The focus this spring is on the final two rotation spots, but that’s not the only position battle in Yankees camp. There is also a competition for the final spot on the bench. The main contestants, it seems, are Eric Chavez, Ronnie Belliard, Brandon Laird, Justin Maxwell, and Greg Golson. Each player brings something different to the table, so the Yankees will have options. In fact, it is exactly that — options, but in a different sense — that might keep the best of the lot in AAA to start the season.
Usually when a player is drafted twice, his position improves the second time around. Not so with Laird. The Indians took him in the 27th round of the 2005 draft. Then, when he entered two years later, the Yankees took him in the same round. He signed the second time and played the rest of the season in the rookie Gulf Coast League, where he produced unsurprisingly solid numbers. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he’d really break out.
Despite playing in a home park that hitters typically hate, Laird produced incredible power numbers in AA Trenton, slugging 23 homers to go along with his 22 doubles. The end result was a .291/.355/.523 line and a late-season promotion to AAA. It also opened the Yankees’ eyes a bit. Knowing that he probably wouldn’t fit at third base — the team is set there for a number of years, after all — they decided to have him try the outfield in the Arizona Fall League. He enters camp this year as a guy who can play first, third, and the corner outfield positions. That makes him more versatile than a number of other 25th spot contestants.
When you see Laird’s breakout and then read stories like the one Marc Carig published this morning, it’s tough not to root for Laird. He is much improved on defense, and he could very well have the best bat of the guys competing for that spot. The problem, of course, is that the Yankees don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole him as a utility guy just yet. That’s probably the only role he can fill on this team, unless his bat takes another big step forward this year. The best option, then, is to send him down to AAA and let him get regular reps. He can provide depth in case of injury or ineffectiveness, and he might be a useful chip at the trade deadline.
If the Yankees were picking the 25th roster spot based on versatility and production potential, I’d have to think Laird would get the nod. He can play more positions than Eric Chavez, and he has a better bat than Belliard and Golson, and probably Maxwell, too. But since the Yankees have options, and since he’s young and potentially valuable down the road, they’ll most likely preserve their depth and go with someone else in the 25th spot. Meanwhile, Laird can get more reps, especially in the outfield, which will go towards building his value as a bench player or a trade chip.
Make no mistake: the Yankees have a valuable player in Laird. It just doesn’t seem as though this is his year to break camp with the team. If he continues hitting like he did last year, he’ll get his share of shots. But this year the Yankees will be better served by letting Laird play every day and taking someone else in a spot that might account for 150 PA during the course of a season.
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 be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.
The Yankees have been waiting for Robbie Cano to step up and become a cornerstone player rather than the really, really good complementary piece he was earlier in his career for a few seasons now. Cano took that step forward last year. He was a legitimate MVP candidate, finishing third in the voting thanks to a .389 wOBA and 6.4 fWAR, the sixth highest among AL position players. Just one Yankee position player was within two wins of his production. By all methods of evaluation, he was the team’s best player in 2010.
And now comes the hard part. The Yankees are expecting their still 28-year-old second baseman to maintain that production in 2011, counting on him to be that cornerstone player as the roster turns over. His offense is no longer an added bonus at the bottom third of the lineup, it’s being counted on in the middle of the order. With no fewer than 159 games played in each of the last four seasons, he’s the only player on the infield to not experience some kind of injury or age-related setback recently, and that durability is part of what makes Robbie so important to the team. Everyone knows he’ll be there day-in and day-out.
What does 2011 have in store for the young superstar? Let’s take a look…
In the prime of his career, last season was just a jumping off point for Cano. His power stroke is propped up by what is now a five-year trend of increasing fly ball rates, steadily climbing from 28.2% in 2006 to 36.5% last year. Cano’s line drive rate has stabilized at a little over 19% in the last three years while his ground ball rate continues to fall. Lots of fly balls and line drives is a recipe for extra base hits, and with a little help from Yankee Stadium, Robbie eclipses the 30 homerun plateau for the first time in his career, chipping in his usual 40+ doubles.
Chicks did increases in power output, but Cano’s bread-and-butter is still his uncanny ability to hit for average. A .320 and .319 hitter in the last two seasons, respectively, Robbie again matches that mark and picks up 200 hits for the third straight season. The improved batting eye he showed off in 2010 continues to get better, and his 8.2% walk rate (6.3% removing intentionals) climbs into double digits, pushing his on-base percentage north of .400 for the first time in his career.
On the other side of the ball, the advanced defensive metrics finally recognize what we’ve all known for the last few years: Cano is a Gold Glove caliber defender at second. His range to his right somewhat compensates for Derek Jeter‘s perpetually declining range to his left, saving the pitching staff a couple extra runs during the course of the season. Put it all together and you’ve got the game’s best offensive second baseman and one of its best defensive second baseman, resulting in a pace that threatens, if not flat out exceeds 7.0 fWAR.
Aside from the obvious (injury, etc.), the worst thing that could happen to Cano is that the league finally figures out a way to get him out consistently. So far that hasn’t happened; Cano’s always been a guy that’s fallen into slumps because of his bad habits, not because pitchers have exploited a weakness. He can be prone to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, probably his biggest drawback, but so far he’s mitigated the damage with his exceptional contact skills (just 6.2% swings and misses in his career, 5.7% since 2008).
As a guy that makes so much contact, Cano’s offensive production will always be closely tied to his BABIP. It’s been in the .320’s in three of the last four years, and the one year it wasn’t was 2008. That’s the year he hit .271/.305/.410 with a .307 wOBA (.283 BABIP), resulting in a total worth of just 0.7 fWAR. The unpredictability of the BABIP beast will be Robbie’s enemy just as much as the opposing pitcher, perhaps moreso. Randomness can be a bitch.
With 30 homers now within react, Cano could start selling out for power to the pull side. He might hit a few more dingers, but his average and on-base percentage will take hits, possibly considerable ones. Barring a complete breakdown either physically or mechanically, the worst case scenario for Cano has him returning to those 2008 levels of production, which would be almost a six win drop-off for the Yankees.
What’s Likely To Happen
In all likelihood, 2010 was a career year for Robbie, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean he’s going to tail off and turn into a glorified version of Juan Uribe this season, but the performance might be merely very good instead of MVP caliber. Cano set career highs in homers (29), walks (57), unintentional walks (43), on-base percentage (.381), slugging percentage (.534), and isolated power (.214) last season, so it’ll be tough for him to top that performance. It’s possible, but unlikely.
If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.
If I had to lay out some odds, I’d say there’s a 50% chance that Cano repeats his 2009 performance this season, a 35% chance he repeats his 2010 performance, a 14% chance he exceeds his 2010 performance, and a 1% chance that he falls off a cliff. Robbie’s floor is very high in 2011, a .370 wOBA and 4.0 fWAR seem to be the bare minimums here.
This morning Marc Carig of the Star Ledger reports that Andrew Brackman will miss this weekend’s action with what Carig termed “tightness and discomfort in his groin.” It doesn’t sound serious, and Brackman himself said that, “It’s not going to hurt me.” But it will prevent him from appearing in the first few live spring training games. He should be back on Tuesday.
We’ve got a relatively short but still sweet mailbag this week. I assume all of you were too busy scheduling your parties for Bartolo Colon‘s start tomorrow to send in questions. Anyways, this week we’re going to talk about a long-term deal for Phil Hughes, Plan B after Russell Martin, a Joba-for-Johan trade, and one more Joba-to-the-rotation scenario. Send your questions in via the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.
Vinny asks: Though it will obviously be determined by a combination of performance coupled with salary demands, do you see Phil Hughes staying with the Yankees long-term once he hits free agency?
We’re a long ways away from this, but I’ll go out on a limb and say yes. That assumes he’s healthy and performing at a level deserving of a long-term extension, of course. The Yankees have no trouble paying to keep their own guys unless they have concerns with the medicals, so the cost won’t be a problem unless Hughes is being unreasonable. Remember, when Andy Pettitte left after 2003, it was because the Yanks were worried about his elbow. Sure enough, he hurt it the next year.
Hughes will hit free agency after the 2013 season, when he’ll be just 27 years old. Quality pitchers make major, major bucks when they hit the open market at that age, and the Yankees have more money than anyone. A seven-year deal (if it comes to that) would only take Phil through age 34 as well, so it wouldn’t be a crazy commitment. As it stands, I think he stays.
Joe asks: Even though Cashman stated that Russell Martin is the primary catcher, what happens if he does not make it? What will be the best pair then? Cervelli/Montero, Cervelli/Romine, Montero/Romine or at the very least Cervelli/Posada? Or sometime of different catcher combo?
If Martin doesn’t hack it for whatever reason, injury or poor performance, I’m all for turning Jesus Montero loose. Jorge Posada is the designated hitter now and should remain there; I only want him catching in an emergency or in an NL park during the World Series or something. Frankie Cervelli would stay in the backup role because that’s what he’s best suited for, and Austin Romine just isn’t ready yet. He absolutely needs more minor league seasoning.
Montero’s ready as far as I’m concerned. I have no worries about the bat playing against AL East pitching, and he could work on his defense at the big league level as long as he’s behind the plate regularly. In fact, an argument can be made that being around Joe Girardi and Tony Pena everyday would be the best thing for his defensive development. We all know he’s going to be below average defensively but that’s fine, you take the bad with the good. We’ve been talking about Montero’s time coming for over a year now, and that time is rapidly approaching.
Brian asks: Assuming he’s healthy, would the Yankees trade Joba Chamberlain for Johan Santana straight up?
They’d better be willing to do that. Joba’s nothing more than a middle reliever right now, a middle reliever they only control for another three years at a below-market but not absurdly team friendly rate. If you can’t give up a reliever for an ace level pitcher, you love your players far too much, I don’t care how good your guy is. If I was the Padres or Dodgers, I’d give up Luke Gregerson or Hong-Chih Kuo for a healthy Santana in a heartbeat.
Of course, Johan is not healthy and won’t be for some time, so this is just a hypothetical. Shoulder surgery is scary stuff, and Santana would have to show he’s healthy and effective before I’d consider trading for that contract. For all we know, that ace level pitcher could be gone forever.
Shaya asks: Is it all possible that Joba remains a reliever until his late twenties (when there is absolutely no more physical maturing and the body is more durable) and then they try again as a starter (a la C.J. Wilson etc.)?
Sure, it’s always possible. I don’t see it happening with the Yankees though, so Joba will have to either get traded or sign elsewhere as a free agent first. The Yankees seem pretty hellbent on keeping him in the bullpen, which is fine, it’s their call. I don’t agree with it but I’m not the one with my neck on the line if it blows up in my face.
From TV deals to concession prices to stadium promotions, baseball teams are in the business of making money. Over the past few years, with the onset of variable ticket pricing and all-inclusive stadium packages, clubs have boosted their bottom lines, and the game is booming. But a new report from Horizon Media says that teams could be doing more. Clubs could generate millions of dollars by doing what many consider to be the unthinkable: selling advertising space on team uniforms.
In essence, such a proposal would represent the NASCAR-ization of professional team sports. While logos are plastered over cars and tennis players are rewarded to wear certain labels on the court, baseball has resisted logo creep. Even New Era, the long-time cap provider, hasn’t been able to secure a place on its hats for a logo. But Horizon Media says this is a major missed opportunity, and the Yanks — the top team in the game in top media market in the country — could generate up to $13 million in revenue by selling uniform space.
The company spoke more about its methodology in a press release:
The report aggregates key jersey exposure attributes including; total duration, logo isolation status, logo size and the cost of a 30-second unit in each market. In addition, the report considered the number of detections (how many times a brand/sponsor can be viewed per game), measured duration (how long the brand/sponsor is visible at each detection) and assigned an attribute score (a relative measurement of performance based on the duration, size, isolation and source type) for each sport. This information then produced a media equivalency value – a dollar figure representing the advertising value of each team’s jersey.
According to the study, the Yanks’ TV exposure and ad rates lead to an opportunity to realize up to $13.8 million if advertisements were prominently displayed on uniforms during tv broadcasts. The findings, Horizon Media stressed, are somewhat preliminary, but the dollar figures are enticing. “Roughly two-thirds of all professional sports franchises were evaluated in this study to determine how much revenue could be generated if the leagues and team owners decided to sell the real estate on the front of their jerseys,” Michael A. Neuman, Horizon’s managing partner, said. “We think the findings more than convey the need for stakeholders to take this concept seriously.”
Of course, any proposal that calls for sullying uniforms would quickly be met by gasps from the game’s traditionalist gatekeepers. Perhaps, advertisements, already so prevalent in game broadcast, should stay clear of uniforms. Furthermore, if such an idea were to come to fruition, baseball would like consider these dollars to be, at least in part, a contribution to the revenue sharing pot because media market disparities would give a significant edge to the top teams. (The Marlins, for instance, would draw in just $1.3 million if their ad-filled uniforms had the same on-air exposure time as the Yanks.)
Ultimately, though, this idea is but a thought experiment. No sport has shown a willingness to head down this path, and such a move would indeed sully the purity of the game’s visual aspects. For the money, though, it might almost be worth it.
Just a heads up, E.J. Fagan over at The Yankee Analysts recently posted his list of the top 30 Yankees prospects. His top five matches my top five exactly, but after that everything goes haywire. E.J.’s a little higher on some 2010 draftees than I am, plus … you know … Colin Curtis. But that’s cool, different opinions are a good thing. Check it out.