Spring Training tickets on sale Friday morning

The Yankees announced this afternoon that Spring Training tickets will go on sale on Friday morning at 10 a.m. The Yanks play just 17 home games during the Grapefruit League action, and as always, tickets are sure to go fast. I’m a veteran of the Florida Spring Training scene, and this year, the prices seem a bit steep. The most expensive tickets are $31 and even the cheap seats are going for $17. That’s not an insignificant chunk of change to watch Colin Curtis roam the outfield for five innings. Anyway, the official site has all of the details. If you have the chance to go to Tampa, grab some tickets. It’s always fun to watch camp in action.

2010 free agent: Joe Girardi

With the core of the 2010 already in place, and with few interesting names left to discuss on the free agent market, we’re all looking forward to actual baseball. That’s a wonderful thought. Players swinging the bat, rather than us wondering how they’re going to swing the bat. But, because we’re still in the off-season — and still have plenty of it to go — we’re still in off-season mode. Instead of looking at the scraps left on this free agent market1, let’s take a look forward to next off-season. The Yankees have three key free agents on deck, but the only real decision on what to do lies with the manager.

During his first two years as Yankees’ skipper, Joe Girardi has had his ups and downs. Strangely enough, judging by reactions from people on this site, it seems that he met a more favorable reaction in 2008, when the team missed the playoffs, than in 2009, when the team won the World Series. Maybe Girardi got a break in ’08 because it was his first year. He not only had to follow Joe Torre, but as the season wore on he had to deal with injuries to key players. In ’09, after missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, fans became less forgiving.

Riffing on a Pinstripe Alley post, Kevin Kaduk of Big League Stew wonders what it would take for the Yankees to let Girardi walk at season’s end. As he notes, “it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where the Yanks miss the playoffs and a shot at a 28th title.” I wouldn’t quite go that far. It’s quite easy to imagine a scenario in which any of the three AL East powerhouses loses a key guy or two to injury and falls behind the pack. That can happen when three teams vie for two playoff spots.

What’s nearly impossible to imagine is a scenario where the Yankees miss the playoffs because of something Girardi did. If the Yankees end up the odd man out in 2010, it will likely be because of injuries or off years from key players. It won’t be be because Girardi put his lineup in the wrong order, or used the wrong reliever in a certain situation. Those might hurt, but they aren’t cause for a 95- to 100-win team to miss the playoffs, even with the Red Sox and Rays ready to take advantage of every opportunity.

Even if the Yankees did decide to fire Girardi, what are the chances they hire someone that fans like better — or who is, on the field and off, a better manager than Girardi? Yankees fans have a tendency to blame the manager for many things. We complained about Girardi throughout 2009, up to and including the World Series. We grew tired of Joe Torre, despite the prominent memory of the late 90s run (and perhaps because he couldn’t bring back that magic). But will an alternative really be better? Would the Yankees be better off with, as escape at PA notes, Lou Piniella, Tony Pena, or Willie Randolph? Hardly.

Because it’s the Yankees we discuss, I wouldn’t put any money on their managerial decision. But I do think it would take not only any catastrophe, but one that could be blamed solely on Girardi, for him to get the axe after this season. It’s hard to argue with a World Series title during your first contract.

Photo credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip


1With all due respect to Johnny Damon. (Up)

Is Brett Gardner disciplined, or does he just not swing at pitches?

Over the weekend, Ben commented on an article by Chris at iYankees about Brett Gardner‘s swinging habits. Chris emphasizes how Gardner lays off pitches out of the zone and how his contact rate is high when he swings at either type of pitch. I think Ben was leading up to a good point about what this means for Gardner in 2010, but never quite reached it.

So here we begin to see the problem. Gardner has a very good eye for pitches outside of the strike zone but he seems to be a bit too discerning with pitches inside the zone. He took a lot of strikes — nearly half of them in fact — and seems to have earned a reputation as a player who will take too many pitches.

When I look at the numbers I don’t quite see the same thing. Gardner’s low swing rate on all pitches makes me wonder if he’s disciplined at all. Rather than flashing a discerning eye, he could simply be taking pitches without much regard to location. That could make for rough times in 2010, when he could see playing time as a regular. It would seem that if Gardner continues to lay off pitches indiscriminately, pitchers could easily take advantage.

What happens if pitchers start throwing Gardner more strikes? Will he start swinging at more of them, or will he continue his approach and find himself constantly down in the count? Not that we can draw conclusions based on one similarity, but this is exactly what happened to Scott Podsednik in his sophomore year, as I explained last month.

It happened for Podsednik. In 2003 pitchers threw 49.8 percent of their pitches in the strike zone. In 2004 they threw him 56.2 percent in the zone. Podsednik maintained his contact rate, but predictably saw a dip in his walk percentage. He also hit far fewer line drives in 2004, dropping to 17.7 percent from 23.6 percent. That means more ground balls, which can be good, and more fly balls, detrimental for a low-power player like Podsednik. His fly ball rate rose by 3.5 percent and certainly factored in to his lower 2004 BABIP.

Gardner could help offset this potential adjustment by swinging at more pitches in the zone while continuing to lay off pitches out of the zone. If that sounds a bit simplistic, it is. The idea of a player simply laying off pitches outside the zone while swinging at pitches in the zone reminds me of an exchange in Moneyball.

“If it’s not a strike, how hard is it to lay off?” asks Feiny. He’s still staring into his own screen, watching Alex Rodriguez at bat.

“Oh, it’s hard,” says Mabry. …

“Just lay off the bad pitches, John,” says Feiny, teasingly.

“Feiny,” says Mabry testily. “You ever been in a major league batter’s box?”

Feiny doesn’t answer.

“I’m telling you,” says Mabry, turning back. He points to the screen, on which Moyer tosses another cream puff. “You see that coming at you and it looks like you can hit it three miles.”

“So just don’t swing, John,” says Feiny.

“Yeah,” says Mabryu, turning around again to glare at Feiny. “Well, the time you don’t swing is the time he throws you three strikes.”

“Feiny, have you ever faced a major league pitcher?”

“No, John,” says Feiny, wearily. “I’ve never faced a major league pitcher.”

At this point it’s impossible to predict how Gardner will react if pitchers start getting more aggressive. Will he become more aggressive in turn, swinging at more pitches both inside and out of the zone? What kind of result will that cause? Will he continue to take pitches? Won’t that cause his strikeout rate to skyrocket? So many questions, so few answers. Again, this illustrates the trouble with projecting young players. We just don’t know how the league will adjust to them, and how they’ll adjust in turn.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Appreciating a core of peak-age players

When the Yankees closed out the 2008 season, youth was not on their side. The team had just two regulars — Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera — on the right side of 32, and four of their key starters still under contract for 2009 were going to be playing their age 35 seasons. The team needed to get younger and get their quickly.

Since missing the playoffs that year, though, Brian Cashman has built up a World Series Championship that features a solid core of young players who are all enjoying or are about to hit their peak performance seasons. He has replaced some late-30s players with some late-20s guys, and the team should enjoy these peak years as their veterans begin inevitable declines. At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, the timing couldn’t have been better.

In 2010, the Yankees should expect more of the same. Robinson Cano will be playing his age 27 season and Mark Teixeira his age 30 season. In the outfield, Nick Swisher will be baseball aged 29 this year and Curtis Granderson 28. The the tail end of the peak-age spectrum is Nick Johnson, who will be playing his age 31 season. With Derek Jeter nearing his 36th birthday, A-Rod pushing approaching 35 and Jorge Posada playing his age 38 season, the Yankees will be turning to the young guys for more and more production.

So what do all of these age-related numbers mean for the Yankees? For a long time, the accepted baseball knowledge held age 27 to a peak performance years for most players. Some can sustain that peak for a few years; others can’t. Generally, well above-average players will remain above-average players even throughout their mid-to-late 30s while some see precipitous declines. In either event, good teams will feature a mix of seasoned veterans on the way out and younger players on the way up.

Lately, though, a new study by J.C. Bradbury has challenged those assumptions. The Sabernomics scribe wrote about his findings at length for Baseball Prospectus earlier this week. Basically, he found that players seem to peak at age 29, two years later than previously expected, and that some skills mature later than others and some earlier. For hitters, Bradbury’s table looks like this:

Metric Age
Linear Weights 29.4
OBP 30
SLG 28.6
AVG 28.4
Walk Rate 32.3
XBH Rate 28.3
HR Rate 29.9

The Yankees, then, should enjoy some very good years from their core of youngsters. Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson are amidst their peak years while Mark Teixeira is sitting on the cusp. Nick Johnson’s stellar walk rate could increase even more, but the true guy to watch is Robinson Cano. After a bad 2008, Cano bounced back with a stellar 2009. He hit .320/.352/.520 with 25 home runs, 48 doubles and a pair of triples. Not yet at his peak, Cano reached career highs in all of his counting stats and neared career highs in his rate stats. He should only get better.

Throughout the mid-2000s, the Yanks turned into a team with aging superstars. They saw Gary Sheffield and Bobby Abreu arrive past their peak years. They witnessed Jason Giambi turn into a mid-30s pumpkin and then back into a slugger, and they watched Hideki Matsui‘s knees crumble. For 2010, at least, age is finally on the Yanks’ side, and if all goes according to plan, the Yankees will enjoy the benefits of youth.

Left field closing arguments: Xavier Nady

Every time I think we’ve concluded this series, a rumor pops up and I think to add another player to the list. Yesterday, Joel Sherman said that the “player that most enticed the Yankees is Xavier Nady.” So, in what is hopefully the last post of this series, we’ll discuss Nady’s case.

It feels like we hardly got to know Xavier Nady. Acquired at the 2008 trade deadline with Damaso Marte, Nady made just 276 plate appearances during his tenure. An April elbow injury cut short his 2009 campaign right after it began, leaving many questions unanswered. Could he repeat his breakout 2008, or was it a fluke? Even without a breakout, could he hold the starting right field job with Nick Swisher right behind him?

Nady’s elbow injury, which resulted in his second Tommy John surgery, changed the outlook of his first crack at free agency. Even with a year that mirrored his 2007, a team with corner outfield needs, like the Braves and Giants, would probably have shown interest in him. The injury, however, has given teams pause. It shouldn’t take Nady the full 12 to 18 months of recovery — he doesn’t throw at max effort for 100 pitches at a clip, so he should recover quicker than a pitcher. Still, considering the low success rate of second time Tommy John victims (among them is Dave Eiland), it’s understandable why a market for Nady has yet to develop.

Offensively, Nady showed improvement in most aspects of his game from 2006 through 2008. His power jumped in 2007, as he went from a .178 and .173 mark in 2005 and 06 to .197 in 07. He sustained that in 2008, posting a career high .205 ISO. His batting average increased in 2008 as well, going from around .280 in 2006 and 2007 to .305 in 2008. This coincides with a rise in BABIP, .337 in 2008, up from .323 in 07 and .311 in 06. Nady did hit fewer fly balls and more line drives in 2008, which helps explain the spike.

Earlier in his career a platoon player, Nady showed improvement against righties from 2006 through 2008. His batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage each rose every year, most notably from 2007 to 08. Whether he could repeat that in 2009 was another question left unanswered due to injury. As I noted in this post, Nady was hitting .335/.368/.538 against righties in 2008 at the time of the trade. He ended up with a .317/.357/.529 line against righties. But while he didn’t sustain his first half marks against righties, his numbers against lefties also declined. So maybe he has turned a corner against right-handed pitching. But, because the most marked improvement came in one season, we can’t really say one way the other.

While Nady’s time in New York doesn’t look great on paper, he did continue to hit while the Yankees were still in the race. In August, while the team still had a fighting chance, Nady hit .308/.351/.523 in 114 plate appearances. The moo wore off in September, however, as he hit .223/.270/.379 in 111 plate appearances. So it’s not like he came to New York and fell off a cliff. That’s a good sign, I think…

On the down side, Nady’s ability to avoid making outs rests largely on his batting average. His 6.6 walk percentage in 2008 was a career high, though not by a lot. For comparison, Melky Cabrera walked in 6.5 percent of his plate appearances in his horrible 2008, and 8.1 percent in 2009. Thankfully for Nady, he’s shown himself to be a .280 to .300 hitter over the last four years he played, so that does help his case. But if he sees a decline in that batting average, he’ll be far less valuable to the team.

Defensively, he has shown himself as a below average player. Throughout his career he has almost exclusively been worth negative runs in terms of UZR. That did change in 2008, as he posted a 4.6 UZR/150 in left field and a 3.7 mark in right. He was, however, negative at both positions in 2006 and 2007 (though he didn’t play left in 2006). This suggests that Nady is a below average outfielder. It would have been nice to get a better read on him in 2009.

Yesterday afternoon, ESPN’s Keith Law commented on Nady, saying that he and Reed Johnson “represent marginal improvements ha may not justify the cost.” This, I think, holds true if Nady regresses to his 2007 form. His power is nice, but unless he keeps his walk rate at around 6.5 to 7 percent and sustains his .280 to .300 batting average, he doesn’t represent a significant upgrade over Brett Gardner. If, however, Nady comes back and plays to his final 2008 numbers, then he might be an improvement. Is that upside worth gambling the remaining budget?

In the skills post from last night, Gardner profiled as a three-skill player: speed, discipline, and defense. Nady possesses two: contact and power. Four current Yankee starters possess both of those skills. Other than Gardner, only Curtis Granderson has speed. So, unless Nady’s demands come down — perhaps to a million with incentives — the Yankees are probably better off saving that cash for a possible addition down the road. That is, of course, if they truly plan to stay within their current budget all season. If that’s just the Opening Day budget and the team is willing to spend more mid-season, well, then all bets are off.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Marlins firmly asked to spend more on players

In New York, the Yankees are used to being on top. The team has won more World Series than any other in baseball history, and they’ve done so by spending more money than everyone else. In fact, in the decade that just ended, the Yanks spent $1.685 billion to reach the playoffs nine times, appear in the World Series four times and win the trophy twice.

Elsewhere, teams do not enjoy widespread wealth. They play in metropolitan markets with fewer people and a lesser television audience. They aren’t world-renown brands or international symbols of success. Many of the teams scrape by economically. They take advantage of baseball’s generous revenue sharing system to help fund the product on the field while owners struggle to break even or make a profit. And then we have the Marlins.

The Florida Marlins, purchased by Jeffrey Loria with help from MLB in a three-way deal that saw the Expos land in the hands of baseball and the Red Sox in the lap of John Henry, are among baseball’s most successful teams. They have never lost a playoff series; they’ve won two World Series titles since 1993; they are the game’s top profit-maker; and they have the city of Miami building them a stadium. Yet, all is not well in the state of Florida (shocking, I know).

As we covered briefly in the spring, the Marlins pocketed over $40 million in 2008 and probably did so again in 2009. Despite average just 18,770 fans per game, second worst in the Majors, the team is shoveling in the dough, largely through revenue sharing payments. By some accounts, the Marlins have now earned more money from MLB’s revenue sharing pot than Loria paid to buy the team in 2002. Today, this profitable house of cards Loria built nearly came crashing yesterday.

The fun started in the morning with a Clark Spencer article in the Miami Herald. Spencer reported that officials with both the Commissioner’s Office and the MLB Players Association were urging the Marlins to spend more money. According to Spencer, some unconfirmed reports claim that the Marlins, with a 2008 payroll of $27 million, took in $35 million in revenue sharing payments alone. Technically, then, all of the revenue sharing money was going to the on-field product, as mandated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but every other revenue dollar generated by the team was pure profit.

Later in the day, the MLBPA, MLB and the Marlins announced a semi-confidential agreement that nearly mandates the Marlins to spend more money on player contracts. Michael Weiner, the new executive director of the PA, issued a statement:

“In response to our concerns that revenue sharing proceeds have not been used as required, the Marlins have assured the Union and the Commissioner’s Office that they plan to use such proceeds to increase player payroll annually as they move toward the opening of their new ballpark. Today’s agreement, which covers the period 2010 through 2012, calls for ongoing communication among the Marlins, the Commissioner’s Office and the Union as the Marlins proceed with that plan. It also permits, after consultation among all parties, adjustments in the Marlins’ plan to respond to unforeseen developments, and calls for arbitral intervention if disagreements arise. We greatly appreciate the willingness of the Commissioner’s Office and the Marlins to engage with us and ensure that all terms of the Basic Agreement are met.”

The Marlins added their two cents. “The Marlins have consistently made every effort to put the best product on the field and our record supports the fact that we have been successful in that regard,” team president David Samson said. “Throughout the discussions, the Marlins maintained that there had been no violation of the Basic Agreement at any time. While we know that the Marlins will always comply with the Basic Agreement, we were happy to work cooperatively with the Union and the Commissioner’s Office on this matter.”

Samson’s statement is very telling, and it highlights the complicated economics of the situation. On the one hand, the Florida Marlins are very adept at building a very good team for little amount of money. As TSJC said earlier tonight, the Marlins have simply decided not to spend on players after free agency and instead have built a farm system where they can get top talent on the field for cheap. They won 87 games last year and weren’t eliminated from the playoff hunt until the end of September with a $38 million payroll. They pay approximately $436,700 per win while the Yankees paid over $2 million per way last year.

On the other hand, the Marlins barely make an effort to supplement revenue sharing viz-a-viz their payroll. If Loria and Co. bit into their profits and spent another $15-$20 million on the field, Larry Beinfest could probably build a playoff team, and the Front Office would see added revenues from playoff games and a pennant race. In fact, it might not make economic sense for the team to be so stingy with its money. It’s hard though to question the Marlins’ own brand of efficient team building.

And so we arrive at the question of the hour: What does this has have to do with the Yankees? The Yankees are the game’s number one payer of revenue sharing funds. Maybe the team, if it has to dole out some dollars, doesn’t want its opponents to put a product on the field that is too superior. After all, the Yanks have suffered through a World Series defeat at the hands of a Marlins team with a $63 million payroll.

But beyond that seemingly superficial reason, the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Mets and the Dodgers and the other big spenders should fear a salary floor. If the Marlins are forced to spend, who is to say that they will spend wisely? Nothing is stopping the Marlins from fulfilling their MLBPA-mandated payroll quota by signing some utility player to an overinflated contract and sticking him on the bench. That is, after all, what the union should want. As these role players make more money, though, the salary ramifications echo up to the top of the food chain. Suddenly, top-flight players can demand even more money, and everyone suffers.

Right now, it’s far too early to know how this move will pay out, but it’s an opening salvo in a war that will erupt between the haves and have-nots when the CBA expires in December 2011. Big-market teams shouldn’t see other owners pocketing the revenue-sharing profits, but enforced spending isn’t the answer. As baseball steps nearer to this abyss, the economics of it all could get very, very interesting.

Evaluating the DHs

This off-season, the Yankees, Angels and Rangers all landed themselves shiny new injury-prone but solid-hitting guys to man the DH spot. The Yanks picked up Nick Johnson and his .426 OBP, the Angels Hideki Matsui and his World Series MVP award and the Rangers Vlad Guerrero and his ability to hit any pitch. The Yanks like their guy because of his on-base prowess. He’ll hit second and give Mark Teixeira and A-Rod numerous opportunities to drive home runs. But what of the other two? Yesterday, Jay Gargiulo at Fack Youk analyzed the DH signings and came out a bit bearish on Vlad and Matsui. I predict, not too boldly, that the best one of the three will be whichever avoids the disabled list the longest this year.