Michael Pineda’s First Day

(Ron Antonelli/New York Daily News)

Pitchers and catchers officially report for duty this Sunday, but a number of players are already in Tampa preparing themselves for the upcoming season. One of those players is Michael Pineda, and yesterday would have been a typical pre-Spring Training day had he not been involved in the Yankees’ biggest transaction in more than two years.

“It’s my first day and I’m excited because it’s my first time practicing with the New York Yankees,” said the right-hander, who was all smiles on Day One. “It’s my first time living in Tampa and I don’t know [the area], so I wanted to come early and get in a couple practices before Spring Training starts. I like to come in early.”

Pineda insisted on speaking English to the media, and both Kevin Kernan and Anthony McCarron provided a recap of his first day on the job. He played some light catch in the bullpen — “About 65,” he joked when asked how hard he was throwing — and ran sprints, pretty standard stuff. Like everyone else, Pineda wants to works on some things in camp, specifically his changeup and two-seamer. He also acknowledged that his second half fade last year was the result of fatigue.

“First half, my arm was strong and I was feeling great and the second half, I’m feeling a little tired,” admitted Pineda. “The other teams know me. It’s a long season.”

The Mariners took care of Pineda down the stretch, having him make just three starts during the final 31 games of their season. He threw only 287 pitches after August 27th, and his workload increased by just 31.2 innings from the year before. Of course big league innings are more stressful than minor league innings, but he said he feels fine now and is ready to go. It’s worth noting that while his ERA spiked in the second half, his strikeout and walk rates never wavered.

Pineda also spoke briefly about his relationship with Robinson Cano, who he first met last year when the Yankees were in Seattle and again at the All-Star Game. “My head is (spinning) because I’ve never stayed in New York,” he remembers telling Cano after the trade. “He said, ‘Don’t worry man, I’ll take care of you’ … I love this guy. He’s my friend.” Pineda is also looking forward to picking CC Sabathia‘s brain, and not just because they share the same height (both listed at 6-foot-7). “I want to learn from him and I want to say hi because he’s a great pitcher.”

No player in camp will be under a more watchful eye this spring than Pineda, just like Jesus Montero will be out in Arizona with the Mariners. Fair or not, being the Yankees’ big offseason move comes with pressure in all forms; the pressure to perform, the pressure to say the right thing, the pressure to be perfect in as many ways possible. Pineda’s first day at camp was uneventful in the grand scheme of things, which is perfectly fine. There will be plenty time for scrutiny later whether he (or you) likes it or not. It’s the nature of the beast.

Looking ahead to 2013: The Bossman cometh?

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty)

I need to preface this post by saying that I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m a huge Nick Swisher fan, and assuming he turns in a fourth straight 120-plus wRC+ offensive campaign in pinstripes this coming season, I’d expect the Yankees to look to retain the pending free agent’s services on a multi-year deal. So long as his contract requirements remain within reason, anyway.

By “within reason,” I’d say anywhere from the three-year, $21 million ($7M average annual value) deal personal favorite Josh Willingham signed with the Twins this winter (which still seems like the steal of the offseason) to Michael Cuddyer’s three-year, $31.5 million deal ($10.5 million AAV) with the Rockies. However, since breaking into the league in 2004, Swish has been the superior all-around player by a not insignificant margin, and being that he’ll be two years younger than Cuddyer was this past offseason he definitely has a case for a bigger deal than Cuddyer’s, and a strong case for a bigger contract than Willingham’s sweetheart deal. Between his apparent superiority to these similar players and the fact that this will be his first foray into free agency, I’d expect him to start out at the very least looking for something that will pay him $13 million a year.

Given the incredible value the Yankees have gotten out of Swisher thus far — since 2009, Swish has been paid $21.2 million for his services by the Yankees, and according to FanGraphs’ $/WAR calculation, has been worth $47.6 million — $13 million seems like an eminently reasonable ask; however, at the end of the day I’d expect length to be a bigger sticking point than AAV. As an outfielder coming off his age 31 season next winter, one has to think Swish will be looking for enough financial security to take him as close to the end of his career as possible. I could see his initial ask starting at five years, but I don’t see the Yankees being interested in committing any more than three years to their switch-hitting right fielder. Maybe they’d go to four, but I’m not sure I’d expect the Yankees to hand out a four-plus-year contract to an outfielder on the wrong side of 30 that isn’t named Curtis Granderson, who — barring an unforeseen precipitous decline in production — the team will be looking to re-sign after 2013.

So, in the event that the Yankees and Nick Swisher can’t arrive at a happy medium next winter, the Bombers may in fact be finding themselves in the market for a right fielder. Enter B.J. Upton, slated to be a free agent for the first time in his career next offseason. As an outside observer, it seems as though the Rays have been waiting for Upton — the second overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft — to become the superstar many predicted he’d blossom into forever.

I asked noted Rays fan Jason Collette, of Baseball Prospectus and DRaysBay fame, for some color on this notion, and he was kind enough to respond with the following:

BJ will always leave a portion of this fanbase wanting. There’s a portion of this fanbase that finds Upton to be an unmotivated and lazy waste of talent that the Rays need to move. There’s a portion that is disappointed with him but are holding out hope that 2012 is a lot like 2007. There’s a portion that appreciates him for what he is rather than what he is not. I think he could go 30/30 in Yankee Stadium given his best swings are when he goes the other way, but he is never hitting .300 again without some serious BABIP help. He goes through hot streaks that are really hot and then slumps for long periods at a time while tinkering with his swing. He made some changes with his legkick late in the season over the final 6 weeks that yielded positive results, so it bears watching. There is a level of A.J. Burnett hate with him with a portion of this fanbase that sees nothing wrong with booing him after a strikeout or when he’s thrown out on the basepaths. However, there is a larger portion that will miss him when he leaves and hopes that he does not hang around the American League to blossom as it is tough enough to watch Carl Crawford do the same for Boston. In the end, he always leaves fans wanting something; the degree of that want comes from each fans attitude toward Upton.

Upton was drafted as a shortstop back in ’02, but was an unmitigated disaster at the position, and despite posting a respectable .323 wOBA as a 19-year-old in 177 plate appearances in 2004, his defensive woes helped demote him to AAA Durham for the entirety of the 2005 season. Upton didn’t make it back to the bigs until August 1, 2006, but he struggled mightily (.275 wOBA in 189 PAs) while playing third base, a position he’d never played professionally prior to that season.

At the outset of the 2007 season, Upton was shifted to second base to start the season, with the idea that he could play anywhere from second to short to third to the outfield on any given day. Upton responded to his first camp-breaking with the Rays by exploding out of the gate, posting a .471 wOBA in April 2007, and ultimately finishing the year with a career-high .387 wOBA (138 wRC+), shifting into center field full-time and seemingly finally establishing himself as the offensive force everyone had been waiting for. Only it didn’t last.

Upton followed his monster 2007 with a good (.354 wOBA, 118 wRC+), but disappointing 2008, given the new baseline he’d established the year prior. Upton’s OBP was still monstrous (.383, after .386 in 2007), but his power mysteriously vanished, and his slugging dropped over 100 points to .401. Upton continued his slide in 2009, falling to a below-average .310 wOBA (88 wRC+), which was easily his worst full season in the bigs. Upton has since recovered a decent amount of his value, posting near-identical 2010 (.337 wOBA, 113 wRC+) and 2011 (.337 wOBA, 115 wRC+) campaigns while providing above-average defense in center, though his erratic performances these last several seasons have rendered Upton’s true talent level something of an enigma.

One aspect of Upton’s game that would undoubtedly be very appealing to the Yankees is his ability to draw walks. Upton has a career 11.2% walk rate, well above league average. His career OBP is a respectable .342; however, the reason it’s not higher is because Upton also has a propensity to strike out. A lot. Upton’s career K% is 24.8%, and his 25.2% K% was the fifth-worst in the AL last season. His strikeouts have dramatically suppressed a batting average (career .258) that one would expect to be a good bit higher for someone with a carer BABIP of .327. Upton also has a career 11.3% HR/FB%, also an above-average rate, and the high BABIP and HR/FB% show that when Upton does put a bat on the ball, good things tend to happen. Unfortunately this isn’t as common as an occurrence as one would hope. Perhaps there’s something in Upton’s swing that Kevin Long can fix?

Upton would also probably be the best defensive right fielder the Yankees would hypothetically have fielded since perhaps Raul Mondesi, and an outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Upton seems like it would be hands-down the finest defensive outfield in the game. The dropoff in offensive production from Swisher to Upton would be fairly substantial, but not massive (Swish is a 117 career wRC+ hitter; Upton 110), while Upton would make a lot of the difference up in fielding.

Upton’s patient/hacker dichotomy — his 3.86 pitches seen per plate appearance (P/PA) ranked 31st in the AL last season, ahead of the likes of Derek Jeter, Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez, among others, while his swinging strike percentage of 20% that was the 4th-highest in the league, and well above the 15% league average — is somewhat reminiscent of Curtis Granderson’s, although Grandy led the league in P/PA in 2011 and recorded a 16% swinging strike percentage.

Given his abilities I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the 27-year-old Upton’s (turning 28 in August) best-case-scenario is blossoming into modern-day Curtis Granderson — if you compare the first five years of each player’s career, the results are remarkably similar, with one elite season early on followed by some good — though not great — subsequent campaigns. Upton’s got the edge in OBP, though Granderson certainly has the edge in power. Some may argue that Upton’s running out of time to get there, but his 2007 shows that it’s not crazy to envision him finally putting it all together on a consistent basis as he enters the prime of his career, similar to the way Granderson turned in a career year in his age 30 season.

The parallels between Granderson and Upton become even more apparent when you look at their WAR graphs:


Source: FanGraphsCurtis Granderson, B.J. Upton

And cumulative by age:


Source: FanGraphsCurtis Granderson, B.J. Upton

Also, for those curious about the righty Upton’s splits, while he unsurprisingly hits lefties better (career 118 wRC+), he’s playable against righties (101 wRC+).

So after all of this analysis, we haven’t even answered perhaps the most important question — how much will Upton be looking for, and what can he reasonably expect to be offered? Unfortunately for B.J., as a career .339 wOBA hitter, it seems unlikely he’d see anything close to the mega-deal his former teammate Carl Crawford signed prior to the 2011 season, as Carl has been the superior player (not to mention a massive disappointment one year into his monster Boston contract); although to play devil’s advocate, Carl’s career wOBA was only .008 points higher than Upton’s at the time of his free agency, so perhaps I’m selling Upton a bit short. Upton is making $7 million in his final year as a Ray, and will obviously look to exceed that on an annual basis.

With teams seemingly increasingly shy to commit mega dollars and years to anyone outside of elite talent, it seems like a stretch to see anyone signing Upton for longer than five years, and given his erratic offensive play, I’m not sure he’s worth more than $10-$12 million a year (although FanGraphs’ $/WAR valuation has him worth an average of $17.3 million over the last five years).

Upton will probably start out asking for something like seven years and $105 million ($15M AAV), but I’d ultimately expect him to end up signing for something closer to five years, $60 million — which, if the Yanks can’t agree to terms with Swish, should very seriously consider Upton if his price does fall to this range — unless he has another year like 2007 in him in 2012. In that case, all bets are off.

Johnny Damon and the shadow of 3000

As the Hot Stove League draws to a close and the Grapefruit League looms, the Yanks in a holding pattern of sorts. They haven’t yet traded A.J. Burnett, and they haven’t yet filled the left-handed part of their DH platoon. While Raul Ibanez‘s name has come up a few times and Vlad is a potential option, Johnny Damon seems to hover around these happenings.

In some combination or another, Damon either wants to rejoin the Yanks or the Yanks are interested in him. Either way, I made a lukewarm case for him back in January. As a left facing righties while playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, Damon could still show some pop in his bat, and the Yanks aren’t asking him to carry a lineup. He may fall off a cliff or he may just continue to push toward career milestones.

Damon, you see, is 277 hits away from 3000, and it seems to be on his mind. While with the Rays in 2011, he spoke about approaching the milestone and what it means to him. If he reaches 3000 hits, his would be an interesting case for the Hall of Fame as his longevity is his most compelling argument, but that’s neither here nor there. The 3000-hit plateau seems to be sustaining his career, but it could be threatening it too.

Over the past season or so, Damon has spoke about his desire to reach 3000. Now, Joel Sherman claims that desire may be impacting his game. According to Joel Sherman, “executives from three teams that had interest in Damon expressed concerns a fixation with 3,000 has diminished an attribute that greatly contributed to the perception of Damon as a winning player: patient, tough at-bats.”

Sherman goes on to analyze Damon’s swing and walk rates, but his analysis is suspect. Over at the Captain’s Blog, William took at skeptical look at Sherman’s statistical conclusions. Still, the rumblings are there. Damon may be a good teammate, but he also has his eye on personal milestones.

So with Spring Training a few days away, Damon remains jobless. Maybe the Yanks come calling. Maybe the two sides will find their relationship mutually beneficial. Damon can aim for 3000 while aiming for the right field seats. If not, the two sides will move on, and Damon, who wants to be everything for every team he’s on, will don yet another uniform in his never ending quest for baseball immortality.

Olney: Yankees have “serious interest” in Jorge Soler

Via Buster Olney, the Yankees have “serious interest” in 19-year-old Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler. A number of other clubs are in on Soler as well, and reports circulated earlier today that he had agreed to sign with the Cubs for something like $27.5M. Olney confirms that those reports are untrue. It’s worth mentioning that Solar hasn’t been declared a free agent by MLB yet, so it would be illegal for him to have agreed to a deal already. As in a violation federal regulations illegal.

You can read Soler’s scouting report in the final question of this mailbag from two weeks ago. As I’ve said in the past, I prefer Soler to Yoenis Cespedes based on the little we know just because he’s so much younger and can have a more traditional development path rather than be expected to produce at the big league level immediately. Cespedes got $36M across four years from the Athletics, but I really have no idea what it’ll take to sign Soler. That $27.5M talk is scary; we’re talking about a kid several years away from the show.

Open Thread: 2/14 Camp Notes

Jesus in the cage today. I has a sad.

Spring Training hasn’t officially started yet, but there’s a contingent of players already down in Tampa preparing for the season. It’s never too early to starting rounding up camp notes, I know we’re all yearning for baseball. All of the source links go to Twitter, so while you don’t have to necessarily click them, you should follow all of the writers covering the team. They work hard 12 months a year to give us all the info we crave, so show them some support. Here’s what happened today…

  • Joba Chamberlain threw off a half-mound for the third time, this time 20 pitches. “Another good day,” he said. He’s going to speak to Dr. James Andrews on Friday about increasing his workload, and could be throwing off a full mound by next week. Joba should start throwing breaking balls within the next few weeks, which is a big milestone in Tommy John rehab. (Anthony McCarron & Erik Boland)
  • Michael Pineda was in the house, throwing a bullpen session and running some sprints. He said he and Robinson Cano have become good friends, and he’s going to emphasize his changeup in camp. Hooray for that. (McCarron McCarron, Boland & Boland)
  • Cory Wade, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova also played catch and did some running, but it doesn’t sound like any of the three got on a mound. (McCarron & McCarron)
  • Derek Jeter, Austin Romine, Ramiro Pena, Justin Maxwell, and David Adams all took some form of batting practice. Adams’ ankle survived the ordeal. (McCarron & McCarron)

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone, here’s your open thread. The Rangers, Islanders, Devils, and Knicks are all playing tonight, but talk about whatever you like here. Go nuts.

(Photo via Geoff Baker)

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.