Open Thread: March 1st Camp Notes

Proof that Phil threw at least one changeup today. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Here’s what went down in camp today…

  • The Yankees lost to the Pirates this afternoon, getting shutout 2-0. Phil Hughes and Steve Garrison each chipped in two scoreless innings, David Robertson one. A Curtis Granderson triple was the highlight of the offense. Jesus Montero went 2-for-2 in throwing out attempted basestealers and 0-for-3 at the plate. Brett Gardner had an outfield assist. Here’s the box score.
  • Joe Girardi said he wants Hughes to work on his changeup and his overall consistency, then qualified it by saying “[this] kid won 18 games last year. Hard to complain about what he did.” Le sigh. Hughes said he threw just three changeups today, adding that his goal is to make a usable pitch, not necessarily a put-away offering. “If I can get a little better each year, hopefully it’ll be a good pitch by the time I’m 40,” joked the righty. (Peter Botte, Erik Boland & Jack Curry)
  • It was raining in Tampa, so everyone took batting practice in the indoor cages. Derek Jeter was working with Kevin Long to get his new stride down, as he said he would do yesterday. (Yankees PR Dept. & Marc Carig)
  • Andrew Brackman, who managed to grow an inch this winter (now 6-foot-11), threw 20 pitches from a indoor mound and really “[aired] it out” according to Girardi. Brackman said he’s fine following that groin/hip issue and will throw another bullpen on Thursday. Greg Golson is okay after getting hit in the head with a pitch over the weekend; he took batting practice today and could get into tomorrow’s game. Ronnie Belliard is still at least a week away from just testing out that calf strain. Thanks for coming, Ronnie. (Jack Curry, Eric Boland, Chad Jennings & Carig)
  • The rotation the rest of the week: A.J. Burnett (Weds. vs. Astros), Freddy Garcia (Thurs. @ Rays), Bartolo Colon (Fri. vs. Red Sox), and CC Sabathia (Sat. vs. Nationals). I guess Ivan Nova‘s going to come out of the bullpen one of those days. (Botte)

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Rangers (huge game), Islanders, and Knicks are all in action, plus MLB Network will be showing a replay of today’s Tigers-Phillies game at 8pm ET. Talk about whatever, enjoy.

Another Kickstarter Project: Baseball History Audio App & CD

The following a guest post from long-time RAB reader and commenter Rich Iurilli (@richardiurilli on the Twitters), highlighting another great Kickstarter project that benefits a wonderful cause.

Last week, Hannah wrote about the Eephus League Baseball Scorebook Revival Project, which, at the time, was trying to raise $10,000 to produce a simple, easy-to-use scorebook in an attempt to rekindle interest in the dying art of baseball scorekeeping. Early Thursday morning, that project reached its $10,000 goal, and as I write this, it has raised $11,636, in part due to the generosity of River Ave. Blues readers.

Today, I would like to bring to your attention another baseball-related project on Kickstarter. Ed Lucas, a blind sports writer who used to cover the Yankees, is trying to raise $15,000 in pledges to produce a professional-quality oral history of baseball, as told through the 292 plaques at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. As wonderful as these plaques are, there are countless baseball fans who are unable to experience them due to blindness and other visual impairments, which are expected to affect almost one third of the American population within the next decade, according to the project description. This project seeks to remedy this by providing descriptions of every plaque in the Hall of Fame.

For Yankee fans, there is more to this project than just the ties to baseball history. Lucas has covered New York-area sports, particularly the Yankees, since 1964, despite losing his vision at just twelve years of age to retinal detachments suffered while playing baseball. After this unfortunate event, Lucas befriended Phil Rizzuto and developed a good relationship with the Yankees organization. In 2006, Lucas was the first person to be married at home plate in Yankee Stadium, and George Steinbrenner covered the entire cost of the ceremony. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Lucas said, “Baseball took my sight away, but it gave me a life.”

Now, Lucas is trying to give that life to an entire generation of blind or visually-impaired baseball fans. If the project meets its fundraising goal, it will be produced as both a CD and an app for mobile devices, both of which will be made freely available to anyone who wants them. In addition to the obvious benefits for blind or visually-impaired fans, the project could also be used by visitors to the Hall of Fame, which does not currently have an audio tour available. For the project to be produced, Lucas is looking to raise $15,000 by April 7, 2011, of which $3,005 has been pledged at the time of this writing.

As is the case with most Kickstarter projects, there are a number of rewards for backers to choose from depending on the amount of their pledge. These rewards range from an official non-autographed baseball souvenir and a CD copy of the project for a pledge of $10 to lunch or dinner with a Hall of Famer and a day at the ballpark with Lucas for a pledge of $5,000. Of course, pledges of any amount are welcome and bring this wonderful project a little bit closer to fruition.

To learn more about the project or to make a pledge, you can visit the project page on Kickstarter, or to learn more about Ed Lucas, you can visit his website.

Link Dump: Mauer, Damon, Prospects

Need some help getting through the rest of the work day? I’ve gotcha covered…

Mauer on Montero

While we discussed the merits of using Jesus Montero as the backup catcher this morning, Joe Brescia of The Times was busy talking to Joe Mauer about the Yankees’ uber-prospect and the perils of being a big catcher. “Too big. Not quick enough. I heard everything under the sun,” said Mauer, who stands 6-foot-5, two inches taller than Montero. “My advice to him is try and learn as much as you can. He’s lucky he has Jorge Posada, a pretty good catcher to learn from. And he has Russell Martin there now, too, another good one to help him. Those two guys that have been around the block. He should follow those guys around and learn as much as he can.”

The former AL MVP also emphasized the importance of getting to “know your customers,” meaning the pitching staff. “Know your staff and the little things that they respond to. You have to learn the pitchers and what they are capable of doing and not doing. Try to put your pitchers in the best situations they can to succeed.”

The Pitch to Damon

Before he signed on with the Rays, we heard that the Yankees had expressed some interest in bringing Johnny Damon back to the Bronx, presumably as a part-time outfielder and part-time designated hitter. RAB fave Ken Davidoff spoke to Johnny recently, who informed him that the Yankees pitched the idea of using him twice a week in the outfield and once a week at DH. Damon just wasn’t ready to commit to being a glorified bench player yet, so to Tampa he went.

The Yanks still would have needed a right-handed power bat for the bench if they had signed Damon, but not necessarily an outfielder. If Johnny had agreed to that arrangement, perhaps it would have opened the door for Montero to break camp with the team even more. Who knows.

BA’s Top 150 Prospects & More

The crew at Baseball America published their annual list of the top 100 prospects in the game last week, and a whopping six Yankees prospects made the cut. But you knew that already. What you may not know is how the list is compiled, which is what Jim Callis explained in this week’s Ask BA. Their six editors each put together a personal top 150 prospects list, then they mash ’em all together in a spreadsheet and talk out the individual rankings. In addition to the guys that cracked the top 100, three other Yankees farmhands appeared in the personal top 150’s: Slade Heathcott (two ballots, peaking at number 133), Hector Noesi (4, 92), and Eduardo Nunez (4, 109).

Within the same piece, Callis says the Yankees have the best group of catching prospects in baseball, and that’s even if Montero ends up having to move off the position. That’s some hefty praise right there.

The RAB Radio Show: March 1, 2011

Injuries are part of every team’s experience in spring training. The Yanks have suffered a few themselves. Mike and I run down the situations for Russell Martin, Andrew Brackman, Ronnie Belliard, and Greg Golson. Plus, a few injuries from around the league.

We also get into the Yanks’ schedule this year, which is home-heavy at the start and then road-heavy at the end, including a couple of West Coast appearances in September.

Podcast run time 29:45

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
  • Listen in your browser by left clicking the above link or using the embedded player below.
  • Subscribe in iTunes. If you want to rate us that would be great. If you leave a nice review I’ll buy you a beer at a meet-up.

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

How much patience with Jeter?

(Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Derek Jeter was too busy to notice the analogy. This morning, while taking swings in the batting cage, he apparently did a double-take when he noticed a gaggle of reporters observing him. It was just BP, and not even of the live variety. What could be so interesting?

As expected, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about Jeter’s cage session. He hit some baseballs and worked on his timing. Why, then, would reporters deem it worth their time to stand around? Because Jeter is one of the spring’s primary story lines. In the current media environment, which involves constant updates, no matter how trivial, reporters have had to adapt. In years past they might not have sat in on the session, but in 2011, when Twitter updates go out to the masses instantaneously, they want to be around to observe and report. They’ve had to make adjustments.

Jeter, too, is making adjustments out of necessity. At 36 — 37 in June — his body isn’t as strong and nimble as it once was. His old timing mechanism worked before, but as he has aged it has caused something of a hitch. If he’s going to remain the Yankees’ leadoff man, and if he’s going to live up to the contract he signed this past winter, he can’t just do what worked in the past. If a reporter tried to do that, he’d fall behind his peers. The same goes for Jeter.

In the same way that it took the media time to adapt to the new environment, it will take Jeter time to commit his new mechanics to muscle memory. No one does something a certain way for 15 years, with great success, and then changes overnight. When it involves something mechanically complex, such as swinging a baseball bat, we can expect a lengthy learning curve. The question is of how long it will take — and, furthermore, how long the Yankees will let him adjust before doing something about it.

Jeter does understand the process he’s undergoing. As he told reporters yesterday: “When was the first game? Two days ago? That was the first time I’ve seen pitching with (the new mechanics). It’s going to take a while to get comfortable. You have more time because there’s no stride. Now you’ve just got to figure out when to swing.” Emphasis mine. That seems to be a rather weighty task for someone who has done things the same way his entire life to this point.

There’s a decent chance that Jeter continues his adjustments when the season begins. While he’s facing live pitchers now, and for the most part he’s facing real major leaguers, it’s still not a real game situation. Pitchers are still out working on their things, which could make it harder for Jeter to work on his. There will likely be a further adjustment period when live games start on March 31. If Jeter gets off to a slow start, don’t be surprised. It will lead to cries for his demotion in the batting order, and there is a point when the Yankees will have to consider that. I just don’t think it will come early in the season.

The key will be what Brian Cashman preached all winter: patience. He might be past his prime, but Jeter has proven that he’s a world-class hitter who is working hard to make the necessary adjustments. There’s a chance that it never happens, but the Yankees have a big enough investment in him that they’ll give it every chance. That might get frustrating in the first month or so, as he adapts to his stride-less swing. But the potential payoff, an experienced leadoff man with .380 OBP potential, will be worth it.

2011 Season Preview: Alex Rodriguez

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/Kathy Willens)

Last summer, Alex Rodriguez managed to hit .270/.341/.506 (.363 wOBA) with 30 homers, 3.9 fWAR, and more runs driven in (125) than anyone not named Miguel Cabrera. It was the worst full season of his career. Those are the kinds of standards A-Rod has set for himself, when being the seventh most valuable third baseman in the game is a self-admitted disappointment.

Finally given a clean bill of health for his surgically repaired hip after the season, nearly two years out from surgery, Alex went out and shed ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat this winter in an effort to streamline a body that was hardly out-of-shape. He came to camp noticeable slimmer and said he felt lighter on his feet, but all the workouts in the world can’t change the fact that A-Rod is a soon-to-be 36-year-old third baseman with a questionable hip.

Even if you discount the contract that runs through Phil Hughes‘ age 31 season, the Yankees need Alex to be a middle-of-the-lineup force in 2011, a guy that strikes fear into the heart of opposing pitchers and produces runs by the bucketful. If things break right, it will be glorious. If it doesn’t … well there’s some serious ugly potential.

Best Case

For most players, an MVP caliber season represents their best case scenario. For A-Rod, it seems like he’s capable of so much more; you know he has the talent to put up a year that re-writes the record books. The chances of him doing so are far less likely now than they were five or ten years ago, of course, but I’ll never put anything beyond Rodriguez.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

With his hip finally a-okay, A-Rod’s once again capable of fully rotating his lower half during his swing, bringing back his power stroke and making those 30 homers he’s hit in each of the last two years look like child’s play. He’s able to hang in more against pitches on the outer half, raising his .304 wOBA on balls hit to the opposite field over the last two years back to the .359 mark he posted in the three years before the surgery. With some help from Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch, he might even be able to top that. A-Rod’s sharp decline against left-handed pitchers (.323 wOBA in 2010 after .402 in 2009 and .395 career) turns out to be nothing more than a one year blip, explained by his comically low .212 BABIP against southpaws last season. More power means more walks as pitchers avoid him, raising that on-base percentage back up to an elite level. The statistical correction against lefties and his rediscovered power stroke bring back the glorious days of no doubt about it, take it to the bank .400+ wOBA production with 35+ homers.

Thanks to the decreased bulk and fully healed hip, A-Rod’s defense at the hot corner improves dramatically. His increased range on balls hit to his left saves a few extra runs and makes Derek Jeter‘s defensive shortcomings slightly more tolerable. Improved durability, well-above average offense, and above average defense at the hot corner makes Alex a legitimate MVP candidate again, a six win player that is always a three week hot streak away from a seven win season.

Worst Case

As wonderful as the clean bill of health for the hip is, it can’t reverse the aging process. A-Rod’s declining ISO just keeps going south, meaning the days of 30+ homers are long gone. Without the constant threat of being taken deep, pitcher pound him inside with fastballs with reckless abandon, resulting in a whole lot of broken bats and weak grounders that kill his average. Walks become even harder to come by, and the issues with southpaws turn out to be very real. Without warning, A-Rod’s turned into a glorified Edwin Encarnacion with the stick.

The defense doesn’t improve even with Rodriguez’s new streamlined physique and healthy hip; the reflexes just aren’t quick enough anymore. For the fourth straight year, he’s unable to play in more than 138 games, overexposing the likes of Eric Chavez, Ramiro Pena, and Eduardo Nunez. The similarities between A-Rod and late-career Mike Lowell become painfully obvious on the field, and it would be fitting since they both had the same major injury as they approached their mid-30’s.

Although the worst case scenario probably has the Yankees’ third baseman putting up a 2.5 or 3.0 fWAR season in 2011, it’s very possible that he’d be the fifth best player at the position in the AL East. That says as much about the abilities of Evan Longoria, Kevin Youkilis, Jose Bautista, and Mark Reynolds as it does A-Rod’s floor. Having the fifth best third baseman in the division while there’s $143M left on his contract would be an albatross of the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s tough to nail down reasonable expectations for A-Rod. On one hand his production and durability has been down over the last three seasons (relatively speaking, of course), but on the other you know he’s capable of a monster campaign. If he hit put up a .350 wOBA with 25-30 homers, I don’t think anyone would be too surprised. If he posted a .400 wOBA with 35-40 homers, yeah I don’t think that would be a huge shock either. Unlikely at his age, but we’ve seen Alex do amazing things before.

Although I’m encouraged by how he looked over the weekend with regards to his weight loss and mobility, it was two games in February and tells us basically nothing. It’s very likely that the power decline is real and will continue, though we’re talking about a guy still capable of a .200+ ISO and 25 homers. I think he’s due for some positive regression on balls in play in 2011; his .270 BABIP in 2010 was good amount below his .296 expected BABIP (xBABIP), and that performance against southpaws is just so out of the ordinary that I can’t help but think it’s a fluke (jut 173 plate appearances against lefties last year, not a big sample at all). Even if he doesn’t return to the .450 wOBA monster he’s been throughout his career against left-handers, splitting the difference and getting back to a .380 wOBA would be a major upgrade over last season.

A-Rod is going to continue to hit in the middle of the Yankees lineup and will be heavily counted on for run production, and he’s fully aware of this. His skills are undeniably in decline in his mid-30’s, but his starting baseline was so high that if he’s just 75% of his peak, he’s still one of the best players in the game. Another season with a .270/.340/.500-ish line would be somewhat disappointing, sure, but still incredibly valuable.

Jesus Montero, Backup Catcher?

Eye of the ... Jesus. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

All throughout the offseason, the Yankees have maintained that Russell Martin is the starting catcher, saying so rather unequivocally on numerous occasions. They haven’t been so committal when talking about the backup catcher’s spot though, saying that Jesus Montero and Austin Romine were in direct competition with the incumbent Frankie Cervelli. For the most part we’ve (or at least I’ve) blown that off as standard Yankees-speak, saying there was a competition when there were really wasn’t just to keep everyone motivated. Nothing wrong with that, and there are plenty of reasons to stick with Cervelli in 2011.

However, as I mentioned on yesterday’s podcast, the more I hear Joe Girardi and the coaching staff talk in Spring Training, the more I think Montero has a legit chance to win the job. Does that mean he’s the favorite? No, of course not. But it certainly sounds like he’s got a non-zero chance to break camp with the big league team. So the question becomes: would the Yankees being doing the right thing by going with Montero as the backup catcher? Let’s do this old school, with a pros and cons list…

The Pros

The obvious difference between Cervelli and Montero is the offense. Cervelli’s best single season at any level was his .278/.384/.396 (.366 wOBA) performance with High-A Tampa in 2007. Montero’s worst single season was his .280/.366/.421 (.373 wOBA) effort with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2007. If you want a full season league, it was last year’s .289/.353/.517 (.375 wOBA) performance with Triple-A. Cervelli has eight (!!!) career homers in five total years. Montero hit 15 homers after being almost traded for Cliff Lee last July. I think we can all agree that Hey-Zeus could outhit Frankie with a rolled up newspaper.

Aside from the offense, one benefit that is perhaps being overlooked is that Montero would get to work with Joe Girardi and Tony Pena on a daily basis in the big leagues. Obviously it’s his defense that’s holding him back right now, and although former big league catcher/Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar has done a fine job tutoring the team’s best prospect behind the dish, Girardi and Pena could impart some serious catching knowledge on the kid. It’s not uncommon for a club’s best instructors/coaches to be at the big league level. Montero might not catch everyday in the show, but he’d be able to work with those two while catching bullpen sessions and what not on a daily basis.

Remember, the Yankees broke Jorge Posada in over a period of several years, they didn’t just throw him to the wolves and make him the everyday backstop as soon as he was called up. Posada started 52 games behind the plate in 1997, then 85 in 1998, then 98 in 1999 before starting 136 games at catcher in 2000, a number one backstop’s workload. Montero could be broken in in a similar fashion with Martin serving as he caddy. Perhaps 50 starts in 2011, 80 in 2012, and then 120 in 2013 (the season after Martin will be able to leave as a free agent) would work.

The Cons

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

At just 21 years old, Montero could certainly benefit from playing every single day at the Triple-A level. Remember, his track record of performing there is basically 50 games long. The first 73 contests weren’t so kind to him. And that’s just offensively. Playing everyday would do nothing but help his defense, no matter how hopeless it might look. Catching bullpens and listening to Girardi and Pena is one thing, getting behind the dish in game situations is another all together.

There’s also a chance that playing sparingly with stunt his development offensively. I don’t think that’s the case, but we can’t discount it. Playing two or three games a week isn’t the same as playing five or six times, Montero might have trouble maintaining a rhythm. A demotion back to Triple-A might hurt his confidence as well. Same deal for Cervelli, we can’t forget him. A trip to the minors might hurt his development and/or trade value, who knows. That’s obviously not a priority, but it’s part of the pro/con equation.

One final thing to remember is that there’s a very real financial gain to be made by keeping Montero in the minors for the first two months of the season. Forget about the arbitration clock stuff, the Yankees can afford whatever raises he’d be due, but the difference between Montero becoming a free agent after 2016 and after 2017 is having him on the Opening Day roster or called him up in late-May/early-June. Those two months in 2011 will give the Yankees an extra six or seven months of Montero down the road at the below market price, when he should be in the prime of his career.

The Verdict

For all we know, the talk of the backup catcher competition might just be that, talk. The same way Bubba Crosby was going to be the center fielder in 2006, or the way the team wouldn’t give up a first round pick to sign a reliever this winter, it could just be an act. But if not, if the team is legitimately giving Montero a chance to unseat Cervelli as the backup backstop, well I think I’m pretty cool with that.

I wasn’t always though, I was pretty gung-ho about starting Jesus in the minors just so that he could play everyday and gain what I felt was invaluable experience, but I’m starting to believe the benefits of having him in the show with an apprenticeship under Martin, Posada, Girardi, and Pena are very real. Girardi recently said the biggest step in becoming a big league catcher is “earning the trust of your staff,” something Montero can do gradually than all at once. Learning to call a game and prepare beforehand via video and scouting reports … that’s all part of the big league package. I’m sure the team could find 250 or more plate appearances for him throughout the season, I doubt that’ll be a problem.

“I think the way you look at it is two-fold,” said the skipper over the weekend. “Is he ready to play up here, and can he help you win games? If those two things line up, then there’s a pretty good chance we’ll take that player.” Unless he falls on his face or Cervelli does his best Albert Pujols impression in camp, I’m all aboard the “Montero for backup catcher” bandwagon.