Joe on the Pinstriped Podcast w/ Craig Mahoney

For those of you who don’t know Craig Mahoney, he’s turning into something of a podcast star. He’s got quite a few of them, including the Pinstriped Podcast. He and I sat down yesterday to talk everything Yankees. We even tackled some sabermetic topics, from an enthusiast to a skeptic. You can also catch Craig on Twitter at @CraigMahoney.

Time for the stars to step up

They honeymoon, it appears, has come to an end. The Yankees saw tremendous production from Francisco Cervelli and Brett Gardner at the start of the season, which extended well into May. In the past few weeks, though, we’ve seen a correction of sorts. Both have excellent numbers still, a .392 wOBA for Cervelli and a .356 mark for Gardner. In the past week or so, however, both have seen slumps that weren’t exactly unforeseen. While I’m sure they’ll pick it back up, I doubt it will be to their previously lofty levels. That could mean trouble for the Yanks’ offense.

If the Yankees want to keep up their current pace, which would mean a 96-win season, they’ll need their biggest names to step up. This is true of all teams, of course, but it holds a bit more significance for the 2010 Yankees. Their best players have been particularly streaky during the first 46 games of the year, and for many of them the lows have outweighed the highs. In particular, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez have fallen far enough below their career norms that it has become an issue.

More of this, please | Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

By this point last year, Teixeira was already on his road to recovery. Through 46 games he had accumulated 199 PA and was hitting .271/.382/.584. This year he has 202 PA and has hit .209/.327/.378. That represents not just a drop in batting average, but an even starker drop in power. Last year through 199 PA he had a .313 ISO, while this year he’s at just .169. His discipline hasn’t waned, as his walk percentage is right where it was last year at this point. His strikeout rate, too, is right in line with the first 46 games from last year. Overall, though, something just isn’t right.

“I live off my hot streaks,” Teixeira said after Saturday’s game, in which he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. He bounced back with a 2 for 5, one strikeout performance on Sunday, though that last hit was the definition of a cheapie. Tex has a long way to go to a recovery. Even if he goes 4 for 4 with a homer, a double, and a walk in each of the three Twins games, he’ll be at .261/.373/.484. Realistically, it will take him quite a few more games to get to even that level.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Derek Jeter has been the focus of much conversation this season. This is partly because of his impending contract negotiations, but also because of his recent slump. Even before that, many of us were alarmed at his first-pitch swinging and frequent groundballs to short. Through the team’s first 24 games, though, it didn’t seem to be much of a problem. Jeter was hitting .333/.367/.510 during that span. He then proceeded to slump terribly, hitting .169/.234/.211 in his next 77 PA. Were the captain’s free swinging ways coming back to hurt him?

In a way, his first pitch swings and grounders to short are a concern. In another, Jeter, like all players, will slump during the course of a season. It’s unfortunate that Jeter’s came at a time when a number of starters have been missing, but that’s just the way baseball works sometimes. He seems to be coming out of it, too, going 7 for 19 from Thursday through Sunday. He walked only once, a bit of a disappointment, but he also looked sharper at the plate. He swung at the first pitch from Santana in his first three plate appearances, but given how well he hit the ball it’s difficult to blame him for that.

Photo credit: Henry Ray Abrams/AP

Thankfully for the Yanks, their No. 4 hitter is on the upswing. Alex Rodriguez currently sports a wOBA, .372, that ranks far below his career average of .411. That, however, was mostly due to an early season power drought, in which he posted an ISO of .162 through 126 PA (28 games). In his most recent 66 PA, though, he’s been hitting not only for average, .317, but also for power, a .250 ISO. That’s right around the level he finished last season.

What I think illustrates Alex’s season is how his strikeout rate relates to his contact rate on pitches out of the zone. The latter is at career high levels while the former is at a career low. This might be an anomaly, or it might be a change in approach. Either way, it backs up the story I tell myself: Alex is just missing a ton of pitches. His 14 percent infield fly ball rate would serve as further evidence of this claim. Something’s just slightly off, and once it clicks we might see an Alex outburst. It might have already clicked, but just hasn’t shown in the numbers yet. In any case, I think we’ll see quite a run by Alex, which is always an enjoyable span of games.

The Yanks simply could not rely on Gardner and Cervelli to carry them throughout the season. They got lucky that both of them got hot at a time when their better players were either hurt or slumping. Now that their luck is starting to even out, it’s time for the superstars to step into their places. I have no doubt that Cervelli and Gardner will continue to hit capably, but they’re not going to keep up their previously torrid pace. If the team’s best players step up and hit the way they’re capable, though, it will represent one of the greater strokes of luck in recent memory. Two good but not great players hitting like great players while the superstars slump. Then, just as the unheralded players simmer down, the superstars step up and start carrying the team.

I’m not sure if that’s how the story will play out, but it’s certainly feasible at this point. As it should, the Yanks’ season will turn on the ability of its best players to hit to their capabilities. It needs to start tonight in Minnesota.

Where the Yankees stand in the AL East

Yesterday’s off-day came at a convenient time. The Yankees just suffered their toughest week of the year, so getting a night away from their struggles is probably a good thing. They’ll pick things up tomorrow night in Minneapolis, starting with a tough assignment against the Twins and then hitting a stretch of schedule where they play just one team above .500 — and even the Blue Jays might be reeling by then. For now, though, let’s take a step back and see where the Yankees stand compared to their AL East peers.

1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays

Longoria will inflict damage on the AL East for years to come | Photo credit: Chris O'Meara/AP

The Rays have come out of the gate quicker than any other team in the majors, and with a 32-13 record are on pace for a 115-win season. Whether they get there will be largely dependent on 1) how they fare against their tougher AL East opponents, and 2) whether they remain reasonably healthy for the rest of the season. For now, though, they remain the kings of the league.

Their ascension — or re-ascension — to the top of the AL East should come as little surprise. The Rays had a good team last year but caught a few unlucky breaks, likely making up for their incredibly lucky 2008. Once Scott Kazmir returned that May they used only five starting pitchers. Last year they only used seven, but Andy Sonnanstine lost his command and Scott Kazmir lost it in general. They’ve used only five starters this year, three of whom have an ERA under 3.00. James Shields is at 3.08. Wade Davis was at 3.35 before the Red Sox tore into him last night. They lead the AL in runs per game allowed by a significant margin.

On the other end, their offense has been killing the ball. Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford have been offensive juggernauts, posting wOBAs of .414 and .392. Ben Zobrist, despite his lack of power, still has a .385 OBP and a .375 wOBA. Like the Yanks, they’ve gotten production from unexpected players. John Jaso, called up to replace the injured Kelly Shoppach at catcher, currently sports a .446 wOBA, and Hank Blalock, recalled from AAA to replace Pat Burrell at DH, has opened his Rays career with a bang. They’re also seeing excellent production from former top prospect Reid Brignac.

On one side, the Rays will certainly lose some of that production. Jaso stands no chance of maintaining his .446 wOBA once he gains more playing time. He’ll be an upgrade over Dioner Navarro, which is all the Rays really need. Blalock might hit decently, but not .407 wOBA good. On the other end, though, both B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena have proven to be better than their current numbers suggest. If they recover it can help offset the effect of Jaso coming back to earth.

Where the Yanks have to be really concerned is with the Rays pitching. Shields and Garza have proven themselves as top performers, and David Price has started looking like a player worth of the top overall pick. Combine that with a second soid year from Jeff Niemann and they don’t need Wade Davis to be lights out. He might be, though, which will cause problems for every team in the AL East — hell, for every team in the majors. I’m not sure if the Rays are this good, but they’re good enough to finish the season with the league’s best record.

2nd Place: New York Yankees

Not that we need to harp on the Yankees, since we do that every day. We know the story: slumping and injured. The pitching, which dazzled early in the season, took a couple of rough turns through the rotation. After the Twins series, though, they hit a patch of lesser teams, during which they should get Granderson and Posada back. If the pitching gets back on track, the Yanks will do just fine from here on out.

3rd Place: Toronto Blue Jays

Romero is trying to make Jays fans forget about Halladay | Photo credit: Mark Duncan/AP

During the off-season, I wrote about no other non-Yanks team more often than the Blue Jays. They’re a fascination of sorts. J.P. Ricciardi never seemed to have a concrete plan in constructing his roster. I’m sure he did, but from afar it didn’t seem like a solid one that would propel the Jays to the front of the AL East. Instead it seemed like he was trying to make little gains every year, and that just won’t happen when the top two teams in the division spend a combined $350 million on payroll.

Like last year, though, it’s unlikely that the Jays are as good as their early season record indicates. They have received unprecedented production from a number of players, and we’re almost certain to see that drop off in the coming months. John Buck and Alex Gonzalez are notably playing above their heads. There is little, if any, chance that either finishes within 20 points of their current wOBA rates, .379 for Buck and .367 for Gonzalez. Their wOBA leader, Vernon Wells, could be for real, though. He has the talent to put up those numbers,

On the other end, though, they have a few underperforming players, Adam Lind chief among them. If he, Lyle Overbay, and Aaron Hill pick up the production they might compensate for the declines of Buck and Gonzalez. I doubt it will be enough to keep them third in the AL in runs per game, but they’ll likely remain above average.

Their pitching has been good, though sprinkled with poor performances. Shaun Marcum and Ricky Romero have both been excellent. They won’t make Toronto fans forget about Roy Halladay, but they’re doing a good job in his stead. Brett Cecil has made some strides this year, and his peripherals look far better than his 4.98 ERA. If Brandon Morrow can manage to stop walking hitters so frequently they could have a more than formidable top of the rotation. The pitching staff could actually be the reason they stay afloat this season and possibly finish above .500.

I never thought I’d type that last sentence before the season started. Shows how much I know.

4th Place: Boston Red Sox

We all hate him, but Youk has given the Yanks fits for years | Photo credit: Elise Amendola/AP

A 25-21 record isn’t terrible for a team that lost two of its outfielders and its No. 1 pitcher for a while, but that’s not what matters right now for the Red Sox. They’re clearly a better team than their record reflects, but games in the bank are games in the bank. Then again, the 2009 Yankees were just one game better, 26-20, through 46 games, so the Sox certainly have a chance. In fact, they found themselves at the same place, six games over .500, a month later. In other words, it would be foolish to count out the Sox right now.

Despite the slow start, despite the focus on defense over offense this off-season, despite injuries to two of its starting outfielders, despite a terrible start for David Ortiz, and despite an equally slow start for Victor Martinez, the Red Sox still rank fourth in the AL in runs scored. Nos. 1 through 3 are all AL East foes. Run scoring has not been even a slight problem for the Sox. In fact, if their run prevention plan had not hit a few bumps in the road, they might be up there with the Rays right now.

Red Sox pitchers, before last night’s game, ranked 13th out of 14 AL teams in runs allowed. John Lackey has had a rough go in Boston so far, and Josh Beckett got off to a horrible start and is now on the DL with back problems. Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the DL to start the season and has been hot and cold since returning. Jon Lester gave up tons of runs in his first few starts, exacerbating the Sox’s woes, though he has more than gotten back on track in his past few. Add to that an effective Clay Buchholz and an unsurprisingly league average Tim Wakefield, and it’s a good rotation that has faced a few unexpected problems.

What scares me about the Sox is that few of their hitters are playing above their heads. A 1.071 OPS would represent a career year for Kevin Youkilis, but he’s still capable of achieving it. Victor Martinez will almost certainly improve on his numbers, too. In other words, the Sox could maintain their offensive production throughout the season. If Lackey turns it around and Beckett comes back fully healthy, well, the Sox could surge like the 2009 Yanks did. They have a long way to go with both the Yanks and the Rays out in front, but I wouldn’t count them out until the math says they’re eliminated.

5th Place: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles young pitchers, including Brian Matusz, could make the AL East even tougher | Photo credit: Andy King/AP

I didn’t think the Orioles were in for a 2008 Rays-type run, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad. Maybe that’s because I overestimated their young pitching. That’s not a long-term overestimation, though, but merely a short one. Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie have done an admirable job as the veterans on the staff, but all of their young pitchers — Brian Matusz, David Hernandez, and Brad Bergesen — have struggled in the first month and a half of the season. It also doesn’t help that they feature one of the league’s worst bullpens.

As of today, May 25, the Orioles are done. They’ve been done, really, most of the season. That’s not a completely bad thing, though. It affords them the patience necessary to deal with growing pains for Matusz and Bergesen. It also means they can take their time with their other top pitching prospect, Chris Tillman, who has had ups and downs in AAA this season. It might get frustrating when the bullpen blows wins for them, but maybe that will be part of their learning process.

It’s on offense that the Orioles have truly struggled. If not for Ty Wigginton’s unexpectedly insane level of hitting, a .407 wOBA, the Orioles might be in an even worse place right now. Miguel Tejada has been good at times, but on the hole hasn’t been anything special. Adam Jones is having a terrible time this season, as is Nolan Reimold, whom the Orioles recently optioned to AAA (perhaps to play more first base and take over for the horrible Garrett Atkins). Matt Wieters has not impressed with the bat, either. Nick Markakis remains the only other bright spot on the offense, and even he has faced some issues. His .123 ISO isn’t up to his career standard, though his .406 OBP represents an improvement in his discipline from last season.

The Orioles still have a strong group of young players and a good farm to back them up, but this just won’t be their year. With the Yanks, Rays, and Sox established, and the O’s and Jays on the rise, though, we could see quite a battle emerge in the AL East as soon as next year.

Romine & Laird keep on hitting as Trenton wins again

Jeremy Bleich will have surgery to repair his labrum. See you in 2011, maybe. Meanwhile, David Adams will miss at least 2-3 weeks with an ankle injury. He hurt it while breaking up a double play over the weekend.

Triple-A Scranton (6-3 in over Louisville)
Greg Golson, CF & Chad Huffman, 1B: both 1 for 5 – Golson drove in a run & K’ed … Huffman scored a run
Curtis Granderson, DH: 3 for 5, 2 RBI - the first hit came off a lefty … he attempted a stolen base, always a good sign … going to play CF tomorrow
Eduardo Nunez, SS: 0 for 4, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 SB
Jesus Montero, C: 2 for 4, 1 BB, 1 E (throwing) – threw the ball in CF on a SB attempt, allowing a run to score
Jon Weber, RF: 3 for 5, 1 R, 3 2B - four of his last five hits have been doubles
Reid Gorecki, LF: 1 for 4, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K
Reegie Corona, 3B-2B: 2 for 3, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 BB
Romulo Sanchez: 5.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, 9-2 GB/FB - 66 of 104 pitches were strikes (63.5%) … 43 K in 43.1 IP
Mark Melancon: 2.2 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 6-0 GB/FB – 30 of 45 pitches were strikes (66.7%)
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0-1 GB/FB – 11 of his 19 pitches were strikes (57.9%)

[Read more…]

Open Thread: A much needed day off

"Can we just go home now?" Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

I think us fans needed the day off as much as the players. Just gotta regroup, refocus, get our heads back in the game, and simplify things. Take it one at-bat a time, one pitch at a time, and get back to the basics. Hopefully the team follows suit and turns this little skid around. There’s still 118 games left to go.

Here’s your open thread for the night. There’s only four baseball games on the schedule, and one’s on ESPN: the Red Sox at the Rays (Clay Buchholz vs. Matt Garza Wade Davis) at 7:10pm ET. You’ve also got NHL and NBA playoff action (Flyers and Celtics each have a chance to advance to the finals with a win), but more importantly, the two hour series finale of 24 starts at 8pm ET. Jack has to die at the end, right?

Anyway, dhatever you choose, feel free to chat about it here.

2010 Draft: Klaw’s Mock Draft v1.0

Now that we’re two weeks away from the big event, ESPN’s Keith Law posted his first mock draft today. He has the Yankees taking Texas high school righty Tyrell Jenkins. “I’ve heard them legitimately linked to Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre in recent weeks,” said KLaw, “but their tie to Jenkins dates back to much earlier this spring, and he’s the kind of superior athlete with upside whom Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer favors.” MLB.com’s scouting report (with video!) says he’s been up to 95 with the fastball, but he’s very raw. Big arm to dream on, something the Yanks lack right now.

As for LaMarre, meh. He’s s freaky tooled up outfielder with no plate discipline and great stats in a bad conference. Not the first round, please.

How the Rangers bankruptcy situation might affect A-Rod

The Texas Rangers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this morning. It sounds like a big deal, and in some ways it is, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. Commissioner Bud Selig claims that the filing “assures an orderly process to expeditiously transfer Rangers ownership to the Greenberg-Ryan group,” referring to Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.

The thing with Chapter 11 is that while secured creditors — those with collateral to back their loans — usually get paid back, it’s unsecured creditors who face the risk of nonpayment. The Rangers owe Alex Rodriguez $24.9 million in deferred payments from the 10-year, $252 million contract he signed in the winter of 2000. Might A-Rod not realize the full amount of his deferred payment amount?

At Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra raises the issue. It’s a little journey, and I suggest starting with the 1:15 p.m. part at the bottom and work up. Craig notes that the Rangers can’t pay A-Rod the full amount without also paying their full debt to all unsecured creditors:

Since the Rangers filed for bankruptcy it means they don’t have enough money to pay all of their unsecureds at a 100% rate. That means that A-Rod should not get all the money he thought he’d get and all of the ugly union/team dynamics set forth below come into play.

A later update notes that, no, A-Rod probably won’t get stiffed on the $25 mil. He might see a delay in the process, but because this Chapter 11 filing acts as a precursor to a sale, not to help it restructure its debt. The Greenberg-Ryan group, then, will be responsible for the remainder of A-Rod’s deferred payments, as well as deferred payments to a number of current and former Rangers.

The important point here: bankruptcy law is boring and esoteric. Another point: I doubt anyone will cry for A-Rod if he did get stiffed, even if it amounted to more than 10 percent of the contract he signed.