2011 All-Star Game Thread

Now it counts! Seriously, how dumb is it that this glorified exhibition will decide home field advantage in the World Series? I can’t wait for that fifth inning matchup between Aaron Crow and Hunter Pence to decide whether or not the Yankees get to play three or four games in the Bronx come late October, assuming they make it that far of course. Don’t want to jinx it.

That said, the All-Star Game isn’t boring, at least I don’t think so. I just hate that it impacts the World Series. It’s fun to see all the different players and a new pitcher every inning, usually I’m fumbling around MLB.tv to see these guys play, and for this one night they’re all playing in one stadium. That’s pretty cool. Here are your starting lineups…

American League
Curtis Granderson, CF
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Jose Bautista, RF
Josh Hamilton, LF
Adrian Beltre, 3B
David Ortiz, DH
Robinson Cano, 2B
Alex Avila, C

Jered Weaver, RHP

National League
Rickie Weeks, 2B
Carlos Beltran, DH
Matt Kemp, CF
Prince Fielder, 1B
Brian McCann, C
Lance Berkman, RF
Matt Holliday, LF
Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Scott Rolen, 3B

Roy Halladay, RHP

The full rosters can be seen here. David Robertson and Russell Martin are the only other Yankees actually at the game and eligible to play after Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, and CC Sabathia backed out. If needed, the two managers have confirmed that Jose Valverde and Brian Wilson will serve as closers, and Valverde apparently rehearsed a new jig should he close out the game. Seriously. Anyway, first pitch is scheduled for 8pm ET and can be seen on FOX. Talk about the game or anything else your heart desires here. Enjoy.

On hit No. 3000 and owing taxes

Christian Lopez found himself a lucky guy on Saturday afternoon. His tickets were a gift, and he found himself in the right spot as Derek Jeter improbably and majestically launched a home run into the left field seats for his 3000th career hit. The ball — a potential $200,000 lottery ticket that could help pay off Lopez’s $100,000 student loans — was his.

Of course, Lopez decided instead to do what he felt was the right thing. He gave the ball back to Derek Jeter in exchange for some signed balls, bats and jerseys and four season tickets in the Champions Suites. Now, as The Times noted last night, he probably owes taxes on those items.

“There’s different ways the IRS could try to characterize a ball caught by a fan in the stands,” Andrew D. Appleby, a tax lawyer who specializes in prized baseballs, said to The Times. “But when the Yankees give him all those things, it’s much more clear-cut that he owes taxes on what they give him.”

Now, this story has made the rounds today, and people are outraged! How could the Yankees let Lopez incur more debt for his generosity? Now, of course, it’s not that simple; when it comes to the tax code, it never is. Lopez would have owed taxes on the any amount of money he received from the ball, and the Yankees can certainly cover Lopez’s taxes as well. Second, if the items given to Lopez from the club are gifts — given out of generosity and not because Lopez wanted them in exchange — he wouldn’t be taxed on them. The IRS would bill him for the jerseys and balls but not the seats.

Ultimately, the story isn’t as scandalous as it has been made out to be today. The Yanks could cover Lopez’s taxes or he’ll owe less than is being reported or he’s just paying taxes he otherwise would have owed had he chosen to sell the ball. Such are the pitfalls of winning the lottery.

But the story still got me thinking: What would I do had I caught the lucky Number 3000? As powerful as karma — or at least the good feelings associated with it — might be, it’s hard to resist the allure of easy money. And so let me open the floor to you. What would you do? Be honest.

If you caught Derek Jeter's 3000th hit, what would you do with the ball?
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Comparing the Yankees to their peers: Outfield

As a unit they’re one of the elite infields in the league, but when we examined how the Yankees infield compared to their peers only Alex Rodriguez stood out. Today we’ll see if any of the outfielders jump out ahead of the competition. Again, we’re using the WAR offensive and defensive components, with Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average for some further defensive context.

LF, Brett Gardner

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Gardner has had a down, then up, and then down again season at the plate. He started off so slowly at the plate that he got dropped from the leadoff spot against righties. While hitting ninth he picked up the pace, leading us to clamor for his return to the top of the lineup. Once he did return there he started to slip a bit.

Offense: 4.1, 8th. This might actually be seventh, since Emilio Bonifacio is on the list and he’s not the Marlins’ starting left fielder. In any case, we knew this was Gardner’s deal. He produces value in many different ways, and his bat is just one aspect of the game. Hey, he’s still well ahead of Carlos Lee on this, so that’s something.

Defense: 15.2, 1st. Not only is Gardner first among left fielders, but he is first by more than a full win — and the second place guy, Carlos Lee, is not a +5-run defender. When discussing Gardner’s value I hear a lot of people say that he can’t be a true talent +25-run fielder, and that he’ll even out as he logs more innings in the field. But I think they’re missing an important point here. The state of left field defense is, to be kind, not good. Gardner is head and shoulders better than his peers. And, since the competition is generally poor, it’s no wonder that he stands out so far from the pack. If he were in center he’d be competing with other very good fielders. But in LF he’s clearly better than the rest. And that’s where much of his value lies: in saving runs that other left fielders do not. FRAA is a bit less generous, giving him 8.7 runs above average. I’m sure he still stands out from the pack, though.

WAR: 3.0, 3rd. Added up, Gardner matches up very well with his peers. Just two players are ahead of him: Ryan Braun, who hits the cover off the ball and has nearly double the batting runs of his next closest competitor, and Alex Gordon, who is that next closest competitor. Gardner is closer to second than fourth, too.

CF, Curtis Granderson

(Mark Humphrey/AP)

It’s tough to say anything original about Granderson’s season, because it’s all been said. Even then, we’ve all seen his accomplishments. His power stroke has really come around this year, and the power he’s displayed doesn’t appear to be a fluke. he has a sweet swing, and balance that affords him quicker reactions to off-speed pitches.

Offense: 25.2, 2nd. If you thought Granderson was having a crazy season, Matt Kemp is nearly a win better on offense alone. He stands out from the pack, but Granderson leads the second group of center fielders, which also includes Andrew McCutchen, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino. Everyone else is at least 7 runs behind this pack. All things considered, Granderson is putting together his finest season as a big leaguer, which says a lot when you see his 2007 season.

Defense: 1.6, 8th. This is where Granderson slips a little. He’s not like Kemp, who is -7.6 runs. UZR has him as slightly above average, which seems about right. We might rate him as a bit better, because it does seem like he makes all the plays. But remember, he’s being compared to his peers, and the guys ahead of him are all superb fielders as well. FRAA actually has him at 3.2 runs below average.

WAR: 4.7, 3rd. He’s just 0.1 behind Ellsbury, and 0.4 behind McCutchen for the league lead. Again, the group listed above stands far above the pack. Kemp and Victorino both have 4.4 WAR, and the next closest is 3.2. So even if you think WAR paints a broad stroke — which it does — it’s clear that Granderson is an elite CFer.

RF, Nick Swisher

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Oh, the things that Swisher’s slow start made people say. They’re not going to pick up his option. He should ditch what he’s done his entire career and react to a long slump by batting righty all the time. Really, it got bad. But Swisher recovered well and then some. He ended the first half a bit banged up, but he was a big part of the team’s surge through Jeter’s stay on the DL.

Offense: 7.8, 15th. Yep, that early-season slump certainly hurts. Some of the names above Swisher are expected: Jose Bautista, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, Justin Upton. etc. But there are some names that he should certainly be able to pass. For instance, I can see him passing Michael Cuddyer and Brennan Boesch by season’s end, due to them coming down and Swisher rising up. But, as it stands, he’s been behind the pack offensively.

Defense: 5.3, 4th. Now here’s something. Swisher has been quite average most of his days in the outfield, ranging towards the below average side. This year, though, he has been better, both in terms of UZR and the eye test. He has seemingly gotten better at running down fly balls, and it shows in his numbers. The guys ahead of him — Ben Zobrist, Shin-Soo Choo, and Jeff Francoeur — are all known to be quality defenders in one way or another. It’s nice to see Swisher make his way up there. FRAA has been kinder to him in the past, but still has him at 1 run above average this year.

WAR: 1.9, 14th. Without an absolutely standout UZR like Gardner’s, Swisher was bound to be defined by his offensive numbers. Again, they’re on the rise, and while they probably won’t match his previous numbers with the Yankees he still has an opportunity to climb the ranks here — especially if he continues playing quality defense. He is, after all, just 0.2 wins away from 11th place.

Overall the Yankees’ outfielders have produced 9.6 WAR, which ranks third in baseball behind the Cardinals and Rays. They’re 0.7 wins ahead of the fourth place team, the Pirates, and just 0.2 wins behind the Rays for second. The Cardinals are just insane, but an outfield of Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and the huge season that has been Lance Berkman is tough to stop. In terms of defense the Yanks are way ahead of the pack, at 21.9 runs above average, which helps explain their quality pitching performances. Chase down more balls, allow fewer hits. On offense they’re a bit further behind, but even with Gardner’s bat and Swisher’s slump the rank 5th in batting runs. This truly is an elite unit, perhaps the best Yankees outfield we’ve seen since the days of Bernie and O’Neill.

Taking stock of the farm system

Joe has been/will be reviewing the big league roster at the observed midpoint of the season, so let’s do the same thing with the farm system. Three familiar categories (and a fourth for good measure) will be our measuring sticks…

Exceeding Expectations

(Tom Priddy/MiLB.com)

This section is really all about three guys: J.R. Murphy, Corban Joseph, and Nik Turley. We all knew that Murphy could hit and he’s done nothing to disappoint offensively (.293/.333/.453 with just 43 strikeouts in 336 plate appearances), but the major improvement has come on defense, improvement that has been reported by several outlets. The Yankees had him playing primarily third base and outfield as recently as Instructional League last fall, but Murphy’s looking more like a long-term catcher than ever before, improving his stock dramatically.

All CoJo does is hit, and this year he’s walking more than ever before (11.7 BB%) and hitting for the most power of his career (.160 ISO). His defense at second will continue to be a question going forward, but the bat is real and the reason he has a chance to contribute to the big league team in the future. It took Turley more than two seasons to get to a full season league, but he’s taken a big step forward this year. The southpaw posted a 3.90 K/BB with almost exactly a strikeout an inning in 82.1 IP with Low-A Charleston before being bumped up to High-A Tampa a few weeks ago. Turley’s a big kid (6-foot-6, 230 lbs.) but he’s all about the secondary stuff.

A few others worth mentioning: Rob Lyerly, Kyle Roller, Zoilo Almonte, and Tyler Austin. Lyerly crushed the High-A Florida State League (.373 wOBA) and is almost like a poor man’s Eric Hinske, he’s just missing the plate discipline. Roller is a college guy beating up on Single-A pitching, but it’s above-average power from the left side, and that always has value. Almonte’s been kicking around the system for a while but he’s still only 22, and his recent performance is off the charts good. The switch-hitter is probably due for a promotion to Double-A. It’s tough to get excited about 70-something rookie ball plate appearances, but Austin was one of the organization’s biggest sleepers coming into the year and has overwhelmed the league (.377/.434/.623). Long-term position is the question there.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Meeting Expectations

The bulk of the farm system sits here this year, and I guess the natural place to start is with the top prospects. Dellin Betances is consistently inconsistent, showing high-90’s stuff and blowing hitters away one start, walking the farm the next. His walk rate (4.76 BB/9) is right back in line with his 2006-2009 mark (4.74), up from last year’s (possibly fluke) 2.32 BB/9. The good news is that aside from a measly little blister in April, he’s been healthy and hasn’t missed a start, which has been a problem in the past. Betances is still striking out more than ten men per nine innings and it’s still frontline stuff, but he hasn’t made much progress in the control department over the last few years. The guy he is this year is the guy he’s been pretty much his entire career.

Austin Romine is having the best season of his career in many ways (walks and strikeouts, mostly), but he’s also repeating Double-A and you’d expect his performance to improve. He’s basically doing what was expected of him coming into the year, and he really needs to get to Triple-A. Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell are pitching well in Triple-A (3.91 FIP and 3.64 FIP, respectively), and Brett Marshall (3.70 FIP) has come back strong in his first full year off Tommy John surgery. Ramon Flores went from sleeper to legit, showing off his trademark plate discipline (13.5 BB%, 17.6% K%) and gap power (.147 ISO) from the last side. Still just 19, Flores has star potential if he has a growth spurt (just 5-foot-10, 150 lbs. at the moment) and develops some over-the-fence power in his early-20’s, but right now he projects as more of a gap-to-gap doubles hitters that gets on base a decent amount and holds his own defensively in an outfield corner. Lots and lots of other players fall into this category as well, like Josh Romanski, Chase Whitley, Brandon Laird, Tommy Kahnle, and Rob Segedin.

Falling Short of Expectations

No one wants to be here, and certainly no one wants to headline the disappointments, but unfortunately that’s where Andrew Brackman finds himself. The big right-hander was so unfathomably bad as a starter (52 IP, 40 R, 40 BB, 39 K) that the team moved him into the bullpen in early June, and the results haven’t been any better: 13.1 IP, 17 R, 12 BB, 14 K. The worst part is that his stuff has reportedly regressing, with his fastball sitting in the high-80’s on some nights and the curveball being the only pitch he can consistently throw for strikes. The Yankees have just one more option year remaining for the now 25-year-old Brackman, so something has to give and soon.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Jesus Montero certainly hasn’t been the kind of disappointment that Brackman has been, but we were all expecting something better than a .129 ISO and a 7.0% walk rate his second time through Triple-A. At least he has age on his side; Montero’s always been young for his league and at 21 years old, he’s the third youngest player in the International League. He’d been performing much better of late before a minor back injury sent him to the disabled list as a precaution.

Further down the ladder, another slugging catcher hasn’t lived up to admittedly ridiculous preseason expectations. The Gary Sanchez hype machine got out of control this offseason, which is why we all think a 18-year-old kid (who had heart surgery in the offseason) with a .345 wOBA in an extremely pitcher friendly park has been a letdown this year. In reality, Sanchez’s performance is not the issue, it’s that he had to be sent back down to Extended Spring Training earlier this year because refused to pinch-hit and catch a bullpen session. Eighteen-year-old kids make stupid mistakes, that’s what they do, but that’s still disappointing.

On much smaller scales, we have the re-emergence of Melky Mesa‘s inability to hit breaking balls (32.6 K%, .283 wOBA), Jose Ramirez‘s demotion (8.14 ERA and 4.23 FIP with High-A Tampa), Manny Banuelos‘ sudden walk problems (4.56 BB/9 this year, 2.76 from 2008-2010), and Kelvin DeLeon’s lack of pretty much everything (plate discipline, namely). Slade Heathcott‘s brawl was pretty uncool too.

Incomplete

Some players just don’t fit into any of the above categories because of injuries. Heathcott started out absurdly hot, slowed down, then hurt his shoulder and could miss the rest of the season. Graham Stoneburner apparently had the neck strain from hell, because it kept him on the shelf from late-April through late-June. David Phelps was having a fine season (3.75 FIP) before a shoulder injury sent him to the sidelines. Tim Norton was a god amongst men (46 K and eight walks in 30 IP), then got hurt with what was initially reported as a career-threatening shoulder injury. Apparently it was much less serious and he’ll be back in a week or so.

Overall, it’s been a decidedly average year for the farm system, though compared to last year it looks like a total disaster. I assure you it hasn’t been, this is a pretty normal year. Some breakouts, some flops, most guys right in the middle. Injuries did hit a little hard, but that’s life. The Yankees still have a number of big league ready (or close to it) arms in Triple-A to use in the second half for whatever it may be (fill a rotation spot, bullpen role, trade, whatever), and Montero looked to be on his annual second half tear before the back issue. Other than Brackman, none of my preseason top ten prospects have taken a major step back, and that right there is a win.

Scouting The Trade Market: 3B Replacements

The procedure to repair the torn meniscus in Alex Rodriguez‘s knee might have gone just fine, but he’s still going to miss at least a month while he recovers. Maybe he’ll come back relatively quickly, as he did from his hip surgery in 2009, but that will make only a small dent. The Yanks will still need to fill plenty of at-bats in his absence. The smart money is on them using Eduardo Nunez, Ramiro Pena, and maybe even Brandon Laird, but there’s a chance they could look outside the organization for help.

As I said in yesterday’s first half review post, third base is a rough position currently (and it’s even worse in the NL). That’s going to dampen the market considerably. Since the Yankees only need a replacement for a month, and since they have a few in-house guys, chances are they won’t swing a deal. But if they did, it would likely be for a player who can help them in areas after A-Rod returns. Here are four specifically.

Wilson Betemit

Pros: He’s completely useless to the Royals, as they sit in last place and have a promising rookie, Mike Moustakas, manning the hot corner. Betemit is currently hitting .285.345/.415, good for a .327 wOBA, which ranks 12th among third basemen with at least 220 PA. He’s a free agent after this year, and so requires no future commitment. He can also play second in a pinch, and has played the outfield as recently as 2010.

Cons: After a hot start he’s dropped off a bit since the start of June, hitting .220/.238/.325. Of course, that’s also when the Royals yanked him from his starting gig in favor of Moustakas; he has gotten just 42 PA since June 1. He’s also not a very good defender at third. Having seen Betemit for parts of two seasons, we know that he works in fits and starts. If he continues slumping after the Yanks acquire him, it will be a complete waste.

Omar Infante

Pros: He’s a free agent following this season, and since Florida is out of the race they’ll probably be very open to dealing him. While he has played second base exclusively this year, he can play all around the diamond; he has played SS, LF, 3B, and RF as recently as 2010, and CF as recently as 2009. He’s a qualify infielder by most measures, making him a viable utility candidate once A-Rod returns.

Cons: After a torrid 2010 season, he’s crashed considerably in 2011, a .269 wOBA. He does have a .274 BABIP, though, which is considerably below his .308 career mark. He might not be great, but he can probably be around a league average hitter with a BABIP in line with his career mark.

Jeff Baker

Pros: For the past three-plus seasons Baker has established himself as a league-average hitter. His wRC+ has been between 96 and 102 since 2008. He also has an above-average BABIP, which suggests, but does not conclude, that he can spray line drives and dunk in singles. He has played every position except center field and catcher this year, making him a good fit for the team even after A-Rod returns. At just $1.175 million this year, and with one year left before free agency, he could be a decent, if slightly expensive, utility option in 2012. The Yankees can afford that.

Cons: While he’s currently enjoying a typically average year, he’s doing it with a much higher BABIP, .379, and much lower walk rate, 2.9 percent, than previously in his career. This could easily be a fluke, since he has just 138 PA this year. Give the results from his 800-plus PA from 2008-2010, he could even out even as his BABIP drops. He appears to be a merely average fielder, which does not exactly befit a utility player.

Jeff Keppinger

Pros: Like Baker, Keppinger is a pretty much average hitter. Even as a full-time player in 2010 he produced a 105 wRC+. While he’s a second baseman by necessity for the Astros this year, he can play all around the infield, though he has just 22.2 career innings in the outfield. He has just four years of service time, and could be back in 2012 as the utility man.

Cons: He makes $2.3 million this year, which is already a bit step for a utility player. A raise will make it tougher to justify him as a backup, even on the Yankees. He hasn’t hit for much power in his career, a .108 ISO, and that includes .105 in 2010 and .081 in 2008, which are his only years with 120-plus games played. Defensive metrics rate him as below average at all positions, which, again, doesn’t bode well for a utility player.

Again, I don’t expect the Yankees to make a move for one of these players, or any other third base replacement. But if any of them is available at a reasonable price in the next two weeks we could see a move. Any of these players could serve a utility role after A-Rod returns, and would be a better fit than a straight third baseman. Given the options I’d have to go with Baker. He seems to be the best combination glove and bat on the list.