What Went Wrong: Alex Rodriguez

Over the next week or two or three, we’re going to recap the season that was by looking at what went right as well as what went wrong for the 2010 Yankees.

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

In March of 2009 Yankees fans got a scare. During his stint in the World Baseball Classic he suffered a hip injury — though it was actually a lingering issue that came to a head during that time. The outlook appeared grim at the time, but Dr. Marc Philippon suggested that an arthroscopic procedure would allow A-Rod to play the season, after which he could have the more invasive procedure. But after a season in which he hit .286/.402/.532 and played the hero in the postseason, the second surgery was deemed unnecessary. A-Rod would return at full strength in 2010.

A year later, Rodriguez has wrapped up the worst full season of his career. He produced career lows in batting average and OBP, while his SLG just barely edged out the .496 mark he posted in 1997. He walked less, just 9.9 percent of the time, and he hit line drives at an astonishingly low 13.8 percent rate. While things might have seemed worse early in the season, when he had just one home run on May 8, he actually went through a horrible slump from early June through mid-August, during which he hit .227/.290/.431 in 241 PA, which accounted for about 40 percent of his season. It would have been a lot worse, too, had he not gone 4 for 5 with three homers in a game against Kansas City. After that game he went 0 for 6 before heading to the DL with a strained calf.

Rodriguez was actually one of the few Yankees who hit in September. In his 112 PA he hit .295/.374/.600, including nine home runs — four of which came against Boston. But that didn’t lead to a good postseason performance; Alex went 7 for 32 with two doubles and four walks, but not much else. His one shining moment was driving in two during the eighth inning of the ALCS Game 1. But other than that, much like the rest of the Yankees offense, he came up empty. It was a fitting end to a disappointing season.

To get an idea of why A-Rod had a poor season, we can take a look at his spray charts, courtesy of Texas Leaguers. Here’s 2010:

That doesn’t look like a terrible spray chart, but when you look at his 2009 chart, the differences are noticeable.

The green dots down the left field line immediately stand out, as do the balls that lie beyond the left field fence. It appears as though Alex pulled the ball with much more authority in previous years. There also seems to be a greater concentration of green dots in the shallow outfield this year. These two factors, combined with his abysmally low line drive rate, suggests that he didn’t have a feel for his swing this season. Kevin Long did lend a hand in August, helping A-Rod with opening his hips as to generate more power. That appeared to help, as evidenced by his three-homer game followed by a power-filled September. But it wasn’t enough to recover the lost season.

What makes A-Rod’s season hurt is just not his production compared to his previous years, but his production compared to the average AL cleanup hitter. While his .270/.341/.506 season handily outpaced the average AL third baseman, it was in line, or perhaps a bit worse, than the average AL No. 4 hitter, .275/.350/.477. In other words, in what is supposed to be the most productive lineup spot, the Yankees got average results. That’s not something they expected coming into the season. In 2009 A-Rod was far better than the average cleanup hitter.

Still, the season wasn’t a total loss. Alex did get his hits when it really mattered. With men on he hit .296/.368/.556, and with runners in scoring position he hit .283/.355/.500. He also managed 11 sac flies and a .364/.373/.727 line with a runner on third and less than two outs, while hitting .286 with a runner on third and two outs. The discrepancy between his production with the bases empty and with runners on base might not be a sustainable one, though there is hope that the former rises to meet the latter next season.

Heading into next year, Alex will face many questions stemming from his relatively poor 2010 season. Did his hip affect him? Does he regret not having the second surgery? What will he do to correct the power issues that afflicted him early in the season? But given what we know about his talent, we shouldn’t expect a repeat in 2011. Players have down years all the time; A-Rod just happen to have his first one in 12 years this season.

Prospect Profile: Cito Culver

(Photo Credit: Andy In Sunny Daytona)

Cito Culver | SS

Born and raised in Rochester, Culver (whose real name is Christopher) starred both on the mound and in the field at Irondequoit High School. He was named All-Monroe County all four years of high school, and was named regional Player of the Year as a senior, when he hit .561. He hit two grands slams in the same game this April, one from each side of the plate. Pretty cool.

The Yankees selected Culver with their first round pick, #32 overall, making him the first position player ever to be drafted out of the Rochester area in the first round. It was perhaps two full rounds earlier than where most pre-draft projections had him going. Culver signed as soon as he graduated high school (less than two weeks after the draft) for a $954,000 bonus, exactly slot money for that pick.

Culver’s father, Chris Sr., is currently in prison for arson (and two other charges) after burning the family house down in March 2008. He was sentenced to a maximum of nine years, and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. You can read more about that and how it impacted Cito in this great Wayne Coffey piece.

Pro Debut
Culver was assigned to the Yankees’ rookie level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League after signing, where he hit .269/.320/.363 with seven doubles and two homers in 179 plate appearances, stealing six bases in nine tries. He was rewarded with a late season promotion to Short Season Staten Island, where he hit just .186/.340/.209 in 54 measly plate appearances. It was a solid test for a kid that didn’t turn 18-years-old until late August, and he did well considering his lack of experience against top shelf competition in high school.

Scouting Report
A bonafide long-term shortstop through and through, Culver flashes strong range, hands and instincts in combination with his cannon arm, one that unleashed low-90’s fastballs from the mound. His outstanding athletic ability allows him to make up for any mistakes, which should decrease in number with more experience. At 6-foot-0 and 185 lbs., there are no concerns that he will outgrow the position.

Cito’s bat lags behind his defense right now, but he’s a switch-hitter with good bat speed and enough pop to keep pitchers honest. His plate discipline is strong and improving, so he should take enough walks to post better than average on-base percentages in the future. Culver is quick enough to steal bases but needs to improve his basestealing instincts overall. His game is still rather raw unrefined at this point, which is not uncommon with high school prospects from cold weather states.

Much has been made of Culver’s background with regards to his father, but the Yankees watching him plenty and got a good read on his makeup. “I don’t know how a kid recovers from what he went through,” said area scout Tim Alexander, the man in charge with keeping an eye on Culver. “The field is where he gets away. It’s almost where everything makes a lot of sense.”

“Nobody I can think of since I’ve been doing this has been through this kind of adversity, and come through it in such a positive way, with so much character and integrity,” said scouting director Damon Oppenheimer. “Minor league baseball is full of failure. You always wonder how people will handle it. Cito has dealt with bigger things than going 0-for-4 already in his life.” Obviously the Yankees are impressed by how he’s dealt with the adversity.

Here’s a video interview with Culver taken after the draft, and here’s a clip of him on the mound.

2011 Outlook
Culver can handle the jump into full season ball defensively, but the bat might not be there yet. The Yankees could choose to hold him back in Extended Spring Training to start the season before giving him a return ticket to Staten Island in the second half. That’s probably the best route for Culver; he might not be physically ready for the full season grind of the Low-A South Atlantic League. Remember, they held Slade Heathcott back last year, and he was more advanced both physically and baseball-wise than Cito.

My Take
I was surprised by the pick like everyone else, but that doesn’t mean it was bad. The Yankees had scouted Culver more than anyone else and certainly liked him, enough that they didn’t want to risk having him come off the board between their first and second round picks. There were definitely sexier names left on the board, but a premium up-the-middle athlete is always a good gamble to take. The Yanks clearly went for upside in this draft, and Culver offers plenty. Don’t expect a quick mover though, he’s a bit of a project and will need at least a year at each level.

What Went Wrong: Nick The (Injured) Stick

Over the next week or two or three, we’re going to recap the season that was by looking at what went right as well as what went wrong for the 2010 Yankees.

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

In the aftermath of their 2009 World Series celebration, the Yankees were facing several tough decisions with stalwart players. Both Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui were free agents after their identical four-year, $52MM contracts expired, but Brian Cashman and the rest of the brain trust remained in “get younger and more athletic” mode. Despite all of their postseason heroics, Damon and Matsui were still a pair of 36-year-olds last winter, with the latter having significant concerns about the health of his knees.

The first domino fell barely a week into December, when the Yankees swung a three-team trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York. That filled the vacant outfield spot, leaving the designated hitter’s job the only one left open. Matsui took himself out of the running five days after the Grandy trade by signing a one-year deal with the Angels at 50% pay cut. His reason for signing quickly was sound; he didn’t want to be shut out in a market that getting more and more unkind to DH types. Understandable.

Damon and Scott Boras were sticking to their guns about a multi-year deal without a significant pay cut, and the two sides were still worlds apart on a deal after the Grandy trade. With Johnny and Boras playing hard-to-get, the Yankees moved on to a familiar face to fill the DH hole, signing Nick Johnson to a one-year deal a week after Matsui went to SoCal. The contract was worth just $5.5M with incentives tied to plate appearances, very reasonable considering the $13M both Damon and Matsui made last year.

Everyone knew about Johnson’s laundry list of injury trouble, but there were reasons to be optimistic about his ability to stay on the field in 2010. After missing all of 2007 and most of the 2008 season, he stayed on the field for 574 plate appearances in 2009, his most since 2006 and the second most of his career. Getting him out of the field and resting comfortably as a designated hitter also figured to help him stay fresh and in the lineup. And, of course, a man with a .402 career on-base percentage (.426 in 2009, third best in baseball) figured to make baseball’s best lineup even more potent. The Yankees had their new DH, and Damon eventually found a one-year deal in Detroit.

The trouble for Johnson started almost right away. He missed the team’s second Spring Training game with a stiff back, brought about when he caught a spike in batting practice. The lower back issue popped back up in late April, causing NJ to miss two games and three days. Through the season’s first 27 games, Johnson remained a strong on-base threat (.396 OBP) but he wasn’t doing much with the stick (.171 AVG, .143 ISO). The Yanks were in Fenway Park on May 7th, and Johnson was in the lineup as the DH and in his customary second spot in the lineup. His first at-bat resulted in the second of three straight Josh Beckett strikeouts, and his second trip to the plate resulted in a weak groundout to the second baseman to lead off the fourth. That was the last time we would see Johnson in 2010.

Marcus Thames pinch hit one inning later, replacing Johnson who was sidelined a sore wrist. It was the same wrist he had surgery on in 2008, causing him to spend 137 total days on the disabled list. An MRI revealed an inflamed tendon, and the original diagnosis had NJ missing several weeks. Less than two weeks later, Johnson was on the surgeon’s table after a cortisone failed to do the trick. Three months after that, the same wrist was sore yet again, and one week later he was again having surgery. All told, Johnson spent 166 days on the disabled list in 2010, falling short of the very modest 100 plate appearance plateau, finishing with just 98.

Looking back, it’s clear the team (and us fans as well) was mesmerized by the potential of having someone reach base 40+% of the time in front of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and who wouldn’t be? The problem was that Johnson offered little in the way of power (though 20 homers in Yankee Stadium was very possible) and even less in terms of dependability and durability. Even if the Yanks declined to meet Damon’s demands, better (and cheaper) DH targets like Jim Thome ($1.5M) and Russell Branyan ($2M) didn’t come off the board until late in the offseason. That obviously comes with the benefit of hindsight, however.

For all intents and purposes, what played out was the worst case scenario for both the Yankees and Johnson. The team had to scramble to find a replacement DH, eventually trading a pair of young players at the deadline to fill the hole, and Johnson now faces an uncertain winter coming off surgery. Cashman admitted during Monday’s press conference that Johnson was his Plan C at DH, behind Damon and Matsui. He might as well have called him Plan K, because the 2010 edition of Nick Johnson was a big fat whiff.

Report: CC set for minor surgery on right knee

Yankees ace CC Sabathia will undergo surgery later this week for what The Post is calling a “minor meniscus tear of the right knee,” Joel Sherman and George A. King III reported a few minutes ago. CC underwent a diagnostic yesterday at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and doctors spotted the meniscus tear. “The Yankees,” says The Post, “do not consider the procedure significant and expect Sabathia to recover within three weeks and be fully ready for spring training.”

The knee problem, speculate Sherman and King, could have been behind Sabathia’s less-than-stellar posteason showing, and the two reporters note that CC’s size and his workload may make Yankee officials worry even about a minor procedure. Sabathia has tossed 1033 innings since 2007, the most, notes The Post, since Randy Johnson threw 1085.2 from 1999-2002. Still, a meniscus procedure is a rather smooth one these days, and the big man should be a-OK for 2011.

What choice does the Fox-Cablevision dispute leave us?

It just plays over and over and over again…

I wrote this up for FanGraphs, but the subject is closer to us, since a good lot of us live within the Cablevision coverage area. Since October 16 we’ve been without Fox, which normally is no big deal. If the network has a show I want to watch, I can visit one of many websites that will stream it to my computer. The only problem is the timing. Fox pulled its programming on the day the NLCS began, meaning I’ve already missed an important series — though I have to say that San Francisco’s radio team of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow made it a little easier on me. But starting today the stakes are a bit higher.

Today begins the greatest sporting event on the planet. The nation might not be enthralled by a Texas – San Francisco match-up, but I sure am. I can’t wait to watch Cliff Lee pitch against Tim Lincecum, to see if the Texas offense, to hope that San Francisco can string together some hits — or that Cody Ross can further his folk hero status. Unfortunately, I’ll have to find a non-traditional way to watch the action; my cable company and the station carrying the World Series are in a fight.

Neither Fox nor Cablevision would be anywhere without people who pay for their services. Yet how do they treat us? Like we don’t matter. Fox and Cablevision don’t care that they’re taking the World Series away from die-hards. They just want the greatest possible amount of money — Fox by demanding a higher fee for its services, and Cablevision by enforcing the status quo. Lost in the squabble is the consumer that pays his cable bill and watches commercials.

I’ve been told that I should just buy a pair of cheap rabbit ears and pick up the Fox signal that way. The picture is better than your cable HD, they say. But when I went into Radio Shack last night the salesman basically refused to sell me a pair of rabbit ears. They don’t work well in this area. I trust the guy, because he was basically turning away a sale — because he knew I’d be back today to return it, and it costs the company money to process a return. I could buy an amplified HD antenna, but that starts at $60. I could write that off on my taxes, I suppose, but that’s still $60 that I’m paying because the ~$140 per month I pay for cable and internet isn’t enough to get me the World Series.

As it stands, I have a good mind just to cancel my cable altogether and buy those more expensive rabbit ears. I could then get sports on the major networks and watch my cable programming online — it helps that my computer easily hooks up to my TV. I also have a PS3 and can therefore watch anything from Netflix on my TV as well. The PS3 also has a beautiful MLB.tv plugin. That covers pretty much everything — except the most important thing.

I’m stuck with cable because of the Yankees. Gaining access to YES every night without a cable subscription is probably easy, but not something of which I want to make a habit. And so I’m left with a choice:

1) Purchase rabbit ears that will be pointless once Fox and Cablevision come to an agreement.

2) Purchase Postseason.tv, which doesn’t provide a full view of the game.

3) Listen again on the radio — which will be a difficult endeavor in Game 4, when I’m scheduled to write a recap for ESPN Insider.

4) Go to a bar, which will be unkind to my wallet.

5) Find a feed line, which is illegal.

6) Switch to Verizon FiOS. Damn. FiOS isn’t hooked up in my building and the building manager hasn’t made that a priority.

In other words: Thanks, Fox and Cablevision, for leaving me with six distinctly shitty World Series viewing options. I pay my bills, and I watch my commercials (at least during sporting events). Yet this is the way I’m treated.

Laird continues to rake in Phoenix

Via Josh Norris, senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman confirmed that David Adams will ready in time for Spring Training, but Jeremy Bleich is going to have to wait until midseason. Adams, of course, had that broken ankle, while Bleich had surgery to repair some sort of tear in his pitching shoulder.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (5-3 loss to Surprise in ten innings)
Brandon Laird, DH: 1 for 3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 2 BB – OPS’ing over a 1.000, but he’s like, one of a dozen doing that out here
Jose Pirela, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 BB – hey look at that, he got a hit
Ryan Pope: 2 IP, zeroes, 2-4 GB/FB – 13 of 21 pitches were strikes (61.9%)
George Kontos: 2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3-2 GB/FB – a dozen of his 18 pitches were strikes

Report: Girardi re-up will be for 3 years, $9 million

As the Yanks’ Hot Stove Leagues kicks into gear, Jon Heyman has a brief update on the team’s managerial situation. Joe Girardi and the Front Office are working on a contract that would keep Girardi helming the club for the next three years, and the deal would be worth approximately $3 million per year. Girardi’s last deal gave him $2.5 million, and considering that the skipper won a World Series and reached the ALCS this year, a raise is in line with club expectations. Negotations, says Heyman, “are not expected to take long.”