Pondering A Switch Atop The Lineup

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

When the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, it was thanks in part to a subtle lineup change that yielded big results. Derek Jeter grounded into a career-worst 24 doubles plays in 2008, so Joe Girardi minimized his rally-killing opportunities by batting him leadoff rather than second. Johnny Damon dropped down a spot to the two-hole, where his unexpected power spike (career-best 24 homers in 2009) was a pleasant surprise. As a result, the Yankees had the best leadoff (132 OPS+) and second best number two hitter (126) production in the game that season.

Damon left as a free agent after that season, but Jeter has remained in the leadoff position ever since. Nick Johnson, Nick Swisher, and Curtis Granderson have occupied the number two spot for the most part during the last two seasons, and Granderson is the obvious choice to do so again in 2012. With Robinson Cano apparently locked in as the number three hitter, Joe Girardi hinted yesterday that Jeter and Granderson could switch lineup spots like Jeter and Damon did three years ago, calling it “a possibility [we] could talk about.”

On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense. Granderson’s power would be minimized atop the lineup while Jeter — who is more of a ground ball hitter now than he was in 2009 — would again be more of a double play threat. The Yankees had the second best offense in the game last season (113 wRC+), and it’s very easy to say don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. This is Spring Training though, and there’s no harm in bouncing ideas around and trying things out on the field in meaningless exhibition games. Flipping Grandy and Jeter is a thought worth entertaining.

For one, Granderson’s power is masking his prototype leadoff hitter skills. Not only is he a stolen base threat (24 last year) and adept a taking the extra base (50% of the time since 2008, well over the 39% league average), but he’s also incredibly patient and makes the pitcher work. Curtis led baseball in pitches per plate appearances last season (4.44), and over the last four years his walk rate has settled in at 11.0% (12.3% in 2011). His inability to hit for a high average means his OBP will be in the .350-.360 range rather than .380+, however.

The typical leadoff man comes to the plate with the bases empty approximately 67% of the time*, which means a whole lot of Granderson’s homers would be solo shots if he bats atop the order regularly. That said, you can make the argument that having Grandy bat “behind” number nine hitter Brett Gardner (.364 OBP last two years) would give him more opportunities to hit with men on base than if he was hitting second behind Jeter (.347 OBP last two years). That’s a simplified look at it,  but you get the point. There’s a case to be made.

* I’m willing to bet that number is a bit lower for Yankees leadoff hitters in recent years.

Derek's second favorite pastime. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

As for Jeter, his propensity for the twin-killing would be somewhat mitigated in the two-hole by Granderson’s extra-base ability. Remember, it’s not just about homers. He hits a ton of doubles (29 last year) and triples (ten) as well, and it’s hard to ground into a double play with the runner on second or third. Jeter’s affinity for a sacrifice bunt — which he does on his own quite often — would be a problem though. Laying down a bunt as the number two hitter means first base will be open when Cano is at the dish, which will lead to plenty of intentional and unintentional intentional walks. Taking the bat out of Robbie’s hands is never a good thing, particularly in the late innings of a close game (when the sac bunt is most effective).

Derek still makes a ton of contact (just 13.3 K% last year), so batting him second behind Gardner and Granderson would give Girardi the option to hit-and-run, a tactic I actually think is underutilized (in the right situation, of course) these days. Batting Jeter second would also split up Granderson and Cano, forcing the opposing manager to choose his spots with his lefty specialist a little more wisely. That’s not necessarily a good thing though, because both Grandy (since getting #cured) and Cano mash left-handed pitchers and you’d like them to face the inferior lefty rather than the superior righty. It would create a bit of a headache for the opposing manager in the late innings, but I think the actual benefit to the Yankees is up for debate.

I don’t think flipping Jeter and Granderson right now makes as much sense as flipping Jeter and Damon back in 2009, but it’s not the craziest idea in the world. Curtis would get a few extra plate appearances throughout the season and the opposing manager will surely make some foolish pitching changes along the way, but the downside is (theoretically) having fewer men on base for Granderson and Jeter’s ground ball double plays. The results could be considerable as we saw three years ago, and if doesn’t work, they could always go back to last year’s arrangement at any time. Consider me intrigued and in favor of giving the switch a try in camp.

The players we love to hate

The New York/Boston rivalry lost a familiar face on Tuesday when Jason Varitek and his scarlet C announced his retirement. Varitek had been all but pushed out by Boston and couldn’t find or imagine finding another job with another club anywhere else. And so he’ll join the long list of players who have left the game but served as familiar faces during the halcyon days of the great Yankee/Red Sox games.

Varitek, before I get too nostalgic for a player I could barely stand to watch, was one of those guys who seemingly defined the great rivalry years from the mid 2000s. He was the player Yankee fans loved to hate, and hate him we did. Ironically, his defining moment came when he went after a Yankee whom Yankee fans love to hate. After an ill-timed beanball, Varitek and A-Rod started shoving each other in a 2004 fight. Varitek kept his mask on, and the rest, they say, was history. Yankee fans could never speak of the Sox’s catcher again without referencing his fight.

Of course, Varitek’s place in this dispute was more than just about that fight. He was supposedly the Red Sox’s answer to Jorge Posada, but the comparison never was a good one. Perhaps his pitchers liked him more, but Varitek’s bat paled in comparison to Jorge’s, and despite some unfortunately memorable home runs, Varitek’s offensive career against the Yankees was subpar. In 172 games, he hit .226/.308/.388 with just an 80 tOPS. In 2005, he battered around a bruised Yankee staff, but during most years, he didn’t do much hitting.

Yet, he was always there, a reminder of what exactly for Yankee fans? A team that would fight with its masks on? An undeservedly smug attitude? Something dirty about Boston that Yankee fans hated? Whatever it was, Jason Varitek seemed to embody that ethos, that thing that we couldn’t stand.

These days, Yankees/Red Sox games are rote affairs. We must go through the overly dramatic production of a FOX game or an ESPN special. We’re forced to pretend to be outraged when the new Red Sox manager says something strange about a thing that happened 11 years ago. We try to get worked up as though beating one team during a regular season contest is about glory, life, baseball. Plus, there are only a few guys worth even somewhat despising on the Red Sox of 2012.

So today, perhaps we lost a part of a history we can’t decide if we want to forget or remember. Varitek was around in 2003 when the Yanks dashed the Red Sox’s hopes, and Varitek was front and center when the Red Sox stormed back for an historic victory in 2004. Then he hung around for years as the Yanks and Red Sox squared off now and then in a series of sometimes-tense and sometimes-tedious regular season series. Now, with his mask still on, he’s joined the long list of players who had a starring role in during the heyday of the rivalry. I don’t think I’ll be missing him too much, but I may begrudgingly tip my cap to him on the eve of his retirement from the game we all love.

Open Thread: 2/28 Camp Notes

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Here is the latest from Tampa…

  • As always, Chad Jennings has the day’s pitching and hitting groups. Ivan Nova, David Robertson, Boone Logan and a bunch of minor leaguers/non-roster guys threw live batting practice while Rafael Soriano threw in the bullpen. Everyone but Austin Romine (back) and Robinson Cano (death in the family) hit.
  • David Aardsma was in camp for apparently the first time, and said he’s been throwing off flat ground at 90 feet. He’s eyeing a return after the All-Star break. [Bryan Hoch]
  • Brett Gardner and Dewayne Wise worked on their bunting in a drill added to the workout specifically for them. Hopefully Brett drops down a few more bunts for hits this season, he was markedly better at that in the second half last year. [Jennings]
  • Joe Girardi hinted that Cano is locked in as the #3 hitter with the rest of the lineup around him still to be determined, and also said that CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are the only starters guaranteed rotation spots. Yeah, right. [Jennings & George King]

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Islanders and Nets are playing, but feel free to talk about whatever you want here. Anything goes.

Joba throws off full mound for first time since Tommy John surgery

Via George King, Joba Chamberlain threw off a full mound today for the first time since having Tommy John surgery last June. He threw just 15 pitches (all fastballs), but it’s a significant step. He’ll do the same thing on Friday. “We will see how Friday goes and how my arm recovers because there [are] different pressures when you throw off a full mound,” said Joba. “I won’t throw breaking balls at all this week. After Friday we will figure out a plan.”

If all goes continues to go well, Joba will be able to face hitters in batting practice and simulated games within four-to-six weeks. A minor league rehab assignment follows a few weeks of that, so think sometime in May.

Is the 5th starter competition rigged again?

Once A.J. Burnett got traded, the picture seemed clear. Instead of having three pitchers competing for the final rotation spot, the Yankees narrowed that down to two. And, considering their performances in 2011, the competition seemed legit. Freddy Garcia, who impressed the Yankees enough that they signed him to a $4 million contract early in the off-season, even seemed to have the upper hand. His performance, reliability, and experience seems, or at least seemed, perfect for the fifth starter role.

Phil Hughes, on the other hand, seems like the riskier pick. He might be younger than Garcia, and relatively young in general, but his MLB experience isn’t overly exciting. After pitching well out of the bullpen for half a season in 2009, he started off 2010 with a bang while pitching from the rotation. But he couldn’t keep up that pace throughout the year. Last year was a disaster, which left many of us wondering if there’s anything behind the Phil Hughes hype.

This isn’t the first time Hughes has been involved in a rotation battle. In 2010 he joined Joba Chamberlain, Sergio Mitre, and Chad Gaudin in competition for the final rotation spot. As we learned that spring, though, there wasn’t much of a competition at all. The Yankees viewed Chamberlain as a reliever, and had no intention of letting Gaudin and Mitre take a rotation spot away from their 24-year-old top prospect who had dazzled in the bullpen the previous season. Hughes was the chosen one, probably before any of them threw a pitch in the spring.

According to Joel Sherman, we can expect much of the same this year.

But understand this: The competition is rigged. If it is close, Hughes wins. If it is advantage Garcia, but only slightly, Hughes wins. Hughes can only lose this by doing what he did last spring, having his fastball go on a mysterious hiatus.

Sherman goes on to describe how well Hughes has thrown during the first few spring outings, signaling that he’s already won the fifth starter job. He also quotes GM Brian Cashman, who said of Hughes: “I think he’s a top-of-the-rotation starter.” Those are pretty heavy words for a guy who hasn’t had a full and productive season in the bigs to date.

In terms of the organization’s future, it makes enough sense to prefer Hughes in the rotation. He’s with the team for at least two more seasons, and will hit free agency before his age-28 season. That is, they could keep him in the organization, even at market price, if he succeeds this year. That’s just not an option for Garcia, who, at age 35, has a limited number of productive years remaining.

It’s the present that’s a bit tougher to judge. Hughes very well could be the superior option this year, which makes the decision to use him in the rotation a no-brainer. But, again, it’s hard to look back on his career and see the signs of someone primed for success. If the Yankees do hand him the ball and he falters out of the gate, they’ll be in an even tougher spot. Do they pull Garcia out of the bullpen and insert him to the rotation? That would likely be the end of Hughes’ days in the rotation.

It comes down to how quickly the Yankees are willing to pull the plug. There’s no harm in seeing what Hughes can give you early in the season. Again, his potential future in the organization is much easier to see than Garcia’s. But at some point there needs to be an emphasis on the 2012 team. If Hughes isn’t working out, the Yankees can’t wait long before turning to Garcia. That’s just the point they’re at with Hughes. It’s either come out of the gates strong, or realize a diminished role in the organization.

It’s no surprise, really, to hear of the rigged competition. There’s a lot at stake, not only for 2012, but in 2013 and beyond. Clearly, Hughes has the potential to play a part in future Yankees teams, while Garcia does not. The key to this situation is how the Yankees approach the 2012 team. They can’t punt the last rotation spot all season. They need to know when it’s time to pull the plug on Hughes in the rotation, even if that means a full-time banishment to the bullpen.

A Sign of the Catcher Contract Apocalypse

We’ve heard quite a bit about contract talks between the Yankees and Russell Martin over the last few weeks, though the two sides have mutually agreed to put negotiations on hold until after the season. Martin will earn $7.5M this summer before becoming eligible for free agency at the end of the season, which is something the team should try to avoid if they’re serious about keeping him around for another few years. As the Cardinals are about the show the baseball world, quality catchers are not cheap.

Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Cards and Yadier Molina — who is also scheduled to become a free agent after the season — are putting the finishing touches on a five-year extension worth $70-75M. Molina is an excellent catcher, one of the very best in the game, but is he $15M a year until he’s 35 excellent? Remember, this is a guy that was below average offensively (82 wRC+ from ’04-’10) even for a catcher (86 wRC+ league average) prior to his breakout last season (123 wRC+). That increased production could be real since he is in his prime years, and it’s worth noting that he hit way more fly balls than ever before in 2011, explaining how he doubled his previous career high in homers. Molina’s a fantastic defender, but Tony LaRussa also started him behind the plate 130+ times in each of the last four years. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

Assuming Yadi’s deal is finalized at the reported terms, the happiest people in baseball will be Martin, Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, and their agents. The catcher salary bar has just been raised substantially, to the point where these guys could ask for $10-12M annually before they even hit the open market after the season. Given the dearth of quality catching around the league, the bidding could get to be outrageous in free agency.

“[Molina’s] contract gives you something to point to now,” said Martin’s agent Matt Colleran to Joel Sherman. “They are two really good all-around catchers. For Russell, you couldn’t point to Victor Martinez, who was more a catcher/DH and Napoli is kind of similar. … It could shape up as a unique situation. But all of that is speculation for the time being. Russell is a Yankee and he would like to stay a Yankee.”

Martin isn’t as good as Molina, Montero, or Napoli, but he’s certainly better than average and is still a full year away from his 30th birthday. If he stays healthy and puts together another 100 wRC+ season or (gasp!) improves during his second season in New York, he’d be foolish not to see what free agency has to offer. That’s bad news for the Yankees, because it will make it even harder to retain him.

I’ve been suggesting a three-year, $25-30M contract for Martin over the last few weeks, but that may have gone from “reasonable” to “best case scenario” for the Yankees thanks to Molina’s deal. Luckily they do have solid internal options in Austin Romine and Frankie Cervelli if they do balk at Martin’s price and let him go, but I have to think a contending team would prefer to have a (better than average) veteran catcher rather than roll the dice with kids behind the plate, especially with a generally young pitching staff. If the Yankees want to wait until after the season to restart negotiations, that’s fine. But chances are a new contract with Martin is something they’ll wish they would have worked out sooner come November.

[Photo via Nick Laham/Getty]

2012 Season Preview: Building Blocks

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

There is no such thing as rebuilding with the Yankees. They’re perpetually retooling, attempting to integrate young players into the roster while contending for the World Series every year. That’s much easier said that done, obviously.

Heading into 2012, the Yankees have a nice little collection of young players on the roster, including three with just one full big league season under their belt. Two of the three will be in the starting rotation while the third will see action off the bench and as an injury replacement, but they’re all very young and have a chance to assume very important roles with the team in the near future. The ages listed below are as of April 6th, otherwise known as Opening Day…

Michael Pineda, 23
The Yankees didn’t trade Jesus Montero (and Hector Noesi) to the Mariners just to improve their chances of winning in 2012, the move was geared towards improving their chances over the next half-decade. Pineda turned 23 the week of the trade and already has an above average big league season to his credit. He struck out more than a batter per inning last summer (9.11 K/9 and 24.9 K%) despite the lack of a quality changeup, a problem he has worked to correct with pitching coach Larry Rothschild early in camp.

They Yankees didn’t just acquire any ol’ young pitcher in Pineda. The CC Sabathia-sized right-hander combines high-octane stuff with surprisingly strong command (2.89 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%), hitting the mitt with his mid-90’s heat and wipe-out slider pitch after pitch. He’s not a finished product, but no one is at age 23. Pineda is starting from an extremely high baseline and still has plenty of room for growth, giving him scary upside and ace potential even in the rugged AL East. With five more years of team control remaining, the Yankees expect Pineda to form a dominant and historically large one-two punch with Sabathia for years to come.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Ivan Nova, 25
While Pineda was cutting his teeth with the Mariners last season, Nova was busy stepping up his game and serving as Sabathia’s running mate in the second half. A midseason demotion to Triple-A was largely undeserved but may have been the best thing that happened to him, as he improved his slider and gained enough confidence in the pitch to rely on it as his go-to weapon late in the season. Combined with his usual helping of ground balls, the right-hander exceeded all expectations in 2011.

Now that the curtain has been lifted on 2012, Nova will be counted on to not only repeat last year’s performance, but improve upon it. His walk rate (3.10 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) is fine, though the Yankees would surely like to see him beef up the strikeout total (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) going forward while maintaining his ground ball rate (52.7%). Like Pineda, Nova isn’t a finished product, but he is a bit more refined in the sense that he uses three pitches regularly (fastball, slider, curve) while working in the occasional fourth offering (changeup). With another five years to go before free agency, Nova has a chance to develop into that rock solid, mid-rotation workhorse that takes the ball every five days and gives the team quality outings each time out. With any luck, he’ll become more.

Eduardo Nunez, 24
It’s not easy to crack the Yankees roster as a young infielder, with a bench role being the only realistic way of making the team. Nunez got that chance last year and performed fairly well compared to most utility infielders, producing a .313 wOBA and a 92 wRC+ in 338 plate appearances. When Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez went down with injuries for weeks at the time, Nunez stepped in and hit .281/.333/.401 across two months. His offensive game revolves around putting the ball in play (10.9 K%) and stealing bases (22-for-28), two traits that suit a bench player.

While there is no star potential here, the offensive bar at shortstop is very low — league average at the position was a .303 wOBA and an 88 wRC+ in 2011. If Nunez can tighten up his throwing and become a passable defender at short, he’s by far the best in-house replacement candidate for Jeter. If that doesn’t happen, he can still be a viable part-timer as the two players on the left side of the infield continue on the path towards the glue factory.

* * *

The Yankees have a number of other players that appear to have long-term places on the roster — Robinson Cano, David Robertson, Brett Gardner, etc. — but none of them are under contractual control through 2016 like Pineda, Nova, and Nunez. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are friendly reminders that these things can veer off course, since both of those guys looked to have long-term roles with the team as recently as last spring. Now they’re question marks, question marks just two years away from free agency.

As always, the farm system has a chance to supply the Yankees will more long-term building blocks. Austin Romine and Manny Banuelos could spend the next six years as a battery if things break right, and 40-man roster guys like Dellin Betances, George Kontos, and Zoilo Almonte could force their way into the picture as well. Pineda and Nova are very clearly the future of the Yankees rotation at the moment, and Nunez’s importance to the club is dependent on the healthy of Jeter and A-Rod. Those guys may not form the next core of the Yankees when it’s all said and done, but they will be given every opportunity to assuming important roles on the team going forward.