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.

Does Zimmerman’s extension help us gauge one for Cano?

Good form, McCann. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

This weekend the Nationals made headlines when they signed Ryan Zimmerman to a six-year, $100 million extension. That contract will keep him in Washington through 2019, with a club option for the 2020 season. In the meantime, Zimmerman will continue to play out his previous contract, which pays him $12 million this year and $14 million in 2013. The obvious question, from the Yankees angle: Can this be a barometer for a Robinson Cano extension?

While the Yankees have made public their policy of not negotiating new a contract before the old one expires, they don’t follow it to a t. If the situation is right, they’ll consider extending any player. Since Cano is probably their best hitter, chances are they’d hear him out if he wanted to explore an extension beyond the 2013 season. If he’s willing to take Zimmerman’s terms, the Yankees just might have a match.

There are plenty of similarities between Zimmerman and Cano. Both, for instance, have more than six but fewer than seven years of service time. Both play infield positions that aren’t particularly deep with quality hitters. Both are highly regarded around the league, both for offense and defense. They also both signed extensions early in their careers: Cano when he was about to become a Super Two, Zimmerman as he was about to hit his first year of arbitration.

Yet there are a number of differences between the two players. Zimmerman is two years younger than Cano, which might seem to play in his favor for contract negotiations. His six-year extension will cover his age-29 through age-34 seasons; a similar extension for Cano would cover his age-30 through age-35 seasons, assuming they rip up the last year of the old deal and replace it with the new one.

On the other side of the ledger, Cano has produced better offensive numbers than Zimmerman. Since Zimmerman’s full-season debut in 2006 he out-wOBA’d Cano only once, and that was Cano’s poor 2008 season — and even then it wasn’t by much. Cano has hit for more power, especially in recent years; his ISO has risen while Zimmerman’s has fallen. There’s also a matter of staying on the field. Cano hasn’t gone on the DL since 2006, and has missed very little time with day-to-day ailments (according to Baseball Prospectus, just two days since ’06). Zimmerman, on the other hand, has a much longer injury list. He missed 58 games just last year with an abdomen injury, after missing 19 games in 2010 with thigh problems (and an intercostal strain that ended his season a little early). In 2008 he missed 48 games to the DL, which he increased to over 50 with day-to-day stuff.

Unfortunately, the performance and injury information wipes out any advantage Zimmerman’s age afforded him in this comparison. While he does receive high praise from baseball writers, and from other players, he simply is not as good a player as Cano. If the Yankees were going to explore extension possibilities with Cano they’ll surely turn to Zimmerman’s deal as a comparable, but Cano’s agent, Scott Boras, will likely have none of that. Cano’s durability and performance will put him in line for a much bigger extension.

Still, we can use Zimmerman’s deal as a base. If the Yankees do want to extend Cano after this season, rather than waiting for him to hit free agency, it’s probably going to cost them in the range of seven years and $140 million. That accounts for Cano’s superior production, his durability, and his agent. The Yankees could well pass on the deal then, getting their last bargain year out of Cano before dealing with him as a free agent. But if he has another good year then, what happens? The answer to that question is just one reason why we might see this come up again following the 2012 season.

Scenes from Photo Day

As you may have gathered from Mike’s camp notes, Monday was the long-awaited Photo Day down in Tampa. For a few hours, the Yankees posed in what apparently was the clubhouse bathroom at GMS Field as they tried their hardest to look serious. (A-Rod always fails.) As the photos hit the wire, I got a kick out of some of the poses.

Apparently, the photographers went for the faux-artsy look today as they snapped some shots via Instagram. We have hipster Joe Girardi, hipster Hiroki and the ever-intense hipster Frankie. Andy Pettitte showed up too, looking a few years older than when we last saw him.

With the filter off, Rafael Soriano looked as smiley as ever and so did Nick Swisher. He’s always just happy to be there. Voldemort apparently joined the team as one half of the club’s DH platoon, and Mo was beaming.

As always, we could probably run a full slide show of A-Rod making funny faces, but Michael Pineda might put an end to it. Derek looked a lot like Derek, but my favorite one of all was Eduardo Nunez. Enjoy.

Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects Just Misses

In today’s Ask BA, Jim Callis listed all the players who received votes for their Top 100 Prospects List but failed to crack the final edition. Dante Bichette Jr. and Jose Campos each appeared on seven of eight Top 150 Ballots, peaking at #81 and #73, respectively. Ravel Santana was listed on four ballots and peaked at #104 while Austin Romine and J.R. Murphy were at #104 and #145 on their only ballots. Both Bichette and Campos are prime candidates to jump onto next year’s least with strong debuts in full season ball this summer.

Manny Banuelos (#29), Dellin Betances (#63), Gary Sanchez (#81), and Mason Williams (#83) all made the final cut of the Top 100, as did former Yankee Jesus Montero (#6).

Open Thread: 2/27 Camp Notes

"Are you sure this is a real photography studio? What did you say your name was again?" (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

In case you missed it earlier, Joe Girardi announced his rotation for the first few Spring Training games. Here’s the latest from Tampa on photo day…

  • In a stunning turn of events, Chad Jennings has today’s pitching and hitting groups. CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia all threw live batting practice, as did Cory Wade and some minor leaguers. Everyone except Austin Romine and Robinson Cano hit (more on Robbie in a few bullet points).
  • George Kontos will resume throwing on Friday after an oblique problem sidelined him last week. If that goes well, he’ll follow up with a bullpen session. [Jennings]
  • Andy Pettitte is in camp as a guest instructor and will be in Tampa for a few days. He’s offered to throw batting practice but said he hasn’t been tempted to come out of retirement. [Bryan Hoch, Jack Curry & Erik Boland]
  • Sad news: Cano’s grandmother passed away yesterday, so he’s back to the Dominican Republic for a few days. Condolences to him and his family. [Hoch]

Here is your open thread for the night. The Rangers are playing the Devils, but that’s it for local sports. Talk about whatever your heart desires here. Enjoy.

A.J. opens college fund for McCutchen’s daughter in exchange for #34

No, this has nothing to do with a Yankees, but it’s a cool story and does involve two familiar names. According to Bill Brink, A.J. Burnett will open a college savings plan for Dan McCutchen’s unborn daughter in exchange for his jersey number, #34. “When a veteran comes in and takes a number, some of the guys usually get something,” said McCutchen, who went from the Yankees to Pittsburgh in the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade back in 2008. “I know he has kids. He asked me what I wanted, I brought that up.”

Usually you hear stories about watches or fancy dinners or whatever, but bravo to McCutchen and Burnett for thinking outside the box. Obligatory Snark: I’m glad to see some of the money the Yankees are paying Burnett is going to a good cause.

Girardi announces early Spring Training rotation

All eyes will be on Pineda next Monday.

Real live baseball games will be played later this week, prompting Joe Girardi to announce his early Spring Training rotation this afternoon. Courtesy of Bryan Hoch (all game start at 1:05pm ET)…

With all due respect to everyone else, the big news is Pineda’s first start, which will be televised live one week from today. The Phillies train 15-20 minutes from Tampa in Clearwater, so it’s not like the Yankees are sending him on a big long road trip. There will be plenty of time for that later in March. Hooray baseball? Hooray baseball.

[Photo via Hoch]