Thursday Night Open Thread

Today is Derek Jeter‘s 40th birthday and that it utterly depressing. Where does the time go? He was getting called up and I was getting ready to start high school just yesterday, it seems. Say what you want about how things are going this season, but these last 20 years watching Jeter have been some kind of ride. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is a very strong chance he is the greatest Yankee we’ll see in our lifetimes.

Here is your open thread for the off-day. Off-night, really. The Mets are playing and the NBA Draft is taking place (7:30pm ET on ESPN). Talk about that, Jeter’s birthday, or anything else right here. Have at it.

McCann, Beltran, and the need for more power

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees have won the first two games against the Blue Jays this week thanks to the tried and true formula of quality pitching and timely hitting. They also did something they don’t do very often these days: they hit the ball out of the park. Brett Gardner hit a two-run homer in the first game and Brian McCann hit a two-run homer in the second game. Both were cheap Yankee Stadium shots, but hey, you can only play in the ballpark they give you.

Through their first 70 games of 2014, the Yankees have hit 57 homers as a team, putting them on pace for 132 for the season. (The 2009 Yankees had 105 homers after 70 games, for comparison.) Last year’s team had the worst Yankees’ offense in two decades and they still managed to hit 144 dingers. This season’s homer pace figures to increase now that the weather is really starting to warm up, but the fact remains that the Bronx Bombers aren’t living up to their nickname at all. They lack the ability to change the game with one swing.

“We absolutely have to hit more homers,” said Mark Teixeira to Joel Sherman earlier this week. “At this park, you have to score and we just are not scoring enough. If we don’t believe we are going to do that, we might as well pick up and go home because winning will be very hard unless at some point we drive balls and score runs.”

There are plenty of reasons why the Yankees suddenly can’t hit homers. First and foremost, they flat out have a ton of non-power hitters in the lineup on a daily basis. Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Derek Jeter, Brian Roberts, Yangervis Solarte, and Ichiro Suzuki are not going to hit the ball out of the park with any regularity. Kelly Johnson never plays, Alfonso Soriano has no more life in his bat, and both Carlos Beltan and McCann have disappointed at the plate.

Outside of swinging a big blockbuster for Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss (or getting A-Rod‘s suspension overturned!), the only way the Yankees can improve their power output in a meaningful way is by getting McCann and Beltran to turn their seasons around. McCann had an awesome game last night and maybe that’s a sign he’s coming around. It would be nice but we’ve said this before. Between the bone spur and general ineffectiveness, Beltran’s been invisible since the last week of April. These two simply aren’t playing as expected.

There was always a kernel of truth to the “too many homers” concept, it was just expressed in the silliest way possible. There is no such thing as hitting too many homers — a homer is literally the best possible thing a hitter can do — but the Yankees did lack offensive diversity for a few years. The speed of Gardner and Ellsbury has changed that, though now the Yankees are too far on the other side of the spectrum. They rely too much on extended rallies in an age when infield shifts and specialized relievers make picking up a simple base hit harder than ever.

The Yankees play in a small ballpark in a division full of hitter friendly ballparks, and 50 of their final 92 games will be played against AL East teams. That’s the reality of their situation. They don’t need to set homerun records or anything, but they need to be able to cut a deficit or increase a lead with one swing, especially in their home ballpark. This team lacks that and it limits what the offense can do. Getting Beltran and McCann on track will help, as would replacing Soriano and adding an infielder. The Yankees play with a tiny margin of error because of this power-less offense.

Solarte expanding the zone during recent slump

(Jason O. Watson/Getty)
(Jason O. Watson/Getty)

The Yankees just wrapped up a nine-game road trip through two time zones and return home this week with five wins in the bank. It was a good trip, not a great trip. Stealing one of those last two games from the Athletics would have been awesome, but they are the best team in baseball. What are you going to do? Considering the injury-riddled rotation and mostly sputtering offense, winning five of nine works fine for me.

The road trip was not at all good for infielder Yangervis Solarte, who had four total hits in the nine games. All four came in back-to-back games in Kansas City. Solarte went hitless in his final 19 at-bats on the trip, though his recent slump extends further back than that — over the last calendar month he’s hitting only .208/.269/.313 (60 wRC+) in 105 plate appearances. That’s just bad. That’s what you’d expect from … well, a journeyman infielder who signed a minor league contract.

Despite the slump, Solarte is still hitting .274/.347/.420 (113 wRC+) on the season, which is a reminder of just how excellent he was a few weeks ago. I don’t think anyone realistically thought he could maintain the 144 wRC+ he posted through April or even the 131 wRC+ he posted through May. That’s Josh Donaldson/Hanley Ramirez production. I’ll be more than thrilled if Solarte manages to produce at a 113 wRC+ clip from here on out.

Sort through his day-by-day graphs page on FanGraphs and you can see Solarte’s gradual return to Earth pretty clearly. The AVG, OBP, SLG, BABIP, and wOBA graphs are all moving in the wrong direction, the walk rate slightly less so. The strikeout, K/BB, and ISO graphs show little change. They’ve held steady even through this slump and that’s encouraging. The one graph that stood out to me was the batted balls. Check it out:

Solarte Batted Balls

The green line is ground balls, the blue is fly balls, and the red is line drives. Solarte’s ground ball and fly ball rates have been moving in opposite directions, which is sorta weird because his ISO has held steady. Usually when a hitter stops hitting the ball in the air, he stops hitting for extra bases. Maybe it’s just a small sample thing. Solarte isn’t fast and won’t beat out many infield singles (he has three infield hits all season, including this one), so it makes sense that the increase in ground balls has led to decreased production overall.

One thing that has impressed me about Solarte — really more than anything — is his approach. His 11.6% strikeout rate is much better than the league average (20.3%) and his 9.6% walk rate is a touch better than average (8.0%) as well. He has swung at only 27.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, a tick below the 29.3% average. Has that changed at all during the slump? Here are Solarte’s plate discipline stats broken down into ten-game chunks because ten is a nice round number:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
Games 1-10 27.1% 59.2% 78.3% 95.2% 45.5%
Games 11-20 34.4% 56.3% 74.2% 93.3% 47.1%
Games 21-30 21.8% 66.7% 73.7% 95.7% 44.2%
Games 31-40 20.9% 52.2% 66.7% 97.2% 44.5%
Games 41-50 29.3% 53.3% 82.4% 95.0% 56.4%
Games 51-62 33.7% 52.3% 83.9% 97.8% 48.9%

Solarte has gradually swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone as the season has progressed, and lately he’s offered at more pitches out of the zone as well. That’s not really a good combination. Swing at strikes and lay off balls is a pretty good rule of thumb. Furthermore, Solarte has not only swung at more pitches out of the zone these last 22 games, but he’s made more contact with those pitches as well. Unless you’re a total freak like Vlad Guerrero, it’s really tough to made hard contact with a pitch out of the zone. Usually the hitter is reaching and either grounding out weakly or popping the ball up.

As Joe wrote two weeks ago, it is very rare for a player to make his MLB debut at age 26 and stick around for a few years. At least rare among non-Cuban players. Dan Uggla and David Eckstein have both done it, and Solarte is more Eckstein than Uggla in terms of his high-contact, low-power playing style. Every little slump makes you wonder if this is the end — for what it’s worth, Solarte has hit much better at Yankee Stadium, so coming back home this week could help jump start his bat — but Solarte has rebounded each previous time. A little less hacking at pitchers’ pitches would help get him back in line this time. That might not be his only problem right now, but it is part of it.

After 62 games, an offensive shakeup is in order

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

The Yankees lost for the eighth time in their last 12 games yesterday, and only four times in that stretch did they score more than three runs. They’re hitting .240/.292/.322 as a team during those 12 games and are averaging 2.67 runs per game. Last season’s club boasted the worst Yankees offense since the early 1990, and they scored 250 runs through their first 62 games. This year’s team has 249.

The offensive struggles are becoming untenable. The pitching staff is already stretched thin due to injury and asking them to carry a lineup barely able to scratch out three runs a night is totally unrealistic. The Yankees revamped their bullpen slightly last week and the time has come to shake up the offense as well. Their options to improve the offense are limited because of large contracts and whatnot, but here are three pretty simple ideas.

Bat Jeter Leadoff
Let’s state the obvious here: Derek Jeter hasn’t hit a lick this year. He’s managed a .254/.312/.300 (71 wRC+) batting line through 234 plate appearances and ranks dead last out of 167 qualified hitters with a .047 ISO. Even Ben Revere has hit for more power. According to Baseball Savant, Jeter has seen the highest rate of pitches over 90 mph (55.2%) among players with at least 100 at-bats, and against those pitches he has the lowest ISO (.019!) and the fifth lowest batting average (.235) in baseball. Opponents know he can’t hit fastballs so they’re throwing the ball right by him. It’s sorta embarrassing at this point.

And yet, because he’s Derek Jeter, he’s batted second all season and he’ll continue to bat second going forward. The Yankees have made it clear they won’t do anything to upset their captain — remember when they gave him a raise for no apparent reason over the winter? that was weird — and at least part of that is due to the fact that his retirement tour is a cash cow. Attendance, ratings, and merchandise sales would take a hit if Jeter is given a lesser role. The Yankees are all about winning, as long as it doesn’t upset Jeter or hurt their bottom line.

So, the club is stuck batting him in a prime lineup spot. That’s reality and it’s been made very clear. To make the best of a bad situation, the Yankees should move Jeter up a lineup spot, from second to leadoff. Why? Because it would allow them to bunch their four best hitters together. Rather than having the unproductive Jeter splinter Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup, they could bat him leadoff, then go with Gardner in the two spot ahead of Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Yangervis Solarte.

Because the Yankees don’t hit for any power — they’ve hit four homers in their last 13 games, four! — they have to string together base hits and walks to score runs. The best possible way to do that is to bunch your best hitters together in the lineup, not spread them out. All you’re doing is adding outs to the equation by spreading them out and that reduces the chances of scoring. Bat Jeter leadoff, get his at-bat out of the way, then give the team’s four best hitters a chance to do some damage. Don’t try to include him in the rally because he’s shown these last 62 games he can’t help offensively.

Exit Roberts, Enter Sizemore
The Yankees were in a real tough spot when Robinson Cano bolted for the Mariners, and yet, because of the contract he signed, it was totally understandable why they let him walk. That didn’t make finding a replacement any easier — Omar Infante has a 66 wRC+ in the first year of his four-year contract, by the way — so the Yankees settled on Proven Veteran™ Brian Roberts, who has a .239/.317/.350 (85 wRC+) batting line in 203 plate appearances. Somehow he’s stayed healthy so far.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Like Jeter, it’s clear Roberts isn’t going to provide much with the bat. He had a little hot streak a few weeks ago but even then that only raised him up to a .690 OPS for the season, the highest it’s been since the third game of the year. Unlike Jeter, the Yankees can replace Roberts. He’s not a legacy player, there are no long-standing ties to him, and it’s not like he’s hit when he’s been healthy the last few years either. His only redeeming quality on offense is his ability to have consistently long at-bats (3.97 pitches per plate appearances), which isn’t worth a whole lot by itself.

Since Roberts isn’t hitting and is one of the few disposable pieces in the lineup, the Yankees should replace him with … Solarte. Solarte’s natural position is second base and he’s looked much more comfortable defensively there than at the hot corner. That would allow them to call up Scott Sizemore and use him in a third base platoon with Kelly Johnson. Johnson’s hit 16+ homers in each of the last four years and this team can’t hit for power. I don’t know how they expect him to remain productive playing him once a week out of position at first base. Dump Roberts and go with Solarte at second and the Sizemore/Johnson platoon at third.

Exit Soriano, Enter Almonte
Joe wrote about dumping Alfonso Soriano last week and I don’t really have anything to add. He’s hitting .229/.255/.396 (71 wRC+) with 60 strikeouts and five unintentional walks this year, and since April 25th his swing and miss rate is 17.8%, which is absurd. His at-bats aren’t even competitive. The Yankees are only paying Soriano $5M this season and this point they only owe him another $3M or so. It’s a sunk cost. Cut him loose and let someone else play.

That someone, in my opinion, should be Zoilo Almonte. I’m not sold on Adonis Garcia and there really isn’t another viable MLB outfield option in Triple-A. Almonte has some power, swatting eight homers in 38 Triple-A games this year. He also has seasons of 15 and 21 homers in the minors. Zoilo is a switch-hitter but not really; he’s awful against lefties. He’s hit .296/.355/.502 against righties in the minors since 2011 but only .255/.313/.386 against southpaws. The left side of the plate is clearly his better side.

Ichiro Suzuki isn’t terrible against lefties though, hitting .375/.423/.417 (129 wRC+) against them this year and .347/.360/.462 (124 wRC+) since joining the Yankees in 2012. I don’t understand it either, but whatever. Rather than continuing to stick with the wholly unproductive Soriano, the club could roll with the unconventional two lefty platoon in right field — Almonte against righties and Ichiro against lefties. As with the proposed second/third base arrangement above, there’s a decent chance the Almonte/Ichiro platoon will improve both the offense and defense. Crazy, I know.

* * *

The Yankees don’t have much flexibility with their everyday lineup, mostly due to contracts but also because of their undying devotion to Jeter. The offense has been stagnant for way too long for them to remain status quo and wait for things to improve — “We’re just trying to move this thing along. If there are guys struggling in New York, I can’t wait,” said Brian Cashman to Donnie Collins recently — and those are three simple ways to shake things up and give the team a better opportunity to score. They could roll out this regular lineup:

  1. Jeter
  2. Gardner
  3. Ellsbury
  4. Teixeira
  5. Solarte
  6. Carlos Beltran or Brian McCann
  7. Beltran or McCann
  8. Almonte/Ichiro platoon
  9. Johnson/Sizemore platoon

The four best hitters on the team are bunched together and there’s a little bit of pop in the lower third of the lineup. No one will confuse that group for the 1927 Yankees or even the 2012 Yankees, but two of the three worst hitters would be replaced and the third will be de-emphasized in the sense that the club’s best hitters won’t have to try to build a rally around him. It’ll be like Jeter is hitting ninth once the lineup turns over.

There’s not much the Yankees can do to improve their occasionally non-existent offense, but a shakeup is still in order. They can do it without creating a stir with Jeter as long as they’re willing to cut bait with two unproductive veterans and give a young guy like Almonte a chance. What they have now just isn’t working.

Do Drew and Morales make sense if Beltran needs surgery?

Kendrys Morales
(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

I have this buddy — most of you probably know him — who IMs me at least once a week clamoring for the Yankees to sign Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales.

And?

Drew we know makes some level of sense. The Yankees still need some infield help. Despite his relative health so far, and his improving performance, they can’t ignore the injury risk of Brian Roberts. Fun as he’s been to watch, Yangervis Solarte could go away at any time. The Yankees can’t really afford that kind of drop-off at this point.

Once they signed Carlos Beltran, Morales didn’t make sense for the Yanks. They had Mark Teixeira installed at first base, and with four outfielders they had their DH needs covered. There just weren’t enough at-bats for a guy who certainly deserves them. There was always the “if Mark Teixeira misses significant time” caveat, but other than that there wasn’t much connection between Morales and the Yankees.

Beltran’s injury changes the scene a bit. If he does require immediate surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, the Yankees have room to add a bat. With two MLB players waiting for a team to sign them, the Yankees have a perfect opportunity to improve.

Morales: DH and spelling Teixeira

The Yankees need a healthy Teixeira if they’re going to make a run at the postseason. They’ve already missed him for two weeks. To lose him again, especially with Beltran out, would further cripple the offense. We got a little scare earlier this week, when Teixeira sat out a game and complaining of tired legs. He ran poorly, even for himself, during the weekend series in Milwaukee.

Adding Morales gives Girardi a viable backup for Teixeira. Playing Morales at first allows Teixeira to take a full day off, or to rest up a bit at DH. Kelly Johnson could do that, sure, but what happens if Roberts gets hurt? Johnson can’t play the entire right side of the infield.

Morales’s primary role would be at DH, with Alfonso Soriano taking over in right field. His arm might not be fit for the job, but he’s shown considerably more range than Beltran this season. It’s a trade-off that the Yankees will have to take. They can still get Soriano days at DH and on the bench, as he’s been doing all year. That will free up some at-bats for Ichiro as well.

Drew: Mitigating Jeter

The rise of Solarte has made the Yankees infield a bit better than we anticipated going into the season. Unfortunately, Jeter’s defense has been even worse than imagined. The pitching staff has had its troubles, and it’s tough to blame the entire problem on shaky infield defense, but it sure hasn’t helped them. Drew is no defensive wizard, but he represents an upgrade over the current corps.

Signing Drew only works if Girardi makes Jeter the primary DH in Beltran’s absence. Perhaps Jeter can stay fresher if he’s off the field, providing a bit more offense than he is now. Drew plays his natural position, at which his bat provides the most value.

Given the state of the Yankees infield, there doesn’t need to be a very strong case made for Drew. He’d help.

What about pitching?

With three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation on the DL, the Yankees might need some pitching help. We know Ivan Nova is lost for the season. Who knows if CC Sabathia, with a degenerative knee condition, or Michael Pineda, with an injury so close to his surgically repaired right shoulder will come back — let alone come back and pitch effectively. If the Yankees are going to open their wallets, shouldn’t it aid the pitching staff?

In an ideal world, sure. But in the real world, there aren’t any major league caliber pitchers on the free agent market. A few might become available in July, but the Yankees can’t count on that. They have to take measures to improve the team where they can when the opportunities arise. Right now, the opportunities lie in Drew and Morales.

There is little to no chance the Yankees sign both, giving up their second- and third-round draft picks in the process. (Unless Boras comes up with one of his creative package deals, a la Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.) Either could help the Yankees if Beltran misses significant time. Strangely enough, it might even make them a more balanced team in the process.