Game 61: Trap

(Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Yankees have won four in a row and seem poised for number five tonight, when ace CC Sabathia takes on arguably the least effective pitcher in baseball in Mike Minor. Opposing hitters have hit .283/.352/.521 with a league-leading 14 homers off the 24-year-old southpaw this season, who owns the highest ERA (6.57) and sixth highest FIP (5.52) among qualified pitchers this year. On paper, this one is in the bag. In reality, it’s a trap game. Here’s the starting nine…

SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
1B Mark Teixeira
3B Alex Rodriguez
2B Robinson Cano
RF Nick Swisher
LF Andruw Jonesgotta think he’ll get a pretty nice hand, no?
C  Chris Stewart
LHP CC Sabathia

Tonight’s game starts a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on My9 locally and MLB Network nationally. There’s a little bit of rain in the forecast but nothing that will force a postponement or anything. Enjoy.

Brett Gardner Update: Gardner (elbow) was a surprise visitor in the clubhouse today, cryptically saying “I believe I’m going to play (again this year) … hopefully relatively soon.” He wouldn’t reveal any details about yesterday’s visit to Dr. Andrews, though Joe Girardi did confirm that the injury is not ligament related. That means no Tommy John surgery. “I really, legitimately, thought I was there,” said the frustrated outfielder about his rehab.

Mariano Rivera Update: Rivera (knee) had surgery to repair his torn right ACL today and everything went well. The typical rehab schedule will have him ready for Spring Training.

Chavez says every day is “a huge hurdle to climb physically”

The Yankees brought Eric Chavez back late in the offseason to help fill out their bench, and so far he’s performed well enough — 91 wRC+ in 99 PA — in more playing time than anticipated due to various injuries. Things seem to be going fine on the surface, but Chavez told Ken Rosenthal that just getting ready to play every day is a chore following years of back, neck, and shoulder injuries.

“(Each day is) a huge hurdle to climb physically,” he said. “Once I get to the park, I’m constantly going until the end of the game. If I sit down for 15-20 minutes, it takes me that much longer (to get loose again). It’s non-stop. You’ll never see me in the dugout for more than one inning. I’ve got to keep moving. I’ll go to the cage, keep the blood going as much as I can.”

Chavez also said only two teams — the Yankees and White Sox — expressed interest in him this offseason, and he would have been content to retire if things didn’t work out with New York. We know he’s an injury risk and all that, but it’s pretty crazy to hear what he has to go through every day just to prepare for a game. Not being able to sit on the bench for 15 minutes because it’ll take too long to warm back up is … unnerving.

Platoon splits abound in Yankees’ lineup

You might not have seen him writing around here lately, but that doesn’t mean RAB editor Moshe Mandel is out of ideas. In fact, he mentioned something this morning that interested me greatly: perhaps the Yankees’ offensive woes center on their platoon splits. That’s certainly worth a quick examination. Here’s how the Yankees’ starters fare when broken down by the opposing pitchers’ handedness.

Lineup vs. RHP
Derek Jeter: .279/.338/.358
Curtis Granderson: .252/.352/.535
Alex Rodriguez: .286/.360/.409
Robinson Cano: .331/.386/.616
Mark Teixeira: .268/.352/.500
Raul Ibanez: .259/.314/.511
Nick Swisher: .266/.323/.510
Eric Chavez: .274/.322/.452
Russell Martin: .183/.314/.357

There don’t seem to be many problems with this arrangement against right-handed starters. Jeter is a bit miscast as the leadoff hitter here, but there’s no way he’s leaving that spot. A-Rod is actually sporting the closest to ideal leadoff numbers so far, but we know that he’ll never slide into that spot. Perhaps switching him and Granderson would help a bit, but it’s not a huge deal.

The main problem against righties is quite obvious. They’re simply not getting enough hits. There’s plenty of power in the middle of the order and most of them get on base at a good clip, but the base hits just aren’t dropping. As we’ve seen when they have runners in scoring position, that becomes a problem. They can score runs in bunches with the homer, but knocking in that runner from second remains an issue.

Lineup vs. LHP
Derek Jeter: .418/.452/.627
Curtis Granderson: .250/.329/.500
Mark Teixeira: .222/.269/.417
Alex Rodriguez: .258/.395/.468
Robinson Cano: .232/.284/.378
Nick Swisher: .200/.270/.345
Andruw Jones: .204/.267/.389
*Raul Ibanez: .227/.261/.364
Russell Martin: .333/.463/.697

*Jayson Nix is at .250/.286/.350 against LHP.

Overall the Yankees have relatively even platoon splits, but it’s pretty clear that three players are carrying the load here. In particular Jeter and Martin account for most of the offensive output against lefties, while Rodriguez has good on-base and power numbers. The problem is the lack of on-base from hitters five through eight, and to a lesser extend two and three.

Granderson’s .500 SLG (and .250 ISO) would seem to bode well here. Hitting in front of him are two hitters with OBPs over .450, which would seemingly play well with his power numbers. Yet the timing just hasn’t been there. Granderson has 19 hits against left-handed pitching, including six homers, yet he has driven in only 12 runs.

Again, while it will never happen, using an order of Jeter-Martin-Rodriguez-Granderson against lefties would seemingly work well. That concentrates their best hitters, giving them chances to score with base hits, and, later in the order, with the long ball. The second half of the lineup wouldn’t look nice, but it’s definitely better to group the best hitters, since it gives you a better chance to string together hits and therefore score runs.

Adding a wrinkle to the matter, the Yankees actually do better when facing a left-handed starter than they do a right-handed starter. For instance, Granderson’s average against left-handed starters is .284, because he destroys right-handed relievers. Cano, Jones, and especially Ibanez (since he’s often inserted as a PH when a left-handed starter is on the mound) show marked improvement when we consider games that left-handers start, rather than numbers strictly against left-handed pitching.

These platoon splits don’t exactly provide insightful revelations, but they do put matters in perspective. The Yankees aren’t firing on all cylinders quite yet, and the platoon splits play a role in that. If things start to even out — if Cano, Teixeira, and Swisher start hitting lefties to the level of their talent — then things will start to even out. Against right-handers it’s a bit murkier a picture. Who is going to step up and start driving in runners with men on base against righties?

Death By Double Plays

(Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

It’s no secret that the Yankees have struggled with men in scoring position this year — .220/.324/.397 (90 wRC+) as a team following last night’s 1-for-8 showing — bringing nightly frustration even though they continue to run off win after win thanks to some stellar pitching. Part of that futility with men on base is the team’s propensity to ground into rally killing double plays, which they did on two occasions last night. I swear it felt like six or seven.

Over the last four games the offense has managed to ground into seven twin-killings, at least two in every game. It took them 13 games to ground into their previous seven nine double plays, so right now it’s happening at an absurd rate. After grounding into 18 double plays in 22 April games, the Yankees have grounded into 36 double plays in the 37 games since. As a team, the Bombers have hit into a double play in 12% of their double play opportunities according to Baseball Reference, tied for the sixth highest rate in baseball.

Double play futility like that isn’t a one or two-man thing, it’s a team wide epidemic. Derek Jeter leads the way with eleven twin-killings, the second most in baseball (min. 150 PA) — Joe Mauer has 14 — and one more than he had all of last season. Of course 2011 was the anomaly; the Cap’n is always good for 18+ double plays a season. The trio of Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez has hit into 21 total double plays, exactly seven each. All three are among the top 25 offenders in baseball (min. 150 PA). The only regulars that have hit into double plays at a rate lower than the league average (2.2% of plate appearances) are Curtis Granderson (1.5%) and Nick Swisher (1.8%).

The funny part in all of this is the Yankees are in the exact same spot as last year, when they also hit into a double play in 12% of their opportunities. It’s just the timing that makes it feel so awful right now. They’re struggling to bring runners home and every double play feels like a punch to the stomach. The fact that they’ve picked up the GIDP pace in May and June after a slow April hasn’t helped either. There’s this feeling of anxiety every time the Yankees get men on base given their season-long futility, but the double plays really aren’t the core problem. They all seem to be pressing and this recent penchant for the double play is just the result, a symptom of the bigger problem.

David Robertson throws perfect inning in second rehab outing

In his second minor league rehab outing this afternoon, David Robertson (oblique) threw a perfect inning on 14 pitches (nine strikes). He struck out one batter before getting a fly ball to right and a grounder to second. Robertson threw a perfect inning in his first rehab appearance on Sunday as well, and if he doesn’t feel any lingering effects over the next day or two, there’s a good chance he’ll be back in the bullpen for Friday’s series opener against the Nationals.

Andre Ethier’s contract and the Yankees

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

While you were sleeping last night, news broke that the Dodgers and Andre Ethier had agreed to a five-year. $85M contract extension with a vesting option for a sixth year that could push the total value north of $100M. It’s the third largest contract in franchise history behind the Matt Kemp and Kevin Brown deals and one of the 15 richest contracts ever for an outfielder. Ethier was scheduled to hit free agency this offseason but instead decided to stay in Los Angeles for a rather healthy sum.

Baseball Time in Arlington has already looked at the impact this deal will have on Josh Hamilton and the Rangers — presumably one fewer suitor now — but it also trickles down to the Yankees. Nick Swisher is scheduled to become a free agent this winter and like Ethier, he’s a very good but not elite corner outfielder in his early-30s. They’ve produced similar offensive (127 vs. 124 wRC+ in favor of Ethier) and defensive (-12 vs. -14 DRS* in favor of Swisher) numbers since the start of 2009, though Swisher has played in at least 150 games in each of the last six seasons while Ethier has done so just twice in his career and not since 2009.

* Defensive metrics are quite ambiguous, so if you look at UZR it’s Swisher in a landslide: +5.4 vs. -24.6.

Obviously Ethier is having the far better season in 2012 — 131 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR vs. 105 and 0.4 for Swisher — and that’s part of the reason why the Dodgers were so desperate to re-sign him. He’s a fan favorite and while he’s not truly homegrown, he’s never played for another big league team. He’s gotten MVP votes and been to multiple All-Star Games, plus he has a “clutch” reputation. All of that helped Ethier land this massive contract and is stuff Swisher doesn’t have going for him, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, their actual production on the baseball field, Swisher is a comparable player if not better than baseball’s newest $85M.

That said, I can’t see any way Swisher will land a contract that big this offseason without a Bonds-ian finish to the season. At the same time, my hopes of seeing the Yankees bring him back for Michael Cuddyer’s contract — three years and $31M — inflated upwards by 25% or so now seem pointless. Maybe I was being naive in the first place, I’m great at underestimating future free agent contracts. There seems to be little chance of Swisher signing a modest little three-year pact no matter how much he loves New York, which leaves the Yankees in a bind because they don’t have an ready-made outfield replacement and are trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold within the next 18 months or so.

Perhaps Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury and latest setback is a blessing in disguise. Maybe it will force the Yankees to look to the trade market for a replacement outfielder, someone that could play left in Gardner’s stead this year before taking over right field next year. I don’t know who that guy would be, but it’s a possibility. Much like Yadier Molina and the catching market, Ethier’s contract really skewed the outfield market for this coming offseason. Swisher, Hamilton, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino now all have a pricy benchmark to reference in contract talks, and that doesn’t help the Yankees one bit.

Poll: Internally Replacing Brett Gardner

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

The Yankees played their 60th game of the season last night and they’ve only had Brett Gardner in the starting lineup for eight of them. The elbow injury he suffered sliding for a ball against the Twins has morphed into a series of setbacks that culminated with a visit to Dr. James Andrews yesterday. Gardner will see Dr. Tim Kremcheck for a second opinion on Thursday, at which point the Yankees will presumably announce the latest diagnosis.

Barring some fortunate and frankly unexpected good news, Gardner is going to miss several more weeks. A few days ago Joe Girardi indicated that he doesn’t expect his left fielder back until after the All-Star break, which is still more than a month away. Raul Ibanez has been better than expected and softened the blow of losing Gardner a bit, but the Yankees can’t really rely on him as the everyday left fielder for an extended period of time. He’s already started 33 games in the field and at 40 years old, there has to be some concern about him wearing down later in the season.

Unless the Yankees get good news on Thursday, they have to at least consider bolstering their roster with Gardner on the shelf. With all due respect to Dewayne Wise, he’s nothing more than a defensive replacement/spot starter in the big leagues. The Yankees can do better without having to go outside the organization, they have some potential solutions sitting in Triple-A.

Chris Dickerson
I’ve written about Dickerson before, noting that he offers the ability to hit right-handed pitching (career .341 wOBA against northpaws) in addition to strong defense and base running skills. I don’t know if he’s a better defensive player than Wise but the difference isn’t worth arguing about. Dickerson can handle all three outfield spots with aplomb as well as contribute offensively with his bat and legs. The Yankees don’t have to play him every day in a straight platoon, but they could run him out there three times a week against righties while keeping Ibanez in the DH role. Cutting Wise in favor of Dickerson — who is out of minor league options and would have be waived whenever Gardner is healthy — is an upgrade in almost every single way.

Russell Branyan
Joe and I talked about this option on yesterday’s podcast. The idea would be to dump Wise, keep playing Ibanez in left, and use Branyan as the regular DH against right-handers. He’s come back very well from his back injury — six homers in 13 minor league games already — but it’s tough to consider him anything more than a first baseman/DH option. Branyan’s days of even faking third base and the corner outfield are a thing of the past. Adding a huge left-handed power bat lineup is obviously desirable, but it would leave the Yankees without a true backup center fielder and further limit roster flexibility.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning Jack Cust here, who is also raking in Triple-A but has yet to play a single game in the field. It’s been DH or the bench. At least Branyan has played first base pretty much every game.

(Rudy C. Jones/MiLB.com)

Ronnie Mustelier
The most interesting 27-year-old in the minor league system, Mustelier has been hitting non-stop since signing last summer and he’s now doing it at the Triple-A level. Joe Girardi raved about his bat speed recently and said his name has come up as a call-up candidate at various points this year … but that’s pretty much all we know about the guy. He’s small — listed at 5-foot-10 and 210 lbs. — and right-handed with phenomenal numbers, but we don’t know anything about his defensive skills or speed or anything else. Box scores only tell you so much. Mustelier has spent a ton of time in left field and also has experience in the infield, so his versatility as a plus. He’s not an ideal platoon candidate given his right-handedness, but he could also hit enough that it doesn’t even matter.

Eduardo Nunez
This one probably won’t happen for a number of reasons. For one, Nunez is currently on the minor league DL with a thumb issue. For another, the Yankees sent him to Triple-A to focus on one position after bouncing him all around the field over the last year or so. Calling Nunez back up to do anything — utility infielder, platoon left fielder, etc. — would go against that plan. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option, just that it seems unlikely. That said, we can’t rule anything out. Whenever Nunez gets healthy — probably soon since he was taking grounders just last week — he figures to at least be on the call-up radar.

Miscellaneous
As always, the top minor league affiliate is chock full of random call-up options. Brandon Laird is on the 40-man roster and can play all four corner spots, but he can’t hit — .251/.289/.393 in 870 total plate appearances in Triple-A. Corban Joseph has zero outfield experience so he’s of no use in this situation despite being on the 40-man. Colin Curtis is a solid enough defensive player and can play all three outfield spots, but he’s never been much with the stick. Kevin Russo can play all over the field and make some contact, but otherwise isn’t any kind of upgrade. Neither he nor Curtis is on the 40-man roster as well. Not much to see here.

* * *

Of course, the Yankees always have the option of doing nothing and sticking with their current setup. Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and Jayson Nix could continue to take turns in left field while Wise gets nothing more than the occasional spot start. That’s  fine for two weeks or whatever, but I’d rather not see them roll with it for an extended period of time. It’s already been long enough as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, stuff is like this begging for a poll, so…

How should the Yankees replace Brett Gardner internally?
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