2011 Season Preview: Quality of the bench

One issue that plagued the Yankees through the mid-00s was the lack of a quality bench. This included both the position players and the bullpen. Both units tended to be sub-par. As we covered last week in our 2011 season preview, the bullpen looks a lot better, in terms of Opening Day personnel, than it has in many years. The bench, too, has a stronger feel this year. With plenty of spare payroll, the Yankees were able to land a few chips that they haven’t sought in years past. For the first time in a long time they’ll have two quality bench bats to start the year.

Andruw Jones

(Kathy Willens/AP)

For most of the off-season, Jones and the Yankees appeared a natural match. They needed a fourth-outfielder, preferably a righty, and Jones needed a part-time destination. It took a while for the move to finally happen, and even longer for it to become official, but Jones is in a Yankee uniform for 2011. He’s not the same player that ranked among the most valuable in center field from 1998 through 2005, but he can still play a useful role.

For the past three seasons Jones has been a part-time player, either because of injury or ineffectiveness. Right knee problems completely sapped his 2008 season. In 2009 he appeared to be on the comeback trail, but fell off considerably after a hot start. Last year, with the White Sox, he started similarly hot, and while he dropped off it was not nearly as dramatic. At season’s end he had produced a .364 wOBA in 328 PA. The Yankees will gladly take that from him in 2011.

Not only can Jones provide some value with the bat, but his defense can still come in handy. He’s no longer the best-in-league center fielder, but he can fill in there if needed. More likely he’ll play left field against tough lefties, relegating either Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson to the bench. This is a level of versatility the Yankees did not have in Marcus Thames.

Eric Chavez

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

When the Yankees signed Eric Chavez to a minor league deal just before the start of spring training, it appeared to be an insignificant move. After all, Chavez hadn’t gotten as many as 300 plate appearances since 2007, and has been generally awful since 2006. Even then, since 2004, when he was limited to 125 games due to injury, he hasn’t measured up to the lofty standards he set in the preceding five seasons. But at age 33 there’s still potential. The Yanks, as it turns out, were right to jump on it.

In Chavez the Yankees have a player who can back up both Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. If Jorge Posada hits the DL for the fourth straight year, he and Jones can platoon at DH. He also provides a lefty off the bench, which can prove useful in late-game situations. The need for a lefty off the bench last year wasn’t great, since there weren’t many players for whom Girardi would pinch hit. But with Russell Martin on the team, and with the repeated possibility of guys such as Kevin Russo getting playing time, having Chavez’s bat in late innings will help plenty.

While spring stats mean little, Chavez has impressed during his time this March. Even when he makes outs he’s hitting the ball hard. He will certainly travel north with the team, with the hope that a part-time role will help keep him healthy and productive. It might not be striking gold, but the Yankees have done very well for minimal risk.

Ramiro Pena / Eduardo Nunez

(Kathy Willens/AP)

It just feels as though the Yankees want Nunez to fill that utility infield role. In recent games they’ve tried him in the outfield, a sign that they’re grooming him for a super utility role. It hasn’t appeared pretty, though, and chances are Nunez will stick to the infield, at least in 2011. But will he play behind Jeter, Rodriguez, and Cano, or will he take regular reps at AAA?

The Yankees are always in a tough position with the utility infield role. It doesn’t make sense to take anyone significant, because Jeter and Cano do not take days off. Even last year, through his struggles, Jeter played in 157 games. Cano played in 160. There will be some at DH, and some of those games won’t be starts. Still, it leaves possibly a dozen games, absolute max, that will require a utility infielder as a starter. That’s why Pena makes sense. His noodle bat won’t hurt too much, since his playing time is limited. If either Jeter or Cano requires a DL trip, the Yanks can recall Nunez to play full-time.

(And at third base it’s a non-issue, since Chavez is there to play when A-Rod needs days off.)

This actually figures to be the least important spot on the bench. Oftentimes that title is reserved for backup catchers. But the utility infielder on the Yanks will almost certainly get less playing time than the backup catcher. And that’s especially if a certain top prospect sticks in that role.

Jesus Montero / Francisco Cervelli

(Kathy Willens/AP)

With Cervelli on the shelf to start the season, we can assume that Montero breaks camp as the backup catcher. That will give him a quick taste of the big leagues, affording him maybe three starts each week he’s with the club. Then, when Cervelli returns the team can re-assess. If Martin is playing well they can ship Montero back to AAA and use Cervelli as the backup, which is clearly his most useful role. If Martin isn’t hitting, perhaps they’ll keep Montero around and let him split time and learn at the major league level.

It’s hard for the Yankees to go wrong in this scenario. If Martin is hitting the Yankees have a valuable starter and backup combination. Cervelli can play once a week, which suits him well. If Martin isn’t hitting, the Yankees can put a greater emphasis on Montero, whose bat is, by all accounts, ready for the majors. Either way, the Yankees will likely realize well above average production from their catcher. That’s a good thing, since it’s what they’ve grown accustomed to in the past decade with Posada behind the plate.

It has been a while since the Yankees have broken camp with a high quality bench. They face issues every year in attracting free agent reserve players, since their full-time players don’t leave much room for additional playing time. But this past off-season they took time to build a strong and versatile bench. From the way things appear now, that effort should pay off handsomely. Even if it doesn’t, there’s still room for the Yankees to build the bench the way they did in 2009. There will always be players available around the deadline.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 21st, 2011

Record Last Week: 3-2-1 (32 RS, 16 RA)
Spring Training Record: 10-12-3 (91 RS, 106 RA)
Schedule This Week: @ Rays (Mon. on MLB), @ Orioles (Tues. on YES/MLBN), vs. Blue Jays (Weds). Thurs. OFF, vs. Astros (Fri.), vs. Pirates (Sat. on YES), @ Twins (Sun.)

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The Freddy Garcia conundrum

Freddy Garcia warms up prior to his start on Saturday. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As Spring Training results go, Freddy Garcia’s haven’t been much. He had a few good starts early on when pitchers were still ahead of hitters, but as the Grapefruit League has progressed, his results have regressed. He had a fairly representative start on Saturday when he had trouble at the beginning and end of his outing but kept the Blue Jays off the board in the middle innings. It could mean that he winds up the odd man out.

On the spring, Garcia has now thrown 13.2 innings with mixed results. His ERA is 5.93, but he has issued just two free passes while striking out 12. He can get the ball past hitters at times, but when he misses his spots, he’s fooling no one. Such are the pitfalls of a 34-year-old who can’t muscle the ball past the 90 mile-an-hour mark any longer.

So what future awaits Garcia? The consensus emerging from the Yankee camp with but a week left of Spring Training — and another outing or two at most for the rotation candidates — is that the Chief is falling behind. Brian Costello wrote as much yesterday in The Post. Brian Cashman though had little to say. “We’re going to have to make a call here shortly because we’re going to have to keep stretching whoever we choose out and start settling people in defined roles,” Cashman said. “That’s going to come sooner than later.”

For his part, Garcia said in no uncertain terms that he will either be on the Major League roster or off the Yanks. “If I don’t make the team, what am I supposed to do in Triple-A?” Garcia said to The Post. “I’m 34 years old. I’ve been in the big leagues a long time. There’s nothing to go to Triple-A and prove. It’s either I make the team or not.”

So here, for Garcia, is the $1.5 million question: Can he make the team out of the bullpen if he’s out of the running for a rotation spot? Garcia has said he’s willing to pitch in long relief. Thus, he is fighting for a job with Sergio Mitre. In eight innings this spring, Mitre has given up just two runs while walking no one and strike out six. Despite many fans’ seeming dislike of Mitre, the sinker baller has done the job. He pitches low leverage innings without turning games into disasters, and the Yanks haven’t been willing to let him go.

As Spring Training hits the home stretch then, the position battles are shifting a bit. The rotation is still unsettled, but Garcia is now fighting with Sergio Mitre for the long man role. It might be a bit of predetermined contest though. The Yanks, for whatever reason, like Mitre, but will they go with potential rotation depth? I wouldn’t be surprised if Garcia breaks camp with the team even if he’s in the bullpen for now.

Mailbag: Minor League Starting Rotations

Left out. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Chris asks: Can we see a post on the Minor League rotations? So far I see them looking something like…

Scranton: Phelps, Warren, DJ Mitchell, Brackman, Noesi (assuming Nova makes the big club)
Trenton: Banuelos, Igawa, Betances, Stoneburner, Bleich
Tampa: Jairo Heredia, Jose Ramirez, Brett Marshall, Shaeffer Hall , Sean Black
Charleston: Bryan Mitchell, Gabe Encinas, DePaula, Cotham, and Rutckyj

I agree with your Triple-A rotation, though I don’t think they’ll line up in that order. Not that it matters, just sayin’. Kei Igawa won’t start in Double-A, he’ll do the swingman think out of the Triple-A bullpen yet again. If Nova doesn’t make the big league team, then I suppose Adam Warren would go back to Double-A. That would only be temporary anyway, he won’t stay there all season.

Jeremy Bleich is on his way back from major shoulder surgery, so he won’t be ready to start the season in any rotation, let alone Double-A. Hall pitched pretty damn well last season (2.61 FIP in 68 IP for Low-A then 3.30 FIP in 69 IP for High-A), so I expect him to jump up to Trenton. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are obvious locks for Double-A. That last spot could go to one of two guys: Craig Heyer or Cory Arbiso. Both did nice jobs after shifting into the rotation in the second half last year, and it really depends on what they do with Heyer (the actual prospect). If they move him back to the bullpen, his ultimate destination, it’ll be Arbiso. If not, then it’ll be Heyer.

Your High-A rotation is spot-on except for Hall. That spot will probably go to Josh Romanski, who signed early last year then pitched to a 3.44 FIP in 88.1 IP for Low-A Charleston last summer. He also made a three start cameo with Tampa at the end of the year and figures to go back there.

The Low-A rotation is interesting and completely unpredictable. I could see all those guys starting the year there, but I could also see none of them there. Rafael DePaula still hasn’t secured a visa, so he’s not even in the United States. Let’s count him out. Cotham is still coming back from labrum surgery and it’s unclear if he’ll be ready in time to start the season, so let’s count him out as well. The Yankees have been pretty reluctant in recent years when it comes to pushing high school pitchers into full season ball in their first full pro season, so I would be surprised if Encinas and Evan Rutckyj started in Charleston. Ditto Taylor Morton.

Mikey O’Brien had a fine stint with Short Season Staten Island last year (3.10 FIP in 60.2 IP), so he’ll probably get a Low-A assignment. Nik Turley will probably make his full season debut as well (3.18 FIP, 0 HR allowed in 61.2 IP with Staten Island last year), and I could see both of SI’s college guys – Zach Varce (2.61 FIP in 71.1 IP) and Shane Greene (3.38 FIP in 49 IP) – in Charleston as well. Greene actually finished last season with four starts there, so he’s a safe bet. The last spot could go to Dustin Hobbs, who made seven starts with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees last year before making a pair with Staten Island. Evan DeLuca’s pretty raw and probably needs more time in Extended Spring Training.

Alright, so based on all that, here is my best guess at the rotations (in no particular order one through five)….

Triple-A: Noesi, Brackman, Warren, Mitchell, Phelps
Double-A: Banuelos, Betances, Stoneburner, Hall, Heyer
High-A: Heredia, Ramirez, Marshall, Black, Romanski
Low-A: O’Brien, Turley, Varce, Greene, Hobbs

That leaves guys like DeLuca, Morton, Encinas, Rutckyj, Brett Gerritse, and Matt Richardson for the short season league rotations, plus 2011 draftees. Trenton will clearly have the most exciting rotation, but Scranton isn’t far behind. Marshall and Ramirez are reason enough to pay attention to Tampa, and Charleston … hey, Gary Sanchez!

CC Sabathia’s two-seamer and ground ball rate

On Thursday Mike penned an ode to CC Sabathia: workhouse extraordinaire. It was a piece that focused on Sabathia’s durability and consistency, praising him for his extremely high level of performance over an extremely high workload. It was also a piece that Sabathia himself tweeted from his official Twitter account. Pretty cool, eh? There’s one aspect of Sabathia’s game that has gone relatively underreported though, even though relative is a very loose term in the Yankee media world. The change is CC’s increased ability to get groundouts.

CC entered the league as a young buck, a mere 20 years old, and for the first three years of his career averaged a groundball percentage in the low 40% range. He bottomed out at 39.3% in 2004, a year in which he also registered the lowest GB/FB ratio of his career (0.96). In 2005 he saw his groundball rate jump to nearly 50%, giving him a career high 1.61 GB/FB ratio, but the numbers settled back in around 45% for the next three years before dropping to 42% in his 2009 campaign with the Yankees. 2010 was a different story. While his strikeout rate slid down to around 7.5 batters per nine innings he registered a groundball rate of over 50% for the first time in his career, a rate good for 4th best amongst AL left-handers and nearly identical to the rate of Phillies’ pitcher Roy Halladay.

It would be unwise to make too much of this, as this could prove to be a momentary blip in the radar like 2005. But there are some interesting questions as to how and why Sabathia ended up notching 70 more ground balls in 2010 than he did in 2009. Part of the explanation could be a slight change in repertoire. In 2007 and 2008 Fangraphs’ Pitch F(x) source shows Sabathia featuring primarily a four-seam fastball (around 60%), a changeup (18%), a slider (19%) and a curveball (averaging 2%). In 2009 though it started classifying some of those four-seam fastballs as two-seamer, and Sabathia registered a 3.1% for the two-seam fastball. In 2010 it saw an even bigger jump, and Sabathia registered a 14.0% two-seamer and just a 47% for the four-seamer. Texas Leaguers’ Pitch F(x) database saw something similar, showing Sabathia throwing a sinker 3.2% of the time in 2009 and 14.1% of the time in 2011.

So there are a few obvious questions. For one, is Sabathia actually throwing a two-seamer/sinker? Secondly, has he started throwing it more often recently? Thirdly, is it responsible for the uptick in ground balls? The answer to the first question is the easiest: yes. Aside from the support received from the Pitch F(x) database, Sabathia by his own admission throws what he terms a “two-seamer”. He mentioned it in 2009 when the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson, stating that his approach to Granderson was “two-seamers in to keep him honest, then get him out away”. He also brought up his two-seamer as recently as last week, after the simulated game, saying that his two-seamer was “doing what it’s supposed to do”. This part of the equation is clear: Sabathia throws both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball.

Unfortunately, the answer to the second question is far more murky. We know that there are questions surrounding Pitch F(x) classification. In 2010 many pitchers saw increases in their two-seamer and cutter rates, a fact likely due to an alteration in the classification algorithm rather than a sudden league-wide change in repertoire. As Pitch F(x) guru Mike Fast put it in June of last year, “Ross has made significant updates to this algorithm every year, and one of the most noticeable impacts is that the percentage of pitches classified as two-seam fastballs has increased with each update. This does not mean that the pitchers themselves have changed anything about their pitch selection or the movement on their pitches.” Fast recommends examining the relevant velocity vs. spin charts for the pitcher so that it becomes possible to see whether a new cluster of pitches has emerged or whether the system is simply re-labelling an existing pitch as something new. Sabathia’s 2009 velocity vs. spin chart is available here; his 2010 velocity vs. spin chart is available here. Obviously there is a greater preponderance of sinkers in 2010 than there is in 2009, although that’s to be expected. We do know that the pitch is distinct from the four-seam fastball in both horizontal and vertical movement. It remains unclear, though, as to whether this constitutes a new (within the past two years) development or is simply the product of Pitch F(x) becoming more detailed and accurate about the types of pitches pitchers throw.

As such it remains difficult to answer the third question, whether this pitch is responsible for the ground balls. Sabathia certainly got more ground balls in 2010, so if Sabathia is indeed throwing more two-seamers then it would certainly provide a solid explanation for why his ground ball rate jumped over 50% for the first time in 2005. This will be an interesting question to monitor in 2011, and it would certainly provide clarification if a reporter could get CC to talk about his changing approach to hitters. Is he actively trying to get more ground outs? Is he accomplishing that goal by throwing more two-seamers? As he gets older, it will be harder and harder for CC to maintain the elite strikeout rates he’s managed in the past. If he’s able to adjust and compensate for that by getting more ground balls then he may find his longevity as an elite pitcher extended by a few years.

Open Thread: The rotation begins to take shape

(AP Photo)

Following today’s tie with the Blue Jays, Joe Girardi announced that A.J. Burnett will start the second game of the season with Phil Hughes to follow as the number three. The last two spots are still up in the air, but Freddy Garcia (6 IP, 5 R today) will get one more chance to show what he’s got before a final decision is made. Manny Banuelos will pitch on Monday, but his running mate Dellin Betances was sent to minor league camp. There’s a pretty good chance that we’ll know the identities of the four and five by Friday, and my money’s on … Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova, but that is subject to change. By the hour.

Anyways, here is your open thread for the night. Enjoy.