one player is going to be able to replace Jeter’s intangible qualities. It’s just not going to happen and basically everyone in camp who has been asked about it has acknowledged that this year. Girardi, Brian Cashman, everyone. That includes McCann, who will be asked to fill some of the leadership void. He’s a catcher and catchers are expected to be leaders by default, but he’s also a veteran guy signed to a huge deal. Being asked to be a leader comes with the territory.

McCann Can Provide: Leadership, Probably

As outsiders, we usually know next to nothing about a player’s leadership ability. We all saw McCann stand up to Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez after they pimped some homers two years ago and that’s a leadership-y thing, but did anyone talk about him as a leader before that? We have no idea how popular McCann is with teammates or anything like that. I have no reason to doubt his ability as a leader, I’m sure he’ll step in to help fill some of the void with Jeter gone, though ultimately I have no idea how effective McCann is as a leader. That make sense? Intangibles are difficult to gauge and very easy to overstate. Without being around the team day in, day out, we can’t understand this stuff with any certainty.

Time to discuss the potential on-field impact of A-Rod’s return

Oh yeah, he plays baseball too. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Oh yeah, he plays baseball too. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The circus has arrived. Alex Rodriguez is set to rejoin the Yankees this season after serving his 162-game suspension last year, and he’s already made the rounds. He apologized to new commish Rob Manfred. He apologized to the Yankees. He apologized to everyone — including the fans! — in a handwritten statement. That was all necessary in my opinion and it’s done now. Good. Let’s move on.

For the purposes of this post, moving on means talking about actual baseball, not discussing how the Yankees can get out of A-Rod‘s contract or anything like that. Like it or not, Alex is back and the Yankees seem committed to seeing if he has anything left. Considering there are three years and over $60M left on his contract, they have to at least see what he can do, right? He was a pretty good player once upon a time, remember. Maybe the year away did his body good.

Let’s start by laying out some facts:

  • A-Rod is 39 and will turn 40 in late-July.
  • A-Rod has played zero MLB games in the last 16 months and only 44 games in the last 28 months.
  • A-Rod has had surgery on both hips as well as his right knee within the last six years.

That’s all pretty bad as far as on-field production goes. Old players usually don’t perform well. Old players with a recent history of serious injuries perform even worse. Old players with a recent history of serious injuries who haven’t played at all in a year and not that much in two years perform even worse than that. A-Rod hits the trifecta.

Since the turn of the century, there have been 104 instances of a position player age 39 or older appearing in at least 54 games (one-third of a season), and 78 of the 104 finished the year with 1.0 WAR or less. Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones, and Edgar Martinez account for seven of the 26 1.0+ WAR seasons. Sixty-two of the 104 were at 0.5 WAR or less. Forty-two of the 104, or 40.4%, were replacement level or worse. That’s really bad.

Normally, this is where I’d point out A-Rod is much more like Bonds or Chipper or Edgar than he is, say, Omar Vizquel or Todd Pratt or Jeff Conine. Rodriguez was a friggin’ star, man. He put up huge numbers and is simply one of the best right-handed hitters ever. Great players age differently than everyone else, but Bonds, Chipper, and Edger were not coming back from any major lower body injuries nor had they missed close to two full seasons before their age 39 season.

Forget about WAR for guys in their age 39 season. This is more important: over the last 25 years, 50 players had fewer than 200 plate appearances during their age 37-38 seasons combined, including A-Rod. Of the 49 non-Alex players, only four managed to play even one game in their age 39 season: outfielder Trent Hubbard (ten games) and backup catchers Lance Parrish (70 games), Pat Borders (93 games through age 42), and Mike Difelice (seven games). That’s it. Players who are damn near out of the league at 37-38 usually don’t come back to play at age 39, nevermind 39-41, the ages covered by the remainder of Rodriguez’s contract. He’s trying to do something no has done in the last quarter-century.

Want to look at some projections? Fine. PECOTA pegs A-Rod as a .247/.324/.409 true talent hitter going into 2015 and holy crap that would be amazing. ZiPS has him at .229/.312/.399, which is basically 2014 Mark Teixeira (.216/.313/.398). Steamer has him at .233/.310/.372 and is the least optimistic. But the computers don’t know about A-Rod’s injury history and they don’t know how to account for all his time away from the game the last two years, so they basically ignore them. Projections are mostly useless in general and they’re even more useless for A-Rod.

This is all a roundabout way of saying we have no idea what to expect from Alex this coming season. His injures and time away complicate things way too much. Old players are tough to figure out because they could fall off a cliff at any moment. A-Rod’s an old guy with an injury history who hasn’t played a whole lot. The smart money is on him contributing very little — like, very very like — in 2015 and that’s why the Yankees flat out replaced him at third base (Chase Headley) and brought in protection for the DH spot (Garrett Jones). They’re expecting nothing and prepared for it.

No matter what, A-Rod is going to be a distraction in Spring Training and early in the regular season. (Actually, probably all season.) Cameras are going to be all over him, the media’s going to write all about him, and the broadcasters won’t shut up about him. That’s inevitable and it’ll all be much more tolerable if he contributes in some way on the field. Even league average production would be welcome. There’s no way to realistically expect that though. We know the off-the-field stuff will be ridiculous. The on-field stuff is a total mystery.