NoMaas interviews John Manuel

NoMaas posted an interview with Baseball America’s John Manuel today, the man who’s been compiling the Yankees’ top 30 prospects list for the last I dunno, five, six, seven years or so. It’s been a while, he knows the system fairly well and spills the beans about Jesus Montero‘s ability to catch, some reasoning behind the Cito Culver pick, the non-Killer B pitching prospects, Rafael DePaula, plus a ton more. So yeah, go check it out.

Also, just as a heads up, I plan on posting my top 30 prospects list this Friday. Forgot to mention it in the chat last week.

Cool Pic Du Jour: ’74 Shea Stadium Seating Plan

(click for larger)

As you probably know, the Yankees played in Shea Stadium during the 1974 and 1975 seasons while Yankee Stadium was being renovated. Field level seats ran just four bucks, and although I wasn’t alive back then, that still strikes me as pretty cheap. Anyway, thanks to Craig Robinson of Flip Flop Fly Ballin’ to sharing.

What’s sustainable and what’s not from Curtis Granderson

(Jim Mone/AP)

We can all find the date on his Baseball Reference game log. On August 10 Curtis Granderson, then hitting .240/.307/.417, started working with hitting instructor Kevin Long in order to improve on what had been a disappointing season. Granderson didn’t start either game in Texas, though he made appearances in both. When he returned to the starting lineup on August 13 in Kansas City, he appeared to be a more confident hitter.

For the rest of the season Granderson hit .261/.356/.564 in 192 PA, which improved his season stats to .247/.324/.468. That was just about in line with his 2009 numbers, with a little added power. The Yanks hoped they were getting something closer to the .280/.365/.494 Granderson of 2008. In 2011 they’ll again hope he can show signs of improvement. There are some indicators that might be the case. Let’s take a look at a few improvements Granderson made, and whether they’re sustainable.

Walk rate. Before his work with Long, Granderson drew 29 walks in 335 PA, or 8.7 percent. This harkened back to his breakout 2007 season, except without the batting average and power. It made for a pretty miserable OBP.

After the work with Long, Granderson walked 24 times in 192 PA, or 12.5 percent. This is more like his previous two years, in which he walked more than 10 percent of the time. I’m not sure if he can sustain that exact rate, but it is noteworthy that none of these walks was intentional. He earned them fair and square. It was enough to bring his season average up to 10 percent, which is right in line with 2009, but a bit below 2008.

We have seen a few projection systems try to peg down Granderson, but few of them see him getting much above that 10 percent marker: Both PECOTA and Marcel have him at 9.9 percent. Yet I can certainly envision him finishing with a walk rate between 11 and 12 percent. If he’s hitting ahead of, say, Russell Martin, pitchers might be a bit more careful with him. This is one of his improvements I think he can sustain.

Power. One of Granderson’s saving graces in the first part of the season was his power. In those 335 PA he hit 10 homers, 11 doubles, and six triples, which amounted to a .417 SLG (.177 ISO). While that’s good for a center fielder, it’s not quite up to the standard Granderson had set in the previous three years, when his lowest ISO was .204. And so he and Long went to work.

In the season’s final month and a half Granderson hit 14 homers, or one every 13.7 PA. That was good for a .564 SLG and .303 ISO. Clearly he’s not going to sustain that over a full 600 PA. Only one hitter crossed the .300 ISO barrier in 2010, and that was the home run champ, Jose Bautista. Only one other player came within 10 points of it. Granderson will not slug .550 on the season in 2011.

Still, the improvement does give me confidence that he can return to a SLG around .500. It will depend on his batting average, for sure, but he’s displayed some pretty impressive power in the past. I’d probably peg him at a .220 to .230 ISO, which is around where he landed last year. Spread over an entire season that will be immensely valuable, especially for a center fielder.

Fact: Only four center fielders finished with a better ISO than Granderson in 2010. Two of them, Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez, primarily played the corner positions. One of the others, Colby Rasmus, finished one measly point ahead. Make no mistake: Granderson can rake.

Batting average. This has kind of been Granderson’s boon in the past two seasons. In 2007 he hit .302 and in 2008 he hit .280, but those were on the backs of some pretty high BABIP numbers. When his BABIP dropped in 2009 and 2010, so did his average. Yet he did recover a bit after his work with Long.

Before August 9 Granderson had a .240 BA on a .284 BABIP. After the work he had a .261 BA on a .264 BABIP. Obviously the change in approach had something to do with the fluctuating numbers. He walked more and hit more homers, hence fewer balls in play. But I still wonder if he has room to improve that BABIP. If so, he could see a slight increase in his average.

For a quick look, here’s how some of the popular projection engines see Granderson’s 2011.

Bill James: .264/.341/.471
Marcel: .253/.329/.448
PECOTA: .257/.333/.460

The current projection engines don’t make much of Granderson’s in-season improvement. Nor should they. They’re not there to filter out the nuance of how a season progresses. They’re taking the long view. And in the long view, there’s not much that suggests an improvement from Granderson. But our exacting view just might hold merit. After all, he did change something, and he did notice improved results after that.

Given what we know about Granderson and what we saw from him in August and September, here’s my admittedly biased projection for his 2011 season:

.275/.365/.490

Is that really so bold?

Sorting out the last bench spot

I can has bench job? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You know we’re getting down to the final few days of the offseason when we’re continually talking about the last spot on the bench. The Yankees have a few in-house options for that spot alongside Andruw Jones, Frankie Cervelli, and Eduamiro Penunez, so let’s sort them out…

Justin Maxwell
What He Offers: speed, power, walks, defense
What He Lacks: contact skills, durability

Probably the most physically gifted of the team’s fifth bench options, Maxwell’s relatively short big league career (260 PA) features a .178 ISO and 14.8% walks, exceptionally good numbers. For comparison’s sake, Jason Heyward had a .179 ISO with a 14.6% walk rate in his stellar rookie season last year. I could be a function of small sample size, though it’s worth noting that in exactly 900 PA at the Double and Triple-A levels, Maxwell owns a .222 ISO and an 11.6% walk rate. The underlying skills are there, which Baseball America noted when they named him Washington’s eighth best prospect before last season. He’s also a high-percentage basestealer (78.9% success rate in the minors) with a pair of 35 SB seasons under his belt in the high minors.

Guys with power, speed, the ability to draw walks and defend well in center are a rare breed, but what’s holding Maxwell back are some big time holes in his swing. He’s struck out in 37.9% of his big league at-bats, 26.6% in Double and Triple-A. He’s very similar to Andruw Jones in that you’ll get a low batting average, but he’ll still get on base at an okay clip and occasionally run into a few pitches. There’s also the injury bug. Maxwell is on his way back from Tommy John surgery right now (on his non-throwing elbow), but he’s also battled wrist and toe issues in the past.

Greg Golson
What He Offers: speed, defense, a tiny amount of power
What He Lacks: ability to draw walks, make consistent contact

Golson did a fine job as a late-inning defensive replacement and occasional pinch-runner last year, but he’s been around long enough that we know what he brings to the table offensively, and it’s just not much. In nearly 1,600 PA at Double and Triple-A, he owns a very good .161 ISO (though most of that is tied up in Double-A) but subpar walk (5.7%) and strikeout (34.1%) rates. Thankfully he can defend very well in three outfield spots and be a highly effective basestealer (78.9% success rate with no fewer than 20 SB in four of the last five years).

Limited by his lack of offensive ability, featuring not even one standout tool at the plate (power or getting on base or being able to make a ton of contact), means Golson’s speed and defense have to be that spectacular for him to hold down a roster spot.

Colin Curtis
What He Offers: a little of this, a little of that
What He Lacks: a standout tool

Lil' CC did a good. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The forgotten man, Curtis has one thing on both Maxwell and Golson: he’s a left-handed hitter, and the Yankees have zero of those on their bench right now. He’s a classic ‘tweener, doing just enough to get by but lacking a standout tool that can carry him. His offensive performance at Double and Triple-A is fine but nothing special (.118 ISO, 8.5% walks, 17.7% strikeouts) in a little more than 1,400 PA, and he’s never been much of a basestealer (just 25-for-42 in his career). Curtis can man the outfielder corners capably and play center in an emergency, but he’s not good enough to play their regularly.

* * *

Of course, the wildcards in all of this are are Kevin Russo, Eric Chavez, and Ronnie Belliard. Russo isn’t not great offensively (.093 ISO, 8.7% walks, 17.0% strikeouts in over 950 PA at the upper levels of the minors) or on the bases (55-for-77 in SB attempts in his career, 71.4%), but he does something none of those three guys above can do: play the infield. The Yankees have groomed him as a utility player basically his entire career, so he has experience playing the three non-first base infield spots as well as all three outfield spots (mostly left though). Since that last man on the bench doesn’t figure to see too many plate appearances, maybe they’ll decide to go with the versatile guy just to have at least two players on the bench capable of playing the infield (Russo and Penunez) and two capable of playing the outfield (Russo and Jones).

As for Chavez and Belliard … they’re the veterans on minor league deals. I have little faith in Chavez staying healthy or being productive through Spring Training, though it’s worth noting that his lefty bat would make sense for the bench. Belliard is probably the front-runner for a job given his versatility and occasionally productive bat, though he’s not going to swing the balance of power in the AL East.

If I’m picking out of those six, I’d probably go with Belliard for the time being. Maxwell is clearly the best player of the bunch, and that’s why he should spend the summer playing regularly and batting near the top of Triple-A Scranton’s order. He’s been banged up pretty bad in three of the last four years, so catching up on some at-bats wouldn’t be the end of the world. I think the chances of the Yankees carrying both Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena to start the year went down considerably once Belliard and Chavez came aboard, but I’m not sure how much that helps. Granted, it’s the 25th guy on the roster, but a little optimization never hurt.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 7th, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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Preparing for the new season

In the early minutes of Super Bowl XLV, we caught a glimpse of Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez some popcorn in one of Cowboys Stadium’s luxury boxes*, a subtle reminder that baseball season is on the horizon. Football season is over while basketball and hockey are in their versions of the dogs days of summer, but equipment trucks across the country are now en route to Spring Training facilities in Florida and Arizona. Pitchers and catchers are due to report in just a week, position players a week after that.

Today, Monday, is the last Monday we’ll have to experience without some form of baseball until November. Pitchers and catchers reporting isn’t terribly exciting, but it’s comforting to know that the process of a new season is beginning. Photos of bullpen sessions and reports from batting practice will soon follow, and battles for the few open jobs on the Yankees’ roster will begin to take shape. Robbie Cano will rake and rake and rake, CC Sabathia will treat innings like Michael Cera’s character in Juno treated orange Tic-Tacs, and A-Rod will get caught doing something awkward on camera (he’s already one-for-one in 2011). Some young kid will step up and wow you in Spring Training while another falls back and disappoints. Those are the rites of baseball season, as is this final boring week before camp.

If you’re reading this site, then chances are the game consumes your daily routine nine months out of the year, if not more. This week is the last without baseball for a long time, so enjoy it.

* Don’t hate, you know you’d switch lives with him in a heartbeat.

Open Thread: Super Sunday

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

So, who do you all have today? I’m thinking the Steelers, though for no particular reason. Picking football games isn’t exactly my forte. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:29pm ET and can be seen on FOX, and be sure to chat about it here.