2011 Season Preview: Russell Martin

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 be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

For the first time since 1999, the Yankees will have someone not named Jorge Posada behind the plate on Opening Day. Former Dodger Russell Martin was inked to a one-year, $4M contract in the offseason, pushing Posada to designated hitter and (presumably) Frankie Cervelli to the backup role. The move was made not in hopes that Martin would recapture his 2007 magic (though that would be welcome), but that he would simply solidify the defense behind the plate.

The Yankees assumed risk in this move (just like all them), though perhaps more than usual. Martin is on steady decline offensively, particularly in the power department. He missed the end of the 2010 season after suffering a hairline fracture in his hip when he stepped on home plate awkwardly, though the good news is that he did not damage the labrum. His pre-signing physical revealed a partially torn meniscus that required minor surgery. The Dodgers know Martin better than anyone, and they chose to walk away from an expected salary around $7M in 2011 plus another year of control in 2012 (via arbitration-eligibility) by non-tendering him.

That said, Martin just turned 28 years old, so he’s theoretically in prime baseball playing age. Things could go well, things could go poorly, or it could end up being a mix of the two. Let’s explore…

Best Case

There is no more demanding position in the game than catcher. The physical abuse from squatting behind the plate, foul tips, and miscellaneous bumps and bruises often lead to short peaks, and Martin’s workloads over the last three seasons have been excessive. He started no fewer than 133 games behind the plate every year from 2007 through 2009, and he was on pace to start another 135 in 2010 before the hip injury ended his season in August.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A winter of rest and a manager willing to play his backup catcher twice a week helps rejuvenate Martin’s career, and he gets back on the path that he appeared to be on after 2007. Hitting coach Kevin Long makes some minor tweaks that bring back Martin’s power stroke (.095 ISO over the last three years), along with an assist from Yankee Stadium. Coupled with 11.4% walks (his rate over the last three seasons, removing intentional walks), the 2007 All-Star resurfaces, and Martin gets on base more than 37% of the time and pops close to 20 homers with double-digit steals out of the eighth and ninth spots of the lineup.

With the hip and knee fully healed, Martin’s mobility behind the plate is a non-issue, and he’s blocking A.J. Burnett breaking balls in the dirt and framing Phil Hughes cutters on the corners with aplomb. His 33.9% success rate at throwing out basestealers over the last two years proves to be no fluke, and Martin posts the best throw-out rate by a Yankees starting catcher since before the Posada era. The entire package adds up to a four or five WAR pace and a player in high demand at the trade deadline.

Worst Case

That heavy workload has taken just too much of a toll on Martin’s body. His power is completely gone and Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines are no help despite his tendency to go the other way into right field. The downward trend of his contact skills (6.4% swinging strikes in 2008, 6.8% in 2009, 7.1% in 2010) not only continue, but are exacerbated by battle tested AL East pitching staffs. Without the pitcher hitting behind him, Martin is finding walks harder to come by.

The hip and knee issues sap agility and quickness behind the plate, rendering Martin a slightly better version of Posada when it comes to blocking balls and moving around. Elite burners like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Rajai Davis, and Jacoby Ellsbury expose Martin’s throwing arm, showing that anyone can appear to be good at gunning down base stealers when the biggest speed threats in your division are Chris Young, Tony Gwynn Jr., and Dexter Fowler.

With little defensive value and offense that makes fans pine for Cervelli’s .315 wOBA of a year ago, Martin barely keeps his head above replacement level and ends up in the pile of cast-offs with Kelly Stinnett and Todd Pratt and Chris Widger after the season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s clear that Martin is no longer the budding superstar that he appeared to be in 2007, when he hit .293/.374/.469 (.368 wOBA) with 19 homers and 21 steals while piling up 5.8 fWAR, but the Yankees don’t need him to be. He was brought in to solidify the defense behind the plate and be something more than an automatic out at the bottom of the lineup, rather modest expectations. The knee and hip injuries are a legitimate concern, though Martin has already done catching drills in camp and so far all is well.

Offensively, Martin should benefit from a move into Yankee Stadium. He does a solid job of going the other way towards right field, and about 74.4% of his balls-in-play in that direction are non-grounders (about 55% pure fly balls). He’ll definitely hit a cheapie homer or five this season. The walk rate has consistently been in double-digits throughout his career, peaking over the last three seasons, and it’s not like he’s been facing crappy pitching in the NL West. The intentional walks won’t be there to inflate Martin’s on-base percentage, but anything over .335-ish with solid defense is an upgrade for New York.

Ultimately, Martin is just a role player for the Yankees. He’ll hit in the bottom third of the lineup and be asked to shut down the opponent’s running game first and foremost. It’s a dirt cheap contract and the Yankees have the ability to retain him in 2012 as an arbitration-eligible player, so if Martin proves useful, they’ll have plenty of option with regards to his future. Quality catching is at a premium around the league, so teams will come calling if he’s just decent.

ZiPS projects the starting rotation

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Dan Szymborski released the Yankees edition of his 2011 ZiPS projections this week, and Joe already used some of the data to explore a few potential bounce back performances from key players. Now it’s time to take a look at what the system says about the rotation, since that’s the part of the team with (by far) the most questions. Let’s break the guys down into three categories…

The Locks
CC Sabathia: 33 GS, 230.1 IP, 8.3 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 3.32 ERA, 3.24 FIP
A.J. Burnett: 30 GS, 182 IP, 7.7 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 4.50 ERA, 4.14 FIP
Phil Hughes: 26 GS, 147.2 IP, 8.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 4.08 ERA, 3.84 FIP

Is ZiPS taking into account the Larry Rothschild effect? It has all three guys increasing their strikeout rate by at least half-a-strikeout per nine, more in Burnett’s case. I’m definitely digging the peripherals from Hughes, though 26 starts and 147.2 IP tells you the system sees him getting hurt at some point. Earlier this winter we saw that there’s better than a one-in-three chance that he’ll hit the disabled list at some point in 2011, not terribly surprising after such a huge innings jump from 2009 to 2010 (80.1 IP). As for A.J., that would be his best year as a Yankee. Not in terms of ERA of course (though it would be a 0.76 run improvement over last year), but in terms of FIP. I’d be pretty happy with that season out of him, wouldn’t you?

The Back-End Candidates
Ivan Nova: 28 G, 26 GS, 149.2 IP, 5.3 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 5.29 ERA, 4.94 FIP
Freddy Garcia: 15 G, 15 GS, 82 IP, 5.6 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 4.96 ERA, 4.60 FIP
Sergio Mitre: 25 G, 14 GS, 91.2 IP, 5.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 4.71 ERA, 4.34 FIP
Bartolo Colon: 8 G, 8 GS, 38.1 IP, 4.7 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 5.86 ERA, 5.29 FIP

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Here’s where things kinda get messy. Nova seems to have firm grasp on a rotation spot, but other than a small sample of crappy Colon, ZiPS has him performing the worst of the back-of-the-rotation candidates. With peripherals like that, he’d need a ton, and I mean a ton of ground balls to be even league average. Garcia is nothing more than serviceable, a decent fifth starter for half-a-season until someone better is brought in via trade. Mitre has the best projection of the best, and that really doesn’t surprise me, but we don’t know what the system has him doing as a starter and what it has him doing in relief. He’s younger than Garcia and Colon and more experienced that Nova, so with a little luck his ground ball heavy approach could yield solid results.

This foursome doesn’t inspire much confidence, but you didn’t ZiPS to tell you that. We’ve run through pretty much every pitching scenario this winter, and the more I think about it, the more I see the Yankees starting the year with Garcia and Colon in the rotation, Mitre as the long man in the bullpen, and Nova in Triple-A waiting for the first slip-up. Don’t ask me why, just a hunch.

The Kids
D.J. Mitchell: 26 G, 25 GS, 132 IP, 5.0 K/9, 4.9 BB/9, 5.86 ERA, 5.29 FIP
David Phelps: 23 G, 23 GS, 122.1 IP, 5.2 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 5.15 ERA, 4.67 FIP
Hector Noesi: 22 G, 20 GS, 106 IP, 6.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 5.26 ERA, 4.74 FIP

Phelps with the changeup. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

We can dream about Andrew Brackman or Adam Warren, but these three seem to be the next in line for a rotation spot. All three will start the season with Triple-A Scranton after finishing 2010 there, and Noesi has a leg up on the others because he’s already on the 40-man roster. All three are capable of a lot of innings, but they won’t necessarily be quality innings. Noesi has the best projected strikeout and walk rates of the bunch, but ZiPS also has him giving up the most homers (18) in the fewest innings of the trio.

Regardless, we’re really splitting hairs here. The projections aren’t fond of any of the guys, not terribly surprising for young pitchers. There’s always a chance one surprises, and the even better news is that the Yankees have more depth behind those guys in the form of Brackman and Warren. Back in the mid-aughts, when the rotation was really getting ugly, they never had these kinds of kids waiting in the wings. They’re going to help the big league team in some way this season, whether it be on the mound or in a trade.

Open Thread: February 22nd Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The latest from Tampa…

  • Derek Jeter responded to Hank Steinbrenner’s comments just as you’d expect he would. “I’m not upset. It doesn’t bother me,” said the Cap’n. “Owners can say what they want. They can express their opinions. I’m not upset.” Jeter joked that he isn’t moving (houses, not positions), and pointed out that construction on his mansion started long before the 2010 season. As for the lack of hunger thing … he said he didn’t see it. (Marc Carig, Dom Amore, Ben Shpigel, Carig, Carig & Carig)
  • Mark Prior threw an early morning batting practice session with Bradley Suttle hitting from both sides of the plate. Joe Girardi, Larry Rothschild, Mike Harkey, and pro scouting director Billy Eppler all watched. Eppler said Prior, who threw fastballs, curveballs, and splitters, looked good, and reiterated that the former Cub is viewed strictly as a reliever. (Carig, Carig & Carig)
  • Freddy Garcia, Luis Ayala, Buddy Carlyle, Ryan Pope, Bartolo Colon, Sergio Mitre, Robert Fish, and Hector Noesi all threw live BP as well. Colon appeared to have some zip on his heater, though Russell Martin homered off him. Girardi said Garcia looked “pretty good … threw strikes, got a lot of ground balls.” Despite that, Eduardo Nunez took him deep. (Bryan Hoch, Erik Boland, Amore & Shpigel)
  • CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Rafael Soriano all threw bullpens this morning. Phil Hughes is scheduled to face hitters tomorrow. Boone Logan also did some throwing, but no little girls got hurt today. (Chad Jennings & Carig)
  • The position players went through pop-up drills. Riveting stuff. (Hoch)
  • In case you missed it, Bartolo Colon will start the Grapefruit Opener.

This is the open thread for the night. The three hockey locals are in action, but neither of the basketballers. Talk about whatever, go nuts.

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The price to sign Daniel Bard

In 2006, the Yankees picked Ian Kennedy with the 21st pick of the amateur draft. In the lead-up to the draft, the Yanks were rumored to be interested in both Kennedy and Daniel Bard, and the Bombers eventually saw Bard slip to the Red Sox. It wasn’t the first time Bard was linked to the Yanks though.

Three years earlier, the Yankees used their 20th-round pick to select the current Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard out of high school but failed to sign him. WEEI’s Alex Speier caught up with Bard recently, who said he told the Yankees it would have taken $2 million to turn pro. “I think I told them I wanted $2 million, and if it happens, great,” said the right-hander. “They never even made an offer. I [thought] they would have. But they knew I was geared towards going to college.” Bard instead went to North Carolina to start.

The draft, and especially the Yankees draft philosophy, was quite different back then. Going way over slot to sign late round picks was not yet the norm, and the Yanks really weren’t all that focused on the draft back then. A $2 million signing bonus would have been the tenth largest given out that year, whereas it would have been only the 13th largest bonus of the the first round in last year’s draft.

Meanwhile, late-round overreach picks are fairly common. The Yanks tried to draft Daunte Culpepper late in the 1995 draft when he was a heralded high school arm, but he opted not to sign. The Red Sox selected Pedro Alvarez late in the 2005 draft, but the current Pirate turned down $1.5 million to go to college. Bard long ago joined that list of missed picks that litter the majors.

While we’re on the subject, make sure you check out Cliff Corcoran’s chat with Kevin Goldstein about some Yankees farmhands over at Pinstriped Bible. Some great stuff in there.

The RAB Radio Show: February 22, 2010

Hank Steinbrenner ran his mouth yesterday, which always proves entertaining. He didn’t disappoint. Mike and I discuss his little sound bytes.

Then, just when you think we’re going to wrap it up, I kinda of unleash the fury on White Sox GM Ken Williams. Calling for a work stoppage isn’t exactly appropriate, especially with the CBA expiring this winter.

Podcast run time 28:51

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Projecting bounce backs for key players

It might be tough to find fault in an offense that scored 41 more runs than its next closest competitor, but it’s not impossible. The 2010 Yankees offense was clearly tops in the league, but they weren’t, as they say, firing on all cylinders. In fact, three of the first four hitters in the lineup experienced their worst seasons in recent memory. If the 2011 team is again going to dominate opposing pitchers, it’ll need plenty of help from Derek Jeter in the leadoff spot, Mark Teixeira at No. 3, and Alex Rodriguez hitting cleanup.

The reports on the two from camp so far have been almost universally positive. Jeter showed up early — easy for him, since he resides in Tampa — and worked on his new, lower-energy swing. Both Teixeira and Rodriguez appeared in good shape when they showed up, particularly A-Rod. While those certainly present positive signs, they don’t mean much in terms of performance. As Dave Cameron recently noted, reports of peak physical condition do not necessarily coincide with increased performance.

One place we can look for educated guesses about a player’s upcoming season is a projection system. Before launching into the numbers, I’ll provide the same warning that comes hand-in-hand with projections: these are not predictions. Each system takes into account certain factors and uses them to compare players to themselves and to their peers, and spits out an educated guess as to what we can expect from that player. Each system uses a different set of inputs and processes the data differently, hence the variations in projections.

Here’s how five major projection engines — CAIRO, PECOTA, Bill James, Marcel, and ZiPS — view the 2011 seasons for these three players.

Jeter:

A-Rod:

Teixeira:

* Note: ZiPS does not forecast HBP, but I had to put in zero to make the formula work.

The mean projection on Jeter isn’t that bad, but it’s not exactly a guy you want in the leadoff spot all season. A .353 OBP isn’t bad, but if Brett Gardner is exceeding that, as he did by a solid margin in 2010, there will and should be calls for him to take over the spot. CAIRO’s variables like him a lot more, and if he got his OBP over .360 I think he could fit in the lead-off spot. Then again, is that big enough a gap to make a he should/he shouldn’t delineation?

On A-Rod, Marcel seems to be the believer in his true decline. It’s the only projection system that pegs him at under 30 home runs, and also clearly has him at the lowest OBP. Still, it’s good to see all the positive projections, even if they don’t amount to 2007, or even 2008, A-Rod.

Again with Teixeira Marcel sees more of a true decline than a one-year blip. PECOTA, which is often considered the most discerning projection engine, actually favors him for a bounce back. I think everyone in the room would take that line from him, especially if he did it in 682 PA. That means he’s on the field, healthy, and contributing.

One final note on these projection engines: they’re all relative. For instance, despite downcasting A-Rod a bit, ZiPS actually projects him to be the best hitter on the team and one of the best in the league. Bill James, on the other hand, always appears to have optimistic forecasts, but that seems to be true across the league. That’s my only hesitancy with averaging out these projections. They make different assumptions up front, and those assumptions can lead to different baselines.

Once March 31 hits, it won’t matter how good of shape these guys are in, and it won’t matter what the projection engines say. These are just pre-season indicators we use to fill time between the start of spring training and Opening Day. Still, it’s nice to see pretty overall positive forecasts on the team’s three most important hitters. If they improve over 2010, the Yanks will be in for another big season in 2011.

Yanks tab Colon to start Grapefruit League opener

Per Bryan Hoch, the Yanks will start their back-end rotation competition with a bang as Bartolo Colon will start the Yanks’ Grapefruit League opener on Saturday. He’ll go up against Cole Hamels and the Phillies in Tampa. The Yanks are going with Colon, who threw a bunch of innings in winter ball because he is “best prepared for the assignment.”

Following him in the rotation will be Ivan Nova, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia. Sergio Mitre, the fourth candidate for one of two rotation spots, will work in relief for now. As we’ve covered to death, Colon, Garcia, Nova and Mitre will be competing for two rotation spots, and it’s likely that Colon and Garcia will have a leg up if they can throw well and get outs this spring. For purposes of early-season depth alone, the Yanks may opt for the veterans over Nova. How long they last is anyone’s guess.