2011 Season Preview: Nick Swisher

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

It remains one of Brian Cashman‘s finest trades. In early November, 2008, as a prelude to his big score in free agency, he traded Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez, and Jhonny Nunez for Kanekoa Texeira and Nick Swisher. Coming off a 2008 season in which he hit .219, Swisher must have been seen as a risk, since Ken Williams traded him for so little. That was an odd notion, considering Swisher’s numbers from his previous two seasons. It all played into the Yankees’ game, and they’ve benefitted greatly from the deal.

A year later Betemit left the White Sox while Marquez and Nunez had their shares of struggles. The Yankees, on the other hand, got a career year out of Swisher, who played a significant role on the 103-win regular season team. He did struggle in the playoffs, but his Game 3 RBI was certainly an important one. Swisher followed that up in 2010 with what was perhaps a better year. Hitting coach Kevin Long thinks that we can’t expect Swisher to be even better in 2011, because he was that good in 2010. Unsurprisingly, Swisher himself does not agree with that assessment.

Best Case

(Peter Morgan/AP)

Prior to 2010, Swisher had always been a low-average, high-walk, high-strikeout guy. That worked well enough for him. He hit for power and got on base frequently, which more than made up for the low average. But last season he displayed a more aggressive approach at the plate. He swung far more often than he ever had in his career. This led to a remarkably lower walk rate — just 9 percent, down from 16 percent in 2009 — but it also led to more hits. Swisher’s .288 batting average was a career high by a long shot. His OBP suffered a little bit, but the extra hits helped him provide more value at the plate — a 133 wRC+, which topped his 125 from 2009.

The best case, then, would have Swisher putting together the best of both worlds. That is, putting something like a .275 average on top of a 15 percent walk rate, while adding his 2009 power numbers to the mix. Working on a 650 PA scale, since it would represent a healthy season between the Nos. 2 and 6 spots in the lineup, that would mean a .275/.383/.525 line. That’s better than Swisher has ever hit in a season, which would mean a third straight career best year while in pinstripes. It’s also a realistic take on the best case. Considering what we’ve seen from Swisher, it’s not all that unbelievable.

Worst Case

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Chances are that Swisher has already seen his worst season. In Chicago he was moved both in the order and in the field. During his days in Oakland he was a corner outfielder who hit fifth or sixth in the order. The White Sox, noting his high OBP, put him in the leadoff spot. They also stuck him in center field, which, considering his speed and range, probably isn’t the best position for him. Those factors, along with a reportedly tumultuous relationship with manager Ozzie Guillen, played into Swisher’s only below-average offensive season.

Could he reach those depths again? It’s possible, but while he’s been in New York he has proved that 2008 was an outlier and nothing more. How low can Swisher sink, then? If we combine the low points for Swisher, 2009’s BA with 2010’s walk rate and ISO, we’d get .250/.317/.473. That would make him look fairly pedestrian. Injury is part of every player’s worst case, but with Swisher it’s not a big risk at all. He hasn’t hit the DL since 2005, though he did miss a number of days in 2010 thanks to a series of nagging injuries.

What’s Likely To Happen

The most likely case from Swisher is an approximation of his production from the past two years. He’s in his prime and, by his own indications, more motivated than ever. While he might not quite hit his lofty best case scenario, he probably won’t be a great deal worse. Think .265/.370/.500 or thereabouts. On most teams that would easily make him one of the three best hitters on the team, and on the bottom feeders he’d be the star. But on the Yankees he’s at best fourth.

In the last two years Yankees fans have had the pleasure of knowing Nick Swisher. He rubs some people the wrong way with his lively, talkative nature, but that doesn’t take away from his on-field production. He might be prone to the occasional bonehead play in the field or on the base paths, but day in and day out he’s a solid contributor to a championship team.

To close, I’ll leave you with a graph that we’ve seen plenty of in the past year or so. Click to make it larger.

Mailbag: Killer B’s, Igawa, A-Jax, Culver

I’ve got four questions this week, three of which deal with a current or former Yankees prospect. The other has to do with a guy taking up space in the minors. Remember to send in your questions via the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.

Boom or bust? (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Joe asks: Do you think there is any chance the Yanks keep and develop all of the Killer B’s?  I know the odds of all three reaching their ceiling and staying healthy are long, and as you or Joe or Ben said last week don’t fall in love with your prospects, but it be nice to see them all on the big club.  What % do you think it will occur?

If you’ve got three pitching prospects of that caliber, my general (and completely amateur) rule of thumb is that one will reach (or at least approach) his ceiling, one will fall short of his ceiling but still be a productive big leaguer, and the third will be a complete bust. The Yankees exceeded that with Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy, turning them into two viable big league starters and a reliever. Look back at the Red Sox five years ago; they got an ace, a reliever, and a bust out of Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, and Craig Hansen.

I’d expect Manny Banuelos to approach his ceiling, Andrew Brackman to fall short of his ceiling but be a useful player, and Dellin Betances to be the complete bust out of the Killer B’s. Nothing personal, it’s just that Dellin’s health record scares me. That said, I fully expect them to trade one of those guys, probably sometime this year. The big league team needs pitching right now, and the Yankees have some high end pitching depth and can afford to move one of those guys.

Of course I’d love to see all three of them stay with the team and flourish in the big leagues, but the odds are so stacked against it. I’d give it less than a 50-50 chance that all three will stay with the Yankees for the next few years, and less than a 5% chance that all three turn into productive players. Prospects will break your heart, the Killer B’s are no different than the hundreds that came before them.

Nicolai asks: If Kei Igawa was blocking somebody from being promoted to Scranton, could the Yankees just send him down to Trenton, Tampa or Charleston?

Yep, absolutely. The Yankees actually sent him all the way down to High-A Tampa for two starts in 2007. Igawa’s not blocking anyone from anything.

A different Joe asks: I was listening to the Yankees game and it was the Tigers radio crew. They claimed A-Jax would be a 15 homer and 40 SB guy this season. I personally don’t see this happening at all. Any thoughts on it?

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

This year? No way, not in Comerica. Austin Jackson has 17 homers total in his last 1,816 plate appearances dating back to 2007, so I don’t see a sudden spike happening. I could definitely see 15 homers at his peak, maybe even 20, but 2011 is too soon for that. If Jackson did pop double-digit homers this year, that would mean everything went right for him and he even squeezed in an inside-the-parker or three. Of all the projection systems out there, only CAIRO and ZiPS have him hitting more than six homers, and both forecast seven.

I like Jackson and there’s no doubt that he’s an above-average player, but expecting 15 homers out of him this year is a bit much. Even the 40 steals is a bit of a question mark (27 last year), but it’s not as unbelievable as the power numbers. Just for some perspective, only three different players have had a 15-40 season in the last three years, and Carl Crawford was the only one to do it twice.

Anthony asks: What’s the projection for 2010 first rounder Cito Culver as a major leaguer? Does he have the potential to be a solid starter on a high caliber team?

Culver’s long-term value is going to lie mostly in his glovework, which, luckily, is really really good. Is he going to be Derek Jeter? Absolutely not. Is he going to be Cesar Izturis? Eh, maybe. It’s always possible. I think the best case scenario for the Yankees’ 2010 first round pick is an above-average defensive shortstop (probably not Gold Glove caliber though) that hits for average, draws some walks, and steals some bases. Culver doesn’t have much power and doesn’t project to down the road, but he’s switch-hitter with some contact skills, and he did manage to a walk in nearly ten percent of his plate appearances in his pro debut last summer.

If I had to put numbers on it, which I hate doing, I think his offensive ceiling is something like .300/.360/.400, right around a .350 wOBA. Culver also has the speed and skills to steal a healthy amount of bags, maybe even 40+ in his basestealing prime. Stick that at shortstop over 600 plate appearances with say, +4 or +5 run defense, and you’ve got a four win player. Again, that’s not Derek Jeter, but that’s a player good enough to start on a championship team. Of course, Culver has a long, looong way to go to live up to that potential.

Who’s got two thumbs and is excited for the next Colon start?

Why, this guy, of course.

When I wrote last night about the inaccuracies of the Yankee stadium subway race, a few readers questioned the post. Although it was labeled whimsy and although it’s the slow days of mid-Spring Training, how dare we have fun. Instead, because the Internet is Serious Business™, we should only focus on serious things such as the Yanks’ dearth of pitchers. In reply, I promised a post with just this title, so here we go.

Later tonight, for the second time this spring Bartolo Colon, all 265 pounds of him, will take the mound for his second attempt at impressing the Yanks. And honestly, I’m legitimately excited. It’s not that Colon is that compelling a storyline by itself, but the game is a Friday night affair against the Red Sox. It’s on the YES Network and the MLB Network, and both Mark Prior and Manny Banuelos will get innings as well. That’s reason to sit through some Colon pitches.

So far, it’s early. We can’t say for sure which Yankee pitchers are getting rotation spots, but we can handicap the race. Through six games, Colon is the only guy competing for a starting rotation job to give up any runs. Yet, outside of two Ivan Nova appearances, no pitcher has more than a pair of innings under his belt. It’s tough to draw any conclusions from the early goings. That said, it certainly seems as though a race is taking shape, and it will inform the way we view Spring Training over the next few weeks.

On Thursday, Freddy Garcia took the hill for his first outing of the spring. As the Yanks had run through their rotation candidates, it seemed as though Garcia was playing the part of the forgotten man. What is happening though is that he’s playing the part of the almost sure thing. The Yankees are going to give Garcia every opportunity to lose a rotation spot, and as long as he’s serviceable, he’ll be the club’s fourth starter.

Garcia knows that too. While speaking with reporters after the game, the right-hander put the onus on him to pitch as though he belongs. “I’m watching,” he said of the rotation race, “but I don’t really think about it because if I lose that spot, that’s my fault. I wish them good luck; hopefully everybody pitches good. But at the end of the day I’ll be the one [to blame] if I lose that spot.”

Ivan Nova to the rescue.

Meanwhile, as Marc Carig noted, Nova drew some raves as well. He relieved Garcia and threw three scoreless frames. Of his 35 pitches, 22 went for strikes, and although he gave up a hit per inning, he kept Tampa Bay off the board. The Yankees like his composure and like his stuff. Right now, he’s edging ahead of Bartolo Colon for that fifth spot.

Of course, Colon could turn that around tonight with a strong outing. He’ll get three or even four innings to show something, and the Yanks will begin to see what his fastball and stamina looks like as he works deeper into a game. Colon, as we know, hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2009, and he remains a long shot to make the team.

Ultimately, though, for the Yanks, the decision will have to be one of depth. If the Yanks jettison Colon before Opening Day, he won’t be around to spell anyone in the rotation should someone get hurt or should Nova fail to make it through the lineup three times. After Nova, the depth turns into Sergio Mitre and a bunch of kids with limited AAA experience. If the Yanks tab Colon for the rotation and he falters, all that’s lost is a few games, and then Nova gets his shot. The Yanks have to make their pick their poison before the month is out, and as the innings mount, Colon might have to play catch up to keep himself in the race.

Single-game tix on sale next Friday

The Yankees announced this evening that single-game tickets for the 2011 season will go on sale next week. At 10 a.m. on Friday, March 11, 2011, fans purchase any single-game tickets available via this page on the team’s official site. Considering how many tickets are sold as a part of the club’s various season ticket packages, it’s tough to say how many single-game seats are left, but those who act fast can usually find a few good games for sale. If not, there’s always RAB Tickets for all of your secondary market needs.

Open Thread: March 3rd Camp Notes

The latest from Tampa…

  • The Yankees and Rays played to a one-all tie this afternoon. Freddy Garcia threw two scoreless innings and Ivan Nova followed him up with three of his own, but Dellin Betances lost control and walked in a run in his second inning of work. Eric Chavez doubled and Curtis Granderson singled, but the run scored late in the game thanks to some funny defense by the Tampa B-team. Here’s the box score.
  • “If I lose this [rotation] spot, it’s my fault,” said Garcia afterwards, who acknowledged that he’ll have to shake his history of poor springs to keep that job. He was clocked at 88-89 mph with the fastball, surprisingly good (for him). (Erik Boland & George King)
  • Phil Hughes, David Robertson, and Steve Garrison all threw side sessions today. Andrew Brackman tossed his bullpen session as scheduled, and will get into a simulated game on this weekend. (Chad Jennings)

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Rangers are the only local team in action tonight, though both SNY and MLB Network are showing replays of today’s Mets-Cardinals game if you’re so inclined. You all know what to do, so have at it.

Food For Thought: A.J. Burnett

Over the last three years, A.J. Burnett has hit 38 batters with pitches, the most in baseball. Twenty-one of those 38 batters were left-handed, or 55.3%. Right-handed pitchers around the league have about a 68%/32% split (RHB/LHB) on hit-by-pitches during that time, so Burnett’s clearly an outlier in that regard.

Those two heat maps above come courtesy of David Pinto at Baseball Analysts, and they show the general location of the pitches that have hit left-handed batters over those last three seasons. The graph on the left is the league average, the one on the right is Burnett. He’s not hitting these batters up high (around the shoulders, arms, and hands) like everyone else, he’s catching them down around the feet and ankles. Why? It’s the curveball, as Pinto shows in his post.

Thirteen of those 21 hit-by-pitches came with two strikes, which is why A.J. really goes to the hook. Hitting a batter is bad enough, but doing so in a two strike count is as infuriating as it gets. Hopefully those new mechanics get help straighten Burnett out, because free baserunners are a bad, bad thing.

The RAB Radio Show: March 3, 2011

There was plenty to like from today’s game against the Rays, not least of which was Ivan Nova going three innings. This might not be noteworthy by itself, but it does signal that they pitchers are increasing their workload. Hey, we’ll take anything that makes Opening Day feel closer.

Somehow, as we discussed the game and the guys involved, Mike and I got sidetracked on the Angels. They seem to attract bad contracts, and they didn’t help that reputation this winter. It’s nice that they’re no longer a perpetual thorn in the Yanks’s side.

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