2011 Season Preview: Jorge Posada

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

As I mentioned two weeks ago, the Yankees will start the season with someone not named Jorge Posada behind the plate on Opening Day for the first time since 1999. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the lineup at all, he’ll just be there at a new position. The Yankees finally went ahead and made Posada their full-time designated hitter for the 2011 season, a move that’s been expected for a few years now.

Nagging injuries hampered Jorge throughout the 2010 season, though they were pretty much all fluky. A hit-by-pitch on the knee cost him a total of six days, a sprained ring finger suffered on a foul pitch cost him a day, and a fractured foot suffered on a foul ball cost him nearly three weeks. In between the injuries, Posada was his usual productive self. Yes, his batting average slipped to just .248, his lowest since 1999, but he still got on base 35.7% of the time and cleared a .200 ISO (.206) for the second straight year, fourth time in five years, and seventh time in the last nine years. Eighteen homers and production from both sides of the plate (.353 wOBA vs. RHP, .361 vs. LHP) is what he gave the team, and that’s pretty much all they ask of the guy.

Now 39, Posada is in the final year of his contract and what could very well be the final year of a career that will garner Hall of Fame consideration. He’ll be playing a new position  but will still be counted on for quality at-bats and production behind the heart of the order.

Best Case

Free from the rigors of catching, the best case scenario has Posada staying healthy enough to rack up 500+ plate appearances for the first time since 2007, when he was a 6.4 fWAR player. All that time at DH should help keep him fresh through all six months of the season, which would theoretically help his production. There’s certainly some merit to this, as Posada’s wOBA has traditionally peaked right around .400 in April and May before slowly slipping down to .370-ish in July, August and September since becoming a full-time catcher.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As an old player with old player skills and a surprisingly consistent career, why know exactly what Posada is capable of doing. We’ve seen him get on-base 40% of the time before. We’ve seen him club 20+ homers and slug north of .450. Expecting the .338/.426/.543 (.417 wOBA) monster from 2007 to return would be nothing short of foolish, but Jorge was a .285/.363/.522 (.378 wOBA) hitter as recently as 2009, and that approximates his best case offensive scenario. It’s better than his .275/.377/.479 (.369 wOBA) career average, and would qualify as Jorge’s third best offensive season since 2005.

The defensive upgrade behind the plate may end up being considerable, and the impact on the pitching staff could be as well. Yankees pitchers have traditionally performed worse with Posada behind the plate, but we just don’t have enough evidence to know how much of that is on that catcher. He’s not the guy throwing the pitch, after all. Either way, getting Jorge out of the catcher’s spot improves his offense and the team’s defense, a win-win. A designated hitter with a wOBA approaching .380 is better than a three-win player, a level of production Posada has cleared just once in the last three seasons.

Worst Case

Avoiding the abuse of the catching vocation is great, but adjusting to life as a designated hitter is easier said than done. Posada’s a career .223/.336/.358 hitter as a DH, which is not what any team wants from that position. He’s also well into his decline phase, and he could slip off the edge of the cliff at any moment. There’s not much to say about the worst case scenario for Posada; it has him clogging up the designated hitter spot with below-average offensive production, a .330 wOBA or worse. Jorge’s job is very simple. If he doesn’t hit, he’s hurting the team.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

Catchers usually turn into pumpkins around age 33 or 34, but Posada has managed to defy age for half-a-decade now. American League DH’s (taking out NL during interleague play) hit .252/.332/.426 last season, so simply repeating last year’s effort will give the Yankees an above-average player at that spot. Any improvement would be gravy, though at his age I’m not expecting any. A .350 wOBA would be better than what the Yankees got out of that spot in three of the last four years (2009 being the lone exception), so Posada’s break-even point isn’t exactly sky high as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t worry so much about his career production as a DH because we’re talking about just 351 plate appearances spread across a 14-year career. That represents less than 5.2% of his career plate appearances, and in fact, Jorge’s started more than ten games at DH in a single season just twice. Those 351 plate appearances hold very little predictive value.

Posada’s career is winding down, but the Yankees’ offense is in as good of a position to absorb his total collapse as ever. I don’t him to fall apart this year, but it’s a very real possibility. It wouldn’t sink the team, but it would certainly be sad to see such a great player crawl to the finish.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 7th, 2011

Record Last Week: 2-4-1 (30 RS, 37 RA)
Spring Training Record: 3-5-1 (31 RS, 45 RA)
Schedule This Week: vs. Phillies (Mon. on YES, split squad), @ Orioles (Mon., split squad), @ Braves (Tues. on  YES/MLBN), vs. Pirates (Weds.), @ Phillies (Thurs.), vs. Braves (Fri. on YES/MLBN, split squad), @ Blue Jays (Fri., split squad), @ Nationals (Sat. on MLBN), vs. Twins (Sun. on YES)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Checking in on Kevin Slowey

While most of the attention has been paid to Francisco Liriano, it turns out another Twins starter might be on the trading block. In yesterday’s (Insider only) column, Buster Olney says that the Twinkies are “very much willing to talk” about dealing right-hander Kevin Slowey. Minnesota has excess starting pitching (if such a thing exists) and the Yankees are in need of some, so it’s a match made in baseball rumor heaven. Let’s explore…

Changeup! (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Slowey, 27 in May, is the epitome of a homegrown Twins pitcher. In parts of four big league seasons since being drafted in the second round of the 2005 draft, he’s unintentionally walked just 77 batters in 473.1 IP, good for a 1.46 uIBB/9. Add in all two of the intentional walks he’s issued, and it’s still a 1.50 BB/9. Among pitchers with at least 400 IP since 2007, only Roy Halladay (1.42 BB/9) is a better control artist. That’s what Minnesota preaches, pound the zone and limit walks.

If a pitcher is around the zone that much, he’s bound to give up a fair amount of hits, and Slowey is no different. Opponents have hit .276 with a .307 BABIP against him in his career, and his strikeout rate is pretty unspectacular at 6.86 K/9. Slowey’s swing-and-miss rate is consistently below average and declining, from 8.7% in 2008 to 7.7% in 2009 to 6.2% in 2010. He doesn’t make up for the lack of strikeouts with ground balls either, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Slowey’s career ground ball rate is just 31.6%, the lowest of any pitcher in the game since he debuted. Worst of all, his ability to get grounders is trending in the wrong direction…

Green is grounders, blue is fly balls, red is line drives.

That’s a bit of a problem. A mediocre strikeout rate and basically no ground balls is a recipe for disaster in Yankee Stadium, though at least Slowey mitigates the damage somewhat by limiting walks. Left-handed batters have also given him trouble (.354 wOBA against), though he doesn’t exactly shut down righties either (.330 wOBA against). On the contract front, Slowey was arbitration-eligible for the first time heading in the 2011 season, during which he’ll earn $2.7M. Slowey is also be under team control in 2012 and 2013, a nice little perk.

While he may not have the sexy peripheral stats that Liriano does, Slowey does offer the same questionable health track record. He’s been on the disabled list in each of the last three years, each time with an arm issue. Last year it was a triceps strain (15 days missed), the year before it was surgery to remove bone chips from his wrist (101 days missed), and the year before that it was a biceps strain (34 days missed). Slowey’s also missed a total of 38 days with a sore elbow, an ankle contusion, a tight oblique, a wrist contusion, and an infected hangnail over the last three years, though none required a DL stint. Clearly, the guy is a risky proposition.

As much as I love the low walk rate, it’s basically Slowey’s only redeeming quality. I loathe the whole “pitch to contact” approach, especially when we’re talking about an extreme fly ball pitcher. If the guy is a ground ball machine like say, Sergio Mitre, then I can deal. But fly balls? No way, that’s asking for trouble. Add in the injury history, and there’s enough red flags here for me to say the Yankees should steer clear of Slowey. I’d rather see them roll the Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia dice than give away a prospect(s) for the Twins’ right-hander.

Open Thread: March 6th Camp Notes

Awesome. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

News of the day…

Here’s your open thread for the night. The Knicks are the only local team playing a meaningful game, but SNY is showing a replay to today’s Mets-Red Sox game while MLB Network will carry a replay of the Angels-Diamondbacks game. You all know what to do, so fire away.

Major League ManBan?

I wonder if Manny Banuelos will be in pinstripes before a September call-up.

Also winner of the 'Best Photo Day Picture' contest without question. (Getty Images/Al Bello)

Calm down, I’m not saying it’s a good idea. But I also don’t think it’s impossible. Let’s review what we know and see how likely it is.

First: he’s rocked Spring Training with five strikeouts (including Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Inge looking) and a walk in 3 IP. He went from scraping prospect lists (in 2010, he was 96 on Keith Law’s and didn’t show up on Baseball America) to being in the top 20. Michael Kay and John Sterling are singing his praises in between being in awe of Ryan Pope’s college (Savannah College of Art and Design) and confusing Brandon Laird with his brother, Gerald. Keith Law thinks he could pitch in the majors now. Frankie Piliere loves his three plus pitches. He’ll be only 20 next week. Life is good.

We also know he’s not going to break camp in the Bronx. He’s been penned to start with the Trenton Thunder, which is exactly where he belongs. He has a whopping 15 IP above A-ball and last year threw only 65 IP due to an appendectomy in the beginning of the season. It was an impressive 65 IP with a 2.58 ERA and an 11.8 k/9, but a small sample nonetheless. Though we’ve yet to see how well he can perform over a full season facing batters above A-level, it’s obvious that Banuelos has something going. The peripherals are there.

Make no mistake, it’s not a good idea to have ManBan pitching August games in the Bronx. If Banuelos is putting on pinstripes, the fifth starter problem hasn’t been solved. Someone is probably injured. The AAA kids aren’t doing well enough to get the call themselves. If Banuelos blows through a few months of AA, puts on his Scranton Yankee outfit and absolutely dominates, I think he’s just as likely to be promoted. Is there a chance that he is chosen to pick up that fifth starter spot over some of the older kids? I think so, especially if the numbers are there. If Warren, Noesi and Phelps are struggling (or simply not as good), it doesn’t seem sensible to use them over a surging Banuelos.

It’s also not unfeasible to bring Banuelos up straight from AA, which is the more likely possibility than a short stint in Scranton. Taking a pitcher straight from AA and plopping him into a major league rotation might seem like a big jump, but it’s been done before with plenty of success: CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Beckett, and Cole Hamels all never sniffed AAA before they played with a big club. Rick Porcello played only one year in High A before the Tigers stuck him in their rotation to post a 3.96 ERA the next year. Interestingly enough, Mark Prior threw only 90 innings of minor league ball (though this included seven AAA games) before he was called up by none other than Larry Rothschild.

If Banuelos comes up for an extended period of time – perhaps filling in for a June injury and a Mitre failure to perform – the Yankees would have to put him on a pretty strict innings limit. The most innings Banuelos has ever thrown was 109 back in 2009. We know enough about Joba’s rules that I don’t have to get into it, and Hughes was skipped several times in 2010 but still threw almost 80 more innings than his previous year. We all watched Hughes’ second half taper off as he climbed over that limit, and the last thing we want is to watch Banuelos have several brilliant starts and hit a wall. If all of ManBan’s starts go six innings, that’s just about eleven starts before he’s pitching over his 2010 IP. Hopefully, he’s not needed for that long.

While I don’t think it’s the best idea to put Banuelos in pinstripes this year, I can certainly see it happening. It wouldn’t be too bad, either, as long as the Yankees are careful with his innings and don’t throw him to the wolves the way the Tigers did to Jeremy Bonderman the year they lost 119 games. I think we’re safe from a losing season of that caliber, but the fact is that Banuelos’ arm seems pretty damn nice and it shouldn’t be thrown about willy-nilly. From what it’s worth, I think the Yankees can figure out how to turn him from prospect to number-one starter and I am personally super excited to see him in the rotation. While I don’t think he’s definitely going to show up this year, I wouldn’t put it past the Yankees to bypass Warren or Noesi and see what Banuelos can do.

Link Dump: K-Long, Banuelos, NY-Penn League

Some spare links for a rainy Sunday in the Tri-State Area…

Q&A with Kevin Long

Hitting coach Kevin Long gets a lot of rave reviews around these parts, in part because of his work with guys like Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, and more recently Derek Jeter. Marc Carig sat down for a chat with Long, who spoke about how and why he decided to get into coaching, the toughest part of his job, his book, and whether or not he wants to someday manage a team. Check it out, it’s a great read.

Banuelos vs. Perez

Manny Banuelos has been the talk of spring so far and why not? He’s been extremely impressive in a pair of two-inning outings despite being a 19-year-old in big league camp, but this isn’t anything new. At this time last year, Rangers’ lefty pitching prospect Martin Perez was doing the same thing, but he went from a 2.71 FIP in Single-A (with a brief, late season call-up to Double-A) in 2009 to a 4.24 FIP in Double-A in 2010, seeing his prospect stock take a hit. John Sickels compared the two, concluding that they are “different but even.” Banuelos has the higher floor and the edge in intangibles and performance, but Perez offers more projection and upside.

Penn League Report

Just wanted to take a second and point you in the direction of a new site called Penn League Report, which will be providing news, updates, and more from the short season NY-Penn League, which houses the Staten Island Yankees. It’s run by Dave Gershman of Beyond The Box Score fame, and you can follow along on Twitter at @NYPL_Report. Today he offered up a brief scouting report on Yankees farmhand Tommy Kahnle. We need more information about the lowest levels of the minor leagues, so this is a welcome addition to the blogosphere. Add to your bookmarks, RSS feeds, etcetera, etcetera.

2011 AL East Busts: part 2 of 2

New York Yankees: Robinson Cano

2010 wOBA of .389. 2011 projected wOBA of .360

Laziest superstar EVER. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Despite the absence of both Larry Bowa and Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano had a career year in 2010. His game took a huge step forward in terms of power and on-base skills. His walk rate inched up close to 10%, and he increased his ISO to .214, the latter being good enough for second-best for all second baseman. As Mike noted in Robbie’s 2011 season preview, he was the team’s best player by all methods of evaluation.

In 2011 PECOTA sees Cano taking a step back from his lofty levels of production, projecting a batting line of .299/.347/.488, a .360 wOBA. This would be worse than Cano’s 2010 or 2009, and resembles closely his 2007 season when he put together a .358 wOBA on .306/.353/.488 hitting. The problem with this is that this seems to be largely out of line with what most people expect from Cano this season. It’s possible that this reflects a bit of optimism about Cano’s natural progression, but some of the arguments are quite persuasive. Mike for one noted Cano’s constancy in terms of production:

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

On Friday, Mike Jaggers-Radolf at Yankee Analysts took a similar tack towards Cano’s conservative Marcel projection (.354 wOBA with a .300/.347/.476 line)

[The] numbers don’t point to any particular abberation that would wipe away the progress he’s made in 2009 and then again in 2010. His BABIP in those seasons, for example, was right in line with his career norms. While his OBP suggests improved discipline, his discipline numbers don’t demonstrate any heavy outliers. He didn’t, for example, double his career walk rate in 2010. Most of his numbers were more gradual improvements, the kind of improvements one would hope a smart ball player would make as his career advances. In light of all this, Marcel’s 2011 projection seems too conservative.

In a lot of ways, having this discussion about whether a .360 wOBA is too conservative for a second baseman is a testament to how talented Cano is and how lucky the Yankees are to employ his services. A .360 wOBA in 2010 would have ranked 5th best in 2010, 3rd in 2009 and 7th in 2008, and it also projects as the second-highest wOBA of any 2B in 2011, ahead of Pedroia, Uggla and Kinsler and behind only Chase Utley. This is a long way of saying that like Mike Jaggers-Radolf and Mike Axisa, I’m optimistic that Cano can outperform these relatively meager expectations and wouldn’t be surprised to see a more bullish projection next year once the systems have another full season of data. I’m not a gambling man, but I would love to plunk down twenty bucks on Cano beating a .360 wOBA.

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista

2010 wOBA of .422; projected 2011 wOBA of .365

One of the terms of Bautista's new contract is that he can wear his glove like that whenever he wants and no one can say boo about it. (AP Image)

It is entirely reasonable to wonder whether Jose Bautista’s 2010 season will be viewed with the same credulous sense of “he hit how many home runs?” as Brady Anderson’s 1996 season is viewed now. Prior to hitting 50 home runs for the Orioles, Anderson was a career .250/.349/.393 hitter with an OPS+ of only 101. In 1996 he hit .297/.396/.637, and never came close to touching that level of production the rest of his career. Bautista’s power profile was even worse than Anderson prior to last year. He was a career .238/.329/.400 hitter with an OPS+ of only 91. Last year, though, he clubbed 54 home runs en route to an insane line of .260/.378/.617.

Many have noted, though, that Bautista’s 2010 performance might not be such a fluke. Joe Pawlikowski was one of them over at Fangraphs, arguing that it’s at least possible that Bautista’s famed swing change could lead to sustained success. PECOTA seems to take the easy way out and simply splits the difference. A wOBA of .365 would be well north of anything Bautista had done prior to 2010, but it’s also a substantial drop from his .422 mark last year. In a way, PECOTA’s projection probably mirrors what most analysts would forecast if given the chance. No one would be eager to label the entire season a fluke and predict him to return to his .750 OPS days, just as no one actually predict him to slug over .600 again.

It’s appropriate to end with this analysis by BP’s Ben Lindbergh, an analysis that really encapsulates all the moving parts when dealing with projecting difficult cases. The emphasis is mine.

In some cases, players get lucky. In others, they simply cease to be unlucky, and in still others, their true talent level takes an unanticipated step forward. Once those seemingly anomalous seasons take place, PECOTA incorporates them into its projections for the following year and revises its estimates upward, but rarely anticipates a repeat performance, barring a favorable spot on the aging curve.

That doesn’t stop us from identifying players whom PECOTA might like more than the prevailing opinion, but where does it leave us with a few of this year’s trickiest test cases? Take Javier Vazquez (please). As someone whose ERA has routinely failed to match his peripherals (or more accurately, the peripherals we generally expect to predict ERA), Vazquez has come with plenty of baggage even at the best of times. Nonetheless, after Vazquez bought another ticket out of New York with an abysmal performance last season, PECOTA foresees a rebound to a sub-4.00 ERA and a healthy strikeout rate in Florida. Meanwhile, 2010 super-slugger Jose Bautista is projected to shed nearly half of his homers (which would still leave him with his second-best season to date).

In the case of each player, we can do more than simply throw up our hands and attribute last year’s surprising performance to divine dice rolls. Vazquez experienced a sizeable velocity drop (whose effects can be quantified); Bautista made well-publicized changes to his stance and swing. PECOTA doesn’t know those things, but you and I do, even though we might not know their precise significance. Given the increasing granularity of baseball data capture, perhaps the passage of time and future additions to PECOTA’s code will make it possible to adjust the forecasts not only according to what numbers were produced, but to a greater degree, how they were produced. For now, feel free to indulge your inner PECOTAs, but remember to forecast responsibly.

Tampa Bay Rays: John Jaso – 2010 wOBA of .341; projected 2011 wOBA of .319.

Jaso with GM Andrew Friedman, who is no doubt pointing out some new market inefficiency he discovered over breakfast. (AP Images)

John Jaso may have a very limited major league track record, but it’s still a bit odd to see such a projected drop-off from PECOTA. Jaso placed 5th in Rookie of the Year voting this offseason after logging over 400 plate appearances for the Rays as their catcher (so long, Dioner). His increase in playing time was partly the result of him doing one thing very, very well: take walks. In 2010 John Jaso was to taking walks as Kevin Youkilis was to being ugly, and he also shared Youkilis’ disciplined approach at the plate. His walk rate was the second-highest of all catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. The Process Report ’11 noted rather poetically that Jaso’s approach at the plate was based on a very selective eye:

Jaso’s offensive approach is simple too. Jaso will not swing if he determines a pitch is on its way outside of the strike zone. Labeling this an approach is probably being too casual, as Jaso’s pitch selection seems to teeter on the thinnest border between obsession and religion. At times, it seems Jaso follows the scripture of Youkilis, where swinging at a poor pitch is a sin – one punishable by eternal damnation and pitchfork poking.

In 2011 PECOTA projects Jaso’s OPS to drop nearly 50 points with an OBP of .347 and a slugging percentage of .355. This is largely predicated on a slight decrease in walk rate (13.1%) and a fairly low BABIP of .270. Jaso sported a robust OBP throughout his minor league career, so this would surely be a disappointing mark for him in 2011. The Rays have options, though. The Rays always have options. They can use Jaso against righties and have him avoid the tougher left-handed pitchers, and then deploy lefty-murdering Kelly Shoppach against the CC Sabathias and Jon Lesters of the league. They’re also working out Robinson Chirinos at catcher this spring, and his PECOTA projection is very impressive. If for some reason Jaso can’t live up to the standard he set for himself in 2011 the Rays ought to have good flexibility at catcher regardless.