Jorge Vazquez’s Chances

You might have noticed this weekend, while watching the first televised Yankee games of 2011, that some pudgy dude was busy socking dingers. That was Jorge Vazquez. Signed out of the Mexican League prior to the 2008 season, Vazquez is in camp with the Yankees for the second time. Despite the display he put on this weekend, he stands about as much a chance of making the team as he did last year.

If you look through Vazquez’s history, you might wonder why he’s not a consideration for that final bench spot. He raked his way through the Mexican League, finishing with an OPS below 1.000 just once in his final four seasons there (and it was .988 that year). Then, in his first stateside season, he put on something of a display at Trenton, hitting .329/.357/.578 in 238 PA. The only thing holding him back, it seemed, was the injury bug. He missed 86 days in 2009 due to various strains and bruises.

Last year he, along with fellow former Mexican Leaguer Manny Banuelos, underwent an appendectomy and missed the start of the season. He hit .390 during his brief return to Trenton before heading up to Scranton. There he hit .270/.313/.526 in 316 PA, mostly as the team’s first baseman and DH. His discipline might be lacking, as he has drawn just 26 walks in 596 minor league plate appearances (4.4%), but his power remains prodigious; in AAA he produced a .256 ISO.

If Vazquez has displayed high batting averages and considerable power, then why is he nowhere on the Yanks radar? Why isn’t he under consideration for a bench spot? Why didn’t Baseball America write his name a single time in its writeup for the 2011 Prospect Handbook? Vazquez, it appears, is a case of scouting over stats. His style of play apparently won’t play well in the majors. We’ve seen this before with plenty of other players, but it reminded me of one specific player formerly in the Yankees organization.

When I first started writing about the Yankees, during the 2004 season, they had a guy raking in AA. Mitch Jones finished the season with a .246/.334/.548 line. The next year, in 2005, he moved up to AAA and continued to rake, .268/.347/.507. During that year I wondered why Jones wasn’t coming up to help. In 2006 I wondered even more. The Yankees outfield had suffered two major injuries, and they could have used a power bat such as Jones. They actually did call him up in late May, but sent him down after just a day on the roster. By year’s end they had designated him for assignment.

For the next few years Jones ambled around the minors, and even spent some time in Japan. In 2009, amid a torrid season in the hitter-friendly PCL, the Dodgers finally gave him his first pro plate appearances. He made 15 that season, going 4 for 13 with a double and six strikeouts. He was also hit by two pitches. But that’s basically the book on Mitch Jones. Vazquez could be headed for the same fate.

Chances are Vazquez returns to AAA this year and continues to produce quality power numbers. He might even flirt with a .300 average. But chances are, barring a crippling rash of injuries, he won’t sniff the bigs. Despite the numbers, the scouting report just isn’t there. Joe Girardi might have said it all, by saying really nothing at all, in response to a question about Vazquez. “If he hits a home run every day, I’m sure he’ll get the Grapefruit (League) MVP.” But he probably wouldn’t make the Yanks.

AP Photo

The RAB Radio Show: February 28, 2011

We finally got some live baseball over the weekend. The Yanks played two against Philly, and we got to see rookies and veterans alike. That leaves plenty of room for initial impressions. Mike and I run down ours.

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Observations from the first weekend of games

We had our first Haley Swindal sighting of 2011 this weekend. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Yankees played their first two Grapefruit League games this weekend, splitting a home-and-home series with the Phillies. It was great to see baseball, stress-free baseball at that. If it was the middle of the season, I’d be pretty upset over the two-run bloop single that essentially lost them the game on Saturday.

Anyway, we know that Spring Training games, especially the first few (when it’s still February) really don’t mean too much, but that’s not going to stop me from making some small sample size observations. I’ll go alphabetically for no apparent reason…

Dellin Betances

Changeup! (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The highlight of the weekend was easily Betances’ inning of work on Sunday. He faced four batters, striking out three and walking one. The television gun had him up 97 with the fastball, which a) is absurd for this time of year, and b) garnered a few helpless swings-and-misses. Chances are he was a little geeked up for the appearance and hitters just aren’t used to see that kind of velocity this time of year, but yeah, Dellin was electric. He was also wild and in obvious need of some more minor league seasoning. But still, damn was that fun to watch.

Joba Chamberlain

For all the talk about his weight gain, I mean sheesh, it was barely noticeable on television. Some other fans I spoke too said he looked bigger up top, around his chest and shoulders, but it’s not like he had a gut hanging over his belt. Joba changed his delivery somewhat, starting with his hands at his waist as opposed to his chest, something he said he started doing on his own and Larry Rothschild later okay’d. The television gun had him anywhere from 91-95, and he threw a lot more sliders than I expected this early in camp.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo wasn’t kidding when he said he needed to lose 25 lbs., the guy’s pretty chunky. He still brings the heat though, hitting a few 94’s on the YES gun, and he was throwing some kind of offspeed pitch in the low-80’s. Not sure if it was a changeup or splitter, but it moves down and away from lefties. It was just one outing, but it kinda reinforced the notion that it’s tough to be optimistic about his chances of being a viable starter in the big leagues this year.

Brett Gardner

The gritty one didn’t take the bat off his shoulder until the fifth pitch of his fourth plate appearance of the spring. He drew a five pitch walk in his only trip to the plate on Saturday, then walked on four and five pitches in his first two at-bats on Sunday, respectively. After working a 3-1 count in his third plate appearance yesterday, he finally swung at a pitch, a fastball on the outer half, slapping it down the left field line for a legit double (meaning it would have been a double for anyone, not just a fast guy). That swing also featured a two-hand follow through, not the one-handed helicopter thing he had going on last year. I’m glad Gardner is still showing that mega-patient approach against rusty pitchers, though I will continue to hate seeing him let hittable pitches go by in hitter’s counts.

Cured. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Curtis Granderson

The Grandy-man went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts on the weekend, but the one was a two-run opposite field homerun. Opposite field homers are far from routine for the Yankees center fielder; he’s hit zero in that direction over the last two seasons, and just three total since the start of the 2008 season. Granderson went from an extreme pull hitter to using left field a little more after working with Kevin Long last year, so it was good to see that oppo homer. One ball in play (in February) means nothing, but I remain cautiously optimistic, just as I have been all winter.

Jesus Montero

The Yankees’ top prospect started behind the plate on Sunday and wasn’t tested defensively in any way. No tough balls in the dirt to block, no stolen base attempts, nothing like that. His first at-bat was his best of the day, when he fouled off four 2-2 pitches from Joe Blanton before ripping a line drive right at Placido Polanco at third. Montero’s other two trips to the plate resulting in first pitch ground balls, one for an out, the other for a broken bat RBI single that bounced through the left side of the infield. He’s definitely a big boy though, very tall and strong (looking).

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Ivan Nova

Nova looked about as good as a pitcher can look in February, facing six batters and getting four ground balls with a pair of strikeouts. He definitely hung a few fastballs if that’s possible, meaning they were belt high and right out over the plate. The problem we’re going to have with Nova this spring is that we really don’t care too much about how he looks early in the game, the majority of his struggles last year came the third time through the order. I doubt we’ll get to see him turn a lineup over more than once in spring, so it’ll still be an unknown if he improved in that department when the season starts.

Alex Rodriguez

Reports have Alex losing ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat over the winter and damn was it noticeable. He seriously looked like the A-Rod of 2006 and 2007, at least physically. That’s not to say he was big before, but he looks more … streamlined this year. I guess that’s the best way to describe it. Alex hit two balls right on the screws on Saturday, one right at the center fielder and one into the right-center field gap for a double. He looked to be running well on the two-bagger, much lighter on his feet.

And a few miscellaneous notes…

  • Melky Mesa totally looks like Alfonso Soriano in the box. Very closed stance, knees very bent, exaggerated bat waggle. Melky 2.0 definitely bore a resemblance to Fonsy.
  • Jorge Vazquez went way deep on Saturday (over the batter’s eye in center) and then went deep again on Sunday. The first one came off Yankee-for-a-winter Brian Schlitter, the other off Brad Lidge. JoVa’s rapidly becoming the 2011 version of Jon Weber.
  • Maybe it’s my shoddy memory, but I think David Robertson‘s leg kick was a little less exaggerated on Saturday; he didn’t pick his knee up past his waist.
  • Boone Logan was only throwing 87-89 on Sunday after sitting around 93 most of last year. It’s only February and it was the TV gun of course, but when everyone else was in the 90’s, Boone’s missing heat was noticeable.

So that’s all I’ve got the first weekend of baseball in 2011, which for all intents and purposes means nothing. I’m curious to see Joba’s and Nova’s next few outings, as well as Gardner some more. That two-handed follow through is interesting. Oh, and A-Rod. Because he’s good at baseball.

2011 Season Preview: Derek Jeter

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

(Mark Humphrey/AP)

When, at age 36, a player produces career lows in basically every offensive statistic, one word comes to mind. There is a real possibility that Derek Jeter has entered an irreversible decline. Yankees fans don’t want to admit this. The 2010 season was just a down year, and everyone experiences down years. Considering Jeter’s previous low came during his sophomore season, he was due. Right?

If we’ve learned one thing about Jeter during his 15 years with the club, it’s that he won’t simply accept declining numbers. This off-season he signed a contract that rewards him handsomely for his contribution to a championship team, and he’s going to take that seriously. He already has, as we’ve read frequently this off-season. A new, shorter stride is supposed to help him stay in front of the ball, so that he’s not hitting dinky grounders to second every other at-bat. But will this one change lead to a more productive 2011?

Best Case

Those are some good looking swing mechanics (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

In seasons past, pegging Jeter’s ceiling was pretty easy. Lately the answer has been simple: 2006. That year, riding a near-.400 BABIP, Jeter hit .343/.416/.483 (.399 wOBA) and nearly won the AL MVP Award. In 2009 he came close to those numbers, .334/.406/.465, so in 2010 that appeared to be his ceiling. Instead we got what was in essence his floor. At a younger age we could probably reset his ceiling to that 2006/2009 level. But at age 37 I’m not sure we can do that.

Maybe Jeter’s shortened stride will indeed allow him to get his bat around faster. Maybe, as we’ve heard reported this spring, that he’ll also pull the ball with a bit more authority this year. And maybe that turns into a BABIP around .360, which would put him well above the .300 batting average mark. Since we’re talking best case, that could be in the cards. It’s also possible that, with a bit more reaction time, he can again eclipse a 10 percent walk rate, which would put his OBP around .400. He could also pop a few cheapie homers over the right field porch.

In that way, there is a chance that Jeter could hit somewhere around .330/.400/.450. I wouldn’t call it a good chance. If he did that, he’d essentially be Honus Wagner exactly a century later. In 1911, his age-37 season, Wagner hit a league-leading .334, with a .423 OBP and .507 SLG. The only other shortstop, aged 37 or older, who qualified for the batting title with a .300 or greater average is Luke Appling. Jeter, in other words, is either in decline or in elite company. His best case is pretty clear, given his and baseball’s history.

Worst Case

(Charles Krupa/AP)

This is the part that no one wants to discuss. What if Jeter’s bat slows even more? What if the stride doesn’t help him get out in front of the ball and he ends up hitting a deluge of grounders to second? What if — gulp — he performs even more poorly than last year?

When we discuss worst case scenarios for players, we’re usually talking about an injury or a string of horrible luck. For Jeter, neither of these is the worst case. The worst case is that he hits poorly and looks old doing it. The worst case is that he plays an even more noticeably poor shortstop. The worst case is that he keeps saying he can get himself out of it and delays his drop from the top of the lineup. These might all be worse than an injury. At least with an injury he has something to blame.

It’s tough to imagine just how bad matters could get for Jeter, and I don’t think there’s a reasonably accurate floor for him right now. Could he hit worst than .250? Could he lose even more power? Could his fielding decline further? The answer to these questions has to be certain degrees of yes. In terms of overall worst case, I imagine it involves him hitting ninth by season’s end. Imagine how bad things would have to go for him to hit that mark.

What’s Likely To Happen

If we’re going siding with baseball history, it’s most likely that Jeter hits somewhere around his 2010 level, with perhaps a slightly lower average. If we’re going with Derek Jeter as a generational talent hellbent on improving on his previous season, it’s likely he hits .300 again. This makes pegging the actual likely scenario as tough as, if not tougher than, pegging his worst case.

A week ago Joe Posnanski wrote about two aging superstars: Jeter and Tiger Woods. In it he described both players’ efforts to stave off the effects by aging by making mechanical adjustments. This he dubs Carlton’s Law, after Steve Carlton:

We call it Steve Carlton’s law because no athlete of the last 50 years fought harder to fight off the effects of age. Carlton had all sorts of new-age and mystical training techniques. He would run a lot (at a time when pitchers often said their main form of exercise were 12-ounce curls), and he did all sorts of Martial Arts exercises, and he was probably most famous for moving his arm around in a barrel of rice. He felt certain that all this work, and the mental drive he had for fighting off age, would allow him to pitch effectively until he was at least 48 years old. And he DID win his last Cy Young when he was 37 and pitch effectively at 39 … both pretty extraordinary achievements when it comes to age-postponing.

But then he turned 40. And he was done. Few in baseball history have ever raged as hard against the dying of the light. Carlton played for five different teams after he turned 40 — and though he went 16-36 with an 84 ERA+ over those years, he STILL did not believe he was done when baseball mercifully retired him. His last career start was for the Minnesota Twins, and it was against the Cleveland Indians, and he gave up nine runs. He felt sure he still had something left. All he needed to do was make a couple of adjustments.

Maybe Jeter can turn it around for one more season. Maybe the mechanical adjustment will combine with a bit better luck and create something of a last hurrah for Jeter. But given the number of players who have played shortstop and hit at an elite level at Jeter’s age, it’s tough to bank on it.

In order to keep emotions out of this, I’ll turn to a post I did last week on projected stats for Jeter, Teixeira, and A-Rod. The various projection systems view Jeter differently, but their aggregated conclusion — .286/.353/.399 — sounds good. If we’re able to peg Jeter’s most likely scenario, this is probably it.

No one wants to witness Derek Jeter’s decline. He was a beloved Yankee from his first year with the team, and he has proven during his 15-year career that he is one of the greatest shortstops to play the game. Yet even the best decline. We know what Jeter can do, and we know that he’s working to reverse last year’s results. We just don’t know whether that’s physically possible.

Kevin Goldstein’s Top 101 Prospects List

Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein posted his list of the top 101 prospects in baseball today, with Jesus Montero checking in at number three. He trails only Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, in that order. Domonic Brown and Julio Teheran round out the top three. The trio of Manny Banuelos, Gary Sanchez, and Dellin Betances are all scrunched together at numbers 27, 29, and 32, respectively. That’s it for the Yankees though, just four players on the list, though all of them are among the top 32 prospects in the game.  That’s pretty dang good.

As far as I can tell, the list is free for all to see.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 28th, 2011

Record Last Week: 1-1 (11 RS, 8 RA)
Spring Training Record: 1-1 (11 RS, 8 RA)
Schedule This Week: @ Tigers (Mon.), @ Pirates (Tues.), vs. Astros (Weds. on YES/MLBN), @ Rays (Thurs.), vs. Red Sox (Fri. on YES/MLBN), vs. Nationals (Sat.), @ Astros (Sun.)

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Snider, the Duke of Flatbush, passes away

Duke Snider, shown here in Ebbets Field in 1950, patrolled center field in Brooklyn for years. (AP Photo/File)

The Hall of Fame, on behalf of the Snider family, announced on Sunday afternoon that Duke Snider, the Duke of Flatbush, had died at the age of 84. Snider, a mercurial player who had a love/hate relationship with the fans and eventually faced tax fraud charges, is the only player to hit four home runs in the World Series twice and blasted the last long ball at Ebbets Field. Of the famous trio of New York center fielders immortalized in highlight reels and song by Terry Cashman, only Willie now remains alive.

Snider, enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1980, suffered under the shadow of his more well known center field counterparts. Both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle put up better career numbers and won more awards. But Snider, an eight-time All Star and one of two players to drive in 1000 runs or more in the 1950s, earned Brooklyn’s love by sticking it to those damn Yankees in the 1955 World Series. He blasted four home runs and hit .320/.370/.840 during the Dodgers’ lone World Series win while in Brooklyn.

What I know about Snider I’ve learned through second-hand sources and my own study of baseball history. I’d urge you to read The Times obituary and excerpt Dave Anderson’s profile:

They don’t make center fielders like that anymore. With the big ballparks now, most center fielders are gazelles who can chase down balls lined into the gaps and hit for average, if they hit at all. Willie, Mickey and Duke not only were sluggers, they could also run.

Over their careers, Mays and Mantle each earned adulation as arguably the best baseball player ever. Snider never did, but for a time in the ’50s the Duke of Flatbush was better than either of them. He hit 407 home runs, almost all for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and a few for the Mets and the Giants at the end. But in the ’50s he hit more home runs than Mays or Mantle or anybody else in the big leagues.

Duke had it all: a sweet swing, a bazooka arm, springs in his legs. He also had the luck of being virtually the only left-handed slugger in a lineup dominated by right-handed hitters like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo. As a result, Snider usually was swinging against right-handed pitching.

Then again, he didn’t really have it all. As he often acknowledged, he had a “big mouth” that tarnished his image and his popularity. After being booed at a game at Ebbets Field one night, he snapped that Brooklyn fans “don’t deserve a pennant.” That prompted even more boos the next night. He later put his name on a Collier’s article confessing that he played baseball only for the money, that he would rather be in California on his avocado farm not far from Los Angeles.

Today, I live a short walk — and an even shorter subway ride — away from where Ebbets Field once stood. Now and then, old Brooklyn Dodger fans emerge to wax nostalgic about Dem Bums. Baseball lost another one. Here’s to you, Duke, ever the Duke of Flatbush, ever a thorn in the Yanks’ side.