2010 Season Preview: Sacrificing offense for defense in left

Every so often we see an organization get stuck looking to fill one position for an extended period of time. The Red Sox have been searching for a shortstop ever since they traded away Nomar Garciaparra, and the Twins are still trying to find a solid third baseman to replace Corey Koskie. For a while the Yankees had their own positional problem, using a different Opening Day leftfielder every season from 1994 to 2003. That problem was solved when Hideki Matsui came aboard in ’03, and in recent years Johnny Damon had taken over the position, but with both of those stalwarts now playing elsewhere, the Yankees once again are left searching for a long-term leftfield solution.

Typically considered a power position, the Yanks have instead decided to focus on defense in left. The tremendous offensive production they receive from the four up-the-middle positions allows them to take a bit of a hit in one of the corner outfield spot. With the speedy Brett Gardner already in-house, the team opted to complement him with free agent signing Randy Winn, who managed to be close to a two win player in 2009 despite a .302 wOBA because of his superlative defense. Add in Rule 5 pick Jamie Hoffmann, and it’s clear the Yankees made a conscious effort to improve their defense when replacing Damon in left.

Gardner played nothing but centerfield last year, saving 7.2 runs in 628.2 defensive innings. Winn, on the other hand, saved 16.6 runs in just under 1,200 defensive innings for the Giants. Unlike Gardner, he shifted around and spent time at all three outfield spots. Looking at three-year UZR, we’re talking about 55.2 runs saved in just over 4,700 defensive innings combined between these two, so clearly the defensive ability is there. Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg Winn as a +2.0 UZR defender in left next year, and Brett Gardner as perfectly average at the position. Both players project to be better defenders at different positions (Winn in right, Gardner in center), but the Yankees aren’t about to shift Curtis Granderson and/or Nick Swisher around for marginal improvements with the glove. These projections seem a little light, but let’s roll with them.

Aside from defense, the other aspect of the game where these guys excel is on the bases. Gardner stole 26 bases last year (83.9% success rate), and according to EqBRR he was worth 4.9 runs in all baserunning situations, 11th best in baseball despite being a part-time player. Believe it or not, Winn is just as much of a threat on the basepaths, having stolen 16 bases with an 88.9% success rate in 2009, and his 4.8 EqBRR was a tenth of a run behind Gardner for the 12th best in the game. No matter which player the Yankees have patrolling leftfield next season, they’re guaranteed of getting solid (or better) defense with top of the line baserunning.

Offensively, we have a different story. Let’s review some projections, starting with Gardner…

After posting a .270-.345-.379 batting line with a slightly above average .337 wOBA in 2009, the five freely available projection systems see Gardner basically repeating that performance. It’s slightly above league average overall but generally below average for a corner outfielder. Combine the offense with the +0.0 UZR projection and say another +5.0 runs on the bases, and Gardner’s looking at a 1.4 WAR season. The shift from center to left decreases Gardner’s value more than anything. It wouldn’t take much to get him over the two win plateau, just a slightly better than league average UZR and another 50 or so plate appearances of similar production.

Now for the grizzled vet…

Winn’s offense doesn’t project to be as good as Gardner’s because of a 20 point difference in on-base percentage, but the good news is that they see an improvement over his .262-.318-.353 (.302 wOBA) performance from last year. Granted, the .316 wOBA projection is nothing to brag about, and when combined with a +2.0 UZR and say +5.0 runs on the bases, you get a one win player. Nothing to get excited over, but not a bad return on a minimal investment ($1.1M) at all.

Of course, figuring out the actual production the Yanks will get out of leftfield is slightly more complicated because Gardner and Winn will presumably split playing time. If Gardner gets say, two-thirds of the playing time, Joe Girardi‘s club is probably looking at two wins total for the position, which for all intents and purposes is league average. That doesn’t account for Marcus Thames and/or Jamie Hoffmann, both of whom are trying to state their case for a job this spring. Since both players are projected to perform at replacement level next year, we really don’t have to worry about them. Anything the Yanks get from either is gravy.

For the most part, whoever the Yankees send out to leftfield on a given day will be their weakest player on the field. However, given their strength up-the-middle and two .400 wOBA corner infielders, they can afford to add another to dimension to the team in the form of strong defense and elite baserunning. I don’t expect them to have nine different Opening Day leftfielders in the next nine years like they did a decade ago, but what the Yankees have right now isn’t anything more than a stopgap.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

A fifth RAB Fantasy Baseball League

Someone stepped up and volunteered to the commissioner of a fifth RAB Fantasy Baseball League, but instead of telling you to sign up now, I’m just letting you know that I plan on posting the league info at 10pm ET tonight. Lots of people said they didn’t have a chance to sign up for the earlier leagues because they were in school or at work or on west coast time or whatever, so now everyone knows exactly when the info will go up. Make sure you check back in then.

Past Trade Review: John Wetteland

It might be hard to believe for some younger fans, but there was a time when the Yankees didn’t have Mariano Rivera around to close things out in the ninth. Righty Steve Farr saved 78 games in three years as the Yanks’ closer, but the 36-year-old was allowed to walk as a free agent following the 1993 season, the worst of his career (4.21 ERA, 1.53 WHIP). He was out of the game less than 12 months later. Farr was replaced by another Steve, lefty Steve Howe. Howe picked up 15 saves for the 1994 Yankees, though he was always a question mark because of an off-the-field life plagued by cocaine addition.

With some of his best young players approaching the majors, then-GM Stick Michael went looking for an upgrade at the back end of his bullpen. As luck would have it, the Expos were looking to sell off their closer, 28-year-old John Wetteland, because of financial reasons. Wetteland had racked up 105 saves with a 2.32 ERA and 10.8 K/9 from 1992-1994, and was slated to earn $7.375M over the next two seasons, absurd money for a reliever at the time.

Three days after the strike was officially over, the Yankees sent outfield prospect Fernando Seguignol to Montreal in exchange for Wetteland. The Yanks got their end-game ace, and the Expos got a little breathing room under the budget. At the time of the trade, Seguignol had yet to appear in a full season minor league, and had just hit .289-.335-.432 in 73 games for Short Season Oneonta of the NY-Penn League. The switch hitter had big time power potential, but defensive concerns meant he was probably going to have to move to first base eventually.

Seguignol certainly fulfilled that power potential, clubbing 69 homers in the next four seasons before making his big league debut in 1998. Unfortunately for him and the Expos, all that power came with the big caveat of high strikeouts and low walk totals. He would bounce back and forth between the minors and the majors for the next three years, ultimately hitting .251-.305-.451 with 17 homers in 366 at-bats in a Montreal uniform. He became a free agent after the 2001 season, and ended up re-signing with the Yankees. Seguignol spent the next few years as a Triple-A masher, though he made an eight plate appearance cameo in the Bronx during the 2003 season.

Now 35-years-old, Seguignol spent some time in the Tigers’ system and in Japan after leaving the Yanks’ organization for a second time. Although he was on Panama’s provisional roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, he did not play and has been out of baseball for over a year now. Surely, the Expos would have liked a little more of a return for their star closer.

The Yankees, meanwhile, got exactly what they wanted. Wetteland owned the ninth inning in the Bronx during the 1995 season, saving 31 games with a 2.93 ERA and a 9.7 K/9. Unfortunately the postseason wasn’t as kind to him as the regular season was. After allowing three runs in 4.1 innings during Games One and Two of the ALDS against the Mariners (both Yankee wins), Wetteland entered the eighth inning of Game Four with the score tied at six. Nine pitches later, the bases were loaded following a walk, a single, and a hit batter. The dangerous Edgar Martinez – .327-.464-.595 that year – stepped to plate and worked the count like he always did before giving the Mariners the lead with a grand slam. The Yankees lost the game and eventually the series, and then-manager Buck Showalter didn’t even bother to use Wetteland in the deciding Game Five despite there being obvious situations to use him.

With his Game Four collapse still on everyone’s mind, Wetteland again dominated as the Yanks’ closer in 1996. He saved 43 games with a 2.83 ERA and a 9.8 K/9, earning his first All Star Game berth in the process. Of course, no one cared about the regular season, everyone wanted to see him do it in October. He saved three games in seven appearances during the ALDS and ALCS, though his five walks in nine innings were a bit worrisome.

After the Yankees fell behind the Braves 2-0 in the World Series, Wetteland threw a scoreless ninth to preserve the win for David Cone in Game Three, and he again shut the door in Game Four after the rest of his bullpen mates bailed out the awful Kenny Rogers. His two out save in Game Five was an afterthought following the epic Andy Pettitte-John Smoltz matchup, but the Yankees returned to New York a game away from their 23rd World Championship thanks to three saves in three days from their All Star closer.

Wetteland entered the ninth inning of Gave Six with a two run lead to protect, though the inning was a little more stressful than most cared for it to be. He struck out 19-year-old phenom Andruw Jones to start the frame, but Ryan Klesko and Terry Pendleton put a pair of runners on with back-to-back singles. Former Yankee Luis Polonia struck out for the second out of the inning, but Marquis Grisson singled in a run and put the tying run in scoring position with one swing of the bat. With the lead down to just one run, Wetteland ran the count full against Mark Lemke, and on the seventh pitch of the at-bat he got him to pop-up harmlessly to third baseman Charlie Hayes in foul territory. The Yankees were World Champs, and the big-time closer they traded for just two seasons earlier had been named World Series MVP thanks to his four saves in five days.

Montreal needed to move Wetteland because they couldn’t afford him, and the Yankees were happy to take him in exchange for an A-ball prospect. Although his Game Four meltdown during the 1995 ALDS left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, Wetteland delivered in Year Two of his Yankee tenure. He would sign a four year, $23M contract with Texas prior to the 1997 season, allowing a young setup man named Mariano Rivera to take over the closer’s role. This deal was a clear win-win, except both wins went to the Yankees. Sorry, Expos fans.

Photo Credit: Roberto Borea, AP

Remembering the Next Generation

Nomar Garciaparra officially announced his retirement yesterday, although it caught no one off guard considering the non-exist market for older players. It seems like just yesterday that Nomar, along with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, had effectively taken the shortstop torch from Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Larkin, and represented the new wave of offensive shortstops.

Despite being the youngest of the trio, A-Rod made his big league debut first, racking up 11 hits in a 17 game cameo during the summer of ’94. An extended look in 1995 resulted in a 72 OPS+, though Alex certainly made his mark in 1996, when he began the season as a 20-year-old. He led the league with a .358 batting average, 379 total bases, 141 runs scored, and 54 doubles. Overall, his .358-.414-.631 batting line with 36 homers earned him an All Star selection, a Silver Slugger Award, and a second place finish in the MVP voting. At 9.4 WAR, it remains one of his three best individual seasons to date.

A-Rod would go on to spend another seven years at shortstop, winning an MVP and a bunch of Gold Gloves and other stuff along the way. As you know, he slid over to third base in the prime of his career, at age-28, to join the Yankees. Had he remained at short, he would have hit more homers than anyone else at the position in history by now, and we’d be talking about him as one of the two or three best players ever given his positional value.

The current Yankee captain was the next to debut, getting into 15 games during the 1995 season before his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1996. He’s unquestionably the most decorated of great shortstop trio, with his five World Series rings and all. A career .317-.388-.459 hitter, the Yankee icon is within striking distance of 3,000 hits and will soon hold several of the franchise’s all-time records. Well, more than he does now, anyway.

And then there’s Nomar. The oldest of the group, he was also the last the debut, getting a September call-up in 1996 before becoming Boston’s full-time shortstop in 1997. His first four full seasons were nothing short of epic, as he piled up a .337-.386-.577 batting line while averaging over 28 homers per year. Fans in Boston claimed their young shortstop was better the Yankees’ young shortstop, and up until the 2000 season they were right. Of course, Jeter had the rings, so none of us were complaining.

But unlike Jeter and A-Rod, Nomar’s career just didn’t have the longevity. Wrist issues would sabotage his 2001 season, when he appeared in just 21 games and his OPS dropped from 1.033 to .822. He was never really the same after that, hitting .305-.349-.523 while battling the ailment through the 2003 season. Obviously, that’s still outstanding production from a shortstop, but a far cry from his glory days.

Nomar reportedly turned down a four-year, $60M contract extension following the 2003 season, which led to his name appearing in trade rumors. The Red Sox were slated to acquire another Next Generation shortstop – A-Rod – from the Rangers for Manny Ramirez, and in a sister move they would have shipped Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez. The deal(s) fell apart and a few weeks later the Yankees boasted two Next Generation shortstops compared to Boston’s one.

In his final 38 games as a Red Sox in 2004, Nomar hit .321-.367-.500 with five homers. He was famously shipped to the Cubs at the trade deadline in a four team megadeal that netted Boston Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera. Nomar would play just 99 more games at shortstop the rest of his career, as injuries reduced him to a corner infielder and eventually a part-time player.

Garciaparra retired as a .313-.361-.521 career hitter on Wednesday, the first of the Next Generation of shortstops to call it quits. Always a Yankee killer, he hit .326-.360-.556 with 14 homers in 95 games against the Bombers, including .298-.342-.528 in the Old Stadium. Garciaparra missed 633 of 1,647 possible days due to injury after the 2000 season (38.4%), which was ultimately his last hurrah. More than 13 years after the Next Generation of shortstops took the game by storm, just one of the three players remains at the position, and the player who looked most destined for Cooperstown in the early going called it quits after failing to find so much as a minor league deal on the open market.

Just as Joe Nathan’s injury allows us to appreciate Mariano Rivera’s longevity, Nomar Garciaparra’s retirement reminds us just how amazing Derek Jeter’s career has been, especially as he has remained at such a tough position.

Photo Credit: Mark Lennihan, AP

Open thread: Best infield ever, redux

In case you missed it, this afternoon Mike wrote about the Yankees infield as perhaps the best of the modern era. It was in response to a Bill Conlin column that, quite frankly, isn’t worth a second link. The article has made its arounds, and even Phillies fans don’t think it holds true.

Before Conlin unleashed his column, though, frequent RAB commenter Jamal G. was busily working on a similar article. But, instead of pandering to a fan base, he was legitimately curious as to which team in the modern era had the best infield. You can find his article here. To preview, it involves a lot of Yankees and Reds.

With that, here’s your open thread for the evening. We’ve got a Rangers-Devils bout in New Jersey, Knicks and Nets away games, and plenty of college basketball on ESPN.

What might possibly happen if we ever left our mother’s basement

This isn’t Yankee-related whatsoever, but Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas wrote an absolute must-read article on Rangers’ general manager Jon Daniels. He touchs on everything from when Daniels was hired as the youngest GM in baseball to when he almost traded for Josh Beckett to when the Mark Teixeira trade put his rebuilding plan into motion. The entire article runs about 3,500 words, but it’s so worth it. Truly fascinating stuff.

When he replaced John Hart as GM in 2005, Daniels was about four months younger than I am right now. Excuse me while I go cry myself to sleep…

Do hitters benefit by being aggressive on the first pitch?

A few weeks ago, an article by broadcaster John Sciambi made its rounds. In it he talked about broadcasters and statistics, but one anecdote stuck out. It involved a conversation with Chipper Jones, in which Sciambi wondered whether Jones wold be better off taking the first pitch more often. Jones, as Sciambi found out via FanGraphs, saw the second lowest percentage of first pitch strikes in the league. Could it hurt to start taking more on 0-0 counts, then?

The ensuing saga provided not only entertainment, but plenty of knowledge. Kevin Kaduk of Big League Stew asked Jones about the first pitch situation, and Jones came back with an excellent reply.

“There are certain pitchers, quite frankly, that you can’t get behind,” Jones said. “You want to be aggressive and the first hittable fastball that you get is the pitch you want to put in play. Because they’ll bury you if they get ahead of you. You can’t let them do that.”

This led Dave Allen to do a quick study, in which he graphed Chipper’s first-pitch swinging tendencies. Just as Chipper tells it, he swings more often at the first pitch when a good pitcher is on the mound, while he takes more against lesser pitchers. It didn’t stop there, though. Allen later found out that the average hitter does not share Chipper’s tendencies. This makes sense, of course, because Chipper is far better than an average hitter. But even when Allen further broke down the study, he found that even hitters comparable to Jones did not share his tendency.

Of course, my summary here won’t do the saga justice. If you’re going to geek out this afternoon, I’d suggest reading through the linked articles. None is too long, and each is well worth the time. I’m not sure if others will adopt Chipper’s strategy, but I’ve certainly implemented it in The Show.