2012 Season Preview: Saving Runs

So good that MLB told him he can't use a glove in 2012 just to make it fair. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Like a number of other teams, the Yankees ignored defense for quite some time in the mid-aughts. Maybe ignored is the wrong word, but it definitely wasn’t a priority. The 2005 Yankees were arguably the worst defensive team in baseball history, but they still managed to win 95 games thanks to a dominant offense and some good timing (pythag. 90 wins). That formula doesn’t cut it these days.

By no means are the 2012 Yankees a defensive dynamo, but they’ve improved defensively at a number of positions in recent years by shedding poor glovemen like Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Johnny Damon. UZR says the Yankees were the eighth best defensive team in baseball last year, saving 23.2 more runs than expected. At the same time, their -15 DRS ranks 21st out of the 30 team. Different systems give different answers, which is why this defense thing is so hard to pin down these days. Let’s take a look at the Yankees who provide value when not in the batter’s box…

Robinson Cano
Cano is a good example of just how imperfect defensive metrics are these days. UZR doesn’t like him one bit, rating him as a below average defender in each of the last four years and in six of his seven seasons. DRS, on the other hands, says he’s been above average in each of the last three years and in four of the last five. Total Zone says he’s been a bit below average the last two years, but above average the four years before that. FRAA? That says he’s been above average defensively in every season of his career except for 2010, when he registered at -0.5.

Which system is right? Probably all of them to a certain extent, but it goes to show that there’s still no right answer with this defensive stuff. Overall, I think Robbie’s a pretty good second baseman, particularly on plays to his right and around the bag on the double play pivot. Balls hit to his left have been a bit of a problem throughout the years, but I think he’s still a net positive, all things considered. No one will ever confuse Cano for Roberto Alomar or Chase Utley on defense, but he’s a solid glove guy that does his best work near the bag. That double play pivot is just as sweet as his swing.

Brett Gardner
You can make a legitimate case that Gardner is the best defensive player in baseball. He combines his speed with excellent reads for top notch range, and his throwing has improved dramatically over the last two years or so. His arm isn’t terribly strong, but it is accurate. Anytime a ball is hit in the air towards left, I’m pretty confident that it’ll be turned into an out these days.

One thing to keep in mind is that Gardner’s ridiculous defensive ratings — +50.9 UZR and +35 DRS last two years — are relative to other left fielders, and most other left fielders are slow, plodding, bat-first types. I don’t want to take anything away from Brett because he is an elite defender, but if the Yankees were to move him to center, he would not be a +20 defender on an annual basis. He’d be more along the lines of +10 or so. That’s still really awesome, and when it comes to saving runs with the glove, no one on the Yankees is better and very few around the league are even comparable.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
Catcher defense is a tough thing to quantify, but we’ve gotten better throughout the years. Although he’s been below average at blocking passed pitches in recent years, PitchFX data has shown that Martin is one of the very best at framing pitches and saving runs by turning balls into strikes. With an average arm that consistently throws out 30% of attempted base stealers or so, Russ handles himself well behind the plate and is an asset to the team defensively.

Of course, Martin looks like the greatest catcher ever compared to his predecessor Jorge Posada. Not to dump on Posada, but he was a bad defensive catcher and flat out abysmal later in his career, and it could be clouding our judgment when watching Martin or any other Yankees catcher. The few advanced metrics we have do a good job of showing that while he’s a good defensive backstop, Martin isn’t great. He does the job throwing out baserunners, frames pitches exceptionally well, and won’t allow and excessive amount of pitches to get by him.

Mark Teixeira
Defensive metrics still haven’t mastered the first base position, which has more to do with straight glovework than range. Tex isn’t fleet of foot but he does guard the line well and keeps his fair share of balls from getting through the hole. That has more to do with positioning than actual quickness. He’s also a strong thrower, which is still amazing to see after watching Giambi airmail throws for the better part of a decade.

I think Teixeira’s best defensive work comes when he’s scooping throws at first or snagging bad hops, stuff like that. There’s no way to measure this accurately, so it’s completely anecdotal. He saves the other infielders errors by scooping those poor throws, but more importantly saves pitches for the guys on the mound. Tex sees more defensive work than every non-battery position on the field, which is a good thing for the Yankees given his skills.

* * *

I think Alex Rodriguez is worth a mention here, because he looked fantastic on defense late in the season and especially in the ALDS. He didn’t hit much after the knee and thumb injuries, but he still moves well around the bag and makes a lot of tough plays look easy because of his strong arm. I also think A-Rod is the smartest, most instinctual player I’ve ever seen. He always seems to makes the correct decision when it comes to going for the double play, looking back the lead runner, charging the bunt, all that stuff. Alex won’t win a Gold Glove, but by no means is he a liability at the hot corner.

Mailbag: Cain, Hamels, Hunter, Rotations, Joba

Six questions and five answers this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar for all your contacting RAB needs.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Mark asks: Does the new payroll austerity plan all but eliminate the chance of the Yanks signing either Hamels or Cain after this season? I never personally thought the team would ever be in on either, unless Nova, Phelps, Warren, Banuelos, Betances and Hughes all regress in 2012, though signing either Hamels or Cain seems to be the long-term hope of Yankee fans – thoughts?

If they really wanted to, the Yankees could still add one $20M a year player and fit under that $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014. They’ll have to cut costs in a big way elsewhere — namely replacing Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Mariano Rivera, and Rafael Soriano with guys making no money — but it can be done.

I’m certain Matt Cain will sign an extension with the Giants soon, maybe even before the start of the season. Cole Hamels is a bit more of a question mark; I could see him signing an extension or testing the free agent waters. I don’t think the Yankees will heavily pursue either guy as free agents after the season, but they’ll surely remain in touch just to see what happens. That’s pretty much what they did with C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish this past offseason, if they fall into their laps at a lower than expected rate, great. If not, then no big deal. I love Hamels as much as the next guy, but it would be cool if the Yankees didn’t need to add another $20M a year pitcher after the season.

Jonathan asks: Torii Hunter is in the last year of his contract and stated that “I made money now I want a ring.” What would you think of letting Swish walk and getting Torii on the cheap 2/16m?

Peter asks: If the Yanks let Nick Swisher walk at the end of the season, would a Andruw Jones/Chris Dickerson RF platoon make sense as an alternative, with an eye on 2014?

Well, there’s nothing cheap about Torii Hunter for two years and $16M. His power and overall offensive production has been declining for years now, and his defense was never as great as it was cracked up to be. He’s also close to a dead pull right-handed hitter, and those guys don’t have great success at Yankee Stadium unless we’re talking A-Rod or Andruw type power. I’m the president of the Torii Hunter Haters Club, but there is some merit to looking at him as a stopgap solution if Swisher is allowed to walk after the season. Two years is one too many, however.

As for Andruw and Dickerson, I actually thought about that this offseason back when there was some talk that the Yankees might try to trade Swisher for a pitcher. That platoon wouldn’t be great but it would get the job done, probably a bit below average offensively (since Jones is on the short-end of the platoon stick) and a bit above average defensively (because Dickerson would get more time). I’d rather go with those two next season rather than Hunter, but I do think the Yankees could do better. They’re basically a solid Plan B in my book, nothing more.

(J. Meric/Getty)

Cameron asks: If you were given the opportunity to swap rotations with another team in the league, 5 guys for 5 guys, which team would it be?  The Rays, the Phillies?  Someone else?  I guess on the surface it could be an easy question, like ‘oh yeah, I’d take the Phillies rotation for sure’ but obviously there are a lot of factors like pitching in the AL, and the East specifically, etc.  Just curious what you think.  Thanks!

Just five-for-five, I would definitely trade rotations with the Phillies, Rays, Giants, and Angels. If I knew Chris Carpenter (career high in innings last year and his elbow was barking in the playoffs) and Adam Wainwright (coming off elbow surgery) were going to be their usual selves, I would include them as well. Given the uncertainty, they’re on the outside looking in right now.

With Philadelphia, the reasons are obvious. Three guys who are legitimate aces right now plus two more serviceable back-end arms. That same logic applies to the Giants, who have three aces (Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner) and two other serviceable arms. The Rays have two ace-caliber guys in David Price and Jamie Shields, plus another huge upside guy in Matt Moore. Jeremy Hellickson and either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis are fine at the end of the staff. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson, Ervin Santana, and a potted plant is a pretty dynamite rotation as well. You can make arguments for the Brewers, Tigers, Nationals (if you knew Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann were going to get 200 IP each),  and White Sox (if Jake Peavy was healthy) as well, but I think those are up for debate.

Shaun asks: I was just wondering if Joba Chamberlain had any options left and if there was a way to delay his free agency by a year or so. I supposed this is irrelevant now that he will be back sometime in June but could the Yankees have saved anything from sending Joba down prior to him going on the DL? Still trying to wrap my ahead around the potential 2014 Yankees! Thanks!

Joba was called up in August 2007 and has never gone back to the minors, so he has all three options left. If they want to delay his free agency by a year, he’ll have to spend approximately two months in the minors between now and the end of the 2013 season. He will collect service time while on the DL and on a minor league rehab assignment, so that won’t help the team’s cause.

Unless he comes back from Tommy John surgery a shell of his former self, there’s no reason for the Yankees to send Joba to the minors. The union would flip out because his performance doesn’t warrant a demotion, and it’s not worth the hassle. If they would have sent him down and then put him on the DL, he would have filed a grievance and won. Glen Perkins and Tony Abreu have won grievances for this exact situation; their teams sent them down injured and tried to stash them on the minor league DL rather than allow them to accrue service time on the big league DL.

Tom asks: With caps on draft and international spending, is there any punishment for teams who do not use up their cap money? It seems that if teams only used part of their allotted amount, it’s a waste to the game as a whole because that’s money that other teams could have used to help bring more players into the game.

There’s no punishment, and teams won’t be able to save that money and use it on players the next year or anything like that. These draft and international spending restrictions are in place for one reason: to keep costs down. The less teams spend on amateurs, the happier the owners and union will be. It’s completely stupid, but it is what it is. At the end of the day, MLB and the 30 clubs are still for-profit organizations and the new Collective Bargaining Agreements reflect that.

Open Thread: 3/8 Camp Notes

(REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

Time to panic, the losing streak has hit four games. The Yankees lost to the Blue Jays 6-1 this afternoon. Ivan Nova got hit around pretty hard, allowing five runs on six hits (one homer and one double) in 2.2 IP before reaching his pitch count. He told Jack Curry that fastball command was the problem, but “I know I’m going to get it back.”

The lone run came on a Colin Curtis solo dinger, but the only other extra-base hit was a Ramiro Pena double. Mark Teixeira did single to left as a left-handed batter, so hooray for that. David Phelps and Dellin Betances weren’t great, but they didn’t allow any runs in 3.1 combined innings. Cesar Cabral allowed a run in his inning of work. That’s pretty much it, here’s the box score and here’s the rest from Tampa…

  • Mariano Rivera threw live batting practice today and is slated to appear in a game for the first time this Sunday. “Fine. All good,” said the closer when asked how it went today, just in case you were worried. [Jeff Bradley]
  • George Kontos, Joba Chamberlain, Cory Wade, Brad Meyers, Boone Logan, Hiroki Kuroda, and Clay Rapada will all throw bullpens tomorrow. It’ will be Kontos’ first time on the mound since his oblique problem. Graham Stoneburner, Brett Marshall, CC Sabathia, and Phil Hughes all threw today as planned. [Chad Jennings]
  • In case you missed it earlier, David Robertson suffered some kind of foot injury slipped down some steps last night. An MRI showed “cause for concern,” and he’s being sent for more tests.

Here is your open thread for the night. All three hockey locals are in action tonight, and MLB Network will be showing a game later on. Talk about whatever you like here, enjoy.

Pineda, Nova, and Nunez agree to 2012 contracts

Via George King, the Yankees have agreed to one-year contracts with Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, and Eduardo Nunez. None of the three were free agents or anything like that, but they were not yet eligible for arbitration and the team could have renewed their contracts at pretty much any salary they wanted. Pineda signed for $528,475, Nova for $527,200, and Nunez for $523,800. The minimum salary this year is $480k thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Cory Wade, another pre-arb guy, signed for $500k ($508,925 according to King) back in January. The deadline to sign these guys was actually last Friday, so it’s safe to assume the Yankees also worked out one-year deals near the minimum with Chris Dickerson, Frankie Cervelli, and every other pre-arb guy on the 40-man roster.

Update: Robertson’s MRI shows “cause for concern”

Update by Mike (4:09pm): Via Barbarisi & Boland, Girardi said Robertson’s MRI showed “cause for concern.” He’s being sent for more tests — including a CT scan and a weight-bearing MRI — and the skipper is worried. Whatever it is, the Yankees have to make sure it’s completely healed before he’s back on a mound. It’s his push-off foot, and they don’t want Robertson changing his mechanics or doing anything else that can result in an arm injury.

Update by Mike (12:12pm): Via Jack Curry, Robertson’s MRI results have been sent to Dr. Ahmad in New York and they should know the diagnosis soon enough. Joe Girardi said his ace setup man could miss up to two weeks before Opening Day becomes a question mark, though he was just speculating. “Just clumsy,” said Robertson to Dan Barbarisi and Erik Boland. “Mo already wore me out about it … I don’t feel it’s something that will set me back for a long time.”

9:30am: We got a bit of a surprise this morning when Bryan Hoch reported that David Robertson fell down stairs last night and hurt his right foot. He showed up this morning in a walking boot, and has been sent for an MRI. The x-rays, thankfully, are negative; the Yankees are currently calling this a right midfoot sprain. They’ll know a bit more once the MRI results come back this afternoon.

Kevin Goldstein’s Top 20 Yankees Prospects

That doesn't look like a four-seamer, changeup, or curveball grip to me. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein published his list of the Yankees’ top 20 prospects today, the final mainstream list of the spring. You do need a subscription to read the entire piece, but non-subscribers can see the list as well as the first write-up. Here are Baseball America’s and Keith Law’s top ten lists for comparison, as well as my top 30. Steal of Home compiled a consensus top 33 list that’s worth a click.

The Yankees have two five-star prospects according to KG: Manny Banuelos and Gary Sanchez. Dellin Betances and Mason Williams check in at four starts, and everyone else is three starts or fewer. “Banuelos should become at least a number three starter, but there is upside beyond that,” wrote Goldstein, who also noted that Manny’s command problems come from overthrowing and not some kind of mechanical flaw. The Sanchez write-up is drool-worthy — “special power … works the count well and looks for pitches to drive, and knows how to crush mistakes” — but at the same time he cautions that the kid sells out for power instead of just focusing on hard contact. Plus his defense is terrible.

I thought the most interesting nugget had to do with Jose Campos, who the Yankees acquired from the Mariners along with Michael Pineda. “[His fastball is] plus and more in terms of velocity, sitting in the low 90s with plenty of 95-96 readings every time out,” said KG. “Campos also throws the pitch with the kind of command usually found only in big leaguers; he works both sides of the plate with it, paints the corners and comes at hitters with a strong downward angle.” Campos still has a lot of work to do with his breaking ball and changeup, but 19-year-old kids with command of a huge fastball are just so rare.

Goldstein also listed the top ten talents in the organization under the age of 25, which was unsurprisingly topped by Pineda. Ivan Nova (#3) and Phil Hughes (#6) were the only other big leaguers to make the cut. “Pineda is a potential front line starter who is still three or four years away from his prime,” he wrote. “He needs to improve his command and his changeup, and the American League East isn’t like pitching in Seattle; expect some bumps in the road early, although nobody should be worked up about his early March lack of prime velocity … Hughes remains young and talented, but nobody is quite sure how to harness it.”

The Yankees did lose a serious chunk of prospect star power by trading Montero, but the general consensus seems to be that they still have enough to qualify as a top ten system. Banuelos and Betances are the only real high-upside guys at the upper levels of the minors, so most of their most interesting and super-talented players are way down in Single-A or even lower. Bichette and Campos are two major breakout candidates;, strong years in a full season league would shoot both up the prospect rankings. Ravel Santana could join them if the ankle is healthy and allows him to put all his tools on display.

2012 Season Preview: Power Sources

Granderson provided more power than any other Yankee in 2011. (via Reuters Images)

Since the Yankees’ 2009 championship run, power has largely defined the offense. In both 2009 and 2011 the Yankees led the majors in isolated power, and in 2010 they finished third. They’ve hit 15 more home runs than any other team in that three-year span. Even more impressively, they’ve done this at a time when they’re getting less and less from their once-premier slugger, Alex Rodriguez. But that’s the point, really. The Yankees have many power sources, which helps keep the team ahead of the pack.

Curtis Granderson

When the Yankees traded for Granderson after the 2009 season, people salivated over his power potential. He’d just smacked 30 home runs while playing half his games in homer-suppressing Comerica Park. What could he do with the short porch at Yankee Stadium? It wasn’t uncommon to hear predictions of 40 homers. While that didn’t come immediately, it did last season.

From the start Granderson’s power was evident. Not only did he homer on Opening Day, but he did so against a lefty. He continued belting homers throughout the year, putting on his best displays in May and August. This was made possible in large part because of his improvement against left-handed pitching. In 2010 he managed a paltry .120 ISO against lefties, hitting just four of his 24 homers against them. In 2011 he actually had a higher ISO against lefties than against righties, .325 to .273. If that’s a real effect of the adjustments he made to his swing, the Yanks will continue reaping the benefits in 2012.

Andruw Jones

The Yankees originally signed Jones last winter, because he added some right-handed pop to an outfield that featured two flawed lefties. One had little power, and the other, to that point, had shown little power against lefties. Jones was coming off a season in which he mashed lefties, producing a .302 ISO and hitting eight homers in 102 PA. But a slow start threatened to end the relationship prematurely, as Jones produced little power through June. From then on, though, he was phenomenal.

While his power numbers against lefties were a bit better than against righties, he still produced solid overall power numbers. In fact, his .234 ISO against right-handed pitchers was higher than Robinson Cano‘s ISO on the season.* He comes back this year with a chance to play a bigger role and provide even more power. While Jones is nowhere near the player he was during his heyday with the Braves, his ability to hit baseballs with authority has kept him well employed in the last few years.

*This is not a demonstrative statement, just a little illustration of how well Jones did hit against righties in his limited at-bats against them.

Mark Teixeira

The story of Mark Teixeira’s 2010 and 2011 seasons centers on overall disappointment. His batting average dropped precipitously, and it affected all of his numbers. That is, except his power numbers. While they look low on a superficial level, that’s in part because power numbers are down across the league. Last year in particular he produced very good power numbers, ranking 12th in the majors in ISO and fourth in home runs.

Unless he brings up his batting average, which will in turn prop up his other numbers, Teixeira will be seen as a disappointment. But even if he doesn’t, he’ll still provide an excellent source of power. Batting in the fifth spot, that could come in handy. He might miss out an opportunity for an RBI single, but he can clear the bases with a homer as well as almost anyone else in the majors.

Robinson Cano

Since his early days in the league, people saw in Cano a perpetual .300 hitter. At the same time, they saw his smooth as silk swing and thought that he could drive plenty of pitches over the fence. Yet in his first four seasons he failed to crack 20 home runs. It wasn’t until 2009 that he found his true power stroke. He hit 25 that year and has topped that in the following two. Could 2012 be the year he finally cracks 30?

The best part about Cano’s increased home run output is that it hasn’t affected his gap power. That is, he’s not driving pitches over the fence that he once drove into the gap. From 2009 through 2011 he ranks second in the majors in doubles with 135, seven ahead of No. 3, Miguel Cabrera, and five behind No. 1, Billy Butler. At the same time he ranks No. 23 with 82 home runs in that span. Perhaps most impressively of all, he’s No. 3 in total bases during the last three seasons.

Alex Rodriguez

Rounding out the middle of the order is a player whose production has faded a bit in the last few years. Clearly injuries hampered Rodriguez in 2010, to the point where he provided no more power than Nick Swisher. That he missed nearly two months of action, among all of his ailments, didn’t help his cause. In a year when the Yankees hit, according to some, too many home runs, Rodriguez managed just 16, sixth most on the team.

During his prime years, from 2001 through 2007, Rodriguez averaged a .287 ISO. It’s unlikely that, even if healthy, he reaches that mark again. But he did produce a .236 ISO in 2010, and .245 in 2009. Those are higher than the marks that he produced in 2006 and 2004, times when the offensive environment was a bit more potent than it has been recently. If he can simply reach those levels in 2012, hitting 30 homers and 30 doubles with a solid batting average, he’ll produce enough power for the Yankees’ already powerful lineup.