Back Where They Belong: Ibanez, Jones, Chavez

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

As we’ve learned through the years, winning the AL East and eventually a World Series takes an awful lot more than the nine regular position players, five starting pitchers, and a closer. Clubs need not just a strong bullpen and bench, but they also need quality backup backup players in Triple-A. The full 40-man roster is important.

The Yankees have gotten some excellent production from their projected reserve players this season, but they also assumed more prominent roles due to injuries — specifically Brett Gardner‘s. Dewayne Wise filled in admirably for a while but was replaced on the roster by Ichiro Suzuki yesterday. He’s not the Ichiro of old but he does add some sorely needed speed and outfield defense, and perhaps more importantly he relegates those reserve players back into their projected roles.

Raul Ibanez
Gardner’s injury forced Ibanez into left field far more often than we or the Yankees would have liked, but now he gets to return to the platoon DH role he was brought in to fill. Ichiro is going to play left field against right-handed pitchers while Ibanez’s bat stays in the lineup and his glove stays in the clubhouse. Hopefully the extra rest can revive Raul’s bat a bit, because he has tailed off noticeably since that monster start in April…

We’re still going to see Ibanez play the field once in a while since Joe Girardi figures to rest Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher more often down the stretch, especially if the Yankees maintain their big division lead. Once a week isn’t the end of the world but not having to run him out to left day after day is a huge boon.

Andruw Jones
Andruw’s role actually won’t change very much at all. He was and remains the right-handed hitting half of the left field/DH platoon, so whether he subs in for Ichiro in left or Ibanez at DH depends on the day and whoever else is resting. Jones already has just 22 fewer plate appearances against righties this year thanlast, so expect that pace to change a bit. He’ll probably get fewer total plate appearances moving forward that he otherwise would have, but that’s not necessarily a bat thing as long he still takes his hacks against southpaws, either as a starter or off the bench.

Eric Chavez
In terms of playing time, Chavez probably lost the most with the Ichiro pickup. He had been getting regular DH and third base plate appearances — just six fewer plate appearances than last season with two months to go — but now will give Alex Rodriguez a day or two off a week and little more. There will be occasional spot starts at DH and Chavez could spell Mark Teixeira at first base once in a while, plus he’ll be the primary left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench. Given his fragile body, less playing time for Chavez is probably a good thing in terms of keeping him healthy down the stretch and potentially into the postseason.

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I’m hopeful that with Ibanez spending more time at DH, Girardi will be a more open to pinch-hitting for him against tough lefties in the later innings. As the left fielder, a pinch-hitting appearance generally required three players — Ibanez the starter, Jones the pinch-hitter, and Wise the defensive replacement. Now they can replace Ibanez with Jones, leave Ichiro in the outfield, and still have Chavez on the bench in case Andruw winds up facing a right-hander later in the game. Whether or not he’s actually open to doing that remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Ichiro isn’t Gardner but he’s a reasonable approximation, at least in the field and on the bases. The Yankees should use him in a similar way, which means hitting near the bottom of the lineup while sitting against tough lefties. Returning Ibanez, Chavez, and to a lesser extent Jones to their intended roles is a fringe benefit that may have huge dividends if Raul stays fresh and Chavez stays healthy.

Kuroda shows that some NL pitchers can transition to AL

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

It happens every time media reports connect the Yankees with an NL pitcher, and one success story won’t change that. There is a seemingly widespread belief that pitchers who succeed in the NL cannot succeed in the AL, or at least cannot succeed in the AL East. Hiroki Kuroda has proven doubters wrong. After a rough start to the season he has become one of the Yankees’ most reliable pitchers. His results even line up pretty well with his career numbers, despite the league shift.

In 2010 and 2011 Kuroda produced a 3.23 ERA, which amounts to a 117 ERA+ (which accounts for league and ballpark factors). While his raw ERA is a tick higher this year at 3.34, the league and park factors change the picture. After last night’s victory over Seattle Kuroda owns a 127 ERA+. That’s good for 12th in the AL, just one spot behind CC Sabathia.

Not only has Kuroda delivered in results, but his peripherals seemingly line up well. His 19.4 percent strikeout rate matches up almost perfectly with his numbers from the last two years. The difference, of course, is that he doesn’t face opposing pitchers any more. Against pitchers in 2011 his strikeout rate was a hair under 40 percent; in 2010 it was 37 percent. Viewed in that manner, his strikeout rate has virtually increased this season, since he doesn’t have the benefit of facing that pitcher 60 times a season.

Kuroda does have two-plus months remaining, and perhaps AL lineups figure him out by then. But they haven’t been able to do so in the past two months. Starting with his May 16th start against Toronto (as to exclude his previous one against Seattle) and through his start July 18th (for the same reason), he has a 3.40 ERA with a 7.94 K/9 rate (21.5 percent). That’s a pretty hot run through some tough opponents.

The next time someone decries the Yankees’ interest in a pitcher because he’s an NL guy, try to think of Kuroda’s success. He might not disprove the theory, but he does show that certain types of pitchers can succeed in any league.

Revisiting the Yankees’ trade deadline needs

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

When I looked at the Yankees and their potential needs two months ago, I noted that injuries were going to play a big part in their trade deadline strategy. Brett Gardner‘s elbow never healed and the team responded by acquiring Ichiro Suzuki, but Joba Chamberlain‘s return from Tommy John and ankle surgery have gone well so far. He could be back as soon as next week. Injuries at the minor league level also play a role since rosters these days run deeper than 25 players.

The trade deadline is one week from today, though in reality the deadline extends into August as well. Those players just have to pass through revocable waivers first, which usually isn’t an issue. The Yankees may have the best record in baseball and some a sizable lead in the AL East, but there are still some cracks in the dam worth plugging.

A Quality Reliever
I’ve been harping on this for weeks, but New York needs another reliable, non-specialist reliever. This is tricky because relievers are just so unpredictable, but having four OOGYs in a seven-man bullpen really handcuffs Joe Girardi. Perhaps Joba is that guy and it would be amazing if he is, but as I’ve been saying, you can’t really count on him for anything until he’s actually back out on a big league mound contributing in a positive way. Those were two major injuries he suffered. Finding a solid middle reliever who can pitch to batters on both sides of the plate should be a priority, lest we be subjected to more Chad Qualls.

(REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

A Catcher
Somehow Russell Martin‘s second half BABIP (.143) is lower than his first half BABIP (.193). Yes, I know it’s only been eight games, but the point is that the Yankees can’t turn a blind eye to their catching situation forever. Martin has been awful (79 wRC+), Chris Stewart has been even worse (45 wRC+), and we aren’t talking about a pair of Yadier Molina-level defenders either. They’re below league average in throwing out base-stealers (24.1%), have allowed the sixth most passed pitches (wild pitches plus passed balls) in baseball (37), and rank 24th in Total Zone (-4). It’s ugly.

I understand that quality catchers are hard to find, but we’re not looking asking for a miracle. Just someone better with Stewart that can split time with Martin. Russ always hits better with more rest, so finding someone to take the load off three times a week would be ideal. Quality, above-average catching isn’t a prerequisite for winning the World Series, but it’s not a coincidence that most years the champion has a strong backstop.

Pitching Depth
This kinda ties in with the quality reliever thing above, but I’m talking more about the Triple-A level. The only 40-man roster pitchers in the highest level of the minors are Adam Warren, Cory Wade, Ryota Igarashi, and lefty specialist Justin Thomas following the trade of D.J. Mitchell. Dellin Betances in Double-A doesn’t really count. It’s not a super-high priority because the Yankees do have some non-40-man options — Manny Delcarmen and Juan Cedeno, specifically — but I would expect them to scour the waiver wire for an up-and-down arm or two over the next few weeks. Just to replenish the pipeline and add depth.

Utility Infielder
Jayson Nix has hit well enough for a utility infielder (79 wRC+), especially against left-handed pitchers (99 wRC+). He’s not much of a defender though, especially at shortstop. Ramiro Pena is the club’s only real shortstop alternative in Triple-A, at least until Eduardo Nunez returns from his thumb injury in a week or so, so the Yankees are stuck with Nix for the time being. That’s fine for spot starts but will be a problem if Derek Jeter misses any length of time. This is the last item on the deadline shopping list, but digging up a 2009 Jerry Hairston Jr. type would be a marginal though legitimate upgrade.

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The starting rotation has held up fine following Andy Pettitte‘s injury and even during CC Sabathia‘s DL stint, so I wouldn’t expect the Yankees to swing a trade for a starter. Freddy Garcia has been serviceable as the fifth starter and both David Phelps and Warren provide some insurance. Pettitte’s rehab is reportedly going well which is all we could ask for at this point. Maybe if they find out things hit a speed bump at some point they’ll swing an August waiver trade, but otherwise I wouldn’t expect a deal for a starter. The bullpen and catcher situation are obvious areas of need leading up to the trade deadline, with miscellaneous pitching depth and a utility infielder further down the list.

The Morning After: Ichiro!

“Dammit Ichiro, I thought I told you to trim those sideburns!” (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

The Yankees were dealt a pretty big blow when Brett Gardner went down with likely season-ending elbow surgery last week, an injury he initially suffered back in April. They’ve done well without him but the offense has been devoid of speed and the outfield defense suffered in a big way. A replacement outfielder was definitely on the trade deadline shopping list but it wasn’t a necessity.

After fiddling around with Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Jayson Nix, Dewayne Wise, and even Eduardo Nunez earlier in the year, the Yankees addressed the outfield situation yesterday by acquiring Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners for D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar. Seattle will pay all but $2.25M of his $17M salary. Ichiro will become a free agent after the season, so it’s a straight rental. As has become the tradition following notable news items, here are some scattered thoughts on the trade…

  • Machinations: Apparently Ichiro requested a trade a few weeks ago and the ball got rolling when Mariners president Chuck Armstrong called Randy Levine, which sent shivers down my spine. The trade was perfectly fine, very reasonable, but anytime those above the baseball operations department get involved, I get nervous.
  • Expectations: I don’t expect very much from Ichiro the rest of the way — maybe he gets the batting average up to .300 (and his OBP up to .330) by being platooned properly and he winds up stealing a bunch of bases. Yankee Stadium won’t help him much because he’s a ground ball hitter, not a guy who lifts the ball in the air to the pull side. Perhaps joining a contender bring his bat back to life and maybe his career-low .279 BABIP corrects. Either way his primary value will come on defense, on the bases, and by putting the ball in play. The Yankees have lacked that.
  • Left or Right: Given his throwing arm, it would make sense to put Ichiro in right and shift Nick Swisher to left. Then again, there is more ground to cover in left field in Yankee Stadium. Ichiro hasn’t played left in more than a decade, so that will take an adjustment. I’m not exactly sure which corner would be best for him, but I feel like there is no wrong answer.
  • Durability: One of Ichiro’s underrated skills — and it is a skill — is his durability. He missed a little more than two weeks with an ulcer in 2009 but otherwise has never been on the DL since coming over from Japan. He’s played in 159 games and led the league in at-bats in eight of the last nine seasons. This is a guy who is used to playing the outfield everyday and is more suited to do so than Ibanez, Jones, or anyone on the roster not named Curtis Granderson or Swisher.
  • Marquee Value: Like Derek Jeter, Ichiro is the rare player with legitimate marquee value. He’s going to help sell merchandise, put butts in the seats, and drive up YES Network ratings. That value is generally overstated — he’s not going to pay for himself or anything — but it is real and should not be neglected. He’s going to bring a definite buzz to the team, some of which we saw last night.
  • The Return: With all due respect to Farquhar, Mitchell was the real loss for the Yankees. I always considered him a swingman/long reliever type and the Yankees seemed to feel the same way, but there is value in that as long as he’s cheap. David Phelps pushed Mitchell down the totem pole a bit and the presence of Adam Warren in Triple-A and Brett Marshall in Double-A made him expendable. I would have rather given up Warren — hence my post-draft prospect rankings — but it’s not a huge difference.
  • Pitching Depth: Mitchell was the next-in-line whenever the Yankees needed an arm from Triple-A, so I suppose that duty now falls on the shoulders of Warren.  He was obviously terrible in his big league debut, but one appearance doesn’t define a career. Behind him you have Cory Wade as a call-up option and that’s really it as far as 40-man roster candidates go. The Yankees work the waiver wire and scrap heap as well as anyone, so I bet they pluck an arm of two off waivers for depth in the coming weeks.
  • Roster Spots: The Yankees currently have ten (!) players on the 60-day DL and will need to clear room for these guys at some point. Yesterday’s moves cleared two spots — Mitchell’s and Wise’s — but one went to Ichiro. They have one open spot at the moment and with any luck, it will go to Joba Chamberlain when he’s activated in a week or two. Moving Mitchell helped clear up a logjam of sorts, albeit very slightly.
  • Miscellany: The Yankees replaced the 34-year-old Wise with the 38-year-old Ichiro, let’s stop acting like the roster got lifetimes older … I hope Ichiro goes on to have a monster David Justice-esque second half but the Yankees don’t trick themselves into thinking he’s worth a spot on next year’s team as a stopgap outfielder … how about Farquhar? Dude went from waiver claim and being designated for assignment twice this season to being traded for a future Hall of Famer … I’m still in awe that Brian Cashman and the Yankees in general are able to make all these significant moves completely under-the-radar, there are no leaks whatsoever. This came out of the blue.

The Yankees plugged a relatively small hole with a move that was notable only because it involved a historic player. Ichiro is obviously well past his prime and any thoughts of a revival are wishcasting at its finest. He can still be useful on defense and on the bases, but the Yankees will wisely bat him near the bottom of the lineup. Ichiro’s a fun and entertaining player, and sure hope the Yankees can help get him that World Series ring he surely covets.

Yanks kick off Ichiro era with win over Mariners

Source: FanGraphs

So that was a rather interesting Monday in Yankeeland, no? The 4-1 win over the Mariners is an afterthought following the acquisition of Ichiro Suzuki, a classic surprise move that came out of nowhere in the late afternoon. The team’s new left fielder — who’s playing right while Nick Swisher (groin/hip) is on the shelf — helped his new team beat his old one to end a four-game losing streak. Let’s recap…

  • Autopilot: Games like this are Hiroki Kuroda at his best. The veteran right-hander carved up an inferior lineup for seven innings, allowing just one run on three hits and walk while striking out nine. All but two of his 21 outs were recorded on the infield. Joe Girardi may have been able to squeeze another inning out of him after 107 stress-free pitches, but there’s no sense in pushing it. Kuroda did what he’s been doing pretty much all year.
  • Ichiro!: Ichiro’s first day in pinstripes (well, road grays) went pretty well. He singled back up the box in his first at-bat and promptly stole second base, but his teammates were unable to drive him in. Ichiro then popped up to second his second at-bat, hit a rocket ground ball to first that Justin Smoak dove for and turned into an out his third time up, then lined a shot right at the second baseman in his fourth trip to the plate. He wasn’t tested with anything difficult in right. Pretty solid debut.
  • Runs: The Mariners pushed a run across in the third and the Yankees responded immediately with a trio of their own in the fourth. Alex Rodriguez started it with a hustle double before Robinson Cano walked, Mark Teixeira doubled (one run scores), Raul Ibanez singled (one run scores), and Andruw Jones singled (one run scores). Five straight reached and the first three scored. A-Rod tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer to deep left-center in the eighth.
  • Leftovers: David Robertson rolled his right ankle during a pitch in the eighth, but he remained in the game to throw one last pitch to end the inning. He’s fine as far as we know … Teixeira was on everything all night and smashed three balls over the shift for base hits … everyone in the starting lineup had at least one hit except for Curtis Granderson, who struck out three times … the final out of the game was made when former Mariner Rafael Soriano got former Yankee Jesus Montero to fly out to former Mariner Ichiro Suzuki. Baseball. has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the advanced metrics, and ESPN the updated standings. The Orioles and Red Sox both lost while the Rays and Blue Jays were idle, so the Yankees increased their lead in the division to seven games over Baltimore and at least nine games over everyone else. Freddy Garcia will have his work cut out for him on Tuesday night when he gets the ball against Felix Hernandez.

Austin & Camarena return in GCL win

Triple-A Empire State (10-6 loss to Gwinnett)
CF Chris Dickerson: 2-4, 2 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB — 12 hits in his last 32 at-bats (.375) with three doubles, three triples, two homers, seven walks, and five strikeouts
3B Kevin Russo: 0-4, 1 R, 1 BB
2B Corban Joseph: 2-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB — ten hits in his last 28 at-bats (.357)
DH Jack Cust: 0-1, 3 BB — 77 walks on the year
1B Brandon Laird: 1-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 E (throwing) — 16 hits in his last 40 at-bats (.400) with four doubles and three homers
LF Kosuke Fukudome & RF Cole Garner: both 1-4
C Gus Molina: 2-4, 2 K
SS Ramiro Pena: 0-3, 1 R, 1 HBP
LHP Mike O’Connor: 3.1 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 3/4 GB/FB, 1 E (throwing) — 46 of 75 pitches were strikes (61%) … filling in for D.J. Mitchell, who went to the Mariners in the Ichiro trade
RHP Preston Claiborne: 2.2 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 5/1 GB/FB — just 22 of 45 pitches were strikes (49%)
LHP Juan Cedeno: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 2 WP, 1/2 GB/FB — 24 of 47 pitches were strikes (51%)

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Game 96: Ichiro!

Is this real life? (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

So that was some afternoon, eh? The Yankees upgraded their fifth outfielder situation by acquiring maybe the biggest global star in baseball in Ichiro Suzuki, certainly the biggest who wasn’t already employed by the Bombers. He’s not the Ichiro of old and the Yankees are treating him appropriately — Joe Girardi said he’ll back Ichiro in the bottom third of the order going forward. I would expect him to sit against tough lefties as well. The day-to-day monotony of baseball can be a drag this time of year, but the Yankees really spicing things up for at least one night. Here’s the lineup…

SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
3B Alex Rodriguez
2B Robinson Cano
1B Mark Teixeira
DH Raul Ibanez
LF Andruw Jones
RF Ichiro Suzuki
Russell Martin

RHP Hiroki Kuroda

Tonight’s game starts a little after 10pm ET and can be seen on YES. I’m guessing there will be a few more New Yorkers staying up for this one, at least the first few innings. Enjoy.