Mike Lowell and a possible return to pinstripes

The Yankees walked away from the trade deadline having upgraded three roster spots with Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, and Kerry Wood, and we know they wanted to add a utility infielder as well. They can still do that through a waiver trade in August, so the door isn’t closed on replacing Ramiro Pena, who unsurprisingly was unable to maintain his career best .312 wOBA from last year (seriously, his best full-season wOBA in the minors was .303 with Double-A Trenton in 2008). What is surprising is one of the players the Yanks targeted for that reserve infielder spot: Mike Lowell.

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Ken Rosenthal said yesterday that the Yanks tried to pick up the former Bomber indirectly from the Red Sox on Friday. He says it would have been a three team swap involving the Rangers, who have long had interest in Lowell as they searched for a righthanded hitting first baseman, but didn’t elaborate on any other players that would have been involved in the deal. I can’t imagine it would’ve been much. The Red Sox were aware that Lowell would have ended up in the Bronx, and the Berkman trade did not alter the Yanks’ plans at all.

This isn’t the first time the Yankees have had interest in Lowell, as I’m sure you remember. After Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract in 2007, Lowell – that year’s World Series MVP – became an obvious target to fill that third base void. Even after A-Rod re-signed, the Yanks still had interest in Lowell as a first baseman, reportedly offering him a four year deal worth upwards of $60M. Thankfully that ended up being untrue, because it would have been a massive albatross if Lowell accepted (there would have been about $20.4M still left on said deal), assuming his hip issues were inevitable.

I know there have been several studies showing that “contract years” are largely a myth, but Lowell’s 2007 season sure looks like one hell of a salary drive. After 1,189 plate appearances of .319 wOBA ball in 2005 and 2006, he rebounded to post a .377 wOBA in ’07 with his usually stellar defense, a season worth 5.2 wins above replacement. It was the best season of Lowell’s career, surpassing his 4.6 win season back in 2004. He certainly took advantage of Fenway Park during that contract year, hitting to a .426 wOBA at home and just .330 on the road.

Lowell predictably regressed back to a .344 wOBA and 3.0 WAR in 2008, solid numbers but not what he had produced the year before. Following the season he required surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, though he was ready in time for Spring Training and remained productive at the plate, putting up a .346 wOBA. His defense, like we saw with A-Rod, dropped off considerably after surgery, as his UZR dropped to -10.7 because of what FanGraphs has as a 21.7 run decline in his range from 2008. A-Rod’s defense has certainly gotten better as he’s gotten further away from surgery, but Lowell really gotten a chance to show us similar improvement because he hasn’t played much.

This season, with Adrian Beltre and Kevin Youkilis having MVP caliber seasons and David Ortiz finding the Fountain of Youth in mid-May, Lowell simply hasn’t played. He hit the disabled list in June after coming to the plate just 76 times in April and May (.306 wOBA). Sporadic playing time equals sporadic results, though ZiPS rest of the season projection calls for what I think is an optimistic .338 wOBA. One thing to keep in mind is that over the last two years Lowell has a .296 wOBA away from the Green Monster (.383 at home). Even worse than the production are the nagging hip issues, which includes a pair of DL stints due to inflammation and several individual days missed.

Even going beyond the performance issues, Lowell really doesn’t fit the Yanks’ needs in the grand scheme of things. He’s not a true utility infielder because he can’t fill in at short (and less importantly, second base), so Ramiro Pena would have to remain on the roster. The Yanks would essentially be swapping out Marcus Thames (.373 wOBA vs. LHP) with Lowell (.352 wOBA vs. LHP over the last two years), sacrificing a little offense for third base insurance should A-Rod’s hip act up. Insurance with his own hip issues, mind you.

Of course, the only way the Red Sox are moving Lowell at this point is by eating basically everything left on his contract, which is about $4.22M at the moment. Considering that they’re on the hook for $11.15M still owed to Julio Lugo, Alex Gonzalez, Boof Bonser, and Billy Wagner, eating another $12M for Lowell while getting just 0.1 WAR out of him this year seems like it would be a tough pill to swallow, but at this point they have no choice. Jed Lowrie and Bill Hall will be the backup infielders once Dustin Pedroia is healthy, and a smart organization like Boston won’t sit on a dead roster spot with Lowell just to avoid eating his salary.

The Red Sox will try to trade Lowell, but chances are they’re just going to end up releasing him at some point. And that’s what Lowell wants. He wants to be able to choose his next team where he can actually play and audition himself for next year. The Rangers, long considered a perfect suitor, now have their righty first baseman in Jorge Cantu. The Yanks became a more realistic landing spot for Lowell once that trade went down. I’m not saying I want Lowell on the Yankees, but based on their history with him I would not at all be surprised if he ends up in pinstripes sometime this month.

The projected improvement of the Yankees

In the past two days we’ve been introduced to the newest bunch of New York Yankees. While the team has sat in first place since mid-June, there are always opportunities to improve. The Yankees took advantage of that by acquiring Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, and Kerry Wood for Mark Melancon, Jimmy Paredes, two players to be named later, and partial payment of the players’ remaining salaries. If that sounds like a haul, well, it is — and not just because the three carry name value. They’re all upgrades over the in-house alternative.

In essence, Berkman replaced Juan Miranda as the DH against right-handed pitchers (I assume Marcus Thames will continue to get at least some starts at DH against LHP), Kearns replaced Colin Curtis, and Wood replaced Chan Ho Park. Again, the upgrades are clear just by looking at the names. Just how much difference will they make? Let’s take a look at the in-house player and his replacement using ZiPS rest of season projections.

Berkman over Miranda

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

With Nick Johnson out, the Yanks have had to make a few adjustments with the DH spot in the lineup. For a while Jorge Posada was playing there, but after his foot was declared fully healthy he slid back in behind the plate, where his bat provides more value. That left a vacancy at DH against right-handed pitching, since Marcus Thames had it covered against lefties. Juan Miranda was the obvious choice, a lefty with a questionable glove and some pop. He appeared at the plate just 67 times this year, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can really do. The Yanks, apparently, were not willing to have a look and see.

In those 67 PA Miranda produced a .323 wOBA, mostly because of his .213 ISO. His OBP was .299, which is never productive for a DH. ZiPS actually had him a bit worse the rest of the way, a .242/.313/.392 line that amounts to a .313 wOBA. That’s not the stuff of a DH. Even if you want to adjust it upward, thinking that he’ll face almost no LHP, I don’t think you could get even to league average with the adjustment. Juan Miranda just wasn’t the answer at DH.

The most important part of the Berkman trade, I think, is how he’s improved every month since undergoing knee surgery in March. That should make for a more optimistic rest-of-season projection, and ZiPS doesn’t fail us there. It projects him to hit .265/.385/.488 the rest of the way, or a .384 wOBA. That’s more DH-like production. Even if he produces a bit less than that, say a .370 wOBA, it’s still a significant upgrade over the in-house options. It will look even better if that .384 projection includes his numbers against LHP. Replace those with Marcus Thames, and that’s a strong DH platoon.

*Though I’m not entirely certain they’ll employ a platoon. Tough to tell a player of Berkman’s caliber that he’s sitting against lefties.

Kearns over Curtis

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Surprisingly, I found a few Yanks fans who weren’t so hot on this deal. I couldn’t figure out why. Colin Curtis is nice and all, and his mid-at-bat pinch-hit home run last month remains one of my favorite memories of 2010. As a useful player, though, give me Kearns every time. He can play defense at the corners and can get on base at a decent clip. Despite a few down years he still has a .353 career OBP.

ZiPS does not cover Curtis, since he didn’t factor into the Yanks’ roster during the off-season. We can safely assume that he wouldn’t produce a .337 wOBA, which is what ZiPS projects for Kearns the rest of the way. For a fourth outfielder that’s rather impressive. It will also give the Yanks the option to sit Curtis Granderson against the tougher lefties in the league, which will not only remove his production against lefties, but also perhaps help Kearns’s numbers since he’d be facing mostly opposite-handed pitchers. Colin Curtis would not afford them that opportunity.

Wood over Park

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The idea behind acquiring Kerry Wood is that he can provide the Yankees an additional option in the late-innings — the Bridge to Mariano if you will. Maybe he’ll be that good, maybe he won’t. Yet in terms of direct value, he is probably an excellent upgrade over Chan Ho Park, the pitcher the Yankees removed from the roster after acquiring Wood.

Despite a good season out of the pen for Park in 2009, ZiPS isn’t so high on him for the rest of the season. I fully expected to see something like a 3.90 ERA projection, but instead ZiPS sees Park as we fans do, as someone who can’t get the job done. It projects a 5.59 ERA with a 4.84 FIP for the final two months. Clearly the Yanks can do better than that, even if they chose to go in-house.

ZiPS projects Wood a bit more favorably, a 4.50 ERA and 3.80 FIP, including 10.13 K/9 and an acceptable home run rate. That’s not the stuff of a primary setup man, but it’s certainly better than Park. Plus, the idea behind this acquisition was pure upside. The Yanks know that Wood can beat those projections if everything is working. They’re hoping, in other words, that they get the 2008 version of Wood, the guy who struck out 11.40 per nine, kept his walk rate below 2.50, and kept the ball in the park.

But even if he doesn’t, he’s still one of the better options in the bullpen.

Fan Confidence Poll: August 2nd, 2010

Record Last Week: 4-3 (30 RS, 20 RA)
Season Record: 66-38 (533 RS, 425 RA, 64-40 Pythag. record), 1.0 games up
Schedule This Week: vs. Blue Jays (three games, Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, vs. Red Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

{democracy:107}

Yanks offense shut down as Rays take series

The game was all Rays from the beginning. Yanks hitters couldn’t touch James Shields, and while Sabathia didn’t pitch poorly his couple of mistakes were all the Rays needed. That hands the weekend series to the Rays and tips the season series in their favor. The two teams will have to settle this in September.

Biggest Pitch: Shield’s changeup

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

In our series preview it was tough to ignore the part about James Sheilds. It highlights just how good he’s become. He had a few rough games early in the first half, but all pitchers go through rough patches. Yesterday he dominated, allowing just four hits and walking one through 7.1 innings. Eleven Yankees, including five straight from the third into the fifth, struck out. They had a couple of chances early on, moving a runner to third in the second and then again in the third. Neither situation worked out.

As expected, Shields attacked Yankees hitters with his changeup. He threw it 31 times out of 116, and got 10 swings and misses. The pitch not only generated a few strikeouts itself, but it also made his fastball tougher, as the Yanks swung and missed at four four-seamers and four cutters. It didn’t look like there was much they could do with what Shields was feeding them.

Biggest Hits: Not that big

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

It’s not that the Rays’ big hits today weren’t meaningful. It’s that they weren’t forcibly struck. Instead the Yanks got unlucky results on a few dinks and dunks. It ended up costing them. Not that they would have fared much better if they’d made those outs. Shields wasn’t giving them anything this game.

After a 1-2-3 first Sabathia got ahead of Willy Aybar to start the second. The third pitch, a curveball, didn’t look bad, as it ended up low and away. Aybar got the barrel on it, though, and sent it down the left field line where it bounced into the seats for a ground rule double. A comebacker and a fly out later it looked like the Yanks might strand him. But Kelly Shoppach inside outed an inside fastball just over Lance Berkman’s head. That gave Aybar a chance to score the game’s first run.

The Rays scored their other two runs in the second, and again they seemed preventable. Reid Brignac started things by grounding one towards the middle. Robbie Cano made a slick play, but didn’t get enough on the throw. It bounced and Berkman couldn’t make the scoop. I’m not the only person who wonders if Teixeira would have had that. That set up the Rays well for B.J. Upton’s double, setting them up with runners on first and second with none out.

Sometimes you get the right result and still don’t see a reward. Sabathia delivered a 2-2 fastball low and away to Carl Crawford, and he chopped it slowly towards short. The run was certainly going to score, but because of Crawford’s speed he also reached safely. It also allowed the runner to advance, significant because he then scored on Evan Longoria’s around the horn double play. Sabathia didn’t give them anything after that, but they had all they’d need.

Miscelanny

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Good job by Kerry Wood, striking out three in his Yankees debut. Poor job of loading the bases and leaving it in Chad Gaudin’s hands.

The Rays had baserunners in every inning except the second and the seventh.

No Yankee reached base to lead off an inning.

Not a great day in the field for Berkman. He wasn’t missing routine plays, but he probably should have made one of the two, the catch over his head or the scoop from Cano. I’m not sure he would have made the play on Jason Bartlett even if he’d have fielded it cleanly.

It’s going to take a while still to get used to him in a Yankees uniform.

Graph and chart

The highlights would be too depressing.

More at FanGraphs. Also, box score.

Up Next

The Yanks head home to face the Blue Jays. Brandon Morrow and A.J. Burnett take the mound.

A loss at every level

I’m two days late on this, but Brandon Laird was named the third hottest prospects in the minors in last week’s Prospect Hot Sheet. As a reward, he was promoted to Triple-A following today’s game. Corban Joseph goes up to Double-A. Congrats to both guys, the promotions were well deserved.

Triple-A Scranton (3-1 loss to Syracuse)
Kevin Russo, 2B: 1 for 5 – Reegie Corona’s still out after the late-game collision the other day
Eric Bruntlett, SS: 0 for 5
Eduardo Nunez, 3B: 0 for 4 – with no trade for a utility infielder, he’ll again audition at the hot corner
Juan Miranda, 1B: 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K
Jesus Montero, C: 1 for 4, 1 K – six for his last 30 (.200)
Colin Curtis, RF & Jorge Vazquez, DH: both 0 for 3, 2 K, 1 SB – Curtis scored a run … JoVa walked
Chad Huffman, LF: 2 for 3, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 HBP
Greg Golson, CF: 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K
Zach McAllister: 7 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 8 K, 7-3 GB/FB – 62 of 102 pitches were strikes (60.8%) … it’s good to see the strikeouts and grounders, but this is the ninth straight start in which he’s allowed a homer
Eric Wordekemper: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K – 14 of his 20 pitches were strikes
Zach Segovia: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0-2 GB/FB – 12 of his 22 pitches were strikes (54.5%)

[Read more…]

Open Thread: One out of three and still in the lead

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Well, it would have been nice to take two of three against the Rays, but at least the Yankees remain in first place. Could be worse, I guess. The Yanks play again tomorrow, so they’ll have a chance to turn things around in short order. Nothing you can do other than shake it off and come ready to play against the Blue Jays.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. The ESPN Sunday Night Game is a good one, the Dodgers at the Giants (Kershaw vs. Cain). Talk about that or whatever else you want here

At the deadline, taking on the dough

Now that the trade deadline dust has settled, we can see how the Yankees used their financial might to their advantage this weekend. By taking on the contracts of Austin Kearns, Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood, the Yanks upped their payroll by approximately $4.8 million, and they gave up only a pair of minor leaguers they won’t miss. For a club in the Yanks’ position, the ability to take on money is a key advantage at the deadline. By agreeing to pick up some of these contracts, the Yanks improved their depth without sacrificing any of their promising prospects. That’s how teams like the Yankees should approach the deadline when sellers are asking too much for their talent.