Archive for 2011 Season Preview
Last year the Blue Jays surprised us by belting homer after homer en route to an above-.500 season. It made me kind of embarrassed to have written this before the season, but then again, who could have guessed that so many Blue Jays would go on power streaks? (In my defense, I had the right idea with the pitching staff.) The Jays have made a few changes this year, and in some ways they’re a weaker team than they were in 2010. But they’re set up for an AL East run in the not so distant future.
Despite losing Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays still possess plenty of power. Clearly they think that Jose Bautista’s breakout is real, since they signed him to a five-year, $65 million extension this past off-season. He won’t smack 54 homers again, but even if he hits 35 this year it will be a huge plus for the Jays. There are other hitters around him who can also crush the ball.
This year Travis Snider figures to get his chance to break into the bigs. He’s been in the league for the last three years, but has just 675 PA to his name. This year he’s starting with the big club and figures to stick around all season. What’s crazy is that he’s just 23. If he hits his stride this season he’ll provide an excellent left-handed power complement to Bautista. There’s also Adam Lind, a former top prospect who destroyed baseballs in 2009. He had a down year in 2010, but if that’s just a fluke then the Jays have just added even more power.
Another Jay who had a down year last year was Aaron Hill, who also broke out, at least in terms of power, in 2009. his 2010 was poor, but he still hit for some power. If he brings his average up, he’ll add some more right-handed pop to the lineup. The same goes for new acquisition Juan Rivera. He seems like the perfect fit for hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s system. The same goes for rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, whose No. 1 tool is his power. Finally, let’s not forget Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 21 homers in just 367 PA last year.
While the Jays led the majors in SLG last year, they finished 26th in OBP. That’s why their runs total ranked ninth. The power was there, but they just didn’t produce enough base runners. If Lind recovers and Snider approaches his ceiling then they will get a boost in that department. If not, they could be in for a year where they hit for plenty of extra bases, but don’t have enough runners on base to crack the top five in runs scored.
The bullpen has to be something of a concern, since the Jays lost a few key contributors in Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg. They did add Frank Francisco, which helps shore up the unit. But they also added Octavio Dotel, who could detract from it. Jon Rauch might actually be the best addition they made. Jason Frasor stays around, too, but it’s not as though the Blue Jays had a knock-out bullpen last year. That could be one of their most glaring weaknesses in 2011.
The starting staff, too, took a hit during the off-season. The Jays traded Shaun Marcum, perhaps their most effective pitcher, and inserted Kyle Drabek, a rookie. There are also reports that Brett Cecil’s velocity is down considerably — not good, since he didn’t throw all that hard to begin with. Brandon Morrow will miss the start of the season, which further hurts the staff. It figures to be pretty good once it’s completely assembled: Ricky Romero, Cecil, Litsch, Drabek, and Morrow, with Jo-Jo Reyes filling in.
I don’t want to make the mistake of underrating the Jays again, but unless they have breakout years from just about everyone, I doubt they’ll do much but play the spoiler in the AL East. This won’t be the case for long. The Jays have a good core of players and a fine farm system. They’ll be contending before we know it. In fact, this could be the last year where I write that they don’t appear to have it all together. At this time next year we could be looking at a four-team dogfight in the AL East. Hell, maybe even five.
These aren’t your grandfather’s Devil Rays anymore. Since losing the Devil, the Rays have won the AL East twice in three seasons, including last year by one game over the Yankees. The front office, led by acting GM Andrew Friedman, continues to squeeze valuable water out of the payroll rock with some help from manager Joe Maddon, who is willing to buck convention more than any other skipper in the game. Nine players from Tampa’s 25-man ALDS roster will be playing elsewhere this season, and a tenth (Rocco Baldelli) moved into a front office role. They’ve proven adept at rebuilding on the fly, but a roster overhaul of this caliber might have been too much at one time.
If you want a full preview of the 2011 Rays, I highly recommend purchasing The Process Report 2011, the best $15 you’ll spend this spring. The 103-page document includes in-depth articles and player profiles written by the brightest minds on the Rays’ blogosphere. In the interest of full disclosure, our own Joe Pawlikowski contributed an article about former Yankee and new Ray Johnny Damon. Think of TPR11 as the Mariano Rivera of season previews while what you see below is more … Kyle Farnsworth.
It wasn’t long ago that a three-game series against the Tampa franchise meant good times for Yankees hitters, who routinely pounded inferior pitching staffs. Things have changed now, and the Rays’ starting rotation is the backbone of the club. David Price broke out and became one of the very best pitchers in the game last season, a hard-throwing lefty with strikeout stuff that has not yet reached his 26th birthday. Number two starter Jamie Shields is one of just eight pitchers that have thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last four seasons, so if nothing else he provides innings. He fell victim to some back luck last year (.341 BABIP, 68.4% strand rate), but his 3.55 xFIP was his best ever. Still just 29-years-old, a rebound is possible, if not likely.
The three and four spots go to 28-year-old Jeff Niemann (4.18 xFIP last year, 4.35 career) and 25-year-old Wade Davis (4.61 xFIP as a rookie last year). Matt Garza takes his three straight years of 180+ IP to Chicago’s north side and in steps young Jeremy Hellickson, who is arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. The soon-to-be 24-year-old had a fine big league cameo last year (3.83 xFIP in 36.1 IP), and is just the latest product from the game’s premier player development franchise. Right-hander Alex Cobb (2.80 FIP in Double-A last year) and left-hander Alex Torres (3.47) are next in line and will start the year in Triple-A. Behind them in Double-A will be Matt Moore, Alex Colome, and Nick Barnese. All five of those guys represent some of the better prospects in the game’s second best farm system.
Now that we’re past the starting rotation, we have to talk about Evan Longoria, arguably the best all-around player in baseball. His 19.6 fWAR since 2008 trails only Albert Pujols (25.3) and the now-hobbled Chase Utley (20.9). Still just 25, Longoria has three seasons of .370+ wOBA‘s, .210+ ISO’s, and 10+ ADR’s (aggregate defensive rating) to his credit all ready. Plus he packs some serious heat. Simply put, he’s a superstar of the first order and the best player in the division.
The team defense as a whole has been a strength for several years and figures to be one again in 2011. Losing Carl Crawford definitely hurts, but they’re still very strong up the middle with Reid Brignac at short, Ben Zobrist/Sean Rodriguez at second, and B.J. Upton in center. Maddon also has a deep and versatile roster at his disposal, allowing him to take advantage of platoon matchups and defensive shifts and what not. That farm system also provides a friggin’ ton of ammo for trades, and Friedman has shown a willingness to make huge splashes.
As I said earlier, the Rays’ roster took a really big hit this winter. Crawford is the best player in franchise history, but he left for Boston. Carlos Pena fled for Chicago. Say what you want about his poor 2010 season (.196 AVG, .326 wOBA), but he hit at least 28 homers for the fourth straight year, and that will be missed. In their place will be old buddy Damon (coming off a .340 wOBA with Detroit, his lowest in the last seven years) and old nemesis Manny Ramirez (his .382 wOBA last year was excellent, but his second worst since becoming a full-time player). Both are on the wrong side of 35, but Tampa didn’t bring in either guy expected them to perform like they did three or five years ago. Either way, going from Crawford and Pena to Damon and Manny is likely to be a three or four-win downgrade, maybe even five.
The rest of the lineup, beyond those two and Longoria, is almost like a patchwork group. Zobrist won’t ever have another .408 wOBA season like he did in 2009 again, but his career .346 OBP and .168 ISO are fine marks for a guy that can legitimately play seven positions. B.J. Upton is now two years from free agency and it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll turn into the megastar everyone though he would after a stellar (.387 wOBA) 2007 campaign. His .317 OBP over the last two years won’t get the job done, even when combined with 40+ steals. Dan Johnson’s late season heroics over the last two years are well-known, but his big league career features a decidedly un-first baseman-like .333 wOBA. Brignac has some pop but is in there more for his glove than his bat, and the catching platoon of John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach is fine as long as they have bats in their hands and not gloves. I like Matt Joyce as a breakout candidate, but he’s a bit of a question mark until he actually does it.
And then there’s the bullpen. The Rays lost almost everyone from their relief corps over the winter, with the one holdover being the forgettable Andy Sonnanstine. The dominant late-game trio of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour has been replaced by Kyle Farnsworth, Adam Russell, and Joel Peralta, a step down no matter how you look at it. Dan Wheeler goes from righty killer to Red Sox, Randy Choate from lefty killer to Marlin. Those two will essentially be replaced by a pair of rookie left-handers: Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos. A couple of guys named Mike Ekstrom, Rob Delaney, and Brandon Gomes provide the depth. Russell and McGee have big-time arms but are unproven, and will be thrust in high-leverage spots this summer. That’s not to say it can’t work, but I’m sure Maddon and fans alike will be reaching for the Tums much more often this year than last.
Of course, the team’s biggest weakness is it’s financial situation. Payroll shrunk down to something like $45M after topping out at close to $73M last season, and it’s not because ownership is cheap. The franchise simply can’t sustain anything higher. Tropicana Field has some appeal in a grungy “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” kind of way, but it’s poorly located and the attendance totals reflect that. When the star players start calling fan attendance “embarrassing” … yeah it’s bad.
There’s no question that the Rays lost a lot of firepower this offseason. Crawford is irreplaceable, but remaking an entire bullpen and finding suitable offensive fill-ins in a single offseason is a minor miracle. Are they as good as last year? Almost certainly not, but Tampa is still extremely dangerous and very capable of winning the division. They have two bonafide stars in Price and Longoria plus a strong supporting cast, not to mention the deepest and most talented rotation in the division. Don’t kid yourself, Maddon’s club is a very real threat to the 2011 Yankees.
Stop me when this sounds familiar. Big market team invests tons of money into a team, but suffers from key injuries. The three-team nature of the AL East puts them out of the playoffs. Then, the following off-season they make a big splash by spending tons of money. That’s exactly what happened with the 2008 Yankees, and it more or less happened again last off-season with the Red Sox. They added two key players in big money deals (just wait for Adrian Gonzalez’s extension announcement) and appear to have a team just as strong as, if not stronger than, the Yankees in 2011.
Let’s just hope the parallels end there.
As has been the case for nearly a decade, the Red Sox draw great strength from the starting lineup. The only time in the past nine seasons that they’ve finished outside the top four in runs scored was in 2006. They might not be the powerhouse that led the league in runs scored from 2003 through 2005, but they’re going to give the Yankees a run for their money in 2011. Their lineup is just that deep.
While batting Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup might not be the best use of the team’s best bats, it makes little difference. It just slides everyone down a spot, meaning last year’s top DH, David Ortiz, hits sixth, and J.D. Drew, who even in a down year had a .341 OBP, seventh. Even at eight and nine they have Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who we know has talent, and Marco Scutaro, who is better than most No. 9 hitters.
Then there’s the heart of their order, the two-through-five that rivals any team in the bigs. It starts with Dustin Pedroia, who, with Chase Utley likely to miss a decent portion of 2011, figures to be one of the top two second basemen in the league. Following him is Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kevin Youkilis. I suppose they could flip Youkilis and Gonzalez, but it matters little. That gives the Red Sox two excellent on-base and power guys in back of the speedier Crawford and Pedroia.
The Red Sox bullpen, at least the back end, has become a strength, too. Last year the Sox lost a few games due to Jon Papelbon meltdowns, but that could be just a blip on the radar. He has been one of the league’s elite closers for four years now, and it will take more than one season with a few blown saves to downgrade his status. Last year Dan Bard was the only reliable setup man, but during the off-season the Sox added Bobby Jenks to the mix. The rest of the bullpen is full of question marks, including Matt Albers, but the Sox have a few arms on the farm — Al Aceves and Felix Dubront — who can step in if someone falters.
The bench, too, can be considered a strength, even if Jason Varitek again serves as the backup. Darnell McDonald produced a quality 2010 season and could be of use to the Sox as a fifth outfielder. Ahead of him is Mike Cameron, who would start on most teams and will probably take some at-bats from Drew or Ellsbury against lefties. Jed Lowrie, too, could eventually take over as the starting shortstop. That’s a clear sign of a strong bench: the presence of players who could start for decent teams.
Big Question Marks
This section didn’t appear in Mike’s Orioles preview, because this is something unique to the Red Sox. In rating the Sox, I couldn’t decide whether to put the rotation in strengths or weaknesses. It has strengths for sure, and with a few lucky breaks the entire staff could become a strength. But as it stands they’ve got an ace and a bunch of question marks. It sounds like some other team we’ve come to know.
Jon Lester remains one of the game’s premier pitchers. Last year I picked him to win the AL Cy Young, and he really wasn’t that much worse than the winner, Felix Hernandez. This year Dave Cameron of FanGraphs rode my coattails with the Lester pick, and I don’t think it’s any less likely to happen than last year. If he puts it all together this year — high strikeout, low walk, low homer, and high groundball rates — he could be the pitcher we hate to love.
Behind him, though, the Red Sox have little certainty. Clay Buchholz was the best pitcher behind Lester last year, but he greatly outperformed his peripheral stats. Is he due for a regression, or will he progress similarly to his teammate? Lester, remember, had a below-average strikeout rate in 2008, but experienced a huge jump in 2009. If Buchholz follows his lead he could be in for another excellent season. But if he doesn’t, I would expect his 2011 to look something like Phil Hughes‘s 2010.
Then there are Josh Beckett and John Lackey, who were disappointing for different reasons last season. Beckett pitched poorly and got hurt, and it stands to reason that the two are interrelated. At 31 he’s no sure thing to bounce back, but his track record demonstrates that it is entirely possible. Remember, he had a rough 2006 season when he came to the AL and then came to dominate in 2007. We’re four years removed from that, but it can still happen. It’s just a little less likely this time around.
John Lackey was a disappointment during his first season in Boston, with a reduced strikeout rate and inflated walk rate. Yet he underperformed his peripherals, a 4.40 ERA to a 3.85 FIP. As with Beckett, he’s a bit older and so a recovery isn’t guaranteed. I have a bit less faith in him to recover than Beckett, but that’s mostly a stuff argument — i.e., I think that Beckett’s pure stuff can help him produce another top-flight season, while I’m not as big a believer in Lackey’s stuff.
While the Red Sox are strong up front, they’re a bit week when we move deeper into the roster. That includes the bench, bullpen, lineup, and rotation. Some are a bit weaker than others, but each has a chink in the armor.
In the rotation the Sox have Daisuke Matsuzaka holding down the fifth spot. His track record has been unimpressive during his time in the states. This can even include the 2008 season, when he finished with a 2.90 ERA. his 5.05 per nine walk rate indicates that he got a tad lucky — there is no way he can sustain an 80.6 percent strand rate. The last two years have seen him spend time on the disabled list and in general pitch ineffectively. The Sox have a few pitchers who can come up and take his place, but they’re not exactly high-upside options.
In the bullpen the Sox might be strong in the late innings, but their other options do not inspire. Dan Wheeler has a quality track record, in the AL East to boot, so we might even count him as a strength. I don’t think we can do the same for Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes, or Tim Wakefield. The Sox might get something out of these guys, and as previously mentioned they have a number of arms in AAA who can fill in should these guys falter. That’s what I expect to happen. Even Wakefield, a Red Sox mainstay, could find this is his final year. I don’t imagine the Sox will continue to use him if he’s as ineffective as he was last year.
The starting lineup looks solid at the top, but the last two spots are something of weaknesses. Marco Scutaro is a fine shortstop, but his track record suggests that he’s not any better than he displayed in 2010. Jed Lowrie figures to take his spot at some point during the season, at which point there’s a chance that the lineup spot turns into a strength. Until then it’s a weakness — at least relatively so. Jarrod Saltalamacchia represents the biggest chink in the Red Sox armor. This is not only because he’s completely unproven, but also because they don’t have a strong backup option. In one way it takes guts to put so much faith unto a 26-year-old who hasn’t done a thing at the major league level. In another, more accurate, way, it probably wasn’t the best idea on the part of management.
While the Red Sox have weaknesses and question marks, they’re still among the best teams in the league on paper. That’s no different than last year, of course. The big difference this year centers on health. As a team the Sox are in basically the same position as last year. They merely replaced departing players Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre with Crawford and Gonzalez. Their relative performances should roughly even out, though Crawford and Gonzalez will probably be a bit better overall.
The difference is that they’re starting fresh. Last year they lost Pedroia in June and then Youkilis a bit later in the season. If those two stayed healthy last year’s pennant race would have evolved much differently. If they stay healthy this year the Red Sox will be in a much better position, even if they didn’t make wholesale upgrades. If they all stay healthy this will be a powerhouse of a team. Then again, we can say that about more than one other team in the league. Bad breaks happen. The Red Sox are just hoping that they experience fewer of them this year.
It’s been 13 years since the Orioles last qualified for the postseason, and four years since they finished somewhere other than last place in the AL East. Despite that, they made some noise in the second half of last season, hiring former Yankees manager Buck Showalter in late-July and going 34-23 under his watch, the best record among AL East teams during that time. Before Buck came aboard, Baltimore won just 32 of 105 games.
After employing the American League’s third worse offense (.309 wOBA, 613 runs), worst starting rotation (4.74 FIP), and fifth worst bullpen (4.25 FIP) in 2010, the O’s went out and made several notable moves in the offseason. They traded four young relievers for Mark Reynolds, Brendan Harris, and J.J. Hardy, then signed free agents Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Justin Duchscherer, and Kevin Gregg, among others. Koji Uehara, Mark Hendrickson, and Cesar Izturis were also retained. Those additions undeniably help improve the team, but just how much?
Last year’s Orioles had exactly two well-above-average regulars on offense, and both are returning. Luke Scott led the team in pretty much everything, including wOBA (.387), homers (27), walk rate (11.4%), and ISO (.251). Nick Markakis finished second in wOBA (.353) and led the team in OBP (.370), producing yet another solid season in a young career full of them. Reynolds might be a whiff machine, but .241 career ISO’s don’t grow on trees, and neither do guys with legit 30+ homer power (at least these days). Vlad isn’t really as good as his 2010 first half (.319/.364/.554 with 20 homers) but probably isn’t as bad as his 2010 second half (.278/.322/.426, nine homers), so the middle ground (.355-ish wOBA) is the best bet this season. That’s four legit middle-of-the-order bats, two more than Baltimore had last year.
The defense has been upgraded at short with Hardy, who has the second highest UZR (+21.4) at the position over the last three years. Lee’s reputation with the glove is stellar, far better than what the incumbent Ty Wigginton can do at first. Reynolds is hardly a wizard at the hot corner, but he’s better than Miguel Tejada, so three of the four infield positions have been upgraded defensively. They’re not the ’99 Mets, but the infield defense has been massively improved.
The Orioles also boast what should be an improved relief corps. Uehara was brilliant late last year as closer (11.25 K/9, 1.02 BB/9, 2.40 FIP) and has some competition from Gregg, who’s had a sub-3.90 FIP in four the last five years, including 3.57 in 2010. Mike Gonzalez missed much of last season due to injury, and he overcame his early-season struggles to post a stellar 2.79 FIP. Left-handers that can strike out double-digit batters per nine innings are a rare breed. Add in Jason Berken (3.59 FIP in 2010) and Jim Johnson (3.08), and Showalter should have a solid set of middle relievers and setup men at his disposal.
Jeremy Guthrie, while no All-Star, is a fine rotation option with three straight years of 190+ IP plus a mid-4.00′s FIP in three of the last four seasons. He has a knack for outperforming his peripheral stats, posting a sub-4.00 ERA in three of the last four years. Behind him will be southpaw Brian Matusz, one of the very best young pitchers in the game. He had a fine rookie season (4.05 FIP in 175.2 IP) and was nothing short of brilliant down the stretch (2.18 ERA, 3.35 FIP in his final 11 starts). The O’s have a chance to win whenever either of those two guys is on the bump.
Just as was the case last year, this Orioles team is only going as far as the pitching staff takes them, and it won’t be that far. Beyond Guthrie and Matusz is a group of has-beens and never-wases, highlighted by Duschscherer. He started just five games last season after missing all of 2009, and has already been setback by nagging issues with his surgically repaired hip a few times this spring; the Duke of Hurl has two whole Grapefruit League innings to his credit and is expected to start the season on the disabled list. Say what you want about Kevin Millwood’s awful season in 2010 (4.86 FIP, 5.10 ERA), but at least he made 31 starts.
Behind Duchscherer lies Brad Bergesen, a low-slot righty with a career 4.70 FIP, the inability to miss bats (5.7% swinging strikes), and a considerable platoon split (5.32 xFIP vs. LHB, 4.09 vs. RHB). He’s young (25) and a ground ball guy (49.3% career), but the AL East is a tough place to live if you can’t get strike three consistently (4.48 K/9). Jake Arrieta showed flashes of good and bad in his debut last season, ending up with a 4.76 FIP and nearly as many walks (48) as strikeouts (52) in 100.1 IP. Chris Tillman is still struggling to find his way at the big league level (6.00 FIP in 118.2 IP), but has more talent than either Bergesen or Arrieta. Young pitchers tend to take a lot of lumps in this division, and it probably won’t be any different for Baltimore this summer.
Aside from Duchscherer, both Brian Roberts and Lee offer major health concerns. Roberts missed more than three months last year with an abdominal injury and has been limited by neck issues in camp. Lee had offseason wrist surgery and has already been slowed by soreness in the wrist, and the duo has combined for just 16 games played this spring. If they miss any length of time this year, the likely replacements are some combination of Izturis, Robert Andino, Jake Fox, and Josh Bell. Yikes.
The offense is still below average at short (Hardy has a .302 wOBA over the last two seasons) and behind the plate (Matt Wieters has a .315 wOBA in his young career), though both are capable of much more. Markakis’ cannon arm doesn’t make up for his shoddy range (-11.0 range runs over the last three years), and although Scott isn’t as bad with the glove as you’d think, going from Felix Pie in left to him is a step down.
Furthermore, the Orioles have one of the weaker farm systems in the game, ranked in the bottom third by most publications. Zach Britton, arguably the best left-handed pitching prospect in the game, will make his debut at some point this year, but as we saw with Matusz early last year, quick success is no guarantee. Bell, Wynn Pelzer, Brandon Snyder, and Ryan Adams are more solid contributors than future cornerstones. There just isn’t much help on the way right now.
If the Orioles are going to make any noise in the AL East this year, it won’t be because of veteran additions like Vlad, Gregg, and Duchscherer. It’ll be because the young guys all take a major step forward, a step forward that will inevitably be attributed to Showalter. Markakis has flashed MVP potential in the past, and Wieters has all the talent in the world. Adam Jones is a fine player, but a .325 wOBA and just 5.5 fWAR is not what everyone expected in his first 1,800 PA. Matusz, Tillman, and Britton are the makings of a stellar rotation, but progress must first be made by all three. Again, the talent is there, it just has to turn into performance.
Are the Orioles a better team than they were 12 months ago? Sure, I don’t think there’s a doubt about that. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a 74-76 win team being better than a 66 win team. The improvement under Showalter is real but only to a certain extent. Anyone thinking they’ll maintain that 97-win pace they had under Buck over a full season is going to be very disappointed. The O’s are not going to be a total pushover in 2011, but they’re not going to be a real threat to the three AL East powers either.
Do general managers react to contract years in the same way as players? While the effect doesn’t apply to every player — see Andruw Jones‘s contract year in 2007 — Dayn Perry, writing in Baseball Between the Numbers, found that there is a small, but statistically significant, uptick in player performance when a free agent contract is on the line. Maybe that’s why the Yankees have a policy of not negotiating new contracts until the old ones expires. That policy applies to players, coaches, and executives alike. As such, Brian Cashman is headed into a contract season.
If we’re to believe Cashman’s peers and bosses atop the Yankees organization, this will not be an issue. They love Cashman and want him back. Cashman, by most indications, enjoys his position. In that way, I’m not sure that his impending free agency means much. The Yankees have been down this road before, and despite a poor 2008 season the team eagerly re-upped with Cashman. Now, three years and a World Series title later, I expect much of the same. The situation might change if the Yankees miss the playoffs, but given recent history I’m not sure about that.
It is fitting, though, that Cashman’s toughest season will come in a contract year. The Yankees have made some depth moves to help shore up the rotation, but at some point they’re going to need someone better than Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon, or perhaps even Ivan Nova, pitching in the rotation. That’s how competitive the AL East has become. It’s not enough to have just a solid rotation. The Yankees need to go above and beyond. They tried this winter, but were snubbed despite having made the best offer. Now Cashman has to get creative in order to upgrade. Money alone won’t get it done this time.
Maybe the Yankees’ brass is just making overtures to feign a sense of stability. Maybe Cashman really does pine to run a franchise where his moves aren’t downplayed because of his deep pockets. If one is true, the Yankees will be searching for a new GM this fall. But given most indications, the Yankees like Cashman. They did, after all, re-sign him after the team failed to make the playoffs in 2008. From Cashman’s angle, he hasn’t worked for another company his entire adult life. His family is settled in the area, and he wields more power than other GMs. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s still a pretty good bet that Cashman’s back for 2012 and beyond.
Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.
Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.
Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…
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.
All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.
Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn't brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”
Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.
His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.
By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.
Forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but pretty much everything went right for the Yankees’ farm system last year, which is why they jumped from 22nd to fifth in Baseball America’s organization rankings. For the most part, the key prospects stayed healthy and performed well while others came back from injury to reclaim to past prospect glory. It was a boost the Yankees needed, because now the team has a solid mix of near-MLB ready talent at the upper levels combined with upside guys a little further down the chain.
Is everything going to break right again? Almost certainly not, but each of the full season affiliates will offer plenty of reasons to follow along this summer.
Just like every other year, the Yankees are going to rely heavily on the reinforcements they have stashed away in Triple-A this season. In fact, they’ll probably rely on these guys even more than usual given the current situation of the back of the big league rotation. Assuming Ivan Nova starts the year in the Bronx, the Scranton staff will be led by three guys who finished last season there: Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and D.J. Mitchell. Andrew Brackman and Adam Warren will jump up from Double-A to round out the rotation, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that two or three of those guys will make their big league debut this summer.
The lineup was going to be anchored by Jesus Montero, but Frankie Cervelli‘s fractured foot makes him Russell Martin‘s likely backup to at least start the season. Manager Dave Miley will instead have to rely on 2010 Eastern League MVP Brandon Laird to make the offense go, and he’ll have help from Justin Maxwell, Jordan Parraz, Dan Brewer, and big ol’ Jorge Vazquez. Mark Prior highlights the bullpen corps, which will also feature big lefty Andy Sisco and a pair or righty prospects in Ryan Pope and George Kontos. Many of these guys will see big league time this year, but the Yankees have enough upper level depth that a sixth consecutive division title is a very possible for Scranton.
This is where the action will be this year. Brian Cashman has said (repeatedly) that both Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances will start the season with Trenton, the same place they finished last season. Graham Stoneburner, the best pitching prospect in the system that no one ever seems to talk about, will play the role of third wheel. All three feature power, strikeout stuff but do it in different ways: Banuelos is fastball-changeup, Betances fastball-curveball, and Stoneburner with primarily a sinker. It would be surprising if all three spent the entire year in Double-A.
The offense will be led by the returning David Adams and likely Austin Romine despite his place in the backup catcher’s competition. Florida State League MVP Melky Mesa will join the fray, and Corban Joseph will stick after spending most of last season in Single-A. A case can be made that those two are the best five-tool prospect and pure hitter in the system, respectively. Craig Heyer will bring his beastly strike zone skills (95/15 K/BB in Single-A over the last two years) to the pitching staff in some capacity, and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte will give the fans something to enjoy and opposing batters something to dread out of the bullpen. Trenton has won the division in four of the last five years, and with that pitching staff, they’ll certainly make a run at another.
Luis Sojo’s squad figures to be a little short on position player talent this year, with college vets Luke Murton, Neil Medchill, and Rob Lyerly doing most of the heavy lifting. Sojo will have two of the very best arms in the system working out of his rotation in Jose Ramirez and Brett Marshall, and sleeper Scottie Allen (acquired from the D’Backs for Juan Miranda) will get a look as well. Flamethrowers Tommy Kahnle, Dan Burawa, and Conor Mullee will likely join the sneaky good Chase Whitley in a lock-down bullpen. A third straight Florida State League championship will be tough to pull off, but not impossible.
Want to see two first picks play for the same team? Head to Charleston, where Slade Heathcott (2009) will roam center field and Cito Culver (2010) will probably man shortstop. Second rounder J.R. Murphy (2009) figures to give it another go behind the plate, where he’ll likely do the DH-catcher thing with Gary Sanchez, arguably the best non-Montero prospect in the system. Eduardo Sosa, Ramon Flores, and Kelvin DeLeon will round out one of the most tooled up outfields in all of minor league baseball, though Flores will likely see time at first.
The rotation is a little more uncertain, but there’s no shortage of talent. Mikey O’Brien, Nick Turley, Evan DeLuca, Bryan Mitchell, Gabe Encinas, Taylor Morton, Evan Rutckyj, Matt Richardson, Brett Gerritse … all of those guys are solid candidates for the River Dogs’ rotation, and in no way is that be lame.
Short Season Leagues
The vast majority of the short season Staten Island and rookie level Gulf Coast League rosters will be supplied by the 2011 draft, but 2010 picks Mason Williams, Ben Gamel, and Angelo Gumbs are likely to be pop up here. If the Yankees decide to take it slow with Culver, he’ll fit in here as well. Whatever pitchers do not make the Low-A roster will play in SI or the GCL, and the stateside debuts of Yeicok Calderon and (especially) Ravel Santana should be highly anticipated.
* * *
My top 30 prospects list will give you some more detailed information about most of the players in this post, but the upper level arms clearly highly the crop with Montero presumably in the big leagues. Whether they help the big league club on the mound or in a trade remains to be seen, but it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that they’ll have some kind of impact in 2011.
Just about everyone loves prospects, and the Yankees have a doozy on the way this season in the form of Jesus Montero. The 21-year-old’s arrival is probably going to happen a lot sooner than most of us expected thanks to Frankie Cervelli‘s fractured foot, which opened the door for Montero to start the season as Russell Martin‘s backup. Thankfully he’s proven himself at every step of the minor league ladder, finishing the 2010 season by whacking 15 homers in his final 45 Triple-A games. What the 2011 season has in store … well that’s completely up in the air.
Buster Posey? Seriously, a rookie backstop putting up a .305/.357/.505 (.368 wOBA) batting line with 18 homers and a measly 13.5% strikeout rate like the Giants’ wunderkind did last year is as good as it gets. But that’s just the offense. Posey’s glovework behind the dish has never really been a major question, but Montero’s certainly has.
As far as the Yankees are concerned, the best case scenario really has little to do with Montero’s bat in 2011, it’s all about the glove. The best possible thing he could do this season is prove that he’s a Major League caliber catcher defensively, and that means the total package: blocking balls in the dirt, framing pitches, and throwing out attempted basestealers. How that is accomplished, I don’t care. Could be back in Triple-A or under the tutelage of Joe Girardi and Tony Pena at the big league level. Of course this is the best case section, so the latter is preferable.
If everything goes right this year, Montero will be a Rookie of the Year candidate and replace Martin as the starting catcher at midseason. A catcher with a .360-ish wOBA and what amounts to league average defense behind the plate is a four-win player, and the Yankees should do back flips if Montero gives them that in 2011.
Matt Wieters? Don’t get me wrong, I still very much believe in Wieters and his ability to become a well-above-average big league catcher, but the fact remains that the start of the guy’s career has not gone as scripted. In his year-and-a-half with the Orioles, he’s hit just .266/.328/.393 (.315 wOBA), mostly due to a .249/.319/.377 (.303 wOBA) effort in 2011. It’s been both disappointing and frustrating for Wieters and O’s fans alike, but being a young catcher in the AL East is no easy task.
The worst possible thing Montero could do this season is regress, both at the plate and in the field. His defense is already bad enough, to lose any more ground on that front would really put his future role with the team in question. First base is not an option, and designated hitter isn’t exactly the ideal spot for a 21-year-old. Montero’s bat is going to have to carry him, and luckily for him it’s very good, but if advanced pitchers start exploiting a hole in his swing or he starts squeezing sap out of the bat as a nervous rookie, it would only hurt him. If any doubt about his offensive potential starts creeping up, that’s bad news.
The worst possible thing the Yankees could do this season is sell low on Montero or trade him for anything less than a star-caliber player. No one is untouchable, but as Joe has already discussed, you’d have to be getting a stud with a few years of contractual control left to move Montero at this point in the game. Depending on your point of view, the Yanks really dodged a bullet when the Cliff Lee deal fell through last July, because there’s a very real chance they’d have lost Montero for half-a-season of the lefty.
What’s Likely To Happen
The recent track record of 21-year-old catchers in the big leagues is basically non-existent. Brian McCann is the most notable example, hitting .278/.345/.400 in 204 plate appearances for the Braves in 2005, though he was a midseason call-up. Joe Mauer, Dioner Navarro, and Yadier Molina are the only other 21-year-olds to get as many as 100 plate appearances in the show in the last 15 years. So yeah, Montero is about to join some exclusive company.
Although his skill set portends a middle-of-the-order bat, the Yankees don’t need Montero to be that guy just yet. Like they did with Jorge Posada over a decade ago, it’s likely that they’ll break their new toy in slowly, giving him a few starts a week behind the plate and gradually build him up to a full season workload. Prospects, even ones that rank among the very best in the game, are highly unpredictable at the Major League level early in their career. They’ll break your heart more often than not. Montero is no different, and in all likelihood he’ll take some lumps after being dropped into the thick of the AL East at his age.
I’m not going to throw out some numbers and offer a prediction of what Montero will produce this year, but I will say that I don’t expect him to come out and hit like Posey right out of the gate, nor do I think he’ll fall flat on his face. If he hits for a little bit of average and power while showing he’s not completely useless behind the plate, I’d consider it a win. If he doesn’t hit right away, who cares, he’ll go back to the minors to find his game, it happens all the time. In no way would it be a sign that he’s not cut out for the big leagues or something, not this early in his career.
One issue that plagued the Yankees through the mid-00s was the lack of a quality bench. This included both the position players and the bullpen. Both units tended to be sub-par. As we covered last week in our 2011 season preview, the bullpen looks a lot better, in terms of Opening Day personnel, than it has in many years. The bench, too, has a stronger feel this year. With plenty of spare payroll, the Yankees were able to land a few chips that they haven’t sought in years past. For the first time in a long time they’ll have two quality bench bats to start the year.
For most of the off-season, Jones and the Yankees appeared a natural match. They needed a fourth-outfielder, preferably a righty, and Jones needed a part-time destination. It took a while for the move to finally happen, and even longer for it to become official, but Jones is in a Yankee uniform for 2011. He’s not the same player that ranked among the most valuable in center field from 1998 through 2005, but he can still play a useful role.
For the past three seasons Jones has been a part-time player, either because of injury or ineffectiveness. Right knee problems completely sapped his 2008 season. In 2009 he appeared to be on the comeback trail, but fell off considerably after a hot start. Last year, with the White Sox, he started similarly hot, and while he dropped off it was not nearly as dramatic. At season’s end he had produced a .364 wOBA in 328 PA. The Yankees will gladly take that from him in 2011.
Not only can Jones provide some value with the bat, but his defense can still come in handy. He’s no longer the best-in-league center fielder, but he can fill in there if needed. More likely he’ll play left field against tough lefties, relegating either Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson to the bench. This is a level of versatility the Yankees did not have in Marcus Thames.
When the Yankees signed Eric Chavez to a minor league deal just before the start of spring training, it appeared to be an insignificant move. After all, Chavez hadn’t gotten as many as 300 plate appearances since 2007, and has been generally awful since 2006. Even then, since 2004, when he was limited to 125 games due to injury, he hasn’t measured up to the lofty standards he set in the preceding five seasons. But at age 33 there’s still potential. The Yanks, as it turns out, were right to jump on it.
In Chavez the Yankees have a player who can back up both Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. If Jorge Posada hits the DL for the fourth straight year, he and Jones can platoon at DH. He also provides a lefty off the bench, which can prove useful in late-game situations. The need for a lefty off the bench last year wasn’t great, since there weren’t many players for whom Girardi would pinch hit. But with Russell Martin on the team, and with the repeated possibility of guys such as Kevin Russo getting playing time, having Chavez’s bat in late innings will help plenty.
While spring stats mean little, Chavez has impressed during his time this March. Even when he makes outs he’s hitting the ball hard. He will certainly travel north with the team, with the hope that a part-time role will help keep him healthy and productive. It might not be striking gold, but the Yankees have done very well for minimal risk.
It just feels as though the Yankees want Nunez to fill that utility infield role. In recent games they’ve tried him in the outfield, a sign that they’re grooming him for a super utility role. It hasn’t appeared pretty, though, and chances are Nunez will stick to the infield, at least in 2011. But will he play behind Jeter, Rodriguez, and Cano, or will he take regular reps at AAA?
The Yankees are always in a tough position with the utility infield role. It doesn’t make sense to take anyone significant, because Jeter and Cano do not take days off. Even last year, through his struggles, Jeter played in 157 games. Cano played in 160. There will be some at DH, and some of those games won’t be starts. Still, it leaves possibly a dozen games, absolute max, that will require a utility infielder as a starter. That’s why Pena makes sense. His noodle bat won’t hurt too much, since his playing time is limited. If either Jeter or Cano requires a DL trip, the Yanks can recall Nunez to play full-time.
(And at third base it’s a non-issue, since Chavez is there to play when A-Rod needs days off.)
This actually figures to be the least important spot on the bench. Oftentimes that title is reserved for backup catchers. But the utility infielder on the Yanks will almost certainly get less playing time than the backup catcher. And that’s especially if a certain top prospect sticks in that role.
With Cervelli on the shelf to start the season, we can assume that Montero breaks camp as the backup catcher. That will give him a quick taste of the big leagues, affording him maybe three starts each week he’s with the club. Then, when Cervelli returns the team can re-assess. If Martin is playing well they can ship Montero back to AAA and use Cervelli as the backup, which is clearly his most useful role. If Martin isn’t hitting, perhaps they’ll keep Montero around and let him split time and learn at the major league level.
It’s hard for the Yankees to go wrong in this scenario. If Martin is hitting the Yankees have a valuable starter and backup combination. Cervelli can play once a week, which suits him well. If Martin isn’t hitting, the Yankees can put a greater emphasis on Montero, whose bat is, by all accounts, ready for the majors. Either way, the Yankees will likely realize well above average production from their catcher. That’s a good thing, since it’s what they’ve grown accustomed to in the past decade with Posada behind the plate.
It has been a while since the Yankees have broken camp with a high quality bench. They face issues every year in attracting free agent reserve players, since their full-time players don’t leave much room for additional playing time. But this past off-season they took time to build a strong and versatile bench. From the way things appear now, that effort should pay off handsomely. Even if it doesn’t, there’s still room for the Yankees to build the bench the way they did in 2009. There will always be players available around the deadline.
Heading into spring training it appeared that the Yankees had the bullpen all figured out. Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Pedro Feliciano, and one of the long man candidates potentially composed one of the best Opening Day bullpens the Yanks have had in years. But, as happens so often, some of them got hurt. While they all might be fine by Opening Day, they won’t remain that way all year. The Yankees will likely go through about a dozen relievers at various points. In today’s preview we’ll take a look at some of the ones near the top of the list.
A move to the bullpen last year did Pope good. Before that he was a middling starter who appeared to have little hope of cracking the big league rotation. A move to the rotation might have revived his career with the Yankees. It impressed them enough that they added him to the 40-man roster. That status alone could put him atop the list for a bullpen call-up. He’s probably not a future setup man or anything along those lines, but with some progress this year he could turn into a serviceable middle reliever.
The recent spate of bullpen injuries could benefit Sanchez, who previously appeared the odd man out. He’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league team they’ll have to place him on waivers. Since basically every team could use bullpen help, especially expected second division teams, it’s easy to envision someone taking a chance on him. The Yanks might avoid that situation if one of their relievers starts the season on the DL — and the team decides that Sanchez is a better overall option than Sergio Mitre.
I just wrote about Sanchez earlier this week, so for a more complete take check out that.
The Yankees keep bringing back Mitre. Two years running they’ve non-tendered him, only to bring him back on a non-guaranteed contract. So apparently he likes it in New York, too. Unfortunately, he hasn’t proven much during his tenure with the team. In 2009 he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and last year he missed time with an oblique injury and otherwise wasn’t much used.
Since he has apparently gained the Yankees’ favor, I thought that he’d break camp as the long man. But as spring progresses we’ve seen indications that suggest otherwise. As we noted earlier this week, some scouts are convinced the Yanks will let Mitre go at the end of spring training. They do have a number of options for that last spot, and Mitre seems behind everyone in the competition. If he does make the team expect much of the same from 2010. That is, sparse usage in mop-up duty.
The Yankees and Prior are on the same page, in that they both expect him to open the season at AAA to help him build up strength with an eye on a possible big league return. The most important aspect of Prior is that he’s none of the guys he has been in the past. That is, he’s not the phenom ace who led the Cubs to the 2003 ALCS. Nor is he the injury prone schlub who hasn’t pitched a big league game since 2006. He appears to be in decent health now, and his repertoire has necessarily changed.
If Prior stays healthy there’s a good chance he makes it back to the bigs in a relief role this year. It’s hard to say what he’ll do, because we don’t know what kind of pitcher he’ll become as he redevelops his game.
Last September the Yankees claimed Garrison off waivers from the Padres, though it was too late for him to get into a minor league game. He’s not much of a prospect, but he is left-handed and on the 40-man, and therefore will get plenty of shots to crack the big league club, especially in relief. Mike wrote a profile of Garrison earlier this spring. An interesting note: if he starts the season at AA, he’ll be playing in front of his hometown crowd. He was born in Trenton, NJ.
In the early days of camp Brackman seemingly impressed just as much as his fellow Bs. His groin injury cost him about a week, which is a big deal early in the spring. He pitched only 2.2 live innings before heading down to minor league camp, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about his closeness to the bigs. At some point he could take some turns in the rotation, but later it’s also possible that he breaks into the majors as a reliever.
His current arsenal certainly profiles well out of the bullpen. He features a 93-95 mph fastball that he keeps low in the zone, and an above average curveball. Baseball America notes that he also added a “nascent slider that shows potential,” but he’ll probably need to develop his changeup, something he’s struggled with, if he’s going to find success in the rotation. Without that he might be ticketed for the bullpen in the long-term. He might be ticketed there in the short-term, too, though that might not come until later in the season.
It’s tantalizing to imagine him in the bullpen come August. That 93-95 mph fastball could reach the upper 90s, and his curve could prove a devastating knock-out pitch. While ideally he progresses throughout the season and enters the rotation at some point, Brackman the reliever could provide plenty of value on his own.