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(Scott Iskowitz/Getty)

(Scott Iskowitz/Getty)

The Yankees were saddled with a ton of position player injuries last year, including Mark Teixeira‘s wrist, Curtis Granderson‘s forearm (and hand), and Derek Jeter‘s ankle. The result was far too much playing time for guys like Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Eduardo Nunez. The offense stunk. It was a lot worst than it was in 2014.

This past season, pitching injuries were the problem. Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) and Michael Pineda (shoulder) each made four starts in April before landing on the disabled list for several months. CC Sabathia‘s knee gave out on him in May. Then, right before the All-Star break, Masahiro Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament that essentially ended his season. Four-fifths of the team’s Opening Day rotation was on the disabled list by early-July.

That should have been the end of the line for the Yankees, but Brian Cashman & Co. did an excellent job cobbling together a pitching staff in the second half, a pitching staff that kept the Yankees close enough to the second wildcard spot to keep everyone interested. Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano were brought in on low-cost deals, and another quality rotation piece came from the (gasp!) farm system.

* * *

With Pineda, Tanaka, and the now-healthy Manny Banuelos hogging the pitching spotlight in Spring Training, right-hander Shane Greene was able to fly under the radar despite pitching well in camp. He struck out ten, walked one, and got eleven ground ball outs against just two in the air in 7.2 innings of relief work. Yeah, it was Spring Training, but guys like Greene need to have strong Spring Trainings to open eyes. I remember one outing against the Phillies in particular, in which he was breaking off nasty sinking fastballs like this one:

Greene was one of the very last roster cuts in Spring Training, which meant he wasn’t able to get properly stretched out before joining the Triple-A Scranton rotation. He opened the regular season in Extended Spring Training just to get some more tune-up innings under his belt before joining the RailRiders in mid-April. Greene made two relief appearances in Triple-A before being called up to the big league team on April 24th to help their overworked bullpen.

That night, Greene made his MLB debut against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. It was a disaster. He came out of the bullpen with the Yankees up 12-2 in the seventh, faced five batters, walked three of them, and allowed three runs while getting only one out (a strikeout of Shane Victorino). All three runs were unearned because Jeter made an error behind him, but still. Only eight of Greene’s 22 pitches were strikes and he looked very much like the marginal pitching prospect who walked 11.7% of batters faced in the minors from 2011-12 before breaking out in 2013.

The performance earned Greene a trip back to Triple-A, where he (finally) joined the rotation and was able to start every fifth day. His first eight starts with the RailRiders were pretty terrible: 6.56 ERA (3.72 FIP) with a 1.91 WHIP (!) in 35.2 innings. That’s a ton of base-runners. Greene’s strikeout (17.2%) and walk (8.9%) rates weren’t anything special either. It was hard not to think he was coming back down to Earth after such a strong breakout season last year.

Greene’s next five starts were much better (1.93 ERA and 3.25 FIP) — he threw seven scoreless innings on June 27th then another six scoreless innings on July 2nd — and, given the injury riddled state of the MLB rotation, that was enough to earn him a call-up. It was supposed to be just a one-start cameo, but Greene pitched well (two runs in six innings) in his first career start and the team kept him around for one more start to give the rest of the rotation an extra day of rest. Five days later, he did this:

Tanaka suffered his injury between Greene’s first and second starts, so even if he hadn’t dominated the Orioles the weekend before the All-Star break, Greene would have stayed in the rotation anyway. That was a good thing because his next three starts weren’t particularly good (ten runs in 15.2 innings), which probably would have earned him a trip back to Triple-A had the Yankees not already tapped out their pitching depth. (He made three errors in one of those games, as I’m sure you remember.)

Greene shook off those three lousy starts and fired eight shutout innings against the Tigers on August 7th. Only twice in his next eight starts did he allow more than two runs — he did have a disaster start against the Red Sox on September 2nd, allowing six runs in 2.2 innings — before the Orioles hit him around in his final start of the season on September 24th (six runs in 3.2 innings). Here is Greene’s game log after being called up to join the rotation:

Rk Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA BF Pit Str StS
2 Jul 7 NYY @ CLE W,5-3 6.0 4 2 2 0 2 1 1 2.84 22 88 56 3
3 Jul 12 NYY @ BAL W,3-0 7.1 4 0 0 2 9 0 0 1.32 27 106 65 15
4 Jul 21 NYY TEX L,2-4 5.2 5 4 4 1 5 0 1 2.79 26 113 73 13
5 Jul 27 NYY TOR L,4-5 5.1 8 3 3 2 2 1 0 3.28 24 86 56 7
6 Aug 2 NYY @ BOS W,6-4 4.2 6 3 3 2 5 1 0 3.68 22 96 52 3
7 Aug 7 NYY DET W,1-0 8.0 5 0 0 3 5 0 0 2.89 30 99 64 9
8 Aug 16 NYY @ TBR W,3-2 6.0 7 2 2 1 10 0 1 2.91 27 102 68 17
9 Aug 22 NYY CHW W,4-3 5.0 9 3 3 2 7 1 1 3.17 25 92 61 11
10 Aug 27 NYY @ DET W,8-4 7.0 5 2 2 1 8 1 1 3.09 29 101 69 12
11 Sep 2 NYY BOS L,4-9 2.2 6 6 6 3 3 2 1 3.88 18 67 38 4
12 Sep 7 NYY KCR L,0-2 5.0 5 2 0 3 4 0 0 3.57 22 90 54 10
13 Sep 13 NYY @ BAL W,3-2 5.1 7 2 2 1 9 1 0 3.56 23 112 71 13
14 Sep 18 NYY TOR W,3-2 6.2 3 0 0 2 6 0 0 3.24 24 105 73 10
15 Sep 24 NYY BAL L,5-9 3.2 7 6 6 3 5 0 0 3.78 21 73 49 8
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/22/2014.

That four-start stretch from August 7th through August 27th is when Greene really made his mark and solidified his standing as a member of the rotation. He had a 2.96 ERA (3.59 FIP) during his eight-start stretch from August 7th through September 18th, which is cherry-picking at its finest, but I don’t care. Greene was tremendous during that stretch and it looked like the Yankees had themselves a real live homegrown rotation stalwart.

Greene finished the season with a 3.78 ERA and 3.73 FIP in 78.2 innings, which includes the ugly MLB debut out of the bullpen. He posted excellent strikeout (9.27 K/9 and 23.5 K%) and ground ball (50.2%) rates, and his walk rate (3.32 BB/9 and 8.4 BB%) was fine. Lefties did hit him a bit harder than righties — .281/.365/.400 (.345 wOBA) with a 30/18 K/BB against lefties and .240/.305/.356 (.297 wOBA) with a 51/11 K/BB against righties — which isn’t surprising since he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher, relying on that sinker and slider.

Those two pitches are very, very good though. Greene’s sinker averaged 93.9 mph this season, making it the third fastest sinker in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 70 innings this season. Only two relievers (Jeurys Familia and Tony Watson) had harder sinkers. Furthermore, the sinker had a 13.2% swing-and-miss rate and a 56.5% ground ball rate, both better than the league average for the pitch (5.4% and 49.5%, respectively).

Greene’s slider would sometimes come in at 87-88 mph, so PitchFX often classified it as a cutter. The slider had a 40.2% (!) swing-and-miss rate and a 45.4% ground ball rate, and again both were better than the MLB slider average (15.2% and 43.9%). Greene threw very few straight four-seamers and changeups in 2014 (~18% combined). He’s a sinker/slider pitcher and both the sinker and slider were above-average at getting whiffs and ground balls. That’s huge. Greene legitimately has two above-average pitches in his arsenal.

* * *

If not for Greene and the team’s other midseason rotation additions, the Yankees would have been knocked into irrelevancy in late-July. They kept them in the race longer than they should have been. McCarthy and Capuano were rentals who will become free agents in about a week. Their time in pinstripes may be short-lived.

Greene, on the other hand, will turn 26 next month. He emerged as a potential rotation building block going forward, even if he’s nothing more than a mid-rotation guy with a big platoon split. That has a lot of value. I won’t do it, but if you’re an optimist and you squint your eyes, maybe you can see the next Doug Fister (another former Yankees draft pick). That would be awesome.

Either way, Greene is a major player development success story for the Yankees. They drafted him in the 15th round of the 2009 draft and gave him a $100k signing bonus after only seeing him throw a handful of bullpens as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. The Yankees did a helluva job developing him over the years and getting him over his control issues. Now he’s a bonafide big league starter.

(Title comes from @JakeMHS, who has terrible opinions.)

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One of Roberts's final hits. ( Elsa/Getty Images)

One of Roberts’s final hits. ( Elsa/Getty Images)

Not gonna lie: The original title of this season review was “Nothing from the keystone.” It sure seemed that way, given that Stephen Drew and Brian Roberts combined for 458 of 631 total PA from the position. Add in Brendan Ryan for another 42 and it looks like a downright disaster.

Then I saw this, and I had to change my title.

Click for larger

Click for larger

The chart does not lie: Yankees second basemen ranked seventh in the AL for OPS. All I could think was:

To reiterate, Stephen Drew and Brian Roberts combined for 73 percent of the overall plate appearances at second base, and together produced a .603 OPS. That actually raises another decent question.

How the hell did the Yankees second basemen produce a .693 OPS if the guys taking 73 percent of the PA produced a .603 OPS? That 90 points has to come from somewhere.

1) Martin Prado is awesome. In his 63 PA as a 2B he had a 1.074 OPS. That moved the needle quite a bit.

2) Yangervis Solarte got 49 PA as a 2B and had a .777 OPS, which helped.

3) Jose Pirela had three hits, including a double and a triple, in 13 PA, so he and Dean Anna, who hit a home run as a 2B, topped off the tank.

Here’s where the effect on the field doesn’t quite line up with the aggregate stats. Prado excelled while playing 2B, but no matter his overall numbers (7 2B, 3 HR, both more than Drew in a little more than half the PA) he affected only 17 games. Drew and Roberts infected affected a combined 121 games with their .603 OPS.

So I suppose the title could be, “Nothing from the keystone most of the time.” That’s a little clunky. The question mark will suffice.

No matter what, the Yankees were going to be disappointed at second base this season. In 2013 they had the highest OPS in the AL at second base — by 119 points. Once Robinson Cano signed with the Mariners, what options did the Yankees have?

Mark Ellis? Plenty advocated for that, but go look at his B-R page. I’m not even going to link it here. It’s too offensive.

Omar Infante? Sure, he’s ready for a World Series appearance, his second in three years, but his OPS was 37 points lower than Roberts’s during the regular season. And Kansas City is paying him through 2017.

Trade? Since zero second basemen were traded from the time Cano signed through Opening Day, it’s tough to say that the Yankees missed any opportunities. Once Cano left, they had essentially no chance to field a decent second baseman.

Mike wrote glowingly of Prado in his season review, and for good reason. He not only provided offense in the second half, but will be around for the next two seasons. That’s the big 2014 story for the Yankees at second base: how it will affect 2015 and beyond.

I could spend a few paragraphs ripping Roberts and Drew, but what’s the point? We saw some brilliant moments out of Roberts, but we mostly saw an aging, oft-injured player on his last legs. (Roberts confirmed that by announcing his retirement last Friday.) We saw — well, we really saw nothing from Drew save for a few line drives towards the very end of the season.

What we saw from Prado, though, was a glimpse of what he might provide in 2015. It’s almost certain he’ll start the season at second base, with Alex Rodriguez, Chase Headley, or a combination thereof manning third base. He might move at some point, perhaps to the outfield, perhaps to third base, making room for Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela. However the situation shakes out, Prado gives them a level of versatility they’ve lacked in recent years.

There you have it: a positively spun review on what seemed like one of the worst positions for the 2014 Yankees. Next up on my plate: What the hell happened at first base. And yes, the first basemen produced a lower OPS than the second basemen.

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(Brian Blanco/Getty)

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

On paper, signing Kelly Johnson to a one-year contract worth $3M last offseason made perfect sense for the Yankees. They had questions at both second and third bases, plus he’s a dead pull left-handed hitter who figured to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. When Robinson Cano signed with the Mariners a week later and Alex Rodriguez was eventually suspended for the entire 2014 season, Johnson went from shrewd signing to essential piece.

Johnson, who turned 32 in Spring Training, hit an unsexy yet effective .235/.305/.410 (101 wRC+) with 16 homers and seven steals in 118 games for the Rays last year. He also saw time at the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field. That kind of production and versatility would be at an absolutely bargain at $3M. Given his 2012-13 spray chart …


Source: FanGraphs

… there was every reason to believe Johnson would hit a few cheap homers in the Bronx and see his offensive numbers tick up a bit. His struggles against left-handers were a concern but there were ways to minimize his exposure to southpaws. Add in the fact that he was very familiar with the AL East after spending part of 2011 and all of 2012 with the Blue Jays before joining the Rays 2013, and Johnson was a damn near perfect fit. The Yankees were wise to jump on him so relatively early in free agency.

Of course, as so many people are eager to point out, baseball is not played on paper or spreadsheets and things don’t always go according to plan. It would be really boring if they did. Despite his versatility and left-handed pull power, Johnson did not work out as planned for the Yankees. It took all of three games for him to lose the starting third base job — that had more to do with Yangervis Solarte‘s early-season performance than Johnson’s — and by midseason he had been relegated to full-time bench duty.

The first two weeks of the season actually went quite well for Johnson. He was able to stay in the lineup despite Solarte’s dominance because Mark Teixeira‘s injury created an opening at first base, and he went 10-for-35 (.286) with two doubles, a triple, and three home runs in the team’s first 12 games of the season. The three homers came in a five-game span against the Orioles and Red Sox. Johnson played as expected (better, really) for the first two weeks of the season. It was wonderful.

And then it all went south. Johnson went 3-for-26 (.115) in the team’s next 12 games and it took a set of back-to-back 2-for-4 games at the end of May to get his season batting line to .217/.286/.409 (93 wRC+) on June 1st. That’s not all that far off from his 2013 production, but he cooled off big time following the hot start and the move into Yankee Stadium hadn’t help his production as hoped. By the time June rolled around, Johnson was playing sparingly at first and third bases with the occasional start at DH.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

A strong two weeks in mid-July — 8-for-27 (.296) with a homer, four walks and zero strikeouts from July 6th through the 21st — wasn’t enough to save Johnson’s job with the Yankees, so, a few hours before the July 31st trade deadline, he was traded to the rival Red Sox for close friend Stephen Drew. Johnson finished his time in pinstripes with a .219/.304/.373 (91 wRC+) batting line and six homers in 77 games. That includes a .224/.300/.402 (94 wRC+) line with five homers at home and a .213/.308/.340 (86 wRC+) line with one homer on the road.

Johnson spent most of his time with the Yankees at first and third bases, though he see spot duty in both outfield corners and at second base. His defense on the infield corners was pretty terrible and that probably has a lot to do with inexperience. Coming into the season, Johnson had playing only 18 career innings at first base and 118 career innings at third base. All of them came with the Rays last season. The inexperience doesn’t absolve him of blame, he misplayed some balls any big leaguer should make, but it’s not something we can ignore either.

I do wonder if Johnson would have had more success with the Yankees if they had kept him at his natural second base position. That’s where he has spent most of his career and is presumably the most comfortable. Maybe keeping him there would have helped his offense somehow. These guys are only human. Learning a new-ish position is demanding and his game could have suffered elsewhere. This stuff happens all the time all around the league. Oh well. I’m just thinking out loud.

Johnson playing sparingly for the Red Sox (-12 wRC+ in ten games) before being shipped to the Orioles (111 wRC+ in 19 games) in a late-August waiver trade. Baltimore was looking for some extra third base depth following Manny Machado’s season-ending knee surgery. He did end up making their postseason roster but only got two at-bats in October. Johnson made a ton of sense for the Yankees coming into the season thanks to his versatility and left-handed pop, but it didn’t work out for several reasons and the team moved on at the trade deadline. That’s baseball.

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Despite all of last winter’s free agent signings, it wasn’t much of a surprise when the Yankees needed offensive help at the trade deadline. They started the season with question marks at second and third bases, plus no one really knew what to expect out of Derek Jeter following his lost 2013 season. Add in disappointing seasons from Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and you had a team in need of a bat or three at the deadline.

The Yankees made their first move to add offense about a week before the deadline, grabbing Chase Headley from the Padres. That was a nice start but they needed more. Brian Cashman swung a minor trade with the Red Sox to acquire Stephen Drew on deadline day, then, just a few minutes before the deadline, he acquired the versatile Martin Prado from the Diamondbacks for minor league slugger Peter O’Brien.

The trade for Prado almost didn’t happen, however. Cashman had been talking to D’Backs GM Kevin Towers about Prado for a while but the asking price was high, so, a few hours before the trade deadline, he pulled the plug on talks and went after Drew. That’s when Arizona circled back around and lowered their demands, which complicated things. John Harper explains:

Within minutes (of the Drew trade), however, Towers called back to say, OK, he was willing to trade Prado for O’Brien. Cashman was exasperated because the Drew deal, which meant taking more than $3 million in salary, was suddenly an obstacle.“I said, ‘Dude, we just did a deal (for Drew),’ ” Cashman recalled. “I told him I’d have to talk to ownership.”

Cashman called Hal Steinbrenner and explained how important Prado’s versatility could be both this season and beyond. He also told him he thought Prado’s intangibles make a difference as well.

“He has a great reputation around the game as a tough kid and a gamer,” Cashman said of Prado.

Steinbrenner immediately signed off on the proposal, and Cashman called Towers back and said they had a deal, with a half hour or so to spare.

Like so many players on the D’Backs, the 30-year-old Prado was in the middle of down year, hitting only .270/.317/.370 (89 wRC+) in 106 games before the trade. He hit .282/.333/.417 (104 wRC+) last season after putting up a .294/.342/.436 (114 wRC+) line as a full-time player with the Braves from 2009-12. There were no injury concerns or anything like that. His performance just slipped and that’s always kinda scary.

The original plan called for Prado to play right field full-time — Beltran was the full-time DH and Ichiro Suzuki was moved back to the bench — even though he had two whole innings of experience at the position in his career. Prado joined the team the day after the trade deadline and he made his debut that night, pinch-hitting for Ichiro and grounding out in the seventh. He stayed in the game and struck out in the ninth inning as well.

Prado started in right field the next day and singled before being lifted for a defensive replacement in the late innings. He started again the next day and the same thing happened, minus the single. Prado went 2-for-5 with a homer off David Price in his fifth game with the team, though otherwise his first two weeks in the Bronx were pretty underwhelming: 7-for-43 (.163) with a double and the homer plus eleven strikeouts. He was playing mostly right field but also filled in at third base when Mark Teixeira was banged up (Headley slid over to first).

Then, on August 16th, it seemed like someone just slipped the switch. Prado went from drain on the offense to the team’s best hitter practically overnight. He hit a two-run homer off Drew Smyly on that day, went 2-for-4 with a double the next day, and 3-for-4 with a double the day after that. On August 22nd against the White Sox he went 2-for-5 with a two-run homer and a walk-off single.

With Drew not hitting at all and Prado tearing the cover off the ball, Prado had taken over as the team’s regular second baseman and number three hitter by the end of August. He went 22-for-60 (.367) with six doubles and three homers in the final 15 games of August and maintained that pace in September, going 5-for-7 with two doubles and a homer in the first two games of the month.

Prado was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of the team’s September 2nd game because he hurt his hamstring at some point earlier in the game. Tests confirmed a strain that was bad enough to keep him on the bench for six of the next eight games — he started two of those eight games but the hamstring didn’t like that — before coming back for good on September 11th. Prado went 8-for-19 (.421) with two homers in the next six games.

Another injury struck on September 15th, this one a bit more serious. Prado returned to the team hotel in Tampa following that night’s game and complained of stomach pain overnight, bad enough that the trainers send him to the hospital, where he eventually underwent an emergency appendectomy. The procedure ended his season. Just like that, the Yankees lost their starting second baseman and most productive hitter with 13 games left in the season and their postseason hopes fading fast.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Despite those slow first two weeks, Prado hit .316/.336/.541 (146 wRC+) with nine doubles and seven homers in 37 games after the trade. (He hit only five homers with the D’Backs.) He appeared in 17 games at second base, eleven at third base, eight in right field, and four in left field while playing anything from solid to above-average defense at each spot. His performance checked in at 1.4 fWAR and 2.1 bWAR and that passes my sniff test. I can totally buy Prado adding 1-2 wins to the Yankees after the trade thanks to those last four weeks, which were so impressive.

Arizona’s motivation for the trade was shedding the $26M or so they owed Prado though the 2016 season, so the Yankees have him for two more years. In O’Brien, they gave up their top power hitting prospect, but a prospect without a position and concerns about his plate discipline and ability to tap into that power at the MLB level. O’Brien hit 33 homers with a ~147 wRC+ in 102 games split between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton before the trade, then played only four Double-A games for the D’Backs before fouling a ball off his leg and suffering a season-ending shin injury. (He’s healthy now and playing in the Arizona Fall League.)

As good as Headley was down the stretch, Prado had the most impact of the team’s trade deadline position player pickups. He shook off those slow first two weeks — adjustment period to a new team, a new league, etc.? — and was a force the rest of the way, deservingly batting in the middle of the order and playing whatever position the team needed him to play that night. Prado’s versatility will give the Yankees some flexibility to pursue upgrades this winter because they plug him in at second, third, or right field next year and feel comfortable. Prado wasn’t enough to get the Yankees into the postseason, but he might be part of the solution these next two years.

(“The Prado of the Yankees!” is John Sterling’s homer call for Prado. It’s so cheesy but I love it.)

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

For the second straight season, the Yankees did not have Alex Rodriguez at third base on Opening Day. He missed most of last year following hip surgery and all of this year due to his 162-game Biogenesis suspension. The Yankees tried to replace A-Rod with Kevin Youkilis (remember that?) last year but that failed when he predictably went down with a back injury. This year they took a more subtle approach to replacing Alex by signing Kelly Johnson.

But, as they tend to do, things did not go according to plan. Yangervis Solarte hit his way into regular third base duty while Johnson spent much of his time filling in for the injured Mark Teixeira at first base. Solarte mashed for a few weeks, so the hot corner wasn’t an issue. He stopped hitting after a while and Johnson never really got going, so by early-June, third base was a problem. Solarte, Johnson, and a smorgasbord of others (Zelous Wheeler, Scott Sizemore, etc.) combined to hit .261/.331/.395 through the team’s first 98 games and were trending downward.

Then, prior to Game 99, the Yankees added a permanent solution by (finally) acquiring Chase Headley from the Padres in exchange for Solarte and Single-A righty Rafael DePaula. New York and several other teams had been pursuing the switch-hitter for years — there’s no doubt San Diego missed the opportunity to trade him for maximum value two years ago — and in fact a number of clubs were hot after him at the trade deadline. The Yankees were able to get the deal done and he was in the lineup that night.

Headley’s impact was immediate. He arrived at Yankee Stadium in the middle innings of that night’s game against the Rangers, pinch-hit for Wheeler in the eighth inning, and still managed to get four at-bats when the game went into extra innings. Headley started that day in Chicago with the Padres. Here’s how he ended it with the Yankees in New York:

A walk-off hit in your first game with a new team with one helluva way to make a first impression. That was a pretty wild day for the Yankees and their fans. I can’t imagine what it was like for Headley.

Headley took over as the regular third baseman — he also filled in at first base on occasion — and showed right away that he was a top notch gloveman. The Yankees hadn’t had an above-average defensive third baseman since A-Rod was in his prime before Headley arrived, and he made every routine play and more than a few spectacular ones as well. After playing so many guys out of position at the hot corner — Youkilis was a natural first baseman, Solarte and Johnson are second basemen by trade — it was nice to see someone play third competently.

Of course, there were questions about how much Headley would be able to contribute offensively. He had a monster year with the Padres in 2012, hitting .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) with 31 homers, but he dropped down to a .250/.347/.400 (114 wRC+) batting line with 13 homers in 2013, production that was on par with his 2008-11 output. Before the trade, Headley hit .229/.296/.355 (90 wRC+) with seven homeruns in 77 games for San Diego while battling a back issue that required an epidural. History suggested there was more there offensively and the back injury suggested that maybe there wasn’t.

The Yankees rolled the dice and while talking to reporters following the trade, Brian Cashman cited Headley’s improved “hit velo” as a reason for making the deal. The team’s internal metrics showed Headley was hitting the ball harder as he got further away from the back injury that seemed to continue after the trade. Following the walk-off hit in his first game with the Yankees, he went 9-for-26 (.346) with two doubles and a homer in the next seven games before putting up a .233/.343/.344 (97 wRC+) line with four doubles, two homers, and 14 walks in 27 August games. Headley hit this walk-off homer in early-September:

About a week later, Headley took a 96 mph Jake McGee fastball to the chin and was on the ground for several minutes. He had to be helped off the field — the plunking led to the game-winning rally, as Chris Young swatted a walk-off three-run homer a few batters later — and it looked very bad, but tests showed no fracture and eventually a concussion was ruled out as well. Headley needed two stitches and there was some nice bruising around his chin and neck, but he escaped with relatively little damage.

After returning to the lineup four days later, Headley went 12-for-41 (.293) with two doubles, two homers, and eight walks in his final 13 games of the season. He hit .279/.410/.441 (147 wRC+) in September overall and finished the season with a .262/.371/.409 (113 wRC+) batting line in 58 games with the Yankees. Headley had eight doubles, six homers, a 12.9% walk rate, and more standout defensive plays than I care to count during his time in pinstripes. WAR isn’t perfect, yadda yadda yadda, but he finished with 2.1 bWAR and 2.8 fWAR with the Yankees and I can totally buy him adding 2-3 wins to the team in those 58 games between his bat and glove.

Those 2-3 wins didn’t get the Yankees into the postseason but it helped keep them relevant a little longer than they should have been. Solarte hit .267/.336/.355 (101 wRC+) for San Diego and DePaula had a 6.54 ERA (5.36 FIP) in eight High Class-A starts after the trade. I’m guessing both teams are pretty happy with the deal. The Yankees got an actual third baseman who improved their chances of contention in 2014 while the Padres received a cheap, versatile bench-ish player and a lottery ticket pitching prospect. Headley didn’t get the Yankees into October and the Padres didn’t get as much for him as they could have a year or two ago. That’s baseball.

Headley was a pure rental who will become a free agent in a little more than two weeks now. He has said he is open to returning to the Yankees but he doesn’t want to be a part-time player, and A-Rod complicates that. The Yankees have said they view Alex as a DH but that doesn’t really mean anything to Headley. Other teams will pursue him for their third base opening with no strings attached, and the lingering uncertainty of A-Rod could lead to Headley signing elsewhere this winter. If he does, so be it. That’s life. There is definitely a place for him on the team going forward though (at the right price, like always) and based on what I saw down the stretch, I’d welcome him back with open arms.

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(Brian Blanco/Getty)

(Brian Blanco/Getty)

At this time last year, we were all exciting about penciled Ivan Nova into the 2014 rotation. His 2011-13 seasons were filled with ups and downs — including send-downs to Triple-A Scranton and call-ups to MLB — but he pitched very well in the second half last season and was a bright spot as the team faded from postseason contention. Nova had a 2.59 ERA (3.30 FIP) in his final 15 starts and finished the year with a 3.10 ERA (3.47 FIP) in 139.1 innings.

Nova, along with Hiroki Kuroda, was supposed to be a rock in Joe Girardi‘s rotation this year. CC Sabathia was coming off the worst season of his career and no one really knew what to expect from Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. Nova came to camp guaranteed a rotation spot for the first time of his career and, in fact, the Yankees even started him in the third game of the season, ahead of the high-priced Tanaka. That was as much about easing Tanaka’s transition as it was a vote of confidence in Nova.

In retrospect, that first start of the season was a sign something was not right. Nova held the Astros to two runs in 5.1 innings but it was a brutally tough outing — he walked five batters, struck out one, threw 47 of 88 pitches for strikes (53%), and got only one swing and miss. He labored against a bad team all night. Next time out, the Orioles clobbered Nova for seven runs on ten hits in only 3.2 innings. With a Game Score of 16, it was the third worst start of his career.

It looked like the bad version of Nova had returned. The guy who had a 5.02 ERA (4.60 FIP) in 2012 and earned midseason demotions to Triple-A in both 2011 and 2013. Then, right on cue, Nova threw a gem, holding the Red Sox to two runs in 7.1 innings. He struck out four, got 14 ground ball outs, and threw 67 of 97 pitches were strikes (69%). Nova did allow eight hits and had to battle for those 7.1 innings, but it was a strong start and what we all wanted to see after those two ugly outings to start 2014.

Nova’s fourth start of the season wound up being his last and it was a total disaster. The Rays battered him at Tropicana Field, scoring eight runs on eight hits in only four innings of work. Four of those eight hits left the yard and another was a double. Tampa Bay squared Nova up with ease. It was ugly. Girardi came out of the dugout not to pull his right-hander because of ineffectiveness, but with the trainer because there was a sign of injury. Here is Nova’s final pitch of the 2014 season:

Ivan Nova elbow shake

That little shake of the arm after the pitch is what got Girardi’s attention and forced Nova out of the game. He went for a series of tests and opinions and they all showed the same thing: a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Not a complete tear but large enough that Tommy John surgery was recommended. He underwent his elbow reconstruction on April 29th.

Nova finished the season with an 8.27 ERA (6.91 FIP) in four starts and 20.2 innings, but the numbers don’t really mean much of anything. He could have been pitching with soreness or pain in his elbow all year — Nova tried to talk Girardi into staying in the game in Tampa, so he’s not one to give up the ball easily — which certainly could have hurt his performance. Heck, Nova could have been pitching with the partial tear and not even have known it. There might have been no soreness or anything until that last pitch.

A few weeks ago we heard Nova has started a throwing program and is right on schedule with his rehab. He obviously has a long way to go before rejoining the team, and both Girardi and Brian Cashman have said they won’t be aggressive and try to get Nova back as quickly as possible. They’re going to let him rehab at his own pace, which makes sense. Far too many pitchers (Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Cory Luebke, Jarrod Parker, Jonny Venters, etc.) needed a second Tommy John procedure in recent months to push him.

This was a lost year for Nova, who still has yet to have a full season in the Yankees rotation, from start to finish. He won’t have that full season next year either giving the time of his injury, which means the 2016 season will be his only chance to be a full-time starter all year before qualifying for free agency. The injury hurt the team and it was also a big blow to Nova at an important point in his career. This year was a great chance for him to cement his place in the future of the Yankees going forward. Baseball ain’t fair sometimes.

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Oct
13

2014 Season Review: Big Mike

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The 2014 season is over and now we’ll look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

BIG MIKE IS HERE

You’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical about Michael Pineda coming into the 2014 season, but I know I wasn’t alone. He spent his first two years with the Yankees either injured or in the minors — he was both injured and in the minors at one point late last year — and with each passing day the trade looked more and more like a total disaster for both teams. Both the Yankees and Mariners moved top chips for what looked like zero return. Then the 2014 season happened.

Part One: Spring Training

Pineda, who turned 25 in January, came to Spring Training this year fully healthy for maybe the first time as a Yankee. Who knows what was up with his shoulder back in 2012? He came to camp in shape (unlike 2012) and with a chance to win a rotation spot. The Yankees weren’t going to hand Pineda anything after he missed the entire 2012-13 seasons and I didn’t blame them one bit. Back in February, he was a total unknown who had to earn his roster spot.

In camp, Pineda had to compete against the likes of David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno for the final spot in the rotation, and he flat out smoked ‘em. He allowed three runs (two earned) in 15 innings while striking out 16 and walking one, but, most importantly, he looked healthy and strong. The ball was coming out of his hand well, his slider was filthy, and even his changeup looked promising. There was no competition by the end of Spring Training. Pineda won the job with ease and everyone was looking forward to seeing what he’d do in the regular season.

Part Two: Finally

Eight-hundred-and-two-days after the trade that brought him to New York, Michael Pineda threw his first meaningful pitch for the Yankees. He made his first start in pinstripes on April 5th, in the team’s fifth game of the season. Here’s how it went:

Pineda held the Blue Jays to one run on five hits and no walks in six innings in his first start for the Yankees, and PitchFX says his fastball averaged 94.17 mph and topped out at 95.94 mph on the night. Considering the nature of his injury and the long layoff, I don’t think we could have asked to see anything more out of Pineda that game. He was great. Also, keep the “no walks” thing in mind. It’s going to become a theme.

Five days later, in his first career start at Yankee Stadium, Pineda held the defending World Series champion Red Sox to one run in six innings, striking out seven and walking two. Six days after that, he threw six shutout innings against the Cubs as part of a doubleheader sweep. Pineda had a 1.00 ERA and 2.69 FIP though his first three starts and looked very much like the future frontline starter the Yankees were hoping he’d become at the time of the trade.

Part Three: You Guys, You Can’t Spell Pineda Without P-I-N-E

During his nationally televised start against the Red Sox, the various networks caught Pineda with what looked like pine tar on the palm of his right hand. It was there in the early innings but not later in the game, after the internet caught wind of it and screen grabs were all over the place. Here’s what he had on his hand:

Michael Pineda

The Red Sox didn’t say anything because, frankly, many pitchers use some kind of foreign substance to improve their grip, so calling out an opposing player puts your pitchers at risk of being called out at some point in the future. It’s sort of an unspoken code. I won’t say anything if you won’t.

Two weeks later, in his fourth start of the season, Pineda gave Red Sox manager John Farrell no choice. He had a giant glob of pine tar on his neck in the second inning after getting hit around a bit in the first, prompting Farrell to come out of the dugout and bring it to the attention of the umpires. He had no choice. It would have been irresponsible for Farrell to not say something at that point.

The umpires looked at Pineda, found the pine tar, and immediately ejected him from the game. He admitted afterwards that he did use pine tar — “I know I made a mistake today,” he said following the game — and was later suspended ten games, the standard punishment for this sort of thing. Fair or not (fair!), suddenly Pineda’s dominance in his first three starts was brought into question.

Part Four: Hurt

Pineda spent his ten-game suspension at the team’s complex in Tampa. While throwing a simulated game to stay sharp, he felt a little something in his back and had to go for an MRI. Tests showed a lower lat strain, though when the Yankees announced he had been placed on the 15-day disabled list, they officially called it a shoulder injury. Regardless of what anyone called it, it was close enough to his surgically repaired shoulder to worry.

The injury was originally expected to keep Pineda out for 3-4 weeks, but that turned into 6-8 weeks after a setback in late-May. Then, in mid-June, Pineda suffered yet another setback to put the rest of his season in question. It was starting to look like those first three starts in April were just a tease. Every time Pineda ramped up his throwing program, he back/shoulder injury flared up and he had to be shut down.

Part Five: The Return

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Eventually, Pineda was able to stay healthy long enough to increase his throwing program and begin pitching in simulated games. He made his first official minor league rehab start with Triple-A Scranton on August 3rd, throwing 58 pitches in 3.1 innings. Five days later he threw 72 pitches in 4.1 innings. Reports indicated that Pineda’s arm strength was fine and his back/shoulder was healthy, so it was just a matter of getting his pitch count up before he could return to MLB.

The Yankees didn’t wait that long. Phelps went down with an elbow injury and the team didn’t want to give Esmil Rogers another spot start, so Pineda was activated off the disabled list after his second rehab start with the RailRiders. In his first game back, on August 13th at Camden Yards, Pineda held the Orioles to one run on two hits in five innings. He threw only 67 pitches and clearly started to labor in the fifth inning. The Yankees were careful with Pineda earlier in the season — he threw 83, 94, and 89 pitches in his first three starts in April — and they were going to do the same following the injury.

There were no more setbacks once Pineda returned. No more pine tar (that we know of!) and eventually no more pitch limits. No more nothing. Just pitching. Pineda took the ball every fifth day once he was activated and he was dominant nearly every time out. He allowed six runs (five earned) in his next four starts and 25.1 innings, striking out 15 and walking just one. After the Rays tagged him for four runs in 7.1 innings on September 11th — easily his worst non-pine tar start of the season — Pineda allowed just three runs (two earned) in his final three starts and 19 innings.

In his final start of the season in Game 162, Pineda struck out ten Red Sox and allowed just one run in 6.1 innings. He closed the year with a 1.89 ERA and 2.71 FIP in 13 starts and 76.1 innings. Eight of those 13 starts were walk-less. Eight! Pineda walked just seven batters (!) in those 76.1 innings, a 2.4% walk rate that was the second lowest among the 206 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings in 2014. (Phil Hughes was the lowest at 1.9%).

Pineda’s strikeout total (59, or 20.3% of batters faced) was surprisingly low given the quality of his stuff, though it didn’t hurt his performance at all. He’s a weak contact guy who gets a lot of easy pop-ups, so while his .233 BABIP was low this year, he’s exactly the type of pitcher you’d expect to post a lower than usual BABIP. All those pop-ups and fly balls off the end of the bat are high-percentage outs, especially when Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are covering two-thirds (more, really) of the outfield.

Pineda did hold his fastball velocity through to the end of the season, averaging 93.21 mph in and topping out at 96.27 mph in Game 162. His overall season velocity was 93.39 mph, on average. It is worth noting, however, that Pineda did tend to tire later in games once his pitch got up to 70-75 pitches or so. Here’s his velocity chart by inning, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Michael Pineda velocity

There’s a definitely downward trend there, after about the fourth inning. Most pitchers lose velocity as their pitch count climbs within a game, this isn’t unusual, but because Pineda’s season was interrupted by the injury, we don’t know if this is permanent or something he’ll grow out of once he truly has a chance to get into midseason and is further away from shoulder surgery. We’re just going to have to wait and see next year. Nothing we can do.

Pineda did add a cut fastball to his arsenal this year and it was very effective. It wasn’t a show-me cutter. Pineda would cut the ball outside to righties and to both sides of the plate against lefties, but stick with his true four-seam whenever he elevated for a swinging strike or wanted to bust a righty inside. His changeup also showed a lot of progress as well. The pitch averaged 88.49 mph this season, so it was a hard changeup, and at its best, it moved like this:

(GIF via IIATMS)

(GIF via IIATMS)

The pitch didn’t move that like all the time of course, but it did it often enough to make you think it’s only a matter of repetition and time before he gets a good feel for it and can throw it like that consistently. Besides, his fastball-slider and now cutter combination is good enough to get by as it is. Adding the changeup would be an extra cherry on top.

When the season started, Pineda was an injury risk and we had no idea what to expect when he was actually on the mound. He is still an injury risk, he didn’t exactly assuage any concerns about his durability this year, but at least now we know Pineda has the ability to dominate. That’s a pretty big question he answered in his 13 starts. Pineda still has frontline stuff and frontline command following shoulder surgery, the two things that made him so special as a prospect and great as a rookie in 2011. It’s easy to forget how good this guy was expected to be before the shoulder injury.

The trade has not gone as planned for either the Yankees or Mariners at this point, but the Yankees finally received some return this season. Everyone hoped Pineda would be a top of the rotation starter by time his third year in pinstripes rolled around, but instead his career in the Bronx is just getting started. That’s life. The injury this year was a major bummer, but, when he was on the mound, everything Pineda showed was tremendously encouraging. He aced the performance test with fly colors. Hopefully next year he can ace the health and durability test.

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Oct
10

2014 Season Review: Alex

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The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Although the Yankees failed to make the postseason for the second straight year, the 2014 season was mighty peaceful, wasn’t it? The hottest topic in Spring Training was whether Yangervis Solarte would make the Opening Day roster, and the summer was focused first on Masahiro Tanaka‘s dominance and later Derek Jeter‘s farewell. It was pure baseball all the time. It was pleasant and refreshing.

That was all possible because Alex Rodriguez was serving a 162-game suspension for his ties to Biogenesis. His initial 211-game suspension was handed down last August, he appealed the ruling and played in 44 second half games, then spent most of the offseason in front of an arbitrator in a court room. The ban was eventually reduced to the entire 2014 season and postseason by the appeal, which saved the Yankees almost $24M against the luxury tax. That helped them sign Tanaka.

As we’ve learned over the last ten years or so, A-Rod is a human lightning rod, creating and drawing all sorts of attention. A little of it is good — I’m certain the Yankees and MLB love the additional ticket sales and ratings — but most of it is bad or controversial. To his credit, Alex stayed out of the limelight during his suspension. I expected him to make some headlines at some point but he didn’t. He was photographed at a few college football and baseball games, plus he recorded an Ice Bucket Challenge video …

… but that’s it. The MSM was so starved for A-Rod driven controversy that they made a big deal out of him spending a few days in New York last week because he didn’t meet with the Yankees, as if a guy can’t just spend a few days in a New York to attend a charity event in the offseason. It was a nice, quiet, A-Rod free summer.

Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and Hal Steinbrenner all made it clear in recent weeks Rodriguez will be back with the team next year — “When he’s healthy, he’s an asset. We need those kind of assets. We need the hitting,” said the owner — and that makes sense. I initially thought they would release him after the suspension but I’m an idiot. Of course they won’t release him. They could still recoup a significant chunk of the $63M they owe him through 2017 if he gets suspended or hurt (via insurance) again. The odds of one of those two things happening is pretty high, especially the getting hurt part given the last few years.

The quiet, controversy-free season is over and now the attention will shift back to Alex as soon as Spring Training begins. It’ll start before then, really. I’m sure the first few days of camp will be total chaos and there’s really no avoiding that. No one has any idea what he can contribute on the field — A-Rod is said to be in great shape, but he’s 39 and has played 44 games these last years, so it’s almost like he’s coming out of retirement after a two-year hiatus — but the Yankees are stuck with him. They signed him to that contract. They made their bed and still have another three years to lie in it. I have zero sympathy for the team.

I enjoyed watching A-Rod so much for the first five or six years of his time in pinstripes. He was a tremendously productive player and goofy enough to make you laugh a few times a year. And that’s why I felt sad when I realized how much more peaceful this past season was without Alex. He’s such a distraction — he’s a distraction even when he isn’t doing anything wrong at this point, just his presence is a distraction — that it took away from my enjoyment of the game, and I didn’t realize it until he was gone this summer.

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Oct
09

2014 Season Review: The Ex-Ace

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The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

By just about any measure, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. He did manage to soak up 211 innings and that’s worth something, but he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Sabathia led baseball with 112 earned runs allowed and his 2.69 K/BB fell off big time from the 4.48 K/BB ratio he put up in 2012. It was an awful season and everyone and their mother had theories why CC dropped off so much.

Despite the terrible year, there were some reasons to believe Sabathia would rebound this year, specifically that he was a year out from elbow surgery and would have a normal offseason. He was also working to add a cutter. I, personally, also thought he couldn’t possibly be any worse. Maybe he wouldn’t get back to being an ace but he would be a serviceable mid-rotation horse, someone who soaked up a boatload of innings and was league average or better at preventing runs. I would have taken that in a heartbeat.

Instead, Sabathia did get worse in 2014. He got worse and he got hurt. Sabathia made just eight starts for the Yankees this summer and threw only 46 innings — he failed to complete six full innings of work three times, equaling his total from 2011-12 combined — with a 5.28 ERA and 4.78 FIP. It all started in the first inning of the first game of the season too. The Astros (!) tagged Sabathia for four runs in the first inning on Opening Day and only twice in those eight starts did he allowed fewer than four runs.

There were flashes of Sabathia figuring it out but one of the ways we cope with Ace Sucking Syndrome (ASS) is over-analyzing the hell out of every little thing. I did it. More than once. But none of the positive signs — the times he’s retired 12 in a row in the middle of a start, stuff like that — meant anything in the end. Sabathia was getting bombed on the regular, allowing ten homers in those 46 innings (1.96 HR/9 and 23.3 HR/FB%). Hit Tracker says those ten homers averaged 403.1 feet, so they weren’t wall-scrapers.

Sabathia’s season came to an end following his May 10th start against the Brewers, when the Yankees placed him on the disabled list with fluid in his twice-surgically repaired right knee. He was expected to return in June or July and he actually did go out on a minor league rehab assignment at one point — I completely forgot about that — but Sabathia eventually suffered a setback. It was feared he would need career-threatening microfracture surgery after a stem cell treatment didn’t work, but additional tests showed he only needed the knee cleaned out. Either way, his season was over.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in Sabathia’s season, it’s that both his strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%) and walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates were stellar. He also got a lot of ground balls (48.0%). That’s all well and good, it’s better than having crappy peripherals, but Sabathia’s struggles are rooted in the type of contact he allowed, which was routinely hard. Unfortunately there is no publicly available data measuring this stuff. Line drive rates are fickle — his 22.1% liner rate was in line with the last four or five years anyway — because of scorer bias. All we have is anecdotal evidence and that sucks.

What we do know is that Sabathia’s velocity continued to trend downward — he averaged 90.76 mph in 2014, down from 92.36 in 2013 and 93.31 in 2013 according to Brooks Baseball — and that’s completely expected since he’s a 34-year-old with nearly 3,000 regular season innings on his arm. Velocity loss is inevitable and not reversible. That’s life. It happens to everyone. Sabathia’s location was ever so slightly worse than it had been, particularly when it came to grooving pitches over the plate (via Brooks):

CC Sabathia 2009-14 Grooved Pitches

You can get away with grooving ~6.5% of your fastballs like Sabathia did from 2011-13 when you’re throwing 93+. In his limited time this year he grooved 7.3% of his fastballs while averaging just north of 90 mph and that’s a big difference. Since 2010, opponent’s slugging percentage against Sabathia’s fastball has steadily reason from .373 to .447 to .479 to .486 to .722 (!) this year. Obviously there’s some sample size noise in there, but the point stands. Hitters are getting mighty comfortable in the box against CC.

The location issues — it seemed like whenever Sabathia missed, he missed up in the zone and/or right out over the plate — could stem from lots of stuff. There’s a million variables here. He could be overthrowing to compensate for lost velocity, his landings could have been sloppy because his knee was unstable, his mechanics could have been out of what for whatever reason. I’m sure all of that and more have contributed to his problems. Sabathia’s release point has been steadily dropping over the years (via Brooks) …

CC Sabathia 2009-14 Release Point

… which, again, is fairly common among pitchers his age, especially with that workload. At some point your shoulder just isn’t strong enough to maintain your arm slot. Sabathia’s dropped his arm over time and that at least partially explains the extra cut we see on his pitches from time to time. Extra cut that usually took the pitch over the plate and into the happy zone for hitters. We saw plenty of that last year and we saw plenty of it again this year. He had the same issues as last season only worse.

Sabathia had his knee cleaned out in August and soon thereafter had a second stem cell treatment (as planned). We recently learned he has started throwing and will soon get back up on a mound before shutting it down for the winter and going through his usual offseason routine. I love CC, he’s one of the my favorite Yankees of all-time, but I learned my lesson last year and I’m not expecting a bounce back next year. I’m not expecting anything. If he comes back and dominates with a healthy knee, that would be awesome. If he comes back and is a league average inning eater, great. If he comes back and stinks again, well that’ll stink, but that’s sorta what I’m expecting at this point.

The Yankees are stuck with Sabathia for another two years and possibly a third — his 2017 vesting option is based on the health of his shoulder, not his knee — so they have to hope this knee surgery helps him get back to being a useful pitcher. Sabathia is a tough dude who has pitched through knee problems and a bone spur in his elbow these last few years and I have not doubt that if he fails and is again one of the worst pitchers in baseball, it won’t be for a lack of effort on his part. The Yankees have a lot of uncertainty in their rotation heading into next season and, after both this year and last, Sabathia is a huge part of that uncertainty.

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The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

It happens every year like clockwork. Some seldom-known player shows up to Spring Training, has a strong camp, and fans clamor for him to make the team. He doesn’t, he goes to Triple-A, he performs exactly like he has every other year in his career, and fans forget about him by June. Happens to every team every year. This isn’t something unique to the Yankees. But, every once in a while, that player does stick.

* * *

The Legend of Yangervis Solarte started in early January, when the Yankees signed the then-26-year-old minor league journeyman to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The Tigers were after him as well, but Solarte was put off by their Ian Kinsler pickup because it blocked a potential spot for him. The Yankees flexed their financial muscle and signed him to a nice deal worth $22,000 per month in the minors. That’s big bucks for a minor league deal.

Solarte came to Spring Training and was lumped into the infield competition with guys like Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, Zelous Wheeler, and Scott Sizemore. He was a total afterthought. No one knew who he was and his minor league track record wasn’t particularly impressive — .282/.331/.404 (~91 wRC+) in over 1,100 plate appearances at Triple-A with the Rangers from 2012-13 — so there wasn’t much of a reason to get excited. Solarte switch-hit and he could play all over the field, which is great, but a ton of guys in the minors do that.

Then, in camp, Solarte was that guy. That guy who just hit and hit and hit. He played a different position just about everyday — Solarte played five games at second, eleven at short, four at third, and five in left during Grapefruit League play — and just kept hitting. Solarte ended Spring Training with a .410/.452/.615 batting line in 47 plate appearances while facing mostly MLB caliber pitching according to Baseball-Reference’s quality of competition metric. He was the guy. The guy everyone wanted to make the team but was destined for Triple-A.

But then something weird happened: Solarte actually made the team. The Yankees decided enough was enough and it was time to move on from Nunez, who was designated for assignment before Opening Day and traded to the Twins for a Single-A arm. Solarte took Nunez’s roster spot and his uniform number, No. 26. With Brendan Ryan starting the season on the disabled list a back problem, the first five or six weeks of the regular season were essentially a continuation of the Spring Training competition between Solarte and Anna, who also made the club.

Solarte’s first career big league plate appearance was not exactly a garbage time situation — he pinch-hit for Kelly Johnson against the left-handed Kevin Chapman with two men on the base and the Yankees down 2-0 in the seventh inning of the second game of the season. Solarte banged into a 4-6-3 double play to kill the rally and later popped up to end the game in his second plate appearance. It wasn’t the most exciting MLB debut after such a stellar camp, but what can you do. It was two plate appearances and I’m sure he was nervous.

The Solarte Partay began in earnest the next day, when Joe Girardi gave Solarte is first career start (at third base) with the lefty Brett Oberholtzer on the mound. Solarte recorded his first big league hit on a ground ball single back up the middle in his first at-bat then scored his first career run on Carlos Beltran‘s single later in the inning. He doubled to left field in his next at-bat and singled again in his third at-bat, which was nothing more than an infield pop-up the Astros didn’t catch because they’re the Astros:

That was also his first career run batted in. I’m sure he’ll tell his grandkids it was a screaming line drive into the gap but they won’t believe him. This is the internet age and they’ll pull up the video on their phones or whatever the hell the kids carry in the future.

Anyway, the 3-for-3 showing earned Solarte another start the next day. Two doubles in that game earned him another start the next day. Two singles in that game kept him in the lineup the next day. And on and on it went. Solarte went 11-for-22 in his first six starts and 19-for-49 (.388) in his first 14 starts. He also started an around-the-horn triple play in the middle of April, in his 16th career game:

Even if he hadn’t come out of the gate so strong, Solarte would have stayed in the starting lineup anyway because Mark Teixeira‘s hamstring injury forced Johnson to play first base. Solarte took advantage of the opportunity and just kept hitting. Through April he had a .303/.404/.461 (147 wRC+) batting line and through May he had a .288/.361/.441 (126 wRC+) batting line. He hit his first career homerun off Grant Balfour in the same game as the triple play.

Of course, there were slumps along the way. Slumps that made you think the Solarte Partay was over and he was going back to being a minor league journeyman. There was the 2-for-19 (.105) in late-April, the 1-for-14 (.071) in mid-May, and the 2-for-24 (.083) in late-May. Solarte rebounded well those times, but his June slump effectively ended his time in pinstripes. He went 10-for-61 (.164) in June, including an ugly 0-for-28 skid that spanned nine team games.

Solarte’s season batting line sat at a still respectable .263/.345/.404 (112 wRC+) after the 0-for-28, though the blush was off the rose and he was trending in the wrong direction. The Yankees shipped him to Triple-A Scranton on July 3rd — the move cleared a 25-man roster spot for Wheeler — hoping he would find his strike in the minors. Solarte went 12-for-20 (.600) with three doubles in five games with the RailRiders before being recalled on July 10th, when Beltran was placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

After appearing in just four more games with the Yankees — he went 1-for-10 in those four games — Solarte was traded to the Padres with Single-A pitching prospect Rafael DePaula for Chase Headley on July 22nd. The Yankees got what they could out of him then cashed in their chip for a third base upgrade. Solarte finished his time in pinstripes with a .254/.337/.381 (104 wRC+) line with six homers, 30 walks, and 34 strikeouts in 289 plate appearances. He played adequate defense at mostly third base but also saw time time at second and at short.

Following the trade to San Diego, Solarte hit .267/.336/.355 (101 wRC+) with four homers, 23 walks, and 24 strikeouts in 246 plate appearances while splitting his time between second, short, third, and left field. An oblique injury hampering him late-August. Ultimately, his numbers with the Yankees and his numbers with the Padres look very similar. Headley was a big boost at third base both at the plate and in the field. I’m guessing both sides were happy with the trade.

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Solarte was found money for the Yankees. They can talk all they want about how they thought he could be a useful player when they signed him, but I’m guessing that if you gave the team’s decision-makers and pro scouts a truth serum, they’d tell you they didn’t expect him to be a better than league-average hitter for nearly 300 plate appearances. They milked Solarte for all they could then used him to acquire a legitimate upgrade before his stock took a nose dive.

It’s very rare that the guy in Spring Training turns out to be The Guy like Solarte. He has some skills, most notably versatility and a good approach to go along with bat-to-ball ability from  both sides of the plate, and he capitalized on every opportunity the Yankees gave him early in the season. Solarte was a huge lift when the team had question marks all around the infield and a nice trade chip when something better came along. He was right guy at the right time on more than one occasion in 2014.

Categories : Players
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