Imagining Hanley in pinstripes

In four years Derek Jeter‘s last big contract with the Yankees will expire and the Yankees will have to move on. As weird as it will be, life after Jeter will begin, at least at the shortstop position. With all due respect to Cito Culver and Eduardo Nunez, it is likely that Jeter’s eventual replacement is not within the organization as of today. He will either join via the amateur draft, trade or free agency. Fortuitously, the best offensive shortstop in baseball will hit the free agent market the very year Jeter’s contract expires. After spending nearly a decade with the Florida Marlins, Hanley Ramirez will become a free agent as a 30-year-old. Will he find himself fitted for pinstripes?

The Good

While Troy Tulowitzki is quickly creeping up on him, it’s hard to argue with the statement that Hanley Ramirez is the best offensive shortstop in the game. After being traded from Boston to Florida in the Josh Beckett deal, Hanley Ramirez won Rookie of the Year in 2006. As a mere 22-year-old Hanley clubbed 17 home runs and swiped 51 bases and hitting .292/.353/.480. In 2007 he elevated his game even further. He stole 51 bases again but cut down on his strikeouts and hit an incredible 29 home runs. His batting line was an MVP-worthy .332/.386/.562. The Red Sox won the World Series that year, but there had to be an element of regret within the organization to see how rapidly Hanley was becoming a superstar.

In 2008 Ramirez posted an aesthetically pleasing batting line of .301/.400/.540, a step back in power but a step forward in on-base percentage. The following year he again accumulated over 7 fWAR and placed second in MVP voting. His on-base percentage was only 10 points higher than 2008, and his slugging percentage was only three points higher, but he won the batting title with a .342 average. Hanley’s always been a high BABIP guy (.347 career average) but his .379 mark in 2009 was a new high for him.

In 2010 his game took a step back. He only hit 22 home runs, a low for him since 2006, and his on-base and power skills dipped slightly as well. This was probably related to his ground ball rate. He’s a career 44% ground ball hitter, but hit ground balls at a 51% clip in 2010; this increase came largely at the expense of fly balls. Whether this was a momentary blip or a sign of things to come remains to be seen. It is worth noting that Ramirez battled and elbow injury for a lot of the season.

Regardless of the 2010 blip, Hanley Ramirez has been the model of offensive production in the past four years. Cumulatively, it’s nearly impossible to find a more productive shortstop over the past four years. He hit 107 home runs, most of any shortstop. He’s stolen 145 bases, second to only Jose Reyes. His ISOp is .213, tied for highest with Troy Tulowitzki. He has the highest batting average (.319), on-base percentage (.394) and slugging percentage (.532) and wOBA (.400). In the past four years, he’s had the the highest wOBA for a shortstop in three out of the past four years. At some point, the superlatives become repetitive. Hanley Ramirez can hit. He can really, really hit.

The Bad

One of the biggest knock on Hanley is his defense. He’s a big guy, and doesn’t really grade out positively by any defensive metric. Over at Fangraphs just six weeks ago Joe Pawlikowski wrote up different players who saw their fWAR knocked down by the defensive component. Ramirez featured prominently:

Defense was the major knock on Ramirez from the moment he started in the majors. In his first two years in the league he had UZRs of -9.3 and -20.5. He followed that up with two mostly average years, which provided some hope that he could remain at shortstop while hitting like a right fielder. Both ideas came crashing down in 2010.

Not only was Hanley’s 25.4 RAA his worst mark since his rookie campaign, but his UZR was in the negative double digits. The combination caused quite a dip in his WAR.

Saving Grace: TZL isn’t nearly as down on Hanley, pegging him at -5 for the year and 8.8 — in the positives! — for his career. DRS, on the other hand, mostly agrees with UZR, except it’s a bit more pessimistic.

All told, it’s hard to find anyone who would argue that Hanley is a plus defender. His single-season UZR is going to fluctuate year-to-year, just like a BABIP is going to fluctuate in the first third of a season, but scouting and most defensive metrics agree that his fielding is subpar. As he ages and loses some of his quickness, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move off the position. Some expect him to wind up at third base; right field could be another destination.

The element of downside risk with Hanley is the perceived attitude issue. A lot of this stems from the blowup he had with his manager Fredi Gonzalez on May 18. After fouling a ball off his shin in the first inning, Hanley took the field in the second inning. With runners on first and second, Tony Abreu blooped a ball over his head into shallow left field. Ramirez couldn’t get to it, and when reaching down to field it with his glove he accidentally kicked it with his left foot, sending the ball 100 feet away into the left field corner. He then slowly jogged after it, allowing two players to score and Abreu to advance all the way to third base. Now, Ramirez did seem to have a slight limp and it is possible that his shin pain was severe. Regardless, he moved rather slowly after the ball. The video is a bit shocking. It’s rare to see a player pursue a ball like that. It’s as if the play was already dead. Manager Fredi Gonzalez was angry, and pulled Hanley out of the game. Hanley sat out the next game, and openly criticized Gonzalez:

“It’s his team. He can do whatever,” Ramirez said, mixing in an expletive. “There’s nothing I can do about it.” “That’s OK. He doesn’t understand that. He never played in the big leagues,” he said.

Unfortunately Gonzalez didn’t survive the year, getting fired in the end of June. He moved on to greener pastures in Atlanta, but the perception that ownership sided with the superstar rather than the manager lingers. The fact that Loria had given Ramirez a diamond-studded necklace to celebrate his batting title championship a year prior doesn’t exactly help to dispel that myth. Yet, the most important question is whether this will be something that promises to cause trouble in the future. For what it’s worth, Hanley has been talking a big game this spring, saying that he was very disappointed in his 2010 production and promising a whole new level of effort. His 2010 issues could just be a blip in the radar; the proof will be in the pudding.

The Money

By the end of the 2014 season the Yankees will get some serious salary relief. After the 2011 season Jorge Posada‘s $13M will come off the books. After 2012 Rivera’s salary ($15M) comes off the books, although it’s possible that he could re-up on another 1 year deal for the same salary. AJ Burnett’s $82.5M contract expires after 2013 as well. After 2014, Derek Jeter’s contact expires.

As of present, the Yankees have about $69M committed to the 2015 payroll. Of course, this doesn’t include a potential deal for Nick Swisher or his right field replacement (free agent after 2012), Phil Hughes, Robinson Cano or Curtis Granderson (free agents after 2013) or the various holes in the pitching rotation. The Yankees will be shelling out some serious coin well before Cashman ever sits down at the negotiating table with Hanley and his agent Andy Mota. They’ll also have a very big hole at shortstop.

As a 30-year-old, Ramirez will likely be seeking one very big, very long contract. Provided he continues his prodigious offensive production and stays at shortstop, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him seek a deal for at least 8 years. Even if he’s moved off shortstop to third base, his offensive production would still put him among the elite third basemen in the league. All told, there’s a lot that can happen between now and the 2014-15 offseason. Loria could open up the purse strings and make Hanley a Miami Marlin for life, or the Yankees could draft a viable replacement for Jeter at shortstop. The Yankees have handed out their fair share of big contracts in the past. Whether they’ll be able to resist the siren’s call again with Hanley will be a fascinating situation to monitor.

ST Game Thread: Banuelos on the bump (again)

Guiliani with the photobomb. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Another televised Spring Training game, another Manny Banuelos appearance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, but it’s just weird how he seems to pitch in every game that’s on the tv. He’s starting today’s game while CC Sabathia pitches in a minor league game that gives the team some flexibility (in case he has a short inning or something, they can add a fourth out, etc.). From what I understand he’s only going to throw two or three innings as well, since it’s his final tune-up before Opening Day on Thursday. I don’t know how many innings are on the docket for Banuelos, but the more the merrier. Here’s the lineup…

Brett Gardner, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Chris Dickerson, LF – say hello to the new guy
Eduardo Nunez, 2B
Austin Romine, C

Available Pitchers: Manny Banuelos, Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Boone Logan, Mark Prior, Luis Ayala, Romulo Sanchez, Steve Garrison, Josh Schmidt, Pat Venditte, and Chase Whitley. It will be the second of back-to-back days for Joba, Robertson, Soriano, and Logan by design.

Available Position Players: Gustavo Molina (C), Eric Chavez (1B), Doug Bernier (2B), Ramiro Pena (SS), Ronnie Belliard (3B), Austin Krum (LF), Justin Maxwell (CF), and Abe Almonte (RF).

The game is scheduled to start at 1:05pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

The Evolution of Bartolo Colon in Pinstripes

Welcome back to the big club, big guy. Stay a while. Throw some strikes. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

As we inch closer to Opening Day, things become settled. The AA and AAA kids are down at their respective camps, besides Manny Banuelos. The great mystery of Yankees Offseason-Spring Training ’11, the starting rotation, has been solved. Bartolo Colon is in the bullpen. That’s okay, though: if you thought that he would even have a fraction of a chance of making the rotation when we signed him, I’m calling BS until you show me proof. I don’t think anyone had anything other than, ‘eh, minor league deal, we’ll cut him in March,’ to say when this first happened. Understandably so, of course: Colon was an aged pitcher with an injury history who pitched only in winter ball last year and spent a grand total of 97 days on the 15-day DL in 2009, more than half of that with elbow problems. But Colon knew there was something still left in the tank. He was still a two-time 20-game winner and had a Cy Young award perched on his mantle, after all.

The first time Colon was mentioned on MLB Trade Rumors was November 15th, where he was said to continue to “maintain conversations” with Rockies, Cardinals, Tigers, and our very own Bronx Bombers. Keep in mind, though, that Cliff Lee didn’t sign till December; at this point, the Yankees probably had very few eyes on Colon and were full steam ahead at working on wooing Lee, while we all pounded F5 on our computers waiting for the announcement that a deal was in place. Between then and January 26th, Lee would sign with the Phillies, shunning his AL Champion Texas Rangers and the giant bags of cash offered by the Yankees. While we waited on Andy Pettitte to return to the team like a knight in shining armor, Colon signed a minor league deal worth $900K and the ability to be cut if he wasn’t on the Opening Day roster. Our article on this, written by the lovely Joe Pawlikowski, is about as skeptical as you’d expect. Joe wrote “there is little indication that Colon can handle a starting job in the majors at this point,” and that he “[found] it nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which Colon can help the team.” I think it’s safe to say that many people, if not everyone, was on this bandwagon. The comments ranged from a handful of “eh, minor league deal, who cares” all the way to “Mark Prior has better odds of starting a regular season game for the 2011 Yankees than Colon” and “I would have taken a shot at Pedro.” There were questions regarding his position on the ‘Better than Mitre’ scale. There were also, of course, the requisite fat jokes.  At that point, Justin Duchscherer was the pitcher most Yankees fans wanted to see the club sign.

Of course, about ten days later, Andy Pettitte retired, sending shockwaves through both the organization and the fans. There were suddenly two rotation spots open for Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Colon, and the newly-signed Freddy Garcia. Let the pitching battle begin.

Out of everyone, Colon surprised me (and I imagine many of you) the most. While he could no longer pump out the high-powered gas he’d had before the bone spurs in his elbow, his reduced velocity hardly hindered him at all. In Colon’s first outing, he threw what Mike referred to as “meh,” allowing one run in two innings, walking one and striking out none. It was his second outing, on March 4th, that would raise some eyebrows: against the Boston’s admittedly mostly minor-league team, he struck out five in three innings, giving up only two hits and no walks. While the hitters were not exactly the biggest challenge to throw at a guy, Colon located his pitches well and proved he was worth consideration. He followed this up with another fairly decent outing on March 9th, throwing four innings and allowing two runs on four hits, and striking out seven. According to his game log, every one of his 30 pitches was a strike save for a single ball.

His crowning Spring Training achivement, though, would be his start against the Rays. Tampa Bay rolled out most of (if not all) their major leaguers, including Evan Longoria, Johnny Damon, Reid Brignac, BJ Upton, and noted Yankee killer Dan Johnson. Even against familiar names, Colon threw six strong innings, giving up two hits, a run, striking out five, and throwing all of his 32 pitches for strikes. Small sample size and Spring Training caveats apply, but had there been a true competition, I find it hard to believe this wouldn’t win him a rotation spot: in his 15 IP (fourth-most on the team), he has a 2.40 ERA with 17 strikeouts, one walk, and one home run. He’s getting the ground balls. He’s pounding the strike zone. Even if he gets injured sometime during the season, the stuff itself is there.

I don’t know about you, but I’m personally ready to give up my bias against Bartolo Colon. It’s hard to get one’s mindset back into the groove of thinking positively about a player when they’ve been racking up the disappointing numbers, but everything about Colon’s spring performance is positive. Let’s see if he can take these strong Spring Training numbers and turn them into something that counts. I’ve decided rather than spitting on everything he does, it’s more fun to look forward to it.

Yankees announce pitching plans

Via Marc Carig, the worst kept secret in camp has been made official: Ivan Nova will start the season in the Yankees’ rotation. Joe Girardi called the right-hander into his office and gave him the news this morning. Girardi also announced that Freddy Garcia, not Bartolo Colon, will be the fifth starter to start the season. Colon will be the long man, and the skipper plans to use him like he did Al Aceves in 2009. Good luck with that.

There’s also a chance Pedro Feliciano will start the season on the disabled list, reinforcing the belief that multi-year deals for even the most durable of relievers is sketchy at best.

Friday Open Thread

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It’s Friday, and you know how I know that? Because my Twitter feed has been filled with references to some lady named Rebecca Black, like they have for the last few Fridays. I don’t know what that’s all about, nor do I care. Anyway, go out and have fun, otherwise use this thread as you see fit.

Sounds like Gustavo Molina might actually make the Yankees

Via Chad Jennings, it’s sounding more and more likely that Gustavo Molina will be Russell Martin‘s backup come Opening Day.  “[Molina]’s a guy we’re looking at,” said the skipper. “With Cervi going down, and you have young kids that you really consider as everyday players, prospects. You want them to play everyday … The determination is, do you want to take them out of that for a month, a month and a half and retard their development a little bit?”

I’m on the record as saying I want to see Jesus Montero start the season as the backup, but I can certainly see both sides of the argument and honestly don’t have a problem either way. Just so you know, the 29-year-old Molina is a .122/.159/.146 (.142 wOBA) career hitter in 45 career big league plate appearances. That means he’s really awesome defensively. And no, he’s not related to the other Molinas.

The RAB Radio Show: March 25, 2011

The Yankees have been active during the last 24 hours, adding some pitching and outfield depth. That leaves us with plenty to talk about. We bring on Jay, whom you might know better as @jaydestro, to talk through the series of moves.

We also hit on some other topics, including our favorite surprises of the spring.

Podcast run time 40:33

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  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.