What Went As Expected: Brett Gardner

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, Brett Gardner started the season as the everyday center fielder but quickly lost the job to Melky Cabrera. Last year, he was handed the every day left field job out of Spring Training and ran with it, posting a .383 OBP and a .358 wOBA that was about 20% better than the league average. Add in his brilliant defense, and the Yankees had themselves a cheap young outfielder that brought the element of speed to the Bronx.

Fresh off offseason wrist surgery (thank a Clayton Kershaw fastball for that), Gardner started the season with a new responsibility. Instead of toiling away at the bottom of the lineup, the Yankees decided to take advantage of his on-base skills and penciled Brett into the leadoff spot on Opening Day. He went 0-for-2 with a pair of sac bunts (grrr) that day, but had a pair of hits in the second game of the season. Although he went 2-for-3 with a double, a triple, and a pair of walks against the Red Sox on April 8th, the Yankees dropped Gardner back down to ninth after his batting line sat at .146/.222/.220 through the first 13 games of the season.

Hitting coach Kevin Long detected a mechanic flaw with Gardner’s lower half, and after some adjustments, the left fielder went on a prolonged tear. It all started with a double and a homer against the Orioles on April 23rd, then three days later came another long ball. Two days after that, another homer. Brett just didn’t stop hitting for three months after that. From that April 23rd game through July 25th, a span of 83 team games and exactly 300 plate appearances, he hit .317/.397/.452 with 28 steals in 35 attempts. That raised his season batting line to .288/.367/.407.

A season-ending slump (.175/.281/.246 in his final 146 plate appearances) dragged Gardner’s overall batting line down to .259/.345/.369, a .330 wOBA that was just north of the .316 big league average. He led the American League with 49 steals, a dozen behind Michael Bourn for the MLB lead. From June 19th through August 10th, he went a perfect 22-for-22 in stolen base attempts. Gardner made up for a crappy finish to the season by being one of the team’s very best hitters in the playoffs, reaching base eight times (seven hits and a walk) in the five games against the Tigers. His two-out, two-strike, two-run double off Justin Verlander in the seventh inning of Game Three tied the game at four and was one of the Yankees’ biggest hits of the postseason.

Between slightly better than league average offense and all-world defense, Gardner was worth 5.1 fWAR and 4.4 bWAR this year. Depending on your choice of metric, he was either the 10th or 15th best outfielder in baseball and either the 26th or 35th best player in baseball overall, respectively. I don’t think anyone was expecting Gardner to be a dynamic offensive player this season, all he had to do was to get on-base, swipe some bags, and catch everything hit in his time zone. He delivered just that, even if he’s proving to be one streaky player.

Mailbag: Dodgers, Dodgers, Dodgers (& Buehrle)

I promised a Jesus Montero-free mailbag last week, so here it is. Instead you get a whole bunch of Dodgers-related questions, which seems like nothing more than a coincidence. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions throughout the week.

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Evan asks: With the ongoing drama regarding the Dodgers and Frank McCourt, it’s looking more and more likely that Matt Kemp will hit the open market following the 2012 season. What type of contract do you think he will receive? Could it be the largest in baseball?

Kemp’s season was basically Curtis Granderson‘s season plus another 10-15% on top of it. He hit .324/.399/.586 with 39 homers and 40 steals, which works out to a .419 wOBA. All that happened in one of the game’s best pitchers’ parks and in a lineup with zero protection (if you believe in protection). He was a monster this year, I think the obvious NL MVP and arguably the best player in all of baseball.

Reportedly, Kemp will not talk about a contract extension once the 2012 season starts. He can be a free agent after next season (MLBTR projects his 2012 salary at $16.3M), and his agent says he isn’t giving a hometown discount. If Kemp has another year like this one, which is very possible because he is that talented and just turned 27 in September, I think we’re talking Joe Mauer money on the open market (eight years, $184M). He’s not a Scott Boras client, which will cost him some money and likely prevent him from getting an Alex Rodriguez contract, but he’s so young and so productive that it wouldn’t surprise me if he got it anyway. Who will give it to him though? The Yankees with at least three $100M+ deals already on the books? The Red Sox? The Tigers? Maybe the Rangers since Josh Hamilton will be off the books? Someone’s going to pay Kemp huge money and deservedly so.

Reggie asks: What’s the chances that Hiroki Kuroda could be swayed from returning to the Dodgers or Japan with a lucrative two-year offer? Kuroda could simply be trying to gain some leverage in talks with east coast teams. How awesome would it be to have a rotation featuring both Kuroda and Yu Darvish!¬† The stadium would turn into lil Tokyo two days a week.

I think the economic impact of high-profile Japanese players is easy to overstate (we’ve seen studies about how revenue Hideki Matsui actually generated), but it’s definitely real. That’s neither here nor there though.

We’re Kuroda fans here at RAB, dating back to last offseason when we considered him the best Plan B behind Cliff Lee. The Yankees like him as well, judging by the fact that they wanted him in August 2010 and before the 2011 trade deadline. The 36-year-old right-hander (37 in February) still makes a ton of sense for New York on a short-term contract, but he likes Los Angeles so much that he took a below market contract to stay their last year and refused to waive his no-trade clause to come east at the deadline. Two years might be pushing it at Kuroda’s age, but I would much prefer that to five years for C.J. Wilson or four years for Edwin Jackson.

Mark asks: How would you feel about a deal for Chad Billingsley that centered around Eduardo Nunez and someone like Adam Warren or D.J. Mitchell? Given his mileage and down year, would that be too much?

No, I don’t think that would be too much at all. I like Adam Warren, but I’d drive him and Nunez to the airport myself if it meant getting a guy like Billingsley. He’s young (27), signed affordably through 2014 ($32M plus a $14M option for 2015), durable (at least 31 starts and 188 IP in each of the last four years), and really effective (3.52 FIP last four years). Even if that shoots up to a 4.00 FIP in the AL East, he’s still a really good pitcher.

My biggest concern is that Billingsley’s strikeout and swing-and-miss rates have declined every year since 2008 while his walk rate has hovered closer to 4.0 BB/9 than 3.0 BB/9. Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness dubbed him “a conundrum, consistently inconsistent” just yesterday. On the bright side, he is a ground ball guy (47.3% last four years) and has only been on the DL once (16 days for a groin strain in 2010). Definite pluses.

I look at Billingsley almost like another Ubaldo Jimenez, and I think it would take a similar kind of package to get him. Ned Colletti isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, especially when it comes to making trades (as he’s shown with Casey Blake, Octavio Dotel, etc.), so perhaps that makes it easier to acquire the right-hander. I’d include Dellin Betances in a package for Billingsley no questions asked, but not Manny Banuelos and certainly not Montero. Betances plus two lesser pieces (Mitchell? Brandon Laird?) would be ideal, but probably not realistic.

Nick asks: Could the Yankees trade for Scott Elbert?

Sure they could. I have no idea how open the Dodgers would be to moving the lefty, who emerged as a dominant late-inning reliever in 2011 after going back and forth to Triple-A for a few years. The 26-year-old held same-side hitters to a .191/.267/.250 batting line this year (75 plate appearances), though the 18 strikeouts don’t really blow you away. Elbert battled some serious arm problems in the minors, which is why he can’t start anymore, but he’s still a power arm with a low-90’s fastball and high-80’s slider capable of doing the lefty specialist thing. He’d be a fine trade target, but I hope the Yankees don’t overpay for a LOOGY.

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Jon asks: What are your thoughts on Mark Buehrle?

Brad asks: What are the details of Mark Buehrle’s contract situation? If memory serves, he is a free agent this year. He’s a durable lefty with a proven track record. Would he be a viable signing for the Yankees?

Yep, he is a free agent this winter, and just to get this out of the way, I can only see Buehrle pitching in two places next season: with the White Sox, or for his hometown Cardinals. He’d made it known in the past that he would only waive his no-trade clause to pitch in St. Louis, and he’s also discussed retirement if the right deal doesn’t come along.

Anyway, I’m not much of a Buehrle fan. He’s the definition of a soft-tosser, keeping hitters off balance with a mid-80’s fastball (both two- and four-seamers), a low-80’s cutter, a high-70’s changeup, and a low-80’s curveball. The 32-year-old southpaw (33 in March) doesn’t strike anyone out (three straight sub-4.80 K/9 seasons) and doesn’t get a ton of ground balls (sub-45.7% last three years), but he is stingy with ball four (no worse than a 2.14 BB/9 since 2003).

Buehrle’s a classic wily ol’ veteran that just knows how to pitch and keep his team in games and [insert cliche here]. His value is in his innings (just finished his 11th straight year of 200+ IP) and veteran presents. Viable signing? Sure, but a) I don’t see it happening, and b) definitely not with the expectation of him being a number two starter. Buehrle’s had a great career, but you don’t want to be the one on the hook when the other shoe drops.

Dave asks: We all know about the weak free agent class for starting pitchers this year, but I’m interested in next year’s pitchers. Or more specifically, which of next year’s free agents (or the following year) might be made available at the trade deadline, a la Ubaldo. Cole Hamels probably won’t be made available, but maybe Clayton Kershaw? BTW, I still refer to this post for future free agent pitchers.

Next year’s free agent class is right here, and it’s loaded with pitchers. Hamels, John Danks, Matt Cain, Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke, Francisco Liriano … the list goes on and on. I think Cain is by far the most likely to sign an extension, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hamels does as well. Danks and Liriano could definitely be on the block if the White Sox and Twins fall out of the race early, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brewers try to flip Greinke for something better than two draft picks if they struggle without Prince Fielder. I’d be surprised if Tim Lincecum or Josh Johnson, two guys that will become free agents after 2013, hit the trade market this summer. Heck, in Lincecum’s case, I’d be surprised if he ever hits the trade market. He’s the definition of a franchise pitcher.

Report: Yankees have contract offer ready to Sabathia

Via George King, the Yankees have a contract offer prepared for CC Sabathia and plan to delivery it to their ace shortly. No word on the terms of the contract, but you can be sure it’s substantial. My guess: five-years and $125M with an option. We heard on Wednesday that the team would like to get Sabathia signed to an extension before he opts out of his current contract, and they would be okay with a five- or six-year deal.

Looking at this from CC’s point of view … you’ve come this far, why not at least see what the open market has to offer? Wouldn’t that make sense for him? Doesn’t matter to me though, I just want the big guy back as soon as possible.

Update: Now that the World Series is going to Game Seven, we know that Sabathia’s opt-out decision is due by Monday at the latest.

Boras on Cano extension talks: lol j/k

Via George King, Scott Boras tried to play off rumors of a new deal for Robinson Cano as a joke. “[Brian Cashman] and I have talked three or four times in the last three days,” said Boras. “My statements were in jest. Cash always returns my phone calls. My conversations with Cash about Robinson have nothing to do with the options. We fully expect the options to be exercised.”

The two club options for 2012 and 2013 ($14M and $15M, respectively) were negotiated into Cano’s current contract by his former agent, Bobby Barad. Boras won’t collect any commission for Robbie until he negotiates a new deal, which frankly is something the Yankees should at least consider right now. A six-year deal is much easier to swallow from ages 29-35 than 31-37. Anyway, it’s kinda funny that Boras tried to play this off as a joke, the guy didn’t get to where he is by making statements in jest to the media. Everything he does is calculated.

CBA Madness: IFA and draft spending cap on table during talks

Via Melissa Segura and Kevin Goldstein, one item on the table during talks between the owners and players assocation about a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is a cap for spending on international free agents and the draft. Segura says the IFA cap would be between $2-2.5M annually, though she’s unclear if that is for all countries or just the Dominican Republic. A draft spending cap would not include hard slotting.

Obviously, this would be very bad news for the Yankees. The IFA market is the backbone of their farm system and has been for two decades now, simply because they can throw their money around (as well as the Yankees brand) and sign almost anyone they want. A $2.5M cap is nothing, the Yankees spent more than double that in 2010 alone.¬†Coming into the season, the team’s top three prospects (and five of their top nine) were originally signed as IFAs. The new CBA should be announced relatively soon, and it sure seems like spending on amateur players will be restricted in some way. For shame.

Open Thread: World Series Game Six

A classy stroll across the field. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

So, does it all end tonight? I hope not, I’m ready for a Game Seven. Do you know we haven’t had one of those since the Rays and Red Sox in the 2008 ALCS? The last World Series Game Seven was way back in 2002. I know the idea of an entire baseball season coming down to one game is kind of absurd, but no one ever said it isn’t fun.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the evening. In addition to Game Six (Garcia vs. Lewis, 8pm ET on FOX), you’ve also got the Devils and (hockey) Rangers (home opener finally!) in action. Talk about anything here, it’s all fair game.