Open Thread: February 25th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The latest on the last day without Yankees baseball until (hopefully) November…

I’m not sure if you’ve seen it already, but is having this Dream Job contest where all the winner does for a year is watch baseball and blog about it, basically. I applied, and I don’t think you should. My odds will be better that way. Anywho, here’s the open thread. The Rangers, Devils, Knicks, and Nets are all playing, so there’s enough going on to keep you entertained through this yucky weather. Smile, there’s a baseball game on tomorrow.

The Banuelos Watch

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

If you’re a new reader, let me explain what all this about. Every season we select one prospect to follow as the season progresses, tracking their stats in the sidebar for all to see and celebrate. Last year we watched Jesus Montero, but it’s time to get back to our starting pitcher roots.

Pint-sized (5-foot-10) lefty Manny Banuelos is the best pitching prospect in the Yankees system, owner of a 2.59 ERA in 215.2 career innings. He’s struck out 228 (9.5 K/9) in that time and walked just 66 (2.8 BB/9), surrendering just ten homers (0.4 HR/9). Banuelos reached Double-A at age 19 last season, just months after having an emergency appendectomy. He’ll return there this year, but there’s a good chance he won’t stay there for long.

Past watches have highlighted guys like Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, so Banuelos has a tough act to follow. Once the actual watch goes up on the sidebar (later tonight or tomorrow, it’ll be below the Opening Day Countdown), you’ll see two rows of stats. The top one will be Banuelos’ most recent start, and the bottom will be his season performance. It’s pretty simple, but it’s always worth explaining.

The minor league season doesn’t begin until the first full week of April, but I plan on keeping track of everything this year, including the appearances Banuelos makes in the Grapefruit League. Anyway, I hope you all enjoy following along this year.

Yankees scouts bearing down on clubs with excess pitching

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees have their scouts bearing down on teams that they believe will have pitching available during the summer. Those teams: the Cardinals, White Sox, Braves, Athletics, and Angels. We’ve covered every one of those teams at some point this winter except for the Braves, and there’s still plenty of time to do that.

This isn’t a surprise, of course the Yanks were going to have their scouts looking at teams with pitching. It’s good to see exactly what teams they’re focusing on though, and as long as it’s not Kyle Lohse, I’m cool with it.

The RAB Radio Show: February 25, 2011

With Mike out again, I’m bringing in the heavy artillery. Today’s co-host is Jay Gordon, whom you might know better as @jaydestro on Twitter. We talk some Andrew Brackman, some young arms vying for roster spots later this year, and, really, young talent in general.

Then we move onto the CC Sabathia opt-out issue, but in a way we haven’t done on RAB. Basically, the idea is to look into the future and see what the free agent market could potentially bear. Jay reads down the names from the 2012-2013 free agent class, and we try to decide if any of these guys is going to hit the market in the first place.

Podcast run time 52:57

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

  • Download the RAB Radio Show by right clicking on that link and choosing Save As.
  • Listen in your browser by left clicking the above link or using the embedded player below.
  • Subscribe in iTunes. If you want to rate us that would be great. If you leave a nice review I’ll buy you a beer at a meet-up.

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

25th Spot Candidates: Brandon Laird

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The focus this spring is on the final two rotation spots, but that’s not the only position battle in Yankees camp. There is also a competition for the final spot on the bench. The main contestants, it seems, are Eric Chavez, Ronnie Belliard, Brandon Laird, Justin Maxwell, and Greg Golson. Each player brings something different to the table, so the Yankees will have options. In fact, it is exactly that — options, but in a different sense — that might keep the best of the lot in AAA to start the season.

Usually when a player is drafted twice, his position improves the second time around. Not so with Laird. The Indians took him in the 27th round of the 2005 draft. Then, when he entered two years later, the Yankees took him in the same round. He signed the second time and played the rest of the season in the rookie Gulf Coast League, where he produced unsurprisingly solid numbers. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he’d really break out.

Despite playing in a home park that hitters typically hate, Laird produced incredible power numbers in AA Trenton, slugging 23 homers to go along with his 22 doubles. The end result was a .291/.355/.523 line and a late-season promotion to AAA. It also opened the Yankees’ eyes a bit. Knowing that he probably wouldn’t fit at third base — the team is set there for a number of years, after all — they decided to have him try the outfield in the Arizona Fall League. He enters camp this year as a guy who can play first, third, and the corner outfield positions. That makes him more versatile than a number of other 25th spot contestants.

When you see Laird’s breakout and then read stories like the one Marc Carig published this morning, it’s tough not to root for Laird. He is much improved on defense, and he could very well have the best bat of the guys competing for that spot. The problem, of course, is that the Yankees don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole him as a utility guy just yet. That’s probably the only role he can fill on this team, unless his bat takes another big step forward this year. The best option, then, is to send him down to AAA and let him get regular reps. He can provide depth in case of injury or ineffectiveness, and he might be a useful chip at the trade deadline.

If the Yankees were picking the 25th roster spot based on versatility and production potential, I’d have to think Laird would get the nod. He can play more positions than Eric Chavez, and he has a better bat than Belliard and Golson, and probably Maxwell, too. But since the Yankees have options, and since he’s young and potentially valuable down the road, they’ll most likely preserve their depth and go with someone else in the 25th spot. Meanwhile, Laird can get more reps, especially in the outfield, which will go towards building his value as a bench player or a trade chip.

Make no mistake: the Yankees have a valuable player in Laird. It just doesn’t seem as though this is his year to break camp with the team. If he continues hitting like he did last year, he’ll get his share of shots. But this year the Yankees will be better served by letting Laird play every day and taking someone else in a spot that might account for 150 PA during the course of a season.

2011 Season Preview: Robbie Cano

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.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees have been waiting for Robbie Cano to step up and become a cornerstone player rather than the really, really good complementary piece he was earlier in his career for a few seasons now. Cano took that step forward last year. He was a legitimate MVP candidate, finishing third in the voting thanks to a .389 wOBA and 6.4 fWAR, the sixth highest among AL position players. Just one Yankee position player was within two wins of his production. By all methods of evaluation, he was the team’s best player in 2010.

And now comes the hard part. The Yankees are expecting their still 28-year-old second baseman to maintain that production in 2011, counting on him to be that cornerstone player as the roster turns over. His offense is no longer an added bonus at the bottom third of the lineup, it’s being counted on in the middle of the order. With no fewer than 159 games played in each of the last four seasons, he’s the only player on the infield to not experience some kind of injury or age-related setback recently, and that durability is part of what makes Robbie so important to the team. Everyone knows he’ll be there day-in and day-out.

What does 2011 have in store for the young superstar? Let’s take a look…

Best Case

In the prime of his career, last season was just a jumping off point for Cano. His power stroke is propped up by what is now a five-year trend of increasing fly ball rates, steadily climbing from 28.2% in 2006 to 36.5% last year. Cano’s line drive rate has stabilized at a little over 19% in the last three years while his ground ball rate continues to fall. Lots of fly balls and line drives is a recipe for extra base hits, and with a little help from Yankee Stadium, Robbie eclipses the 30 homerun plateau for the first time in his career, chipping in his usual 40+ doubles.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Chicks did increases in power output, but Cano’s bread-and-butter is still his uncanny ability to hit for average. A .320 and .319 hitter in the last two seasons, respectively, Robbie again matches that mark and picks up 200 hits for the third straight season. The improved batting eye he showed off in 2010 continues to get better, and his 8.2% walk rate (6.3% removing intentionals) climbs into double digits, pushing his on-base percentage north of .400 for the first time in his career.

On the other side of the ball, the advanced defensive metrics finally recognize what we’ve all known for the last few years: Cano is a Gold Glove caliber defender at second. His range to his right somewhat compensates for Derek Jeter‘s perpetually declining range to his left, saving the pitching staff a couple extra runs during the course of the season. Put it all together and you’ve got the game’s best offensive second baseman and one of its best defensive second baseman, resulting in a pace that threatens, if not flat out exceeds 7.0 fWAR.

Worst Case

Aside from the obvious (injury, etc.), the worst thing that could happen to Cano is that the league finally figures out a way to get him out consistently. So far that hasn’t happened; Cano’s always been a guy that’s fallen into slumps because of his bad habits, not because pitchers have exploited a weakness. He can be prone to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, probably his biggest drawback, but so far he’s mitigated the damage with his exceptional contact skills (just 6.2% swings and misses in his career, 5.7% since 2008).

As a guy that makes so much contact, Cano’s offensive production will always be closely tied to his BABIP. It’s been in the .320’s in three of the last four years, and the one year it wasn’t was 2008. That’s the year he hit .271/.305/.410 with a .307 wOBA (.283 BABIP), resulting in a total worth of just 0.7 fWAR. The unpredictability of the BABIP beast will be Robbie’s enemy just as much as the opposing pitcher, perhaps moreso. Randomness can be a bitch.

With 30 homers now within react, Cano could start selling out for power to the pull side. He might hit a few more dingers, but his average and on-base percentage will take hits, possibly considerable ones. Barring a complete breakdown either physically or mechanically, the worst case scenario for Cano has him returning to those 2008 levels of production, which would be almost a six win drop-off for the Yankees.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

In all likelihood, 2010 was a career year for Robbie, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean he’s going to tail off and turn into a glorified version of Juan Uribe this season, but the performance might be merely very good instead of MVP caliber. Cano set career highs in homers (29), walks (57), unintentional walks (43), on-base percentage (.381), slugging percentage (.534), and isolated power (.214) last season, so it’ll be tough for him to top that performance. It’s possible, but unlikely.

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

If I had to lay out some odds, I’d say there’s a 50% chance that Cano repeats his 2009 performance this season, a 35% chance he repeats his 2010 performance, a 14% chance he exceeds his 2010 performance, and a 1% chance that he falls off a cliff. Robbie’s floor is very high in 2011, a .370 wOBA and 4.0 fWAR seem to be the bare minimums here.