Jesus Montero and ZiPS

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

You might have seen this earlier, but Dan Szymborski posted his 2012 Yankees ZiPS Projections early Monday afternoon, the first team of the offseason. You can click the link and peruse all of the projections at your leisure, but I’m going to spend some time focusing on everyone’s favorite player, Jesus Montero. We’ll discuss the other guys at some point this offseason … eventually.

Following his big September debut (.328/.406/.590 and a .421 wOBA), the ZiPS system forecasts a .271/.333/.486 batting line with 37 doubles and 27 homers in 579 at-bats for Montero in 2012. At first glance, that might seen a bit disappointing because of the generally low AVG and the OBP, but it most definitely shouldn’t be. I said this on Twitter, but if Montero does that next season, he’ll probably win Rookie of the Year even if the majority of his at-bats come as a DH*. ZiPS isn’t being tricked by that big September either, the system called for almost exactly the same thing for 2011: a .276/.334/.503 line with 34 doubles and 28 homers in 539 at-bats.

* For comparison’s sake, Eric Hosmer hit .293/.334/.465 with 27 doubles and 19 homers in 523 at-bats this year, and he should finish either first or second in the voting.

I see Montero’s current situation as similar to Ivan Nova‘s after last season, at least to a certain extent. Nova wasn’t great in September 2010 but he showed enough to warrant a much longer looking 2011, which he got and in turn rewarded the Yankees. Montero made such a strong impression last month that the team has almost no choice but to play him full-time next season, it’s just a question of where. We’ve talked about the whole DH/backup catcher thing, but putting it into practice is much easier said than done. The ZiPS numbers don’t mean anything at the end of the day, but they’re a nice little reminder of just how much Montero can help the Yankees if given the chance.

Standard Disclaimer: Projections are not predictions. Dave Cameron put it best when he said “Projections are information about what we think we currently know, while predictions are speculation about things that we probably cannot know.”

Noesi improves in second winter ball start

DWL Licey (11-6 win over Aguilas) Sunday’s game
Hector Noesi, RHP: 3.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 5-1 GB/FB – although this wasn’t great, it was an improvement after his stinker the first time around … remember, he’s on a strict pitch count

AzFL Phoenix (4-1 win over Salt River)
Corban Joseph, 2B: 2 for 5, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI. 1 K – eight for his last 24 (.333) with two doubles, a homer, three walks, and one strikeout
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 2 for 4, 1 K, 1 SB – exactly two hits in four of his six games out here

Open Thread: World Series Game Five

How about that Derek Holland kid? That was his Andy Pettitte, Game Five of the 1996 World Series moment right there, which is pretty cool because apparently he idolizes Pettitte; Andy texted him a congratulations after the game. Only one non-Lance Berkman hitter managed to hit the ball out of the infield off Holland, and the Cardinals offense doesn’t suck. We’re down to a best-of-three series now, which is great news for those of us that want to see a Game Seven.

Here’s your open thread for the evening. It’s Chris Carpenter vs. C.J. Wilson at 8pm ET on FOX tonight, plus you’ve got Monday Night Football (Ravens at Jaguars, 8:30pm ET on ESPN) and the (hockey) Rangers in action. Talk about anything you want here, it’s all fair game.

Oh by the way, that’s a neat little (well, not little, it’s nearly 15 minutes long) video of World Series highlights through the years. The Yankees are well represented, both good and bad, as you probably expect.

Phillies decline Roy Oswalt’s option

The Phillies have declined their 2012 option for Roy Oswalt, making him a free agent. They did the same with Brad Lidge, but no one cares about him. The 34-year-old right-hander (Oswalt, not Lidge) will receive a $2M buyout rather than a $16M salary for next season.

Given their need for starting pitching, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll hear about the Yankees and Oswalt at various points this winter. Matt looked at the former Astro last month, and I’m sure we’ll look at him a little more during the offseason. One thing worth noting is that Oswalt’s back problems got so severe this season that he openly pondered retirement, which is scary in more ways than one. Any deal would obviously have to be short-term, like one year plus an option, for the career NLer.

Collective Mailbag: Edwin Jackson

At least a dozen emailers, paraphrased: Will the Yankees show any interest in Edwin Jackson this off-season?

If it feels as though Edwin Jackson has been around the league for nearly a decade, it’s because he has. He made his debut in 2003 at age 19, throwing 22 innings for the Dodgers. That came after he rolled through the AA Southern League with relative easy, producing a 3.70 ERA and a 2.86 FIP. It’s tough to mistake that type of talent as anything but star-bound.

It didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off. The Dodgers let him start the 2004 season in AAA, and he got rocked down there. His stint in the majors went just as poorly. A repeat in 2005 completely removed Jackson’s prospect luster. The Dodgers wasted little time in trading him to the Rays for Danys Baez and Lance Carter. That is, they traded a 22-year-old who, two years prior, was Baseball America’s No. 4 overall prospect, for what amounted to an overrated reliever and an utterly crappy one.

Here’s where Jackson’s story becomes relevant to the Yankees’ interest in him. Once he was out of options, in 2007, the Rays made him a full-time starter. In each year since then he has made at least 31 starts. That makes him seem a durable pitcher, something teams value on the free agent market. But in those five full-time seasons Jackson has displayed a measure of inconsistency. His ERA has fluctuated wildly, moving 1.00 or more in three of the last four off-seasons (and 0.85 in the fourth).

Yet we know that ERA tends to fluctuate year-to-year, at least to some degree. That’s why we have FIP: to look at a pitcher through events over which he has most control. In this manner Jackson has shown inconsistency too, especially in his strikeout rate. Here are Jackson’s K/9 numbers from the last five years:


Again, we’re not talking small fluctuations here. We’re talking a change of at least 1.00 per nine every season. That should make wary anyone with a long-term contract offer in hand.

There are a number of things to like about Jackson. He’s still just 28 years old, so there shouldn’t be any decline-related worries. As mentioned, he’s also made at least 31 starts in each of the last five seasons, so he’s proven himself durable. He’s also seen his FIP pretty consistently decline over the last three seasons. from from 4.88 in 2008 to 3.55 this past season. His xFIP has also dropped a bit, to around 3.70 in each of the last two seasons. He pitched plenty of those seasons in the AL as well — in fact, you could say that he pitched better in Chicago than he did at either of his NL stops.

In terms of a deal, chances are Jackson would command three to four years. Normally I’d say three, but the market works in strange ways when it comes to starters — especially those that Scott Boras represents. Only nine free agent pitchers in history have signed deals longer than four years, and given how few of them have worked out it’s pretty safe to say that four years is the max. If the Yankees were going to offer Jackson a contract I’d prefer three years at max, with a $33-$35 million ceiling. I’m not sure that gets the job done, but anything more could be a big mistake.

That said, I’m not sure the Yankees seriously consider Jackson this winter. They have a number of in-house options for the 2012 rotation. They might not be better than Jackson right now, but I suspect that the Yankees think they’ll be close enough in the near future that signing him makes little sense. He’s not a terrible get, especially on a three-year contract (that expires when he turns 31). But given the market, which I think will provide him a fourth year, and the current number of righties on the brink of the rotation, I think the Yankees pass on Jackson. He’s not a bad idea as a backup plan, though.

Switching Gardner and Granderson

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

It’s been trendy to classify the Yankees as a poor defensive team over the last decade or so, and for a while it was absolutely true. It’s not anymore though, even if Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have lost a step over the years. Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano are rock solid at worst on the right side of the infield, Russell Martin is very good behind the plate, and the outfield features two center fielders. Yeah, the left side of the infield is lacking, but the defensive is generally solid overall.

The Yankees outfield led baseball in good ol’ UZR this season (32.3 runs saved), and they were fourth overall last year (+28.6). At 60.9 runs saved since the start of 2010, they’ve been the second best defensive outfield in baseball behind the Diamondbacks (+61.2), who on any given night are running three players out there capable of playing center field (Gerardo Parra, Chris Young, and Justin Upton). The eye test agrees with the numbers as well; Brett Gardner is a stud in the field, Curtis Granderson is solid, and although Nick Swisher can look funny out there at times, he’s solid as well.

Over the last few months, the question has arose about whether or not the Yankees are using the best outfield alignment. Because Gardner is an elite defender, shouldn’t he be playing center instead of Granderson? The advanced metrics didn’t like Curtis’ defense at all in 2011, including UZR (-5.1), DRS (-15), Total Zone (-5), and FRAA (-13.1). One year of fielding data isn’t enough though, and his three-year rates seem much more in line with the eye test (0, +3, +3, and -12.1, respectively). Gardner, on the other hand, was one of the best fielders in all of baseball this year (+25.8, +22, +3, and +13.7) and has been since 2009 (+50.9, +35, +46, and +22.6). You’re not going to find much of an argument here, Gardner is the better defensive player whether you dig the stats or not.

Now, it is important to consider context when dealing with these defensive stats. Gardner has played left field for the vast majority of the last two years, so his performance is being compared to other left fielders. As you know, most teams have some kind of plodding, bat-first guy roaming left, only able to catch balls hit right at him. Granderson is being compared to fellow center fielders, who tend to be better than left fielders on defense. Move Gardner to center, and his +20 UZR turns into a +5 or +10 UZR real fast. That’s still very good, but the numbers can be deceiving.

SG at RLYW dug deeper into the data last week, and found that yeah, the Yankees probably are better off defensively with Gardner in center and Granderson in left, but chances are the upgrade would be small. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option worth exploring though, and I think switching the two is something the Yankees should at least consider this offseason. Granderson hasn’t played an outfield position other than center since 2007, when he spend five innings in left, and all told he’s got just 59.2 career innings in left and over 8,000 in center. A mid-season switch probably would have been tough, but it’s something he can work on during the offseason and in Spring Training. It might not be a big difference, but it’s an extra five or ten runs saved over the course of the season, it will certainly help the Yankees.

What Went Wrong: A.J. Burnett

Like every non-CC Sabathia member of the rotation, A.J. Burnett was a giant question mark heading into the season. He was coming off one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in Yankees’ history, the first player to wear pinstripes and throw 180+ IP with an over-5.00 ERA, but his team needed him. Unlike the other non-Sabathia members of the rotation, Burnett was making huge money with multiple years left on his contract, and that was undoubtedly a factor why he was being given such a long leash.

A.J.’s season started with reports of a mid-winter sit down with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and sure enough he came to Spring Training with some revamped mechanics. Nothing major, they just cut short the turn in his delivery to help keep him more on line with the plate. Like last season, Burnett’s 2011 actually started out pretty well. He used those new mechanics to carry a 3.38 ERA through his first eight starts, culminating with seven one-hit, one-run innings against the Royals on May 11th. The peripheral stats did not agree with the ERA though; A.J. had a ~4.25 FIP through those eight starts.

The Rays tagged Burnett for six runs in 5.2 IP on May 16th, then a couple starts later the Red Sox hung eight runs on him in 5.2 IP. That 3.38 ERA ballooned to 4.37 in the span of five starts, though a handful of appearances against NL teams in interleague play helped knock that down to 4.05 heading into early-July. Burnett had thrown at least five innings in all 17 starts up to that point, so he was at least sparing the bullpen and generally keeping the Yankees in the game. Not exactly what you want from a guy making that kind of money, but after the disaster of 2010, expectations had been lowered.

Burnett barely held his own (18 runs in 31.2 IP) in five July starts, then the wheels really came off. He allowed seven or more runs three times in five August starts, including once each to the punchless White Sox and even punchlesser Twins. After getting knocked out of the game in the second inning by Minnesota on August 20th, A.J.’s ERA sat at 4.96 and he appeared to have words with Joe Girardi while walking off the mound. The two (along with catcher Russell Martin) maintained that he was talking to the home plate umpire, and although it created some headlines that week, the situation was diffused rather quickly.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

After throwing 7.2 IP of two-run ball against the collapsing Red Sox on September 25th, Burnett’s final start of the season, his ERA sat at 5.16, lower than last season but not enough to be meaningful. He’s basically repeated his 2010 performance, his second straight season of 180+ IP with an over-5.00 ERA and the second in franchise history. A one-batter relief appearance in the final game of the season served as a tune-up in what was supposed to be a relief role in the ALDS, but the weather forced him into a Game Four start with the season on the line. Burnett pitched well in that game, not great, but good enough to help the team win. He held the Tigers to one run on four hits and four walks in 5.1 IP, though Curtis Granderson saved his bacon with a pair of nice defensive plays.

On the bright side, Burnett’s curveball was much better in 2011 than it was in 2010, helping him post his highest swing-and-miss rate as a Yankee (10.0%) and return to the days of at least eight strikeouts per nine innings (8.18 K/9 to be exact, 11th highest in the league). His 49.2% ground ball rate was his best since 2007 as well, but that’s pretty much the end of the good news. At 1.47 HR/9, A.J. was the second most homer prone pitcher in the AL and third most in all of baseball, trailing only Colby Lewis (1.57) and Bronson Arroyo (2.08). His 3.92 BB/9 was the second highest in the AL (behind Gio Gonzalez) and sixth highest in all of baseball. Burnett’s fastball velocity continued to decline into his mid-30’s, sitting more 92-93 than 94-95, and his 4.77 FIP was actually worse than his 4.83 FIP in 2010 when compared to the league average (112 FIP- last year vs. 114 FIP- this year). It all added up to 1.5 fWAR and 1.1 bWAR, both of which rank 78th among the 94 starters that qualified for the ERA title.

Burnett’s awfullness was generally more spread out this season; last year it was really three horrific months (July, August, and September) that did him in. This year it was one horrible month (August) and five mediocre ones. Despite the now infamous “objective pipe” comment from Brian Cashman, there is no trade market for Burnett, so the Yankees are stuck with him whether they like it or not. Unless the team manages to import four very good starters this offseason, A.J. will be back in the rotation in 2012. Expecting improvement would be foolish at this point.