Cashman says Yankees will “test the waters” with A-Rod at first base

Alex Rodriguez
(AP/Kathy Willens)

At the GM Meetings last week, Brian Cashman told Ken Davidoff the Yankees plan to “test the waters” with Alex Rodriguez at first base. Cashman mentioned the team spoke to A-Rod about possibly playing first a few weeks ago, and now it seems like something they will try in Spring Training.

“We’re going to get him exposed to [first base]. It doesn’t mean he’ll be a viable option. But we just want to test the waters on it,” said the GM. “I think there was an area of vulnerability for us last year that was really predicated because of the outfield alignment that we had. We had more outfielders than necessary because the guaranteed commitments that we had kicked in, so I couldn’t get a backup first baseman situation. But hopefully we can alleviate that this year.”

A-Rod has never played anywhere other than shortstop and third base in his career, and at this point, with two surgically repaired hips at age 39, there’s little reason to think he has the mobility to play the left side of the infield. Cashman and the Yankees insist they are not counting on Alex to play the field until he proved he can do it, which makes total sense. They re-signed Brendan Ryan to protect against Derek Jeter at short last offseason and I’m sure they’ll bring in a real third baseman this offseason.

Pure backup first basemen don’t really exist these days. It doesn’t make sense to waste one of four bench spots on a guy who can only play first. He has to be able to fill in at third base (like Eric Chavez) or in left field or something. The Yankees are stuck with A-Rod though, and if he’s not going to be able to play third regularly, maybe he can help at first. He’s a very smart and instinctual player. He might pick it up in no time. There’s no reason not to try Alex at first base at this point.

2014 Season Review: The Homegrown Outfielder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As bad as the Yankees were in 2013, it was a very good year for Brett Gardner. Curtis Granderson‘s broken forearm and Derek Jeter‘s fractured ankle guaranteed him the everyday center field and leadoff hitter jobs, roles he had filled on an off earlier in his career. For the most part he was a number nine hitting left fielder from 2008-12. Gardner took advantage by hitting a solid .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) with a career-high eight homers and 24 stolen bases in 2013.

The Yankees rewarded Gardner’s strong season by … displacing him from center field and the leadoff spot by signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a gargantuan contract. Back to left field and the bottom of the order he went. But! The Yankees actually did reward Gardner’s strong season by giving him a nice four-year contract extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a few months before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Signing Ellsbury was about adding a very good player. Extending Gardner was about keeping a very good player.

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and Gardner wound up spending the majority of the 2014 season hitting leadoff anyway. He opened the year hitting seventh or eighth on most nights, but a combination of injuries to middle of the order hitters Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira forced Joe Girardi to bat Ellsbury third, clearing the leadoff spot for Gardner. One hundred and seven of his 141 starts this year came atop the order.

Gardner was New York’s second best player behind Robinson Cano last year, and for a big chunk of the first half, he was the team’s very best player in 2014. He hit .279/.347/.349 (100 wRC+) with a homer and seven steals in April before really hitting his stride in early-May. Starting on May 3rd — arbitrary endpoint alert! — and continuing though August 4th, a span of 82 team games, Gardner hit a stellar .292/.370/.506 (145 wRC+) with 14 homers and eleven stolen bases. Think about that for a second.

Okay, ready to continue? Miguel Cabrera hit .313/.371/.524 (147 wRC+) this past season. Gardner hit approximately that over a stretch of games equal to half a season while hitting homers at a 28-per-162-games pace. That’s a thing that actually happened. Gardner put up middle of the order numbers from the leadoff spot for a three-month chunk of time. During one series against the Rangers at the end of July, he managed to hit four homers in three games:

Date Tm Opp Rslt PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS wpa_bat” data-filter=”1″ data-name=”Win Probability Added”>Win Prob. Added
Jul 28 NYY @ TEX L,2-4 5 2 3 0 0 2 2 0 0 0 0 .276 .352 .437 .789 0.224
Jul 29 NYY @ TEX W,12-11 5 3 4 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 .283 .357 .455 .812 0.340
Jul 30 NYY @ TEX L,2-3 4 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 2 0 0 .283 .356 .460 .816 0.008
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/16/2014.

Two of those homers — the July 28th game — came off Yu Darvish, who Gardner had taken deep a week earlier as well. That series earned Gardner AL Player of the Week honors. On August 4th, the final day of this cherry-picked swath of games, Gardner’s season batting line sat at .286/.364/.468 (134 wRC+) with 15 homers and 18 steals in 22 attempts.

Did it last? Of course not. Gardner played through some sort of abdominal strain for most of the second half and hit a weak .159/.216/.217 (18 wRC+) in his final 40 games and 78 plate appearances of the season. That uglified his season batting line and dragged it down to .256/.327/.422 (110 wRC+) overall. That’s still pretty darn good, but not nearly as impressive as it was in early-August. The abdominal injury, which apparently was so bad it required offseason surgery, really ruined the final two months of his year.

Obviously, the power numbers were the most surprisingly part of Gardner’s season. His previous career high was eight homeruns set last summer. He more than doubled that and smashed 17 dingers in 2014. Some of them were Yankee Stadium cheapies of course, but Hit Tracker says 13 of the 17 would have been out in at least half the 30 ballparks. Gardner’s average homer distance was 385 feet, on par with Yoenis Cespedes (387.5 feet) and longer than 37-homer man Chris Carter (384.1 feet). He hit the Yankees’ very first homerun of the season — in their sixth game! — and he also hit the 15,000th homer in franchise history on September 21st. (No other team has even 14,000 dingers.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence six of the 17 homers came within the first two pitches of the at-bat or that 13 of the 17 came on fastballs — Gardner will straight up guess fastball and try to ambush a pitch on occasion, and every so often he runs into one. That hasn’t only resulted in more homers either, this approach has led to more doubles and triples as well. Gardner and hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged giving the ambush approach a try early last year, and look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner’s power production has jumped noticeable the last two seasons. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still nothing more than a league-average power producer in terms of ISO, but Gardner was a pure singles hitter from 2008-12 who can now go yard if the pitcher makes a mistake or gives him the fastball he’s looking for. That makes him a lot more dangerous at the plate. I have no idea if Gardner will ever hit 17 homers again but that’s a conversation for another time. He hit them in 2014.

In the field, Gardner appeared to be something less than his usually awesome self, both according to the eye test and the various defensive stats. He wasn’t bad by any means in left field, but he went from being truly elite in 2008-12 to being just a tick better than average in 2014. That could be the result of a million things. Gardner could legitimately be losing a step in the field, or it could have been a down year defensively. Those happen just like down years at the plate. Maybe the adjustment he had to making moving back to left after playing center isn’t as easy as we think. Who knows. Either way, Gardner was an asset in the field but not otherworldly.

Overall, Gardner was again one of the team’s best players on both sides of the ball this past season. He led Yankees’ regulars in OPS (.749), OPS+ (111), SLG (!) (.422) and wRC+ (110) while ranking either second or third in homers (17), hits (142), doubles (25), steals (21), walks (56), total bases (234), AVG (.256), and OBP (.327). Had it not been for the abdominal injury, chances are Gardner would have led the team in a bunch of those other categories as well. He’s become a rock solid player for the Yankees and is a key part of the team as they try to get back to the postseason.

Cervelli trade doesn’t guarantee Murphy backup catcher job

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the GM Meetings last week, the Yankees swung a trade sending long-time backup catcher Frankie Cervelli to the Pirates for hard-throwing lefty reliever Justin Wilson. It’s the third straight offseason in which a Yankees catcher has gone to the Pittsburgh — Russell Martin signed with the Pirates as a free agent during the 2012-13 offseason and the two clubs got together for the Chris Stewart trade last winter. Maybe they like the same catchers because their internal metrics are similar.

Anyway, the Yankees made the trade because they almost had to move a catcher this winter. It had gotten to the point where they simply had too many catchers for too few spots at the upper levels. Brian McCann is locked into the starting MLB job and Cervelli had a leg up on the backup spot, leaving John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine, and Gary Sanchez for Triple-A Scranton. That’s not really feasible. Playing time is a zero sum game — the more at-bats Sanchez gets, the fewer there are for Murphy and Romine.

Something had to give and it turned out to be Cervelli, who is two years from free agency and projected to earn $1.1M through arbitration next year. Why pay seven figures for a backup catcher — an injury prone backup catcher at that — when you have several players who can do the job for close to the league minimum? The Yankees dealt from a position of depth and added an interesting arm to the bullpen mix while shedding some salary. It’s not the type of move that will win a team a title but it helps balance the roster.

As soon as Cervelli was traded, I and I think many others considered Murphy the favorite to take over as McCann’s backup. That makes sense — Murphy was the one who got the call when Cervelli got hurt last year and Romine didn’t even get a September call-up at first. (He was called up after Cervelli got hurt in mid-September). Romine has stalled out the last year or two and Murphy has played well, especially when he first came up last April and May. He’s ready for a big league job.

There are other factors to consider, however. First and foremost, the Yankees might not be done dealing. Murphy isn’t a top trade chip but he’s a desirable piece because, again, he’s basically MLB ready. Catching is hard to find and plenty of teams will try to pry six years of Murphy away from New York if given the chance. I both would and wouldn’t be surprised if he gets traded at some point, perhaps for a shortstop. I don’t think it will happen but it wouldn’t come out left field either. Trading Murphy seems completely plausible.

Trading Murphy would free up the backup catcher’s job for Romine, though I would expect the Yankees to sign a veteran backup catcher type to compete for the job in Spring Training. Someone on a minor league contract who can fight for the job in camp then go to Triple-A Scranton to back up and mentor Sanchez (and also serve as the third catcher). The same applies to trading Romine, though he isn’t as tradeable as Murphy. Romine is likely to be out of options though — Chad Jennings heard it “does not appear” Romine will qualify for a fourth option — which opens another can of worms.

If Romine is in fact out of minor league options, he won’t be able to go to Triple-A without first clearing waivers. It’s easy to say he will be claimed because he’s a young and cheap catcher who once had some nice prospect shine, but I looked through the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, and not many catchers get claimed off waivers. In fact, there have only been nine waiver claims involving a catcher since May 2008, and three of them featured the perpetually available George Kottaras. That guy always seems to be on waivers.

Maybe the means Romine will clear waivers, or maybe it means catchers like Romine rarely hit waivers and aren’t able to be claimed in the first place. The latter seems more likely to me. The Yankees have more upper level catching depth than most teams and could be the rare club who waives someone like Romine, but the easy solution would be sending Murphy to Triple-A and letting Romine back up McCann. They have that option as well, as unlikely as it seems. Options are good though and the Yankees don’t need to make a decision now.

“We’ll see how the winter continues to shake out,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty following the Cervelli trade. “We have guys with Major League service in Romine and Murphy. So we’ll see how it all shakes out still. I’m still open to any possibilities to assist in improving our club.”

Backup catcher is very low on the offseason priority list because it is a position of depth, even after the Cervelli trade. The Yankees can roll into next season with what they have right now and be perfectly fine behind the plate. I do think Murphy has a leg up on the backup job with Romine likely to be exposed to waivers, but that’s just me. A lot can and will change in the coming months. The Cervelli trade helped clear up an organization logjam but it didn’t guarantee anyone a job either.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 17th, 2014

2014 Record: 84-78 (633 RS, 664 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), did not qualify for postseason

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 interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Weekend Open Thread

In honor of Giancarlo Stanton’s new record contract with the Marlins, I figure I’d liven up this weekend’s open thread with a video of every homer he hit from his rookie year through 2013, because why not? (Here are his 2014 homers.) The Yankees aren’t featured in the video — Stanton has homered against 21 of the 29 non-Marlins teams but not the Yankees! — though some of their current and former pitchers are. Anyway, enjoy. Here are some links for this weekend:

  • Jorge Arangure managed to sit down and interview free agent Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who is expected to sign very soon. Tomas has been working out in the Dominican Republic and he’s already a legend there.
  • At the GM Meetings this week, David Laurila spoke to several GMs about baseball’s decline in offense. Specifically, he asked them it they believe this is the new norm or just part of a cycle, and how it impacts their roster-building strategy.
  • My pal Eno Sarris wrote about Giants swingman Yusmeiro Petit and what has made him so successful despite pedestrian stuff. The key is the deception in his delivery, which Eno breaks down with some GIFs and images. The piece is two weeks old now but it’s still interesting stuff.

Friday: Here is your open thread for the night. The Knicks, Devils, and Islanders are all playing tonight, plus the college basketball season is getting underway. Talk about those games or anything else on your mind right here.

Saturday: This is your open thread once again. All three local hockey teams plus the Nets are in action. There’s also a ton of college football and basketball on as well. You folks know how these things work by now, so have it.

Sunday: Once again, here is the nightly open thread. None of the local basketball or hockey teams are playing and the late NFL game is the Patriots and Colts. Talk about whatever here.

DotF: Greg Bird named Arizona Fall League MVP

1B Greg Bird was named the MVP of the Arizona Fall League earlier this week. He hit with .313/.391/.556 (156 wRC+) and led the league in homers (six, tied), finished second in RBI (21), total bases (55), and wRC+, third in SLG, sixth in AVG, seventh in OPS (.947), eighth in walks (13), and 12th in OBP. They’ve been handing out the AzFL MVP since 2002 and Bird is the second Yankees prospect to win it, joining Eric Duncan in 2005. Here are the rest of the week’s minor league notes:

  • OF Tyler Austin suffered a bone bruise in his left knee after an outfield collision last week, reports Josh Norris. “He has been diagnosed with a bone bruise. There is no damage to his meniscus or any ligament issues. He will rest for the next 2-3 weeks,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler to Chad Jennings.
  • Jonathan Mayo polled scouts and players about the best tools in the AzFL. OF Aaron Judge was voted as having the best outfield arm — “One scout said it’s a true 70 arm,” wrote Mayo — while Judge and Bird drew votes for best power and best hitter, respectively.
  • Ken Davidoff wrote profiles about both Judge and Bird. “I’m still on the fence with his bat,” said one scout about Judge. “Plus-plus power, but has some good at-bats here and then will chase off-speed. That worries me – at higher levels, that is what he will see.”
  • Baseball America compiled a list of all minor leaguers suspended in 2014. Yankees farmhands RHP Andy Beresford and 1B Bo Thompson were hit with 50-game suspensions after testing positive for a banned substance in August.
  • The Yankees have re-signed UTIL Ali Castillo after he became a minor league free agent, according to Matt Eddy. Also, OF Antoan Richardson elected free agency after being outrighted off the 40-man roster last week.
  • Both OF Zoilo Almonte and LHP Francisco Rondon have signed the Braves after becoming minor league free agents, says Eddy. Almonte managed to get a big league contract. Good for him.

[Read more…]

Sherman: Yankees not interested in Japanese free agent shortstop Takashi Toritani

Toritani at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
Toritani at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

The Yankees do not have interest in free agent Japanese shortstop Takashi Toritani, according to Joel Sherman. Toritani is a true free agent who does not have to be posted, and he’s made it clear he wants to come over to MLB. He is a Scott Boras client.

Toritani, 33, is a table-setter at the plate and he’s most notable for his durability, having played every inning of every game at shortstop for the Hanshin Tigers since the start of the 2005 season. Here are his career stats:

Year Age AgeDif Tm G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2004 23 -6.9 Hanshin 101 261 28 59 13 0 3 17 2 2 21 66 .251 .320 .345 .665
2005 24 -6.1 Hanshin 146 645 82 159 27 1 9 52 5 5 53 115 .278 .343 .376 .719
2006 25 -4.6 Hanshin 146 609 65 157 28 2 15 58 5 3 60 111 .289 .362 .431 .793
2007 26 -4.2 Hanshin 144 642 67 154 19 4 10 43 7 4 63 106 .273 .350 .373 .724
2008 27 -3.0 Hanshin 144 605 66 147 17 6 13 80 4 7 68 85 .281 .365 .411 .776
2009 28 -1.6 Hanshin 144 617 84 155 31 2 20 75 7 7 65 83 .288 .368 .465 .832
2010 29 -0.5 Hanshin 144 651 98 173 31 6 19 104 13 3 66 93 .301 .373 .475 .848
2011 30 0.3 Hanshin 144 590 71 150 28 7 5 51 16 3 78 72 .300 .395 .414 .809
2012 31 1.1 Hanshin 144 624 62 135 22 6 8 59 15 4 94 91 .262 .373 .375 .748
2013 32 2.4 Hanshin 144 643 74 150 30 4 10 65 15 7 104 65 .282 .402 .410 .812
2014 33 Hanshin 155 644 96 172 28 2 8 73 10 6 87 80 .313 .406 .415 .820
11 Seasons 1556 6531 793 1611 274 40 120 677 99 51 759 967 .285 .372 .412 .783
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/15/2014.

Daniel Brim recently put together a great in-depth look at Toritani that I recommend checking out. He is billed as a strong defensive shortstop who draws a lot of walks and plays the small ball game well. Brim ran some numbers and came away with Marco Scutaro as a comparison for what he did in Japan, for what it’s worth.

The history of Asian infielders in MLB is pretty terrible — some feel the game is simply too quick here and it’s too big of an adjustment — though that doesn’t guarantee Toritani will be a flop. He’s not particularly young and shouldn’t cost much to acquire. Hiroyuki Nakajima and Tsuyoshi Nishioka were star infielders in Japan who recently signed two and three-year contracts worth approximately $3M annually with the Athletics and Twins, respectively. Both flopped and spent the majority of their contracts in Triple-A.

The Yankees need to replace Derek Jeter at shortstop this offseason — Brian Cashman called it the team’s top priority at the GM Meetings last week — but they don’t have interest in Toritani and appear to be focused on known quantities. That’s more than fine with me. Cashman called the shortstop market “limited” the other day though there is still a lot of offseason left. I’m hopeful some surprise trade candidates hit the market in a few weeks and the Yankees are able to snag a young shortstop who can anchor the position for several years.