2012 Season Preview: Something To Prove

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.

Jeter will have something to prove for the rest of his career.

The 2011 Yankes might have won more games than any other team in the American League, but that doesn’t mean everything broke their way. A number of proven players struggled at various points in the season. Some struggled the entire season. They’ll all enter the 2012 season with something to prove.

These players could prove vital to the Yankees’ success in 2012. As we’ll discuss early next week, there are a number of players who performed above expectations in 2011. We can’t expect them to repeat those phenomenal performances, so it becomes important that other players step up. The following players contributed less than expected to the 2012 Yankees, but could make up for it with big 2012 campaigns.

Phil Hughes

It’s hard to forget Phil Hughes’ horrible start to the 2011 season. After the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee (everybody drink!), Hughes became that much more important to the 2011 rotation. He generated some hype after his 18-win 2010 campaign, even though his overall numbers were average at best. It was seemingly his time to shine, but his body had other plans.

Late in spring training reports surfaced that Hughes wasn’t even cracking 90 with his fastball. He proved those reports right in his first start. And then his second. By his third it had become too much. Hughes in 2011 looked like Chien-Ming Wang in 2009. The Yankees reacted in the same way, too; they placed Hughes on the DL with an ambiguous injury.

He came back and pitched better, but by no means did he wow anyone. That led to an intense off-season training regimen that, by all accounts, has him looking fit and prepared for the 2012 campaign. Brian Cashman has asserted that he believes Hughes is “a top-of-the-rotation starter.” Such a transformation, after never previously pitching at that level (as a starter) in the majors would be quite a coup.

Really, though, the Yankees just need Hughes to bounce back to his 2010 levels. If he can give them 180 to 200 innings and perform slightly better than the major league average, he’ll have more than fulfilled his duties as the No. 5 starter. The competition is apparently rigged in his favor, so he’ll get every shot to prove he’s capable.

Rafael Soriano

The questions surrounding Soriano don’t revolve around performance so much as they do health. True, Soriano’s early season performance left much to be desired — through mid-May he had walked more than he struck out and had allowed nine runs in 15 innings (plus another inherited runner). But his main problem in 2011 involved the 66 games he missed with an elbow injury. This is even more concerning for a guy who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2004 and then missed almost all of the 2008 season with elbow troubles.

After returning from the DL, however, Soriano looked more like his old self. He struck out 26 in 24.1 innings, walking only seven in that span and holding opponents to a .205/.263/.318 batting line. He continued pitching well into the playoffs, holding the Tigers to just one hit in 4.2 innings. Unfortunately, that one hit cost them enormously. Even so, his overall performance definitely adds to the optimism that he’ll turn in a full and productive 2012 season.

If Soriano’s elbow doesn’t act up, he’ll play a big role in the bullpen. While Joe Girardi said that David Robertson will resume his eighth-inning duties, it’s not as though he can pitch every eighth inning of every close game. There are also important situations in the seventh inning and even before, and Soriano, who can still induce a good share of swings and misses, could thrive in those. In essence, he’s one of three currently healthy Yankees relievers capable of closing ballgames. That gives them quite a tremendous endgame.

Alex Rodriguez

As with Soriano, Rodriguez has to prove his health above all. He started off last season with a bang, going 9 for his first 28 with three homers. But then he dived for a ball at third. That started a chain reaction of injuries that slowed his production. His power took the biggest hit. It gradually faded at first, but by mid-June it was gone. From then through the All-Star break he hit no homers; his .417 SLG was based on his seven doubles and 21 singles.

It was then revealed that he was having severe knee issues, which would eventually require surgery. Rather than spend the rest of the year in pain while producing little in terms of power, Rodriguez opted for the surgery so that he could return, healthy and productive, for the stretch run. That didn’t quite go as expected, though. A thumb injury complicated matters, and Rodriguez hit just .191/.345/.353 in 84 PA after coming off the DL.

At this point we all know about A-Rod‘s knee procedure from this past off-season. We know that he’s so dedicated to his training and health regimen that he’s taking his own meals to restaurants. The effort is definitely there. If his health holds, the performance will almost certainly follow. At this point in his career, though, it’s tough to make any assumptions. He’ll turn 37 in July and has spent time on the DL every year since 2008. Proving his health would be a huge boon for the Yankees in 2012 and in the future.

Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter proved plenty in the second half of 2011. After a rough start that in many ways reflected his below-expectations 2010 campaign, he found the on-switch while rehabbing from a calf injury. From his return through season’s end he hit .331/.384/.447 in 314 PA, silencing critics. At least for the moment.

Unfortunately, at this stage in his career Jeter will have something to prove every year. If he gets off to a slow start, he’ll have something to prove every at-bat. It won’t be easy on him, either. As a player ages his body does things to which he is not accustomed. Jeter, however, has shown that he’s capable of making adjustments. They might not be drastic maneuvers — the stride-less swing he worked on failed — but they worked in the second half.

While baseball players are typically in steep decline at Jeter’s age, Jeter is not a typical ballplayer. He is one of four players in baseball history with at least 10,000 PA and a BABIP above .350. The other three — Rod Carew, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker — all had above-average age-38 seasons. In fact, Cobb led the league in OPS+ at age 38. Carew was the worst of them, with a 101 OPS+, but he did produce a 128 OPS+ at age-37. So while it’s easy to expect decline from Jeter based on his age, remember that he’s not the average ballplayer going through an average decline phase.

Mark Teixeira

Maybe 2010 was just a down year, we thought. After all, Teixeira had a glowing 2009 season in the Bronx. He also battled nagging injuries in 2010, including a thumb injury that sapped his production later in the season. He even ended the postseason on the DL, straining his hamstring in Game Four against Texas. Surely, it was just some bad luck, as evidenced by a .268 BABIP. Right?

As it turns out, Teixeira’s 2010 season was pretty close to his 2011 campaign. They were both colored by heavy power production and a good walk rate, but his batting average simply dipped. While batting average is not a be-all, end-all stat, it does mean plenty — especially when it falls more than 30 points from a player’s career average. For Teixeira, that meant 30 points of OBP and SLG, which led to yet another below expectations year in 2011.

The main problem for Teixeira in 2011 was his performance batting left-handed. He produced a 110 wRC+ from that side, a far cry from his normal levels. He hit right-handed just fine — .302/.380/.587 — but he faced lefties just 216 times out of his 670 PA. He also popped up the ball too often — 11.8 percent of all his fly balls, which is compounded by an increasing number of fly balls in general.

Maybe it’s a kink in his swing. Maybe it’s the psychological effect of a right field fence that is relatively close-by. Whatever the reason, Teixeira is hitting the ball in the air more frequently as a Yankee than he had as a Brave or a Ranger. He’s also popping up more of those pitches. Teixeira is aware of the problem, and says he worked on it this winter. He still has plenty to prove, though, in terms of executing. The last two years were not kind, and he hasn’t played to the expectations the Yankees had when they signed him. As with Rodriguez, a turnaround in 2012 is important not only for the current team, but also for the next five seasons.

The original version of this post omitted Teixeira, which was a glaring oversight.

The Qualifying Offer

Russ doesn't trust banks with his money. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Earlier this week we discussed the contract situations of Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, both of whom are important players to the Yankees and scheduled to become free agents after the season. The Yankees don’t have an obvious internal replacement for the former while the latter saw his free agent stock jump thanks to Yadier Molina’s massive contract extension. Multi-year contracts for both players are reasonable given their age and production, but will cut into the team’s 2014 austerity plan. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement may actually help the Yankees in this situation, however.

Under the terms of the new CBA, Type-A and B free agents have been eliminated. If a club wants to receive draft pick compensation for a player, they now have to make a qualifying offer rather than offer arbitration. The qualifying offer is a guaranteed one-year contract with a salary equal to the average of the top 125 salaries in 2011, and this coming offseason it will be approximately $12.4M. If you’re the Yankees and you’re eyeing that $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014, wouldn’t you love the idea of bringing both Swisher and Martin back for 2013 on one-year, $12.4M contracts? I know I would.

Obviously it takes two to tango. Making a qualifying offer to both Swisher and Martin doesn’t guarantee either guy will accept. I’m sure every player appreciates the security of a multi-year contract, and those two would have to at least explore the free agent market before agreeing to come back to the Yankees for just one guaranteed year. The qualifying offers are a win-win as far as the team is concerned. They would buy them an extra year for Austin Romine‘s development (and transition to the show) and allow them to see if a potential Swisher replacement emerges within the farm system while having zero impact on the 2014 budget. If Swisher and Martin sign elsewhere, they Yankees would get draft picks as compensation (assuming they qualify under the new system).

It’s easy for me to say this as a fan, but I’d rather see the Yankees overpay in money on a one-year deal than overpay in years on a multi-year deal. The guys writing the checks may feel differently. The $12.4M is probably more than either Swisher or Martin will get on an annual basis as a free agent, and if the market break rights both guys could wind up back in pinstripes by accepting the qualifying offer. I have to think this would be the best case (realistic) scenario for the team, getting both their starting right fielder and catcher back on terms that don’t impact future payroll.

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.