What Went Wrong: Curtis Granderson

Over the next few weeks we’re going to explore what went right and what went wrong for the Yankees in 2010.

We saw the Granderson strikeout pose often in the first half (Brandon Wade/AP)

The Yankees needed an outfielder. They had won the 2009 World Series with a unit of Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, and Nick Swisher, but that was going to change during the off-season. For starters, Damon was a free agent and didn’t appear willing to accept a cut from his $13 million salary. That created a potential opening in left field. In center field the Yankees could have improved, too. Their center fielders, Cabrera and Brett Gardner, combined to produce league average numbers, a 101 wRC+. While there’s nothing wrong with a league-average center field unit, the Yankees needed to improve if Damon were to depart. The solution became apparent early during the 2009 Winter Meetings.

After a day or so of heavy rumors, the Yankees finally completed a trade that went Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, and Phil Coke to Detroit for Curtis Granderson. But the move was not met with universal praise. Granderson has produced poor numbers in 2009, which left many wondering why the Yankees would trade one of their best prospects, also a center fielder, for a player whose numbers — to paraphrase a common thought last winter — had declined in each of the last two years. That, of course, didn’t tell the whole story of Granderson’s development as a player.

Looking at Granderson’s minor league numbers it’s easy to see the makings of a star. His lowest OPS in those four seasons was .823, and he followed it up with a .922 season, after which he was named Baseball America’s 57th best prospect. He followed that up with a very good season in AAA, which he followed up with a decent, though powerful, stint in the bigs. While his 2006 season didn’t go so well, Granderson absolutely broke out in 2007, hitting .302/.361/.552 (.395 wOBA). The next season he again hit well, a .374 wOBA. That’s what the Yankees sought to acquire. It would have been unrealistic to expect a center fielder to perpetually produce a nearly .400 wOBA. But .375? If he could do that while continuing to play an excellent center field, he could be the next in the line of stupendous Yankees center fielders.

At the start it appeared as though Granderson might fulfill that promise. On the seventh pitch of his first at-bat as a Yankee, Granderson homered off Josh Beckett, giving the Yankees a 2-0 lead. Three nights later he broke a 1-1 tie in the 10th inning with a home run off Jonathan Papelbon. If nothing else he endeared himself to the fan base. He furthered that effort in the next week and a half, going 10 for 28 (.357) with three walks (.419 OBP) and three extra base hits (.607 SLG). Might the Yankees have found the star center fielder that had eluded them since the days of Bernie Williams?

The hot streak, as we know, did not last. In his next 60 PA Granderson hit .154/.254/.250. While going first-to-third in a game against the White Sox on May 1, Granderson came up limping. The groin strain put him on the 15-day DL, with a three to four week estimated return time. Considering his slumping ways, he wasn’t much missed. In his first seven games back he went 10 for 24 with five extra base hits, but that again was a short-lived hot streak. From June 4 through August 9, Granderson hit .224/.284/.398 in 217 PA, striking out 24.4 percent of his PA (27 percent of his AB). That was enough for him. He went to hitting instructor Kevin Long for some work on his swing. He sat out two games while trying to iron out the kinks.

We said a lot about Granderson during those first few months. First we tried to see the positive during his April slump. A disappointing month after his return from the DL we saw the value in exercising patience, noting specifically the curing powers of Kevin Long. He did land in our list of seven players whose first halves fell short of expectations, but again we maintained hope. Then, of course, just as Long is working with Granderson, I opened my fat mouth and called for a Granderson platoon. It made sense, at least at the time. But as Mike will discuss, it wasn’t at all necessary.

No matter what excuses we make, no matter what light we view it in, Curtis Granderson hit very poorly through July. He showed flashes of excellence, especially when he went on a power streak, but the overall package just didn’t seem to be there. The Yankees, though, had a different plan. Instead of platooning Granderson with new acquisition Austin Kearns, they instead placed him on the bench for two games against Texas so that he and Long could work on his swing. Mike will discuss the results of those sessions in the next article.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 8th, 2010

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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As Mick Jagger once said…

Possibly the only documented instance of Randy Johnson smiling while with the Yankees. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The Yankees always almost wanted Randy Johnson. They nearly wanted him in 1994 when the Mariners first seemed willing to trade him. They wanted him again in 1997 and 1998 when the Mariners were definitely going to trade him. They kinda, sorta wanted him after 1998 when he hit free agency, and they lusted after him in the wake of the Diamondbacks’ trade of Curt Schilling to the Red Sox.

By the time the Yankees finally landed Johnson, the Big Unit was on the wrong side of 40 and on the wrong end of his career. In 2005, he had a good-for-anyone-else but good-for-him first season in New York, going 17-8 with a 3.79 ERA over 225.2 innings with an 8.4 K/9 IP. In 2006, he had a terrible year. He managed to win 17 games but lost 11 with an ERA of 5.00. He struck out just 172 in 205 innings, and his 7.6 K/9 IP was his lowest mark since his age 25 season. Once the October scourge for the Yanks, he suffered through two, allowing 10 runs in 13 innings over two forgettable Yankees ALDS losses, and today, the Big Unit Era is a dark time for the Yankees and their fans.

I refuse to draw parallels between Randy Johnson and Cliff Lee although they clearly exist. The Yankees tried to land Lee at the deadline and failed, as they did with Randy Johnson, and the Yankees will now try to sign Lee as a free agent, as they may or may not have done with Randy Johnson in 1998. But Lee is a good nine years younger than the Unit was when he finally came to New York, and while Cliff Lee has been very good of late, Randy Johnson 1992-2002 was one of the best pitchers in baseball history. We’ll have our fun with the Randy Johnson saga anyway.

The first time the Yanks and Randy Johnson are linked in a serious rumor, it is 1994, and little do either the Mariners or the Yankees realize what awaits them at the end of the following season. As the Daily News reports a year later, the Mariners tried to rade Randy Johnson to the Yankees for Sterling Hitchcock, Domingo Jean, Mark Hutton and Russ Davis, but the Yankees said no. They had no desire to move Hitchcock — who would eventually go the Mariners with Davis in the Tino Martinez/Jeff Nelson deal.

In 1995, though, the Yanks had a team payroll that year of $58 million, but it was a high enough figure to lead all of baseball. (The Orioles were second at $47 million.) Had the Mariners even been willing to trade Johnson, money, said the Boss, was an obstacle. “Randy Johnson is one of the great pitchers in the game,” Steinbrenner said in April, before that season began. “It would take some very creative stuff to be able to add him, because I’m right at the level that I want to be.”

In 1997, two years after Randy Johnson and the Mariners had stunned the Yanks in the playoffs, Seattle needed to ship out the Big Unit. He was a season away from free agency, and the Mariners wanted to realize his value before they lost him. The winter before the Yanks’ historic run in 1998 featured numerous Johnson rumors. Peter Botte offered up a delectable one: The Braves would send Mark Wohlers and two others to Seattle while the Mariners would ship Randy Johnson to New York and the Yankees would send Bernie Williams to Atlanta. The Cubs could have become involved as well, but Bob Watson shot that one down. “I’ll tell you what, if we can pull those kinds of moves off, we need to go over and negotiate the settlements in Iraq,” the Yanks’ then-GM said. “There’s no truth to it.”

Instead, the more likely rumor had the Mariners asking for Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The Yanks had offered up only Rivera for Johnson, and when the Mariners countered by requested Pettitte as well, the Yanks put the kibosh on that deal. The Yankees had no desire to make such a move, even for Randy Johnson, and the Unit himself told the Yanks through the media to wait for him to hit free agency. He wanted the pinstripes; the pinstripes wanted — or at least seem to want — him.

As the 1998 season wore on, so too did the rumors. After the season began, the Mariners came back with a new proposal: Ricky Ledee and Andy Pettitte for Randy Johnson. The Yankees said no, and it looked as though the Dodgers would land Randy in exchange for Hideo Nomo. That deal fell apart too, and talks continued through the trade deadline.

Again on July 31, 1998, the Yankees had their chance. The Mariners asked for Hideki Irabu, Class A pitcher Ryan Bradley and Mike Lowell, but the Yankees did not want to part with Lowell. (That they would do so a few months later and get nothing good in return remains one of Cashman’s worst trades of all time.) The Yankees were left empty-handed at the deadline and went on to win 114 regular season games and the World Series.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to free agency. The Yanks seemingly grew disinterested in Randy Johnson, and it appears to be over the matter of money. In 1998, the Yanks’ payroll sat at $73 million, but the team knew it would have to re-up with a few key players. Bernie Williams and David Cone were both free agents, and Derek Jeter was set for a significant raise in arbitration. While negotiations with Bernie nearly resulted in the premature end of the Williams Era, the Yankees wanted Randy Johnson in early November but were sidetracked by the Williams negotiations. A few days later, the Diamondbacks nabbed Johnson for four years and $50 million, and the Unit responded by winning the Cy Young in each of those seasons.

If the Yanks felt slighted, they never said so. Johnson cited a desire to play close to home, and the Yankees had to get their own house in order first. They recovered from missing out on Randy Johnson by trading David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to the Blue Jays for Roger Clemens, won two more World Series and were stymied by Johnson and the Diamondbacks in 2001. They always wanted Randy Johnson, but at least during the late 1990s, they got what they needed instead.

Yankees contact Cliff Lee’s agent

Via MLBTR, the Yankees have contacted Cliff Lee’s agent to let him know that they’ll be in touch with a contract offer soon. At this point in the offseason two years ago, the Yanks had already offered CC Sabathia the largest pitching contract in baseball history, so clearly they’re not being as aggressive with Lee. That doesn’t mean they don’t really really want him though, we all know they do.

Anyway, the process has started.

Sunday Open Thread

Sorry for the tardiness, I blame daylight savings. Go nuts.

Behind the plate, Montero’s time could be soon

Jesus Montero will be the Yanks’ starting catcher next year, says a Daily News report. Ideally, Montero will catch 100 games with Jorge Posada DHing and filling in behind the dish at times. Francisco Cervelli will start the year as the team’s back-up catcher, but if Austin Romine progresses, he could unseat the defensively inconsistent fist-pumper extraordinaire. The future, in other words, is here, and it’s one we’ve been anticipating since September.

We’ve heard this kind of plan before from the Yankees. Bubba Crosby was to start at center field before Johnny Damon came aboard. Nick Swisher was to be the primary first baseman before Mark Teixeira inked his monster deal. This time, though, Montero — at least at the plate — isn’t the second choice. He’s not a sleight-of-hand designed to serve as a negotiating chit. Offensively, he can be a Major Leaguer, but can he catch?

For Montero’s future and for the Yanks, his ability behind the plate will determine the team’s long-term and short-term plans for catcher, and few can agree on what those plans will be. Mark Feinsand says that the Yanks will not consider trading Montero this year. The team, he says, discussed it last week. “Montero’s future was among the topics of discussion during the Yankee meetings at the Stadium over the past two days, with Lee and the free-agent and trade markets dominating the conversation,” he writes. “Montero’s defense has been scrutinized, but team brass believes he made enough strides this season to assume the bulk of the workload in 2011.”

The defense is the issue. Montero is the Yanks’ number one prospect and has been for a few years. But that’s because of his bat, which many believe could be as good as Mike Piazza’s or even Miguel Cabrera’s. Last year, Baseball America questioned his defense:

Montero has improved under the tutelage of catching coordinator Julio Mosquera, but he still grades out as a below-average defender. The Yankees no longer talk about him as an everyday major league catcher. His defense frequently is compared to Mike Piazza’s, though he’s a bit more athletic. Montero is somewhat stiff and lacks agility behind the plate, leading to 11 passed balls in 59 games last year. He also threw out just 13 percent of basestealers at high Class A Tampa, and they tested him 108 times overall—nearly two attempts per game. While he improved, he has a long arm stroke that slows his transfer and detracts from his arm strength. His modest athleticism and below-average speed probably preclude a move to the outfield or third base, a position he played prior to signing.

Those who saw Montero play at AAA in 2010 say these concerns weren’t resolved. This year, he caught 105 games, and while he threw out 23 percent of would-be base stealers, International League opponents attempted 129 stolen bases against him. He also allowed 15 passed balls, and scouts — including ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein — are wary of his future behind the plate. I haven’t seen him in person yet, but it doesn’t seem as though we can feel entirely comfortable with the idea of Montero’s catching 100 games.

Of course, Yankee fans are used to seeing sub-par defensive catchers. Jorge Posada hasn’t been at his peak behind the dish in a few seasons, and Cervelli hasn’t put his tools to use yet. If Montero’s bat is as good as advertised, he might be able to overcome defensive lapses, and he should be able to learn from Tony Peña at the Big League level.

Still, it’s a chance the Yankees almost have to take. They can’t give Cervelli over 300 plate appearances again in 2011, and Posada can’t withstand the every-day demands of catching. “It seemed when we caught him three days in a row, that was about the limit,” Girardi said to Feinsand of Jorge.

So the future starts in March. Montero will officially be given the chance to win the job out of Spring Training, but as we saw in 2010 with Phil Hughes, it will have to take an awful Spring Training for Montero to lose that battle against himself. Here’s to hoping the glove can handle the Big League job.

Banuelos impresses in Rising Stars Showcase

Time to get you caught up on all the winter ball action…

AzFL Phoenix (14-5 loss to Peoria on Thursday)
Brandon Laird, LF: 1 for 5, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 K – threw a runner out at second
Jose Pirela, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 E (fielding)
Ryan Pope: 0.1 IP, zeroes, 1 K – four pitches, three strikes

AzFL Phoenix (10-0 loss to Scottsdale on Friday)
Brandon Laird, LF: 0 for 4, 2 K
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 3, 1 K, 1 PB – threw out both attempted basestealers, including 2010 first overall pick Bryce Harper

AzFL Rising Stars Showcase (West beat East 3-2, walk-off style)
Brandon Laird, LF: 0 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K - started and batted cleanup … drove in the run with a groundout in the first … made a few routine fly balls look slightly adventurous (he reminded me of Johnny Damon with the all the turning around), but he caught everything he should have
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 PB – started and batted fifth … singled off Mariners’ prospect Josh Fields … allowed a run to score from third on the passed ball
Manny Banuelos: 2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 0-2 GB/FB – 18 of 31 pitches were strikes (58.1%) … he got victimized by some bad luck in the second (run scored on a would-be inning ending grounder through the third baseman’s legs) … PitchFX had him topping out at 95, and watching the game I was impressed with how easy the ball came out of his hands, there’s very little effort in his delivery … the breaking ball needs work, but he got swings and misses consistently with his fastball and changeup

There are no AzFL games today, so here’s an update on everyone playing in various other winter leagues…

Australian Baseball League
Kyle Perkins: 1 G, 0 for 2, 2 K – I didn’t even know the ABL existed, but it’s good Perkins gets to go home for the winter and keep playing

Dominican Winter League
Wilkins Arias: 7 G, 5 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K (1.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP)
Jon Ortiz: 3 G, 2.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K (6.75 ERA, 2.25 WHIP)
Zack Segovia: 3 IP, 5 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K (1.80 ERA, 0.40 WHIP)

Mexican Pacific League
Justin Christian: 21 G, 35 for 86, 15 R, 7 2B, 4 HR, 12 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K, 11 SB, 0 CS (.407/.474/.628) – killin’ it
Walt Ibarra: 21 G, 18 for 68, 15 R, 3 2B, 4 RBI, 4 BB, 15 K, 1 SB, 1 CS (.265/.311/.309)
Jorge Vazquez: 3 G, 2 for 11, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 3 K (.182/.182/.455)
Francisco Gil: 4 G, 6 ER, 10 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 1 WP (10.50 ERA, 2.17 WHIP) – didn’t pitch last week
Eric Wordekemper: 10 G, 9.1 IP, 12 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 9 K (7.71 ERA, 1.61 WHIP)

Puerto Rican League
Rene Rivera: 9 G, 9 for 30, 6 R, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 5 BB, 10 K 9 (.233/.343/.433)

Venezuelan Winter League
Jose Gil: 14 G, 13 for 47, 4 R, 5 2B, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 1 BB, 7 K (.277/.300/.447)
Edwar Gonzalez: 10 G, 4 for 13, 3 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 5 K (.308/.357/.385)
Luis Nunez: 7 G, 2 for 10, 1 R (.200/.200/.200) – didn’t play at all last week
Marcos Vechionacci: 15 G, 17 for 51, 5 R, 4 2B, 3 RBI, 5 BB, 12 K, 3 SB, 1 CS (.333/.393/.412)
Romulo Sanchez: 2 G, 2.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 0 K (6.75 ERA, 1.88 WHIP)
Josh Schmidt: 5 G, 4 GS, 23.2 IP, 12 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 12 BB, 25 K, 1 HB (1.52 ERA, 1.001 WHIP) – solid

Still no sign of Juan Marcano, Emerson Landoni, Eduardo Sosa, Jesus Montero, and Jon Albaladejo. The first four are playing in Venezuela, Albie’s in Puerto Rico.