Masahiro Tanaka And The Scenario No One Bothered To Consider [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the second straight year, Masahiro Tanaka came to Spring Training as an unknown. The circumstances this year are very different though. Last year Tanaka was a newcomer to the Yankees and MLB in general, having been signed as a kinda sorta free agent in the offseason. The Yankees obviously believed in him, hence their $175M commitment, but no one knew what he could do for certain.

This year though, Tanaka came to camp as an unknown because of last season’s elbow injury. He missed almost the entire second half with a partially torn elbow ligament that did not require surgery because the tear was so small. Tanaka showed in the first half he was worth every penny of the team’s investment, he was that dominant, though the elbow injury has cast a cloud over his status this year, at least so far.

Things have gone well for Tanaka in Spring Training to this point. He’s had no issues in workouts — bullpens, live batting practice, simulated games, etc. — and his Grapefruit League debut last week was dominant. He looked like the healthy version of Tanaka we saw early last year. Yet the elbow injury lingers in the back of everyone’s mind — Tanaka says he’s not thinking about it but how could he not? — and it’s uncomfortable. That doesn’t lessen his importance to the team, of course.

Yankees Need: Tanaka To Be An Exception

This goes without saying: the Yankees need Tanaka to stay healthy this season. He is arguably the single most important player on the roster — if he’s not the team’s most important player, then he’s on the very short list of candidates — and not just in terms of contending in 2015, but for the future of the franchise overall. Tanaka is the Yankees’ version of Giancarlo Stanton or Mike Trout or Buster Posey. A significant injury to him changes everything.

Tanaka rehabbed his elbow injury last year and while that only slightly delays the inevitable in most cases, it can be enough to keep him healthy for several years. Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana are two players who pitched multiple years with partially torn elbow ligaments. Current Yankees non-roster player Scott Baker did as well. He recently told Chad Jennings he hurt his elbow ligament in college but didn’t need surgery until his seventh year in the big leagues.

Still, guys like Baker and Wainwright and Santana are the exception, not the rule. Others like Chad Billingsley, Drew Hutchison, Matt Harvey, Francisco Liriano, Bronson Arroyo, Cory Luebke, and Pat Neshek are recent of examples of pitchers who tried to rehab their damaged ligament only to need surgery a handful of innings later. If Tanaka’s elbow stays intact this year, he will be the exception given the nature of his injury, and that’s what the Yankees need.

Tanaka Can: Say He Followed Doctor’s Orders

It’s important to understand the Yankees and Tanaka are not being reckless. They’re simply following doctor’s orders. When Tanaka suffered his injury last year, he was examined personally by three doctors — Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmad, Mets team doctor David Altchek, and Dodgers team doctor Neal ElAttrache — and his test results were also sent to Dr. James Andrews for review. All four recommended rehab.

Then, before Tanaka returned to the mound late last year, he was again examined and given the okay to pitch. Tanaka also said he underwent an MRI after the season and everything came back clean. He went through the rehab protocol as recommended and the doctors all cleared him to return to action, so that’s what he did. The Yankees and Tanaka did exactly what the experts recommended and that’s what they should have done. Sending him for Tommy John surgery against recommendations would have been the reckless act.

“There’s just no way to say surgery should be your first option,” said Baker to Jennings. “I think the reason people can say that is because of the success of the surgery. As far as sports injuries, aside from the ACL, it’s probably the most successful (surgery) as far as guys getting back to their previous level. So I think that allows (the argument), but does it justify it? No.”

J.J. Cooper recently looked at the success rate of recent Tommy John surgery and found it is actually on the decline. At the Sloan Sports Conference a few weeks ago, Dr. Glenn Fleisig presented research showing only 67% of MLB pitchers who have the procedure make it back for 10+ games. The risk is high — in recent years Luebke, Daniel Hudson, Joel Hanrahan, Jeremy Hefner, and Jonny Venters all needed a second Tommy John surgery before they even finished rehabbing from the first (in Venters’ case, he needed a third while rehabbing from his second) — so Tommy John surgery is something you don’t have until you absolutely need it.

The doctors said Tanaka did not need his elbow rebuilt last summer. They recommended rehab, he rehabbed, and they cleared him to pitch when the rehab was complete. If the elbow gives out at some point this year and he needs Tommy John surgery, then so be it. As long as Tanaka and the Yankees did what the various doctors recommended, they did the right thing.

Yankees Need: An Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees didn’t sink $175M into Tanaka to be a mid-rotation starter. They’re counting on him to be an ace — for years to come too, Tanaka is only 26 remember — and last year he showed he can be that ace. With CC Sabathia fading, Nathan Eovaldi still in the process of figuring things out, and Michael Pineda having not thrown a full season in three years now, Tanaka has to be a front of the rotation stabilizing force for New York. The guy that when the players show up to the park on the days he is scheduled to pitch, they know it’s win day. The guy who stops losing streaks and extends winning streaks. Simply put, the Yankees need Tanaka to be one of the best pitchers in the game.

Tanaka Can: Be An Ace

Based on what we saw in the first half last year, Tanaka absolutely can be that front of the rotation pitcher and the ace the Yankees need. He was a top ten pitcher in the game at the time of his injury, racking up strikeouts (9.39 K/9 and 26.6 K%), limiting walks (1.32 HR/9 and 3.6 BB%), and generally keeping the ball on the ground (45.9%). Because of his splitter, Tanaka was actually more effective against lefties (.280 wOBA) than righties (.302 wOBA) too.

The only flaw in Tanaka’s game is his tendency to give up the home run (0.99 HR/9 and 14.0 HR/FB%), though even that wasn’t all that bad considering his home ballpark (AL average was 0.89 HR/9 and 9.4 HR/FB% in 2014). Twelve of the 15 homers he allowed last year were solo shots because he was so good at limiting base-runners overall. Also, eleven of the 15 homers came off fastballs, which is actually his least effective pitch. Tanaka’s offspeed pitches are so good he can still dominate without an overwhelming fastball.

I also think there’s a mental component to being an ace, and Tanaka certainly showed it last year. He never seems to get rattled on the mound and is always in attack mode. He’s an elite competitor. That’s a big reason why the Yankees loved him so much and felt he was worth the $175M risk. If his elbow holds up, Tanaka is going to be a pretty damn good pitcher. He showed all of his pitches in his brief outing last week and everything looked crisp. Granted, it was 19 total pitches and we need to see more, but right now, I’m comfortable saying Tanaka can be ace-like this summer if the elbow cooperates.

* * *

We — and by we I mean basically everyone, Yankees fans and Yankees haters alike — spent all winter worrying about Tanaka’s elbow and more or less assuming it would blow out at some point this year. We never bothered to consider the alternative scenario. The one where Tanaka is the exception and his elbow does hold up. He’s a difference-maker when healthy, hands down the best pitcher in the AL East and one of the best in all of baseball. It’s far from a given Tanaka will stay healthy, we know that, but it’s not impossible either. He’s passed every test so far in camp, which is way more than many expected.

The Needed Production of the Unwanted Alex Rodriguez [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After a one-year hiatus, the most uncomfortable marriage in baseball returns in 2015. Alex Rodriguez‘s one-year suspension is over and he has rejoined the Yankees, not too long after suing the team, suing the team doctor, suing MLB, and suing the MLBPA. He sued everyone last year. But then all the lawsuits were dropped, he served his suspension, and now he’s back in pinstripes.

The only reason A-Rod is back with the Yankees is money. He’s owed over $60M the next three years and the Yankees are determined to see if they can get something more than nothing out of that investment. Well, that and they might be able to recoup some of the money through insurance (if A-Rod gets hurt) or another performance-enhancing drug suspension. The team is reportedly confident they can get out of the five $6M home run milestone bonuses, but that’s another matter. The $60M+ isn’t going away that easily.

The Yankees made it clear this offseason they are not counting on Rodriguez at all. They re-signed Chase Headley to be the everyday third baseman and they traded for Garrett Jones to be the regular DH if necessary. They’ve pulled no punches. It’s been made clear that if A-Rod is going to play a major role in 2015, he has to earn it, and to his credit Alex seems to have embraced that reality. He’s trying to win a job this spring.

Yankees Need: Hit Please, Even Just A Little

Here’s a scary thought: A-Rod is the team’s best right-handed hitter right now. It’s either him or Chris Young. The only other righty hitters on the projected Opening Day roster are John Ryan Murphy and Brendan Ryan, and no one has high offensive expectations for those two. A-Rod is important to New York’s righty/lefty lineup balance. And besides, if he doesn’t hit, he’s useless. His defense wasn’t all that good before his most recent hip surgery and long layoff. So please, Alex, be more than a zero at the plate. That’s what the Yankees need from him.

ARod Shrugs Shoulders

 

 

Simply put, no one has any idea what A-Rod can do at the plate this year. He wasn’t bad the last time he played — .244/.348/.423 (113 wRC+) with seven homers in 44 games in the second half of 2013 — but that was more than a year ago now, before last season’s suspension. Can Alex do that again in 2015, at age 39 and after not facing live pitching in a more than a year? That’s what we’re going to find out relatively soon.

I am certain the Yankees would take a repeat of Rodriguez’s 2013 performance in 2015. That almost feels like a best case scenario at this point. A-Rod comes into today 5-for-11 with a double, a homer, two walks, and two strikeouts in Grapefruit League play, but that doesn’t tell us much. Even he knows that. “0-for-9, 4-for-9 … It doesn’t really mean anything. I’ve played for a long time. It’s better than 0-for-9, I guess,” he said to Chad Jennings earlier this week. From watching him in camp, the only thing I can say is A-Rod still seems to know the strike zone. He’s taking balls and swinging at strikes. That’s pretty much all we know about Alex offensively at the moment.

Yankees Need: Play The Field More Than Never

Headley is going to be the regular third baseman but the Yankees don’t have an obvious backup. Ryan can do it if necessary, but that’s not an ideal situation. If all goes according to plan A-Rod will be the primary DH and only a part-time third baseman, someone who can fill in when Headley needs a day off. The Yankees have also been working Rodriguez out at first base in Spring Training in hopes of making him a backup option there as well. The team isn’t counting on Alex to play the field regularly at all. They just want to be able to do it on occasion to make his roster spot more functional.

ARod Shrugs Shoulders

 

 

Even before the suspension, A-Rod was no longer much of a defender at the hot corner. He was serviceable, making the plays he was supposed to make and occasionally a little more, but that was it. Two hip surgeries and one knee surgery sapped much of his mobility, as did Father Time.

But now, we again have no idea what Alex can provide defensively. He is further away from his various lower body surgeries but is also a year older, and who knows how the year of baseball inactivity will take its toll. A-Rod said it himself the other day, it’s not going to be an Ozzie Smith year, he’s going to make whatever plays he can and that doesn’t figure to be anything beyond the routine.

For what it’s worth, I do think A-Rod would handle first base fine because he’s such a smart and instinctual player. Once he gets a few innings under his belt I think he’ll look like a natural, not like Kelly Johnson or Brian McCann did at first base last year. Either way, hopefully Alex will hold up physically well enough to play the field — either first or third base, anything he can do to help — one or two days a week. Even that little bit will help.

Yankees Need: Ratings & Attendance Boost

Thanks to Derek Jeter‘s farewell tour, YES Network ratings increased 24% last year and attendance at Yankee Stadium increased roughly 4% from 2013-14. That’s all well and good, but ratings reportedly dropped roughly 30% and attendance dropped nearly 9% from 2012-13, so, even with the rebound, 2014 ratings and attendance were below 2012 levels. That’s not good for the #brand. The Yankees will never publicly admit it, but they’re hoping A-Rod’s return leads to a few more eyeballs watching the team in 2015.

A-Rod Can: Hog All The Attention In The Baseball World

People hate A-Rod. They hate him so much they can’t stop talking about him or reading about him or watching him or going to games to boo him. The media has obsessed over Alex this spring and you know why? Because he drives page views the same way he helps drive television ratings and attendance. People hate him so they tune in to see him fail. No player in baseball garners as much attention — mostly negative attention, but attention nonetheless — as Alex. He’s the king.

The Full Realization of Jacoby Ellsbury [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Baseball’s free agent system is mostly backwards. Instead of paying for players in the primes of their careers, free agency forces teams to generally pay for past performance. While teams remain hopeful that these late-prime players can sustain performance and then decline gracefully, reality rarely complies.

Yet with Jacoby Ellsbury the Yankees paid $153 million not just for past performance, but for the hopes of improvement. All last winter we heard about Ellsbury’s potential to increase his power at Yankee Stadium.

He did exactly that, producing his best power numbers, including a .148 ISO, sixth-most among qualified center fielders, aside from his 2011 season.

Unfortunately, he didn’t live up to expectations in a few other ways. For instance, 2014 was his only full season with a BABIP below .300 (his previous low was .312, and that was in 2008). That meant fewer times on base. Combine that with his frequent appearances in the No. 3 lineup spot and it’s a recipe for somewhat fewer stolen bases than expected.

With a more defined role, and perhaps a twinge more luck, this could be the season that Ellsbury puts it all together.

Yankees Need: Consistency Atop the Lineup

In every scenario other than the one the 2014 Yankees faced, Ellsbury and Brett Gardner would have led off. But out of respect for Derek Jeter, the Yankees willfully made the lineup worse. His combination of .304 OBP and 15 GIDP left little for the middle of the lineup.

It took a Carlos Beltran injury to get both Ellsbury and Gardner into the top three lineup spots. Given the way Beltran was hitting when he got hurt, this was no boon. No matter how you view it, the Yankees harmed the team by batting Jeter second. They needed that consistency atop the order to give the depleted middle of the lineup a chance to drive in some runs.

Ellsbury Can: Provide Consistency Atop the Lineup

By the numbers, Ellsbury might not have been an ideal leadoff man last year. His .328 OBP was the lowest of any full season in his career. But that had more to do with a low BABIP than it did anything else — his walk rate was actually the highest in his career by a tick.

Looking through his full seasons in the leadoff spot, it’s pretty clear that he’s comfortable batting there. Joe Girardi moved him around out of necessity last year. Indeed, even with the Beltran injury he probably wouldn’t have moved out of the leadoff spot if Gardner had opened the season hitting second.

Having two fast guys who can get on base atop the lineup will help the Yankees in many ways that betrayed the 2014 team. I’m confident in Ellsbury’s ability to produce an OBP above .350 if he hits leadoff in 145 games. It’s what he’s done his whole career.

Yankees Need: Elite Outfield Defense

The 2015 Yankees are, by design, a run prevention team. While there’s hope that they’ll get more out of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Mark Teixeira than they did in 2014, the offense still figures to be league average, perhaps a tick above, in even the best-case scenario.

Success will come and go based on the pitching staff and the defense behind it. Brian Cashman fortified his infield defense, adding Didi Gregorius‘s slick glove at short, an astronomical upgrade over Derek Jeter’s. Bringing back Chase Headley should help the offense, but will certainly help keep balls from reaching the outfield. Stephen Drew, too, should provide quality defense at second.

That leaves the outfield, where the Yankees equally need to prevent hits and runs. We learned that they pursued Jason Heyward, which would have given them, presumably, the best outfield defense in the league. With Carlos Beltran patrolling right, defense in left and, particularly, center become more important.

Ellsbury Can: Play Elite Defense

The eye test suggests Ellsbury played very good, if not elite, defense in center field last year. He’s smooth out there, which might make him look a bit better than he actually performs, but to my eye there were no noticeable deficiencies in his game.

The numbers had him in decline: UZR rated him as just above average while DR had him five runs below average. Both were his worst marks since 2009, and again I saw nothing to indicate that he was any worse. For what it’s worth, Baseball Prospectus’s FRAA, which does not use stringer-biased data, gave Ellsbury his best marks since 2008.

Once we start to get some of the Statcast data, I think it will bear out that Ellsbury is one of the league’s better defenders.

Yankees Need: Speed on the Bases

If you’re going to have two similarly profiled speedsters in the outfield, you better get some stolen bases out of them. Moreover, when you have a slow lineup like the Yankees, which lost its third and fourth highest stolen base producers from 2014, you need the guys atop the order to swipe some bags. And by some, I mean a ton.

No one in the infield is stealing any bases. Stephen Drew has a career high of 10, and that was in 2010. Chase Headley stole 17 in 2012, but hasn’t stolen that many total since. Gregorius cannot steal bases. I don’t need mention anyone else.

That leaves the base swiping to Gardner and Ellsbury.

Ellsbury Can: Lead the League in Stolen Bases

No, seriously. Ellsbury has thrice led the Al in stolen bases, including 2013. Despite sliding back to third in the order for much of 2014, he still swiped 39 bags, good for fifth-most in the majors.

If he bats leadoff every day, which he should, and improves his OBP from 2014, which he also should, it’s not difficult to imagine Ellsbury vying with Jose Altuve for the AL stolen bases crown.

The advantage of having Ellsbury and Gardner bat first and second is wreaking havoc with speed. Given Ellsbury’s history, I think he’ll hold up his end of the bargain.

Yankees Need: A Little Pop

Are the Yankees relying on Ellsbury to produce power numbers? No, not in the way they’re relying on the three questionable guys — Teixeira, Beltran, McCann — to hit some dingers. But this is a team that finished 10th in the AL in ISO last season. They’ll need pop wherever they can get it.

Ellsbury Can: Sock a Few Dingers

To repeat, part of the reason the Yankees paid Ellsbury is that they could project better power numbers at Yankee Stadium. He came through and produced the second-best ISO of his career, including 16 home runs. That’s more than the previous two seasons combined (though only half of his career year of 32 homers in 2011).

Settled into his spot, I think Ellsbury can hit 20 this year. At the very least I think he’ll hit 15, which is just fine for the Yankees. If they end up relying on Ellsbury to produce power numbers, many other things have gone wrong. In an ideal situation, he has more than enough power to help the team.

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.