2010 Season Preview: Banking on another rebound candidate

In 2008 the Yankees posted their worst offensive season in recent memory. The unit finished seventh in the AL in runs scored, after finishing in the top five, and usually in the top three, since their playoff ran began. Injuries played a large role in the decline. Hideki Matsui missed the entire second half, as did Jorge Posada. Even Alex Rodriguez spent three weeks on the DL, and many think that Derek Jeter played through a wrist injury. The team also saw diminished production from a couple of its younger players, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera. In order to succeed in 2009, the Yankees needed bounce back seasons from more than one of those players.

When Brian Cashman traded for Nick Swisher that November, he placed an even deeper reliance on the team returning to form. Not only did he need rebounds from his own players, but now needed one from an incoming player. He didn’t place a huge bet on Swisher — he cost the team only spare parts, players who wouldn’t have had a role on any future Yankees team. But at the time he was slated to start at first base, leaving the lineup with not only five players who needed to rebound, but also one, Xavier Nady, who almost certainly wouldn’t repeat his 2008 success. It was a pretty big gamble, though mitigated when the Yanks acquired Mark Teixeira later that winter.

Somehow, the plan worked out on all fronts. While Rodriguez missed the first month of the season, Posada missed a couple of weeks, and Matsui couldn’t play the field, the Yankees saw each of their rebound candidates take that step forward. This off-season Cashman cashed in a few of those chips, letting Hideki Matsui leave as a free agent and trading Melky Cabrera in the Javy Vazquez trade. Yet he apparently enjoys picking up players coming off down years, as his first major move this winter was to acquire Curtis Granderson from the Tigers. The case is a bit different than Swisher’s, mainly because the Yankees paid a lot more for Granderson, but the rebound necessity remains.

Granderson’s 2009 offensive season looks more like a follow-up to his 2006 campaign rather than his 2008. In 2006 he put his potential on display as a 25-year-old, hitting .260/.335/.438, good for a .333 wOBA while playing a mean center field. In 2009 he hit .249/.327/.453 while playing a just above average center field. He slightly improve his walk rate from 2006, to 10.1 percent from 9.7, and also increased his ISO from .178 to .204. If he had posted his 2009 line in 2007 we would have thought it completely normal. His defense regressed, but he made improvements in other areas. Even his batting average can be explained by a poor BABIP, .275, down from .333 in 2006.

Of course, 2009 did not come directly after 2006. Instead, Granderson posted an elite season in 2007, hitting .302/.361/.552, a .395 wOBA. He also continued to track down more fly balls than his fellow center fielders. His WAR that season, 7.3, was more than a win better than the next highest center fielder, Aaron Rowand at 6.1. He followed that with a quality 2008 campaign in which he hit .280/.365/.494, a .374 wOBA, though his defense dipped a bit. That dropped him in the WAR rankings, though his offensive component still ranked fifth among his peers. It was good enough, in other words, that his performance in 2009 came as a surprise.

The good news for the Yankees is that even if he repeats his 2009 he’ll still post a more valuable season than Melky Cabrera did. Of course, the Yankees are looking for a bit more than that, since Granderson, along with Nick Johnson, is charged with replacing two of the heavier bats from the 2009 Yankees. A return to his 2008 form seems a feasible expectation, though his 2007 appears to be an outlier in almost every sense. Still, a.374 wOBA, at .280/.365/.494, would essentially replace Damon’s 2009 production.

How do the projection systems see it?

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Unsurprisingly, this checks in right around Granderson’s career line of .272/.344/.484. It would represent a modest improvement over his 2009, but when the Yankees traded their No. 2 prospect for him in December they likely expected more. I’m confident Granderson can deliver, too. He clearly has the tools, and now he’s surrounded by much better hitters than in the Detroit lineup. He’ll also face a lot less pressure as he moves from the leadoff spot to the bottom of the order (though I think there are worse ideas than trying him in the five hole).

The gamble on Granderson is clear. Cash in two winning chips, Matsui and Cabrera, and put another one down on the table. Again, because of what theYankees surrendered its a bit bigger gamble than they placed last year, but I think still a winnable one. If it does pay off, the Yankees will reap the benefits not only in 2010, but also over the next few years of Granderson’s contract.

Photo credit: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Link Dump: Backups, Cervelli, Media Jerks

Let’s start Friday off with a few random links from around the netweb…

Projecting the backup outfielders

Sean at Pending Pinstripes took a look at some projections for the Yankees’ reserve outfielders, which essentially includes everyone not named Curtis Granderson or Nick Swisher. Unsurprisingly, Brett Gardner projects to be the best player of the bunch in 2010 on the strength of his outstanding defense and slightly better than league average bat. What is surprising is that the second best projected performance comes from Reid Gorecki, a minor league free agent the Yanks signed back in January. Although his offense will be below average, his defense isn’t all that far off from Gardner’s.

Cervelli may go all Dark Helmet on us

After suffering a concussion last week when he took a pitch to the noggin, Frankie Cervelli might use one of those big Rawlings S100 batting helmets this year. It’s the same helmet David Wright comically wore a few times last year, when he did his best Rick Moranis in Spaceballs impression. Safety first, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh on the inside.

Bill Conlin is a jerk

Hopefully you remember this post from a few days ago, which disputed a claim from the Philly Inquirer’s Bill Conlin that the Phillies might have the best infield of the modern era. It’s pretty obvious he’s wrong, as they don’t even have the best infield of 2010. However, when a NoMaas reader by the name of Matt respectfully disagreed with Conlin, his emails were met with inflammatory responses. How could someone in Conlin’s position possibly be this disrespectful to his readers?

We joke about how the media in New York can be overly dramatic and stuff, but I’ll say this much, I’ve never felt disrespected by any of the guys who cover the Yankees, even when we were in disagreement. I feel bad for Phillies’ fans that have to put up with that.

How Joba can learn about reduced velocity from Lincecum

At this point last year, we began wondering about Joba Chamberlain‘s velocity. After throwing in the upper 90s out of the bullpen, and then mid-90s in the rotation, Joba had been throwing in the low-90s for most of spring training. This caused particular concern because Chamberlain had missed more than a month in 2008 with shoulder tendinitis. Without his heat, would he be as effective a pitcher?

Clearly, Joba needed to make adjustments if his fastball was to average 92 instead of 95. He didn’t make them consistently in 2009 and it led to a somewhat frustrating season. Now, as we head into a new season, we’re again wondering if Joba will recover his velocity, or if he’ll sit in the low 90s for the foreseeable future. As long as he can make adjustments with his command and secondary pitches his velocity shouldn’t be a problem. For a good sample case, we can look to last year’s NL Cy Young winner and the man picked 31 spots ahead of Chamberlain in 2006.

According to the Pitch F/x gun, Tim Lincecum went from averaging 94 mph in 2008 to 92.4 in 2009. Yet he struck out hitters at the same clip, gave up fewer hits, and walked fewer batters. In other words, he made the adjustments necessary to compensate for diminished fastball velocity. He continues to work with his new physical realities, and is honing his secondary pitches again this off-season. In particular, it looks like he’s working with his slider, perhaps with a goal of throwing it more than 10 percent of the time.

For Chamberlain, the drop-off seems a bit more precipitous. He went from averaging 95.2 mph in 2008 to 92.5 in 2009. That might appear to mislead, since it counts Joba’s innings as a reliever, where he threw in the upper 90s, along with his starts. But he also threw bullpen innings as a reliever after the injury and averaged just 93.9 mph there. As a starter, from June into August, he averaged 95.1 mph. I don’t think it’s likely that he consistently reaches that level as a starter again.

Even so, his velocity matched Lincecum’s last year. One major difference is that Lincecum adjusted by throwing the fastball less often. When it sat 94 mph in 2008 he threw it 65.5 percent of the time. But with a bit less zip he threw it less, just 55 percent. Joba, on the other hand, continued to throw the fastball frequently, at 63.3 percent. He also focussed on one secondary pitch, his slider, over another, his curve, while keeping the changeup almost completely out of his arsenal. Conversely, Lincecum used his two secondary pitches, change and curve, about equally. He also worked in his slider 7 percent of the time, more than Joba used the change.

Reducing his reliance on the fastball won’t necessarily make Joba a better pitcher. After all, if he doesn’t have confidence in his secondary pitches they won’t be very effective. But I think that continued heavy use of the fastball will present problems for his development. He certainly can succeed with it, but he might not be able to do so consistently. And if he can’t do that, it’s likely to the pen with him.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

RAB Fantasy Baseball League Part Five

Alright folks, the league settings are the same as the other four leagues (see them here), though remember that the maximum number of moves per week has been capped at eight. We don’t want people swapping out starters every day to build up those win and strikeout totals. If you missed out on the other leagues and want in, go to Yahoo and sign up using this info…

League ID: 442039
Password: riveraveblues

If you’ve already signed up for one of the other leagues, please don’t double up. Give everyone a chance.

Spring Training Game Thread: A look at the phenom

Aside from the general joy of watching baseball, there’s usually not much to get excited about when watching Spring Training games. Great pitching matchups last all of two innings, and by time a hot shot prospect enters the game, all the regulars are gone. But every so often something will come along that’s worth getting excited for, and tonight is one of those nights. Hitting third for the Braves tonight is the best prospect in baseball, rightfield Jason Heyward.

The 20-year-old is hitting .429-.619-.786 in seven spring games so far, and he did this just two days ago. He’s a lefthanded version of Jesus Montero at the plate, except with a better eye. Old buddy Melky Cabrera didn’t make the trip over, which is a shame. Either way, should be fun to watch Heyward’s handful of plate appearances.

Here’s the lineup…

Winn, DH
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Posada, C
Thames, LF
Hoffmann, CF
Pena, SS
Corona, 2B

Scheduled Pitchers: A.J. Burnett, and some other guys

Derek Jeter was in the original lineup, but he came down with the flu. First pitch has already been push back to 7:30pm ET because of the weather, but yo can watch on either YES or MLB Network once it gets underway. Until then, got ahead and open thread this sucker.

Update (7:48pm): The game has been canceled.

Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP

Yanks favored to land Hechevarria

Via GAK3, the Yankees are among the favorites to land Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria, and are battling four other teams to sign him. We heard they were heavily interested in him over the weekend, and he’s apparently been working out at the team’s complex in the Dominican. One scout compared him physically to Alfonso Soriano, which tells us that he’s rail thin and absolutely nothing about his game.

If you were Hechevarria, why would you come to the Yankees? Derek Jeter is going to re-sign after the season and isn’t going anywhere for a while, and Robbie Cano is under contract for another few years. Doesn’t really make sense, playing time wise.

Remembering the Yankees pursuit of Brian Giles

In the second retirement announcement in two days, Brian Giles has decided to hang ‘em up. He had signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers this winter, hoping to win a spot on the bench, but a knee injury held him back. Over his 15-year career Giles amassed a triple slash of .291/.400/.502, good for a 136 OPS+, including 287 home runs and 1,897 hits. He’s certainly not a Hall of Famer, but anyone who finishes his career with a .400 OBP and .500 SLG certainly ranks among the best of his era.

The Yankees and Giles crossed paths in the winter of 2005-2006, as the Yankees sought their center fielder of the future. Bernie Williams, in the last year of his seven-year, $87.5 million deal, had declined considerably over the last few years and by May was replaced in center field, temporarily, by Tony Womack. Even Melky Cabrera got a premature shot that July. With Bernie’s contract off the books, the Yankees could concentrate on finding a true center fielder.

One attractive name among the free agent class was Brian Giles. He had played just 133 innings in center field in 2005, and just 711 in the decade to that point, but the Yankees thought his athleticism would allow him to transition well to the position. Mostly, though, they wanted his bat in their lineup. Even in a down year, 2004, he posted a .366 wOBA. From 1999 through 2003 he had kept that mark over .400, and in 2005 he rebounded to .393. He would have figured somewhere in the middle of the order, along with Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Jason Giambi.

The Yankees made their interest known, even enlisting Joe Torre to make the same phone call that wooed Giambi, Mike Mussina, and (sigh) Carl Pavano. It turned out, though, that Giles was never really interested in joining the Yankees and ended up signing a three-year, $30 million contract with the Padres with a $9 million team option for 2009. The Yankees, still needing someone better than Bubba Crosby in center field, ended up signing Johnny Damon less than a month after losing out on Giles.

Though Giles seemed like the better target at the time, the Yankees dodged a bullet when he signed with San Diego. While he had a full and healthy 2006 season, his production declined to below his 2004 level. This came mostly with his power. His ISO dropped to .134, about .050 lower than his previous career low — which came in 2005. Giles did recover some power over the following two seasons, and did have a quality 2008 season. But in each season from 2005 through 2009 Damon outhit him. Giles also performed poorly on defense in right field, and probably would have flopped in center for the Yanks.

At the time, I was a Giles advocate. That OBP was too pretty to pass up. What I did not consider was that Giles could decline with age. He was 35 for the 2006 season, and age certainly did take its toll. I can only imagine what would have happened to the Yankees had they signed him.

Photo credit: Eric Risberg/AP