1990: A year in purgatory

Sitting here in 2010, we’re used to Yankee success. Everyone hates the Yankees because they’re so good, and we’ve enjoyed, since 1996, five World Series championships, another two World Series appearances and 13 playoff appearances in 14 years. Talk about spoiled.

The Bronx, though, was not always home to baseball riches. Twenty years ago, the Yankees were downright awful, and somehow, during many of our formative years, we still found a way to route for the team. The Yankees in 1990 were the last Yankee team to finish in seventh place in the AL East. The team went an AL-worst 67-95 and were 21 games out of first place when the season ended.

As with most last-place teams, the Yankees managed to fail in every aspect of the game. Overall, the team .241/.300/.366, worst in the AL in all three categories. They hit 147 home runs, good for fourth in the league, but plated just 603 runs all season. Their 1027 strike outs were good for second in the AL, and their 427 walks were the second fewest in the league. It’s painful just to think about Alvaro Espinosa’s .224/.258/.274 effort over 472 plate appearances or Steve Sax’s .260/.316/.325 line in 680 plate appearances.

Things weren’t much better on the mound. Tim Leary, the staff “ace,” lost 19 games and had a 1.77 K/BB ratio. The guys behind him — Andy Hawkins, David LaPoint, Chuck Cary, Mike Witt and a plethora of spot starters — are better left to the history books. Hawkins, in fact, walked more than he struck out in 157.2 innings that year. Bad. Bad. Bad.

I remember going to games that year as a young Yankee fan, and the Stadium simply had a different atmosphere to it. The fans who were there knew they wouldn’t get good baseball. Maybe we’d see Stump Merrill throw a fit and get ejected. Maybe the opposing teams would be good. Mid-week games against the bad teams — the Indians, the Mariners — drew just over 15,000 fans per game, and Dave Anderson doubted even that many showed up. For the last game of the season, an entirely meaningless affair against the Tigers, just 13,380 fans were in attendance.

It was tough that year to find any bright spots. Even old reliable Donnie Baseball begin his slide toward retirement. Back problems knocked him out midway through the season, and he hit just .256/.308/.335 with 5 home runs. For those of us who idolized Mattingly, his struggles were incomprehensible. Kevin Maas, though, wowed us all with his 21 home runs.

For the Yankees, that season, George Steinbrenner hung over everything. The Boss was suspended in July, and the team couldn’t really do much of anything as his status was up in the air. Still, the pieces began to fall into place for a later run. The Yanks drafted Andy Pettitte in the 22nd round of the draft and chose some middle infielder named Jorge Posada in the 24th round. Shane Spencer was a 28th round draft pick, and Ricky Ledee came on board in the 16th round. On February 17, the Yanks signed some skinny kid out of Panama named Mariano Rivera.

The 1990 season was truly a rock-bottom year. Hensley Muelens, Mel Hall, Steve Balboni, Jesse Barfield. Who were these guys? The fans barely knew; the fans barely came. It was a different era in the Bronx.

Left field closing arguments: Rocco Baldelli

Again, we thought we were at the end yesterday with Xavier Nady. But Mike mentioned Baldelli to me today. At first I wrote it off, but then I realized the advantage Baldelli has over other candidates. I promise, unless a strong rumor arises, this is the LAST of this series.

As we’ve browsed through the available free agent left fielders in search of a suitable candidate to caddy for Brett Gardner, we’ve mostly touched on complementary, platoon-type players. So why not touch on a high-risk, high-reward one? Chances are the Yanks won’t sign him — probably won’t go near him. But that won’t stop us from discussing the case for Rocco Baldelli.

Baldelli makes a simple case. He’s the most talented of the second- and third-tier outfielders. The sixth overall pick in 2000, Baldelli struggled through his first year and a half in the minors before breaking out in 2002 when he moved from A+ ball all the way through AAA. His first major league season went well, as he hit .289/.326/.416 and finished third, behind Angel Berroa and Hideki Matsui, for the AL Rookie of the Year award.

He repeated his performance in 2004, though he and the Rays got the first sign of things to come. He battled thigh problems late in the season, eventually causing him to hit the 15-day DL in mid-August. He came back with some pop, hitting six home runs in September and giving the Devil Rays hope for 2005. Those were soon dashed, however, as Baldelli tore his ACL playing baseball with his brother over the winter. Then, during rehab, he tore his UCL, resulting in Tommy John surgery.

Finally, 19 months after he last played in a major league game, Baldelli returned to the Devil Rays on June 7, 2006. The rest of the season went very well, as Baldelli posted a .302/.339/.533 line, finally developing his power tool. He did miss eight days in August with hamstring issues, but nothing that required a DL stint. Again, the D-Rays had hope that their former No. 1 pick would fulfill his potential.

While Baldelli didn’t dash those hopes during the off-season, he didn’t last long into the 2007 season. Those hamstring issues returned, but this time it was serious, requiring a 60-day DL stint that ended up keeping him out for the rest of the season. It was during that off-season that doctors discovered “metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities,” which explained why Baldelli couldn’t stay healthy, though it was not a specific diagnosis. He changed his eating and supplement habits, hoping to adapt to the limitations the disease placed on him.

Unfortunately, Baldelli couldn’t make it through Spring Training 2008, and again opened the season on the DL. Finally, in August the Rays activated him, playing him sparsely and selectively. The plan worked. He avoided further injury that season while posting good numbers in limited playing time. In the playoffs for the first time in his career, Baldelli became a hero during the ALCS, hitting a three-run homer off Paul Byrd to give the Rays the lead in the game and, six Red Sox outs later, the series.

During the off-season Baldelli got good news. He underwent further tests which showed that he had a form of channelopathy, a more treatable condition than a mitochondrial disorder. Seeing an opportunity, the Red Sox signed the native New Englander for the 2009 season. They planned to play him part time, but even that couldn’t keep him off the DL. In total he missed 33 games due to injury in 2009, including two DL stints. He appeared in just 62 games, amassing 164 plate appearances and a batting line of .253/.311/.433. The power was there, but that’s about all.

So, after this breakdown of Baldelli’s injury history, it’s clear why no teams have approached him about playing in 2010. His lower body has been a wreck for the past five years, and though his medical condition isn’t as bad as it could be, it’s still an enormous concern. Maybe the off-season of rest will do him good, but a good team can’t take that gamble. Baldelli would have to fill a part-time role, and any acquiring team would have to build a solid backup plan. That’s the high-risk part.

Again, Baldelli has tremendous upside. That’s the high-reward part. He plays good defense, hits for power, and, at least at one point, had incredible speed, especially out of the box. He also hits lefties very well, posting a .831 OPS against them over 610 career plate appearances — including his early, leaner years. So is that upside, weighed against the risk of a couple DL stints, worth the gamble?

The only way I can see the Yankees even consider Baldelli is if he’s willing to sign for a very small base salary. He did that last year, actually. The Red Sox guaranteed him only $500K, with $5.25 million in plate appearance bonuses — of which he reached none — and $1.75 million in roster days bonuses — which amounted to between $1.25 and $1.5 million. Still, the low base salary is the key here. Since all we’ve heard is that the Yankees have just $2 million to spend, Baldelli might be the best value for the dollar.

Hey, maybe we’ll get two players from this list. Given the supposed $2 million, maybe the Yanks could bring aboard Baldelli and Jerry Hairston. That would finish off the bench and give the Yanks enough flexibility to make a mid-season move. At a $500K base salary, I don’t think they’d hesitate to DFA Baldelli if anything went wrong.

Photo credit: AP Photo/LM Otero

Yanks donate $500K to Haiti relief efforts

As the international community attempts to put together rescue and relief efforts for Haiti in the aftermath of yesterday’s catastrophic earthquake, the Yankees are adding their money to the pot. The team donated $500,000 rescue and relief efforts. “The catastrophic event has devastated an entire nation and will have far-reaching effects in the worldwide Haitian community,” the team said in a statement. “The Yankees hope their donation will inspire people throughout the United States to do everything they can to aid the people of Haiti in their time of need.” Earlier today, The Times had more on how to donate for those who want to help.

Open Thread: Just in case you forgot how awesome 2009 was…

Good times.

Here’s your open thread for the night. The Nets and Knicks (combined 18-56) are both in action, but that’s pretty much it. Anything goes, so have at it.

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