2012 Season Preview: Depth

Hooray fourth outfielder. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

The Yankees used 46 different players en route to winning the AL East last season, including 28 different pitchers. The Red Sox learned the hard way that opening the year with five solid starters isn’t enough to secure a playoff spot — the numbers six, seven, and eight starters are pretty important as well. Whether it’s injury, ineffectiveness, or just the need to change things up on occasion, every club will need to dip into its system and call up players at some point during the season. In many case, it’s the difference between playing for a title and going home early.

Thanks to a strong farm system and the fact that players are now willing to assume lesser roles in New York, the Yankees have been able to build a very nice stockpile of secondary players should a need arise at some point, which it will.

Catcher
Russell Martin and Frankie Cervelli are one of the better starter-backup catching tandems in the game, but Jesus Montero is no longer around threatening to steal playing time. The third string backstop this year is Austin Romine, who probably needs a full season’s worth of Triple-A plate appearances more than anything. Gus Molina was up briefly last year, but he’s unlikely to get the call in 2012 unless things go really wrong.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Infield
With injuries becoming a bigger concern as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez march into their late-30s, Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez become a bit more important than your typical reserve infielders. Chavez is injury prone himself, so really it’s Nunez that is most important. He came to the plate 338 times last season and could be poised for even more this work this year as Jeter and A-Rod get more days off and time at DH in an effort to remain on the field.

With Corban Joseph and David Adams still in need of minor league seasoning, Ramiro Pena and Brandon Laird are the primary 40-man roster depth pieces on the infield. Pena can’t hit a lick but is a very strong glove man while Laird is more of a hacker with a solid but unspectacular glove. I’m assuming that Russell Branyan and Bill Hall will exercise their opt-out clauses before the season if they don’t make the club, but minor league contract signee Jayson Nix will still be around and could become a factor. The Yankees are fine in terms of short-term replacements, but a significant injury to any of the four regular infielders would likely result in a trade for adequate help.

Outfield
The starting outfield trio has been relatively durable over the last few years, but the Yankees do have Andruw Jones just in case. He has to be in any conversation about the game’s best fourth outfielders. Raul Ibanez and Nunez and the emergency fifth and sixth outfielders only. Justin Maxwell is out of minor league options and having a fantastic spring (.435/.519/.652 in 23 at-bats), and I think he’ll be traded before the season just because there’s no room for him barring injury. It’s either lose him on waivers or trade him for a minimal return.

Chris Dickerson has already been removed from the 40-man roster, but he should be the first in line should help be needed. He can’t hit lefties but he does hold his own against righties while offering defense and speed. Dewayne Wise is a defensive specialist and penciled into a regular outfield spot in Triple-A. We saw Colin Curtis in 2010 but he’s further down the depth chart. Cole Garner as well. Forty-man roster guys Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa are slated for Double-A and won’t be factors this year. Jones is a great backup plan, though most of the true outfield depth players are defense-first types and won’t be able to replace much offense.

Starting Pitchers
It’s hard not to get excited about all the quality arms the Yankees have at their disposal this season. Assuming Phil Hughes wins the rigged fifth starter competition, Freddy Garcia is ticketed for long relief come Opening Day. Andy Pettitte will return about a month into the season to give the team seven legitimate big league starters for five spots.

The Triple-A rotation is going to be full of prospects, with David Phelps, Adam Warren, and D.J. Mitchell likely to get the call ahead of Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. Phelps and Mitchell are on the 40-man roster, but I can’t imagine the Yankees would hesitate to call up Warren if needed. All three of those guys have been impressive in camp and would probably be contending for rotation spots with other teams. There will be no Shawn Chacon-style trades or Sidney Ponson signings or Aaron Small desperation moves this year, the Yankees have starting pitching coming out of their ears. The smart money is on them needing most of it as well.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Bullpen
Assuming the final bullpen spot goes to a second lefty like Clay Rapada or Cesar Cabral, the Yankees will have right-hander George Kontos a phone call away this summer. He’s the early favorite to the ride the Bronx-Empire State shuttle this year. Phelps, Warren, and particularly Mitchell are all candidates for bullpen duty just like Hector Noesi last season. Left-hander Mike O’Connor and righties Adam Miller and Matt Daley have been around the block and will be stashed in Triple-A on minor league pacts. I didn’t think we’d see Buddy Carlyle or Amaury Sanit or Lance Pendleton last year, but there they were. If someone is on the Triple-A pitching staff, they have a chance to be called up.

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It’s important to remember that depth players can help the club in more ways than one. They could directly contribute on the field, but they could also serve as trade bait. The Phelps, Warren, and Mitchell triumvirate is prime trade fodder, especially after the Pettitte signing. We’re going to see those guys in the show in some capacity this year, but don’t be surprised if one is dealt at some point. Laird could be moved as well, though he doesn’t have a ton of value. They can’t keep everyone, you know.

Phil Hughes & New Beginnings

The hot story of Spring Training has been Michael Pineda and his weight, his velocity, and his changeup. We hear about it everyday for better or worse, but that’s just part of the game now. Phil Hughes went through all of that stuff last year; he’s been there, done that. He’s been part of rotation competitions, been under the microscope, and had to answer questions about his missing velocity. Last season was basically a lost year for the 25-year-old, but the struggles appear to have led to refocused and rededicated Hughes.

“I feel a lot better,” he said yesterday. “It’s easier to sleep at night for sure compared to last year. Hearing the velocity issues and knowing that something’s not right. Right now I just feel like I can go out and pitch and not worry about all that stuff. Get my changeup going. Throw my breaking ball. Just worry about pitching and not necessarily throwing the ball as hard as I can to generate velocity.”

Hughes worked out at Athletes Performance Institute this offseason and reported to camp in noticeably better shape. The shoulder inflammation that cost him velocity and effectiveness early last year appears to be a thing of the past, as he’s regularly sat in the low-90s with the occasional 94 during exhibition games. His curveball even regained some bite and yesterday he threw more than a handful of changeups. You can see two of better ones at 0:31 and 0:41 of this video.

“I feel like he is throwing almost better than he ever has,” said one scout to Andrew Marchand. “That good curveball seems to have comeback … Unless he has a setback, he has to be a starter.” Another scout told Erik Boland that Hughes is a “totally different pitcher than last spring.”

The fifth starter competition is apparently rigged in Hughes’ favor, just like it was two years ago. Freddy Garcia is a nice guy and an effective pitcher, but he’s going to be gone after the season if not sooner. Hughes is still under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2013, and I do think the Yankees owe it to themselves to see what they can get out of him, if anything. After all the innings limits and injuries and rotation-to-bullpen-to-rotation nonsense, let’s just see him pitch this summer and hope for the best. It’ll be easier to stomach as the fifth starter rather than the third starter like he was expected to be at this time last year.

“It’s hard to worry about [my role] when I just come in and do my work and do everything I can and just leave everything else up to the organization,” said Hughes. “Whether it’s signing Andy Pettitte or coming in with six guys for five spots, whatever it is, I’m just trying to show the best stuff that I can and see where it takes me.”

Phil Hughes still has a long way to go as far as being a reliable big league starter, especially one for the Yankees. He’s ridden the career roller coaster already and is again starting anew this season, showing livelier stuff and an emphasis on conditioning that is encouraging if not overdue. “It was a long hard season for him [in 2011],” said Joe Girardi yesterday, “and sometimes those can be the seasons where we learn the most.”

[Photo via Nick Laham/Getty]

Forbes: Yanks worth $1.85 billion

With Opening Day just a few weeks away, Forbes released its annual MLB valuations today, and once again, the Yankees are the game’s top dogs. According to the business mag, the Yanks are worth a cool $1.85 billion, up nine percent over 2011. Interestingly enough, Forbes guesses that the club itself turns a profit of only around $10 million a year with the money generated through live TV programming. In other words, the dollars are in the TV rights.

“The Rolls-Royce of the RSN model is the New York Yankees, who own 34% of the YES Network,” Mike Ozanian wrote. “The Bronx Bombers are the most valuable team in baseball, worth $1.85 billion, tying them with the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys for the top spot among American sports teams and placing them second in the world to Manchester United, the English soccer team worth $1.9 billion. YES generated a staggering $224 million in operating income and paid the Yankees a $90 million rights fee in 2011.”

For what it’s worth, only two teams — the Mets and Rays — saw their values decline from 2011 as legal woes for the former and attendance woes for the latter were the main drivers there. Meanwhile, it’s somewhat incongruous to hear how the Yanks are eying “austerity” budgets of only $189 million for 2014 and 2015, but that’s how baseball economics work these days. The Dodgers, currently undergoing a sale and with their TV rights up for renewal, will set the market, but if the Steinbrenner family ever wanted to sell, they could command a pretty penny for the crown jewel of Major League Baseball.

Open Thread: 3/21 Camp Notes

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The Yankees beat the Rays 5-2 this afternoon. Phil Hughes made one ugly mistake to Matt Joyce (two-run homer to dead center) but otherwise was pretty darn effective. I’ll have more on him tomorrow. Clay Rapada struck out the two lefties he faced (Luke Scott and Carlos Pena), and Cesar Cabral struck out six (!) in two innings. He had a man on third with no outs in his second inning of work but escaped by whiffing the next three hitters. Impressive.

The go-ahead ninth inning rally was fueled by doubles by Cole Garner and the scorching hot Justin Maxwell. Gus Molina chipped in a two-run jack as well. Russell Martin, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez all had one hit each, though Martin’s single was the only non-double. Jorge Vazquez also doubled on a ball that I thought was gone off the bat. It just died in the air. Here’s the box score and here’s the rest from Tampa…

  • Nick Swisher stayed at the complex all day to receive treatment on his two injured groins, but he’s feeling better. They’re going to take it day-by-day and make sure it’s 100% before getting him back on the field. [Bryan Hoch]
  • Derek Jeter (calf) is on target to return to the lineup on Friday. The Yankees had a long road trip today and have an even longer one tomorrow, so he’ll play in the next home game. [Kieran Darcy]
  • David Robertson (foot) is scheduled to throw batting practice again on Friday and could get into a game this weekend. Freddy Garcia will pitch in Saturday’s game, his first time since getting hit by that comebacker in the right hand. [Chad Jennings]

Here’s your open thread for the night. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are playing, and MLB Network will be showing a game a little later on. Talk about whatever your heart desires here, have at it.

Cashman on Pettitte and Pineda

A few days ago Brian Cashman talked to Ian O’Connor on ESPN Radio, mainly about Andy Pettitte and Michael Pineda. You can listen to the whole thing here (the Pineda bit starts at around five minutes). Cashman said that it’s “a great thing for him to experience right now” in regards to Pineda and the New York media scrutiny he’s faced this spring. He called Pineda’s missing velocity “a curiosity,” noting that he “has more velo in the tank.” The most interesting line, however, comes when Cashman discusses Pineda’s work habits this past off-season. “I bet, the way — you know, he showed up 20 pounds heavier than he was with Seattle at the same time last year. I betcha it’s the first time he picked up a ball and started working out, and he’s probably using — it doesn’t make it right, if it’s the case, but I can’t tell you it’s the case — but he’s probably using spring training to get himself in shape.” He then goes on to praise Pineda’s secondary stuff, saying that hitters are getting poor swings. “We have a really good pitcher as is right, and and he’ll be a great pitcher when that velo comes back.” Comme si, comme sa.

Update: I’ve been told, in certain and unfriendly terms, that the term “v-lo” is unacceptable. Velo it is, you authoritarians.

2012 Season Preview: Speed Demons

It'll be nice to see Gardner off to the races in 2012. (via Getty Images)

Remember the days when Johnny Damon was the fastest player in the Yankees’ lineup? They didn’t even carry much speed on the bench. That has changed in the past few years. It started, really, when Brett Gardner began to play regularly. He and Curtis Granderson do possess pure speed tools, as does Eduardo Nunez. And, because stealing bases isn’t all about pure speed, the Yankees have a few other options strewn throughout the roster. They’ll never be a burner team, but they do have enough legitimate base stealers for a lineup mostly built on power.

Brett Gardner

In his two years as a full-time player Gardner has proven himself as one of MLB’s most prolific bag swipers. He stole 47 in 2010, fourth most in the league, and then swiped the second most last season with 49. His 49 last year is made all the more impressive, because his OBP was considerably lower in 2011 than it was in 2010. That might be taken as a sign of his progress on the base paths.

At the same time, Gardner hasn’t been the most efficient base stealer. He got caught 13 times last year, fourth most in the bigs. Even still, he hovered right around an 80 percent success rate. He was, however, a bit more efficient in 2010, successfully swiping bats 84 percent of the time. If he can get back to that level, while attempting steals at a slightly greater frequency than he did in 2011 (which probably means an OBP closer to 2010), the Yankees will have one of the best, if not the best, base stealing weapons in the league.

Eduardo Nunez

Maybe it’s because I don’t pay as close attention to the minors as Mike, but I never remember Eduardo Nunez being a burner in the minors. Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t quite efficient once his name starting coming up in prospect talks. he did steal 19 in AA in 2009, but he got caught seven times. In 2010 things seemed to come together, as he swiped 23 bags in 28 tries at AAA, and was successful in all five of his attempts during his brief major league stint.

Last year he became a true weapon on the base paths. He swiped 22 bags while getting caught six times, which put him near the 80 percent mark. He seems to have a decent instinct when breaking from first base, which helps him even on good throws. A little more refinement in that regard can make him a better weapon on the base paths in 2012. He could get some chances both as a starter and a pinch runner; if Andruw Jones or Raul Ibanez get on base late in games, Girardi probably shouldn’t hesitate to pinch run. If only they had a decent fielding fourth outfielder, we could even add Nick Swisher to that list.

Curtis Granderson

When Baseball America scouted Curtis Granderson before his debut in 2004, they said that he was “not a big home run or stolen base threat.” In 2006 he started to prove the first part wrong, belting 19 homers. He further proved that wrong in 2007 when he hit 23 homers and stole 26 bases — and was only caught once. Since then Granderson’s stolen base numbers have fluctuated a bit, but he remains a mostly effective base swiper.

Last year he got caught a bit too often, 10 times in 35 attempts (71 percent). For his Yankees career he’s 37 for 49, which is just over 75 percent. Given his spot in the order he’s probably not going to swipe a ton. But if he picks his spots like he did in 2010, he can sometimes sneak into scoring position, leaving plenty of opportunities for Cano, A-Rod, and Teixeira to drive him in.

Russell Martin

No, Martin is not a speed demon. In fact, he hasn’t attempted more than 10 stolen bases since 2009. But he appears to know what he’s doing when he does swipe a bag. He proved that on Opening Day last year, effortlessly taking a base on Justin Verlander. He made nine more attempts throughout the season, getting caught just twice. He’ll never win a crown, and he’ll almost certainly never steal more than 20, as he did in the 2007 season. But he can seemingly pick his spots well. That’s pretty much all you can ask from a catcher.

In the past both Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter provided threats when at first base. Jeter has cut down on his attempts in the last few years. After stealing 30 in 35 attempts during he 2009 season, he stole 18 in 23 attempts in 2010 and then 16 in 22 attempts last year. You can look at that as him slowing down, but he did feature similar numbers in 2007 and 2008, coming off a 34-steal 2006 season. Rodriguez used to be a paragon of base stealing efficiency, especially after his 40-40 season in 1998. But in the last two years he’s combined for just eight stolen bases in 11 attempts. He gets good reads, but he won’t be going often.

Having guys like Gardner and Nunez is a boon for the Yankees, a team that in previous seasons didn’t have that kind of speed. Having one starter and one guy off the bench helps create a more well-rounded base stealing strategy. It helps, too, that there are a few players for whom Girardi shouldn’t hesitate to pinch run late in games. Granderson is a bit of a bonus. If he, along with Jeter, Martin, and Rodriguez, can pick spots here and there to take a free base, the Yankees will be a bit more well rounded with their offense. That’s a valuable feature for an offense built mostly on power.

Triple-A stadium situation could linger into 2013

The Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Empire State Yankees will be stuck on a season-long road trip this year, playing “home” game in six different cities as PNC Field is renovated. Apparently the renovation is actually a total replacement, as Josh Leventhal reports that the current stadium will be torn down and replaced with a new $40M facility. That’s great, but the problem is that demolition must start on April 1st in order for the place to be ready for next season.

According to Leventhal, the $14.5M sale of the team from Lackawanna county to the Yankees and Mandalay Bay is still being finalized. Those funds are needed for the new facility, so construction can’t begin until a deal is hammered out. International League president Randy Mobley says the two sides are still negotiating, but “with this construction start deadline rapidly approaching, it is all going to become pretty evident, pretty quickly, what is or isn’t going to happen.”

There is no contingency plan in place if the stadium is not ready in time for Opening Day 2013. “This is a one-year arrangement, not to be repeated,” said Mobley of the team’s unfortunate 2012 plans. It’s bad enough that some of the organization’s best prospects will be stuck on the road all year with the Triple-A squad, doing something similar in 2013 would be a disaster. Everyone involved — especially the Yankees — has every reason to want to get a deal done so construction can start on time, and I suspect it will.