NoMaas interviews Mark Newman

The honorable Sensei John Kreese of NoMaas interviewed Yankees VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman, and it goes without saying that you should head over and read it. He asked some very tough questions, although Newman didn’t always give a direct answer. He did note that Hector Noesi is in the big league bullpen (and not starting for Triple-A Scranton) because winning in the majors is priority number one, and he welcomes the criticism. Newman also mentioned that Jesus Montero‘s focus on improving his defense may be hindering his offense. There’s also stuff about Andrew Brackman, J.R. Murphy, Gary Sanchez (“We have to discipline him on occasion, just like in any family.”), Tyler Clippard (“The mistake we made was not seeing what [he] looked like in the pen.”), and lots more. It gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation, so make sure you give it a read. Well worth your time.

Injury Updates: Jeter, Colon, Soriano, Prior

Time for your daily dose of injury news, courtesy of George King and Joe Auriemma

  • Derek Jeter ran the bases today for the first time since suffering his calf strain. He went from home to first (four times), first to second (three times), and first to third (once). “Running is probably the most important,” said the Cap’n. “It feels good. I’m sure we will pick it up in the next couple of days. It’s a step in the right direction.” Jeter also fielding about three dozen ground balls and took 50 or so swings in batting practice. There’s no set timetable for his return.
  • Bartolo Colon did some sprints and agility drills following Monday’s 60-pitch simulated game, but the most interesting news from Tampa is that he practiced some bunting. Colon lines up to pitch the same day as Brian Gordon, and the bunting could mean that they’re ready to give Bartolo that start against the Mets in CitiField. He is on his way to New York for “evaluation.”
  • Rafael Soriano is throwing long toss and so far everything feels good.
  • Mark Prior threw a bullpen session, his second in four days. If he feels fine tomorrow, there’s a chance he’ll throw to live hitters in batting practice later this week.

Are Gardner and Swisher equals at the plate?

The season started slowly for both Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, but both have managed to turn it around. Gardner got an earlier start, hitting his stride in late April and continuing through the present. It took Swisher another month to get into a groove, but now he’s resembling the player we saw the last two years. Right now Gardner and Swisher share an OPS, both at .779. That might make them appear equal in production, but they’ve gotten there in different ways.

Gardner, as it’s easy to imagine, has produced his numbers mostly one base at a time. Of his 91 times on base, 72 have been a walk, hit by pitch, or single. This gives him a .281/.360/.420 line, which is excellent for a guy with Gardner’s speed. Swisher, on the other hand, has used his normal combination of walks and extra base hits to accumulate his line. He has been on base 111 times, which includes 23 extra base hits, 48 walks, and three hit by pitches.

Is the fact that they share an OPS and indicator that they’ve been equals at the plate? Yesterday at FanGraphs Matt Klaassen examined the usefulness of AVG/OBP/SLG when we have better stats. OPS was fine for its time, but there are other measures, such as wOBA or Baseball Prospectus’s True Average, that put offensive events into better context. To that they’re also essential equals, with just one point of wOBA separating them.

So done deal, right? At this point they’ve produced nearly equal value at the plate according to both OPS and wOBA. But for the moment I’m not exactly satisfied with the answer, because wOBA does take stolen bases and caught stealings into account. That is not production at the plate (and I desperately wish for FanGraphs to move SB/CS to their baserunning stat next year and leave wOBA to plate production only). Stripping out baserunning, Gardner has a wOBA of about .341, while Swisher is at .348. Why the difference? Because at a time when offense is on the decline, Swisher’s power — a .167 ISO to Gardner’s .138 — has rendered him the superior hitter to this point, even though he slumped for the first two months.

At this point it might seem as though Gardner has been the better producer at the plate, since he turned around his season at an earlier point. But Swisher’s skill set has allowed him to make up the difference rapidly. It reveals a truth that we all know: Swisher is more valuable at the plate than Gardner. But it also reveals the further value in Gardner’s skill set. When we take stolen bases and caught stealings into account, Gardner’s wOBA is nearly equal to Swisher’s. When we add in UBR, FanGraphs’ base running stat, it becomes even more apparent that Gardner can compete with Swisher on an complete offensive level. Taking his batting and base running totals (from here), he’s four runs better than Swisher overall, 7.1 to 3.1.

Going forward, Swisher’s OPS figures to rise a bit, while Gardner might be near his peak. Maybe he adds some OBP, but Swisher has plenty of room to grow, given the skills he’s shown throughout his career. From an at-the-dish standpoint, by season’s end Swisher will almost certainly be the better hitter. But when we take into consideration the other part of offense, the bases, Gardner will make up some, if not all, of the difference. Different player provide value in different ways. The Yankees are lucky to have a good balance in this regard among their outfielders.

(And that doesn’t even mention defense, which is a completely different animal.)

Trade season starting early for the Yanks

The trade deadline is just 33 days away, but we have yet to see any major activity. Rumors continue to fly, but everything remains speculative at this point. The Yankees will surely inquire on any pitcher who can upgrade the rotation or bullpen, but all currently available pitchers are either a marginal upgrade at best, or carry major baggage. But that’s OK, says Brian Cashman. In the Post today Joel Sherman has some quotes from the Yanks GM, and he sounds pretty upbeat about his team’s chances.

“I don’t think I can trade for any starter that is better than Bartolo Colon or Phil Hughes, or a reliever better than Rafael Soriano,” he told Sherman. To an extent this is right. All three pitchers are on the disabled list, and all three are on the road to a Bronx return. The statement applies a bit less to Colon, since they lost him recently and still have the glaring hole in the rotation that he left. He will, in other words, retake his own spot. The real pick-ups, in terms of what we have become accustomed to this season, will be Hughes and Soriano. Both pitched poorly during their short times with the team, and both are far better than that. They’ll be major upgrades around deadline time.

With both Colon and Hughes off the DL, the Yankees rotation looks a bit more palatable. Either Freddy Garcia or Ivan Nova would move to the bullpen, which could help solidify that unit. Even after that, the Yankees could make another move to push the other of Garcia and Nova to the pen, to AAA. That’s not to say that neither of them is a fit for the Yanks as the No. 5 starter. It is to say that the Yankees probably won’t shy away from pitching this year just because they have five or six healthy arms. They know from recent experience how quickly that can change.

Last year at about this time the Yankees had five guys solidly in their rotation. A.J. Burnett‘s wheels came off in June, but it’s not as though his rotation spot was in immediate jeopardy. Javy Vazquez, after a rough start, had turned in several fine performances. Phil Hughes was still going well. When the Yankees pursued Cliff Lee, one refrain we heard was that they already had five starters — the five starters they had on Opening Day. Was another one really necessary? As it turned out, yes, they did need another starter. Javy fell back off the cliff; Pettitte got hurt; Hughes struggled with the longball; Burnett pitched better but never really regained his form. By the time the playoffs rolled around the Yankees had one top flight pitcher followed by a guy who hadn’t completely recovered from injury, followed by a bunch of question marks.

The question right now, and for the foreseeable future, is of whom the Yankees can target. Right now there appears to be nothing, and as Cashman says, he “can’t make it happen if it is not there.” Perhaps the most relieving part of Sherman’s column comes around the middle, when he says that the Yankees “have shown no interest in high-cost veterans with dubious stuff.” He then lists the pitchers from non-contenders who have been mentioned in trade talks: Brett Myers, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Livan Hernandez, and Jason Marquis. While there might be some upside to discuss in Dempster and Jackson, chances are the cost of acquiring them won’t be worth the value they’d add over what the Yankees currently carry. And that, really, hits the point of this entire trade season.

There will come a time in the next 33 days when the Yankees talk to a team about a pitcher who can make a difference. It might not be a bona fide ace, but the Yankees don’t necessarily need one of those; they already have one. It’s good to hear that the Yankees won’t make a move for a high-priced veteran with a recognizable name just because they can. That’s not going to help anyone. The market will develop from here, and the Yankees patient approach should pay off come July 31st.

Mailbag: The Next Closer

(Photo Credit: Flickr user BrainNY08 via Creative Commons license)

Mark asks: Considering that Mo was talking it up like an “old timer” this past weekend and previously stating that this contract will be his last, what internal options do the Yankees have for a closer? What potential free agents look intriguing?

The answer to this is simple: Mariano Rivera is never going to retire and will just close games for the Yankees for all eternity. Until I’m dead at the very least, I don’t really care what happens after that.

In all seriousness, this is the question no one wants to answer. Rivera will be 42 years old after the season and has just one more year on his contract. The smart money is on him calling it a career after the 2012 season, which is going to completely and totally suck. This “old timer” is still better than the other 29 guys doing the same job. There are basically three places Mo’s heir can come from, so let’s break them down…

Currently On The Yankees

There’s three obvious candidates here: Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, and David Robertson. Soriano is making the big bucks, Joba’s been touted as Mo’s replacement almost since the day he was called up, and Robertson’s the most effective of the bunch. Unless he continues to avoid 1-2-3 innings like the plague and/or continues to visit the disabled list, I bet Soriano gets first dibs at the job just because he has the Proven Closer™ tag. He’ll be 33 during the 2013 season, the last one on his contract and what we’re assuming is the first year post-Rivera.

Joba’s elbow reconstruction really complicates things. It’s typically a 12-month rehab but it’s not uncommon for it take 18 months before a pitcher gets back to where he was before the operation, specifically with their command. Just look at Joe Nathan. Joba had his surgery earlier this month and figures to be back with the Yankees next June. If it takes those six months to get back to being the guy he was last year and early this year, then we’re talking about the start of the 2013 season. Inserting him into the ninth inning might not be as cut and dry as it once seemed.

Robertson has been stupid effective this year (1.67 FIP and 1.3 fWAR in just 31.1 IP) but his walks continue to be a concern. His unintentional walk rate sits at 4.88 men per nine innings at the moment, which is worst than all but two current closers: Brian Wilson (uncharacteristically bad year) and Kevin Gregg (awful). Yes, it’s even higher than Carlos Marmol’s. Perhaps Robertson could get it down to sub-4.00 BB/9 by 2012, but he’s always walked a ton of guys. It would be pretty surprising for such drastic improvement. A long shot could be Hector Noesi, who some like better in a relief role because of his fastball command. I’d rather see him start, but what do I matter. We probably shouldn’t rule out Phil Hughes either.

In The Farm System

(Photo Credit: Flickr user paul.hadsall via Creative Commons license)

The Yankees best pure relief prospect at the moment is probably Chase Whitley, though you can make a case for Ryan Pope, Tommy Kahnle, Dan Burawa, or George Kontos. They’re all pretty interchangeable. Of course the vast majority of closers are failed starters*, so pretty much all the upper level starters have to be considered. That includes Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Dellin Betances, Craig Heyer, and even Manny Banuelos. And, of course, there’s always personal fave J.B. Cox. (kidding)

As far as I’m concerned, Betances and Banuelos should continue to be groomed as starters regardless of what’s going on at the big league level. They’re clearly the most talented of the bunch and selling out even part of their future to help the big league team now  isn’t the wisest thing to do. The Yankees don’t exactly have the best track record in this department though.

Mitchell still struggles with lefties and Heyer fits the middle reliever mold because his stuff isn’t anything special. I think Warren could hack it as a starter at the back of a big league rotation, but he’d also fit well as a reliever because he’s got command of one above-average pitch (the fastball) and could focus on his top secondary pitch in relief. The same applies to Phelps, though I like his chances to start a little better (assuming this latest shoulder injury isn’t anything serious).

I’m leaving Andrew Brackman out of the discussion entirely because he’s a complete disaster at the moment. He’s got to get minor leaguers out consistently before we worry about where he fits long-term with the big league team, if at all. Phil Wetherell is probably the only (signed) 2011 draftee that would even be a blip on the radar, but going from short season ball to closing at the big league level in less than two years is unprecedented. Pat Venditte, Kevin Whelan, Pants Lendleton … yeah, that probably won’t happen.

Outside The Organization

The free agent market offers a ton of big name closers after this season, but the problem is that Rivera is retiring after next season in our hypothetical situation. The post-2012 free agent class isn’t all that pretty, with Leo Nunez and Brandon League representing the best of the bunch. Huston Street, J.J. Putz, and Joakim Soria all have contract options that may or may not be exercised. Mike Adams, Sean Marshall, and Hong-Chih Kuo will also be free agents, and although they haven’t closed before, they’re all hyper-effective relievers that could probably do the job. Kuo’s injury issues this year (and, well, his entire career) make him a huge question mark though.

Who knows that the trade market will offer, but by then both Joel Hanrahan and Chris Perez will be into their arbitration years and making some decent money. Perhaps more than the Pirates and Indians will be willing to pay a guy to work 70 IP a year, respectively.

* * *

I’m pretty confident in saying that whoever replaces Rivera will have the worst job in the world because they’ll have to live up impossibly high standards. It’s almost better to be the guy that replaces the replacement, and that might be where Soriano fits in. He could step in for a year then give way to some one better, or maybe even do so in the middle of 2013 if he doesn’t get the job done. Someone’s going to have to take the heat, might as well be the one without a real super long-term future with the Yankees.

No matter what happens from here on out, we’re approaching the end of Mariano’s reign in the ninth inning, and I can assure that it will be worse than you can ever imagine. After watching the other 29 clubs over the last few years through the magic of MLB.tv, and I safely say that Mariano Rivera-less save situations are terrifying. No team has a closer for ten years these days, if someone lasts five years in the role it’s a minor miracle. That makes Mo’s career all that more impressive.

* Off the top of my head, the only current closers that were groomed in the minors as closers are Wilson, Street, and Mark Melancon.