Bronx Banter Breakdown on the Yanks’ offense

Last week, Alex Belth of Bronx Banter asked me to join him and Cliff Corcoran on his SportsNet NY web-only video series Bronx Banter Breakdown. In the first installment posted yesterday, we talked about pitching. In the second installment, available today, we talked about the Yanks’ offense and what we expect out of a team that is primed to score a lot of runs this year. Check it out below.

Anyone need a place in New York?

Er, I kinda don’t want to do this, but it’s better than Craigslist. One of our roommates just moved out on short notice, so we’re looking for someone to take the spot. Place is in Astoria, rent is cheap, and we’re going month-to-month (no lease). If you know anyone looking, my email address is on the right. Again, I’m not 100% comfortable posting this, but I’d rather go down this path than CL. Please, refrain from mother’s basement jokes in the comments.

Spring Training Game Thread: Night and day

As you’ve probably already heard, the Yankees took on the Braves earlier this afternoon (box score), giving some of the big leaguers a glimpse at the phenomenon that is Pat Venditte. His line was nothing special – two hits, a walk and a run while recording four outs –  but apparently his switch pitching routine had everyone’s attention. Well, everyone except for the Braves’ television broadcasting crew, who according to an emailer didn’t even realize the guy on the mound was throwing with both arms. I mean, we see all those guys all the time, right? Who would possibly be paying attention to an exhibition game like it was their job or something?

Anyway, the Yanks finish up their final set of 2010 split squad games tonight against the Blue Jays in Tampa tonight. Here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Johnson, 1B
Thames, LF
A-Rod, 3B
Winn, RF
Pena, 2B
Weber, DH
Cervelli, C
Golson, CF

Mitre, SP

Sorry, I’m not sure who’s coming off the bench or out of the bullpen, but who doesn’t like surprises? First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and can be seen on YES. Enjoy the game.

YES, Time Warner reach in-market streaming deal

Those Yankee fans who are cursed with rely upon Time Warner for their YES Network access will now have the ability to purchase live streaming of all YES-broadcast Yankee games this year. The deal — announced this morning by MLB Advanced Media and the YES Network — now means that nearly every cable subscriber in the YES Network territory now has the option to purchase in-market streaming upgrades as well.

The Yankees offered up more details via a press release:

The Yankees on YES Live Game Streaming in-market package will launch in conjunction with YES’ Sunday, April 4, season-opening Yankees-Red Sox telecast (8 pm ET). YES Network will offer the package to eligible Time Warner Cable customers for $69.95 for the entire 2010 regular season, or $19.95 for any 30-day period this regular season. All games will be delivered in true high definition, the highest-quality live streaming as pioneered by Major League Baseball Advanced Media.

YES Network will allow eligible Time Warner Cable customers to purchase this package and use high-speed Internet access to watch YES’ Yankees telecasts live on their computers throughout the Yankees’ entire home broadcasting territory. They also will be able to watch YES’ Yankees telecasts live on laptops or other portable computers via WiFi. Time Warner Cable has reached an agreement with the YES Network to cooperate with Major League Baseball Advanced Media to ensure that only eligible Time Warner Cable customers may subscribe to the package.

As Maury Brown notes, with Time Warner now on board, the 127 games the YES Network airs are now available for streaming through all of the city’s major content providers. FiOS and Cablevision had signed deals with the Yankees last season, and millions of in-market fans can now purchase this live game streaming package.

For the future of online streaming of live baseball, this is clearly a deal big. The most popular team has made its games available online in the country’s biggest media market, and the revenue from this deal should be substantial. I have, however, a question: Will people purchase it? As far as I can tell, the streaming option is available only within the Yankees’ home broadcasting territory. Since the streams won’t work outside of that area, do people in New York — those who have access to YES via their standard cable subscriptions anyway — purchase this? In my view, until the requirement that only those who already have YES are eligible to purchase the streams are lifted, live in-market game streaming will not replace cable subscriptions.

And so a poll, if you will:

{democracy:87}

AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Over the next few days we will preview the teams the Yankees will play most frequently in 2010. Yesterday we took a look at the Red Sox, and today we continue on with the other AL East powerhouse, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Run Production

You might not have realized it, but the Rays had one of the game’s best offenses in 2009. They hit .263-.343-.439 on the season, and their .343 team wOBA ranked behind only the Yankees (.366), Red Sox (.352), and Angels (.346). The 803 total runs they pushed across the plate is probably a little light considering their strong peripherals, yet the lineup remains largely unchanged heading into the new season.

Photo Credit: Mike Carlson, AP

Tampa’s offense is built around a dynamic middle of the order. Third baseman Evan Longoria leads the charge as the three hole hitter, and his .380 wOBA from last season is especially remarkable when you consider that he was stuck in a brutal two month long slump that saw him hit .205-.311-.404 (.301 wOBA) from May 31st to July 31st. Longoria finished the year strong (.293-.373-.523, .372 wOBA) after the calendar flipped to August, and he’s not just going to be asked to anchor the lineup again, he’s going to be asked to do even more. At 24-years-old, he’s already a star and one of the most productive hitters in the game.

Backing up Longoria most of the time will be former Yankee farmhand Carlos Pena, who has enjoyed a career resurgence since joining Tampa prior to the 2007 season. He’s the definition of a three true outcomes player, as 48% of his plate appearances over the last three years have ended with a walk, a strikeout, or a homer. As he enters his age-32 season, the Rays are going to need just one more .250-.380-.550 season with 30+ homers out of Pena before he heads off into the world of free agency after the season.

Photo Credit: Mike Fuentes, AP

Pat Burrell was signed last offseason to complement Longoria and Pena in the middle of Joe Maddon’s lineup, but it ended up being career utility player Ben Zobrist who stepped up and broke out in a big way. Always a patient hitter who hit for decent power in the minors (.318-.429-.459 career hitter in the bush leagues), the switch hitting Zobrist refined his swing prior to the season with Jaime Cevallos (a.k.a. The Swing Mechanic). The result was a huge breakout that saw him hit .297-.405-.543 with the third best wOBA (.408) in the AL. Not yet in his arbitration years, Zobrist will join Longoria to form what might be the division’s most productive hitting tandem over the next half-decade.

The table for that trio will be set by Carl Crawford, who is inarguably the greatest player in franchise history. He’s bested a .360 wOBA in three of the last four years (he was hampered by a hand injury the one year he fell short), and we’re all well aware of his stolen base exploits. At 28-years-old there’s no reason to expect a drop off. Heck, he might even be in store for a huge year considering he’s up for free agency next winter.

Burrell’s fall from grace came harder and faster than anyone expected (.304 wOBA after topping .374 the previous four years), and everyone assumes the worst for 2010. He was brought in to help balance out a lefty heavy lineup, which seemed like a fine idea considering he averaged a .415 wOBA against southpaws from 2005 to 2008, though he managed to hit just .202-.336-.252 (.278 wOBA) against lefties last season. Tampa actively looked for a replacement DH this offseason despite owing Pat The Bat $9M this season. It seems like a pretty safe bet that the Rays will get better production out of their designated hitter spot this year, whether it’s Burrell who provides it remains to be seen.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett is unlikely to repeat his .364 BABIP and thus his .389 wOBA from a year ago, and a fall back to his previously below average offensive levels would be a big hit. After breaking out with a .387 wOBA in 2007, B.J. Upton hasn’t been the same since hurting his shoulder in 2008, and bottomed out at a .310 wOBA last season. The range of what he’s capable of doing in 2010 is as wide as any player in the game – I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he wOBA’d .310 or .390. Dioner Navarro’s .258 wOBA has essentially been replaced by Kelly Shoppach, who can swing and miss with the best of ’em, but will also provide league average offense from the catcher position.

Photo Credit: Brian Blanco, AP

The last spot in the lineup will most likely be filled by Sean Rodriguez, who came over in last summer’s Scott Kazmir trade. Coming into the camp, the idea was that he and Matt Joyce would battle it out for either the second base or rightfield job with Zobrist occupying the other spot, but Joyce’s sore elbow and Rodriguez’s molten hot spring (.439-.484-.860 in a team high 57 at-bats) all but assures him of being in the lineup come Opening Day. He won’t maintain his spring performance into the season, obviously, though replicating the departed Akinori Iwamura’s .338 wOBA seems likely.

The bench will feature former All Star Hank Blalock, who is just a year removed from consecutive seasons of .361 and .383 wOBA’s. He’ll backup Longoria, Pena, and get some starts at DH against righties. Fourth outfielder Gabe Kapler was ever so slightly above average with the bat last season, doing most of his damage against southpaws (.394 wOBA). Prospect list veteran Reid Brignac may be the club’s utility infielder, or it could fall into the lap of Elliot Johnson. Neither will contribute much with the stick.

Of course, doing damage with the bats is just half of Tampa’s offensive game. Once they reach base, they make lots and lots of stuff happen with their legs. Crawford (60), Upton (42), Bartlett (30), and Zobrist (17) stole more bases by themselves than any other team in the league last year, and are likely to run wild again. Longoria and Rodriguez are both capable of double digit steals as well. According to Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR, the Rays also generated another five and a half runs for themselves in non-stolen base baserunning situations, among the best in the league. Tampa Bay’s offensive game extends far beyond the batter’s box.

Run Prevention

While defense has taken baseball by storm as the new undervalued commodity, the Rays have been doing the catch the ball thing for years. Their 2007 squad was the worst defensive team in baseball that year, costing themselves 57.7 runs in the field, nearly ten runs behind the second worst team. That all changed in 2008 through a series of moves, including position changes (Upton to center, Iwamura to second), trades (Bartlett), and promotions (Longoria), and the end result was a team that saved 74.2 runs defensively, the best in the game. That 131.9 run (!!!) swing is the main reason the team went from 96 losses and 944 runs allowed in ’07 to 95 wins and 671 runs allowed in ’08.

Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, AP

Although not to the same extreme as the Mariners, Tampa’s defense remains their calling card. They saved 69.5 runs defensively last season, with Longoria and Crawford rated as the two best defensive players at their position over the last two years. Upton places second for his position despite his occasional lack of hustle. UZR hasn’t quite figured out first basemen, though Pena remains one of the game better defenders at the 3-position. Bartlett’s reputation as a defender greatly exceeds what the advanced metrics say, but he’s no worse than rock solid at short. That leaves second base and rightfield as the unknowns.

Zobrist led all big league position players with 8.6 WAR last season, thanks in part to beefy small sample size UZR’s. In 714 innings at second, he was +16. In 329.1 innings in right, he was +11.5. In 165.1 innings spent at all the other positions, he was -1.1.  He’s unlikely to maintain those kinds of ratings as the number of defensive innings grows, but he, like Rodriguez, came up through the minors with a reputation of being no worse than a solid glove man. Even we assume league average defense from that pair, Tampa will again boast one of the games best defensive clubs.

Of course, run prevention starts on the mound, and the Rays have the game’s best young rotation. Jamie Shields is the old man of the bunch at 28, and he’s followed by Matt Garza (26), Jeff Niemann (27), David Price (24), and Wade Davis (24). Those five will combine to make about $9.5M in 2010, or what the Yankees will pay A.J. Burnett for the first four months of the season.

Photo Credit: Steve Nesius, AP

Unsurprisingly, Shields will be the team’s Opening Day starter for the third time in three years. The changeup artist has made at least 31 starts and logged at least 215 innings every year since 2007, keeping his xFIP consistently under four. Just ten pitchers in baseball have eclipsed Shields’ 12.8 total WAR over the last three years, and he’s as safe a bet as anyone to give his team 200 above average innings.

Number two starter Matt Garza isn’t as much of a known quantity as Shields, but he’s been pretty much everything the Rays could have hoped for since acquiring him prior to the 2008 season. He added more than two full strikeouts to his K/9 last season (8.38), and is in position to toss up one strikeout for every inning pitched in 2010. Garza’s xFIP went from 4.48 to 4.21 last season, and natural development should have him close to four-flat this season. Many starters hit their stride in their third full season, so Garza’s a prime breakout candidate.

Niemann, the fourth overall pick the year the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes, finally stuck in the big leagues after battling arm injuries and at time inconsistency in his minor league career. The 6-foot9, 260 pound monster posted a better than league average ERA, FIP, and xFIP in 30 starts last season, and should improve upon his modest 6.23 K/9 with more experience. Like Shields and Garza, he’s a safe bet to not just repeat last season’s performance, but improve on it.

Following his bullpen exploits in the 2008 postseason, Tampa sent Price to the minors to start 2009 so he could work on his changeup. Although he made 23 more than respectable big league starts last season (4.49 xFIP), he often ran high pitch counts that taxed the bullpen. That didn’t last for long though, as Price got on a roll and completed at least six innings in nine of his last eleven starts. Again, we have another guy likely to improve on last season’s performance just through natural development.

Despite a rather poor spring (12-10 K/BB in 15.1 innings), Davis will break camp as the team’s fifth starter, relegating the incumbent Andy Sonnanstine to bullpen duty. Baseball America ranked the hard throwing righty the 34th best prospect in the game coming into the season after six dazzling September starts that featured a 3.54 xFIP and a complete game shutout of the Orioles. Expectations are high for the long-term, but right now he just needs to be the team’s fifth starter. Sonnanstine, who may have been dealing with a case of World Series hangover when he posted a 5.42 ERA and a 4.85 xFIP last year, will be the de facto long man.

Even counting Sonnastine, the Rays enjoyed great health from their starters last season. Shields, Garza, and Niemann all made at least 30 starts, Price chipped in 23 after being called up in May, and Kazmir also gave the team 20 starts before being traded. Given the general injury risk involved with pitchers, it’s unlikely that they’ll go through the 2010 season needing just seven starters again. Then again, you could have said the same thing about the 2008 season when they used just six starters. Sonnanstine would likely be the first to move into the rotation should a spot starter be needed, but Tampa also has Jeremy Hellickson waiting in the minors as one of the game’s top pitching prospects. Righty Aneury Rodriguez, acquired from the Rockies for Jason Hammel, provides more solid depth as well.

Photo Credit: Nati Harnik, AP

The biggest move of the team’s offseason was actually a series of trades that landed the team a bonafide closer in Rafael Soriano. After burning through the old and ineffective (Troy Percival, Jason Isringhausen), Maddon went with a closer by committee approach that saw J.P. Howell getting the majority of the saves and save opportunities. Unfortunately, Howell is already on the shelf with a fatigued shoulder, weakening the setup crew. Soriano is a given at the end game, having used his high-90’s heat and devastating slider to pick up 27 saves and post a 2.99 xFIP in Atlanta last season. Getting the ball to him could prove to be a bit cumbersome.

Veteran Dan Wheeler is death to righties (3.40 xFIP) but gets tattooed by lefties (6.51), while former Yankee Randy Choate is the exact opposite (2.56 vs. LHB, 4.92 vs. RHB). Grant Balfour plays the role of good fastball, bad control reliever, and is  more likely to repeat his 4.21 xFIP in 2009 than his 2.96 mark from 2008. Lance Cormier was a revelation in long relief last season, but Howell’s injury may press him into shorter, higher leveraged innings. Padres’ castoff Mike Ekstrom and Four-A’er Dale Thayer represent the replacement level up-and-down fodder. The wildcard is Joaquin Benoit, who signed a minor league deal after missing the 2008 season with shoulder surgery. During his last two healthy years, he struck out more than a batter an inning and kept his FIP close to three. It’s a good thing Tampa’s rotation is so strong and deep, because they’re going to need to soak up as many innings as possible to limit the amount of time the Balfours and Thayers and Cormiers of the world have to blow the lead before getting to Soriano.

The Rays have mastered the concept of player development and building from within, which is the only way they’re going to compete with the bullies of the AL East. You could make a pretty good rotation just out of the pitchers the Rays have traded away in the last two years (Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Hammel, Mitch Talbot), and they have plenty more where that came from. With talk of a reduced payroll in 2011 and Pena, Crawford, Soriano, Burrell, and Balfour all set to become free agents after the season, this is probably the last hurrah for this Rays’ team as presently constructed. This current team is very, very good and could easily win 90 games and make a run at the division crowd, and don’t be surprised if they make a midseason move to get them over the hump.

What’s the backup plan at each position?

No team goes into the season without planning for the worst at each position. Players get hurt, and teams need to have an idea of what they’ll do if that becomes a reality. A well-crafted backup plan can help stanch the bleeding a bit. Of course, if the team ends up like the 2009 Mets then no amount of gauze will stop the hemorrhaging. Players also slump, and while many players, including basically the entire Yankees’ infield, will stay in the lineup, others will find themselves on the bench. So what are the Yankees’ backup plans for the 2010 season?

Designated Hitter

Nick Johnson presents the greatest concern for injury on the team. He has an injury history that matches Bart Simpon’s permanent record in volume. He did remain mostly healthy in 2009, missing about two weeks with a hamstring issue, so there is hope that he’ll stay in the lineup. His move to the DH spot should also help him avoid the wear and tear that comes with playing the field every day.

As Mike discussed this morning, Jesus Montero could be among the backup plans, though the Yankees will probably turn elsewhere before moving their defensively challenged catching prospect into a DH role. Maybe if the injury happens later in the season it will be a possibility, but if anything happens in the first half chances are that Juan Miranda will get the call. Jorge Vazquez could also provide an alternative, though a lot of that will depend on how he’s hitting in the minors.

As an outside chance, perhaps the Yankees would favor Jorge in the DH role. That would necessitate finding another catcher, though. If Cervelli is hitting then perhaps they can do with just a backup. Otherwise they’d need someone else, and I’m not sure the Yanks are prepared to go trade for a catcher this season.

First Base

We got a glimpse of a potential Mark Teixeira injury last night when Jeremy Guthrie hit him on the elbow with a fastball. It appears to be just a bruise, so Tex will likely rub some dirt on it, take a day or two off, and continue preparing for Opening Night. Since his debut in 2003 he has been on the DL just twice, though he did require minor knee surgery following the 2007 season. What happens if Tex is physically unable to play at some point this season?

Nick Johnson will likely move to first base with Juan Miranda also taking reps at first and DH. There’s a chance Nick Swisher could eat some innings at first, especially if Randy Winn starts hitting. It won’t equal Mark Teixeira, of course, but only a top first base prospect could even have a prayer. Losing a superstar player is detrimental to any team.

Second Base

Since his prolonged trip to the DL in June of 2006 with a hamstring strain, Robinson Cano has stayed almost completely healthy. His only issue since then cropped up in camp last year, a bit of pain in his shoulder after he returned from the World Baseball Classic. It didn’t affect his season, though, as he played in 161 games. He has played in at least 159 games in every season since 2006.

If Cano’s luck changes this year then Ramiro Pena could fill in. That would necessitate the Yankees recalling another utility infielder to replace Pena, which at this point figures to be Kevin Russo. If they’re forced to do that, though, might Russo get regular reps at second? His bat projects better than Pena’s, and the Yankees seem to like his defense enough. I think he’d get a shot to play at least a few times a week in this case.

Third Base

After appearing a bastion of health for most of his career, Alex Rodriguez spent time on the DL in each of the past two seasons. His hip surgery last year is certainly cause for concern. In fact, I think every Yankees fan held his or her breath last season every time he grabbed for the hip. He survived, though, and all reports have been positive since. Yet we can’t ignore the possibility that A-Rod misses time this season.

If it’s just a 15-day DL stint, then Pena could slide into the role. But we’re again crossing into Russo territory here. The Yanks certainly could hand the job to Pena temporarily and call up one of the other utility infielders on the 40-man roster. Russo appears superior to those options, and again, if they recall him I think they’d give him a chance to play multiple times per week, at least at second and third.

Shortstop

Derek Jeter and the disabled list do not get along. In fact, since he dislocated his shoulder sliding into third on Opening Day 2003 and missed over a month, he hasn’t spent a single day on the DL. He has weathered nagging injuries, a few of which have kept him out of action for days at a time, but none have necessitated a DL trip. But what happens if his luck changes this year?

Pena would likely be the guy here. I’m not sure how they’d deal with the utility position, but they have been giving Russo reps at short, so perhaps he’d come up and play once in a while. Or maybe they’d go with someone a bit more adept at short. In any case, I think Pena, with his slick glove work, would be the go-to guy to fill in at short, for either a short- or long-term injury.

Left Field

With uncertainty surrounding left field heading into the season, an injury wouldn’t greatly affect matters. If Gardner gets hurt then Randy Winn would take the bulk of the at-bats. If Winn gets hurt then it’s Gardner. In either case Marcus Thames could get some more at bats against lefties while playing left. Yet this leaves the Yankees vulnerable to the other half of the statement posed in the first paragraph. What happens if Winn doesn’t recover from his poor 2009 and Thames doesn’t hit?

This is a situation where I can envision a trade. I’m not sure who they’d target, or what they’d have to surrender. Considering the state of the farm, it might be a difficult proposition. But with few options on the farm, the Yanks would have to do something. Maybe the Rockies would be willing to part with one of their many outfielders. Other than that, I’m having a difficult time seeing where they could turn.

Center Field

Over his entire career Curtis Grandrson has missed just one month on the DL, the result of a fractured middle finger in 2008. Even then it came at the end of camp, so he didn’t miss much actual time. Even if he does get hurt, Gardner slides into center field and Winn takes over in left, with Thames getting more at bats against lefties. Yet the same problem arises. What happens if Gardner, Winn, or both aren’t effective? I don’t think Colin Curtis is the answer.

Right Field

Losing Swisher would be a big blow to the Yankees’ offense. His presence at the bottom of the order makes the lineup that much longer, and to downgrade from him to Winn would lessen that effect. All considered this would be on par with losing Granderson, replacements and all. Clearly, the outfield is one area where the Yankees could face some issues if players miss time. Maybe Winn steps in adequately, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Catcher

Jorge Posada has become a bit more fragile with age. He hadn’t hit the DL in his entire career until 2008, when he was ineffective in the first half and missed the entire second half with a shoulder injury. Thankfully the shoulder held up last season, but Jorge missed a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury. While he could stay healthy for most of 2010, the Yanks can’t bank on that. So what’s the plan?

The team weathered injuries to both Posada and Jose Molina last season, using Francisco Cervelli to fill in temporarily. His backup, if you’ll remember, was Kevin Cash, so it’s not all that different this year, with Mike Rivera filling the interchangeable role of emergency catcher. A longer term injury, as in 2008, could cause more problems. It’s doubtful that the Yankees would turn to Montero here, but you never know. Perhaps they would use him in a split-time situation with Cervelli, inserting him at DH to give Johnson a break here and there. Still, I don’t think it likely.

Starting Rotation

A.J. Burnett has an injury history, though he has avoided the DL in the past two seasons. Andy Pettitte has battled through nagging issues in the last two years. Phil Hughes has yet to pitch as a starter in the majors and not get hurt. If one of these pitchers has to spend time on the DL, the Yankees will have to turn to Sergio Mitre at this point. Maybe, if it happens early in the season, they’d insert Chamberlain into the rotation, but given the comments by Dave Eiland and Billy Eppler, I’m not so certain. Al Aceves seems more likely at this point.

If Aceves and Mitre don’t find success in the rotation the Yankees could look to their AAA roster for help. Ivan Nova, Zach McAllister, and Jason Hirsh would likely be the top choices. The hope, of course, is that it never gets to that point. Even so, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see one of those three make a few starts for the Yanks this season.

Bullpen

Thankfully, the Yankees are pretty deep in relief pitching. Mark Melancon remains a top bullpen prospect despite shaky performances in 2009. Joe Girardi‘s love of lefties means that Boone Logan will likely be an early bullpen replacement, perhaps breaking camp with the team due to Aceves’s sore back. Royce Ring also made a case this spring. Beyond them the Yankees have a number of options, including Romulo Sanchez. The bullpen is the one area where I’m not worried about injuries or ineffectiveness. There are plenty of replacement options.