The RAB Radio Show: January 11, 2011

The Yankees have again been connected to an injured pitcher, so that’s what we’re going to discuss. It started off with Justin Duchscherer, but we move onto the other injury cases, Jeremy Bonderman and Jeff Francis. We wonder what each is seeking, and how each can help the Yanks.

Then we’re onto the other area of need, fourth OF. Last night Ben discussed Andruw Jones vs. Marcus Thames, so Mike and I continue where he left off. Mike brings up another name, and I continue talking about Johnny Damon.

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Yankees’ 2010 offensive rank by position

It feels as though we haven’t come to fully appreciate the 2010 Yankees. I can understand why. The 2009 team spoiled us, and while the 2010 team made it close to a repeat World Series berth, they fell a bit short. They also fell a bit short in the AL East. That’s one reason why this off-season just doesn’t have the same feel. There doesn’t seem to be anything to reflect on and enjoy — whereas at this point last year we were still basking in the 2009 season.

Today I’d like to look back on the 2010 season and find some of the positive aspects. The Yankees will return almost all of their starters, so this can also help us look forward to the 2011 season. Here’s how the 2010 Yankees ranked on offense by position, using my favorite offensive stat, wOBA.

Catcher: 4th

Despite Francisco Cervelli getting 317 PA, the Yankees still managed to finish behind only the Braves, Reds, and Phillies in offensive output by catchers. Cervelli’s .359 OBP certainly helped matters, while Posada’s .454 slugging gave them a nice balance.

First Base: 12th

This was certainly one of the year’s disappointments. A number of first basemen had standout years, while Teixeira experienced one of his worst. We can only look forward to better things in 2011.

Second Base: 1st

This comes as little surprise, since Robinson Cano took nearly every rep at second base. Only one other team, the Marlins, came within 20 points of the Yankees’ — read: Cano’s — .389 wOBA from second base. Now just imagine Robbie’s season if he didn’t slump all September long.

Third Base: 11th

This was at about the disappointment level of Teixeira, though third base was certainly not all on A-Rod. He managed a .363 wOBA, while the team as a whole was at just .327. Eduardo Nunez, Ramiro Pena, and Kevin Russo just aren’t adequate stand-ins. Those 26 A-Rod-less games at third certainly hurt.

Shortstop: 13th

The Yankees finished 2nd among shortstops in wOBA in 2009, but dropped all the way to 13th in 2010. Jeter himself ranked eighth among shortstops in wOBA, but some teams, the Red Sox among them, got added production from players who did not qualify for the batting title.

Left Field: 10th

Much of Brett Gardner‘s value lies in his glove — UZR rated him the best left fielder in the game, while DRS had him at second — he still managed to hit a little bit in 2010. Overall, Yankees left fielders produced a .334 wOBA, which kept them in the top third of the league. With Gardner’s glove, that’ll play.

Center Field: 5th (tie)

Even though he experienced a rough debut in the Bronx, Granderson still brought the offense, particularly in terms of power. The tie is with the Blue Jays, a team that also got a ton of power out of the center field spot. The Yankees, though, got a bit more balance, as their center fielders hit .262/.355/.423, while the Jays’ hit .269/.324/.496.

Right Field: 13th

Nick Swisher himself had a .377 wOBA, but everyone else who played right field for the Yanks — Austin Kearns, Randy Winn, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, and Chad Huffman — dragged down that number. It’s still a top half finish, but not quite as impressive as you might think given Swisher’s performance.

DH: 5th (AL only, obviously)

Despite losing their DH after just a few weeks, the Yankees still managed to get a .348 wOBA out of the spot. The top team DH, the Red Sox, amounted to just .357 wOBA, so the discrepancy wasn’t huge.

Team: 1st

You might not think it by the individual rankings, but the Yankees finished with the best team wOBA in the league. They’ve actually been in that spot in four of the last five seasons. We were spoiled when the team demolished the competition in 2009, when the team wOBA was .366 and the next closest was .352, but the 2010 team could certainly mash.

Team leader: Robinson Cano

It’s tough to beat a .389 wOBA. In fact, only 11 hitters did it in 2010.

Should the Yankees move Cano up in the order?

(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

Despite down years from Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees still boasted one of the game’s best offenses in 2010. In fact, they led the league in OBP (.350, by nine points), wOBA (.347), and wRC+ (115), leading to an MLB-leading 859 runs scored, so yeah, I guess we should just come out and say they were the best offense in the game in 2010. That’s thanks in part to an MVP caliber effort from Robbie Cano, who at age 27 hit .319/.381/.534 with 41 doubles and 29 homers, good for a .389 wOBA and a 145 wRC+.

Cano did all that after the team issued a challenge in Spring Training, giving him a bit more responsibility by moving him to the fifth spot in the order rather than the sixth or seventh he’d been hitting for the last half-decade. No longer was he considered a complementary piece, the Yankees wanted to Cano to step up and become one of their cornerstones. He obviously responded quite well and now maybe it’s time to issue another challenge: should he be moved up again?

No, I’m not talking about batting him cleanup or even third, I mean letting him hit second in 2011. Mark Teixeira and/or Alex Rodriguez would not be displaced in this alignment, not that they should have any control over the matter. This of course assumes that Derek Jeter will leadoff, and frankly we have no reason to suspect he won’t right now. Just like everything else, there are both pros and cons for moving Cano up to the two-hole, so let’s go through them both…

The Case For

Perhaps the biggest reason to move Cano up to second is to simply get him more at-bats. Last year American League number two hitters came to the plate 10,376 times compared to 9,638 times for number five hitters. That’s a 7.7% difference, and although it sounds small, it’s the difference between getting Cano 600 plate appearances and 646 plate appearances. Yankees’ number two hitters received 9.5% more plate appearances than number five hitters in 2010, so the difference is even more substantial on a team-specific level. Robbie’s clearly one of the team’s best hitters, so you want him to come to the plate as often as possible.

"I'm this many times better than every other second baseman." (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Another reason is to “optimize the lineup,” so to speak. Traditionally, the number two hitter is supposed to be someone that can “handle the bat” while number three hitter is supposed to be the best hitter on the team, however The Book showed that the best hitter should actually bat second. The reason is that the number two hitter comes to the plate in situations that are just as important as the number three hitter’s, but he does so with greater frequency. Another reason is because the number two hitter tends to bat with the bases empty more often than the three-hole hitter, so he can help start rallies by batting earlier. The Yankees are fortunate enough to have several fantastic hitters, so moving Cano into the two-hole creates more opportunities for Tex and A-Rod to drive in runs. With Brett Gardner (presumably) batting ninth and Jeter first, Robbie will still have a ton of RBI opportunities himself.

A lesser benefit is that it splits up the lefties at the bottom of the order, something Joe Girardi always tries to do. Separating Cano and Curtis Granderson by one batter is one thing, since the opposing team could always have their lefty specialist walk the righty batter sandwiched between them, but with three or four hitters between them it’s a different story. Maybe this doesn’t matter since Cano traditionally kills lefties (.366 wOBA vs. LHP over the last four years), but anything that makes life more difficult for the opposing manager is okay in my book.

The Case Against

The case against moving Cano up in the order is pretty simple: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? He was an MVP candidate while hitting fifth in 2010, so why screw around with it and potentially ruin a good thing? Well, it’s a very simplistic view, because Cano was also extremely productive as (primarily) a seventh place hitter in 2009, but moving him up made him even better. Sticking him between Gardner and Jeter on the front end with Tex and Alex behind him could bring about another level production, who knows. If it doesn’t work out, moving Robbie back to fifth is as easy as writing a name on a lineup card.

Another thing to consider is protection for A-Rod, but this probably won’t be much of an issue. At least not as much as it is made out to be, anyway. The Yankees could simply plug Nick Swisher or Jorge Posada or Granderson into that five-hole and nary miss a beat. Personally I’d go with Swish in that spot, but that’s just me. No, they won’t produce like Cano did in 2010, but they’re not going to embarrass themselves back there.

The double play component can’t be ignored either. Cano has grounded into no fewer than 18 double plays in his five full seasons, including 19 last year. Only Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, Michael Young, Yadier Molina, Derek Jeter, and Carlos Lee have more GIDP’s over the last five years. Hitting second will give Robbie the opportunity to kill just as many rallies as he can extend, which is more than he would be able to as a five-hole hitter.

* * *

The thing to remember is that the batting order really doesn’t have as big of an impact as we think it does, unless the manager does something stupid like bat his two worst hitters first and second and his two best eighth and ninth. As I said earlier, the Yankees have enough great hitters than Joe Girardi could pick the batting order out of a hat and still trot out one of the best offenses in the game, so Cano’s spot isn’t of paramount importance. A little optimization never hurt anyone though, and sliding Robbie up so that’s he’s starting rallies for Tex and A-Rod instead of cleaning up their leftovers is most likely what’s best for the team over the course of 162 games, and I’m for all for it.

Report: Yankees “stepping up” pursuit of Duchscherer

(Elaine Thompson/AP)

It appears as though the Yankees have found a target to help fill one of their pitching vacancies. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that the Yankees “are stepping up their pursuit” of right-hander Justin Duchscherer. We’ve seen the Yankees and Duchscherer connected before, at the 2009 trade deadline and then again last off-season. With a couple of questionable spots in the rotation, plus the perpetual need for bullpen arms, Duchscherer could fill a number of roles on the 2011 Yankees.

Duchscherer established himself as a quality relief pitcher from 2004 through 2007, when he produced a 3.69 ERA (3.81 FIP) in 256 innings. The A’s then decided to try him in the rotation, and it was for the most part a success. In 2008 he made 22 starts and pitched 141.2 innings to a 2.54 ERA (3.69 FIP). Unfortunately, that’s when injuries started to take hold.

During the 2008 season Duchscherer missed 62 days due to injury, 21 with a biceps strain and 41 with a right hip strain. The hip was the most problematic issue, since he had missed much of the 2007 issue after undergoing surgery on his labrum (similar to Alex Rodriguez). Duchscherer then missed the entire 2009 season after having bone spurs removed from his elbow. He returned to open the 2010 season in the A’s rotation, but after five starts he again needed hip surgery, this time on the left side.

Because of the injuries, and particularly because of his hip issues, it’s hard to imagine Duchscherer making much of an impact in 2011. While he has experience in the bullpen he apparently prefers to start, though for good reason. He suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and finds that the uncertainty of bullpen life worsens the condition. Considering his physical issues with starting, I’m not sure how well he fits here. Then again, with his combination of issues I’m not sure how well he fits anywhere.

We’ve yet to see anything regarding terms of a potential deal, but I’ll echo Larry from Yankeeist: there is no way this comes in a dime higher than the $1.75 million Duchscherer made last year, and could certainly be a split minor league/major league deal. I like Duchscherer and I think if healthy he can be an effective fourth starter on the team. But that’s a rather large if. The Yanks have the money, so they might as well go ahead, but I wouldn’t expect much from this move, much as I want to.

Jones v. Thames: The fourth outfielder battle

This won't make Great Moments in Yankee History. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Game 1 of the 1996 World Series was a shocking one for the Yanks and their fans. After a 15-year wait, the Bombers were back in the Fall Classic, but the Braves knocked around Andy Pettitte. Some 19-year-old kid named Andruw Jones stole the show as he belted a two-run home run in the second inning and added a three-run shot off of Brian Boehringer in the third. The Yanks would go on to lose the game 12-1, and with his glove and bat, Jones earned himself comparisons to both Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

Over the years, Jones almost lived up to his potential, but he never took baseball as seriously as he should have. In his age 28 and age 29 seasons, he hit 51 and 41 home runs respectively, and after 10 full seasons in the league, he had a .267/.345/.505 triple slash line with 342 home runs and over 1,000 RBIs. Those are the makings of a Hall of Fame-like career.

Since then, though, Jones’ production has dropped precipitously. He signed a two-year, $36.2 million contract with the Dodgers and couldn’t last in Los Angeles. Over the past four seasons, he’s averaged 104 games with a slash line of just .212/.312/.412 and has managed to add just 65 home runs to his total since then. He’ll turn 34 shortly after Opening Day, and he remains a free agent.

Throughout the winter, the Yankees have been intrigued by Andruw Jones. They realize his defense has declined along with his bat, and in fact, his once-mighty UZR now ranks him as merely an average player in the field. Yet, they see one number that intrigues them. In 102 plate appearances against lefties, Jones hit eight home runs in 2010 and sported a nifty .402 wOBA. With Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner vulnerable to lefties, the Yanks want a power right-handed bat who can play the field if need be. Jones, on their radar in 2009, might once again be there man, and the team is strongly interested in him.

Should Thames return in 2011? (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

But what of the incumbent? Another 34-year-old with suspect defense held down the righty bat/fourth outfielder spot last year with mixed results. He certainly couldn’t play the field, but Marcus Thames broke out the boomstick at the right time. He hit .288/.350/.491 with 12 home runs in 237 plate appearances, and his .365 wOBA was just .005 off his career high. Against lefties, though, his numbers dipped. He hit just five home runs in 142 plate appearances and sported a .354 wOBA.

So now, as the Yanks look to fill in the blanks before Spring Training, the question becomes “who would you rather?” After running down these numbers, it might be tempting to lean toward Thames. He was productive against both lefties and righties last year and put up a career year, but his .248/.311/.491 body of work suggest that he’s not in line to do it again. They don’t call ‘em career years for nothing. We also don’t need to know Thames’ -4.3 UZR to know he was a disaster in the outfield. That game against the Red Sox during which he just flat-out dropped a pop-up is good enough for me.

Perhaps then Jones with his .261/.361/.501 career line against lefties is the Yanks’ man. He can play a passable outfield for a few innings and can still flash the power. But salary demands are a concern. He’ll want way more than the $500,000 he earned in 2010, but Thames will want a raise from the $900,000 he earned. It seems that Jones will be the more expensive sure thing while Thames has the good will of 2010 going for them. With the Yanks’ money to spend, I’d err toward Jones. Would you?

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