What Went Right: Curtis Granderson

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Like Spring Training, a surge at the end of a season can be deceiving. September rosters feature a lot of players that wouldn’t be in the big leagues without expanded rosters, so a big time performance might just be an illusion. Curtis Granderson‘s late-season dominance in 2010 proved to be very real in 2011, and the best part is that we actually have some tangible evidence for his improvement. That mid-August 2010 pow-wow with hitting coach Kevin Long is world famous by now. Okay, maybe not, but you get my drift.

Granderson’s season started much like the same way last season ended, with him getting big hits and helping the Yankees win games. His Opening Day solo homer off former Yankee (and lefty) Phil Coke to leadoff the seventh inning broke a 3-3 tie and helped the Yanks win their first game of the season. He homered again in the team’s only first half win over the Red Sox about a week later, and a few days after that he homered yet again. Following a five homers in seven days binge in mid-April, Curtis was hitting .292/.343/.708 with seven dingers in the team’s first 18 games.

A short-lived slump followed that (8-for-45 across eleven games), but Granderson got right back on the horse and started raking again. He went deep twice against the Rangers on May 6th, then hit another six homers in his next 15 games. By June 1st, the Yankees center fielder was hitting a .284/.355/.627 with 17 homers, more than anyone in the game not named Jose Bautista. From that two-homer game against Texas to another two-homer game against the Orioles on August 28th, a span of 100 games and 463 plate appearances, Granderson hit .282/.389/.601 with 30 homers and 103 runs scored. Opponents started to pitch him more carefully, and rather than chase stuff out of the zone, Curtis simply took his walks and beefed up his OBP…

That performance earned him a starting outfield spot on the AL All-Star Team and Player of the Month honors for August. Although the month of September was not kind to the Grandyman (.186/.301/.340 during the team’s final 32 games), Curtis was again one of the team’s very best hitters in the playoffs, reaching base nine times in the five games, including a double, a triple, and a homer. He finished the season with a .262/.364/.552 batting line, a .394 wOBA that was dragged down by September but still managed to be the 11th highest in all of baseball. At 7.0 fWAR and 5.2 bWAR, he was either the eighth or 20th most valuable position player in the game in 2011, respectively, and either of those is pretty awesome.

Granderson finished the season with some rather gaudy old school counting stats, including 136 runs scored (15 more than anyone else), 119 RBI (most in the AL, seven behind Matt Kemp for the MLB lead), and 41 homers (two behind Joey Bats for the MLB lead). He was five steals short of becoming just the third 30-30 player in Yankees history (joining Alfonso Soriano and Bobby Bonds), but he did manage to become the first 40-25 player in team history and just the 15th all-time. Curtis also became the tenth player in history with 25+ homers, 25+ doubles, 25+ steals, and 10+ triples in a single season. He’s the only member of that group to go deep 40+ times.

As much fun as the raw numbers are, perhaps the most impressive thing about Granderson’s season is the way he demolished left-handed pitching. He’d hit just .212/.271/.336 against southpaws from 2006-2010, but Curtis actually hit them better (.272/.347/.597) than he did right-handers (.258/.372/.531) in 2011. That’s a .400 wOBA against lefties and a .388 wOBA against righties. His 16 homers off left-handers were the most in the majors, and that includes right-handed hitters. Jay Bruce was second on the left vs. left list with 11 dingers. Granderson didn’t just feast on soft-tossers either, he took Gio Gonzalez, Matt Harrison (twice), David Price (twice), and Jon Lester deep, among others. Those three combined to give up just 18 homers to lefties all season, and Curtis accounted for a third of them.

From Opening Day through Game Five of the ALDS, Granderson was the Yankees best player in 2011. He’s been one of the very best players in all of baseball since revamping his swing with Kevin Long last August, but don’t ask them about, they insist it was just a minor tweak or two. They’re probably right, but there’s nothing minor about the results. Granderson was a legitimate MVP candidate this year thanks to one of the best performances by a Yankee in recent memory.

Mailbag: Montero, Miller, Outfield, Yu, Hughes

I swear, one of these weeks I’m going to do a Jesus Montero-free mailbag. Maybe next week, just to see how it goes. Hopefully you folks don’t revolt or something. Anyway, we’ve got two Montero-related and three non-Montero-related questions this week. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the easiest (and preferred) way of sending questions in. Thanks.

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Chris asks: I wrote to you guys earlier about Montero’s conditioning assignment. What is the pro of keeping him as a catcher? Just trade value? Look at all the catchers that break down because of the position. Mauer being a great example. I’d rather keep that bat in an area where he can remain healthy for a LONG time.

That’s the exact reason why the Nationals moved Bryce Harper to right field the instant they signed him two summers ago, and I can see that side of the argument. The pros of keeping Montero at catcher, not that he’s much to write home about back there, is that he’d simply be more valuable at that position, both to the Yankees or in a potential trade. Catchers that can rake are rare and therefore extremely valuable. The downside if obvious, he and his bat would need regular days off, the nagging injuries, etc.

I agree with moving him to a position that will allow him to play every day and theoretically remain productive, but what position is that? Okay, DH is obvious, but what else is there? Mark Teixeira still has five years left on his contract, so first base isn’t much of an option even though it’s the most logical spot. The outfield isn’t going to happen, at least not anytime soon. That’s not the easiest transition to make. Split duty at DH and behind the plate, maybe 100 games at DH and 40 behind the dish, seems like the most logical plan for Montero next year, then reevaluate after the season.

Evan asks: Assuming, and I know this is a huge assumption, that Albert Pujols signs anywhere besides with the Cardinals, do you think a Shelby Miller for Jesus Montero swap makes sense?

I don’t, actually. If the Cardinals lose Pujols, they’ll just stick Lance Berkman at first and play Allen Craig in right, or use Craig with a platoon partner, something like that. Obviously Montero wouldn’t catch for them with Yadier Molina around. Miller is arguably the best right-handed pitching prospect in the game, but he’s thrown just 86.2 IP above A-ball. That’s not enough of a sure thing to get back in a Montero trade in my book. I’d prefer a player that’s unquestionably ready to step in and play in the big leagues right now, kinda like Jesus.

Nick asks: Who are the prospects that can replace Nick Swisher after 2012?

There aren’t any really, and that’s part of the reason why the Yankees brought in guys like Justin Maxwell and Jordan Parraz last offseason. Their outfield depth at the upper levels of the minors is pretty thin. Melky Mesa has a long way to go before he can be considered a viable big league option, and both Abe Almonte and Mason Williams are years away from being options. Slade Heathcott needs to stay healthy for a full year before we can think him getting to Double-A, nevermind the bigs. If the Yankees let Swisher walk after 2012, they’d have to fill the position from outside the organization. Either that or take a big hit in production.

(Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

Kevin asks: Will Yu Darvish generate a posting fee as high as Dice-K? Will a shallow free agent market balance out the recent dismal big Japanese pitcher free agent history i.e workload, adapting to a new culture? Who would you choose considering price between Darvish and Wilson? Is it possible to grab both and fill out the rotation with C.C., Wilson, Darvish, Nova and Hughes? Thanks.

I don’t think anyone knows what kind of posting fee Darvish will require, it’s all guesswork. It’s worth noting that although the Red Sox won the right to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka with that $51.1M bid, the second highest bid was $39-40M by the Mets. Boston really blew everyone out of the water for Dice-K. Darvish is supposedly better than Dice-K, but baseball salaries have come down a bit in recent years, and I do think Matsuzaka will scare some teams into lowering their bid. It only takes one team to go overboard though, and I’m willing to bet it takes at least $40M or so land him.

As for Darvish vs. C.J. Wilson, I’d rather go with Darvish. Wilson is the safer bet, sure, but Darvish offers more upside (and more risk) and is considerably younger. There’s also the benefit of keeping the draft pick and saving money because the posting fee is not counted towards the luxury tax. Wilson is the safe move and is probably the better bet in 2012 and 2013, but over the next five or six years, Darvish is the guy I want. And no, I don’t think the Yankees, or any team for that matter, will land both guys this winter.

Anthony asks: I was wondering if you can see the Yankees trading Phil Hughes this offseason. He’s been with the team for a while now (since ’07, no?) and we’ve only seen him perform to his expectations just twice: as a lights out reliever in ’09 and as a dominant starter in the first half of the ’10 season. What would someone like Hughes get the Yankees in a trade?

Hughes’ value is at an all-time low right now, so I can’t imagine they’d get much in return. He’s not that young anymore, nor is he cheap and under team control for another half-decade. He’ll make something like $3-4M in 2012, his second time through arbitration, then become a free agent after the 2013 season. I could definitely see the Yankees trading him, but I doubt they’d get anything special in return. Maybe another kid like Hughes, struggling to take the next step at the big league level. The Yankees aren’t exactly in a position to give away potential starters though, so I’m not sure I’d be okay with dealing him for another reclamation project just because.

Sherman: Front office unlikely to okay big bid for Darvish

Via Joel Sherman, Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman are unlikely to authorize a big money bid to win the negotiating rights for Yu Darvish this winter. Sherman hints that the Kei Igawa fiasco may be scaring them, and if that’s true, I assume they’ll never sign another white guy after the A.J. Burnett mess. Seriously, if they’re going to start ignoring talent pools because of nationality, soon enough they won’t have anyone to wear the uniform.

Anyway, I suspect this is all just posturing. No team, let alone the Yankees, has any incentive to come out and say “we’re going to bid big on Darvish.” It’s counterproductive. The team’s scouts love the right-hander according to Sherman, so they’d be foolish not to make a serious run at him.

Open Thread: World Series Game Two

FOX isn't paying Tim McCarver to count letters, you know.

Game One was pretty entertaining last night, no? I was worried the game would be lopsided, but it was close and interesting down to the final out. I’m sticking with my prediction of Rangers in seven, but like I said yesterday, I’m rooting for entertaining baseball more than anything else, and yesterday’s game delivered. Hopefully we get another fun game tonight.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. The Rangers and Cardinals give it another go starting at 8pm ET on FOX (Garcia vs. Lewis), plus the (hockey) Rangers and Islanders are playing as well. You folks know the routine by now, so have at it.

(hat tip to Mock Session for the screen cap and Dustin Parkes for pointing it out)

Yanks “likely” picking up Swisher’s option

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but after talking to “executives, agents and various baseball wiseguys” this week, ESPNNY’s Wallace Matthews reports that the Yankees will pick up Nick Swisher‘s $10.25 million option for 2012. While a portion of the fanbase loudly disagrees with this, it really is the smart move. Even if the Yankees would rather have someone else in right field, they’re better off picking up Swisher’s option and trading him. That would at least get them something in return, something that they could perhaps use to acquire Swisher’s replacement. Still, I wouldn’t bet against Swisher standing in right field on Opening Day 2012.

On a side note, Matthews mentions a frequent argument of Swisher detractors: his poor postseason numbers. In nine postseason series he’s hitting .169/.295/.323 in 147 PA. It makes me think back to Tino Martinez, who hit .209/.293/.306 in his first 150 postseason PA. From that point through the end of his first Yankees tenure he hit .280/.364/.434 in 217 PA. So to say that Swisher can’t turn it around is patently absurd, as we can see from a recent Yankee example.

What Went Wrong And Right: Trade Deadline

For more than six months Yankees fans looked forward to July. After missing out on Cliff Lee* the plan was clear: make due with the roster until a pitching upgrade materialized at the trade deadline. But July came and went without the Yankees making a single move. Yet that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Circumstances always color this type of evaluation, and the circumstances certainly weren’t favorable in the weeks preceding the deadline.

* I can’t count the number of times I’ve written that exact phrase, and I promise that it’s the last time you’ll ever see it under my byline.

How it went wrong

The Yankees staff put together an unexpectedly solid first half. Both Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia realized their best case scenarios, holding down rotation spots for the first three to four months. That bought the Yankees enough time to search for alternatives on the trade market. But when the time came to make those upgrades, they declined to do so. Again, circumstance colored this decision. But that doesn’t completely excuse it.

We saw a similar situation last year. In early July, when the Yankees thought they had a deal worked out for Lee, the Yankees already have five starting pitchers. Phil Hughes, while slumping, still had the luster of his excellent first few months. Javy Vazquez had recovered and was pitching better than any non-CC member of the rotation. Andy Pettitte was Andy Petttite. A.J. Burnett, despite a disastrous June, was not a candidate to leave the rotation. And so it didn’t hurt so badly when the Yankees lost out on Lee.

In the second half everything changed. Vazquez quickly declined. Burnett produced a 5.95 ERA in the second half. Pettitte hurt himself and suffered a costly setback. Hughes continued to decline and produced a 4.90 ERA in the second half. That left the Yankees with precious few pitching options. When the playoffs rolled around they had to rely on a still-injured Pettitte and a shaky Hughes. The lack of pitching absolutely killed them in the ALCS.

This year the Yankees again had five starting pitchers around deadline time, six if you count Ivan Nova, who was in the minors in the weeks prior. In a way that made it easier for them to get through the trade deadline period without making a rash move. But in another way they were setting themselves up for a repeat of 2010. Sure enough: Phil Hughes continued his mediocre pitching, Freddy Garcia got hurt and then lost some of his sharpness, Bartolo Colon’s magic wore off, and Burnett’s production dropped off considerably. For the second straight year the Yankees had few solid options beyond CC Sabathia for their playoff rotation.

How it went right

It’s tough to deal for a quality starting pitcher when there aren’t many available. As July approached it seemed as though few teams would make available a useful starter. Throughout the month the market continued to appear weak. Some teams remained in denial about their chances. Others asked for far too much in exchange for their pitchers. It led to a real dearth of opportunities for the Yankees.

Only a few mid- to high-range pitchers moved in July, and the Yankees had good reason to not pursue any of them.

Ubaldo Jimenez: The Rockies wanted the moon for a pitcher who just didn’t look the same as he did in the first half of 2010. He might have made a nice addition, but at the price Cleveland eventually paid — their two top pitching prospects plus two other prospects — he likely wasn’t worth the effort. Had the price come down he would have made a good deal more sense, but at that point why would Colorado trade him?

Doug Fister: After a decent full-season debut in 2010, Fister was rolling along at a similar pace for the Mariners in 2011. Problem was, he didn’t miss bats, and his home run rate was a bit low — it’s usually a warning sign when a pitcher in a large ballpark has a big FIP-xFIP difference. I’m typically scared of that type of pitcher with the Yanks, since it can lead to a lot of home runs. Even in the pitcher-friendly Comerica Park his home run rate increased. But so did his strikeout rate, which isn’t something you normally see. There’s no “should of” in this for the Yanks, but the Tigers got an absolute steal.

Erik Bedard: After throwing about 80 innings in each of 2008 and 2009, Bedard missed the entire 2010 season. As always, he was the guy with a lot of potential who couldn’t stay on the mound. So it came as no surprise that, after a very good start to the 2011 season, he got hurt at the end of June. He made one poor appearance upon his return, at which point the Mariners immediately traded him. He went to Boston and did pitch well there — until he got hurt in September.

Edwin Jackson: This actually might have been a nice move for the Yanks. Jackson had produced good numbers for the White Sox in the first half, and was clearly on the trading block. The Blue Jays ended up getting him for the minuscule price of Jason Frasor and Zach Stewart. The only catch was that the Jays took on the remainder of Mark Teahen’s contract. Again, with the Yankees’ monetary advantage they could have done that and just released Teahen if they were so inclined. Yet Jackson put his inconsistency back on display with his move to the NL, as his strikeout rate dipped considerably in the second half. At the time we couldn’t have seen that, though, and for the cost Jackson might have been a quality upgrade.

Other pitchers might have been made available, but with the slim market chances are they would have cost too much. For instance, the Astros and Yankees had a brief conversation about Wandy Rodriguez that ended when Houston declined to pick up roughly half of Rodriguez’s salary. The Yankees clearly did not intend to overpay at the deadline, and in many ways that helps them now and in the future. But that’s going to happen when there is only one pitcher on the market who stands to help you for ar easonable price.

It was hard to call the Yankees losers at the deadline given their needs. The position players and bench were well in place, as was the bullpen. The only needs existed in the starting rotation and the market was thin, filled with flawed and overpriced players. At the same time, they did need an upgrade in pitching. It didn’t cost them the division, and it really didn’t even cost them in the ALDS (the offense was to blame there). But in the ALCS it could have hurt a lot. The trade deadline didn’t go wrong, really, but it didn’t go right, either.

What Went Wrong: Alex Rodriguez

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Spring Training can be deceiving. Every year we see players put up huge numbers in camp before having miserable regular seasons, and we also see players with terrible exhibition stats before raising hell in games that count. It’s the nature of the beast, the small sample, the questionable competition (minor league players, etc.), all sorts of stuff. We fall for it every year, looking for meaning in meaningless games.

When Alex Rodriguez came to Spring Training this year, he was ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat smaller than he was in 2010. Not that he was fat before or anything like that, but he was noticeably slimmer and seemed much lighter on his feet. A-Rod then proceeded the hit the snot out of the ball for six weeks (.388/.444/.898), and before you knew it, people were predicting an MVP award and a return to the glory days of pre-2008.

For a while, Alex was on that MVP pace. He came out of the gate like a madman in April, with five homers, eleven walks, six strikeouts, and a .370/.483/.826 batting line in the team’s first 17 games of the season. A-Rod fell into a slump after that, hitting just .171/.236/.232 with no homers over the next three weeks or so. He righted the ship with a two-homer day against the Rays on May 17th, and hit well enough over the next few weeks to carry a .301/.377/.509 batting line into July 1st.

Although he played in 80 of the team’s first 86 games, Rodriguez clearly wasn’t 100% physically. Joe Girardi said A-Rod was playing through a sore left shoulder in mid-June, and a few days later we learned that he was playing through a sore right knee, an injury he apparently suffered during the series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He was voted as a AL’s starting third baseman in the All-Star Game (and he actually deserved the honor), but he had to skip the event when that sore right knee turned into a slightly torn meniscus. After a second opinion, the decision was made to have surgery.

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The procedure was supposed to keep him on the shelf for four-to-six weeks, and it ended up being more like seven. Not really a big deal. After a pair of rehab games with Triple-A Scranton, A-Rod returned to the lineup on August 21st and promptly went 0-for-5. He did pick up two hits next time out, then homered in his third game back, but he was playing with a new injury, a sprained left thumb. It was a fluke injury more than anything, he jammed the digit will making a play at third base in his first game back against the Twins. He missed time in early-September then even more in the middle of the month when the injury lingered.

After coming back from the knee injury, Alex played in just 19 of the team’s final 37 games. He hit .191/.345/.353 in 84 plate appearances during that time, but at least he walked more than he struck out (15 BB, 13 K). The crummy performance carried over into the ALDS, when Alex contributed to the punchless 4-5-6 hitters with a 2-for-18 showing in the five games against Detroit. Despite the sluggish performance with the bat, I though A-Rod looked very good on defense later in the season and in the playoffs, but that’s hardly a consolation prize.

All told, the now 36-year-old Rodriguez had his worst season since he was a 21-year-old kid with the Mariners in 1997. He hit .276/.362/.461 overall, a not terrible .361 wOBA that placed seventh among the 28 third baseman with at least 400 plate appearances this year. His power production declined considerably, evidenced by a .185 ISO that was his first sub-.225 ISO since that 1997 season. For the second year in a row, he struggled to hit lefties (.277/.367/.383), a demographic a right-handed cleanup hitter should crush.

The decline in production isn’t really a huge problem though, the Yankees can live with an overpaid .350-.360 wOBA third baseman. The real problem is the injuries. A-Rod has been on the disabled list every year since signing his new ten-year, $275M contract, and this year he failed to play 100 games for the first time ever. It’s been four years since he last played in more than 140 games. That’s a whole lot of at-bats for Eduardo Nunez types. Once again, we’re left heading into the offseason hoping that a winter of rest will help Alex stay on the field for a full season next year, but that looks more and more like a pipe dream.