2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.

Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.

Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”

Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.

His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.

By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.

Hughes reintroduces a slider

(Kathy Willens/AP)

The fastball has always been Phil Hughes‘s best pitch. Even when the Yankees drafted him out of high school in 2004 they liked it for a number of reasons: the velocity, the late life, and the way Hughes commanded it. Through years of development, both in the minors and majors, the fastball has been the only consistent part of Hughes’s repertoire. All of his other pitches have been in flux.

In his breakout 2006 season he featured a curveball that projected to be a plus pitch. It’s a testament to Hughes’s talent, since he had added the pitch after turning pro. But by the time he hit the majors full-time in 2009 he had changed his grip on the curve, utilizing the same knuckle grip that served Mike Mussina well throughout his 18-year career. Hughes also changed his secondary fastball, from a two-seamer in the minors to a cutter in the bigs. Yet even that is changing.

For his entire career Hughes has worked to add a serviceable changeup to his repertoire. As we’ve seen, that project hasn’t progressed particularly well. Before the 2005 season Baseball America said that Hughes had good arm action on the change and that it projected to be at least an average pitch. There was similar optimism in 2006. But by 2007, when Hughes was the No. 4 prospect in baseball, Baseball America had lost faith in the pitch’s development. We’ve seen Hughes emphasis his work on the changeup during the last two spring trainings, but we’ve yet to see him implement it effectively. Chances are it won’t play a prominent role in his 2011 repertoire.

Still, Hughes isn’t headed into the season with the same four-seamer, cutter, knuckle curve arsenal that he featured in 2010. Last night The Star-Ledger’s Marc Carig noted that Hughes changed the grip on his cutter, and that it now breaks more like a slider. “Slower, but more break,” wrote Carig. That appears to be an additional weapon against righties, who hit .253/.292/.381 against him last year. This is nothing new for Hughes. In fact, his slider was once thought to be his best complimentary pitch.

Baseball America provides a telling timeline. We can look at their profiles of Hughes from the year he was drafted through the year they ranked him the No. 4 prospect in the game to see how his slider developed — or, in this case, declined. In its 2005 Yankees prospects list, BA had this to say about the slider:

“Hughes changes a hitter’s sightline with a slider that at times has good bite and depth.”

I’ve heard more glowing reports of that slider, including the one from MLB.com’s draft tracker, which read: “Flashes major league slider w/ late bite, good down plane.”

Hughes came into his own in 2005, dominating Low-A Charleston and heading up to High-A Tampa before an injury ended his season. It was the first time many Yanks fans heard the name Hughes, as he had been connected to many teams in trade rumors (the most prominent of which I remember being Mark Kotsay). After the season, BA made another note about his slider:

“He has a hard, late-biting slider that the Yankees wouldn’t let him throw in last year, but he likes it better than his curveball and has the go-ahead to use it again in 2006. … As he reintroduces his slider, he should become a starter with well-above-average control and above-average command who throws three plus pitches for strikes.”

Only that reintroduction didn’t happen in 2006. Not that it mattered. Hughes steamrolled both High-A Tampa and AA Trenton, earning him accolades from nearly every scouting source. And he did it all without his slider. From BA 2007:

“Hughes’ greatest accomplishment as a pro has been to forsake his slider in favor of a knockout curveball, which is more of a strikeout pitch and produces less stress on his arm. … While his slider is still a good pitch, he rarely throws it in games anymore.”

We haven’t really seen the pitch since. It was a bit of a disappointment to see him scrap an above-average — or at least potentially above-average — offering, especially has the effectiveness of his curveball has ostensibly faded. One thing I’d hoped to see from Hughes this year was a change back to his straight-grip curve, rather than the knuckle grip. But perhaps altering his cutter grip to more resemble a slider can produce a similar effect.

The change will undoubtedly improve his performance against righties. Against lefties he’ll still feature the cutter, which he can throw inside, a la Mariano Rivera. But unless he starts throwing his curve for strikes, he’s going to struggle to put away lefties. There will be days when he’s feeling strong and his fastball will be enough to dominate them; we saw that in the ALDS when he tore through the Twins’ tough lefties. But on days when his fastball isn’t at 100 percent he’ll need that other offering. So while the development of his slider can be seen as a positive, it still doesn’t address his most glaring flaw: an out pitch against lefties.

Don’t be surprised to see Hughes go to the slider fairly often against right-handed hitters this season. The pitch is an old friend, one of the weapons that put him high on draft boards in 2004. It should prove an effective addition and help Hughes improve during his second full season as a starter. Lefties might still pose a problem, but the slider will go a long way in making him a more complete pitcher.

Biz Notes: It’s good to be the richest

It’s not quite breaking news to announce that the Yanks are Major League Baseball’s most valuable team, but when Forbes announced its club valuations on Wednesday, the numbers were staggering. Not only are the Yanks Major League Baseball’s top franchise, but they are by a whopping 86 percent.

The Yankees, says Forbes, are worth $1.7 billion while the Red Sox are number two at $912 million. The Yankees allegedly generate over $427 million in revenue and turn an annual profit of $25.7 million. Nice work if you can get it, eh? Coming in last on the list are the Pittsburgh Pirates with the A’s and Rays right behind them.

Fans of the Bombers don’t need Forbes valuations to drive home the lucrative nature of business in the Bronx, but these figures — estimates because baseball doesn’t open its books — certainly contextualize the revenue stream. In fact, no other team even approaches the Yanks’ revenue figures as Boston earns $272 million annually. Just to compete with the Yankees, the Sox lost $1.1 million last year.

When we sort the list by operating income though, the Yankees slip a few places to seventh, and the teams ahead of them are mostly surprising. The Padres and Nationals lead baseball operating income; both clubs top $35 million before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. The Marlins and A’s, two clubs that earned headlines for raking in the dough without investing on the field, both made over $20 million in income last year.

In a blog post on the valuations, Forbes senior editor Kurt Badenhausen discussed the Yanks’ financial edge. He writes:

Yankee Global Enterprises is a three-engine money-making machine. The baseball team generated $325 million in revenue from regular-season tickets and luxury suites in 2010. Sponsorship revenue at the stadium is $85 million annually thanks to deals with PepsiCo, Bank of America, MasterCard, Delta Air Lines and others.

The YES Network, the team’s 34%-owned regional sports channel, is the most profitable RSN in the country and had over $400 million in revenue last year. The Yankees own a stake in Legends Hospitality Management, which manages stadiums, and generates $25 million in operating income. The enterprise value for the Yankees, YES and Legends is $5.1 billion.

In a sense, that certainly begs a question: Should the Yankees be at all worried about a budget? The numbers suggest that perhaps they shouldn’t, but the numbers don’t illuminate internal pressures both from within the organization or from the Commissioner’s Office.

Baseball’s Debt Bombs

In addition to the franchise valuations, Forbes also unveiled an extensive piece on debt disasters within baseball. Nathan Vardi and Monte Burke rehash the stories concerning the Dodgers and Rangers, focus a bit on the Mets and highlight the cash-starved Diamondbacks and Padres as well. Owning a baseball team is a sound long-term investment, but turning a profit and winning is no sure thing outside of the Bronx.

Jeter’s jersey still sells

The 2011 season will be Derek Jeter‘s 16th as a full-time player, and yet, his jersey still sells like hotcakes. As Major League Baseball announced yesterday, Derek’s No. 2 is the most popular choice among fans purchasing Majestic jerseys. A-Rod (9) and Mark Teixeira (11) are the only other Yanks in the top 20, and somehow, Jacoby Ellsbury‘s jersey ranked 16th last year. Joe Mauer, Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Cliff Lee rounded out the top five last year.

Yankees cut three more from Major League camp

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees have reassigned Steve Garrison, Ryan Pope, and Eric Wordekemper to minor league camp. The first two are on the 40-man roster, so they were optioned down. I could be wrong, but I believe there are now 36 players left in big league camp, not counting the injured Frankie Cervelli, Reegie Corona, and Colin Curtis. Manny Banuelos is still there, which is kinda surprising.

MRI reveals oblique strain for Granderson

Update (8:18pm): Apparently Granderson did have an MRI after all. Marc Carig reports that it revealed an oblique strain, which is obviously some pretty crummy news. Grandy downplayed the injury, comparing it to Joba Chamberlain‘s recent oblique strain, but even that kept the right-hander on he shelf for ten days. It’s possible the Yankees won’t have their center fielder for Opening Day, but hopefully he won’t miss much more than that.

4:30pm: Via Chad Jennings, it sounds like Joe Girardi is cautiously optimistic about Curtis Granderson‘s oblique injury. “I believe there’s a chance he’s going to play Opening Day,” said the skipper. ‘Now, I haven’t talked to [Gene Monahan] yet about all the tests he’s been through, but I believe he’s got a chance to play Opening Day.” Grandy went through a series of tests today but not an MRI, so the full extent of the injury is being determined.

Opening Day is next Thursday but is just an arbitrary deadline. If Grandy isn’t healthy by then and misses the first three or five or ten games of the season, so be it. A handful of games now is better than a lot of games later should he rush back and re-aggravate it somehow.