Game 127: No A-Rod again, again

The Yankee third baseman, who made a cameo appearance on Sunday, is again out of the lineup with a sore thumb. He says it’s starting to feel better, but he won’t be taking the field today. His fleeting 0-fer over the weekend seems like just a dream. Perhaps he’ll return tomorrow and spare us more of Eduardo Nuñez’s helmet flying off.

Meanwhile, it’s CC day. The Yankee ace is going for his 18th win, but August has not been the kindest month. He’s 2-2 with a 5.28 ERA this month and has allowed 39 hits over his last 29 innings. Hopefully, the A’s are the cure what ails him. Backing him up will be:

Brett Gardner LF
Derek Jeter SS
Curtis Granderson CF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Jorge Posada DH
Eduardo Nunez 3B
Francisco Cervelli C

Yankees put a waiver claim on Carlos Peña

The Yankees have claimed Carlos Peña on waivers from the Cubs, according to Jon Heyman. Peña, working on a one-year, $10-million, is hitting .223/.342/.450 with 23 home runs and a .343 wOBA. Against righties, however, he has an .865 OPS and a .374 wOBA and would give the Yankees a power bat to platoon with Andruw Jones at DH and an option to spell Mark Teixeira at first base. Peña, who provides more power and defensive versatility, than Jorge Posada would be an intriguing waiver pickup for the Yanks, but odds are slim that the Cubs simply let him go or work out a deal with the Yanks. Ken Rosenthal says a a deal is unlikely and that the Cubs are “reluctant to make a move.” Chicago has until 1 p.m. on Friday to make a decision, and we’ll have more as this story develops.

Where have you gone, Bartolo Colon?

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

When Joe Girardi yanked Bartolo Colon from last night’s game, he did so shortly after the right-hander had racked up inning 130 for the season. Somehow, the Yanks’ big gamble has paid off. Colon, making just $900,000 this year, has made 20 starts for the Yanks, has won eight games and was a stud throughout May and into June. The wheels though might be coming loose.

Colon’s outing last night was one I’d characterize as good enough. Usually, allowing three runs to another team over six innings would be enough to allow the Yanks’ offense to take over. Colon threw a few bad sliders to Brandon Allen and Eric Sogard, but before the 7th, he had been effective even if not efficient. His final line — 6.1 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 0 BB, 5 K — isn’t pretty, particularly against the A’s, but that’s also due to Boone Logan‘s failures.

For Colon, though, his outing was his second straight in which he struggled, and since coming off the disabled list with a hamstring injury, he hasn’t been nearly as good as he once was. Before he hurt himself covering first, he appeared in 13 games and made 10 starts, eight of which were quality starts. In 78.1 innings, he had a 3.10 ERA/3.44 FIP and allowed 66 hits, 18 walks and nine home runs while striking out 72. Opponents hit .227/.272/.375 with a .268 BABIP, and he averaged just over 14 pitches per inning.

His last ten starts have not been nearly as effective. Since his return, he sports a 4.61 ERA/4.48 FIP in 52.2 innings and has allowed 65 hits and eight home runs while walking 14 and striking out just 40. Just four of his ten outings have been quality starts. Opponents have hit .302/.352/.507 off of him with a .339 BABIP, and he is now averaging over 17 pitches per inning.

Clearly, something has changed for Big Bart since his early season success. Colon, who hasn’t reached this lofty level of innings since 2005 and threw over the winter as well, denies being tired, but his approach has changed. Prior to his injury, 86 percent of his pitches were fastballs. Of those, 48 percent were four-seamers and 38 percent were two-seamers. Since his return, 55.7 percent of pitches were four-seamers while just 24 percent were two-seamers. Sliders and change-ups now account for over 20 percent of his pitch selection.

To make matters worse, his pitches haven’t been moving as much. His fastballs and sliders have seen less vertical movement over the past ten starts, and his slider has seen more horizontal movement than before. It has become a bit flatter, and as Allen’s monster shot showed last night, Major League hitters have no problems with flat, fat 83 mph sliders. That ball reached the upper deck above right field.

Today, Joe Girardi expressed his concern about Colon’s disappearing two-seamer. The skipper said to Jack Curry that the two-seam fastball has “been a very important pitch for him and we need to get it going.” That much, at least, is obvious.

In an ideal world, the Yankees would figure out a way to give Colon some extended rest over the next few weeks because they will need him at his best for the playoffs. If A.J. Burnett were pitching even adequately, the club could afford to tinker with the rotation, but unless they’re willing to give Hector Noesi or Adam Warren a spot start or two, Colon will get the ball every few days. Even as it gets late in the season, it’s too early, meanwhile, to say that the wheels have come off completely for Colon, but he’s not the pitcher — both stuff- and results-wise — that he was earlier this year.

Triple-A Scranton to play all home games on the road in 2012

Via Josh Leventhal and Everett Merrill, the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees will have to play all of their home games on the road next year while PNC Field undergoes a $40M renovation project. The International League has tentatively approved the team’s plans to play at an alternate location in 2012, and they has until Sept. 20th to submit a final proposal.

At the moment, the club is considering six alternate locations, but league president Randy Mobley decline to name them. “Generally speaking, we are considering existing league facilities and others outside the league,” he said. Lehigh Valley, about an hour south, of Scranton is one possibility, as is Ottawa. The league had a team in Canada’s capitol until 2007. Another interesting possibility: Staten Island. The Yankees would love the proximity to the big league team, and since Short Season Staten Island doesn’t begin play until late-June, there would be less scheduling conflicts. Now that would be conveniently awesome.

Is it time for the Yanks to extend Cano’s contract?

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Over the last two, really three years, Robinson Cano has come into his own as not just one of the best players on the Yankees, but one of the very best players in all of baseball. He was a well-above-average contributor on a World Championship team in 2009, a legitimate MVP candidate in 2010, and although this year got off to kind of a slow start, Cano has been producing at his MVP-caliber pace for months now. Despite all the hoopla surrounding (and money being paid to) Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, it’s Cano and Curtis Granderson that drive the Yankees’ offensively.

A few years ago the Yankees broke their own rule of not negotiating with personnel (that’s everyone, including players, coaches, front office staff, etc.) until their contracts were expired to sign Robinson to a long-term deal. The team gave their second baseman a four-year contract worth at least $30MM right before Spring Training in 2008, even though he was still four seasons away from qualifying for free ageny. This is the last guaranteed year of that contract, and it’s paying Cano $10M. The Yankees hold club options for both 2012 ($14M) and 2013 ($15M), and those are locks to be picked up, no doubt about it. That’ll take Robbie through his age-30 season, and what happens after that is a great big mystery.

I conducted an informal Twitter poll on Saturday and Sunday, asking people what they think Cano could get on the free agent market right now. I got about two dozen responses, and the average was 7.13 years and $141.2M. That’s almost exactly Carl Crawford money, and it sounds reasonable to me. Assuming he produces like he has over the last three years for the next two years, Robbie will be looking at a deal of that size (adjusted for inflation) when he hits the open market after 2013. That’s why I think the Yankees need to break their own rule again and sign Cano to another long-term contract this offseason.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The benefits for the team are pretty obvious. They would be locking up one of their cornerstone (and homegrown!) players through his peak years, perhaps saving a little cash down the road, and avoiding the fiasco of the free agent market in two years. They would also be assuming a ton of risk, because they’d still have to pay Cano should he suffer a serious injury or just rapidly decline in his early-30’s like middle infielders are known to do from time to time. Robinson would be securing himself some serious financial security, we’re talking generational wealth. Money for his kids and his kids’ kids and his kids’ kids’ kids. He would be giving up his maximum earning potential though, because nothing raises the price like a bidding war on the open market.

In a perfect world, I think the contract would cover six years. The Yankees could guarantee his 2012 and 2013 options, then tack another four years on top of that. That would take Cano through his age 33 season, giving him enough time to land one more big contract, assuming all goes well. The money would certainly be substantial, something like $14M and $15M in the two option years, then $19M, $20M, $21M, and $22M in the four additional years. That’s six years and $111M right there, then throw in a signing bonus and a buyout of a seventh year option, and you’re talking $120M guaranteed. Definitely less than what he’d probably get on the open market after 2013, but also a freaking ton of money.

Now, there’s a significant hurdle that has to be cleared here. Cano hired Scott Boras this past offseason, and Boras almost always takes his high-profile clients onto the market. The one glaring exception is Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies (late add: Jered Weaver too), who landed himself a seven-year contract worth at least $80M after just one full season as a big leaguer. Pretty sweet deal. In an age where above-average middle infielders are getting locked up before they ever hit free agency, there’s little doubt in my mind that Boras is salivating over the prospect of having an in-his-prime middle infielder on the free agent market.

The Jose Reyes contract this offseason will give us a pretty good idea of what’s in store for Cano on the open market, but I don’t think the Yankees should wait that long. They’d be wise to at least make an attempt to sign him to a contract extension this coming offseason, potentially buying out his prime years for a (ever so slight) discount without getting locked into his mid-to-late-30’s at huge bucks. It’s certainly risky, but sometimes you have to go out on a limb for special players, and Robbie qualifies in my book.

Swisher turns around his season

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Quick: Who has the highest OBP on the Yankees?

If you read the headline, you can probably guess the answer. It might come as a surprise, though, that Nick Swisher‘s .377 OBP leads all Yankees. First, we’re used to seeing at least one player, and sometimes many, with OBPs much closer to .400. Second, it wasn’t too long ago that Swisher’s OBP was in the dumps. At the end of May it was at .321, which, when juxtaposed with his .204 BA and .289 SLG, had many wondering if this year would be the one that drove Swisher from New York.

Three months later, and it’s almost assured that Swisher again patrols right field in 2012. He has completely turned around his season since he bottomed out on May 25th. It didn’t take long for him to approach major league average numbers; in just nine games he raised his numbers to .215/.342/.348. After last night’s performance, which included a game-changing three-run homer and a fly ball that came about two feet from handing the Yankees a win, he’s hitting .263/.377/.431. He got there by hitting .296/.409/.511 in his last 328 PA.

The turnaround has made Swisher one of the most productive Yankees — not just for the period of his resurgence, but for the entire season. His 123 wRC+ ranks fifth among the Yanks starters, as does his .168 ISO. His 16.1 runs above average ranks fourth. So not only has he started producing on a rate basis, but he’s stayed healthy enough to remain in the lineup and put up counting numbers. Even if we swap out his gaudy 10.7 UZR in 2011 for his three-year total, it still amounts to 3.4 WAR, meaning he could still get to 4 WAR on the season. It would be the second straight season he has done so — the only two seasons of his career.

Swisher’s turnaround in 2011 further highlights his excellent numbers since becoming a Yankee. In the last three years he ranks third on the team with 68 runs above average. That’s right on par with Alex Rodriguez. He’s also fifth in that time with a 127 wRC+, and is sixth with 10.9 WAR. Among MLB outfielders he also ranks favorably in his three pinstriped seasons. He ranks 15th with that 10.9 WAR, and his 127 wRC+ ranks 13th. That is, if we were to disassemble the MLB and distribute talent evenly, he’d be the best outfielder on a mid-range team. He might be the third best outfielder, all skills considered, on the Yankees.

The question of whether the Yankees will exercise Swisher’s $10.25 million option for 2012 is behind us. They absolutely will. The only question that remains is whether they’ll lock him up further into the future. It would certainly make sense for them to try. The minor league system might be strong, but it lacks corner outfield talent. Swisher could hold onto one of those spots for the next three or four years. If his last three years are any indication, it will be well worth the effort. It might get hidden among his silly antics and occasional blunders, but Nick Swisher has been not only one of the most productive Yankees, but one of the most productive outfielders in the majors during his three-year tenure.

The all or nothing Mark Teixeira

(Charles Krupa/AP)

For the past two years Mark Teixeira has been one of the most frustrating players on the Yankees. In 2009, after signing for eight years and $180 million, Teixeira proved his worth, hitting .292/.383/.565 (.402 wOBA) and powering the league’s best offense. But since then his production has dropped to more human levels. In 2010, amid nagging injuries, he slumped to .256/.365/.481 (.367 wOBA). This year he’s at .248/.346/.512 (.370 wOBA). No one has welcomed this recent development.

That isn’t to say that Teixeira has played poorly. In fact, he has been one of the most productive Yankees in the last two years. In that time he has created 50.6 runs above average, which falls behind only Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. He also has a 130 wRC+, which also falls behind only those two. In terms of his place in the league, he has created the 17th most runs in the last two years, and has the 22nd highest wRC+. To say he’s been bad is a gross misstatement. He has been, despite his slumps, a top 20 player.

The disappointment stems not only from his hefty contract, but also from his drop-off after 2008 and 2009. In those two seasons he was second in the league with 89 runs above average and seventh with a 149 wRC+. He has gone from being a superstar to being a very good hitter. It’s probably the toughest downgrade in sports. There’s something special about a superstar. We think of them as different from their peers, that extra two percent better. Very good players help teams win ballgames and championships, but it’s hard to appreciate a very good player when he was so recently a superstar. (And is getting paid like a superstar.)

This season Teixeira has produced his numbers mostly through power. His 34 homers ranks third in the majors and his .263 ISO ranks fifth (third in the AL). But that’s really the only way he’s helped out. His .248 batting average is a career low, owing mostly to a .231 BABIP that ranks fourth lowest in the league. His walk rate has taken a slight hit, too, dropping to 2009 levels despite the 40-points-lower batting average. Again, that has translated into a productive season, as demonstrated above. But it’s not a superstar season.

One aspect adding to the frustration over Teixeira is that he’s been all or nothing this year. Again, he’s smacked 34 homers, and he’s done that in 32 games. In those games his, unsurprisingly, killing the ball, hitting .369/.440/1.230 in 141 PA. That amounts to about a quarter of his total PA and games played. The problem comes in the other three quarters of his games and PA. In those, 93 and 414, he has hit .207/.314/.263. When he’s not hitting a homer, Teixeira isn’t doing much of anything else.

That there’s a large gap in Teixeira’s numbers when homering and when not homering comes as little surprise. When he hits a home run he’s obviously being more productive, so therefore he’ll produce much better numbers when he’s performing the single most valuable act in baseball. The issue with Teixeira is the expanse of the divide.

Take Curtis Granderson as a counterexample. He has homered 35 times in 33 different games, and has hit .403/.473/1.256 in those games. In the games he did not homer, however, he remains decently productive: .231/.340/.335. Those aren’t great numbers by any stretch, but with the OBP, in addition to the 17 doubles and 9 triples, makes Curtis a somewhat productive player when he’s not hitting a homer. That’s just not the case for Teixeira.

The most frustrating aspect of the Tex divide is that there’s not much the Yankees can do about it. They could drop him in the order if they wanted, but that would only diminish the value they get from the 25 percent of games in which he does hit a homer. Dropping him in the order also only makes room for a player who creates fewer runs than Teixeira. Sure, there are plenty of benefits to having Gardner atop the lineup, but it’s not as though the Yankees are holding back a speedy guy with a .380 OBP.

If the biggest issue with Teixeira this season is frustration, that’s probably a good thing. Frustration is merely an emotion, something we feel when we see something that falls below our expectations. Teixeira has surely done that. For the second straight year he’s dipped below the superstar level of production he established from 2008 to 2009. Despite that, he’s still put together two generally productive seasons, and has been one of the Yankees’ two or three best hitters in that span. It is something of a problem that he’s essentially useless in 75 percent of his games. But you never know when one of the 25 percent is coming. And when it does, it’s a big boost to the Yankees lineup.