Open Thread: Recapping the season preview

Over the last month or so, the three of us have broken down and previewed just about every aspect of the 2010 Yankees. It was quite the undertaking but we’re very pleased about how it all turned out. Here’s a link to each post, in case you missed any or just want to go back and relive the magic…

You can always just search for 2010 Season Preview in the sidebar to find any and all of those posts. Hope you enjoyed them.

Anyway, here’s the open thread for the evening. The Knicks and suddenly hot Nets (three wins in their last four games!) are both in action, but go ahead and talk about whatever you want. Just don’t be a dick.

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2010 Season Preview: Settling into the new digs

When we wrapped up the 2009 season, I gave the new Yankee Stadium a mostly positive review. The team, after all, had just captured a World Series trophy in its first year in the new home and had enjoyed a significant home field advantage. They drew 3.7 million fans and won 64 home games while losing just 25 over the course of the regular season and the playoffs. The stadium itself can be the team’s 26th man on the roster.

The 2009 team’s offensive splits belie the stadium advantage. At home, the lineup hit .284/.368/.490 with 136 home runs. On the road, the team hit .283/.355/.466 with 108 home runs. At least as the ball flies over the fence, the new stadium helped the Yankees.

But despite the tropes of a hitter’s paradise, the new stadium depressed extra-base hits. The Yankees hit far more doubles on the road, and triples at the new park were few and far between. When the dust settled, the new stadium played as a pitcher’s park. So now, as Yankee Stadium gets ready for year number two, what can we expect?

On the field, we’ll be able to tally more data on the trends of the park. We can say, as I did, that after one season, pitchers who aren’t extreme fly-ballers should enjoy pitching at the stadium, but the year two data could be completely different. We can say that left-handed batters with a nice power stroke will hit a lot of home runs into those alluringly short right field seats, and we’d probably be right. Yet, as the Yankees have loaded up a lineup heavy on lefties, a second year of data will hopefully help the team make that case.

Meanwhile, a key claim from earlier last year will be put to the test as well. As home runs were flying out of Yankee Stadium and meteorologists were positing wind patterns, some commentators started to blame the old stadium for the home run-happy jet streams. As the old stadium meets the wrecking ball and will be but rubble by late June, the team will see if the winds do indeed change. Color me skeptical.

But the stadium’s impact goes beyond the way it plays for the team. It is also the home for the fans, and although I yearn for the countless seasons I spent at the House that Ruth Built, I’ll spend the bulk of my life attending games at the House that George Built. What needs to go right then for the Yankees to enjoy another year of crowds above three million, constant sell-outs and a content fan base?

What the Yankees should do is again make the ballpark more fan-friendly. The team should allow young fans the chance to watch batting practice from as close to the field as possible. The team should do away with that moat that separates the Legends Suites from the rest of the park at least until an hour before the game starts. The team should relax its security guards and make fans feel welcome instead of threatened if they happen to step into the wrong section or look at someone halfway cross-eyed. The team should also sell more of those standing-room only seats. I watched Game 2 of the ALDS from SRO in the Main Level, and I will remember it forever. Fans stopped by to chat, and we were ecstatic as A-Rod‘s and later Mark Teixeira‘s home runs brought the Yanks a victory.

And yet, we hear tales of the Yankees making the park a little less accessible. They seem to be offering standing room tickets at all levels only for a select bunch of premium games. They’re going to allow fans in for batting practice two hours before first pitch this year instead of three as they did last year. There goes the opportunity to watch most of the Yankees take BP. As NYY Stadium Insider notes, this move aligns the Yankees with the rest of the league, and staffing concerns may warrant it. But it simply limits access.

Of course, those are but minor gripes. Unlike the Mets, the Yankees didn’t have to fix glaring omissions of history at their ballpark, and the team had a relatively smooth first year at the new stadium. I expect to 2010 to offer more of the same and more wins at home. I didn’t warm up to the new park until late in the season, and I still have a tough time accepting it as the permanent home of the New York Yankees. But it is, after all, tough to argue with the World Series. Can the stadium deliver two in two years?

2010 Season Preview: The Front Office

The front office has done its job. Over the past five months the group, led by GM Brian Cashman, has retooled a championship team. That is no small task, especially in New York. The fans here expect a championship every year. There’s no use making excuses, either. Save those for the small market teams. In New York, a front office is expected to not only anticipate every possible scenario, but have a plan to deal with it and still deliver that championship. In other words, the front office has to work in a volatile atmosphere where they can’t possibly succeed every year. That’s part of what makes this team interesting.

Photo credit: Mike Carlson/AP

As we’ve all come to learn during our years of fandom, the media environment in New York is unlike anywhere else in the country. Even as newspapers try to save costs by cutting sports coverage, nine beat reporters continue to travel with the team, including eight print journalists. Each newspaper features at least one columnist, and then there are the various TV and radio personalities. They’re all vying for attention, which oftentimes means riling up the fan base by any means possible. This only makes the front office’s job tougher.

The two aforementioned elements work together, creating a chemical reaction of sorts. If the team makes a mistake or goes on a losing streak the media outlets pounce. This riles up the fan base — the rabid fanatics who, again, expect a championship every season. The front office then has a choice. It can succumb to the pressure from all ends and make a move, or it can stand pat and explain, calmly and rationally, that to do something now could damage the future. Meaning, in other words, that a move now might not only fail for the current season, but could hurt the team’s chances of winning a championship in future seasons. Unfortunately, if either approach means losing now then the front office might not be around much longer.

This balancing act constitutes the toughest part of the front office’s job. The mandate to win now means bringing in solid veterans, which often means trading away prospects. Yet without an influx of young talent a team will also find a hard time winning. The front office has done what it can to walk that balance beam, but with such a small margin for error it’s inevitable that they’ll screw up. To what degree they screw up determines their futures with the organization. This current front office seems to have some semblance of balance, though a few unpopular moves this off-season could lead to agitated fans if the team gets off to a slow start.

What will Brian Cashman and company do if something goes awry? What’s the plan if Nick Johnson hits the disabled list? What’s the plan if Curtis Granderson continues to struggle against left-handed pitching? What’s the plan if Phil Hughes flops in the rotation? The other half of each question is of whether the plan is adequate compensation. Again, the front office can have a plan in mind, but if the plan doesn’t add up to at least a playoff appearance then the organization will face a deflated and angry fan base that doesn’t take well to explanations.

Over the past five days I’ve seen a lot of negativity toward the front office for the decision to start Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen. Yet this is just part of the aforementioned balancing act. Once the team acquired Javy Vazquez it was clear that only one of Joba or Hughes would make the rotation. The Yankees chose Hughes, moving Chamberlain to the bullpen. Could the team have optioned Chamberlain in order to keep him stretched out? Sure. But they also want the best seven arms in the bullpen. To option Joba would be to go north with a lesser reliever. It appears that the team just wasn’t prepared to do that this year. As Brian Cashman said on Michael Kay’s radio show, the decision fell on the win-now side of the ledger.

The front office will inevitably face many decisions that will cause a divide among the fan base. The Chamberlain incident presents a prime example. One side of the fan base, wanting to get the most value out of Joba while continuing his development, wants to see him in the rotation, whether in the bigs or in AAA. The other wants to win now, and views Chamberlain as an elite option out of the bullpen. The front office shouldn’t, and probably doesn’t, make its biggest decisions based on fan opinion. But it knows that fan opinion, if low enough, can cost its members their jobs. In other words, it’s all about winning now, which also means planning for the future. It’s a delicate balancing act, and this front office has shown that it won’t scrap one in favor of the other.

2010 Season Preview: Help from within

Although they’ll always be known as a team that relies on stars and big name players, the core of the most recent Yankees’ dynasty came from within. The team developed three borderline Hall of Fame players at premium up-the-middle positions (Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte) in under a decade, and that alone would have been a strong enough foundation for perennial championship contender. The Yankees got greedy though, so they went ahead and developed a surefire Hall of Fame shortstop and the greatest relief pitcher who ever lived as well. That’s not just a great run of player development, it’s a historically great run.

After the lavish spending that occurred in the early part of the century, GM Brian Cashman re-emphasized the farm system and player development, and in recent years he’s begun to see those efforts pay dividends. Last year’s World Series roster featured eight homegrown players who made their big league debut within the last five seasons, and six who debuted within the last three years.

The crown jewel of the farm system right now is the man you see above, 20-year-old catcher Jesus Montero. Opinions about his ability to remain behind the plate vary, though most believe he’s destined to move to a less valuable position down the road. His bat will work no matter where he plays, because he compliments top of the line power with a solid approach and the innate ability to get the fat part of the bat on the ball. As a 19-year-old he hit .337-.389-.562 with 17 homers in 92 games split between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton before a fluke injury (broken finger on his catching hand) ended his season in August, and just before Spring Training he was named the fourth best prospect in the game by Baseball America. The Yankees have Montero penciled into the starting catcher’s job for Triple-A Scranton this season.

It’s unlikely the Yanks would call Montero up for any sort of extended playing time during the 2010 season, but they have several other players on the cusp of contributing, one of whom we caught a glimpse of last season. Mark Melancon, the team’s best relief prospect, walked as many batters as he struck out (ten) in his 16.1 inning cameo, but his minor league track record (2.69 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 57.6 GB%) screams future success. With a low-90’s fastball and an out-pitch curveball, the 25-year-old Tommy John surgery survivor will be the first arm called up whenever the bullpen needs some help, and there’s a good chance he’ll be this year’s version of David Robertson.

Another player the Yankees are sure to call on at some point is utility man Kevin Russo (left), who has opened eyes this spring with a .276-.353-.379 batting line. A 2006 draft pick like Melancon and Robertson, the 24-year-old broke out in 2008 and has hit .318-.379-.424 since, playing three infield spots as well as the outfield corners. The undersized Russo (5-foot-11, 190 lbs.) has battled hamstring injuries and bad luck in his pro career (a batted ball in BP broke some bones in his face), but he’s the first in line for a promotion when Ramiro Pena falters or the bench otherwise needs some reinforcements.

The Yanks also have young rotation depth in 23-year-old Ivan Nova (3.83 FIP, 1.53 K/BB last year) and 22-year-old Zach McAllister (3.03 FIP, 2.91 K/BB), both of whom will open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation and project as back of the rotation workhorses. Jason Hirsh is a little older than those two at 28, but he’s a former top prospect with the Astros and Rockies who has big league experience and has done nothing but get outs since joining the Yanks last season. All three players also double as prime pieces of trade bait should the Yankees decide to go that route. The 24-year-old Greg Golson offers elite defense and speed if a stopgap outfielder is needed, and I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the soon to be 27-year-old first baseman Juan Miranda. All but McAllister and Hirsh are on the 40-man roster.

Those are the players that are in the position to help the big league team in 2010, but the Yankees also have several prospects further down the ladder with a chance to make a name for themselves this year. Catcher Austin Romine will finally step out of Montero’s shadow this year for Double-A Trenton, and look to improve on last year’s .347 wOBA with High-A Tampa while handling the rigors of his first full season as a clear cut number one catcher. With a strong all-around package of offense and defense at a premium position, the 21-year-old Romine is the early favorite to be the team’s catcher of the future.

His battery mate every five days will be former Stanford lefty Jeremy Bleich, who despite less than stellar stats at Double-A Trenton (4.40 FIP, 1.76 K/BB) showed great improvement with his stuff last year as he got further away from a 2008 elbow injury. Drafted as a polished finesse pitcher, the 22-year-old’s velocity flirted with 95 last season, and anytime a lefty throws that hard, you pay attention. He’ll look to regain his trademark command this year to get back on track.

Dominican bonus baby Jose Ramirez, 21, took the short season circuit by storm last year when he held opponents to a .161 batting average and posted a 3.46 FIP and a 3.31 K/BB, and he’ll bring his mid-90’s gas and knockout changeup to Low-A Charleston in 2010. Lefty Manny Banuelos emerged as Charleston’s ace last season when he posted a 2.76 FIP and a 3.71 K/BB in 108 innings, earning himself a trip to the Futures Game. Still a year away from his 20th birthday, he’ll jump to High-A Tampa and try to further establish himself as a cornerstone piece for the future. Last year’s top draft picks, outfielder Slade Heathcott and catcher J.R. Murphy, will spend their first full season in the organization proving they were worth their seven figure signing bonuses.

Of course, when it comes to farm system this year, all eyes will again be on 2007 first rounder Andrew Brackman (right), who disappointed in 2009 to say the least. The now 24-year-old posted a 4.66 FIP in Low-A Charleston, walking close to six and a half batters for every nine innings pitched, and his stuff was a far cry from what it was in college. The silver lining was that he continued to miss bats (8.69 K/9) and showed improved control and arm strength in a late season stint as a reliever, which he was able to carry over into Instructional League and again into Spring Training. The Yankees will bump Brackman up to High-A Tampa in part because his big league contract will force him to stick in the Majors for good by 2013, and they’re looking for him to really step up and grab the reigns in a farm system devoid of star power beyond it’s top prospect.

Trades, attrition, and graduation have thinned out the farm system that was rated as one of the game’s five best by Baseball America as recently as 2008, but the Yankees still have a bonafide superstar in the making in Jesus Montero, as well as several complementary pieces just a phone call away from the Bronx. The 2009 draft brought a much needed influx of high upside position players and power arms, while several Latin America prospects and pre-2009 draftees are poised to make the jump from good to very good and possibly even great prospects as they enter into their early-20’s and finish maturing.

The current Yankee team is still built around that same homegrown core from the late-90’s, though they’re surrounded by more star power than ever before. Should they need some reinforcements during the season or prospects to dangle as trade bait, the farm system offers plenty of variety. As the Yankees look to start their next dynasty, they aren’t going to have the luxury of producing five players as productive as the quintet they produced in the 90’s, though it’s possible no team will ever have that much player development success in such a short period of time ever again.

Photo Credits: Jesus Montero via Kathy Willens, AP. Kevin Russo via AP (uncredited). Andrew Brackman via Barton Silverman, NY Times.

2010 Season Preview: Managing when the pieces fit

Joe Girardi’s first tenure as a manager — the 2006 season with the Florida Marlins — was not one in which a prospective employer would find much comfort. He fought with his overbearing owner; he created a tense clubhouse environment; and four of the seven pitchers who made seven or more starts for him suffered through serious arm injuries. Still, he walked away with the Manager of the Year Award, and his skill as a baseball strategist earned much praise.

When the Yankees, then, hired this Joe to replace the outgoing Joe, it wasn’t an easy choice. Yankee great Don Mattingly was also up for the job, and the team had to decide between a fan favorite or the ex-player who was seemingly the smarter baseball mind. At the time, I thought they made the right choice, but Girardi’s first year in pinstripes wasn’t an easy one. The team suffered through numerous injuries, and the skipper wasn’t as forthcoming with information as the media had hoped him to be. When the Yanks finished third for the first time since the early 1990s, Yankee fans wondered if the team had picked the right guy to lead the pack.

Last year, though, it all clicked. With an overhauled pitching staff, a healthy lineup, a great bullpen and a deeper bench, the Yankees captured their 27th World Series Championship, and while we raised our eyebrows at some of Girardi’s pitching and pinch running moves, what he did to lead the team obviously paid off. That happy guy you see at right hoisting the trophy deserved it.

So what then did Joe Girardi do last year? Well, for starters, he employed 106 total different batting lineups, well below average for the American League. He used 97 pinch hitters, the 8th lowest total in the game. His runners attempted 124 stolen bases — tenth highest in the Majors — and were successful 101 times. He called for the sac bunt just 49 times and saw it executed successfully 63 percent of the time.

On the pitching front, Girardi used nine different starting pitchers and 21 relievers, including Nick Swisher. His pitchers averaged 96.8 pitchers per game, 11th overall, and threw just four starts of 120 pitches or higher. He made 461 pitching changes, 15th most in the league, and 304 of those relief appearances were scoreless ones. Girardi also asked his pitchers to issue just 28 free passes, 21st overall.

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

Of course, Girardi has some decisions to make as well this year. He has to decide how to clear up the left field logjam. He has to determine how to get both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain ready to contribute as starting pitchers in 2011. In a way, coming off a World Series win and with the future of the organization approaching something of a crossroads, 2010 may be Girardi’s toughest year as a manager, and he’s a lame duck to boot.

In 2009, Girardi pressed the right buttons and had the right pieces to win. The team is again assembled to be a 2010 AL powerhouse, and Girardi just has to keep his cool about him while making sure the kids are progressing properly. As long as the skipper doesn’t tense up, the team should be just fine with him at the helm, and he will, in all likelihood, be back in 2011.