2011 Season Preview: Alex Rodriguez

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.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last summer, Alex Rodriguez managed to hit .270/.341/.506 (.363 wOBA) with 30 homers, 3.9 fWAR, and more runs driven in (125) than anyone not named Miguel Cabrera. It was the worst full season of his career. Those are the kinds of standards A-Rod has set for himself, when being the seventh most valuable third baseman in the game is a self-admitted disappointment.

Finally given a clean bill of health for his surgically repaired hip after the season, nearly two years out from surgery, Alex went out and shed ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat this winter in an effort to streamline a body that was hardly out-of-shape. He came to camp noticeable slimmer and said he felt lighter on his feet, but all the workouts in the world can’t change the fact that A-Rod is a soon-to-be 36-year-old third baseman with a questionable hip.

Even if you discount the contract that runs through Phil Hughes‘ age 31 season, the Yankees need Alex to be a middle-of-the-lineup force in 2011, a guy that strikes fear into the heart of opposing pitchers and produces runs by the bucketful. If things break right, it will be glorious. If it doesn’t … well there’s some serious ugly potential.

Best Case

For most players, an MVP caliber season represents their best case scenario. For A-Rod, it seems like he’s capable of so much more; you know he has the talent to put up a year that re-writes the record books. The chances of him doing so are far less likely now than they were five or ten years ago, of course, but I’ll never put anything beyond Rodriguez.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

With his hip finally a-okay, A-Rod’s once again capable of fully rotating his lower half during his swing, bringing back his power stroke and making those 30 homers he’s hit in each of the last two years look like child’s play. He’s able to hang in more against pitches on the outer half, raising his .304 wOBA on balls hit to the opposite field over the last two years back to the .359 mark he posted in the three years before the surgery. With some help from Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch, he might even be able to top that. A-Rod’s sharp decline against left-handed pitchers (.323 wOBA in 2010 after .402 in 2009 and .395 career) turns out to be nothing more than a one year blip, explained by his comically low .212 BABIP against southpaws last season. More power means more walks as pitchers avoid him, raising that on-base percentage back up to an elite level. The statistical correction against lefties and his rediscovered power stroke bring back the glorious days of no doubt about it, take it to the bank .400+ wOBA production with 35+ homers.

Thanks to the decreased bulk and fully healed hip, A-Rod’s defense at the hot corner improves dramatically. His increased range on balls hit to his left saves a few extra runs and makes Derek Jeter‘s defensive shortcomings slightly more tolerable. Improved durability, well-above average offense, and above average defense at the hot corner makes Alex a legitimate MVP candidate again, a six win player that is always a three week hot streak away from a seven win season.

Worst Case

As wonderful as the clean bill of health for the hip is, it can’t reverse the aging process. A-Rod’s declining ISO just keeps going south, meaning the days of 30+ homers are long gone. Without the constant threat of being taken deep, pitcher pound him inside with fastballs with reckless abandon, resulting in a whole lot of broken bats and weak grounders that kill his average. Walks become even harder to come by, and the issues with southpaws turn out to be very real. Without warning, A-Rod’s turned into a glorified Edwin Encarnacion with the stick.

The defense doesn’t improve even with Rodriguez’s new streamlined physique and healthy hip; the reflexes just aren’t quick enough anymore. For the fourth straight year, he’s unable to play in more than 138 games, overexposing the likes of Eric Chavez, Ramiro Pena, and Eduardo Nunez. The similarities between A-Rod and late-career Mike Lowell become painfully obvious on the field, and it would be fitting since they both had the same major injury as they approached their mid-30’s.

Although the worst case scenario probably has the Yankees’ third baseman putting up a 2.5 or 3.0 fWAR season in 2011, it’s very possible that he’d be the fifth best player at the position in the AL East. That says as much about the abilities of Evan Longoria, Kevin Youkilis, Jose Bautista, and Mark Reynolds as it does A-Rod’s floor. Having the fifth best third baseman in the division while there’s $143M left on his contract would be an albatross of the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s tough to nail down reasonable expectations for A-Rod. On one hand his production and durability has been down over the last three seasons (relatively speaking, of course), but on the other you know he’s capable of a monster campaign. If he hit put up a .350 wOBA with 25-30 homers, I don’t think anyone would be too surprised. If he posted a .400 wOBA with 35-40 homers, yeah I don’t think that would be a huge shock either. Unlikely at his age, but we’ve seen Alex do amazing things before.

Although I’m encouraged by how he looked over the weekend with regards to his weight loss and mobility, it was two games in February and tells us basically nothing. It’s very likely that the power decline is real and will continue, though we’re talking about a guy still capable of a .200+ ISO and 25 homers. I think he’s due for some positive regression on balls in play in 2011; his .270 BABIP in 2010 was good amount below his .296 expected BABIP (xBABIP), and that performance against southpaws is just so out of the ordinary that I can’t help but think it’s a fluke (jut 173 plate appearances against lefties last year, not a big sample at all). Even if he doesn’t return to the .450 wOBA monster he’s been throughout his career against left-handers, splitting the difference and getting back to a .380 wOBA would be a major upgrade over last season.

A-Rod is going to continue to hit in the middle of the Yankees lineup and will be heavily counted on for run production, and he’s fully aware of this. His skills are undeniably in decline in his mid-30’s, but his starting baseline was so high that if he’s just 75% of his peak, he’s still one of the best players in the game. Another season with a .270/.340/.500-ish line would be somewhat disappointing, sure, but still incredibly valuable.

Jesus Montero, Backup Catcher?

Eye of the ... Jesus. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

All throughout the offseason, the Yankees have maintained that Russell Martin is the starting catcher, saying so rather unequivocally on numerous occasions. They haven’t been so committal when talking about the backup catcher’s spot though, saying that Jesus Montero and Austin Romine were in direct competition with the incumbent Frankie Cervelli. For the most part we’ve (or at least I’ve) blown that off as standard Yankees-speak, saying there was a competition when there were really wasn’t just to keep everyone motivated. Nothing wrong with that, and there are plenty of reasons to stick with Cervelli in 2011.

However, as I mentioned on yesterday’s podcast, the more I hear Joe Girardi and the coaching staff talk in Spring Training, the more I think Montero has a legit chance to win the job. Does that mean he’s the favorite? No, of course not. But it certainly sounds like he’s got a non-zero chance to break camp with the big league team. So the question becomes: would the Yankees being doing the right thing by going with Montero as the backup catcher? Let’s do this old school, with a pros and cons list…

The Pros

The obvious difference between Cervelli and Montero is the offense. Cervelli’s best single season at any level was his .278/.384/.396 (.366 wOBA) performance with High-A Tampa in 2007. Montero’s worst single season was his .280/.366/.421 (.373 wOBA) effort with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2007. If you want a full season league, it was last year’s .289/.353/.517 (.375 wOBA) performance with Triple-A. Cervelli has eight (!!!) career homers in five total years. Montero hit 15 homers after being almost traded for Cliff Lee last July. I think we can all agree that Hey-Zeus could outhit Frankie with a rolled up newspaper.

Aside from the offense, one benefit that is perhaps being overlooked is that Montero would get to work with Joe Girardi and Tony Pena on a daily basis in the big leagues. Obviously it’s his defense that’s holding him back right now, and although former big league catcher/Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar has done a fine job tutoring the team’s best prospect behind the dish, Girardi and Pena could impart some serious catching knowledge on the kid. It’s not uncommon for a club’s best instructors/coaches to be at the big league level. Montero might not catch everyday in the show, but he’d be able to work with those two while catching bullpen sessions and what not on a daily basis.

Remember, the Yankees broke Jorge Posada in over a period of several years, they didn’t just throw him to the wolves and make him the everyday backstop as soon as he was called up. Posada started 52 games behind the plate in 1997, then 85 in 1998, then 98 in 1999 before starting 136 games at catcher in 2000, a number one backstop’s workload. Montero could be broken in in a similar fashion with Martin serving as he caddy. Perhaps 50 starts in 2011, 80 in 2012, and then 120 in 2013 (the season after Martin will be able to leave as a free agent) would work.

The Cons

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

At just 21 years old, Montero could certainly benefit from playing every single day at the Triple-A level. Remember, his track record of performing there is basically 50 games long. The first 73 contests weren’t so kind to him. And that’s just offensively. Playing everyday would do nothing but help his defense, no matter how hopeless it might look. Catching bullpens and listening to Girardi and Pena is one thing, getting behind the dish in game situations is another all together.

There’s also a chance that playing sparingly with stunt his development offensively. I don’t think that’s the case, but we can’t discount it. Playing two or three games a week isn’t the same as playing five or six times, Montero might have trouble maintaining a rhythm. A demotion back to Triple-A might hurt his confidence as well. Same deal for Cervelli, we can’t forget him. A trip to the minors might hurt his development and/or trade value, who knows. That’s obviously not a priority, but it’s part of the pro/con equation.

One final thing to remember is that there’s a very real financial gain to be made by keeping Montero in the minors for the first two months of the season. Forget about the arbitration clock stuff, the Yankees can afford whatever raises he’d be due, but the difference between Montero becoming a free agent after 2016 and after 2017 is having him on the Opening Day roster or called him up in late-May/early-June. Those two months in 2011 will give the Yankees an extra six or seven months of Montero down the road at the below market price, when he should be in the prime of his career.

The Verdict

For all we know, the talk of the backup catcher competition might just be that, talk. The same way Bubba Crosby was going to be the center fielder in 2006, or the way the team wouldn’t give up a first round pick to sign a reliever this winter, it could just be an act. But if not, if the team is legitimately giving Montero a chance to unseat Cervelli as the backup backstop, well I think I’m pretty cool with that.

I wasn’t always though, I was pretty gung-ho about starting Jesus in the minors just so that he could play everyday and gain what I felt was invaluable experience, but I’m starting to believe the benefits of having him in the show with an apprenticeship under Martin, Posada, Girardi, and Pena are very real. Girardi recently said the biggest step in becoming a big league catcher is “earning the trust of your staff,” something Montero can do gradually than all at once. Learning to call a game and prepare beforehand via video and scouting reports … that’s all part of the big league package. I’m sure the team could find 250 or more plate appearances for him throughout the season, I doubt that’ll be a problem.

“I think the way you look at it is two-fold,” said the skipper over the weekend. “Is he ready to play up here, and can he help you win games? If those two things line up, then there’s a pretty good chance we’ll take that player.” Unless he falls on his face or Cervelli does his best Albert Pujols impression in camp, I’m all aboard the “Montero for backup catcher” bandwagon.

A rumor is a rumor is a rumor

It started with a Tweet. Jim Bowden, General Manager-turned-XMRadio host, had been talking to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale when the baseball writer let slip something between a rumor and his opinion. In the shorthand of our time, Bowden reported that Nightengale “thinks its possible that Liriano is traded to the Yanks in nxt 2 weeks for Nova or Joba +.”

That simply sentence — 140 characters of juicy Spring Training rumors — set off a flurry of everything. Twitter exploded with conversation as readers emailed us questions. Could this really be true? Would the Twins be willing to ship out left-handed ace Francisco Liriano for a package headed by either Ivan Nova or Joba Chamberlain plus some prospects? Which Yankee fan would volunteer first to drive to Minnesota with that haul to its new team?

Yet, as we said just last week, where there is smoke, there is often a fire, and later in the day, we learned of a smoke condition. As Andrew Marchand reported a short while ago, the Yankees called the Twins over Liriano earlier this offseason, according to a source. The kindling is there. Anyone got a match?

But slow down. On the record, Brian Cashman denied any current trade talks. “I’m not talking to anyone about anything right now,” the Yanks’ GM said. “Nobody’s available. Nobody of value, anyway.”

Of course, knowing Cashman’s history, that probably means some trade will go down within the next few weeks, and all of those questions about the Yanks’ rotation will disappear like a puff of smoke. Or at least, as March dawns and Opening Day draws near, I can dream.

For the Yankees, Liriano poses an interesting question. If he’s healthy and devoted, he’s an ideal left-handed pitcher for the Bombers. He’s a high strikeout guy who’s given up less than a home run per 9 innings in his Major League career. He’s also only 27, and after battling an injury that shelved him for the entire 2007 season, he’s entering his prime and nearing free agency at the same time.

Yet, as has been detailed meticulous by Jay Jaffe on Baseball Prospectus (in a subscribers-only piece), the Twins and their lefty have a tough relationship. A long time ago, when Liriano was but 24 years old, the club publicly questioned his ability to communicate with the club. They have questioned his injury history. They have questioned his approach to strike outs (which, in my and Larry Rothschild‘s book, isn’t something to question). He doesn’t fit the organization as well as he might, and that leaves many wary.

Yet, as Jaffe noted, the Twins should have no reason to deal Liriano. Writes the BP scribe, “There’s little reason to believe that Liriano has peaked, that he won’t deliver value for the Twins far in excess of Pavano and the other members of the Twins’ rotation, or that the Twins can’t afford him.”

And yet, his name won’t go away. The Yanks won’t part with Jesus Montero for Liriano, and they would have to think long and hard about dealing Manny Banuelos. Yet, if the Yanks need pitching and the Twins want to rid themselves of Liriano while the returns are high, they could get a nice haul. If that package starts with Nova or even Joba, though, no one in the Bronx will think twice about pulling the trigger. Whether Twins GM Bill Smith will settle for such a seemingly low-ceiling group of players, though, will be just another saga of Spring Training. This story won’t wrap up any time too soon.

Open Thread: February 28th Camp Notes

Nice try, Justin. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The latest from Spring Training

  • The Yankees fell to the Tigers by the score of 6-2 this afternoon. CC Sabathia, Pedro Feliciano, Manny Banuelos, and Mark Prior combined for five scoreless innings, but the two Rule 5 guys (Robert Fish & Daniel Turpen) and D.J. Mitchell stunk it up in the last three frames. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Jorge Vazquez each doubled once while Russell Martin drew a pair of walks in his Grapefruit League debut. Here’s the box score. Banuelos was sitting at 93 and touched 95. (Buster Olney)
  • A.J. Burnett hit Greg Golson in the head with a pitch during a live batting practice session on Sunday. Golson was taken off the field in a cart and tests were negative, though it turns out the morning sun had more to do with it than A.J.’s suspect control. Golson simply never saw the pitch. Burnett called Golson last night to check on him, but the outfielder isn’t sure when he’ll be back. The Yankees have stopped hitting on the back field because of the glare. (George King, Marc Carig & Erik Boland)
  • Derek Jeter asked Kevin Long to take some extra time to work with him tomorrow; he’s still adjusting to the revamping swing. The Cap’n is 1-for-6 with five ground outs in Grapefruit League play, and the one hit was a grounder that found a hole. (Carig)
  • Andrew Brackman‘s fine after throwing yesterday, and he expects to be back on the mound tomorrow following his little groin/hip issue. Martin will get one more game at DH and then catch either Thursday or Friday. (Boland & Chad Jennings)
  • The regular outfielders and Jorge Posada will make the trip to Bradenton to play the Pirates tomorrow, and Phil Hughes gets the start. David Robertson, Boone Logan, Jesus Montero, and a bunch of other minor league types will be there as well. (Jennings)

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The Nets are the only local team in regular season action, though there’s a replay of today’s Mets-Nats game on both SNY (7pm ET) and MLB Network (9:30) as well. You all know the drill, so go nuts.

A look inside the Yankees’ academy in the Dominican Republic

Yankees Magazine recently explored the team’s academy in the Dominican Republic, and the video is now up on MLB.com. The Yankees, like pretty much very other team, have educational programs set up at the academy that help their players not just learn English, but adjust to United States culture, be financially responsible, etc. The video’s about four minutes long and comes highly recommended. (h/t Andy in Sunny Daytona)

Update: No idea what happened, but the video isn’t online anymore. If anyone finds it, link it in the comments.

Jorge Vazquez’s Chances

You might have noticed this weekend, while watching the first televised Yankee games of 2011, that some pudgy dude was busy socking dingers. That was Jorge Vazquez. Signed out of the Mexican League prior to the 2008 season, Vazquez is in camp with the Yankees for the second time. Despite the display he put on this weekend, he stands about as much a chance of making the team as he did last year.

If you look through Vazquez’s history, you might wonder why he’s not a consideration for that final bench spot. He raked his way through the Mexican League, finishing with an OPS below 1.000 just once in his final four seasons there (and it was .988 that year). Then, in his first stateside season, he put on something of a display at Trenton, hitting .329/.357/.578 in 238 PA. The only thing holding him back, it seemed, was the injury bug. He missed 86 days in 2009 due to various strains and bruises.

Last year he, along with fellow former Mexican Leaguer Manny Banuelos, underwent an appendectomy and missed the start of the season. He hit .390 during his brief return to Trenton before heading up to Scranton. There he hit .270/.313/.526 in 316 PA, mostly as the team’s first baseman and DH. His discipline might be lacking, as he has drawn just 26 walks in 596 minor league plate appearances (4.4%), but his power remains prodigious; in AAA he produced a .256 ISO.

If Vazquez has displayed high batting averages and considerable power, then why is he nowhere on the Yanks radar? Why isn’t he under consideration for a bench spot? Why didn’t Baseball America write his name a single time in its writeup for the 2011 Prospect Handbook? Vazquez, it appears, is a case of scouting over stats. His style of play apparently won’t play well in the majors. We’ve seen this before with plenty of other players, but it reminded me of one specific player formerly in the Yankees organization.

When I first started writing about the Yankees, during the 2004 season, they had a guy raking in AA. Mitch Jones finished the season with a .246/.334/.548 line. The next year, in 2005, he moved up to AAA and continued to rake, .268/.347/.507. During that year I wondered why Jones wasn’t coming up to help. In 2006 I wondered even more. The Yankees outfield had suffered two major injuries, and they could have used a power bat such as Jones. They actually did call him up in late May, but sent him down after just a day on the roster. By year’s end they had designated him for assignment.

For the next few years Jones ambled around the minors, and even spent some time in Japan. In 2009, amid a torrid season in the hitter-friendly PCL, the Dodgers finally gave him his first pro plate appearances. He made 15 that season, going 4 for 13 with a double and six strikeouts. He was also hit by two pitches. But that’s basically the book on Mitch Jones. Vazquez could be headed for the same fate.

Chances are Vazquez returns to AAA this year and continues to produce quality power numbers. He might even flirt with a .300 average. But chances are, barring a crippling rash of injuries, he won’t sniff the bigs. Despite the numbers, the scouting report just isn’t there. Joe Girardi might have said it all, by saying really nothing at all, in response to a question about Vazquez. “If he hits a home run every day, I’m sure he’ll get the Grapefruit (League) MVP.” But he probably wouldn’t make the Yanks.

AP Photo

The RAB Radio Show: February 28, 2011

We finally got some live baseball over the weekend. The Yanks played two against Philly, and we got to see rookies and veterans alike. That leaves plenty of room for initial impressions. Mike and I run down ours.

Podcast run time 33:47

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license