Archive for Offense
This season is the opportunity of a lifetime for Eduardo Nunez. The 25-year-old is getting a chance to play shortstop on an everyday basis thanks to Derek Jeter‘s ankle surgery and subsequent setback, and he’s going to continue to play the position regularly because the Cap’n isn’t due to return until after the All-Star break. It sure doesn’t seem like there is a trade in the works to acquire another shortstop either.
The biggest question about Nunez coming into the year was his defense, especially his throwing. His throws were strong but far too often very wild, so much so that the Yankees had to send him to Triple-A last May to sort things out. That demotion may have saved the team a couple hundred grand next year, but that’s besides the point. The club penciled Nunez in as the everyday shortstop during Jeter’s absence this year and that was a very, very risky proposition.
To date, Eduardo’s defense has mostly been a non-issue. He’s committed three errors in 22 games and 178 innings at shortstop, and only one of the three was a throwing error. That came over the weekend when a throw pulled first baseman Lyle Overbay off the bag just a bit. Nunez worked with first base coach/infield instructor Mick Kelleher to shorten his throwing motion in camp and the results have been overwhelmingly positive so far. I think we all still get nervous when a ball is hit his way, but give Eduardo credit. He worked hard and has greatly improved his defense, particularly his throws.
Of course, defense is only half the battle. Maybe less depending on your point of view. Offensive expectations certainly weren’t high coming into 2013, but Nunez hasn’t hit a lick in the early going. He comes into today riding an ugly 4-for-36 (.111) streak, which has dropped his overall season batting line to .169/.273/.185 (32 wRC+) in 79 plate appearances. No, it’s not a huge sample nor definitive evidence of how he will hit going forward, but Nunez has been awful at the plate even considering the low offensive standard for the position (87 wRC+ league average at shortstop). There’s no argument to be made otherwise.
Because he doesn’t offer much power (career .100 ISO) or much patience (career 6.7 BB%), Nunez’s entire offensive game is built around contact and speed. He’s a (very) poor man’s Ichiro Suzuki, someone who just puts the ball in play, runs, and hopes for the best. While hitting .272/.318/.384 (88 wRC+) in 491 plate appearances from 2010-2012, Nunez posted a 10.4% strikeout rate and an 88.2% contact rate. Those are both far better than average. So far this year he’s sitting on a 17.3% strikeout rate and an 83.3% contact rate, which are still better than the league average. Just a touch better though. When it comes to pitches in the strike zone, Nunez is making contact on 88.0% of his swings in 2013 compared to 92.5% from 2010-2012.
Contact and swing rates — his swing rates on pitches both in and out of the zone haven’t changed much this year — stabilize relatively quickly, so this isn’t necessarily something that will simply revert back to his career averages over time. Nunez is hitting way more fly balls (42.6% in 2013, 34.5% from 2010-2012) and fewer ground balls (40.7%, 47.4%) this year, which is the exact opposite of what you want to see from a speed player. Fly balls turn into outs more easily than grounders, plus they completely eliminate the speed aspect. There’s no pressure on the infielders to make a play quickly, stuff like that. Yes, his .204 BABIP this year is way low for any player, especially one who came into the year with a .291 career mark, but the reduced contact and ground balls rates indicate the problem is something more than dumb luck.
Hitting coach Kevin Long has reportedly worked with Nunez on his balance at the plate recently, specifically by widening his base and eliminating some of his stride. It goes without saying that balance is important, especially for a contact guy who needs to be short to the ball. Eduardo should see his numbers improve in part due to simple BABIP correction, but that alone won’t turn him into the average or even slightly-below-average hitter the Yankees need him to be. Maybe Nunez is being exposed with regular playing time or maybe he’s just in an early-season funk, but his production has been a drain on the offense from the bottom of the lineup. If he doesn’t show improvement in the coming weeks, the Yankees are going to have to consider finding a replacement.
The Yankees were flat-out dominated by Rays right-hander Alex Cobb last night, who held them to three singles and a walk in 8.1 scoreless innings. The loss capped off six-game road trip that saw the Yankees score five total runs with one extra-base hit in the final three games. Stuff like that happens, every team will have a few ugly series throughout the year, but the road trip as a whole featured some warning signs on the offensive side of the ball. Not full blown reasons to panic, but cracks in the dam.
The Schedule Isn’t So Favorable Anymore
After facing Jon Lester on Opening Day, the Yankees saw nine right-handed starters in the next nine games. It would have been eleven righty starters in eleven games had the two games against the Indians not be rained out. That was a pretty awesome coincidence because it allowed the team to trot out its very best lineup day after day for close to two weeks. It was a very nice early season routine.
Since that stretch of nine straight games with right-handed opposing starter, the Yankees have seen six left-handed starters in their last ten games. They’re scheduled to see two more lefties during the upcoming four-game series against the Blue Jays, then after that they will see the Astros (one lefty starter in the rotation), the Athletics (two lefties), and Rockies (two lefties). Those nine straight games against a righty was an anomaly, the product of some fortunate roster building (by the other teams) and scheduling. The Yankees don’t hit southpaws at all and they’re going to start seeing them a lot more regularly in the coming weeks.
Early Overachievers Coming Back To Earth
The Yankees have one of, if not the best pro scouting department in baseball. They constantly unearth productive players from the scrap heap, particularly when it comes to veteran retreads. This year they’ve struck gold with Hafner (192 wRC+) and especially Vernon Wells (156 wRC+), the latter of whom has resurrected his career after two amazingly awful seasons with the Angels. His production so far is like, 95th percentile stuff. He’s exceed expectations that much.
As great as two have been, it’s unreasonable to expect them to hit like that in the long-term. You could count the number of true-talent 150+ wRC+ guys in the league on one hand, and those two don’t belong to that club. That isn’t to say they’ll hit Quad-A players going forward, but there will be some performance decline. It’s inevitable. Frankie Cervelli (129 wRC+) belongs in that mix as well, though I don’t think Kevin Youkilis (119 wRC+) is playing way over his head. It’s tough to count on Hafner, Wells, and Cervelli continuing what they’ve done during the first 20 team games.
The Underachievers Aren’t All that Great
Regression to the mean works two ways — while guys like the three I just mentioned cool off and return to Earth, the guys who are underperforming will heat up to replace some of that lost production. The only problem is that the guys who are underachieving so far just aren’t all that good to begin win.
Ichiro Suzuki (49 wRC+) was a sub-90 wRC+ guy in his last 1,400 plate appearances or so coming into 2013. Eduardo Nunez (35 wRC+) came into the year with a career 88 wRC+ in parts of three seasons. Jayson Nix (51 wRC+) … Ben Francisco (-25 wRC+) … Lyle Overbay (75 wRC+) … those guys haven’t been productive offensive players for years now. Maybe one or two of them will get super duper hot and replace whatever the Yankees lose from Wells & Co., but we’re not talking about offensive dynamos having a few bad weeks here. They’re poor hitters hitting poorly.
The Calvary Is Coming … But Who Knows What To Expect
If things go according to plan, Curtis Granderson (forearm) will return to the lineup in mid-May, Mark Teixeira (wrist) will return in late-May, Derek Jeter (ankle) will return right after the All-Star break, and Alex Rodriguez (hip) will return shortly after that. Those are four pretty significant bats the team could be welcoming back to the lineup in the coming weeks, but there’s no way of knowing how they will perform once they return.
Wrist injuries are known to both linger and sap power, so Teixeira is very much a question mark. Maybe he’ll be fully healed, maybe he’ll struggle to put together quality swings. A-Rod now has two bad hips and who knows what that means going forward — will he be able to use his lower half in his swing? Jeter’s ankle is a concern because he’s already suffered one significant setback, plus he’s a 38-year-old shortstop who needs to be able to make quick side-to-side movements. Players like Jason Kendall and Stephen Drew have suffered significant ankle breaks in the not-too-distant past and it took both guys weeks before finding balance at the plate and returning to their previous levels of production. It’s great these guys are coming, but we won’t know how much they can contribute until they actually get out on the field and back in the lineup. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have them than not have them, but I don’t think they should be counted on as offense saviors. There are just too many unknowns.
Brett Gardner isn’t a young player anymore. The soon-to-be 30-year-old outfielder has played in parts of six big league seasons now and outside of his injury-sabotaged 2012 campaign, he’s been an everyday player since 2010. The Yankees have given the speedster a number of opportunities to serve as their regular leadoff hitter, but he either hit his way towards the bottom of the order (2011) or got hurt (2012). Given the team’s expectations and the other players on the roster, he was going to have to rake right away to remain in the leadoff spot and that just didn’t happen.
Things are different this season, however. Derek Jeter‘s ankle injury caused his to miss Opening Day and his setback will keep him on the shelf through the All-Star break. Ichiro Suzuki didn’t hit a lick during the first three weeks of the season, so Joe Girardi really didn’t have another legitimate leadoff option on the roster. Gardner was given the leadoff spot almost by default, and after a slow first week he’s turned things around and proven to be an asset atop the lineup.
“Any time you get off to a slow start, you look to get it going. I felt like I swung the bat pretty well in Detroit, just didn’t have anything to show for it,” said Gardner to Mark Feinsand following the 4-for-5 day against the Indians that helped get him going in the right direction. His overall season line sits at an almost perfectly league average* .250/.322/.400 (99 wRC+) following a torrid .300/.368/.480 hot stretch since the start of that Cleveland series.
For the first time in his career, Gardner finally has a clear path to regular playing time as the team’s leadoff hitter. He’s been solid but there is definitely still some room for improvement, especially since he’s seeing a career-low number of pitches in the strike zone (52.3%) while swinging at a career-high number of pitches out of the zone (25.6%). Swing rates stabilize rather quickly (takes only 50 plate appearances), so this isn’t necessarily a sample size issue. Gardner has to get back to laying off pitches out of the zone like he has in the past. He’s also stolen just one base through 19 games, and that needs to change in a hurry. I know stolen bases are down around the league, but he has to run. It’s what he does.
Gardner is the only player on the Yankees who has played every inning of every game so far this season — Robinson Cano got the final two innings off during one of those blowout wins against the Indians — though earlier this week Girardi seemed to indicate his first day off could be coming soon. It won’t be more than a routine day off though, a “maintenance day” to use a hockey term. Gardner is playing (and hitting!) against both righties and lefties, and he’s finally starting to establish himself as the team’s everyday leadoff hitter after being unable to seize the job in recent years.
* Gardner is hitting .250/.322/.400 and non-pitchers are hitting .252/.320/.403 across MLB. You can’t get much closer than that.
Following a disappointing off-season and a 1-4 start, everyone has to be pleased with the Yankees’ 10-7 record. For the past 12 games they’ve shown plenty of life and have received contributions from newcomers and holdovers alike, even unlikely holdovers like Francisco Cervelli. The team has, in short, been incredibly fun to watch — against right-handed pitching, at least.
Given the roster composition, along with the absences of Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez, we expected the Yankees to struggle against left-handed pitching. But in the early goings it’s been especially painful:
Against RHP: .303/.369/.540 – .908 OPS in 449 PA
Against LHP: .210/.279/.318 – .596 OPS in 221 PA
The only two regulars hitting lefties remotely well are Vernon Wells and Brett Gardner. Two guys expected to contribute against left-handers, Kevin Youkilis and Ben Francisco, have a combined 4 hits in 35 AB, with a Youkilis double as the lone extra base hit. Ichiro — Ichiro! — has out-hit every non-Wells RHB against lefties, and he’s just 4 for 14 with a double. Perhaps most sadly, Robinson Cano is just 4 for 26 with 10 strikeouts against lefties.
The good news is that some of this will likely even out. Youkilis in particular has hit lefties well in the past, a .918 OPS in more than 1,200 career PA. But even if he, Cano, and even Eduardo Nunez improve against left-handed pitching, the Yankees still have issues. In particular, they’re starting Ben Francisco as the designated hitter. Little good has come of this, and little good may come in the future.
For the first few years of his career Francisco was an average hitter, but in the last few he’s taken a nosedive into mediocrity. He’s certainly not as bad as his .111./238/.111 line suggests, but he might not be any better than his .242/.317/.373 line from the past two years. There’s also the issue of his history, which suggests almost no platoon split. In fact, he has hit for similar averages and OBPs against righties and lefties in the past, but with less power against lefties. He’s certainly not someone you think of when searching for a platoon DH.
The question facing the Yankees is, what are the alternatives? They brought Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz into camp as potential threats against left-handed pitching, and they cut both in favor of Francisco. Diaz was scooped up by the Marlins but Rivera remains on the free agent market, but he seems an unlikely target; if the Yankees thought they could perform in the role of platoon DH they would have kept one of them over Francisco.
That leaves slim pickings for an upgrade. Few, if any, teams are willing to make deals at this point. Even the worst teams (non-Houston division) fancy themselves contenders. Even if an eventual non-contender has a right-handed bat that the Yankees could use, a deal remains unlikely for at least a month or two. The good news, if it counts as any, is that any Francisco replacement does not need to actually play a position in the field. Francisco has logged all of three innings in the outfield this year. They just need someone who can swing a bat.
While the pickings are slim, they aren’t nonexistent. Three names stand out as players who could actually help this team against left-handed pitching.
If the Yankees prefer a player who can also stand in the outfield, Almonte might be their man. After a quality season in AA last year, which included 21 homers and 23 doubles in a pitcher-friendly park, he has gotten off to a torrid start in AAA, .275/.424/.412. Impressively, he has walked 14 times to just 9 strikeouts after walking just 25 times with 103 strikeouts last year. It’s still early, so we don’t know if Zoilo has improved his approach or has just had a hot couple of weeks. But he’s a switch hitter who can play defense, meaning he might have some value to the major league club.
When an injury prone player is healthy and producing, the time might be ripe for promotion. Adams has always possessed talent, but ever since an ankle injury in 2010 he hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Although he did accumulate 383 PA last year, he had one day off and one day at DH per week. It kept him healthy, but also kept him off the field for a good deal of time. Still, he produced. And in the early goings this year he’s producing even more, .342/.444/.500 in 45 PA. Might it be time to eke out anything they can get at the major league level? It would be a shame to see them DFA Francisco in a few weeks, only to see Adams also succumb to injury. Might as well call him up now while he’s actually playing.
A strong spring had people wondering if Mustelier could contribute to the big league club, but a bone bruise on his knee in late spring has kept him on the shelf. I haven’t read anything about a potential return date, so for the time being Mustelier is not an option. But when he returns it’s difficult to see him as being a worse option than Francisco. He makes contact and has decent power, and perhaps he won’t be overmatched by MLB pitching. But for now that’s something in the distance.
I wrote a whole paragraph about Casper Wells and his quality numbers against left-handed pitching — which could become even better on a non-Seattle team. Unfortunately, between composition and publication the A’s acquired Wells from the Blue Jays. So there goes that idea. I have to think, given Wells’s superiority over Francisco, that the Yankees would loved to have acquired Wells. He might be the last decent RHB available until June.
Later in the year the Yankees will have more opportunities to improve against left-handed pitching. A Mark Teixeira return will be a start. If Curtis Granderson can show some power against LHP that will help some more. An Alex Rodriguez return is too far into the future, and too uncertain, to consider at this point. The Yanks will have some decent trade chips in July, but for now they’ll have to go with lesser options to fill the void. Almonte or Wells could make a positive impact on a team that is just reeling against left-handed pitching.
Thanks to the offseason losses and Spring Training injuries, it appeared as though the Yankees would be relying on speed to generate offense this year more than they have at any point in the last 15 years or so. Surprisingly great starts from guys like Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis have made the loss of power basically nonexistent — the Yankees have hit an AL-leading 20 homers. The speed game, however, has yet to show up.
The idea of creating runs though speed revolved around two players: Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki. Eduardo Nunez joined the mix once it became apparent Derek Jeter‘s ankle would prevent him from starting the season on time. Gardner’s return from injury and a full season of Ichiro meant the team had two 30+ steal (maybe even two 40+ steal) candidates on the roster, and in the past Nunez has stolen bases at a clip that suggests 30+ is doable for him as long as he got enough playing time. A hundred total steals from those three seemed entirely possible.
Instead, 13 games into the season, the Yankees have stolen three bases as a team. Two of those steals came four innings apart in the same game, when Wells and Chris Stewart (!) took advantage of Ubaldo Jimenez’s slow delivery to take second base with ease. Nunez stole a base in the second game of the season and that’s it, three steals in 13 games. They’ve been caught three times as well (Gardner twice), and those six stolen base attempts are a bottom-five total in baseball. Definitely not what I expected.
The surprising power output means the lack of steals have not hurt the Yankees, but it is an area where they should be getting more production than they have. I don’t think any of us seriously thought Gardner would still be sitting on zero stolen bases 13 games into the season, especially since he’s been hitting reasonably well — .256/.333/.426 (110 wRC+). Ichiro has been awful, so I guess his excuse is that he simply hasn’t been on-base enough to use his legs. We’ll see how long that continues.
Moreso than maybe any other non-base hit offensive event, stolen bases tend to come in bunches. If the Yankees run into a particularly poor-throwing catcher at some point soon, Gardner would wind up stealing like six bases in a three-game series. It’s inevitable that he and Nunez and even Ichiro will get going on the base paths at some point, but I didn’t think we’d be sitting here halfway through April will just six stolen base attempts to the team’s credit. It’s not a huge problem or anything, but at some point these guys need to create some havoc with their legs to supplement the homers. It’s a big part of the reason why they are on the roster in the first place.
The only way to start a post like this is with a standard “it’s incredibly early in the season” disclaimer. Two games tell us so very little in the grand scheme of things — we would barely pay any attention to a pair of back-to-back losses in June or July — but because they happened at the start of the year it’s very easy to look too deep into things. We’re baseball starved and we want to see things that aren’t there. It’s only natural.
That said, the Yankees have had a problem on offense in their first two games. We knew the lineup wouldn’t be as potent as it has been in the past coming into the year, and nothing that’s happened the last three days makes me think otherwise. Robinson Cano has one single in eight plate appearances but that will change, he’s driven a number of balls to the outfield that were reeled in by nice defensive plays. Both Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis have shown promising signs and Travis Hafner has a hit in each game, so let’s cross our fingers and hope he stays healthy.
The lineup spots that have really killed the Yankees in these last two games are the 9-1-2 spots, the third of the lineup before Cano and the rest of the middle of the order bats. Here’s what that threesome of hitters has done in the first two games…
- Monday: 2-for-11, 2 BB, 1 K
- Wednesday: 0-for-12, 1 BB, 3 K
- Total: 2-for-23 (.087), 3 BB (.192 OBP), 4 K
Yeah, that’s not going to cut it. I guess the good news is that those three lineup spots have worked the count well — 109 pitches in 26 plate appearances, or 4.2 P/PA — but that’s a small consolation prize. I mean, I generally consider it a win when bad hitters see a bunch of pitches and work an at-bat, but that was back in the days when the Yankees had a deep lineup and one black hole wasn’t a problem. These days they need some actual production, and a sub-.200 (!) OBP from the three guys hitting in front of Cano won’t cut it over any length of games.
Thankfully, this is just two games. Brett Gardner won’t have many 0-for-5s like he did yesterday and Eduardo Nunez is unlikely to go 0-for-4 with three strikeouts from the two-hole like he did on Monday very often. The schedule suggests the Yankees will see a ton of right-handed starters over the next two weeks or so, meaning Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki will have an opportunity to settle in and have the platoon advantage for the while. Hopefully that happens. It’s not a guarantee but history suggests it will.
The Bombers had an awful lot of trouble scoring runs these last two games (at least until Wells hit that garbage time three-run homer last night) and that woeful production from the 9-1-2 hitters is a big reason why. If Cano and Youkilis aren’t getting any opportunities to drive in runs, the Yankees won’t score. This isn’t a team that can generate offense from the 7-8-9 spots anymore. Hopefully Gardner & Co. get this stuff straightened out and soon, the Yankees will have a real hard time pushing runs across if they don’t.
It was obvious Mark Teixeira‘s importance to the Yankees increased as soon as they made it clear they were willfully downgrading their offense. New York signed Teixeira to that fat eight-year contract — fourth largest contract in baseball history when it was signed — assuming he would anchor the middle of their lineup for years to come, but he simply hasn’t lived up to those expectations. Teixeira was great in 2009 but has faded in recent years.
Despite that fade, Teixeira has never actually been bad with the Yankees. Last year was his worst in the Bronx but he was still a comfortably above-average hitter, producing a .251/.332/.475 (116 wRC+) line with 24 homers in 123 games. That last number was the problem though, the games played. Outside of a quad-related DL trip back in 2007, Teixeira had been a lock for 150+ games played from 2005-2011. Last summer he missed a few days with a wrist issue and more than a month with a calf strain. Let’s not forget the early-season cough as well, which didn’t keep him on the sidelines in the traditional sense but surely impacted his production. If we go back to 2010, there was the broken toe in September and the hamstring strain that ended his season in Game Four of the ALCS.
Thanks to Curtis Granderson‘s injury, Teixeira’s importance to the Yankees has increased even more. They were able to withstand his declining production the last three years before their lineup (and bench) was deeper and better able to compensate. That’s not the case anymore. Derek Jeter is coming off his ankle surgery and both Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner are injury risks, meaning the lineup is even further at risk of losing its more productive players. The Yankees not only need Teixeira to stay on the field for 150+ games in 2013, but they also need him to halt his decline and improve on his offensive performance. Maybe being healthy instead of battling through a cough and a wrist problem and a calf strain will help him do that.
“Stay healthy and have fun. That’s my number one goal because I know if I stay healthy the numbers are going to be there,” said
Captain Obvious Teixeira to Mark Feinsand earlier in camp. “I’m going to help my team win. Have fun, because it’s a long season, there’s a lot of ups and downs and I’ve spent my entire career just trying to stay consistent. I know there are going to be low points, I know there are going to be high points. If I can have fun during both of those then I’ll be able to have a great season overall.”
Teixeira isn’t old, he’ll turn 33 about two weeks into the season. He plays a less-demanding/non-premium position and isn’t at an age where he’s at serious risk of falling off a cliff. His numbers — specifically his batting average and by extension, his on-base percentage — have declined because he’s gotten more pull/fly ball happy, and that’s not the best combination for maximizing offensive value. It’s been three years since Teixeira was the all-fields monster he was earlier in his career, so it’s time to stop expecting that guy to come back. Getting 150+ games of better than league average production, especially in the power department, out of Teixeira is the most important thing in 2013. If he continues to battle injury and/or sees his performance slip further, the Yankees will have a very hard time compensating.
It took all of ten Spring Training innings for the Yankees to suffer the inevitable injury that exposed their … well … vulnerability to injury. Because the baseball gods have a twisted sense of humor, it wasn’t one of the team’s older or injury prone players who got hurt. It was the young-ish and generally durable Curtis Granderson, who will miss the next ten weeks thanks to an errant J.A. Happ pitch and a fractured right forearm. Assuming everything heals well, he’ll return to the team in early-May.
The injury takes a huge bite out of New York’s lineup, obviously. Granderson is one of the game’s premier power hitters and that just can’t be replaced. Joe Girardi will have to get a little more creative in an effort to generate runs, which is something I’m sure he’ll enjoy. The speed of Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner will be that much more important, ditto the continued health of Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis. Those two have combined for nine (!) DL trips in the last three seasons, but the Yankees have no choice but to keep their fingers crossed and hope they stay on the field through April.
Despite the initial shock of Granderson’s injury, the Yankees do have time on their side. Opening Day is still more than a month away and the club does have some internal options to audition in camp. None of them are particularly appealing to me outside of multi-threat/contact-challenged Melky Mesa, but they might as well give the Zoilo Almontes and Ronnie Musteliers and the like a chance. It’s not like other clubs are going to start offering up their spare outfielders out of the kindness of their heart, quite the opposite will happen. Trade prices have suddenly skyrocketed and now isn’t the time for desperation.
Brian Cashman has been on the job a long time, so he’s been here before. The Yankees lost Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield to significant injuries in the span of about two weeks back in May 2006, but it wasn’t until the trade deadline that Cashman acquired Bobby Abreu. Melky Cabrera got his chance and took advantage (.360 OBP and 98 wRC+), which is what the Yankees could use now. Outside of Mesa or Almonte running into some fastballs and having a Shane Spencer-esque month, they’re not going to be able to replace Granderson with a power hitter. Someone who can get on-base at a decent clip and not embarrass himself defensively is typical stopgap stuff. Cashman has always been patient in these situations and wouldn’t expect anything different now.
The Yankees have a pretty small margin of error this season, so the impact of Granderson’s injury is more dramatic than it would have been a year or two ago. The Bombers got worse this offseason while other clubs in the division improved, meaning the AL East might be a four-team race instead of the usual two or three. If Jeter’s ankle takes longer to heal than expected, or Ichiro turns back in to the pumpkin he was from 2011 through the 2012 trade deadline, or one of Hafner or Youkilis gets hurt, the Yankees are going to have a very serious problem on their hands. Then again, so would most teams who lost multiple regulars. New York is more vulnerable because of their age and division though, a problem that has been exposed before the calendar even flipped to March.
There’s no question the Yankees downgraded their offense this winter, specifically in right field and behind the plate. They did upgrade the left-handed half of the DH platoon though, at least in theory. Raul Ibanez‘s super-clutch late-season homers made it easy to forget he hit .202/.281/.359 for nearly 300 plate appearances (292, to be exact) from mid-May through mid-September and was in danger of being left off the postseason roster. We all love Raul, but he had to be replaced.
The replacement the Bombers brought in is long-time Indian Travis Hafner, who signed a one-year deal worth $2M guaranteed earlier this month. Joe Girardi confirmed last week that Hafner will be the team’s primary DH against right-handers and nothing else — “He’s a DH … that’s the plan,” said the skipper flatly — a role for which he is well-suited. The 35-year-old hit .241/.361/.437 (123 wRC+) against righties last season and .278/.385/.470 (136 wRC+) over the last three years, but he’s not completely useless against southpaws either (92 wRC+ since 2010). A lefty specialist in the late innings shouldn’t result in an automatic out like it did with Ibanez.
Brian Cashman used the term “big, hairy monster” this offseason to describe the type of hitters he prefers, and Hafner pretty clearly fits the mold. For one, he’s a pretty big dude — the team’s official site lists him at 6-foot-3 and 240 lbs. — with broad shoulders and scary-looking biceps and forearms. Two, his menacing batting stance …
… looks like something that would say “I’m going to hurt this baseball and kick your dog” to the pitcher if it could talk. It’s mean.
Third, he hits the ball a frickin’ mile. Hafner’s homers have averaged 398.5-ft since 2010 according to Hit Tracker, which is a huge number. Mark Teixeira, who I think we can all agree has big time power and is capable of hitting majestic blasts, has averaged 390.5-ft with his dingers over the last three years. Hafner will get some help from the short porch, but he has a knack for making most parks look small to start with.
Anyway, Hafner is important to the Yankees because he adds some much needed depth to the lineup. He fits in perfectly behind the middle-of-the-order trio of Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Teixeira, and in fact the best lineup might have Granderson hitting second and Hafner hitting fifth. That’s a conversation for another time though. The important thing is that Hafner’s on-base ability will help mitigate the loss of Nick Swisher without sacrificing any power production.
Of course, the problem here is that Hafner gets hurt. Like, all the time. He’s visited the DL at least twice in each of the last two seasons and at least once in each of the last five. The ailments range from shoulder surgery (2008) to an oblique strain (2011) to knee surgery (2012) to a bulging disc in his back (2012). Despite his defensive and on-base shortcomings, Ibanez always managed to stay on the field (one DL trip since 2004). That’s why I said the Yankees upgraded the DH spot in theory before, it’s only an upgrade if Hafner avoids the DL.
The Yankees have used a different primary DH in each of the last four seasons, so Hafner will make it five in five years in 2013. He should, at least on a rate base, but the team’s most productive DH since Hideki Matsui in 2009, but that’s only if he stays healthy. Remember, a player doesn’t have to be on the DL for an injury to be a problem either, playing hurt could be more harmful that just sitting out. I’m looking forward to watching Hafner mash some taters this summer, and the Yankees better hope he’s out there more often than not.
The Yankees lost quite a bit of power this offseason thanks to Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, and Eric Chavez signing elsewhere as free agents. If they’re lucky, Ichiro Suzuki and the catching tandem will combine to replace the 16 homers Chavez hit by himself last season, nevermind the 45 they’re losing in Swisher and Martin. That power is gone, there is no more offseason left to replace it, so the Yankees are going to have to score runs in other ways this summer.
“Well, I anticipate (the offense is) going to be different, because we don’t quite have the homerun hitters we’ve had in the past,” said Joe Girardi last week. “So we’re going to have to find different ways to score runs. I think when you look at our club this year, there’s more speed. You have one outfielder who has the potential of stealing 50-60 bases if he stays healthy the whole year. So I think our offense is going to be different, but I believe that we’re going to score runs. It’s just going to be in a different fashion than it has been in the past.”
As Girardi mentioned, speed on the bases is going to more important this summer. Brett Gardner is returning from his elbow injury and he’s averaged 43 steals per 150 games played throughout his big league career. Ichiro has stolen no fewer than 26 bases in any of his 12 big league seasons and Curtis Granderson has a handful of 20+ steal seasons to his credit. He only stolen ten bases (in 13 attempts) last year for whatever reason, but hopefully he runs a little more in his contract year. Given his ankle injury, I wouldn’t count on Derek Jeter to steal any bases. I’m sure he’ll grab a few, but they’re a bonus. Eduardo Nunez might swipe a few off the bench as well.
MLB and the player’s union eliminated the fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff move this winter, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter told Jon Morosi that he expects stolen base totals to jump as a result. “The things (that move) keeps from happening were huge … It shuts down the first and third. A right-handed pitcher had to have that move. Otherwise, you’re giving up 90-feet all the time,” said Showalter. The timing works out well for the Yankees, but they’ll still need to actually take advantage of the rule change. That’s easier said than done, but I think a brilliant player like Ichiro will figure it out. Gardner … who knows.
Speed goes beyond stealing bases as well. Going first-to-third on a single, advancing on a wild pitch, all that stuff incrementally improves a team’s chances of scoring. Gardner, Granderson, Ichiro, and Nunez are the obvious candidates to pull that off, Jeter as well when healthy. Otherwise though, the lineup will be full of … wait for it … basecloggers like Mark Teixeira, Travis Hafner, and Kevin Youkilis. Those three are going to have to pick their spots, but the other guys can and will have to push the envelope more than usual this summer.
All this speed stuff sounds great in theory, but the Yankees aren’t in the best division for carefree base-running. Jose Molina and Matt Wieters are both elite when it comes to shutting down the stolen base game, and outfielders like Jose Bautista, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Melky Cabrera all offer cannon arms that limit first-to-thirds, second-to-homes, and other base-running exploits. Shane Victorino on the other hand … don’t worry about him (part two!). It’s going to be very important for the Yankees — particularly first base coach Mick Kelleher and third base coach Robbie Thomson — to know the scouting reports this year. The margin of error is smaller thanks to the power decline.
Back in November, my pal Jackie Moore noted that stolen bases are more valuable right now than they have been in the past because of the overall offensive decline in the game. The Yankees have two premium base-stealing threats in Ichiro and Gardner (assuming he actually says healthy) and a nice secondary threat in Granderson. Nunez and Jeter are wildcards. It takes an awful lot of heady running to accumulate meaningful overall value on the bases — only one player (Mike Trout) was worth more than eight runs on the bases last year — but in real life, in actual game context, a stolen base or a first-to-third in the late innings of a close game is incredibly valuable. The Yankees will need to do more of that this year than they have at any point in the last 20 years or so.