Bench improvements for the Yanks in 2011

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

In terms of core improvements on offense, the Yankees don’t have much wiggle room. Their entire infield and outfield is essentially set in stone, all returning from last year. The only changes come at catcher, where Jorge Posada simply moves to DH and Russell Martin takes over. That was about the best the Yanks could do this winter to improve their starting lineup. Where there is real opportunity to improve is on the bench, and the Yanks took to that task this off-season as well.

Last year’s bench didn’t quite dazzle. There were some highlights, specifically Marcus Thames, who produced a .365 wOBA through 237 PA. But other than that, the bench was either poor or misused (though not intentionally). Here’s the breakdown of all the players who spent time on the Yanks in a non-starting role last year:

The only standout there is Thames, and he managed just 237 PA last season. I’d imagine that Andruw Jones will get more than that, since he can actually play the field. He actually matched Thames’s wOBA last year, which isn’t to say that he’ll repeat that this year, but rather to say that if he’s even close that he can provide more value by 1) racking up more plate appearances and 2) actually playing defense.

Francisco Cervelli will almost certainly drop from that 1.1 WAR last season, but for good reason. The idea is that the starter — whether it be Martin, Montero, or Posada — will pick up a good chunk of those PA and, therefore, that value over replacement. Therefore, the bench will be strengthened by the lack of reliance on it. The more PA the starters pick up the better, and it appears there’s no better opportunity for improvement in that regard than at catcher.

After those two, the rest of the bench accumulated -0.8 WAR. Surely the new group can do better than that. Including Cervelli as a full-time bench player is a good start. Employing one of Ronnie Belliard or Eric Chavez, strange as it might sound, should help further. That will be in place of the Golsons and the Curtises and the Huffmans that littered the 2010 bench.

A weak bench has been a signature of the mid- to late-2000s Yankees teams, but that appears to have changed this year. We’ll still see guys such as Golson and Curtis make appearances. Injuries do happen. But the Yankees will have to rely on them a bit less, because they’ve built up a group of bench players who can hit and field their positions. It might only make a one-win difference. But in 2011, one win could be the difference between the playoffs and third place.

Mailbag: Igawa, Garcia, Double-A, Mets, Pujols

This week’s edition of the mailbag brings queries about Chris Garcia, the difference between minor league levels, the ghost of Kei Igawa, and then the Mets and Red Sox. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send in a question.

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Bruce asks: It’s funny (but not really) that after all the money thrown at Kei Igawa that he’s never even mentioned as a possible desperation move to fill the fifth slot in the rotation. He’s got to be the highest-priced “organizational player” ever.

Yep, Igawa was a spectacular bust, and it shows you how little faith the organization has in him by not even mentioning him as a candidate for the back of the rotation. Hell, he didn’t get an invite to Major League Spring Training, he’s with the kids in minor league camp. Igawa’s contract comes off the books after the season, and the only reason they haven’t gotten rid of him yet is because if they do so, they’ll get stuck paying the luxury tax on his contract. There’s no harm in having him soak up innings at Triple-A, but that’s pretty much the only thing he’s qualified for these days.

Cody asks: Whatever happened to Christian Garcia? I know he had TJ surgery last season and then the Yankees released him. Any chance they bring him back if all goes well?

Good timing on this question, Chad Jennings posted an update yesterday. Allow me to quote…

Once a highly touted pitching prospect in the Yankees system, right-hander Christian Garcia was released last season after a series of injuries derailed his promising career. The Yankees are aware that Garcia, 25, has been working out and plans to throw for scouts, but I was told today that the Yankees have no plans of bringing Garcia back to the organization.

Garcia blew out his elbow in his first start last year, so he’s about nine or ten months out from his second Tommy John surgery. The kid just couldn’t stay healthy, and there’s really no reason to believe he ever will. I don’t fault the Yankees for not wanting to bring him back at all. It’s a shame, he had a great arm.

Joseph asks: With all of the talk of Brackman having an outside shot of the rotation, it had me thinking which was the harder transition from leagues in the minors. Is it from High-A to AA or from AA to AAA.

The biggest jump is Triple-A to MLB, no doubt about it, but in the minors only, going from Single-A to Double-A is probably the biggest jump. Double-A is the first time hitters will consistently run into pitchers that have some sort of game plan and can throw a breaking ball for strikes, while pitchers will regularly face batters that will lay off stuff out of the zone or sit on a 2-0 fastball. It’s not so much that the physical talent is that much better in Double-A than Single-A, it’s that the preparation and experience is. That’s why they say Double-A is the great equalizer. If a kid does well at that level, chances are he’ll have himself a nice big league career.

Omar Good-bya (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Chris asks: If the Mets completely fall apart and spend very little over the next few years could they create heavy debate about being a team in NYC and collecting a revenue sharing check? I can see this becoming a battle in the next CBA if a team like the Mets, in a massive media market spends very little. This situation may spur on a salary floor. What do you guys think?

I don’t think that’ll happen. The Mets, as far as I know, are profitable in terms of ticket sales, merchandising, advertisements, etc., and that’s what revenue sharing payments are based on. Even with the Madoff stuff, the team would really need to fall in the dumps to start getting some revenue sharing money. With a nine-figure payroll, it won’t happen anytime soon.

Matt asks: With the recent Albert Pujols contract negotiations, I have begun to think about what his value is. It seems to me that the value of a win is greater the higher above replacement it is. Doesn’t it make sense that a player who is worth 7 WAR is more valuable than 2 players who are worth 7 WAR together simply due to the fact that the team will have another position available which they can fill with another player. Because a player like Albert Pujols gives you equal production to that of two good players while still allowing you to fill that extra position with more value, shouldn’t he make more than the total value of the two good players’ contracts?

Yep, exactly. You said it perfectly, one great player is better than two pretty good players. The more wins you’re getting out of a player, the higher a cost. You might pay, say, $3M per win for a one or two WAR player, but once you get into Pujols territory, $7M or $8M per win becomes the norm. It’s not a linear scale.

Reg asks: Although most people are conceding the AL East to Boston, there has been little mention of the fact that they lost Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. True, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez may make up the offensive punch but Youkilis is not the defensive third baseman Beltre was. Also, there are questions re pitchers Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Do you think that the Red Sox should be odds-on favorites to (a) win the AL East or (b) advance to the World Series?

a) Sure, I think they’re the favorites in the AL East right now, I don’t think you’ll find anyone that can put up too much of an argument otherwise. They’re not going to lap the field or win the division by like, ten games. The other four clubs are too good for that to happen, but I feel comfortable saying they’re the best team in AL right now.

b) Nope, I’ll always take the field when asked that. The Yankees, Rays, White Sox, Athletics, Rangers … all those clubs could take down the Sox in a five or seven game playoff series. Do they have a really good chance of going to the World Series? Sure, but odds-on favorite? Nah.

Remembering the Sheffield Era

(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

After more than two decades in the big leagues, Gary Sheffield officially called it a career yesterday, 16 months after playing in his final game. He suited up for eight different teams and was an All-Star with five of them, thrice finishing in the top three of the MVP voting but never taking home the hardware. A career .292/.393/.514 hitter with 509 homers and far more walks (1,475) than strikeouts (1,171), Sheff was a brilliant offensive force on the field and a jerk off it.

When he joined the Yankees prior to the 2004 season, he did so only because George Steinbrenner wanted him. Just about everyone else preferred Vladimir Guerrero, who was six years younger than Sheff and more multi-dimensional, capable of beating you with his bat, his speed, or his arm. Instead it was Sheffield who joined the Yankees, at the cost of a three-year contract and a little more than $36M. After dealing with Raul Mondesi for the past two years, the Yanks finally had a capable replacement for Paul O’Neill in right field.

Sheff stepped right into the heart of a rebuilt Yankees’ lineup in 2004, hitting fifth behind the likes of Kenny Lofton, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jason Giambi at the outset of the season. It wasn’t long before he forced his way into a more glamorous lineup spot, replacing Giambi as the cleanup hitter in late-May before forcing A-Rod down a spot and assuming three-hole responsibilities in late-June. Sheff led the team in slugging percentage (.534), OPS (.927), homers (36), and runs scored (117) that year, placing second in the AL MVP voting. The winner? That would be Guerrero, who hit .317/.394/.565 overall and .370/.427/.688 in the final 45 games of the season to get the Angels into the playoffs.

The Yankees quickly dispatched of the Twins in the ALDS that season, in part due to Sheffield’s game tying-two run homer off Brad Radke in Game Two. Like everyone else on the club, he demolished Red Sox pitching in the first three games of the ALDS (9-for-13 with three doubles and a homer) before seeing his bat fall silent in the final four contests (just 1-for-17). “I never thought it would end like this,” said Sheff after the series, echoing the thoughts of the city.

As it tends to do, time passed and the Yankees were back in action in 2005. A-Rod and Sheffield formed what was arguably the game’s most devastating three-four combo that year, hitting a collective .306/.401/.562 with 82 homers and 253 RBI. Sheff’s contribution to that was .291/.379/.512 with 34 homers and 123 RBI, a performance that led to an eighth place finish in the MVP voting. Alex took home the award. Perhaps his most memorable moment of the year came in mid-April, when a fan at Fenway Park hit him in the face as he fielded a ball in the right field corner. Sheff pushed the fan before firing the ball back to the infield, with security intervening before anything else could transpire.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

“Something hit me in the mouth. It felt like a hand,” Sheffield said afterward. “I thought my lip was busted. I tried to get his hand out of my face so I could continue on with the play. To get punched in the mouth, you don’t expect that in a baseball game. It could have been worse if I didn’t hold my composure. I almost snapped, but I thought about the consequences.”

The incident motivated the Yankees to another first place finish in the AL East, though they bowed out to the Angels in five games in the ALDS. Sheffield’s sixth inning run scoring single got the Yankees on the board in Game Four, helping them to a come-from-behind win that prolonged their season. His three hits in Game Five weren’t enough though, and for the second time in as many seasons with New York, his season came to a premature end.

At age 37, Sheffield came out of the gate on fire in 2006, hitting .341/.390/.516 with four homers in his first 22 games. He suffered a left wrist sprain after colliding with Shea Hillenbrand on April 29th, an injury that signaled the beginning of the end of Sheff’s tenure in the Bronx. After trying to play through the injury, Sheffield eventually hit the disabled list and had surgery to repair a dislocated tendon and torn ligaments in the wrist. He was expected to miss the remainder of the season, prompting the Yankees to go out and trade for Bobby Abreu as a replacement in right field and the three-spot of the lineup.

A late-September return found Sheffield without a defensive home, so the team had him try first base for the first time in his career. It was a disaster in every way, because Sheff wasn’t hitting after surgery or saving runs with his glove. A 1-for-12 effort against the Tigers helped the Yankees to their second straight ALDS exit. With Abreu on board and under contract for 2007 with an option for 2008, Brian Cashman had a choice to make. He picked up Sheff’s $13M club option and turned to the trade market.

The Sheffield era in the Bronx came to an end similar to the way the Sheffield era ended in Milwaukee, Florida, Los Angeles, and eventually Detroit. He ran his mouth on his way out the door, calling out then-manager Joe Torre for what he felt was preferential treatment towards white players. After the HBO Real Sports interviewer pointed out that the team’s most popular player, Derek Jeter, was African American, Sheff responded by saying he “ain’t all the way black.” Bridges were burned and Sheffield was hastily traded to the Tigers on November 10th, less than two weeks after the end of the World Series, for three minor league pitchers.

Sheffield was tremendously productive during his time in New York, just like he was everywhere else. He hit .291/.383/.515 with 76 homers in 347 games for the Bombers, providing big hits and MVP-caliber performances in 2004 and 2005. His famous bat waggle and lightning quick swing were mimicked by kids playing wiffle ball all over the Tri-State Area, but in the end, Sheffield’s temper and paranoid racist thoughts led to a swift and unceremonious exit. His comments resulted in boos every time he came back to Yankee Stadium as a visiting player. Sheff retires with one World Series ring (1997 Marlins) and a long and remarkable career that should get him some Hall of Fame consideration, but his insecurities, occasional selfishness, and off-the-field persona have left a bad taste in the mouths of many.

Open Thread: February 17th Camp Notes

Girardi's gonna beat his ass for that yawn. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The latest from Spring Training

  • Biggest story of the day: Mariano Rivera is finally in camp after staying home with his sick family for a few days.
  • Regarding how Russell Martin looks physically, Joe Girardi said “he hasn’t shown anything to suggest he won’t be able to play every day.” Martin’s still coming back from that offseason knee surgery, and the only think he isn’t doing right now is blocking balls in the dirt. (Erik Boland & Chad Jennings)
  • Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Sergio Mitre all threw bullpen sessions. Click the Jennings’ link for the full list of pitchers that threw today. (Marc Carig)

Slow day, but I always say no news is good news. Anyways, here’s your open thread. The Isles and Rangers are both playing, but talk about whatever. Have at it.

Quick site note: I’ve updated the Spring Training television schedule post now that the MLB Network has announced the games they’re broadcasting. The new dates added are March 12th (@ Nationals), 20th (@ Phillies), 21st (@ Rays), and 23rd (vs. Blue Jays). The first three will be on tape delay though.

2011 Draft: KLaw’s Top 50 Prospects

Keith Law posted his list of the top 50 draft prospects today (Insider req’d), which is unsurprisingly led by Rice 3B Anthony Rendon. UConn OF George Springer and that Gerrit Cole kid round out the top three. I’m a sucker for big high school arms, so the 48th ranked RHP Taylor Guerrieri (“Up to 96 in the fall and in early workouts,” listed at 6-foot-3, 180 lbs.) intrigues me. If you’re into college pitchers, RHP Scott Lyman of UC Davis (“will sit 93-95 with a hammer curveball and some feel for a changeup”) is ranked 47th and could be in the mix for the Yankees with the 51st overall pick.

That gives you an idea of how deep this draft class is. A college kid that sits 93-95 with a hammer curve is usually ranked top ten or top fifteen, not almost 50th.

Yanks trying to monopolize mediocrity, still interested in Millwood

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees are still interested in bringing Kevin Millwood aboard, but remain adamant that they will not pay a significant price for him. In fact, they may only be open to signing him on a minor league deal like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.

As an interesting little sidebar, Joe Girardi said today that he’s “looking toward the veteran guys a little bit more” for the fourth and fifth starter spots, which ties into something Sherman wrote. It’s entirely possible that the Yankees could start the season with both Colon and Garcia (or Millwood) in the rotation, Sergio Mitre in the bullpen, and Ivan Nova in Triple-A. Both Colon and Garcia can become free agents if they make the team, and Mitre’s out-of-options. Starting the season with that alignment allows them to keep everyone and evaluate a little further into the season. Not saying I agree with it, but it’s certainly a viable option.

The RAB Radio Show: February 17, 2011

The Yanks have plenty going on in camp, but it’s a lot of little stuff rather than one big storyline. That, of course, makes for good radio. Mike and I talk about the 4th and 5th starter candidates, how the bullpen will factor into that, and then some on the offense. It’s a smorgasbord today on the RAB Radio Show.

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