Game 65: He could be my grandfather

"Back in my day we had to pitch the ball uphill, both ways. And we didn't have arms back then, we had stumps." (Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)

I’m kind of bummed out that the Phillies flip-flopped Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer in their rotation; I was hoping to see an old man matchup of Moyer and Andy Pettitte tomorrow. Instead, he’ll go tonight against A.J. Burnett, two pitchers that couldn’t be any further away from each other on the pitching spectrum. Moyer got demolished last time out by the Red Sox, and I’m hopefully the Yankees will do the same. I’m pretty sure the AL East is no place for a senior citizen.

On to the other good news: Alex Rodriguez is back! Well, kind of. He’ll be the designated hitter tonight because his lateral movement isn’t all the way back, but getting your cleanup hitter back is always a good thing. Jorge Posada resumes his regular catching duties. Here’s the rest of the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, DH
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Granderson, CF
Russo, 3B
Gardner, LF

And on the mound, Allen Burnett.

The skies look threatening, but there appears to be enough of a window to get this sucker in. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Baseball America’s decade of draft grades

We all love draft grades, so Jim Callis of Baseball America went nuts and graded out each team’s draft from 2000-2009 (sub. req’d). He has the Red Sox coming up with the highest GPA at 3.40, with the Diamondbacks not too far back at 3.20. Boston’s four grade A’s and a B+ from 2001-2005 will do that. The Yankees came in 26th overall, ahead of the Mets, White Sox, Astros, and Mariners. They received four straight D’s from 2000-2003 since Phil Coke is pretty much the only thing they have to show for those efforts. Phil Hughes alone earned them a B in 2004, and the epiphany draft of 2006 was an A. Everything else was a C or C+, and their overall GPA is 1.95. I think they put you on academic probation for that.

The similarities of Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson

For some reason I’ve detected a bit of fan angst towards Curtis Granderson. It’s not widespread or particularly vicious, but I’m actually a bit stunned that it exists at all. It seems like at least once a game I mention to Mike, or he mentions to me, how awesome Granderson has been. Yet he still has detractors. They all seem to spout the same lines about him, too. He can’t hit lefties and is a platoon player. He has bad instincts in the outfield. He strikes out too much. It has seemed to me that these claims are quite overblown when contrasted with the things that Granderson does bring to the table.

The more I thought about it, the more my mind kept going to the parallels between Granderson and another outfield trade acquisition, Nick Swisher. They were acquired in different manners: Swisher a buy-low guy without a clear role, Granderson a costly acquisition who was immediately installed as the starting center fielder. After that, though, the storylines seem to line up pretty well. Considering the shifting fan perception towards Swisher, I think we’ll eventually see the same for Granderson. Unfortunately, we might be looking at a similar timeline, which is to say a little over a full season.

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

In 2007 it looked like Nick Swisher was just hitting his stride. He had posted his second straight solid season, in which he bumped up his OBP 10 points over the previous season. The A’s, however, stood little chance to contend in 2008 and decided to cash in their Swisher chip, sending him to the White Sox for Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Sweeney. Swisher responded to his new environment by posting what was by far the worst season of his career. It was enough for both manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Ken Williams to sour on him. When they called around for trades that winter Brian Cashman pounced.

Swisher responded by posting the best year of his career. His 29 home runs didn’t match his 35 from 2006, but he compensated with a flurry of doubles, which resulted in the best power season of his career. Combined with a .371 OBP it made for a .375 wOBA, better than his previous high, .368. Still, fans didn’t love Swish. He made a few bonehead plays in the field and on the basepaths that stuck in everyone’s craw, and that led to negative evaluations despite wildly positive results. It took an incredibly hot start this season for him to disprove the naysayers. It makes sense. After all, a .300 batting average can win over plenty of old school critics.

In the same manner, the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson after a down year. It wasn’t quite his worst — his 2006 was a degree below his 2009. But it was certainly a letdown after his 2007 and 2008 seasons. Many fans looked at his 2009 season as representative of what he was as a player. He can’t hit lefties. He strikes out a ton. He hits for power, but that’s about it. An early season slump and a three-week DL stint didn’t help that impression.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/AP

Yet, as I mentioned in last night’s recap, Granderson has been quite excellent since coming off the DL. His early season slump set him back heavily — he was hitting .225/.311/.375 when he pulled up lame rounding second on May 1 — but as we’ve seen every single year of baseball’s existence, anything can happen in 91 PA. In fact, it happened to Swisher in 2009. In 92 PA from May 1 to May 27 he hit .127/.297/.225, quite a bit worse than Granderson’s initial cold streak. And, as mentioned above, Swisher recovered and ended with a career year.

Come to think of it, other than the platoon split the complaints about Granderson also pretty much mirror the complaints about Swisher. Both have a reputation for striking out, and while most objective measures both played good defense they had a reputation, at least in the eyes of Yankees fans, for playing sloppily in the field. All of this ignores the positives they bring to the game. I have had no problem with the defense from either, bonehead plays aside, and while strikeouts might be emotionally distressing and aesthetically ugly, they aren’t really that worse than other forms of outs. They’re just things that people tend to complain about.

Yet on the positive side, both possess power, and both are adept at getting on base. If a player can do both of those, he’ll have a spot on any team. And, as Swisher has shown, prime-aged hitters can indeed learn new tricks. Granderson has been just fine for the Yanks. If he transitions like Swisher he could get even better as the summer rolls along. And that’s not even getting into what next year could mean for him.

Keeping A-Rod fresh for the long haul

Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/AP

Once upon a time, Alex Rodriguez was the very model of perfect health. From 2001-2007, he averaged 159 games and hit .304/.400/.591 with 329 home runs. Once upon a time, Alex Rodriguez wasn’t 34 and didn’t suffer from hip problems. Oh, to be young and an All Star again.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen A-Rod suffer through some injuries. He hurt his leg in 2008; he underwent hip surgery in 2009. Since June 9, A-Rod has seen game action just once, and he had to pull himself in the 2nd inning with hip pains. The team diagnosed his injury as tendinitis, and after much rest, A-Rod says he wants to play tonight.

The decision last night to rest A-Rod for at least another game didn’t sit well with many pundits. Even though Jorge Posada left Sunday’s affair complaining of a sore foot and was due for a turn in the designated hitter role, with Roy Halladay on the mound, the team could have put its best lineup forward with Posada, healthy enough to catch, behind the plate and A-Rod as the DH. The Yanks’ bats made the point moot by the third inning, but the Yanks seemed to be playing A-Rod’s injury close to the vest.

As with many decisions the team needs to make, this one had a good reason behind: Alex Rodriguez is still owed a lot of money by the Yankees for a lot of years, and although the team has to play to win this year, it also must be mindful of the money it has invested in A-Rod. Once 2010 ends, the Yankees will still have to pay A-Rod $164 million over the next seven years. Although the megadeal A-Rod signed in the halcyon days of 2007 is front-loaded, an average annual value of $23.4 million for a player who will be playing his ages 35-41 seasons is simply immense.

We could debate the A-Rod contract for the next seven years. Based on his WAR value numbers, A-Rod’s last deal with a steal, but he has yet to outplay his new contract. As he continues to age and as his offensive numbers — and in particular, his home runs — continue to dip, the contract will look just as bad as it did on Day One. Even when A-Rod as a 39-year-old in 2015 is making just $21 million, it’s hard to see A-Rod’s production outweighing his salary, and since signing the new deal, he hasn’t topped 138 games in a single season.

The Yankees know this. In fact, they knew it from the start, and this knowledge is why I believe Hank Steinbrenner has taken a silent back seat to the goings-on in the Bronx. Armed with this knowledge, the Yanks could either push A-Rod into the ground now by playing him against the Astros and Phillies in a mid-June game or they could sit him for an extra day or two to ensure that hip conditions, often known to be degenerative, do not stunt his career or the team’s investment.

Once upon a time, the Yankees almost signed Albert Belle to a five-year deal that would have been worth upwards of $80 million. It would have made Belle the highest paid player, and the similar deal the slugger in fact signed with the Orioles did just that. Two years later, Belle had to retire because of a degenerative hip condition. Belle’s injuries and A-Rod’s aren’t similar, and A-Rod shouldn’t be forced out of the game at an early age because of his leg woes. Yet, the Yankees know how fragile these injuries can be, and while it’s easy to get up in arms over A-Rod’s resting, it’s all about protecting a very long-term investment. Seems like a good idea to me.

Culver passes on University of Maryland, nears agreement with Yanks

Cito Culver, the Yanks’ first-round pick in last week’s amateur draft, has passed on his commitment to the University of Maryland and will instead be flying to the Yankees’ complex in Tampa this weekend, the Democrat and Chronicle reported today. The 17-year-old short stop had signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Maryland, but when the Yanks surprised many by taking him with the 32nd pick of the draft, it seemed to be just a matter of time before Culver went pro. The youngster can’t sign with the Yankees until after he graduates from high school on Sunday, June 20, but the Yankees plan on giving him a physical this week in anticipation of a contract. When the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, Culver will report to the Gulf Coast League for its 60-game rookie ball season.

Updated (1:35 p.m.): The Yankees are apparently even closer to sealing the deal than we initially expected. Chad Jennings notes a report stating the Yanks have reached an agreement with Culver “pending a physical and Culver’s graduation.” No details on the dollars involved or the slot figures have been released yet.

2010 Draft: Damon Oppenheimer’s post-draft chat

Every year, each team’s scouting director will sit down and chat with fans at the team’s official site about a week after the draft just to talk it up and interact with the fan base and all that jazz. They usually aren’t very long or in-depth, but they’re still a small little peek into the amateur scouting world. Damon Oppenheimer held his yesterday afternoon, and as you can imagine some of the questions (and answers) were more interesting than others.

I went through and picked out a few that stuck out to me for one reason or another, and kind of expanded on Oppenheimer’s answer, or just added some kind of commentary. I think this is more interesting than just dumping a link to the transcript and telling you to give it a read, no? Anyway, here we go…

alm81: How much do you base your selections of high school players on statistics?

Damon Oppenheimer: Stats about high school players is a very minor aspect. If you see that a guy has exceptional stats, it helps a little. If you see a red flag such as a hitter with a lot of strikeouts or a pitcher with a lot of walks, that might play a part.

This one seems like a bit of a no-brainer. Even in the traditional hotbed states like California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, there are just so many kids playing high school ball that will never go on to play in college, let alone pro ball. Gaudy stats, like Chris Smith had when the Yanks made him their fifth round pick in 2008, mean nothing. If you’re looking at a high school and he’s struck out fewer than a batter an inning, or a hitter that’s swinging and missing a lot, then forget it. Professional baseball will eat them alive. That’s about the only thing high school stats are good for.

jrod809: What about Cito Culver excited the Yankees most?

Damon Oppenheimer: There were a lot of things that excited us. Very rarely do you get a 17 year old, athletic, switch hitting shortstop. He has great tools, makeup and performs. He’s a great shortstop and can hit. You have to take risks on guys like that in high school because if they do that in college, they don’t make it down to pick 32.

That last part is a really great point. If Culver were to follow through on his commitment to Maryland, there’s a chance he’d come out of school in three years as a legit first round talent, and he wouldn’t remain on the board very long with that profile. It’s definitely a risky pick, but with great risk comes great reward. Just look at the current team, you don’t play for the Yankees if you’re a safe and conservative non-athletic type. There’s nothing wrong with being bold.

csamma: Is a player’s attitude just as important as his ability?

Damon Oppenheimer: His makeup is an important part of the whole package. He can’t play in the big leagues without ability. So ability is still more important, but the attitude is right there behind it.

Ah yes, the intangibles question. Without question, stuff like makeup comes into play, especially in New York. I don’t think the impact is as big as it’s made out to be, but it’s definitely something that has to be considered when scouting amateurs. The grind of a 144 game minor league season, nevermind a 162 game big league season undoubtedly takes a certain level of mental toughness, because there will be so much failure to experience along the way.

meliss8907: When scouting pitchers, do you tend to look for speed over variety of pitches?

Damon Oppenheimer: The higher you take a guy, the more complete a pitcher you are looking for – complete meaning velocity and other pitches. As you move down further in the draft you are looking to get one or the other.

The Yankees were left scraping the bottom of the pitching barrel this year because their first four picks were position players, and that’s fine. When they did get around to selecting pitchers, Oppenheimer clearly targeted power over polish, which makes sense simply because you can’t teach a guy to throw hard. A breaking ball can be taught, taking something off your pitches to locate them comes from experience, but you can either throw hard or you can’t.

meliss8907: Are there specific leagues, (i.e. Cape Cod League) that seem to develop better players?

Damon Oppenheimer: The Cape Cod League is really important to our evaluation. It is generally the better college players in the country playing on a daily basis and using wood, so it gives us an accurate depiction of what the player will represent. Some other leagues we scout are the Coastal Plains League, Northwoods League and the Alaska League to name a few.

It’s now painfully obvious that the Yankees put a lot of weight in Cape Cod League performance. Not so much performance as in stats and production, but how they handle themselves and the skills they show. Wood bats, elite competition … it really is the best way for an amateur to showcase himself. You just have to make sure that you follow a player during the spring the year after he plays on the Cape to make sure the scouting report doesn’t change.

bronxmissles: How come the Yankees usually draft catchers?

Damon Oppenheimer: Catchers are a premium position as they are hard to find. When you find one that you think can be a major leaguer, you have to jump on it. We didn’t draft one this year because we have quality catchers throughout our organization.

Position scarcity, plain and simple. Quality catchers are like quality pitchers, there’s no such thing as too many. Draft/sign them, develop them, and if you have too many catchers for too few spots, you break out into the Dance of Joy.

tkcmo39: Do you prefer college players over high school players?

Damon Oppenheimer: No. I just prefer the best players available. Actually, we’d rather have them young so that they can learn the Yankee way. Culver and Gumbs are both young and have a chance to learn the Yankee way really quickly at a young age. With the way our player development system is structured, I’d actually rather draft guys out of high school.

Well, he says he’d rather draft players out of high school, but saying and doing are two different things. The 20 prep players Oppenheimer drafted this year are by far the most he’s ever taken in his six years at the helm, and the fact that seven of their top ten picks were high schoolers makes it look like a conscious effort. Here’s a few charts breaking down the Yanks’ drafts since 2005 (by school, by position, by school & position), and clearly high school kids take a back seat. We have to acknowledge that the data is somewhat skewed by the later rounds, where college players are commonplace because they make the best organizational fodder. Still though, we’re taking about just one out of every four picks (78 of 301, or 26% total) being a high school kid.

I’ve said this a million times, but I prefer high school players because the sooner you get them under professional instruction the better. I think it’s rather obvious that Oppenheimer prefers polish, which leads him more toward college players. I guess there’s a chance that that’s just how the draft board and best players available shook out, but I suspect that would be a rather large coincidence.

sirvlciv: How organized is your draft board before the draft occurs? Do you have a very clear order of players, and strike them out as they’re taken, taking the best player still available at your draft spot?

Damon Oppenheimer: There’s probably two weeks of preparation put into the final draft board. The names are strategically placed on the board by ability and as teams make selections, we take them down and generally select the next available player on the board.

I don’t have anything to add here, I’ve just always been curious about this. I always imagined that they had one list, maybe 300 players deep, based on talent and they took the highest ranked player left on the board each team. Then for the later rounds, they had rankings by position, and selected based on need or whatever the system was lacking overall.

That’s maybe half the questions, but the rest are the usual easy lay-ups. It would be nice if they took some questions that were a bit more inquisitive, but I suppose this is better than nothing. I’m curious to know how they allocate their draft budget and prioritize whom to sign. Basically who are the guys they really want (Gerrit Cole), and who are the backup plans (Brett Marshall).

Francisco Cervelli gets the man in

The Tampa Bay Rays have a new mantra, and it appears that Francisco Cervelli is feeling the vibe all the way up the east coast.

Last year the Rays didn’t fare too well with runners in scoring position. They weren’t terrible, hitting .269 as a team, 10th in the majors. But they surely noticed that four of the nine clubs in front of them were the AL playoff teams. If they were going to succeed in 2010 they’d need a few breaks, one of them being the ability to bring home men in scoring position. This led to a new drill in spring training under new hitting coach Derek Shelton.

Earlier this season John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times described the new team philosophy and its mantra: Get The Man In, or GTMI. The acronym works better, because apparently the players use a variation of Man when they refer to the drill. The idea behind it is to make better contact with a man on third and less than two outs. Strikeouts can be deadly in those situations. Merely putting the ball in play in many cases will put a run on the board, even if it means using an out.

And you know what? It’s working. As Steve Slowinski of DRays Bay examined last month, the Rays are not only getting more hits with runners in scoring position, they’re also striking out less and hitting for more power. This represents a stark change from last year, when the Rays struck out more and hit for less power when they had a chance to plate some runs. It has certainly shown up in the runs column, as the Rays have gone from 4.96 runs per game in 2009, fifth in the AL, to 5.36 runs per game this year, third in the AL.

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

Francisco Cervelli has gotten that message, though he doesn’t have a dugout full of teammates repeating the mantra. As we saw yesterday, Cervelli’s production has dropped of late, something that was to be expected. There was just no way he was going to hit in the mid-.300s with an OBP over .400. He’s good, and might be better than his minor league numbers indicate, but he’s not that good.

But while Cervelli’s numbers have dropped since he started playing full-time, he’s still produced at times when the Yankees have needed him. With runners in scoring position he’s hitting .447/.500/.553. That amounts to 17 hits in 51 chances (that’s PA, not AB), which is pretty damn amazing. He has struck out only six times with runners in scoring position. He’s also doing an excellent job with a runner on third and less than two outs. He’s only faced 13 such situations, and in five he’s gotten the job done with either a single or a sac fly. He has also walked four times and been hit by a pitch. The only blemish there are the two strikeouts, but two in 13 tries is still pretty good.

Where Cervelli has truly excelled this season is with a runner on third and two outs. He’s faced that situation 14 times and has gotten the man in ten times, nine with hits and one with a bases loaded walk. That makes for 17 RBI. On the season Cervelli has just 29. So while his production might have dropped, he’s still hitting in those critical situations.

Normally I’d say that this is not a repeatable skill, that there are copious amounts of luck involved. While I still stand behind the latter, the Rays have me wondering about the former. They went into the season with a deliberate focus on getting the man in, and they’re executing. It’s doubtful that Cervelli will continue hitting quite this well with runners in scoring position, but if he maintains even a hint of the pace he’s on it will be valuable to the Yankees. He’s already helped put wins on the board.