Game 153: Win-win

You know what the best part of tonight’s game is? It’s that no matter what happens, it’ll be a pretty good outcome for the Yankees. A win drops the magic number for a playoff spot to just two, and a loss allows the Rays to (at least) keep pace with the Red Sox for the wildcard. I know Boston’s rotation looks ugly at the moment (and it is), but I have zero interest in facing John Lester/Josh Beckett/Erik Bedard six times in a seven game series with that offense and Daniel Bard/Jonathan Papelbon at the end of the game. I’d rather take my chances with Tampa’s rotation, Evan Longoria and some other dudes, and Joel Peralta/Kyle Farnsworth. Here’s the lineup…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, DH
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Eric Chavez, 3B
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

Ivan Nova, SP

It’s a little rainy in the Tri-State Area, so you know what that means …My9! It’ll also be on MLB Network for you out of towners. The weather isn’t too bad though, they should be able to get all nine innings in. First pitch is scheduled for a little after 7pm ET. Enjoy.

Girardi on Cervelli: ‘I’m not sure we’re going to have him’

Via Erik Boland, Joe Girardi indicated to reporters this afternoon that the team is unlikely to have Frankie Cervelli the rest of the way. “I’m not sure we’re going to have him,” said the skipper. Yesterday we heard that Cervelli had been concussion symptom free for three days, but they were still awaiting the results of an ImPACT test. The Yankees don’t absolutely need a backup catcher in the postseason, but it sure seems like Austin Romine would be the front-runner for that job right now.

Team official: ‘Nova is going to get Game Two’

Via Tim Kurkjian (Insider req’d), a Yankees team official said that Ivan Nova will get the ball in Game Two of the ALDS, and they “can’t see [A.J. Burnett] getting a start.” Now, obviously this is not an official announcement or anything, it’s just Kurkjian talking to one of his sources, and we don’t know how much pull that source has within the organization. It certainly passes the sniff test though, Nova’s pitched well in the second half and neither Bartolo Colon nor Freddy Garcia has really stepped up of late.

For what it’s worth, Nova lines up almost perfectly for that start. Even if tonight’s game gets rained out (not likely, but possible given how it looks outside), he’s still be lined up by starting tomorrow.

Sweating the small stuff

With their strong play in the first five months of the season, the Yankees appeared set heading into September. They had won 81 games and sat just 1.5 back of the Red Sox for the AL East lead. More importantly, they led Tampa Bay by 7.5 games for the AL Wild Card, a hefty margin with less than a month of baseball left on the schedule. The comfortable lead gave them a chance to ease off the accelerator and make sure their starters were healthy and rested come September 30th.

In September they’ve actually managed to outplay their pace to date. They’ve won 11 of 18 games, which is a better ratio than they managed from April through August. No team in the AL East has won more games this month. And, thanks to a Boston collapse, the Yankees have taken a commanding lead in the division. With just 10 games to go they’re six up on Boston in the loss column. Any combination of five wins and Boston losses will seal up the division and give the Yankees their 12th AL East crown in the last 16 years.

Even with their strong position, it feels as though the Yankees have a number of issues heading into the postseason. These concerns mainly involve the pitching; people have asked who pitches behind CC ever since Cliff Lee signed with Philadelphia. Even now, just 10 days away from ALDS Game 1, the question doesn’t have a sure answer (other than it not being A.J. Burnett). Yet even that question might be overblown. The Yankees starters this year have a 4.06 ERA, right around the mark of the playoff-bound Tigers, and ahead of the Red Sox. Their 3.92 FIP ranks sixth — and the Rangers are the only playoff-bound team ahead of them. Finally, their 3.79 xFIP ranks first in the league.

(And yes, the situation changes in the playoffs, when there’s a greater emphasis on the top of the rotation and the bottom of the rotation disappears. But the Yanks’ top four starters all have ERAs under 4.00, which makes their league ranking actually look a bit better.)

If the Yankees are looking so good, then why the quibbling over them? Why the needless arguments about minute aspects of what is currently the best team in the AL? I think Will Leitch of New York Magazine hits on the issue perfectly with this paragraph in his latest column:

This year has been monotonous, dull, and seemingly preordained, which is to say it has been the platonic ideal of a Yankees season. The last time the Yankees weren’t in first or second place in the AL East was April 8, when they were a game and a half behind the Blue Jays. The rest of the season, the team has been comfortably ensconced in playoff position, knowing, without much doubt, that they would be playing into October. There were a few bumps along the way, but minor ones, nothing to concern anyone. Some Yankees fans might grouse about the rotation, but all any fan can hope for his team is to secure a spot in the postseason, and the Yankees have had theirs secured for months. Most of the year has felt like one long twiddling of thumbs until the weather started getting cold and the games started mattering again.

In other words, the Yankees’ solid play throughout the season has caused a sort of restlessness among fans. We’ve seen Jeter’s 3,000th and Mariano’s 602nd, both of which make great moments. Really, they’re the definitive moments of the 2011 season. What this season lacks is drama. And when there’s no drama to follow on a day-to-day basis, the drama-seeker will tend to conjure it from nowhere. Hence the concerns about the rotation that fares well when compared to its peers. Hence the concern over the manager who, for the fourth straight year, has managed to keep his bullpen in good shape. Hence the concern — for some reason — for the lineup, which has outscored every team except Boston.

This isn’t to say that none of these areas are of concern to the Yankees in the playoffs. Certainly the rotation can present a concern, at least. But again, this has to be viewed in relation to the rest of the league — the Yankees do have opponents, after all. And yet by these measures the Yankees stack up very well against their playoff-bound brethren. They’re not guaranteed anything. No team is, nor will any team ever have a playoff guarantee. But in terms of the things they can control, the Yankees are in great shape.

Why sweat the small stuff, then? Answer: What else are fans going to do during a “monotonous, dull, and seemingly preordained” season? It can get annoying at times, sure; there’s only so much small stuff to sweat, and sweating it too hard gets obnoxious. But that’s far better than the alternative. Would anyone seriously like to switch places with the Red Sox now, just in the name of drama? No, thank you. October provides enough drama.

Bichette, Santana top Baseball America’s list of top 20 GCL prospects

The Rookie Level GCL Yankees won their league title and led the circuit in every significant offensive category (and by wide margin in most cases), so it’s no surprise that the Yankees are well represented in Baseball America’s list of the top 20 prospects in the GCL. Dante Bichette Jr. tops the list and Ravel Santana is right behind him at number two. Claudio Custodio and his great name is a little further down at number nine.

In the subscriber-only scouting reports, Ben Badler says Bichette “impressed GCL managers with his advanced approach at the plate, good bat speed and plus-plus power.” He notes that Dante Jr. lowered his hands as the season went on, helping him get ready to hit sooner. He was said to be fine at the hot corner, making “the routine plays, showing solid actions and a strong arm.” Santana is touted as a tools freak, with “a wiry build, good bat speed and plus power.” His best tools are his powerful arm and top of the line speed, which help make him a top notch defender in center. Custodio has a “solid hitting approach and a line-drive swing.” Because he doesn’t have much pop, he “doesn’t chase many pitches outside of the strike zone and focuses at getting on base to use his excellent speed.” He might end up at second base long-term.

The next top 20 list relevant to the Yankees is the Short Season NY-Penn League, which will be released on Friday. I’ll be stunned of Mason Williams doesn’t rank number one.

Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

How important is this series? It’s obviously huge for the Rays, but it’s not life or death for the Yankees. They have seven games left against Tampa and a seven-game lead for the wildcard, but just two wins in those seven games punches their ticket to October. These are far from must wins, but it would be nice to have a playoff spot wrapped up before the Red Sox come to town on Friday.

What Have The Rays Done Lately?

I think you’re all well aware of what the Rays have done lately. They took three of four from the Red Sox in Fenway before having yesterday off, and they now sit just two games back of Boston for the wildcard (one in the loss column). Tampa has won ten of their last 14 games.

Rays On Offense

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Overall, it’s an exactly league average offense with a .317 wOBA, a 100 wRC+, and a 104 OPS+. That said, they have several players coming into the series very got. Evan Longoria (.360 wOBA overall) has hit .310/.461/.603 this month, and B.J. Upton (.325 wOBA overall) is right behind him at .311/.408/.557 for September. Matt Joyce (.360 wOBA overall) has rebounded from prolonged slump to hit .270/.404/.459 in the season’s final month. He doesn’t play much against left-handers, though.

Those three have been really, really good during Tampa’s recent surge, but three others have been really, really bad. Ben Zobrist (.355 wOBA overall) has hit .196/.274/.286 this month, and the amazingly awesome Desmond Jennings (.395 wOBA overall) has crashed back to Earth with a .212/.297/.303 batting line over his last 16 games. Casey Kotchman (.351 wOBA overall) has been a touch better than Jennings in September (.217/.304/.317), but his struggles go back a little further (.215/.311/.292 in his last 38 games). The rest of the lineup is a bit of a mix-and-match.

Sean Rodriguez may or may not be limited in this series after getting hit by a pitch in the Sox series, but he’s lethal against left-handed pitchers (.271/.391/.465). Reid Brignac (.203 wOBA) and Elliot Johnson (.244 wOBA) are the two shortstop options, so yuck. Kelly Shoppach (.260 wOBA) is rumored to see more time behind the plate down the stretch, ahead of John Jaso (.291 wOBA) and Jose Lobaton (.122 wOBA in a small sample). Brandon Guyer (.272 wOBA in limited action) will likely see some outfield time against lefties, and then there’s spare parts like Dan Johnson (.162 wOBA mostly due to April), Justin Ruggiano (.287 wOBA in limited time), Sam Fuld (.302 wOBA), and Russ Canzler (one plate appearance, one walk). The Rays will absolutely steal bases, with Upton (30), Fuld (20), Jennings (18), Damon (18), and Zobrist (18) being the main threats.

Rays On The Mound

Tuesday, RHP Wade  Davis (vs. Ivan Nova): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Davis has yet to have the kind of success some of his peers have enjoyed. His 4.41 ERA is right in line with his 4.66 FIP, a 119 FIP- that essentially matches last year’s 118 FIP-. A fly ball guy (36.3% grounders) without much strikeout ability (5.10K/9), Davis works with a pair of low-90’s fastballs (two and four-seamer), a high-70’s curveball, a mid-80’s slider, and a mid-80’s changeup. The Yankees have not faced him yet this year, but they saw him four times last year (3.43 ERA).

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Wednesday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. CC Sabathia/Phil Hughes): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Hellickson is coming off that grueling 117-pitch outing in Fenway. His peripherals (4.28 FIP) are not nearly as good as his ERA (2.91), and he’s another fly ball guy (34.0% grounders) that struggles to miss bats (5.78 K/9). Two fastballs (low-90’s two and four-seamers) and a knockout changeup are his primary weapons, but we’ll also see a mid-70’s curve on occasion. Hellickson can be sneaky good, he is just a kid in his first full year as a starter in the AL East, after all. The Yankees have seen him twice this year, once good (2 R in 7 IP) and once bad (4 R in 4.1 IP).

Wednesday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. Sabathia/Hughes): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Big Complete Game James has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. His peripherals (3.35 FIP) match the ERA (2.78), with lots of strikeouts (8.25 K/9), lots of grounders (46.2%), and few walks (2.31 BB/9). Shields is the master at pitching backwards, setting up his low-90’s two and four-seamers with that world class changeup and a high-70’s curveball. He’ll also throw a mid-80’s slider and a high-80’s cutter. In three starts against the Yankees this year, Shields has held them to six runs (four earned) in 22.2 IP, and four of those runs came in one start.

Thursday, RHP Jeff Niemann (vs. Bartolo Colon): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years (notice a pattern here?), Niemann has pitched very well since returning from the disabled list in late-June. He’s posted a 3.41 ERA (~3.80 FIP) with 7.69 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 in 103 IP. His pitching approach is pretty straight forward, featuring two fastballs in the low-90’s (two and four-seamer) and a high-80’s curve, but he’ll occasionally mix in three other pitches: mid-80’s slider, mid-80’s changeup, and a low-80’s split. The Yankees have seen Niemann just once this year, when he held them to one run in 7.1 IP in his fourth start off the DL.

Mr. Moore. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Bullpen: The Rays have a bunch of call-ups on their roster, but they’re still a man short in the bullpen. Kyle Farnsworth is having a very good year (3.27 FIP), but he’s battling an elbow issue and might not be available for part or all of the series. Joel Peralta (3.43 FIP) has stepped in at closer in the meantime. J.P. Howell (holding lefties to a .217/.277/.283 batting line), Juan Cruz (3.95 FIP), and Jake McGee (5.14 FIP) handle the majority of the middle innings.

For the most part, the rest of the bullpen is made up of low-leverage call-up types, guys like Brandon Gomes (4.09 FIP), Dane De La Rosa (2 IP so far), Cesar Ramos (4.70 FIP), Andy Sonnanstine (4.48 FIP), and Alex Torres (2 IP so far). The secret weapon is Matt Moore, the best pitching prospect in baseball. The hard-throwing lefty has made two appearances totaling 4.1 IP so far, and they aren’t shy about throwing him into big spots against both lefties and righties. We’ll see him at some point this series, and there’s even been some rumblings that he could get a start in the doubleheader.

Recommended Rays Reading: DRays Bay.

Ticket Info: Courtesy of RAB Tickets and TiqIQ

Baseball Prospectus on the 1996 Yankees

Going back to a time when this happened a bit more frequently. (Photo via

The fine folks at Baseball Prospect put their entire 1996 Annual online over the weekend, and it’s free for all to see. You don’t need a subscription to see the 28 team sections (no Devil Rays or Diamondbacks yet!), complete with overviews, player comments, and projections for the 1996 season. I think it goes without saying that it’s amazing to look back and see what was being written about some of these guys, even moreso when you consider everything we know now. Hindsight can be an amazing thing.

Given his recent historical accomplishments, I think it’s only fair that we start with Mariano Rivera, who was just a 26-year-old kid with a 5.51 ERA in 67 career innings at the time …

Skinny swingman who has good control of the corners of the strike zone. His K rate seemed to jump up a little as of late, and if that’s development rather than a fluke, this kid could really be something special. Looks way too skinny to be durable, but you never know.

Unfortunately the annual did not provide a projection for Rivera, but I highly doubt it would have come close to what he actually did that year, a 2.09 ERA with 130 strikeouts and just 34 walks in 107.2 relief innings. He’s still way too skinny, but the durability thing proved to be a complete non-issue.

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