The RAB Radio Show: February 24, 2011

Ben joins the show today, and we talk about a few of the position battles in camp. It starts with the pitching and how the competition among the young players is going. We also hit on the bench and the growing perception that Eric Chavez has some kind of edge.

Podcast run time 19:22

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

Heyman: Garcia likely No. 4, No. 5 “wide open”

The most peculiar aspect of the Yankees’ rotation battle this spring is that no candidate stands out. The contestants are either flawed veterans — Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon — or unproven youngsters — Ivan Nova, David Phelps, Andrew Brackman, etc. This leaves the Yankees with some tough decisions. One of them, though, might be made already.

This morning SI’s Jon Heyman reported that Garcia “has a leg up” on the No. 4 starer job. That would mean he’s a leg up on everyone, since he’d have to fall into the No. 5 spot before falling out of the race completely. When the Yankees signed Garcia, I assumed he’d win one of those spots out of spring training. He’s an experienced veteran who pitched serviceably last year, even with diminished stuff. Even though he came to camp on a minor league deal, I was confident of seeing him pitch in pinstripes this April.

While Garcia might already have an assumed spot in the rotation, apparently the Yanks are being a bit more tight-lipped about the last spot. Heyman calls the the competition “wide open,” but I think the Yanks have a good idea of what they’re doing there. They have a few young guys, but perhaps none quite as ready for the bigs as Ivan Nova. Brackman and Phelps would be nice options, but I can’t see either of them, in their limited experiences, making the club out of camp. That essentially boils the competition to Nova and Colon, and unless Colon lights up opposing hitters during his spring starts, it’s hard to see anyone but Nova taking the job.

This is really just a reminder of the differences between perception and reality in spring training. Last year the Yankees held a fifth starter competition, but word was that Hughes was the favorite from the start. This year they’re doing something similar, but if you break down the contestants it’s hard to pick anyone other than Garcia and Nova, with Colon having an outside shot because of his veteran status. Maybe these things do motivate players, but they’re easy enough to see through. The Yanks are saying it, but from the looks there’s not much of a competition at all.

2011 Season Preview: Mark Teixeira

What up, Mark? (Mike Carleson/AP)

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 be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

It started in 1985. Don Mattingly, coming off his first full season in the bigs, during which he led the league in hits and won the batting title, got his first start at first base on Opening Day. In the two years before that, Ken Griffey opened the season at first. Dave Revering, Bob Watson, and Chris Chambliss held the honors in the years before that. But from 1985 through 1995, it was Mattingly who manned first on Opening Day. It was the start of a tradition.

When Mattingly retired after the 95 season he passed the torch to Tino Martinez, who started at first on Opening Day from 1996 through 2001. The honors then went to Jason Giambi, who was supposed to start at first on Opening Day from 2002 through at least 2008. Only Josh Phelps starting at first on Opening Day 2007 broke that streak. Now Mark Teixeira is the man at first, and in 2011 he will open his third pinstriped season there. Save for that one anomalous Opening Day, the Yankees have had four men man first base on Opening Day since 1985. It is a tradition, once maligned, that we all hope continues through 2016, when Teixeira perhaps passes the torch to the next great Yankees first baseman.

For now we can enjoy the current first baseman in his prime. While Teixeira had his second worst, and certainly most disappointing, season in 2010, he’s still a world class athlete in the prime of his career. Despite the down year the expectations range high.

Best Case

Game changer. (Charles Krupa/AP)

By the time a player reaches age 30, we usually have a good idea of his true talent. This appears to be the case with Teixeira, who produced a wOBA between .402 and .410 from 2007 through 2009, peaking at .410 in 2008. Since he’s 31 and unlikely to dramatically improve, we can safely peg his peak value at 2008, when, on the strength of his best offensive season and a particularly impressive defensive one, he produced 7.3 WAR.

That would make his best case section pretty boring. That’s not going to fly. As I examined earlier this week, a hot start could make a big difference for Teixeira. In that quick and dirty analysis I substituted Teixeira’s second-worst month for his worst one. It made something of a difference in his season numbers, particularly in batting average and slugging. But what if Teixeira were to have an otherworldly April, and then go on to have a season similar to 2009?

The last season in which Teixeira produced good numbers in April was 2006, when he hit .293/.391/.495 in 115 April PA. If we simply substitute those numbers for Teixeira’s April 2009 numbers — .200/.367/.371 in 90 PA — this is what we’d come up with:


And yet, in 2007 Teixeira hit .306/.400/.563, so this isn’t really out of line at all out of line with what Teixeira can do. Yet it’s a bit better than his 2009. The best case for Teixiera, then, is an MVP.

Worst Case

No one wants to see this again in 2011. (Paul Battaglia/AP)

Most of us don’t want to acknowledge the worst case scenario for any player. Not at this point in the year. It involves injury, of course, and with Teixeira that possibility is a bit more real than it was at this time last year. While he didn’t spend any time on the DL, the year was marked by a series of injuries that hampered his production, and which culminated in a hamstring strain during the ALCS.

Baseball Injury Tool notes four different instances in 2010 when Teixeira was listed as day-to-day. There was the foul ball he took off his foot at the end of May, but the real litany came towards the end of the season. He missed a game at the end of August with a thumb contusion, an injury that probably lingered the rest of the season; he had a cortizone shot sometime at the end of September. Then, towards the middle of September, it was revealed that he had a toe fracture — which he suffered at the end of August. Then came the hamstring strain.

Most of these injuries, it appears, stemmed from fluke things such as getting hit by pitches. That’s good news going forward, since it doesn’t portend a repeat in 2011. Still, we know that small injuries, especially the thumb one, can seriously hamper Teixeira’s production. Repeating any part of his 2011 injury wise would probably bring on the worst case scenario.

The other part of the worst case is that Teixeira’s production truly has declined. Again, it’s easy to look at the injuries as an explanation. He did produce two stellar months in July and August, and those were two months where he was a month removed from any day-to-day injuries. Still, we have no idea the degree to which that link is causal. There have been first baseman who have produced similarly to Teixeira early in their careers, only to decline around age 30. The worst case, then, would be a facsimile of his 2010 season, but perhaps without the torrid July and August production.

What’s Likely To Happen

Given the injuries that slowed his 2010 season and his focus on getting off to a decent start in 2011, I think that Teixeira’s most likely case involves a compromise between his 2008 and 2009 seasons. That is, an OBP close to, but not quite at, .400, and a SLG that ranges around .550 rather than .565. That would still provide tremendous production for the Yankees, and would put him among the best first basemen in the American League.

Despite Teixeira’s best efforts, it’s tough to envision anything but a slow start. This is now a four-year trend, and to predict a reversal is to bet blindly on optimism. As long as his start doesn’t resemble 2010, which was his worst April ever, the Yanks can weather the extra outs from the No. 3 spot.

Thankfully, along with the trend of slow starts comes the trend of torrid production later in the season. Even in his down year last season he crushed the ball during the summer months. If it is blind optimism to predict a hot start, it is equally blind pessimism to predict a drop-off in summer numbers. When healthy Teixeira is a proven second half hitter, and that will help the Yankees tremendously heading into a September pennant race.

As Mark Teixeira goes, so will the Yankees. He occupies a key spot in the lineup, and the Yankees rely on his production to help lead their league-best offense. While 2010 represented a down year, it was also one marked by injuries. If he remains healthy in 2011, it’s hard to expect anything but another elite season.

When an NL injury impacts the Yankees

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

It appears that for the second season in a row, baseball is losing one of its star pitchers to Tommy John surgery. Last year it was Twins closer Joe Nathan blowing out his elbow in his first Grapefruit League outing, and this year it looks like Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright will have to go under the knife. Nothing’s official yet, but the right-hander flew back to St. Louis yesterday to have the joint examined, and team bigwigs don’t sound optimistic.

“After his bullpen on Monday, he did feel something in his right elbow,” said GM John Mozeliak. “I can say just based on the initial evaluation from our training staff, things do not look encouraging. But before we jump to any conclusions, we’ll just wait until the re-evaluation [Wednesday] afternoon.”

“It’s not a good day,” said manager Tony LaRussa. “It’s a huge hit. You’re talking about one of those quality guys. We have to overcome this.”

Wainwright, just 29 years old, is one of the best pitchers on the planet, posting a 2.99 FIP in 463.1 IP over the last two years, twice finishing in the top three of the NL Cy Young voting. The Cardinals already suffered one big hit this month when they were unable to reach an agreement with Albert Pujols on a long-term deal, but losing their best starter will have a ripple down effect, one that could impact the Yankees.

As you probably know, we’ve speculated quite a bit about Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals’ other ace, being a potential trade target for New York this season. The logic is that the Cardinals may need to free up some cash to sign Pujols, and shedding a soon-to-be 36-year-old starter making $15M a year is a fine way of doing that. Obviously, the Wainwright injury can and almost certainly will change their plans for 2011 and Carpenter, one way or another.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The quick, knee-jerk reaction I’ve seen is that the Cards should sell, that losing Wainwright essentially dooms their season. I disagree about the last part, but the point I want to make is that selling isn’t as easy as you think. For one, is Pujols really going to want to re-sign with St. Louis long-term if he knows the next year or two or three will be spent rebuilding? Every move the Cardinals make from now through the end of the year has to be focused on keeping Albert around. Can a team with a nine-figure commitment to Matt Holliday with Colby Rasmus and Jaime Garcia and Yadier Molina in their prime years really convince itself that selling is the best course of action? The NL Central is very winnable, so it’s not like they need a miracle to contend.

Now if the Cardinals decide to keep Carpenter and make a run in 2011 without Waino, that will affect the Yankees’ pursuit of pitching. For one, Carp won’t be available, so that right there takes away a prime target. Secondly, there also a chance that St. Louis will look to bolster its rotation at midseason, meaning there would be that much more competition for starting pitching on the trade market.

On the other side of the coin, maybe the Cardinals do decide to sell. Maybe they’ve gotten the indication that Pujols is signable and they need that little extra cash, or they believe he’s leaving after the season and they want to move Carpenter while his value is high. I think it’s unlikely, but we probably shouldn’t rule it out. Carpenter and his salary would certainly fit nicely on the Yankees, and they absolutely have the players to give up in exchange. I suspect Wainwright’s injury will make it more difficult for the Yanks to acquire a pitcher as I outlined above, but there’s always a chance it will make it a bit easier.

Losing Wainwright for the season obviously sucks not just for the Cardinals, but baseball in general. He’s a star player and he helps sells jerseys and fill the seats, and it’s good for the game when a historic franchise like St. Louis is in contention. It’s also possible that his injury will help the Yankees, and it’s also good for baseball when the Yankees are a great team. I don’t think it’ll happen, I think it’s much more likely that St. Louis will now hold onto Carpenter with a death grip, but hey, you never know.

Pulling for a Mark Prior comeback

Mark Prior, 30, hasn't pitched in the bigs since late 2006. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

I know exactly where I was the last time I saw Mark Prior pitch a Major League game and paid close attention to it. It was 2003, still two seasons before injuries would shelve him for the better part of five, and it was October. I had a week off for fall break, and I was visiting my grandparents in Florida. Earlier in the day, the Yanks had won Game 5 of their ALCS match-up against Boston to take a 3-2 lead in the series, and the evening action shifted to Chicago.

For many in the Windy City, October 14, 2003 is a day that still lives in infamy. The Cubs, thanks to Prior, were oh-so-close to the World Series. The 23-year-old right-hander, making his 33rd appearance of the season and with nearly 230 innings under his belt, carried a three-hitter into the 8th, and the Cubs had a 3-0 lead. Then, all hell broke loose.

Prior got Mike Mordecai to fly out before Juan Pierre doubled. Luis Castillo lofted a foul ball that Moises Alou seemed to track before Steve Bartman, oblivious to the game with his headphones broadcasting the radio feed, leaned over to interfere with play. While Alou later said he wouldn’t have made the catch, the Marlins had life. Castillo walked, and Ivan Rodriguez singled in a run. Miguel Cabrera reached on an Alex Gonzalez error, and after the 119th pitch of the 233rd inning of Prior’s season, Derrick Lee hit a game-tying double. Dusty Baker brought in Kyle Farnsworth, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As a Yankee fan watching the NLCS unfold, I was happy to see the Cubs go down but sad to see Chicago so victimized. The city and the team truly seemed cursed, but selfishly, I didn’t want to see the Yanks face Kerry Wood and Mark Prior three or four times in a potential seven-game World Series. Back in 2003, I kept having nightmares of a Schilling/Unit tandem but in Cubs’ uniforms. Be careful what you wish for when it comes to baseball, I learned.

After that game, the Cubs and Prior faded into and out of my baseball conscious. Over the next two years, he put together some mighty fine peripherals with a K/9 of 10.3 and a K/BB rate of 3.06. But he couldn’t stay healthy. He threw just 285.1 innings over two seasons and lasted just 43.2 disastrous innings into the 2006 season. He hasn’t made a Major League appearance since August 10, 2006, and has tried rehab and comebacks with various organizations and independent league teams.

This year, as we know, Prior is with the Yanks on a minor league deal. He’s 30 now and is hoping that he can restore himself to some semblance of use. He’s being considered strictly a reliever, and anything the Yanks get out of him at any professional level is a bonus. Still, I’m pulling for him. Of all the Yanks’ spring training invites, he’s the guy I most want to see succeed. He’s finally with the organization that drafted him in the late 1990s, and he’s basically pitching for the only career he’s ever known.

Over at LoHud tonight, Chad Jennings takes us inside Mark Prior’s arm. The one-time ace has pitching with a torn shoulder capsule a few years ago. Surgery can’t fix it, and he’s hoping it will hold up. “They’re trying to compare what I am today to maybe what I was in 2005 when I was last throwing the way everybody probably remembers me throwing,” he said to Jennings. “I can’t do it. I can’t compare it. I’m not the same person.”

Yet for all of his trials and tribulations, Prior seems to have a good attitude about him. He’s working to find his stuff, locate his fastball and stay healthy. So far, he’s emerged unscathed through one bullpen session, which might be more than anyone expected this early in the spring.

The Yanks, for their part, have a feint glimmer of hope in him. “I definitely think the stuff is capable, and I definitely think it’s there,” Larry Rothschild, Prior’s former Cubs pitching coach and current Yankee boss, said. “Is it what it used to be? Probably not. It’s kind of like apples and oranges, but I definitely think it’s good enough to get guys out, absolutely.”

So I’ll cheer for Prior and hope he can give something, anything, to the Yanks this year. Even a handful of appearances would be more than what he’s done in the past. It would be a great comeback story indeed.

Yankees sign Yadil Mujica

Via Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed Cuban-born shortstop Yadil Mujica. Mujica defected in 2009 after hitting .358/.432/.440 with the National Team, and he’s somewhere around 25 years old,  perhaps as old as 27. I’m sure the Yankees know for certain. I can’t find anything else about the guy, but if he was some hotshot prospect, the info would be out there. Consider a minor league depth move until further notice.

Open Thread: February 23rd Camp Notes

Picture day! (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The latest from Spring Training

  • Mariano Rivera threw his first bullpen session of the year, about 25 pitches. Pretty much all he did was work on his location. (Bryan Hoch)
  • Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Andrew Brackman, and David Phelps threw live batting practice this morning. Dellin Betances did as well, and was impressive with Derek Jeter in the box. Brian Cashman, Mark Newman, and Gene Michael were among those that watched Manny Banuelos during his session. (Yankees PR Dept., Ben Shpigel, Erik Boland & Boland)
  • Curtis Granderson, Greg Golson, Kevin Russo, and Ramiro Pena did extra bunting drills, something Brett Gardner did yesterday and has been doing for a while. Joe Girardi said  Gardner should make bunting more a part of his game, and although I have no trouble with him working on it, I don’t want a guy that had a .380+ OBP last year sac bunting. You know Girardi will do it during the season, it’s inevitable. (Chad Jennings & Marc Carig)
  • Russell Martin‘s knee is about 90%, so he’s unlikely to catch in Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener. “It’s just a matter of a conservative approach,” said Girardi. His hip is a non-issue. Both Eduardo Nunez and Austin Romine were both sent home sick. (Sweeny Murti, Carig, Carig, Carig & Carig)
  • Jorge Posada might not catch in a game all spring according to Girardi, but he will catch bullpens. The team knows he can play behind the plate during the regular season after a career this long. Not sure if I buy that logic, but whatever. (Murti & Carig)
  • Girardi said the biggest revelation of the spring was seeing “just how good some of our young pitchers are. We have guys that can help us this year.” Brandon Laird is slated for Triple-A, but could push Ronnie Belliard and Eric Chavez for the final bench spot. (Jack Curry & Carig)
  • Mike Mussina has an open invitation to be a guest instructor in Spring Training, but he told the Yankees he wants to spend one more year at home. It’s possible Bernie Williams may show up to camp and instruct at some point this year. (Joel Sherman)

Here’s the nightly open thread. Carmelo Anthony is making his Knicks debut tonight (I think), when they face the Bucks at the Garden at 7:30 ET. That one will be on MSG. Chat about whatever, go bananas.