Open Thread: Granderson goes down under

I didn’t even know they had a basketball league in New Zealand, and yet there’s Curtis Granderson chucking souvenirs into the stands during one of the games. The Grandyman is in the country as part of MLB’s International Ambassador program, which Anthony McCarron wrote about yesterday. He’ll be there for another week or so, and will hold clinics and make several appearances in the meantime, including one at a big youth tournament. This is Grandy’s fourth time in the program, as MLB has sent him to Europe (2006), South Africa (2007), and China (2008). C.J. Wilson (South Africa) and Prince Fielder (Tokyo) are also involved in the program this year, and you can see a video of Granderson’s experience at his blog. What a life, eh?

Anyways, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers, Isles, and Devils are all in action, plus the new season of Parks & Rec starts tonight. The FJM’er formerly known as Ken Tremendous co-created that show, you know. It’s pretty awesome, I recommend it. Talk about whatever, enjoy.

Kevin Long on MLB Network’s Diamond Demo

Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long made an appearance on the MLB Network yesterday, showing off some of the drills he does with Alex Rodriguez and Robbie Cano. The four-and-a-half video can be seen here, and it comes highly recommended.

The screen drill with Cano is something to behold. I was lucky enough to see them bust out the screen and a bucket of balls when I was in Tampa for the Sept. 13th-15th series, and it was seriously just homer after homer into rightfield. All you’d hear was crack!!! off the bat and then thud!!! when the ball hit the seats a few seconds later. Here’s a half-decent picture I took of the drill. You can see the ball in flight (in front of where the second baseman would be) and Eduardo Nunez waiting his turn off to the left.

The Yankees bullpen, in perspective

Earlier today Mike put the Yankees bullpen in perspective in terms of performance. They’re going to have quite a crew out in right-center field. It won’t come cheap, either. The entire bullpen figures to cost around $34 million, which is more than some entire teams’ payrolls. Today at FanGraphs friend of RAB Eno Sarris puts that in perspective. That $34 million represents just 17 percent of the team’s overall payroll. In 2009, that percentage would have put them right in the middle of the pack among MLB teams. The Reds, for instance, spent 29.21 percent of their payroll on the bullpen that year. The Yanks are shelling out tons, but in relation to the rest of their payroll it’s actually not that high of a figure.

(Then again, not many figures are high relative to a $200 million payroll.)

Yankees agree to terms with Andruw Jones

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees have agreed to terms with outfielder Andruw Jones on a one-year contract. The former Brave will earn a $2M base salary with another $1.2M in incentives.

This move has been rumored for a few days, and it was only a matter of time before it happened with Scott Boras in town for Rafael Soriano‘s press conference. Jones steps into the Marcus Thames role as the lefty mashing fourth outfielder, except now they have a guy that can actually play defense. No, he’s not the defender he once was, but Andruw won’t embarrass himself out there either. It’s a nice cheap move that improves the bench and outfield depth considerably.

The 40-man roster is already full thanks to Soriano, so someone’s going to have to get the axe once Jones passes his physical and the deal becomes official. Joe and I talked about who the 40-man roster casualty might be in today’s podcast.

The RAB Radio Show: January 20, 2011

When the Yankees officially announced the Rafael Soriano signing, he became the 40th man on the 40-man roster. That means when they want to add Andruw Jones or Andy Pettitte, they’ll have to remove someone from the 40-man. Mike and I run down some names you might recognize, and then talk about who is the first to go.

The podcast centers on the 40-man, but we hit some pretty decent tangents. Find out when Mike saw the Giants use Randy Winn at third base, and why I enjoyed Ian Kennedy’s debut more than I did Phil’s and Joba’s.

Podcast run time 35:22

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

About that bullpen

Much has been written about the Rafael Soriano signing and for most part it’s been for all the wrong reasons. The contract itself has been criticized, the way ownership drove the deal has been criticized, Brian Cashman‘s comments at yesterday’s press conference have been criticized, you name it and it’s been criticized. Let’s move away from the criticism for a second and look at something that hasn’t gotten much attention since Soriano agreed to come on board: the Yankees have a fantastic bullpen right now.

Say your prayers little one. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Barring trade or injury, the Yanks will open the season with Mariano Rivera filling his customary closer’s role and Soriano serving as his primary setup man. That pushes both David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain into middle relief roles, essentially filling the gaps between the starter and Soriano. Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano will take care of the tough left-handed batters. The seventh man in the pen figures to be a low-leverage long reliever, ideally Sergio Mitre. We know what Mo brings the table and there’s not much to say about him that hasn’t been said over the last 15 years. He gives the Yankees a clear advantage over every other team in the league, so let’s focus on those middle innings instead. That’s where a ton of games are won and lost anyway.

The table to the right has the strikeout rate of the team’s three right-handed middle innings guys over the last three years, as well as their rank out of the 171 qualified relievers (min. 100 IP). Robertson trails only Carlos Marmol (12.99 K/9), Billy Wagner (12.41), and Jonathan Broxton (11.94) in strikeout rate, and those three are all closers. If we remove the now retired Wagner, just five teams will go into the 2011 season with more than one of the top 25 strikeout relievers (Yanks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Padres), but the Yankees are the only club with three. You’d have to stretch the list to the top 33 if you want to find another club with three top right-handed strikeouts guys, and that’s the Padres.

If we look at just overall reliever FIP with the same 100 IP minimum, the Yankees own two of the top ten over the last three years. Joba (2.71) is ninth and Soriano (2.78) is tenth, but remember, we’re not counting Rivera here, and his 2.56 FIP is sixth best over the last three seasons. The Padres are the only other team with two of the top ten FIP’s when you remove the closer position. Robertson isn’t exactly an FIP fiend because he does walk quite a few, but his 3.40 mark since 2008 is 39th best in the game. Among the top 40, the only clubs with at least four relievers on the list are the Yanks, Padres, and Rangers, and two of Texas’ guys are lefty specialists. The Yanks and San Diego are the only clubs with four right-handed relievers in the top 40 FIP over the last three seasons. Clearly, those two clubs are heading into the season with some dynamite righty relief.

Shifting over to the lefties, well, we can’t do much with Logan. His record of big league success is basically the second half of 2010, about 12% of his career innings. He’s just as likely to tank in 2011 as he is repeat that second half performance, and that uncertainty is why the Yankees went out and got Pedro Feliciano. Over the last three seasons, only three lefty relievers can top Feliciano’s 2.80 FIP against left-handed batters (Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Thornton, Randy Choate (grrr)) and only eight can top his 9.61 K/9. One of those eight is Logan at 10.34.

There are obviously quite a few benefits to having so many relievers of this caliber, and an important one is rest. Not that Joe Girardi has had a trouble spreading the workload around in the past, but now he can back off guys and not sacrifice much, if any quality. This will come in handy particularly with the 41-year-old Rivera, who can forget about working back-to-back-to-back days or multiple innings until the playoffs. That was a big part of Joe Torre’s problem, he’d wear his top relievers down during the summer and they were toast come playoff time.

In the past, before Cashman altered his bullpen building strategy, we watched as the Yankees chased that elusive bridge to Rivera, often focusing on one quality setup man while the middle relief suffered. That should not be any problem this year, as Girardi will be able to employ what amounts to two above-average, high strikeout setup men in the middle innings while mixing in one of the game’s top lefty specialists as needed. Once those innings are taken care of, it’s hammer time with Soriano and Mo. Of course this is all on paper, we know who quickly a bullpen situation can change, but right now the Yankees are remarkably deep in quality relief arms.

Imaginging Brett Gardner as Luis Castillo

(Kathy Willens/AP)

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Brett Gardner can pass for a major leaguer. Throw in his speed, and he looks like a fourth outfielder. What’s hard to believe is that, by fWAR, he was ninth most valuable outfielder in the bigs and the most valuable on the Yankees. That’s what a .383 OBP and some serious defensive skills will do. Still, there’s the question of whether Gardner can keep up this level of production. He doesn’t have the power that will cause pitchers to avoid throwing him strikes. How, then, will he continue to provide value to the team?

Baseball history isn’t exactly filled with high-OBP, low-SLG players. Since 1980, only 217 times has a player who qualified for the batting title finished the season with a higher OBP than SLG. Brett Gardner’s 2010 was his first. Other notable players on this list include Ozzie Smith, who did it nine times, and Rickey Henderson, who appears eight times. While those are interesting names, it’s best not to compare Gardner to Hall of Famers. There’s another name that appears eight times: Luis Castillo. We’d all be ecstatic if Gardner followed a similar career path.

What, you think I'd do a post involving Castillo and not include this?

Castillo already has a head start. By his age-26 season, Gardner’s age in 2011, he had already finished three seasons with an OBP greater than .360 — and in two of the years it was .384 and .418. In each of his seasons between age-27 and age-31 he produced an OBP of at least .358, and reached as high as .391. He’s become something of a punchline during the last three seasons, but even then he had a .387 OBP in 580 PA in 2009. Castillo might not have made headlines at the plate, but he was a steady contributor to the Marlins, Twins, and even the Mets, for over a decade.

Where this comparison takes a strange turn is when we look at Castillo’s power. With an OBP higher than his SLG in eight seasons, it’s easy to ascertain that Castillo doesn’t hit for many extra bases. That he has 28 career home runs comes as no surprise. What’s a bit surprising is his paltry career doubles total: 194. Only twice in his career did he hit more than the 20 doubles that Gardner did in 2010. Never has he topped a .082 ISO. To put his .061 career ISO in perspective, Francisco Cervelli‘s ISO was .064 in 2010. We often think of Gardner as powerless, but Castillo presents the definitive case.

Just because Brett Gardner and Luis Castillo are both low-power players who can draw a walk does not mean that one’s career path will follow the other’s. But Castillo, and the other repeat offenders on the OBP > SLG list, show that it can be done. We can only hope that Gardner progresses similarly to Castillo. With OBPs that high, combined with his range in the outfield and speed on the base paths, Gardner can be a solid, and perhaps undervalued, contributor to the Yankees for years to come.