Archive for Offense
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.
* * *
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.
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.