2011 Season Preview: Brett Gardner

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Seth Wenig/AP)

“I guarantee you, [the Yankees] outfield next season will not be Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.” – Ken Rosenthal on December 22, 2009.

To a distant observer, Rosenthal’s proclamation might have seemed accurate. Brett Gardner is hardly anyone’s idea of a left fielder, and these are the Yankees. They weren’t going to settle for a slap-hitting speedster in a position normally reserved for power bats, were they? Even when they had Johnny Damon out there in 2008 and 2009 he provided a decent amount of power — his .183 ISO in those two years ranked ninth among left fielders. With options, including Matt Holliday, still on the market, surely the Yankees would seek an upgrade.

Yet to the close observer, the idea of starting the season with Gardner in left field didn’t seem that absurd at all. The Yankees clearly liked the kid. They gave him the starting center field job out of camp in 2009, and even though he played his way out of it, he made an impressive bounce back after April. From May 1 through season’s end Gardner hit .286/.372/.413 in 219 PA. That’s a fairly small sample, of course, but there was definitely something in Gardner’s game that made him seem appealing.

The Yankees, of course, went into the season with Gardner starting in left, and the experiment went as well as anyone could have hoped. He hit .277/.383/.379 and played what might have been the best defense at his position. It added up to 5.4 WAR, sixth among MLB left fielders (and that counts Aubrey Huff, who spend most of the season at first base). Even in terms of offense he matched up well, finishing with a .358 wOBA, seventh among MLB left fielders (again, with Huff included). This year, no one is questioning the Yankees decision to stick with Gardner in left.

Best Case

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

As we’ll see throughout this preview, Brett Gardner might be one of the toughest Yankees players to peg. Intuitively, it doesn’t appear that his skill set should work. He’s a slap hitter who draws much value from his patience at the plate. But why wouldn’t pitchers just throw him strikes? The worst he can do in most cases is hit a single. But for Gardner, that’s a pretty valuable outcome.

Whatever the actual case, pitchers don’t appear to throw Gardner strikes any more frequently than they do anyone else. He uses that to his advantage, drawing more than his share of walks. In fact, of the 216 times he reached base last year, 184 were a single, walk, or hit by pitch. But when you combine that with 47 stolen bases , those singles become more valuable. Of the 27 times Garnder was standing on first when a single was hit, he advanced to third base 10 times. Of the 9 doubles hit in that situation, Gardner scored six times. First base is not a bad spot for him to stand.

The question, of course, is not of what Gardner has done, but what he can do. Does he have the skills to repeat his performance from 2010? From the looks of his progression through the professional ranks, it appears so. He displayed a distinct trend starting in AA. He would get a mid-season promotion and falter a bit at first. Then he’d start the next season at that level and thrive. This carried over to the majors. He debuted with 141 PA in 2008 and sported a paltry .282 wOBA. In 2009 he stumbled out of the gate, but as noted above he recovered and finished the season with a .337 wOBA. Last year it was .358, which represented further improvement. Can he take another step forward this year?

As we’ve written many times, Gardner’s numbers took a dive after he was hit on the wrist on June 27. From that point forward he hit .232/.363/.340. Some of that might have been natural regression. Still, I don’t think his absolute ceiling is far off from the .321/.403/.418 he was hitting after getting hit on the 27th. A .300/.400/.400 line is certainly possible if he remains healthy all season.

Worst Case

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

Gardner has suffered hand and wrist injuries in each of the last two years, which is always cause for concern. He doesn’t rely on power, so if his is sapped it shouldn’t make much of a difference. But as he showed in the second half of last year, simply swinging the bat can become a chore. He took more and more pitches — good pitches, too — as the season wore on. IT sometimes played to his advantage, but more and more often he was caught looking at strike three.

After undergoing wrist surgery this off-season, Gardner appears to be back in form. But what if he suffers another injury, whether via bean ball or by sliding hard into a base, as he did in 2009? If that happens early in the season it could be an enormous detriment. But regardless of when it happens, it will certainly affect him at the plate. For a player who relies so much on a small skill set, that can be a crippling problem.

Beyond injury, there’s a chance that Gardner just got incredibly lucky in the first half of 2010. I’m not sure I totally buy that, but it’s certainly possible. What, then, is his floor in terms of production? I think it’s safe to say that he’ll always hit better than he did in 2008. Could he hit worse than in 2009? Could he turn in a Reggie Willits type season, .258/.341/.302? Again, I suppose that’s possible. Given what we’ve seen from Gardner, I’d say that’s absolutely the worst case.

What’s Likely To Happen

Not many hitters ever attain a .383 OBP, and even fewer sustain it. Given Gardner’s ability to slap singles and take walks, he can continue to hit that mark. If not, I don’t see him far below it. Here is how the projection systems see him:

Bill James: .275/.377/.371
Marcel:     .269/.357/.378
PECOTA:     .260/.357/.364
ZiPS:       .260/.356/.367
CAIRO:      .270/.358/.372

They’re all pretty much in the same range — except, of course, for James, where the projections always trend higher than the others. Still, if I were picking a most likely scenario for Gardner, that’s the one I’d choose. The others seem a bit pessimistic, perhaps because of Gardner’s high BABIP in 2010. But some players simply have that ability. For a guy who walks a lot, Gardner might be a guy who only swings at good pitches and therefore makes better than average contact (even if the ball will only go for a single). I think that when we’re getting down in to PECOTA and ZiPS range, we’re looking at something closer to his worst case.

At this time last year, none of us knew what to expect from Gardner in the upcoming season. This year we have something of a better idea, but the disconnect between Gardner’s appearance and his numbers leaves many of us skeptical that he can continue producing at an elite level. But given his history of improvement at each professional level and the possibility that he stays healthy all season, I think we’ll see something of a repeat performance out of Gardner.

Greinke made his case for a Yankees trade

(Morry Gash/AP)

From the outset of the off-season one thing was clear: the Kansas City Royals were going to trade their ace, Zack Greinke. While Greinke didn’t officially request a trade until sometime in December, it was pretty clear that he was unhappy in Kansas City, where he had endured a number of losing seasons and was in line for at least one, and probably two more before he reached free agency. When Greinke’s request became public, the Royals moved quickly.

Having missed out on the off-season’s top free agent, Cliff Lee, the Yankees became natural suitors for Greinke. Yet there were questions about his ability to handle the pressure of New York. It was common at the time to associate Greinke’s social anxiety disorder with an inability to pitch in the big city, but it’s tough for anyone who doesn’t know Greinke to make such a determination. Instead, Greinke’s own words that gave others pause. It was widely reported that he told friends that he couldn’t play in a big market such as Boston or New York.

Once it became apparent that the Royals would grant his trade request, Greinke apparently had a change of heart. SI’s Jon Heyman tells the story. It all started at the Winter Meetings.

But when he and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman met clandestinely in Orlando (Greinke’s hometown) at an off-site location during the winter meetings, Greinke’s desperation not to endure yet another losing season in Kansas City was such that he is said to have tried to convince Cashman that he wanted to come to New York. And that he could actually thrive in New York.

However, people who were briefed on that meeting said Cashman ultimately decided that Greinke’s first thought about New York was probably correct — that it wasn’t the best spot for him. Greinke told people the day he accepted his Cy Young Award in New York City that he didn’t think he could ever live in New York, and kept telling friends the same. But as the days dwindled this winter, he made his surprise plea to Cashman to make him a Yankee.

This passage makes it appear as though the Yankees didn’t make much of an effort to acquire Greinke when the Royals got serious about trading him. Cashman came away with an opinion, based on a personal impression, and the team agreed with him. I’m not sure if it was the correct decision, but now we know the process behind it.

Greinke could end up in New York yet. The Brewers have gambled significantly on the 2011 season, and if they fall out of the race by July they might consider trading off some of their players in an attempt to rebuild. Greinke could fetch them a decent bounty, since he would have a year and a half until free agency. Again at that point, after the 2012 season, Greinke could again seek out the Yankees as suitors. He’ll be just 29 years old for the 2013 season.

It’s still more likely that we never know what could have been between Greinke and the Yankees. For some that’s fine and good. His social anxiety disorder causes enough concern that it’s not worth the money, or prospects, to obtain him. Others, though, will always wonder how the socially anxious, but fiercely competitive Greinke would have fared in New York. (For a great take on that, read Joe Posnanski’s article on Greinke from this winter.) The man put his mindset in perspective with just a few words: “It’s fun to win.” That’s what we want to hear from current and future New York Yankees.

Teixeira leaves Boras

It doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but this morning Bryan Hoch dropped a surprise. Mark Teixeira has dropped Scott Boras as his agent. This isn’t all too surprising, since Boras already got Teixeira the contract of a lifetime. Teixeira had the normal array of boring quotes, saying that it was the best decision for him and his family, and that he’d like to concentrate on being Mark Teixeira the baseball player rather than Mark Teixeira the Scott Boras client. I’m not sure who thought of him as the latter. I suspect that this will in no way affect your enjoyment of the 2011 Yankees.

The days of Derek’s discontent

(Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

For 14 years, Derek Jeter has been a media darling in New York. The team captain, he has projected an aura of calm professionalism while going about his job in an intense way. He doesn’t get into trouble; he doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth; and his girlfriend has never been caught on national television feeding him popcorn. He might not say too much, but he speaks often enough to remain a favorite.

Lately, though, Derek has seen his image lessened. It isn’t tarnished, but the do-no-wrong short stop has seen the less glamorous side of New York adulation. It started last year when he had a sub-par season. He hit just .270 and his .710 OPS was a career low by 60 points. He clearly had lost a step at short as well. The Yanks, though, never moved Jeter down in the lineup, and fans didn’t know what to do.

Meanwhile, during his contract negotiations this past winter, things came to a bit of a head. The media reports focused on the animosity between Jeter’s camp and the Yankees as well as the differences in the offers the two sides reportedly had on the table. Some of that stemmed from his agent’s decision to talk to the Daily News about the negotiations, but some of it came from the Yanks’ comments on Jeter’s skill set and role going forward.

The captain retaliated by dragging the Yankee reporting contingent down from Orlando to Tampa during the Winter Meetings for a ceremonial press conference. It was Jeter’s way of saying that he’s still boss in this town no matter what happens on the field — or off it for that matter.

Now, he’s back in the headlines again. On the one hand, we have his big house. It’s a mansion; it’s big; it’s a big house. How big is his house? The Times offered up this succinct summary: “The 30,875-square-foot mansion, which overlooks Hillsborough Bay, features seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a pool, two boat lifts, a drive-through portico and a pair of three-car garages flanking the north and south ends of the property.” It is nearly 20,000 square feet larger than George Steinbrenner‘s old home. As I might have mentioned, it’s big.

On the other hand, we have Jeter’s retooled swing. As Joe wrote yesterday, we must have patience with it. Jeter is off to a slow start in Spring Training — an indication of approximately nothing — but already people are eying his work with Kevin Long and Jeter’s mechanics. Is he trying to cheat age (and fastballs) by swinging earlier? Will it work? Can he be as Tyler Kepner asks today, another Omar Vizquel?

It’s not easy watching favorite players get old. We saw Andy Pettitte age over the past few seasons as his body didn’t rebound from injuries. Jorge Posada hasn’t been the same since his 2008 shoulder surgery. Now, Jeter, 36 going on 37, has to find a way to delay the inevitable or we all must come to grips with it. How Jeter goes this year will determine, to a large extent, the media reaction to him.

Report(s): No deal for Liriano in the works

Despite the rumors, Buster Olney says the Yankees and Twins are not having talks about Francisco Liriano right now, and in fact Jon Heyman says the two sides haven’t talked in a month. The left-hander’s name popped up on the rumor circuit (again) last night, though Brian Cashman has maintained that nothing’s going on right now: “I have no talks going on with the Twins. Zero talks. There’s nothing going on. I would love to be able to talk to people, but there’s nothing of quality that’s available.”

Jack Curry wrote today that Terry Ryan, former Twins GM and currently a special adviser to now-GM Bill Smith, was at yesterday’s Yankees-Pirates game, but he was there covering the Pittsburgh squad. “We have people on [the Yankees],” Ryan said. “I’m not.” Cashman told Curry that he’s confident Minnesota will contact him if and when Liriano becomes available, but he’s not going to give up either Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances. Great mustache Jay Jaffe explained why Joba Chamberlain for Liriano trade would be a win-win.

I have a feeling this Liriano stuff is going to drag on for a while, so get used to it. Yay.

Update by Ben (11:15 p.m.): Ken Rosenthal offers up a little bit more about the state of Liriano: The Yankees, he reports, allegedly “dangled” Ivan Nova and Ramiro Pena in an attempt to land Minnesota’s lefty earlier this winter. When you stop laughing over the lunacy of that trade proposal, read the rest of Rosenthal’s piece. He believes the Yanks could and should land Liriano for Banuelos and Nova.

Open Thread: March 1st Camp Notes

Proof that Phil threw at least one changeup today. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Here’s what went down in camp today…

  • The Yankees lost to the Pirates this afternoon, getting shutout 2-0. Phil Hughes and Steve Garrison each chipped in two scoreless innings, David Robertson one. A Curtis Granderson triple was the highlight of the offense. Jesus Montero went 2-for-2 in throwing out attempted basestealers and 0-for-3 at the plate. Brett Gardner had an outfield assist. Here’s the box score.
  • Joe Girardi said he wants Hughes to work on his changeup and his overall consistency, then qualified it by saying “[this] kid won 18 games last year. Hard to complain about what he did.” Le sigh. Hughes said he threw just three changeups today, adding that his goal is to make a usable pitch, not necessarily a put-away offering. “If I can get a little better each year, hopefully it’ll be a good pitch by the time I’m 40,” joked the righty. (Peter Botte, Erik Boland & Jack Curry)
  • It was raining in Tampa, so everyone took batting practice in the indoor cages. Derek Jeter was working with Kevin Long to get his new stride down, as he said he would do yesterday. (Yankees PR Dept. & Marc Carig)
  • Andrew Brackman, who managed to grow an inch this winter (now 6-foot-11), threw 20 pitches from a indoor mound and really “[aired] it out” according to Girardi. Brackman said he’s fine following that groin/hip issue and will throw another bullpen on Thursday. Greg Golson is okay after getting hit in the head with a pitch over the weekend; he took batting practice today and could get into tomorrow’s game. Ronnie Belliard is still at least a week away from just testing out that calf strain. Thanks for coming, Ronnie. (Jack Curry, Eric Boland, Chad Jennings & Carig)
  • The rotation the rest of the week: A.J. Burnett (Weds. vs. Astros), Freddy Garcia (Thurs. @ Rays), Bartolo Colon (Fri. vs. Red Sox), and CC Sabathia (Sat. vs. Nationals). I guess Ivan Nova‘s going to come out of the bullpen one of those days. (Botte)

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Rangers (huge game), Islanders, and Knicks are all in action, plus MLB Network will be showing a replay of today’s Tigers-Phillies game at 8pm ET. Talk about whatever, enjoy.

Another Kickstarter Project: Baseball History Audio App & CD

The following a guest post from long-time RAB reader and commenter Rich Iurilli (@richardiurilli on the Twitters), highlighting another great Kickstarter project that benefits a wonderful cause.

Last week, Hannah wrote about the Eephus League Baseball Scorebook Revival Project, which, at the time, was trying to raise $10,000 to produce a simple, easy-to-use scorebook in an attempt to rekindle interest in the dying art of baseball scorekeeping. Early Thursday morning, that project reached its $10,000 goal, and as I write this, it has raised $11,636, in part due to the generosity of River Ave. Blues readers.

Today, I would like to bring to your attention another baseball-related project on Kickstarter. Ed Lucas, a blind sports writer who used to cover the Yankees, is trying to raise $15,000 in pledges to produce a professional-quality oral history of baseball, as told through the 292 plaques at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. As wonderful as these plaques are, there are countless baseball fans who are unable to experience them due to blindness and other visual impairments, which are expected to affect almost one third of the American population within the next decade, according to the project description. This project seeks to remedy this by providing descriptions of every plaque in the Hall of Fame.

For Yankee fans, there is more to this project than just the ties to baseball history. Lucas has covered New York-area sports, particularly the Yankees, since 1964, despite losing his vision at just twelve years of age to retinal detachments suffered while playing baseball. After this unfortunate event, Lucas befriended Phil Rizzuto and developed a good relationship with the Yankees organization. In 2006, Lucas was the first person to be married at home plate in Yankee Stadium, and George Steinbrenner covered the entire cost of the ceremony. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, Lucas said, “Baseball took my sight away, but it gave me a life.”

Now, Lucas is trying to give that life to an entire generation of blind or visually-impaired baseball fans. If the project meets its fundraising goal, it will be produced as both a CD and an app for mobile devices, both of which will be made freely available to anyone who wants them. In addition to the obvious benefits for blind or visually-impaired fans, the project could also be used by visitors to the Hall of Fame, which does not currently have an audio tour available. For the project to be produced, Lucas is looking to raise $15,000 by April 7, 2011, of which $3,005 has been pledged at the time of this writing.

As is the case with most Kickstarter projects, there are a number of rewards for backers to choose from depending on the amount of their pledge. These rewards range from an official non-autographed baseball souvenir and a CD copy of the project for a pledge of $10 to lunch or dinner with a Hall of Famer and a day at the ballpark with Lucas for a pledge of $5,000. Of course, pledges of any amount are welcome and bring this wonderful project a little bit closer to fruition.

To learn more about the project or to make a pledge, you can visit the project page on Kickstarter, or to learn more about Ed Lucas, you can visit his website.