Open Thread: One more day to Send Swish!

We’re now into Day Three of the Final Vote balloting, and Nick Swisher has regained the lead over Kevin Youkilis in this back-and-forth affair for the final roster spot on the AL All Star Team. That doesn’t mean Swish doesn’t need your help anymore, he only leads by less than one percentage point. You’ve got until 4pm ET to vote as many times as possible for the Yanks’ rightfielder, so make sure you do it and get an eighth Yankee in Anaheim next week. Here’s the ballot.

Once you’ve voted a few hundred times, use this as your open thread until the game thread comes along a little later. The Met are playing the Reds, and you can laugh along at either SNY or ESPN. Talk about anything – I hear NBA free agency is the cool thing with the kids – just don’t be a jerk.

A-Rod, Pettitte to appear at anti-PED fundraiser

As Major League Baseball’s PED story is one that never goes away, current players who have come clean about their drug use are working to rehabilitate their images. To that end, both Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte will appear at an anti-PED fundraiser at Yankee Stadium next month. The event will benefit at Taylor Hooton Foundation, an organization that works to combat steroid use among teenagers.

Almost hand in hand with this appearance is renewed attention on A-Rod due to his rapid approaching the 600-home run plateau. A-Rod will hit the milestone round-tripper sometime over the next week or so, and when he does, he’ll join a very exclusive club. In 12 years or so, Alex will be up for Cooperstown consideration, and although the PED cloud may linger, David Pinto believes that A-Rod has a very convincing case for enshrinement notwithstanding the drug scandal. I tend to agree. A-Rod should be in the Hall when the time comes.

Another rumor about the Yanks looking for bench help

Via Buster Olney, the Yankees are focusing on “adding a veteran who is capable of playing third adequately, while adding punch … somebody who would provide depth at third in case A-Rod got hurt, but could play other positions.” In other words, a quality utility player. Olney mentions the name Ty Wigginton, which is certainly nothing new.

Just looking around the league for some new names, how about this one: Andy LaRoche. He can play every infield spot but shortstop, and has even dabbled in the corner outfield at times. Golden boy Pedro Alvarez has already been handed LaRoche’s job, but here’s a 26-year-old with double digit homerun power and an above average walk rate (9.4% career) about to enter his arbitration years. If nothing else, he’s a more interesting option than the usual veteran has-beens.

Cano withdraws from Home Run Derby with minor back injury

Via Mark Feinsand, Yankees’ second baseman Robbie Cano has withdrawn from next week’s Home Run Derby citing a minor back injury. It’s unclear what the exact injury is, but if we’ve learning anything from Al Aceves’ plight, it’s that there’s no such thing as a minor back injury. The Yanks weren’t exactly in love with the idea of Robbie participating in the HR Derby, so I’m hopeful this is just a phantom injury designed to keep him out of the competition. Let’s see if he’s in the lineup tonight.

On his 80th birthday, the Boss and Cooperstown

George Steinbrenner turned 80 this past Sunday, and the New York media took the time to fete the Boss. Harvey Araton talked with current Yankees who remembered the fiercely competitive owner. Filip Bondy found fans players alike who were thanks for the Boss’ World Series obsession. MLB.com’s Barry Bloom waxed poetic, and ESPN’s Wallace Matthews calls for enshrinement. What a lovefest.

For Yankee fans of any age, it’s hard to distill Steinbrenner’s reign as Yankee owner into anything resembling a narrative. A carpetbagger from Cleveland, he purchased the team at its darkest moment after CBS ownership had decimated the once-proud franchise. With a newly renovated stadium as a backdrop, George built up a championship team and a reputation for micromanaging. “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned,” the Boss infamously said upon purchasing the team. “We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.”

Yet, building ships was not in the cards for the Yankees. Steinbrenner wanted to win, and he wanted to win on his own terms. He hired, fired, rehired and refired Billy Martin more times than anyone could count. He threw money at problems, landing Reggie Jackson amidst clubhouse dissent and then signing Goose Gossage with Sparky Lyle already around to close. Winning once wasn’t good enough, and he put more and more pressure on the team to win and win at all costs.

After success in the late 1970s, George became too much for the team in the 1980s. He ordered trades that left the farm system barren, paid more than top dollar for free agents who weren’t worth the money they earned and obsessed over the drive and devotion of stars such as Dave Winfield. He pushed away Yogi Berra and Lou Piniella, and he continued to run through managers as though they were tissues.

In the 1990s, the Boss finally seemed to realize that the Yanks weren’t going to win 162 games a year. He allowed the farm to grow, and he sat back satisfied as the Yanks won four World Series in five years and spent the 2000s raking in the dough. Still, he meddled when he shouldn’t have, acquiring Randy Johnson years too late, establishing a Tampa faction to challenge Brian Cashman needlessly. The Yanks racked up the wins, but the team was flawed.

When George’s health started to slip away, the tributes came out in full. Matthews, who doesn’t want to limit the Hall of Fame to only those who were “exemplary human beings,” says Steinbrenner should be in Cooperstown because of his contributions to the game. The Yankees, through their spending, have radically changed baseball economics, and even when the game off the field shakes down to 29 clubs facing off against George’s dollars, Steinbrenner’s clubs have kept on winning. TV deals are more lucrative because of him, and record-breaking crowds flock to see the Yanks both at home and on the road. What’s good for baseball is, after all, good for baseball.

But George isn’t an easy man to pigeonhole. He violated campaign finance laws and was suspended after he sent a private investigatory to spy on Winfield. He was a cranky and temperamental owner whose need to have his finger stirring the pot probably cost the Yankees more championships during his reign than they won. Some would say he ruined the game with his spending.

So George the octogenarian trudges forward. His sons run the team, and he serves as the aging patriarch. The media loves him because he made for great headlines. Wallace Matthews and Filip Bondy are fond fans of the boss because he made their jobs easier. With an eruption from Mount George or a firing, the daily articles practically wrote themselves. Whether he belongs in the Hall though, enshrined forever in Cooperstown, is open-ended indeed.

Possible trade target: Adam Kennedy

The 2010 trade deadline is now just 24 days away, and we know GM Brian Cashman considers the bench to be the team’s biggest weakness right now. It’s safe to say that they’re going to bring someone in from outside the organization to shore things between now and then, it’s just a matter of who. We’ve already looked at Jeff Keppinger, Ty Wigginton, David DeJesus, and Octavio Dotel as trade possibilities, so let’s move on to another potential fit: Adam Kennedy.

Photo Credit: Matt Slocum, AP

The Angels won a whole lotta games last decade with a middle infield of Kennedy and David Eckstein, which kinda blows my mind. You’ve got to be strong up the middle to win, yet Kennedy’s .349 wOBA in 2002 was the greatest offensive production the team got out of either player during their time in Anaheim. Both players have since moved on, shacking up in St. Louis for a few years before Eckstein landed in Toronto, Arizona, and San Diego while Kennedy headed to Durham (minor leagues), Oakland, and now Washington.

Strictly a utility player at this point, Kennedy can play everywhere but shortstop, so right off the bat the Yankees would have to carry an extra player to spell Derek Jeter on occasion. His defensive value at first (-2.3 UZR over the last three seasons), second (+0.7), and third (-5.3) are nothing special at all, but they aren’t horrific and Kennedy could also fake a corner outfield spot in an emergency. He’s not going to remind anyone of Ramiro Pena with the glove, but he’ll hold his own.

On the bases, I was actually surprised to see that Kennedy was so successful at swiping bases. He’s a perfect nine-for-nine in stolen base attempts this year, and 36-for-43 (83.7% success rate) over the last three seasons. In non-stolen base baserunning situations (like moving up on grounders, sac flies, taking the extra base, etc.), Baseball Prospectus says he’s added just about three runs to his team’s ledger, which is a solid total. Quite simply, the guy is a very sound baserunner, a not tremendously important skill but one that’s appreciated. No one likes baserunning gaffes.

Photo Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari, AP

Bench players are almost never anything special with the stick; if they were, they’d be starters somewhere. Kennedy’s lone above average offensive season since 2005 came last year with the A’s (.337 wOBA), though there’s nothing in the peripherals to suggest a massive fluke except a somewhat inflated BABIP (.326). Perhaps it was just a dead cat bounce season for the 34-year-old, since he did revert to his sub-.310 wOBA form this year. The offensive skill set is a simple one: Kennedy makes a lot of contact (88.8%) and slaps the ball into the ground (46.3% grounders), so he doesn’t really drive the ball and hit for power (.107 ISO even with last year). He is a lefty batter, so he’s got that going for him.

Putting it all together, you’ve got a an average (at best) defensive player, a below average offensive player, and an above average baserunner, which for all intents and purposes equals a below average player. Kennedy has been replacement level all season (-0.1 WAR), so it would be foolish to expect him to be anything more than a half-a-win player in the second half, which is what the Yanks got out of Jerry Hairston Jr. last year. There’s about $600,000 left on Kennedy’s contract this year with a $500,000 buyout of his $2M option for next season, so the (monetary)cost isn’t prohibitive. Maybe Cashman could get the Nationals to kick in some money, like he did with the Pirates and Eric Hinske last year.

Kennedy’s trade value is so small that I’m not even going to bother to run him through Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator. We’re talking a Grade-C prospect at best, maybe a guy in Double-A if the Nats kick in a few hundred grand. Looking at the Yanks’ system, that means someone like Zoilo Almonte or Sean Black or Lance Pendleton. No one that will hurt. There hasn’t been any indication that Washington is actively shopping their utility infielder, but they’d be foolish not to listen.

Between Kennedy, Wigginton, and Keppinger, the three guys I’ve previewed, I’d go with Kennedy. Wigginton is a newly minted All Star and has some name recognition that will boost his perceived value beyond his actual value (.198/.314/.260 in his last 156 plate appearances), and Keppinger was never anything special to start with. Like it or not, Kennedy’s playoff and World Series experience does give him a leg up over the other two guys, especially since all three are just as likely to suck.

Thoughts on Gardner leading off

For the past two games Joe Girardi has written Brett Gardner‘s name first on the lineup card. Normally he doesn’t lead off the game unless Derek Jeter gets a day off, but for these two games Jeter has moved to the spot he knows very well. He has more plate appearances hitting second than in any other lineup spot, and given Girardi’s comments yesterday, we could see more of that in the second half. It certainly changes the dynamic of the lineup, at least against righties.

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

“[Gardner’s] on-base percentage against right handers is tremendous,” said Girardi. The manager does not lie. Gardner has faced a righty pitcher 205 times this season and has a .382 wOBA and .414 OBP. Combined with his speed, that makes for a tremendous leadoff hitter. Hitting in that spot will also give him a chance to take a base or two; it seems like he’s more apt to go with the No. 2 hitter up than the No. 3. We have only a minuscule sample to work with, so it’s not worth even running the numbers, but I think the anecdote holds up. It’s easier to send him when Jeter’s at the plate than when the big bats are up.

One of the reasons Girardi moved Jeter into the leadoff spot last year was his propensity to hit into the double play. By hitting leadoff he’d have fewer chances to kill a runner on base with a groundball to second or short. Wouldn’t moving him to the No. 2 spot then increase his double play frequency? A few weeks ago I wrote about the issue on FanGraphs and noted that even with two double plays the night before, Jeter’s rate was down from previous years. He has currently grounded into a double play nine times in 61 chances this season. That might not necessarily increase with Gardner hitting ahead of him.

Remember, Gardner has more PAs hitting ninth than any other spot in the lineup, so he’s frequently hit just before Jeter anyway. And, as we saw last night, Gardner’s speed can make that difference to break up a double play. Jeter hit into what looked like a tailor-made twin killing, but Gardner got to second base in time to make an impact on Adam Rosales’s timing. That bough Jeter the precious second he needed to make that extra step and beat the relay to first. Then there’s also the possibility of Garnder moving on the pitch, whether in a straight steal or a hit-and-run, further reducing Jeter’s double play opportunities.

The further effect of this move is to pile more power bats later in the lineup. Neither Gardner nor Jeter hit for a lot of power: they currently have ISOs of .112 and .122, respectively. Following them are Mark Teixeira (.191), Alex Rodriguez (.225), Robinson Cano (.221), Nick Swisher (.210), and Jorge Posada (.212). Then again, after the first time through the order this doesn’t make much of a difference, since Gardner normally hits ninth, right before Jeter any way. The only thing it really accomplishes, then, is getting Gardner more plate appearances — which, considering his production this season, does make sense.

Against lefties it could be a different story, but Gardner also owns a .355 OBP against them this year so he’s a viable option to hit atop the lineup every day if Girardi so chooses. But considering the Jeter and Swisher 1-2 combo against lefties — .387 and .415 OBPs, respectively — the Yanks would probably be slightly better off using them to lead off games, sticking Gardner in a spot further down the order. He probably shouldn’t hit ninth, as there’s no reason to bat Francisco Cervelli or Curtis Grandrson ahead of him. But if Girardi wants to move him down against lefties that seems like a fair proposition.

As we’ve pointed out frequently, lineup construction has little impact during the course of a full season — a win or so difference between the best and worst lineups. Since this will only happen for half a season it should have even less of an impact, especially because the lineup is basically constructed the same way, except with Gardner starting the carousel instead of turning it over. But given his stellar performance against righties this season, and given Swisher’s and Jeter’s excellent numbers against lefties, it’s tough to argue with the move. Gardner, it seems, has gained the Yankees’ confidence.