Cashman reiterates Granderson will return as the center fielder

Via Andrew Marchand: Brian Cashman reiterated the team will indeed bring Curtis Granderson back as the center fielder once his fractured right forearm heals up. “I don’t think so,” said the GM when asked if there was a chance of keeping Brett Gardner in center.

I don’t the switch is as cut-and-dry as it seems, especially since there’s at least a small chance it could impact Granderson’s offense. This isn’t as simple as sticking Ichiro Suzuki in left last year because they weren’t putting anything at stake offensively. I definitely think they should reconsider though, because it will be a defensive upgrade (how much exactly? not sure) and the Yankees will need to squeeze every ounce of production from their roster if they plan to contend for a playoff spot.

Defense very important to early-season Yankees

Johnny Mac. (Presswire)
Johnny Mac. (Presswire)

The old adage says a run saved on defense is as good as a run created on offense, and a number of teams have put that theory to the test in recent years. The 2010 Mariners are the perfect example of a club that went all-in on pitching and defense, and they absolutely stunk because there is a slight problem with that theory: creating a run on offense happens far more often than saving a run on defense. Just consider the opportunities, a hitter is guaranteed at least three plate appearances in every game while not being guaranteed anything as far as balls hit to their defensive position.

The absolute best defenders in baseball save about 20-25 runs over an average defender at the position in a given year according to the various metrics. That’s Brett Gardner territory, he’s a legitimate +20 defender in left field. Two players were +20 defenders by UZR last year while DRS says there were eight. On the other hand, 48 players created at least 20 runs offensively (by wRAA) with a handful of others within a few swings. So yes, a run saved is as good as a run created on offense, but creating runs on offense happens much more frequently.

Anyway, I bring this up because the Yankees have lost quite a bit of offense for the early part of the season. Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Curtis Granderson (forearm) will be out until May, and let’s not forget about Alex Rodriguez either. He outhit Kevin Youkilis last year — 114 wRC+ in 529 plate appearances vs. 102 wRC+ in 509 plate appearances — despite playing the final few weeks of the season with one good hip. A-Rod will be out until the All-Star break and is bigger loss than many people want to admit. No Nick Swisher or Eric Chavez will also sap the lineup.

Because they lost so much offensive firepower and don’t have any standout hitters to replace them, the Yankees should focus on doing what they can to save runs early in the season. None of the left field candidates are expected to hit much, but many of them also figure to stink on defense as well. Think Juan Rivera, Matt Diaz, Ronnie Mustelier … those guys. Bad offense and bad defense is a bad combination. Melky Mesa stands out as the best outfield defender in the competition, though like the other guys he will probably be below-average on offense. He is a safe bet to save a few runs with his glove though, and taking that production might be better than trying to squeeze a tiny bit of offense from someone else.

On the infield, there’s nothing the Yankees will be able to do to replace Teixeira’s glove. He has few peers on defense, but first base is also one of the least important defensive positions. They can survive with a below-average gloveman there for a few weeks. The left side of the infield is another story entirely, and the Yankees are guaranteed to have a poor defender at short. Derek Jeter was never good to start with, but now his mobility could be sapped even further by the ankle injury. Eduardo Nunez can’t make routine throws and it seems less and less likely that he’ll actually figure out it. With a ground ball-heavy rotation (outside of Phil Hughes, obviously), that could be a problem.

Ken Rosenthal says the Diamondbacks are looking to trade veteran infielder John McDonald, who can’t hit a lick (58 wRC+ in nearly 2,500 PA) but grades out excellently on defense, particularly at short. He’s cheap ($1.5M this year) and would make a lot of sense for New York’s bench, especially early in the season when Jeter will spend plenty of time at DH. If Nunez or Jayson Nix were safe bets to hit at an above-average rate, it would be a different story. None of these guys is likely to hit much, but at least McDonald would give the team above-average defense for their ground ball staff.

The Yankees were very willing to sacrifice offense for the sake of defense at the catcher position this winter — nevermind that Russell Martin was a strong defender himself, but don’t get me started again — and they should be willing to do it while Granderson and Teixeira on the shelf. It’s not like they’re sorting through a bunch a .350 OBP/.175 ISO hitters here, which should make the decision even easier. I’ve said many times before that I’m an offense over defense guy, but that’s only if the offense is a reasonable guarantee*. Since the Yankees don’t have any solid hitters to stick in the lineup, emphasizing defense might be the best approach for April.

* There are no guarantees, but you know what I mean.

Cervelli’s throwing stands out early in camp

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

The Yankees have a history of fake Spring Training competitions — the 2010 fifth starter’s competition stands out the most — though this spring’s catching competition both is and isn’t legit. Austin Romine has almost no chance of making the team because both Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli are out of options, so in that sense the competition is fraudulent. Neither Stewart nor Cervelli has a first grasp on the starting job though, and those two are in a real competition for playing time.

We don’t learn much after just ten Grapefruit League games, but one thing is very obvious so far this year: Cervelli’s throwing has been demonstrably better than it was from 2010-2011. He threw out 36.4% of attempted base-stealers as a minor leaguer from 2005-2008, then he threw out 43.5% of attempted base-stealers during his big league time in 2009. Something changed though, and that number dropped to just 14.1% in the show from 2010-2011. That defensive decline is a big reason why the Yankees traded for Stewart at the end of camp last year and surprisingly demoted Cervelli to Triple-A.

“It made my mind stronger,” said Cervelli to Mark Feinsand about the demotion. “I kept learning that nothing comes easy … Right now, I look at the past and I think it was the best. Maybe last year, the first two months in Triple-A was bad. The frustration, you don’t understand it in the moment, but when you have a little time and you think a little fresh, you realize things happen for a reason – and always a positive reason.”

Cervelli credited his parents — who spent a lot of time with him last summer — for helping him get over the disappointment of being demoted and focusing on the things the Yankees wanted to improve, including his throwing*. Frankie has thrown out five of six (!) attempted base-stealers during his five games behind the plate so far this spring. Obviously that is an unsustainable pace, but his throws have been strong and right on the bag at second as opposed to short-hopping the infielder or winding up in center field as they had in recent years. The improvement is noticeable.

“Rushing,” said Cervelli to Chad Jennings when asked what he was doing wrong before. “I tried to throw the ball too hard and I tried to get the ball before it was in my glove. Now I work relaxed behind the plate. Same energy, but I just try to be more relaxed and let my body go … The past few years in the big leagues, I had bad habits. Maybe frustration, or if you don’t play every day, you want to do things perfect. I was a little young, too. You’re a little desperate sometimes. When you get more mature and have more experience, play every day like last year, you start to get that feeling.”

Cervelli threw out 30.0% of attempted base-stealers with Triple-A last year — on par with his 2005-2008 performance — then went to winter ball and threw out nine of 14 attempted base-stealers (64.3%) in his 21 games. No one will ever confuse him with Yadier Molina, but Cervelli had a track record of throwing runners out at a better than average rate before falling to some bad habits (to use his words) in recent years. His performance these last ten months or so suggest he’s back to where he needs to be.

“I just think he worked hard at it,” said Girardi to Feinsand about Cervelli’s throwing. “He had a chance last year to catch every day. He also went to winter ball, and I think he worked really hard at it. As I said, I think he got a little out of whack from maybe rushing or trying to do too much, and he was able to go down there and really get it back together like he had when he first came up for us throwing the baseball. It’s shown up.”

Cervelli will turn 27 later this week, and among the team’s catching options, he has (by far) the best chance to contribute offensively this summer. That doesn’t mean he’ll be above-average or anything, just less below-average than Stewart or Romine. If his throwing and defensive improvements are real and not just a small sample/early-Spring Training fluke, his value to the team could be much greater than anticipated. We need to see more before we can say he’s over those bad habits for certain, but the early returns are very encouraging.

* Brian Cashman spoke more about the things the Yankees wanted Cervelli to improve during an on-air interview this weekend, which you can watch here. Apparently Frankie will no longer go into a Tony Pena-esque crouch as he had in the past. I thought that was interesting.

Curtis Granderson taking fly balls in left field today

12:57pm: Brian Cashman confirmed to Curry that both Gardner and Granderson will play left this spring as the team evaluates its options.

12:00pm: Via Jack Curry: Curtis Granderson is taking fly balls in left field during today’s workout in Tampa. This is obviously a precursor to the long-rumored position switch with Brett Gardner, which would put the better defender in the more premium position. Just to be clear, this isn’t a guarantee the switch will happen, but it does show the Yankees are seriously considering it. Expect them to try out the new alignment in numerous Grapefruit League games before making anything final.

Granderson hopes to remain a Yankee beyond 2013, open to extension

Via Erik Boland & Anthony McCarron: Curtis Granderson told reporters today that he hopes to remain with the Yankees beyond next season and is open to a contract extension. “I’d be a fool not to … I’m so excited about this fourth season (with the team) and hopefully this isn’t the last one,” he said. Granderson, 32 next month, is due to become a free agent next offseason, but team policy says no contract talks until the current deal is up.

In other news, Curtis told Bryan Hoch that he is open to playing left field in deference to Brett Gardner. The team has yet to approach him about such a move, however. Granderson also said he changed up his offseason routine after talking to Ichiro Suzuki, specifically by starting to hit earlier than usual. If that gets him back to 2011/first half 2012 form, it’ll probably be Ichiro‘s biggest contribution to the Yankees.