The Yankees season in three acts

Remember the days when the Yankees would hit multiple homers every game, rack up a ton of runs, and end up winners? Yeah, me too. Those days seem so far away, even though the season isn’t yet 40 games old. In an attempt to soothe my soul from the beating it has taken in the past few days, I went back and looked at the game logs from this season. It does appear that the Yankees season has been divided into three unequal parts. They vary in not just results, but also emotions. It has made me realize that they were kind of building for something like what we’re currently experiencing.

Act 1: 12-6, .262/.342/.503 in 694 PA

Anothah homah! (Kathy Willens/AP)

The early season went so well for the Yankees. They lost only one of their first seven series, but made up for that with two short sweeps of Baltimore. They scored 109 runs in these 18 games, or 6.05 per, for those of you without a calculator handy. Most remarkably, they slugged 36 homers, or one every 16.8 at-bats. Some said that was too many, that the offense wouldn’t succeed long-term if it continued relying on the home run. Other said that as the home run rate dropped off, other aspects of the team would pick up — more doubles, more singles, etc. — and that would keep things moving. Little did we know what was in store.

Act 2: 7-7, .238/.333/.404 in 516 PA

Maybe if you, ya know, take a pitch, you'll not strike out (Kathy Willens/AP)

Every offense, even the league’s best, slumps. The Yankees hit their first slump of the season when the White Sox came to town. It seemed so easy at the time. They were scoring no runs, and the Yanks were scoring more than any other team in the league. But instead of pummeling the Sox, they ended up scoring two runs while allowing five in the first two games of the series. Even in the third game they got a first-inning three-run shot and nothing more. It wasn’t a complete loss, since they did score 4.36 runs per game, which is good for a slumping team.

Of course, that meant the homers weren’t dropping. They hit just 18 in those 14 games, or one every 24.7 at-bats. The problem was that none of the other hits were falling, either. The team batting average and doubles rate fell, too, and so the Yankees were stuck with a sometimes lifeless offense. It was a heavily skewed one, too, as they scored two dozen of those 61 runs in just two games. If not for a successful trip to Texas this could have been a lot worse.

Act 3: 1-6, .228/.310/.353 in 272 PA

Act 3: Shame (Mike Carlson/AP)

After a good team slumps it usually returns to form. The Yankees, however, managed to slump worse. Even in their sole win during this stretch, the first game of the Kansas City series, they managed just three runs. The team that played from March 31 through April 24 would have put up quite the crooked number. The Yankees managed only three, which worked on that night. But they wouldn’t be so lucky in the next few games.

Run scoring is down to 3.57 runs per game. Home runs are down to one every 34.4 at-bats, and doubles are even more scarce. Not that many hits fell in, in general. There’s really no need to rehash this any further, since we’re still living through it. Things have seemed better in the past couple of days, as they’ve scored 10 runs against two high-quality pitchers. But they’re still hitting under .200 with a SLG under .350. As Mike mentioned on the podcast, they seem to fall asleep after Curtis Granderson hits his nightly homer (he’s responsible for three of the seven homers in this span).

The ebbs and flows of a baseball season bring a range of emotions. With the Yankees it started with elation and then slowly descended into frustration, anger, and finally sorrow. There hasn’t even been time for complacency, since the team seems to change identities every other week. I know they have games to play every day, but for once can’t they think of the fans?

The only remaining question is of the team’s long-term identity. We’ve seen tumultuous starts before, only to then see the team stabilize as the summer rolls along. In some years, such as 2007 and 2009, they end up being the best offense in baseball. In others, such as 2008, they’re something less than that. While the Yankees certainly aren’t the team they’ve been for the past week, they might be that middling, frustrating team we saw before that. That’s probably the most frightening thing I’ve learned during the current skid.

Scouting The Trade Market: Carlos Beltran

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The trade deadline is still more than two months away, but you can be sure every team in the league has already started the process of scouting potential trade targets and what not. The Yankees waited until right before the deadline to bring in Kerry Wood, Lance Berkman, and Austin Kearns last season, but the year before they jumped on Eric Hinske in June, about a month before the July 31st deadline.

We’ll take a look at several players that may or may not be available come trading time between now and the deadline, starting today with Carlos Beltran. This series isn’t intended to give a definitive “yes” or “no” on a player, but instead we’ll just present some pros and cons to see if the pieces fit. Sometimes they will, other times they won’t. Let’s go backwards with this one, starting the cons before the pros…

The Cons

  • Beltran has missed a total of 145 games during the 2009 and 2010 seasons with knee issues, including what was initially reported as microfracture surgery.
  • He will earn $18.5M this season and also has a full no-trade clause. That works out to about $3.08M per month, in case you’re trying to figure out the proration.
  • Beltran happens to play for the Mets, and the Yankees and Mets don’t get together for trades very often. Certainly not for major players like Beltran, anyway. It’s been almost seven years since the Felix Heredia-Mike Stanton swap, the last time these two clubs made a deal.  The David Justice-Robin Ventura swap in December 2001 is the last trade between the Yankees and Mets that I would consider significant.

The Pros

  • Despite the knee injuries and concern about his ability to stay healthy, Beltran has done exactly that this season. He’s started 35 of the Mets’ 41 games in right field, including a stretch of 21 straight games. He played all nine of innings in both games of a double-header during at stretch as well as a 14-inning game later on.
  • We can’t rely on the advanced stats to measure his defense in right because it’s so early in the season (-2.3 UZR but +2 DRS), but my informal poll of Mets’ fans on Twitter says he’s been “surprisingly good.” Beltran was one of the best center field defenders in his prime, and I assume the instincts are still in place even if the foot speed is not. I guess the most important thing is that the knee issues haven’t turned him into Marcus Thames with the glove, he’s still playable in the outfield.
  • Beltran can still hit, sporting a .286/.381/.564 (.404 wOBA) batting line so far. Even if you remove that three homer game against the Rockies, he’d still be hitting .273/.373/.492 (.388 wOBA), which is right in line with his .282/.360/.495 (.371 wOBA) career line. ZiPS projects a .273/.362/.474 (.365 wOBA) performance from here on out, for what it’s worth.
  • He’s a switch hitter without much of a platoon split (.368 wOBA vs. RHP, .384 vs. LHP in his career) and has long been one of the very best baserunners in the game. Beltran hasn’t attempted to steal a base this year (understandable given the knee), but he still scores well in first-to-thirds, moving up on wild pitches, etc.

Even though the Yankees started the season with a pretty set lineup, it’s obvious how Beltran could help them. Nick Swisher isn’t hitting in right field, and even though most of us expect a rebound to come at some point, he’s shown in 2008 that a bounceback isn’t guaranteed over the course of a full-season. There’s also the DH spot that could be open for a myriad of reasons. Jorge Posada could continue to stink, the Yankees could decide Jesus Montero isn’t ready/Jesus Montero might stink/Jesus Montero might get traded. It’s not all that tough to see where the Yankees could use Beltran.

The Mets already have that $18.5M set aside for Beltran’s salary this year, and I’m sure they’d be willing to eat some of it to move him. The more they eat, the better the return, that’s usually how this process works. Since Beltran (and Scott Boras) offered his services to the Yankees at a discounted rate years ago as a free agent, I’m willing to bet the no-trade clause would be a non-issue. I’m not going to speculate on what it would take to acquire him, but I think last year’s Berkman trade is a halfway decent comparable. Beltran’s a better player this year than Berkman was last, so we’d have to adjust upward of course. That at least that puts us in the ballpark and not the parking lot though.

The injuries to David Wright and Ike Davis could either speed up or slow down the Beltran trade process, depending on your point of view. The Mets could hold onto him and try to hang around in the race (or at least until one of the other marquee names gets healthy), or Sandy Alderson could get a jump on everyone else and try to sell high on Beltran early in the season. Either way, he’d clearly help whatever team acquires him.

Yankees sign Randy Flores to minor league deal

Via Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees have signed lefty reliever Randy Flores to a minor league contract. Joel Sherman says he has an opt-out clause that kicks in sometime before the All-Star break, which is to be expected. I wrote about him just yesterday, noting that he doesn’t have the greatest of numbers against left-handed batters in his career, but all he needs to do is be better than Andy Sisco. The conclusion: “If he does [sign with the Yankees], great, if not then no big deal. He probably won’t pitch all that well anyway.” Nothing wrong with Triple-A depth.

The RAB Radio Show: May 17, 2011

The Yankees are losing! Heads must roll! OK, so we don’t go that far…yet. Mike and I lament the latest Yankees loss, and then talk about what we could see in the coming days. There isn’t much room for big, sweeping changes, nor do we think they’re necessary at this point. But with a full slate of games ahead in the coming week, they might as well start changing things up, ever so slightly.

Podcast run time 24:37

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

2011 Draft: Baseball America’s Updated Top 60 Prospects

Baseball America posted it’s updated list of the top 60 draft prospects yesterday (subs. req’d), and they’ve still got Rice 3B Anthony Rendon in the top spot. I give them credit for sticking to their guns. UCLA RHP Gerrit Cole ranks second, Virginia LHP Danny Hultzen third, and Cole’s teammate RHP Trevor Bauer fourth. The Yankees’ first pick is 51st overall, and BA’s 51st ranked prospect is Western Kentucky OF Kes Carter. They call him an “impressive athlete with [the] tools to stay in center field” and “some pop from the left side” to go with “hard-nosed play.” Remember it’s not a mock draft, I’m just lining up spots. Personal fave Hudson Boyd ranks 57th.

In some other draft-related news, Jim Callis says that high school right-handers Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley are telling teams that they want six-year, $30M and five-year, $20M contracts to turn pro, respectively. That’s LOL-worthy, those would easily be the largest contracts in draft history. The first would be double Stephen Strasburg’s record deal. Those kids are good (Bundy ranks fifth, Bradley 13th on BA’s list), but not that good. However, if those two are really floating demands like that, they would probably fall pretty hard since there are so many quality alternatives in the form of college pitching. I doubt either Bundy or Bradley would get to the Yankees at 51, but stranger things have happened.

Time For A Shake-Up

More high fives, pls. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Six losses in a row and ten in the last 13 games is cause for panic around these parts, but I thought Joe Girardi put it perfectly last night when he compared the team’s situation to a trip to the tooth man: “It’s like when I have to go to the dentist,” said the skipper. “I know I’m going to get through it, but I still dread it every time I go.” They will get through it, but that doesn’t mean the Yankees should just sit back and wait for things to happen. I think they need to be a little more proactive right now.

Don’t get me wrong, when I said shake-up in the headline by no means did a major one. You start releasing players or firing coaches or whatever and all you’d be doing is adding to chaos. Minor tweaks are the best place to start, especially with a roster like this one. Dip your toe in the pool before diving in, know what I mean? So here’s what I have in mind…

Alex Rodriguez

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

To say A-Rod is slumping would be kind. The Yankees clean-up man is hitting just .180/.253/.281 following last night’s 0-for-4 with three strikeouts  in 23 games since that stiff back/oblique issue in mid-April. He’s either popping up or fouling off pitches he should at least hit hard, even if it’s into a defender’s glove, and that’s when he’s not swinging through low-90’s fastballs or over top of anything with some break to it. There’s no other way to say it, Alex has been horrible lately.

This isn’t the first time he’s slumped though, you don’t play in the big leagues as long as he has without going through some rough patches. After coming back off the disabled list in 2009, A-Rod went through a 21-game stretch in which he hit .176/.337/.297 from late-May into June. Joe Girardi took advantage of an off day to give Alex two consecutive days off in mid-June, sitting him in a series opening contest against the Marlins. The third baseman came back seemingly rejuvenated, hitting .324/.490/.730 over his next 11 games and .317/.415/.561 over the remainder of the season. Maybe a few days off would do Alex good right now. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.

The Lineup

Something has to happen here. You can only run the same lineup out there so many days in a row and watch it not play to its potential before changing something. Doesn’t have to be drastic, but sometimes moving pieces around just works. Brett Gardner is hitting well (.373/.484/.490 over his last 18 games), maybe it’s time to give him another shot at hitting leadoff. Russell Martin is hitting just .196 over his last 14 games but you know what? He’s also getting on base 35.1% of the time during that stretch. Maybe he gets move up ahead of the (supposed) big bats. After A-Rod’s hiatus you could flip-flop him and Mark Teixeira in the three-four spots. I’m just spit-balling here, there are a lot of different things they can try. They just actually have to do it instead of running the same order out there day after day and expecting things to magically fix themselves.

A Sensible Bullpen

Major League salary and I don't even have to pitch! What a country! (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

A seven-man bullpen is probably overkill, but I can live with it. An eight-man bullpen is just nutso. Hector Noesi has been on the big league roster for a total of 14 days this year and has yet to face a batter. Give me a break, get the kid back to Triple-A so he can pitch and develop while that roster spot isn’t being wasted. If Rafael Soriano‘s elbow is bad enough that he has to do back to New York to see the doctor, then just retroactively DL him and stop wasting a roster spot.

With Noesi down and Soriano on the shelf, that frees up one bullpen spot since the Yankees should get back to a normal 12-man pitching staff. Amaury Sanit if the de facto long man, Luis Ayala that only-when-losing short relief guy. Fine. Give the other spot to one of the short relief kids that can miss bats in Triple-A and see if they can help take some of the load off Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson. Kevin Whelan is a fine candidate, but there’s also Ryan Pope (8.59 K/9, 0.00 BB/9 in limited time back from injury) and George Kontos (23 K in 23 IP this year, 61 K in 68 IP since coming back from Tommy John surgery last year). Remember, Robertson got his first real chance this same way in 2009. The Yankees have options, they just have to try them out. You’d be amazed at what could turn up.

Another Offensive Weapon

If they cut the bullpen down from eight men to seven, Girardi’s going to have another bench guy to play with. Eric Chavez is still a few weeks away, and I’ve already suggesting waiting just a little more before turning Jesus Montero lose on unsuspecting AL pitchers, but he’s not the only option. Justin Maxwell (.401 wOBA, RHB) and Chris Dickerson (.340 wOBA, .366 OBP, LHB) are both on the 40-man roster and could be more useful than a pitcher that never pitches anyway. I’m not bullish on Jorge Vazquez (.403 wOBA, RHB), but sheesh, it’s worth a try. Given all the slumping bats, a few more days off for the regulars and pinch-hitting appearances wouldn’t be the end of the world.

* * *

Again, these aren’t major changes, but they’re changes nonetheless. Give A-Rod some time off to forget about baseball and heal up any nagging injuries, rearrange the lineup some, optimize the bullpen, add a usable bench player and go from there. I’m all for patience, and I still recommend it, but a little tweak here won’t kill anyone.

Burnett melts down as Yanks lose sixth straight

Score some runs early, cough them up when the starting pitcher melts down in the middle innings. We might as well have watched a replay of Sunday night’s game. The Rays scored more than five runs at home for the first time all season en route to handing the Yankees their sixth consecutive loss on Monday, the longest losing streak of the Joe Girardi era.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Burnett Coughs It Up

Good A.J. was around early on. Burnett stormed through the first five innings of the game on just 59 pitches, the only real blemish a solo homer by Johnny Damon. Meh, fourth inning solo shots happen, nothing to get to worked up over. Given his success at Tropicana Field (11 starts, 2.09 ERA, 3.24 FIP) and Tampa’s early season struggles at home (.223/.287/.391 in 22 games), I started to feel a little good about this one. Oh how wrong I was.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

John Jaso (.290 wOBA) doubled into the right field corner to lead off the sixth. Sam Fuld (.291 wOBA) followed that up by looping his third career homer over the fence in right to cut the lead to 5-3. Alright fine, that sucks but the game is still very winnable. Ben Zobrist and Johnny Damon followed with a pair of outs, so the Yankees were still in fine shape. Then Evan Longoria reaches on an infield single. Then he moves to second on a wild pitch. Then Matt Joyce singles him in. Then Joyce goes to second on another wild pitch. Then B.J. Upton yanks one into the left field seats for a go-ahead two run homer. All with two outs. Bye lead, nice knowing you.

Part of me understands leaving Burnett in because hey, his pitch count was still low (just 88 even after Upton’s homer) and the bullpen was short because of Rafael Soriano‘s barking elbow and David Robertson having thrown 30-something pitches the night before, but the other part of me says you have to cut A.J.’s meltdowns off before they have a chance to blossom. My perfect 20-20 hindsight says he should have been lifted after Longoria reached base, once the tying run was at the plate. As it usually is with Burnett, the early innings were too good to be true.

For my next trick... (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

The Best Player In The American League*

We’re running out of things to say about Curtis Granderson. His three-run homer off David Price in the the fifth inning was his 14th of the season, two more than any MLBer not named Jose Bautista, and already his seventh off a left-hander. Keep in mind that he’d never hit more than five homers off lefties in any season of his career until this one, and it’s only May 17th. Grandy leads the team in almost every significant category, and it’s not hyperbole to call him the best all-around player in the AL* right now.

Five & Fly

The Yankees pushed five runs across in the first five innings of this game, getting to Price for all of them. What happens next? Just one Yankee reached base the rest of the game, a span of 15 batters. Eduardo Nunez had the best at-bat of that stretch, a ten-pitch battle with Joel Peralta to lead off the seventh. He didn’t reach base, but getting ten pitches out of Peralta when Joe Maddon was obviously ready to use him for two innings was pretty big. But, of course, the next two batters were retired on three total pitches and Peralta cruised through the heart of the order in the eighth on ten pitches.

For years, decades even, the Yankees’ mantra has been wear down the opposing starter and go to town on the weak middle relief. For whatever reason, that just isn’t happening this season. Coming into this game, the Bombers had a 135 OPS+ in the first three innings, a 114 OPS+ in the middle three, and just a 106 OPS+ in the final three. Yes, 106 is still better than average, but that’s not what the Yankees do. They’re supposed to come to life against the relievers, not tail off. Tonight was just a microcosm of the season; out came the starter and away went the bats.

We all need a hug, Frankie. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Leftovers

Shall we recap the non-Granderson offense? We shall. Derek Jeter went 0-for-3 with a walk and now has five singles, two walks, and a hit-by-pitch since his two homer game over a week ago. Mark Teixeira went hitless in four at-bats and has six singles in 32 plate appearances over the last week or so. Alex Rodriguez went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and has seven hits in his last ten games. Robinson Cano singled twice, but saw a total of nine pitches in four at-bats. His 3.16 pitches seen per plate appearance ranks 188th out of 191 qualified batters. Nick Swisher singled and has actually hit in eight of his last nine games, but none of those games feature multiple hits. Russell Martin‘s two hits mean he’s reached base eight times in the last five games, so that’s cool. Eduardo Nunez’s single drove in the first two runs of the games, so that was pretty cool too. He later committed a throwing error, which is to be expected.

I saw some questioning the decision to pinch-hit Brett Gardner for Andruw Jones in the ninth, citing Andruw’s career numbers against Farnsworth (5-for-17 with two homers), but those numbers almost all come from their Braves-Cubs days. They’ve squared off a total of three times since 2004, and Jones hasn’t reached base against him since 2003. Gardner’s been the second best hitter on the team lately, so I say go with the hot hand.

I have this new throwing program. You probably haven't heard of it. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Boy, it sure was fun watching Tampa’s $4.15M setup man/closer combo retire all nine men they faced in a one run game while the Yankees’ $10M setup guy sat on the sidelines with a sore elbow, having not had a clean inning since Opening Day, wasn’t it? The next multi-year deal given to a non-Mariano Rivera reliever that works out will be the first.

The six game losing streak is, like I said, the longest of the Girardi era, and the Yankees’ longest streak since dropping seven in a row in April 2007. They’ve also lost ten of their last 13 games, and if you want to go back to last year, the Yanks are just 51-49 in their last hundred games (56-53 if you count the postseason). It’s not all Cliff Lee’s fault, folks.

As for the happy news, it was great to see Ken Singleton back in the booth, though of course we all pass along our condolences to his family again. Missed ya, Kenny.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Can you fall up a cliff? MLB.com has your box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the other stuff.

Up Next

It’s just a two game series, so these two teams will wrap things upon Tuesday when Ivan Nova takes on Jamie Shields. If you decide to take a mental health day away from baseball, I wouldn’t blame you.

* Non-Bautista Division. That guy is on another planet.