Getting to know Hiroki Kuroda

In just a few days, Hiroki Kuroda will show up to camp, along with the rest of the Yankees’ pitchers and catchers. Surely a number of writers will introduce us to the team’s only big free agent signing this winter. You can get a head start on that, though. Genuine Good Guy Alex Belth penned a phenomenal profile of Kuroda at Bronx Banter. It really covers his character more than his baseball abilities. Looking for analysis with more of a statistical bent? William Juliano follows up with an analytical look at Kuroda. Both will get you up to speed with Kuroda before he even reports.

Being Brandon Laird

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Being an infield prospect in the upper levels of the Yankees’ farm system is a tough life these days. You know you’re not going to take a job from Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, or Mark Teixeira, so the only way you’re going to make the show is as an injury replacement, a bench piece, or through a trade. Eduardo Nunez has handled the bench player thing reasonably well, but he has the advantage of being a middle infielder. Corner guys like Brandon Laird aren’t so lucky.

The 24-year-old Laird briefly made his big league debut last July before getting an extended stay in September, reaching base seven times (four singles and three walks) in 25 plate appearances. He had a disappointing year with Triple-A Scranton, producing just a .310 wOBA and 16 homers in 489 plate appearances after winning the Double-A Eastern League MVP Award in 2010 (.383 wOBA and 23 homers in 454 plate appearances). Right-handed power (career .189 ISO in the minors) is his offensive calling card, not patience (6.4 BB%). Unless he stops chasing pitcher’s pitches, he’ll have a hard time tapping into that power at the big league level.

Defensively, Laird has made huge strides since being drafted and is considered a third baseman for the long-term. He’s also played plenty of first base, and the Yankees have had him give left field a try over the last 18 months or so. The increased versatility helps his cause, because like I said, serving as a bench player is one of the few ways he’ll be able to crack the big league roster in the foreseeable future. With Bill Hall signed and Eric Chavez potentially on his way back, the Yankees don’t have any room for Laird at the moment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he could use some more regular playing time at Triple-A to work on his selectivity.

The Yankees lack impact position player prospects at the Double and Triple-A level, but they do have a fair amount of infield depth with Laird, Ramiro Pena, Corban Joseph, David Adams, and minor league signing Jayson Nix. They have options if someone gets hurt at the big league level, and alternatives if they choose to trade Laird. He’s a lesser version of Kevin Kouzmanoff, or at least the Kevin Kouzmanoff that came up through the Indians system a half-decade ago. The Tribe traded that Kouzmanoff with a handful of MLB at-bats to his credit because he was blocked at third by Casey Blake, receiving another blocked prospect in return (Josh Barfield, Jesse’s son).

Given Alex Rodriguez’s increasingly problematic lack of durability, it certainly makes sense for the Yankees to keep Laird around as insurance. Unlike the Penas and CoJos and Nixes of the world, he can at least hit for some power. Pulling the trigger on a blocked prospect-for-blocked prospect trade isn’t a terrible idea either, but those deals aren’t exactly easy to come by. Good luck finding a club in need of a third baseman with an outfielder to spare. Laird is stuck in a weird spot because of the players ahead of him on the depth chart, but he’s got a few years to go before having to worry about Dante Bichette Jr. or Tyler Austin coming up behind him.

The Vlad Guerrero Option

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images))

The Yankees’ search for a part-time DH has essentially come down to three finalists: Raul Ibanez, who remains the front-runner; Johnny Damon, whose quest for 3,000 hits might be hindering his play, and Hideki Matsui, whose 2011 season looked like the end of the road. Chances are the Yankees will move on one of these players once they’ve shed A.J. Burnett and a portion of his salary. But none of that has happened yet. That leaves other suitors a chance to make a case. One has already spoken up.

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Vladimir Guerrero “has made it known to the Yankees that he wants their DH spot.” We’ve been over many possible DH candidates, but to date we haven’t discussed Guerrero. He just didn’t seem to fit, based on a surface judgment. Instead of simply accepting this, though, let’s look a bit deeper into what Vlad can bring to the team. Might he be a better DH option than the current suitors?

The first strike against Vlad appears to be his handedness. All of the prominent suitors for the Yankees’ DH role, including minor league signee Russ Branyan, hit from the left side of the plate. Given the current roster construction, a lefty does make sense for that part-time DH spot. Since Andruw Jones will take reps against left-handers, the Yanks could use someone who can handle right-handers.

Yet that obscures the issue a bit. First, some of Jones’ at-bats will be at the expense of Brett Gardner. While Gardner can hold his own against lefties, he has absolutely no pop against them. Using Jones in left adds power to the lineup, while at the same time keeping Gardner’s legs fresh. The DH spot, then, can remain open against LHP at times.

The other issue: not every lefty hits righties better than every righty. This comes at the top of the scale — Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera, both righties, have hit right-handed pitching better than anyone in the last two seasons — and the bottom. That is, just because someone hits left handed doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily good against them. We can see this when comparing the DH candidates.

In terms of overall numbers, Damon and Vlad have been the best hitters in the last two seasons, producing 109 and 108 wRC+ numbers. Ibanez trails them by a bit, producing average numbers. Matsui, on the strength of his 2010 season, actually ranks just behind Vlad and Damon, with a 107 wRC+.

When we turn to production against RHP, Matsui actually comes out ahead with a 110 wRC+. From there Ibanez, Vlad, and Damon are all close, with slightly above average numbers. That is, there’s not a huge difference among them in terms of production against right-handed pitching. That is, Vlad can hang with them, even though he bats right-handed.

In terms of age, Vlad also holds the advantage. He’s 37 this season. Ibanez is 40, and Damon and Matsui are both 38. There might not be much to this, since they’re all past their primes and could fall off a cliff at any moment. There’s also the issue of their current declines. Here’s how much each one dropped off, in terms of wRC+, from 2010 to 2011.

Guerrero: -24
Damon: even
Ibanez: -19
Matsui: -30

Of course, the dips from Matsui and Guerrero are greater, because they had far better 2010 seasons than both Damon and Ibanez. At the same time, Damon is the only one to finish with above-average numbers in 2011. This makes the situation a bit murkier.

If one thing becomes clear when breaking down the situation, it’s that Ibanez’s status as front-runner makes little sense. He’s the oldest in the group, saw a pretty steep decline from 2010 to 2011, and overall produced the worst numbers in the past two years. While Matsui’s stark decline from 2010 to 2011 might disqualify him as a serious candidate, the same could, and probably should, be said of Ibanez. It’s hard to see where the optimism comes from.

Guerrero, it appears, isn’t at all the worst candidate for the Yankees’ DH gig. He might hit right-handed, but hey, so did the guy who was originally supposed to fill the DH role in 2012. The only big red flag is that he realized a marked drop-off in 2011, though part of that involves his quality 2010 season. His case is definitely stronger than I had originally envisioned.

Chances are the Yankees won’t seriously consider Guerrero for DH, and in a way that’s a shame. Maybe he doesn’t hit left-handed, but he looks like a better option than Ibanez right now. If the Yankees are having trouble working out something with Ibanez or Damon, perhaps Vlad does become a dark horse. It’s hard to make a case that the other guys are much, if any, better.

Reports: Angels, Indians want Burnett too

Via Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, both the Angels and Indians have expressed interest in trading for A.J. Burnett, though the Halos are one of ten teams included in his no-trade clause and he won’t waive it. Talks with the Tribe apparently revolve around Burnett and Travis Hafner, who’d fit that left-handed DH role beautifully. Cleveland isn’t exactly thrilled about that potential swap though, plus Pronk is owed $15.75M next year (including the buyout of his 2013 option). They’d have to figure out the money.

Over the weekend we heard that four teams have interest in Burnett, one being the Pirates and one being a club on his no-trade list. That means we’re down to just one mystery team.

Join the 2012 RAB fantasy league series

Yesterday we announced the 2012 RAB fantasy leagues. To get an idea of what we’re going for, I recommend you read the original fantasy leagues post. It explains the procedure that we’re using to make this as easy as possible for everyone.

We’ve already filled up plenty of leagues, but the fun shouldn’t stop there. We’re trying to get a pretty big series going here. And so from now until interest starts to die down we’re going to continue offering you new leagues. Here are a few from last night, and a few new ones, that presumably still have spots available (but might not for long after this post goes live).

RAB Pinstripe Pride; ID: 44914; password: pineda4life

RAB Ramiro Pena Pals; ID: 45421; password: canada

RAB BuckFoston; 45953; password: buck

RAB Bronx Bombers; 47082; dj24life

Go here to sign up for any of these leagues.

If yesterday is any indicator, the leagues will fill up pretty quickly. If you want to start a new league, please do so. We encourage it. Just put RAB as the first part of the league name, so we can keep track of all our leagues. The goal is to award a prize to the team with the best win percentage at the end of the season.

To create a league:

1) Go here to create your league. We’re doing head-to-head leagues with 12 teams. The stats we prefer to use are in the original post.

2) Email me — josephp (at) riveraveblues (dot) com — and give me the league info, including the ID and password, so I can add it to this post.

3) Email me again when the league fills up.

That about covers it. Questions can go through email, through the tip box, or, if you don’t need an immediate response, in the comments.

The Importance of Frankie Cervelli

(REUTERS/Joe Giza)

Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. That was the focus of the offseason, and it still is today given the continued A.J. Burnett trade talks. We haven’t paid too much attention to the other end of the battery though, mostly because the Yankees have some upper level catching depth and an above average big league backstop ready to handle the bulk of the workload in Russell Martin. The Jesus Montero trade took away some of that depth, but Austin Romine is still around as if Frankie Cervelli, the forgotten backstop.

Cervelli, who turns 26 next month, isn’t a terrible backup catcher even though we all seem to collectively loathe him. He’s got 560 big league plate appearances to his credit (roughly a full season), and he’s consistently put the ball in play with solid walk (7.9%) and strikeout (15.1%) rates. His .272 batting average and .316 BABIP are reasonable for a player with his batted ball profile, meaning few fly balls but lots of grounders and line drives. Of course the lack of fly balls means Frankie has next to no power (.082 ISO), but he did go on a rampage before getting hurt last September — three homers in five games across ten days, including at least one more ball knocked down by rain and wind in that ridiculous 11:30pm ET start against the Orioles. Offensively, a .272/.338/.354 line is pretty good compared to most backup catchers. With any luck, that power surge is something more than a fluke, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Despite a strong reputation, Frankie hasn’t been anything special on defense. He’s thrown out just 23 of 116 attempted basestealers in his career (19.8%), though it’s worth noting that runners are 26-for-29 against him when Burnett and his notoriously slow delivery is on the mound. Remove A.J. from the equation, and Cervelli’s been a more palatable 20-for-87 (23.0%) when it comes to throwing out runners. There aren’t any great (or even good) metrics for catcher defense, but I think we can all agree that Frankie isn’t the best receiver back there just from watching him over the last three seasons. He’s not the defensive-first backstop I’m sure Joe Girardi would like to have, but the total package is a viable big league backup catcher.

Cervelli has had some injury problems in the recent past, some fluky (Elliot Johnson breaking his wrist, a foul ball breaking his foot) and some not so fluky (four reported concussions in the last seven seasons). The last concussion came in September, when Nick Markakis bowled him over on a play at the plate. The Yankees take concussions very seriously (as they should), so the injury ended Frankie’s season and forced Romine to the big leagues. With Montero in Seattle, the Yankees need Cervelli to stay on the field this season to make sure Romine gets the couple hundred Triple-A at-bats he needs developmentally. Health is a skill but only to a certain extent, so there’s not much more anyone can do besides cross their fingers and hope he stays on the field.

Anecdotally, Martin seemed to play (or at least hit) better when getting regular rest last season, which is another factor to consider. A healthy and productive Cervelli allows the club to take it easy on their starting catcher during the hot summer months, theoretically keeping him fresher for a potential playoff drive. With all due respect to Gus Molina, Frankie is the guy you want filling in on Martin’s off days so that Romine can keep doing his thing in Triple-A. The backup catcher won’t sink the season no matter who it is, but having a healthy and reasonably productive Cervelli will have a positive impact on Romine, Martin, and the team’s overall chances.

Making sense of the Burnett trade talk

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The last few days have been abuzz with news about a potential trade involving A.J. Burnett, most likely to the Pirates with the Yankee saving anywhere from $8-15M over the next two years. Reports made it sound as if a trade was imminent, but instead they insisted nothing was close. If a trade is made, I have to think it would get done this week, before pitchers and catchers officially report to camp on Sunday (the Pirates report on Friday). No one wants this to drag out and have it be a distraction in Spring Training.

Currently stuck in a three-man battle for the fifth starter’s spot, there are certainly some valid reasons to keep Burnett and use him in that role. His strikeout (8.18 K/9 and 20.7 K%) and ground ball (49.2%) rates improved considerably last year (6.99 K/9 and 17.5 K% with a 44.9 GB% in 2010), and his outrageous homerun rate (1.47 HR/9 and 17.0% HR/FB) should rebound only because no one has ever given up one homer for every six fly balls over an extended period of time. Burnett’s 3.86 xFIP in 2011 paints a much rosier picture than his 5.15 ERA, but you have to be careful with xFIP because it assumes a pitcher should have a league average homerun rate (10.6% HR/FB). That part is simply not true; pitchers give up homers at different rates. From 2006-2010 (his time in the AL excluding last season), approximately 11.9% of Burnett’s fly balls left the yard, more than the average.

That said, the difference between A.J.’s homer rate and the league average isn’t huge, but we should probably adjust our expectations a bit and not take the xFIP data as gospel. Don’t get me wrong, if the homer rate comes down he’ll make for a damn fine fifth starter. The question the Yankees have to ask themselves is whether they think Burnett can actually pitch to his xFIP over the next two years, and if they’re willing to gamble $33M to find out. Given the trade talks, the answer is pretty clearly no. At age 35, it’s reasonable to expect Burnett to get worse over the next two seasons, not better. This could very well be their last chance to unload (part of) his contract, because if they keep him and he does decline further this coming year, they’ll have no chance to trade him, not for anything close to the kind of salary relief they’re looking at right now anyway.

Just the fact that they’re talking about dealing Burnett — who’s turned into a workhorse that takes the ball every fifth day regularly — tells you the Yankees are confident in their pitching depth. Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes are more than qualified to hold down the final spot in the big league rotation, and the minor league backups include David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, and Adam Warren, probably in that order. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are a little further away but should be able to step in at midseason if things go reasonably according to plan. There won’t be any Tim Reddings or Darrell Mays coming to town this year unless something many things have gone horribly, horribly wrong. Simply entertaining the notion of dealing A.J. is a vote of confidence in the kids.

The Yankees know Burnett better than any of us, and appear to have decided that trading him and using the cost savings to fill out the remaining holes on the roster — backup infielder, left-handed DH, maybe a second lefty reliever? — is better than keeping him around in some capacity. I think A.J. could be a pretty effective one-inning reliever for reasons Joe outlined last year, but the club isn’t exactly hurting for bullpen help either. Eating all that money to move the last two years of Burnett’s contract is a tough pill to swallow (especially since he’s in no way a jerk or an unpleasant person), but I do believe trading him and getting out from under as much of the contract as possible is the right move at the moment. Using the extra money to improve other aspects of the roster is icing on the cake.