Archive for Offense
Believe it or not, the Yankees actually made homerun history in 2013. After going deep a Major League-leading 245 times last season (franchise record!), the so-called Bronx Bombers hit just 144 dingers this year. That 101-homer drop is the largest in history from one year to the next. Dubious history, but history nonetheless.
The Yankees lost an awful lot of power either due to injury or poor decision-making (Brian Cashman’s words!) this summer, but they still managed to hit plenty of long homers. I’m talking about pure distance here; the ones you can tell are gone just by the crack of the bat. You know what I’m talking about. The long long balls. They didn’t hit as many as we’re used to, but they still hit a bunch. With a big assist from Hit Tracker, here are the five longest homeruns the Yankees hit this past season.
September 11th: Curtis Granderson vs. Scott Feldman (video)
Even though he missed more than 100 games due to fluky hit-by-pitch related injuries, Granderson managed to find time to visit Eutaw Street this season. The Yankees were in Baltimore for what was, at the time, a really important game against the Orioles. They were chasing a wild-card spot and down two runs when Feldman hung a 1-0 slider in the fifth inning, a pitch Curtis hit over Boog’s BBQ in right field. Granderson now has one of those neat little plaques just outside the ballpark. Distance: 436 ft.
July 1st: Robinson Cano vs. Scott Diamond (video)
We didn’t see much of it this year, but one of my favorite things is watching the Yankees storm into a large, pitcher-friendly park and make it look like a bandbox. You know what I’m talking about, when the home team can’t hit the ball out of the park to save their lives but the Yankees play dinger derby for the series. Cano did that in Minnesota in early-July, clobbered the Twins in a four-game series at Target Field. In the first inning of the first game, Diamond put a 3-1 fastball right on a tee that Robbie hit off the batter’s eye in dead center. I thought this would be the longest homer of the season coming into the post, but it was just short. Still a ridiculous shot. That ball went a mile. Distance: 442 ft.
April 4th: Frankie Cervelli vs. Clayton Mortensen (video)
Who? Cervelli? Yeah, Cervelli. Frankie actually mashed for a few weeks before a foul tip broke his hand and, when combined with the #obligatorysetback and a 50-game suspension, ended his 2013 campaign. He hit the longest homer of his career in the third game of the season, planting a Mortensen 3-1 fastball over the visitor’s bullpen and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. It’s not that easy to hit homers in the Bronx if you’re a right-hander trying to pull the ball, but Cervelli got all of this and then some. He may never hit a ball this far again in his life. Distance: 444 ft.
August 7th: Cano vs. Dylan Axelrod (video)
For a little while, this looked like both the longest and most important homer of the season. The Yankees had lost the first two games of a three-game series against the awful White Sox, and Mariano Rivera had blown the save in the third game. The game went to extra innings and score remain tied until Robbie got a hold of an Axelrod junkball in the 12th inning. The ball landed halfway up the right-center field bleachers and gave New York an important 5-4 lead. The Yankees lost the game in walk-off fashion, but that doesn’t knock any distance off Cano’s tater. Distance: 445 ft.
August 18th: Alex Rodriguez vs. Ryan Dempster
I know you remember this. You can’t not remember it. This was arguably the best win of the season considering all the nonsense that went down. A-Rod was returning to Fenway Park for the first time since all the Biogenesis stuff broken, and the booing was as vicious as any booing I’ve ever heard. Dempster, the self-appointed Chief of Baseball Police (Lieutenant Brian McCann was out of town), took it upon himself to punish Alex for his performance-enhancing drug crimes in his first at-bat. The first pitch was behind his legs, the next two inside at his waste, the fourth in Rodriguez’s ribs.
Benches cleared and both teams were warned, plus Joe Girardi got ejected after nearly punching an umpire. Dempster was somehow allowed to stay in the game and later received a slap on the wrist suspension. That was a joke. A joke, but probably good for the Yankees because he kinda sucks. A-Rod came around to score later that inning and two at-bats later, he led off the sixth inning was a mammoth homer halfway up the seats in dead center field. It was an A-Rod of old homer, not an old A-Rod homer. Just a monster shot. The Yankees came back to win the game and both the hit-by-pitch and homer helped get things started. In a season that featured a lot of disappointment, this was one of the very best moments. And also the longest homer. Distance: 446 ft.
The Yankees are on their last legs. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2.4% chance to make the postseason following last night’s shutout loss and even that feels high. The non-Andy Pettitte starters are struggling, the bullpen is a disaster, and the offense has dried up since Brett Gardner got hurt. Obviously Gardner’s absence is not the only reason the team is struggling to score runs, but taking a .273/.344/.416 (107 wRC+) hitter out of the lineup sure does hurt. No doubt about it.
Because of the injuries to Gardner and Derek Jeter — as well as Alex Rodriguez‘s barking calf and hamstring — there is only so much Joe Girardi can do to shake up his lineup going forward. Brendan Ryan (!) has already replaced Eduardo Nunez at short and Mark Reynolds has taken over at the hot corner full-time despite his defensive deficiencies. There are still two more moves that can be made though, and it has more to do with getting unproductive bats out of the lineup than having slam dunk upgrades waiting in the wings.
Since Gardner got hurt, replacement Ichiro Suzuki has gone 2-for-15 while hitting exactly four balls out of the infield on the fly. He came off the bench to get all the at-bats that would have gone to Gardner had he not gotten hurt. Chris Stewart, meanwhile, has gone 3-for-38 (!) in the team’s last 24 games. To make matters worse, both guys have started to slip defensively either due to fatigue or old age or whatever. Ichiro‘s been misplaying balls in right field while Stewart is a passed ball machine. They’re killing the team.
Girardi doesn’t have a ton of alternatives at his disposal despite September call-ups, but he could pull the plug on the veterans and run the kids out there. Zoilo Almonte recently returned from his ankle injury and J.R. Murphy was called up to serve as the third catcher a few weeks ago. Austin Romine would be another option behind the plate had he not been concussed last week. Almonte and Murphy aren’t exactly the next Mike Trout and Buster Posey, but the offensive bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so low that it’s worth giving the kids the try.
No team — extra-especially the Yankees — likes to hand the keys to a playoff race over to a bunch of prospects late in September, but the alternative is two very unproductive veterans. Ichiro and Stewart have stunk all year, this is not anything new, but their recent slumps have been much more pronounced and ill-timed. Almonte had some success during his brief cup of coffee earlier this year and at the very least put together some quality at-bats while Murphy … well he had a real nice year split between Double-A and Triple-A. What more can you say about him? Not much. Change for the sake of change is usually foolhardy, but I think Ichiro and Stewart have forced the issue. Enough is enough.
These last eleven games will tell us nothing about whether Almonte and/or Murphy can help the team next year. Nothing at all. There just isn’t enough time. What they can do is potentially help the team right now. Again, the bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so very low that it won’t take much for them to be upgrades. Could they be downgrades? Oh sure, it’s very possible. But the Yankees aren’t going to postseason if Ichiro and Stewart continue to play everyday. Replacing them with Almonte and Murphy could possibly improve their already slim chances. It’s worth a shot.
Homeruns are fun, and no one is having more fun right now than Alfonso Soriano. In 30 games since returning to the Yankees, Soriano has hit eleven homers, including several dramatic late-inning game-winners. The Bombers may not make the postseason this year, but it won’t be because he didn’t deliver after coming over from the Cubs. Soriano has been excellent and a major shot in the arm for the offense (and, somewhat surprisingly, the defense as well).
From 2011-2012, no one had more fun that Curtis Granderson. He led all of baseball with 84 homers during those two seasons, ten more than tied-for-second Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun. The self-proclaimed “not a power hitter” was baseball’s premier power hitter until a pair of fluke hit-by-pitch injuries sabotaged his 2013 season. Oddly enough, homeruns are the reason Granderson is being overlooked right now. Soriano is stealing the show.
In 24 games since coming off the DL, Curtis is hitting .291/.412/.456 (140 wRC+) with three homers, six steals (in seven attempts), 17 walks (17.5%), and 25 strikeouts (25.8%). The power production isn’t the same as it has been in recent years, but hopefully that will come around as he gets further away from the forearm and hand fractures. Granderson does have a .196 ISO in his last 15 games after putting up a .107 ISO in his first nine games back, so that’s encouraging. (Also: Hooray arbitration endpoints.)
Instead, Granderson’s recent production has come in the form of on-base ability. He reached base three times (two singles and a walk) in last night’s blowout win over the Blue Jays and has reached base at least once in 20 of his 22 starts since rejoining the team. Curtis went 0-for-4 in his first game off the DL and 0-for-4 in Friday’s series opener against the Rays. That’s it. Heck, he’s reached base at least twice in 12 of those 22 starts. That ridiculous 17.5% walk rate isn’t being padded by intentional walks (just one) or hit-by-pitches (zero) either.
Because he is a high-strikeout hitter, Granderson was stereotyped as someone who rarely walked in recent years. I have no idea why people think someone who strikes out a lot doesn’t walk much, usually the exact opposite is true, but that line of thinking does exists. Granderson doesn’t fit the bill at all though, his career walk rate (10.3%) is well-above-average and he’s been even better as a Yankee (11.4%). He has also consistently ranked among baseball’s leaders in pitches per plate appearances throughout his career. Walks require working deep counts and strikeouts are a byproduct. They come with the territory.
Obviously a 17.5% walk rate is probably not something Granderson will be able to maintain long-term. Only two guys — Jose Bautista (20.2% in 2011) and Adrian Gonzalez (17.5% in 2009) — have managed a walk rate that high over a full season in the last five years. You would expect that number to come down and his power production to go up in the coming weeks, but the season is almost over. There’s no guarantee Granderson’s walk and power rates will regress to his career norms — or, really, to his current talent level — before the end of the season. Instead of being a power hitter, he might be more of an on-base guy for the Yankees this year.
Either way, Granderson has been very productive for New York since coming off the DL. The shape of that production has been a little different than what we’ve come to expect — instead of a power-heavy 140 wRC+ it’s been an on-base heavy 140 wRC+. That’s perfectly fine. Production is production, and frankly the Yankees probably need the on-base skills more than the power right now given the rest of the roster. The rank 17th out of the 30 clubs with a 7.7% walk rate, their lowest as a team since 1991. Soriano’s homers are stealing the show, but Granderson has been outstanding as well these last few weeks.
With an assist to the impossibly bad Angels bullpen — seriously, how awful is Joe Blanton? — the Yankees scored a season-high tying 14 runs on a season-high 19 hits last night. During one span from the fifth through seventh innings, 14 of the 21 men they sent to the plate reached base. It was, by far, the best the offense has looked since April.
“It felt more like the old days,” said two-homer man Alfonso Soriano to Chad Jennings after the game, referring back to his first stint with the Yankees in the early-2000s. “We scored 14 runs today, so I hope we can do that more often. I know it can’t happen every day because the other team gets paid to get us out, but I hope we continue playing like we played tonight.”
Even with last night’s 14-run outburst, the Yankees are still only averaging four runs per game with a team .249/.324/.383 (94 wRC+) batting line in August. That’s a bit below-average but way better than what the offense did during the disaster months of June and July: 3.58 runs per games with a team 72 wRC+. The Yankees spent two hot summer months in a hitter friendly home ballpark hitting — as a team (!) — like consummate fifth outfielder Endy Chavez (72 wRC+). Think about that.
The Yankees have hit eleven homeruns in their last six games and 13 in August overall, more than they hit in July (ten) and the same number they hit in their previous 31 games combined. Not coincidentally, Soriano joined the lineup along with Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez recently. Soriano has hit five homers in 19 games since returning to the Yankees and Granderson has hit two in his eleven games back. A-Rod, who many believed would never play again as recently as last month, has even gone deep once in his seven games back.
Those three, even with all their flaws, represented massive upgrades to the lineup. The bar at third base, in left field, and at DH had been set so low that even league-average production would have been a huge step up. More A-Rod means less Jayson Nix (62 wRC+) and David Adams (45 wRC+). More Granderson means less Vernon Wells (79 wRC+). More Soriano means less Travis Hafner (87 wRC+), who wound up on the DL anyway. Guys like Nix and Wells moved back into roles more suitable for their abilities rather than be asked to play everyday. Add in the recently productive Austin Romine taking at-bats away from Chris Stewart and the Yankees have upgraded four lineup spots in the last three weeks or so.
The lineup Joe Girardi ran out there on Sunday and Monday…
- Brett Gardner
- Ichiro Suzuki
- Robinson Cano
- Lyle Overbay
- Eduardo Nunez
…is the deepest lineup the Yankees have had this season. Yeah, Granderson and Overbay should be flipped and Romine should be in there for Stewart, but you get the point. Six of the top seven spots are filled by hitters who should be league average or better offensive players, whereas a few weeks ago the Yankees were trotting out a lineup with just two such hitters. There’s power, speed, and batting average to be found in that lineup. They were lucky to get one of three in June and July.
All of this offensive improvement is probably too little, too late though. The Yankees have just a small chance of making the postseason — 4.6% according to Baseball Prospectus — in part because the lineup was so bad for so long. They needed to go out and get a bat or three in early-June, right after Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Kevin Youkilis (remember him?) suffered their long-term re-injuries. That didn’t happen and the Yankees are where they are. Such is life. At the very least, they now have a lineup capable of being competitive in a daily basis. That wasn’t the case for much the year.
I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t think the Yankees are good enough to qualify for the postseason. I’m not even sure they’re good enough to finish the year with a winning record at this point. There are just too many soft spots in the lineup and too many question marks in the rotation. They’ve exhausted all of their depth and then some. I see too many things wrong with the team to think they can turn it around after more than three months of mediocrity.
That said, the Yankees are still only four games back of a playoff spot with a little less than two months to play. Nobody wants to run away with this thing, apparently. It’s a daunting task for New York because there are four teams ahead of them fighting for that spot, but it is doable. They’re going to need some help to do it though, they have for weeks, and they got a very unwanted piece of help on Monday night. Alex Rodriguez and all of his baggage returned to the lineup against the White Sox.
In his first game following hip surgery, a quad strain, and a historic suspension, A-Rod went 1-for-4 at the plate with a jam shot bloop single, two deep fly balls, and a strikeout looking. He worked the count well — 17 pitches in four at-bats — which is more than you can say about most of the lineup these days. If this is all that Alex is capable of at this point of his career, he won’t help the Yankees at all. But it was just one game, one big league game after two Double-A rehab games. It doesn’t tell us much of anything.
What we do know is that prior to Monday’s game, the team’s third basemen were hitting a combined .215/.272/.285 (54 OPS+) on the season, by far the worst production at the position in baseball. In fact, they’re being out-homered by Cubs pitchers 5-4. I wish I was making that up. The Yankees also came into Monday hitting a weak .237/.305/.344 (85 OPS+) against left-handers, which is a far bigger problem in the grand scheme of things. It’s one thing to have a really bad spot in the lineup, it’s another when you can’t hit an entire handedness of pitcher.
A-Rod, even at his age with all those injury problems and off-the-field baggage, is going to help with their hot corner and against-lefties problems. It would an upset if he didn’t. Even last year — the worst full season of his career — he managed a 113 OPS+ overall and a 146 OPS+ against southpaws. If A-Rod comes back as 70-75% of the player he was in 2012, he’d still be an upgrade. In a weird kinda way, he’s lucky the bar has been set so low. Expectations are low and that’s probably the best thing he has going for him. If he sucks, he’ll be doing exactly what everyone expected. No one to disappoint, I suppose.
Outside of the potential on-field upgrade, I do think there’s some small value in the distraction Rodriguez creates. He does draw attention and keep it away from others, which means fewer questions for CC Sabathia to answer about his awful season. Fewer questions for Andy Pettitte, who looks to be at the end of the line. Fewer questions about Derek Jeter‘s calf and Robinson Cano‘s impending free agency and the team’s overall poor play. There is always going to be some kind of hot button issue with the Yankees, the media makes sure of it, and A-Rod is a lightning rod. The more negative attention he takes away from his teammates, the better it is for them.
The Yankees have made it fairly obvious they want nothing to do with A-Rod. The kept him away from the team in Spring Training, kept him away from the team during his rehab, the GM very publicly told him to “shut the f**k up” following a seemingly innocuous tweet, and they pushed back his return from the quad injury as long as possible. I’ve said this before, but I truly believe the Yankees kept him out as long as reasonably possible in hopes he would get suspended and stay away from the club long-term. If Alex didn’t have almost $100M left on his contract, they absolutely would have cut him and gotten rid of the headache. Zero doubt about that whatsoever.
We’ve reached the point of the season where the options to upgrade the team are very limited. The trade deadline has passed and most of the guys stashed in the minors have already gotten an opportunity, so there’s not much available to the team anymore. Replacing the hilariously awful revolving door of third basemen with A-Rod and all of his warts could actually be a significant improvement over the final two months. All he has to do is be a league average hitter — that’s a .253/.317/.398 batting line, so we’re not talking about a miracle here — to be a significant improvement. The Yankees don’t like A-Rod and they don’t want him anywhere near the team, but they also want to qualify for the postseason. Their best chance to do that is with Alex on the field everyday.
To date, this has been a lost season for Curtis Granderson. Two long-ish term fluke injuries have limited him to just eight (!) of the team’s first 107 games, and the Yankees have sorely missed his power production in the middle of the lineup. The injuries also came at a bad time for Curtis personally, since he’s due to become a free agent for the first time this winter. That’s unfortunate.
The good news is that Granderson’s time on the DL is about to come to an end. He wrapped up his six-game minor league rehab assignment yesterday, going 4-for-19 (.211) with four walks and five strikeouts with High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. Granderson played left field in four of the six games — he was the DH in the other two, once because he had a stomach bug and couldn’t play the field as scheduled — and reported no problems with his left hand.
“Curtis has been a vital part of our offense,” said Derek Jeter to Wally Matthews. “He’s a guy that can change the game with one swing. We’re looking forward to him coming back, but just because Curtis is back doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax. Everybody has a job to do and everyone needs to do it.”
As a team, the Yankees have hit just 28 homers in 53 games since the calendar flipped to June, including a recent eight-game homer-less streak that was their longest since going ten straight in April 1984. That’s where Granderson, a flawed hitter who won’t hit for much average and will strike out a bunch, figures to give the team a big boost. They need someone who can put a run(s) on the board with one swing, and few hitters in the world can do that as well as Curtis. That his left hand was broken and not the right (front hand) bodes well for retaining that power after the injury.
There’s also this: the Yankees have become a very impatient team. They rank 19th in baseball with a 7.5% walk rate, their lowest since 1990 and their first time below 8.5% since 2001. Outside of Brett Gardner, who is seventh in baseball with an average of 4.24 pitches per plate appearance, not a single regular sees more than 3.75 pitches per plate appearance. That’s awful and leads to a lot of quick outs, as you may have noticed. In addition to hitting for power, one of Granderson’s strengths is drawing walks (11.0% in 2012, 10.1 % career) and seeing pitches (4.27 P/PA in 2012, 4.16 career). That will be a welcome addition to the offense.
Although the Yankees are lefty-heavy, it won’t be tough to squeeze Granderson’s bat back into the lineup. I assume Melky Mesa will be sent to Triple-A to clear a 25-man roster spot and either Luis Cruz or Zoilo Almonte will be transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man spot, but that’s the easy part. Granderson should play left field every day, pushing Alfonso Soriano into the DH role. Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells will have to duke it out for playing time in right. The regular lineup could look something like this:
- CF Gardner
- SS Jeter
- 2B Robinson Cano
- LF Granderson
- DH Soriano
- 1B Lyle Overbay
- RF Ichiro or Wells
- Third Base
That splits up the lefties a bit, rather than batting Soriano cleanup and having three straight lefty bats from the five through seven slots whenever Ichiro plays. It’s not perfect, but that suddenly looks like a competitive big league lineup. Four guys you can expect to be above-average, two you can expect to be about average, and three that range from below-average to awful. It’s not a classic Yankees lineup, but it’s far better than what they’ve trotted out there for most of the season.
So, this is it. The Yankees are at full strength now. With the exception of Alex Rodriguez, who is facing a Biogenesis-related suspension, all of the injured position players will be back as soon as Granderson is activated. Frankie Cervelli is heading to see Dr. Andrews and is unlikely to play again this year, and the trio of Cruz, Almonte, and Travis Hafner are largely inconsequential. This is it barring an August waiver trade. With Curtis back, the Yankees are as close to full strength as they’re going to get, and now is the time to make a run at that second wildcard spot.
Fresh off three offensively inept losses to the Athletics last week, the Yankees called up outfielder Thomas Neal from Triple-A and inserted him right into their lineup during the first two games of the Angels series. The move wasn’t just a response to the 18-inning marathon game either — Neal told Chad Jennings he received the call at 2:15pm ET on Thursday, more than an hour before the marathon game started. The team made the move as a direct response to their struggling offense.
It was just one very small move, and the Yankees shouldn’t stop there. Despite yesterday’s six-run outburst, this is still a club that struggles to put more than four runs on the board on any given night, and lately scoring more than two runs has been a chore. With so many high-profile injuries and scrap heap replacements, the Bombers actually have some roster flexibility and can replace players without having to worry about salaries or contract statuses or egos.
In no particular order, here are four moves the Yankees can make to potentially improve the position player side of their roster. None of these moves are going to transform the offense into a juggernaut, not even close, but even slight upgrades are worth making at this point.
Bring back Brennan Boesch
Boesch, 28, hit .283/.341/.458 (117 wRC+) with 16 homers as recently as 2011. He had surgery to repair the UCL in his right thumb (so the thumb on his front/power hand) following that season, and the lingering effects contributed to his .240/.286/.372 (77 wRC+) line in 2012. The Yankees picked him during Spring Training and outside of a one-week stint with Triple-A Scranton last month, Boesch has not played regularly or been able to get into a groove this season. He managed a .275/.302/.529 (123 wRC+) line during his sporadic appearances with the big league team, and now’s the time to see what he can contribute with regular at-bats. The club’s corner outfielders have been just awful overall this year.
Now, there’s a small problem: Boesch is currently on the Triple-A DL with a shoulder injury. Ken Davidoff said it was a minor issue in multiple articles last week and indicated he could return relatively soon, however. As soon as Boesch is healthy and ready to be activated, the Yankees should call him up and stick him in the lineup everyday. Against righties, against lefties, at home, on the road, whatever. Let him sink or swim. There’s a non-zero chance he can contribute to the team both this year and in the future — Boesch is under control as an arbitration-eligible player through at least 2015 — and this is the time to see what he has.
Swap David Adams for Ronnie Mustelier
It feels like an eternity since the 26-year-old Adams burst onto the scene and went 10-for-31 (.323) with two doubles and two homers in his first eight big league games. Since then, he’s gone 6-for-44 (.136) with one double to drag his season batting line down to .213/.234/.333 (49 wRC+). He also has yet to draw a walk in 77 plate appearances. Adams has gone from everyday third baseman to seldom-used platoon infielder.
Mustelier, on the other hand, has put up an unimpressive .280/.319/.408 (96 wRC+) line in 166 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton this year, at least unimpressive compared to the .314/.371/.488 (~140 wRC+) line he managed between Double-A and Triple-A last summer. The 28-year-old Cuban defector has picked it up of late following a slow start, hitting .324/.359/.468 over the last month. He plays third, he plays left, he plays right, he’s hit ever since signing two years ago. The defense is not great (or even good), but if not now, then when?
Of course, we run into another problem: like Boesch, Mustelier is hurt at the moment. He is currently sidelined — not on the DL, just day-to-day — with what amounts to a minor grain strain. I don’t know what the timetable is for his return, but I assume it will be relatively soon since they’ve yet to put him on the 7-day minor league DL. By swapping the two, Adams can go back to Triple-A to get regular playing time and rebuild his confidence while Mustelier gets the opportunity to play third everyday.
Drop Reid Brignac for Alberto Gonzalez
Brignac, 27, is the best defensive shortstop in the entire Yankees organization. He is also hitting .182/.217/.261 (18 wRC+) in 94 plate appearances overall this year, including a .100/.122/.125 mark since joining New York. Big league pitchers are hitting .138/.165/.186 (-9 wRC+) this year, for comparison. There is a minimum standard of acceptable offense and Brignac does not meet it, even at the low standards of shortstop.
The Yankees actually dumped the 30-year-old Gonzalez for Brignac last month, opting for better defense and the left-handed bat. Gonzalez has gone 8-for-35 (67 wRC+) in limited big league time this year, and at Triple-A Scranton he currently owns a .269/.355/.312 (85 wRC+) line. Neither of these guys can hit, but Gonzalez can’t hit slightly less. He’s no slouch with the glove either, in fact he’s probably the second best defensive shortstop in the organization. There isn’t much sense in keeping Brignac around for platoon reasons when he can’t hit at all. Gonzalez could provide a slight upgrade overall, and even if he doesn’t, no big deal. The Yankees really wouldn’t be any worse off.
Swap Austin Romine for … someone
Three (three!) competent big league backup catchers were designated for assignment last week, meaning they are freely available to the other 29 teams. One of those catchers (John Baker) has since been claimed by the Dodgers, but the other two (Ramon Hernandez and Kelly Shoppach) are still out there for the taking. Hernandez has hit .208/.291/.438 (103 wRC+) in 55 plate appearances for the Rockies and Dodgers this season while Shoppach put up a .196/.293/.346 (82 wRC+) line in 125 plate appearances for the Mariners.
Romine, 24, has been an absolute disaster even by backup catcher standards, going 7-for-53 (-24 wRC+) with two doubles. Both the 37-year-old Hernandez and 33-year-old Shoppach represent upgrades, allowing Romine to get the regular playing time he desperately needs in Triple-A. Shoppach is particularly appealing because he a) has hit .239/.333/.428 (112 wRC+) against left-handers since 2010, and b) is familiar with CC Sabathia from their years together with the Indians. As we saw with Romine, the Yankees are obviously concerned about the pitcher-catcher relationship. Shoppach and Sabathia already have a bit of a rapport, which should ease the transition. The backup catcher is pretty much the 25th man on the roster, but an upgrade is an upgrade.
* * *
Obviously these moves aren’t as simple as swapping one guy out for another. Each requires a 40-man roster move and that can get complicated, especially when making multiple moves at the same time. The 40-man is full right now, but guys like Chris Bootcheck, Melky Mesa, Neal, and Brignac are easily cuttable. Remember though, the team is expecting five (!) players to return from 60-day DL at some point this summer barring setbacks. Clogging up the roster with someone like Mustelier might not be ideal. Then again, neither is struggling to score four runs a night.
Last night’s victory was the 54th game of the season for the Yankees, otherwise known as the one-third point. The Bombers are on pace to go 93-69, which I think exceeds expectations coming into the year. For a while the mantra was just tread water until the injured guys come back, but instead New York is tied for first place in the AL East with the Red Sox. Of course, they’re also just two games out of fourth place in the loss column. The division is as tight as anticipated so far.
The old saying is that the first third of the season is for evaluating, the second third is for making changes, and the final third is for riding those changes out. So, with that in mind, lets take a look at what happened over the last two months to see where the Yankees need to improve and where they can stand pat.
Rock Solid: The Starting Rotation
The Yankees have already used seven different starters in 2013, and collectively they’ve pitched to a 3.79 ERA (3.88 FIP) in 318.1 innings. Hiroki Kuroda (2.39 ERA/3.37 FIP) has emerged as the ace with CC Sabathia (3.71/3.75) running into some early troubles, which are almost certainly related to his overall loss in velocity. He’s getting up there in age and there are a lot of miles on that arm, it happens. Sabathia showed last night that it’s a little too early to pen that career obituary — the ability to be an ace is still in there.
As expected, Phil Hughes (4.97/4.70) and David Phelps (4.32/3.42) have had some ups and downs. Ivan Nova (6.48/3.66) lost his rotation spot to Phelps thanks in part to a triceps injury that landed him on the DL for close to a month, but he was on his way to losing the job based on his performance anyway. Andy Pettitte (3.83/4.16) has been his typically reliable self when he’s actually been on the mound — back and trap issues have limited him to just eight starts so far. Those nagging issues have given Vidal Nuno (2.12/4.24) a shot, and he’s done well in three spots starts.
With two aces (potentially), a rock solid number three (when healthy), and a collection of four back-end guys, the Yankees do have some rotation depth and appear to be in good shape going forward. Obviously that can change in an instant, but the rotation is not a pressing need right now. I don’t think they have enough depth to trade away a starter, but it shouldn’t be completely off the table under the right circumstances. The rotation was going to have to carry this club early on, and it has.
Needs Work: The Offense
It’s been a long, long time since the Yankees fielded an everyday lineup this bad. They average just 4.1 runs per game — they’ve scored the fewest runs in the division by 19 (!) — with a team 89 wRC+, their worst offensive attack since the early-1990s. Yeah, it’s been a while. Obviously losing Mark Teixeira (wrist), Kevin Youkilis (back), Alex Rodriguez (hip), Derek Jeter (ankle), and Curtis Granderson (forearm, hand) for extended periods of time hasn’t helped matters.
Robinson Cano (133 wRC+) has been the rock in the middle of the lineup even though he’s run a little cold of late. Vernon Wells (100 wRC+) and Travis Hafner (126 wRC+) were outstanding in April before hitting the skids in May, but they’ve been Cano’s primary running mates in the middle of the order. Brett Gardner (103 wRC+) has done a good job of setting the table all season, and Frankie Cervelli (138 wRC+) was a big contributor before a foul tip broke his hand and sent him to the DL. Lyle Overbay (98 wRC+) chipped in some big hits during Teixeira’s absence.
Shortstop and right field have been big problem areas this year, ditto catcher since Cervelli’s injury. A collection of replacement level types — Eduardo Nunez, Reid Brignac, Jayson Nix, and Alberto Gonzalez — have mustered a 53 wRC+ filling in for Jeter while Ichiro Suzuki (65 wRC+) has done most of the damage himself in right. Chris Stewart (80 wRC+) and Austin Romine (-35 wRC+) have been just awful since Cervelli got hurt. Brennan Boesch (120 wRC+) and David Adams (78 wRC+) have been alright in part-time roles, Ben Francisco (12 wRC+) and Chris Nelson (36 wRC+) … not so much. Those last two guys have already been dropped from the roster.
Teixeira and Youkilis returned to the lineup just last night, and while they will be a nice boost, the Yankees still need more offensively. Granderson, Jeter, and Cervelli aren’t returning anytime soon, so the club should probably explore trade scenarios for right, short, and behind the plate. Shortstop is the big one to me; Jeter has already had one setback and it shouldn’t be a surprise if his rehab continues to progress slowly. There aren’t many quality shortstops out there to be had, but I do think the Yankees should look hard for one, even if they have to overpay a bit. It’s been a major weakness.
Exceeding Expectations: The Bullpen
We’ve gotten used to the Bombers having strong bullpens over the years, and this season is no different. Joe Girardi‘s relief corps owns a stellar 3.28 ERA (3.35 FIP) in 164.2 innings, and they have the fifth highest strikeout rate (9.73 K/9 and 26.0 K%) in all the land. Unsurprisingly, Mariano Rivera (1.77 ERA/2.47 FIP) and David Robertson (2.78/3.20) have been rocks in the late-innings.
Joba Chamberlain (3.38/2.88) missed a month with an oblique injury, allowing both Shawn Kelley (5.57/3.59) and call-up Preston Claiborne (0.61/2.45) to emerge as middle inning weapons. Kelley has been a strikeout machine of late, whiffing 21 of the last 39 men he’s faced (53.8%). Boone Logan (1.80/2.86) has been fine overall as Girardi’s only southpaw. Adam Warren (2.10/3.34) has proven to be as reliable a long man as you’ll find. Nova spent a few days in long relief as well, but as since been sent to Triple-A. Others like Cody Eppley, Brett Marshall, and David Huff have come and gone with
little or no impact. That collection of non-Rivera/Robertson relievers have really done an excellent job.
Outside of maybe adding a second left-hander — Clay Rapada is in Triple-A and Cesar Cabral is working his way back up the rehab ladder — the Yankees are pretty well set in the bullpen. Again, that could change in a hurry, but right now there are more than enough bodies for each role: long relief, middle relief, and late-innings. It’s been speculated that Joba could be made available in a trade given the emergence of Claiborne and Kelley, but I don’t see it happening at this point in time. Maybe in a few weeks.
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The Yankees have exceeded expectations so far thanks mostly to the pitching staff. A handful of position players chipped in a few big weeks, but overall the offense remains a concern going forward. For an AL East team in a small ballpark, a little more than four runs a game just isn’t good enough. The injured guys will be back at some point, but I don’t think the team should just sit around and wait. If there’s an upgrade available, they need to pounce and worry about the roster logjam later. New York has more obvious needs right now than at any other one-third point in recent memory.
The Yankees have spent the better part of the last three months placing player after player on the DL, but they’ve managed to survive all those personnel losses this season. Hell, they haven’t just survived, they’ve thrived. They currently sit atop the division by two full games and have both the most wins (25) in baseball and best overall record (25-14) in the AL. Their ragtag lineup has scored just enough runs to support a pretty excellent pitching staff, which is the formula they need to follow given the current roster.
Not everyone in that ragtag lineup is pulling their weight though. Ichiro Suzuki, the projected everyday (or thereabouts) right fielder coming into the season, has hit a punchless .246/.289/.341 (63 wRC+) in 137 plate appearances this year. That is pretty atrocious. Remember how awful Randy Winn was in 2010? How we couldn’t wait until the team designated him for assignment? He had a 63 wRC+ with the Yankees that year. Chris Stewart had a 65 wRC+ last year. Ichiro, a corner outfielder, is hitting like a backup catcher.
Usually when a player performs this poorly, the team just releases them and walks away. The Yankees showed little patience with Winn, releasing him before the end of May. Ichiro isn’t most players though — he’s Ichiro!, a future first ballot Hall of Famer and iconic player in two hemispheres. Furthermore, the “top of the Yankees hierarchy” gave him a two-year contract that runs through 2014. Suzuki’s three-week hot streak last September — which the Yankees probably don’t make the postseason without — is still fresh in everyone’s mind as well. It’s complicated.
Curtis Granderson came off the DL yesterday, but the Yankees also lost Travis Hafner for at least a few days with shoulder tendinitis. It’s one step forward, one step back with the injuries this year. Hafner’s absence saves Ichiro’s everyday job for the time being, only because they need a warm body to plug into the lineup. The alternatives are Ben Francisco and Alberto Gonzalez, so yeah. Ichiro continues to play.
That can’t continue much longer though, not unless Suzuki gets hot and starts performing better. He did go on a nice tear for about two weeks late last month, so it’s not impossible, but he has reached base just four times — all base hits, no walks or hit-by-pitches — in his last 30 plate appearances. Ichiro, the historically great hit machine, is currently riding an 0-for-16 slump, an 0-for-16 slump with a lot of ugly swings and at-bats in general. There are times he is completely non-competitive at the plate.
The poor performance this year really shouldn’t be a surprise given how the last two years have played out. Ichiro hit .277/.308/.361 (84 wRC+) in nearly 1,400 plate appearances from 2011-2012, so a further decline in performance at age 39 should have been expected. He’s always been a no walks, no power offensive player, and as soon as those types of hitters lose bat and foot speed, it tends to go south in a hurry. It’s not often a gradual decline, it’s a tumble over the cliff. Ichiro is aging like a player with his skill set should age, though his greatness allowed him to avoid that fate until well into his late-30s.
Winn hooked on with the Cardinals and was a little more productive (87 wRC+) down the stretch in 2010, and Ichiro is certainly capable of turning it around in a hurry. His iconic status and contract mean his roster spot is very safe for the time being, and indeed he does have some value defensively and on the bases. He’s best suited for pinch-running and defensive replacement duties though, classic fourth outfielder stuff, which is the role he should fill with Granderson back once Hafner is healthy. The Yankees have written the book on finding productive veterans in recent years, but Ichiro looks more and more like a miss with each passing day. Unfortunately, he isn’t as easily disposable as most of the other scrap heap pickups.
Like many of you, I was extremely skeptical when the Yankees acquired Vernon Wells for two non-prospects at the very end of Spring Training. The move stunk of desperation, but frankly the team was desperate at that time. They lost a lot of offense to injury in the prior weeks and something had to be done. The Angels had a player they wanted the dump and the Yankees had a need. The puzzle pieces fit.
Wells, 34, made the Yankees look very smart for the first few weeks of the season. He had three hits, including a homer, against the Red Sox during the second game of the season. Two days later he went deep again, and the homers kept coming — five in his first 15 games of the year. Wells finished April with a .300/.366/.544 (145 wRC+) batting line that exceeded every reasonable expectation. It was just what the Yankees needed.
Things haven’t been going so well for Vernon since then, however. Last night’s 0-for-4 dropped him to 3-for-21 (.143) on the month and 10-for-48 (.208) in his last 13 games. That dates back to the series in Toronto, when he bludgeoned his former team for three days. Wells is still hitting a respectable .270/.328/.468 (114 wRC+) on the season, but he has clearly been trending downward of late. Anecdotally, it seems like he’s been getting beat on a lot of outside pitches lately. Both fastballs and breaking balls. The strike zone plots do not show that he’s been getting more outside pitches of late, however (via Texas Leaguers):
Who knows why the slump is happening, but it’s happening. Maybe he’s just fatigued from playing everyday for the first time in two years. The slump shouldn’t be unexpected either, Wells was hitting far better than he did even during his prime last month. At some point he was going to cool off.
The unfortunate thing is that the Yankees need Wells to hit right now, very much so. With Kevin Youkilis injured and, for at least three games, Travis Hafner limited to pinch-hitting duties in the NL park, there needs to be someone in the lineup to complement Robinson Cano. As good as he is, Robbie can’t do it all by himself. Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki have been doing a fine job of getting on-base of late, but someone other than Cano needs to drive them in. Wells has to be that guy and right now he isn’t.
At some point Vernon will heat back up and go on a nice tear. At least I think he will. It is fair to be skeptical of him going forward given how dreadful he’s been the last two years, but I don’t think he’s suddenly regressed to sub-replacement level. The question is when will that rebound happen? Outside of Curtis Granderson and maybe Youkilis, the Yankees are unlikely to get any of their injured bats back this month. Their offense simply isn’t good enough to get by with a slumping Wells. He gave them more than they could have asked for in April, but now they need him to do more in May.