2011 Season Preview: Jesus Montero

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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.

Best Case

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.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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.

Worst Case

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.

Not quite the MFIKY stare, but close. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

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.

2011 Season Preview: Quality of the bench

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.

Andruw Jones

(Kathy Willens/AP)

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.

Eric Chavez

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

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.

Ramiro Pena / Eduardo Nunez

(Kathy Willens/AP)

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.

Jesus Montero / Francisco Cervelli

(Kathy Willens/AP)

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.

2011 Season Preview: Miscellaneous Relievers

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.

Ryan Pope

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

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.

Romulo Sanchez

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.

Sergio Mitre

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.

Mark Prior

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.

Steve Garrison

(David Goldman/AP)

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.

Andrew Brackman

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.

2011 Season Preview: Feliciano and Logan

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Throughout the 2000s the Yankees could not find a suitable lefty reliever. They went through such middling arms as Felix Heredia, Gabe White, C.J. Nitkowski, Buddy Groom, Wayne Franklin, Alan Embree, Ron Villone, and Mike Myers. It wasn’t until they acquired Damaso Marte in 2008 that they had a quality lefty in the pen, but even that was short-lived. Assuming he misses the whole season, he’ll have pitched just 53.1 innings for the Yankees, though that does include his masterful World Series innings. This year, for what feels like the first time in forever, the Yankees will open the season with two lefties in the pen, Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano. Can they be better than the clown car of lefties the team has employed in the past eight years?

Best Case

Lefties make my arm hurt. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

While neither Logan nor Feliciano screams lockdown lefty, each has considerable upside. We saw that in effect last year with Logan, at least following his mid-July recall. From that point on he pitched 21.2 innings while striking out 25 and walking eight, leading to a 2.08 ERA against a 3.16 FIP. It might have been the most successful stretch of baseball in his major league career.

In the best case scenario Logan becomes a lefty who can pitch a full inning. That is, he can take both the lefties and the righties in the lineup with aplomb. That necessarily means relying more on his changeup, since the slider carries a large platoon split. But best case, Logan feels more comfortable throwing the changeup to righties, which makes his 93 mph fastball a bit more effective.

Logan’s ability to take on a setup role would allow Pedro Feliciano to match up against lefties only, which is likely his optimal role at this point. Even in his best years Feliciano hasn’t handled righties particularly well. Now that he’s 34 there’s little chance that he suddenly develops the skill. He has, of course, thoroughly dominated lefties. Even in 2008, his worst season since returning from Japan, he struck out 34 of 119 lefties faced while walking only eight. He might be good for only a batter, or two with an intentionally walked righty in between, but if he can shut down the league’s best lefty hitters the Yankees will have a quality return on their $8 million investment.

Worst Case

This is where things get ugly. While Logan impressed in the second half, his first half left plenty to be desired. At that point he looked like the Logan who had spend most of 2009 in AAA. He walked 12 in 18.1 IP while striking out just 13. Since the success we’ve seen from Logan comes in a very small sample, it’s entirely possible that he reverts to his walk-happy, homer-happy ways. That would leave the Yanks in a bind, since he’s out of options. Do they wait around for his stuff to return to second-half 2010 levels? Or do they cut bait and start the Scranton bullpen shuttle?

With Feliciano the worst case is a bit tougher. If he’s healthy it’s tough to see him performing poorly against lefties, since he has thoroughly dominated them. Instead, his worst case involves the Yankees paying the price for the Mets’ heavy usage. Who leads the majors in appearances during the last three years? That’s Feliciano, with 28 more innings than the next closest reliever, Carlos Marmol. In fact, there are only three other relievers within 50 appearances of Feliciano’s three-year total. While he ranks 49th during that span in terms of batters faced, he still warmed up and got into all those games. That has to take a toll on the arm.

Feliciano has developed a reputation as a guy with a rubber arm, but we’ve seen some of those guys go down in recent years. Scot Shields provides the most prominent example. That is to say that arms of rubber do eventually break. Feliciano is getting to an age where that might become a concern. While injury is a legitimate risk for every pitcher, it seems to be a greater risk for a 34-year-old pitcher who has appeared in at least 86 games in each of the last three seasons.

What’s Likely To Happen

If both Logan and Feliciano stay healthy they’ll likely both provide options against the tough lefties in the lineup. Maybe the lesser of the two can take two lefties, separated by a righty, towards the bottom of the order, while the greater takes the Adrian Gonzalez or the Travis Snider (he’s going to have a big year) of the lineup.

It’s not likely that Logan figures out righties, both because of his fastball-slider repertoire and his history of abysmal performances against them. His fastball can make you dream about him mowing down Carl Crawford, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez 1-2-3, but his history does not suggest it. Chances are he and Feliciano would go about it similarly: pitch to Crawford, pitch around Pedroia, and attack Gonzalez inside.

While the Yankees do have two quality lefties in the bullpen to open the season, they are still LOOGYs. That limits bullpen flexibility. The Yankees do have four solid righties behind them, which helps, but it still doesn’t make Logan or Feliciano any more effective against righties. The Yankees figure to get plenty of use out of them, but don’t expect them to pitch full shutdown innings. Nothing to see here: they’re just here for the lefties.

2011 Season Preview: Joba & Robertson

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Adding Rafael Soriano to the bullpen improved the team in more innings than just the eighth. By pushing last season’s setup duo of Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson into the middle innings, the Yankees are now able to deploy a pair of super-high strikeout relievers at a point in the game when most other teams are crossing their fingers. That’s a very real advantage for the Yankees, though it’s not enough to make up for the mish-mash of has-beens at the back of the rotation.

Middle relievers are typically the most replaceable part of the roster, and in the last three years we’ve watched the Yankees shuffle guys in and out of that role until they found something that clicked. They shouldn’t have to do that this year, hopefully correcting the early season bullpen woes that have popped up in each of the last few seasons.

Best Case

Looking at Joba and Robertson as one entity of middle innings relief, the best scenario is lock down work bridging the gap between starter and the big guys in the eighth and ninth inning. So many games are won and lost in those middle innings that the tangible effect of having what amounts to two setup men available for those innings could be three or four wins in the standings. That’s the best case, obviously.

Robertson’s performance has been pretty consistent throughout his three big league seasons; he’s always had a 10+ K/9, a walk rate near 4.5 per nine, and has surrendered close to one homer for every eleven innings pitched. His ground ball rate has hovered right around 40% as well. We don’t normally think of D-Rob as a consistent guy, but overall he is. His best case scenario is basically the best of his individual peripherals, meaning a ~13 K/9 (2009) and a ~4.40 BB/9 (2008) and a ~42% ground ball rate (2008). Put that together over 60 innings of medium/high-ish leverage work and you’ve got something very close to a one win middle reliever. That guys aren’t common.

Joba’s different than D-Rob because he’s bounced between starter and reliever so much, but for the first time in his career, he was able to come into camp knowing precisely what his role will be this season. It’ll be very tough for Joba to improve on his 2010 performance in terms of the process stats, meaning his peripherals. A 9.67 K/9 with 2.51 uIBB/9 and a 45.6% ground ball rate (2.98 FIP) is as good as it gets for relievers. His ERA sucked, but blame that on the well-below average 66.6% strand rate and .361 BABIP when runners were in scoring position. If those issues regress to league average (72.2% and ~.300, respectively) and he sees slight improvement in the strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates, we’re talking one of the ten best relievers in the game. Joba’s best case basically has him showing that Soriano was completely unnecessary, a high-leverage grunting and farting monster that invokes memories of 2007.

Worst Case

As is the case with relievers, they can be pretty unpredictable and start sucking for no apparent reason. Small sample size is a part of it, these guys just don’t throw enough innings in a season for their true talent level to win out, as is (usually) the case with starters. Aside from injury, the worst thing that can happen to Robertson would be his own fault, if he starts nibbling more and more. If he does that and his walk rate climbs over 5.00 BB/9 while the strikeout rate drops below one per inning (because hitters aren’t chasing anymore), then he’s going to have a problem and is no better than Brian Bruney.

For whatever reason, some people are acting like 2010 was Joba’s worst case. I guess it was in terms of ERA and stuff like that, but we’re smarter than that (I think). There are the standard concerns, like his strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates declining for whatever reason, but it seems like Joba’s worst enemy are expectations. If he puts up Daniel Bard peripherals in 2011, he will have gotten worse. Seriously. I guess the worst thing Chamberlain could do is pitch like he did as a starter in 2009 (7.61 K/9, 4.35 BB/9, 4.82 FIP) out of the bullpen, in which case he’s just a slight upgrade over Sergio Mitre and falls into that “only when losing” cache of relievers. There’s also this rib/oblique issue, and that could carry over into the season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

Like I said, relievers are incredibly unpredictable, so this section is nothing more than an exercise in guesswork. We’d like to think that we’ve seen enough of Joba and D-Rob to know what to expect out of them in 2011, but it doesn’t matter. Reliever volatility is a bitch.

One thing I do expect to see is some improvement in Robertson’s control issues. He walked 4.45 batters per nine in 2008 (30.1 IP), then walked 4.74 per nine in 2009 (43.2 IP), and then last year it was 4.84 per nine (61.1 IP), however intentional walks are inflating those numbers a bit though, especially since Robertson issued six of ’em last year. If we take those out, we’re talking about a 3.86 uIBB/9 in 2008, 4.53 in 2009, and 3.96 in 2010. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not great, but it’s a better indicator of his ability. Robertson’s never going to be a control artist, but a walk rate right around four is tolerable.

To be honest, Joba just needs to keep doing what he did last year and the success will come. He struck guys out, didn’t walk many, got some ground balls, it’s just that some of the stuff out of his control didn’t go his way. I’m encouraged by his new mechanics, but that’s probably nothing more than Spring Training optimism talking. His velocity returned in the second half, so hopefully that’s sustainable. I fully expect these two to perform like they have over the last two years, at least in terms of the underlying performance. What happens with ERA is anyone’s guess.

2011 Season Preview: Rafael Soriano

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I think it’s fair to say that the three-year, $35M contract the Yankees gave Rafael Soriano was the most controversial signing of this past offseason. Hal Steinbrenner and his upper upper upper management buddies over-ruled Brian Cashman because they weren’t in love with the idea of using David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain as Mariano Rivera‘s primary setup men in 2010, plus the team had some of the money earmarked for Cliff Lee burning a whole in their pocket. The stars aligned just right for Soriano and Scott Boras.

Cashman came out and said he didn’t think forfeiting a first round pick and spending that kind of money on a relief pitcher was the best way to use resources (at Soriano’s introductory press conference no less), and he’s right. Multi-year free agent contracts for relievers almost never work out, with the only real exception in recent years being Rivera. For the one they call MFIKY to earn his money, he’ll have to not just repeat last year’s effort, but improve upon it.

Best Case

Relief pitchers can only be so valuable in the real world, even the great Rivera. The last two years of Soriano’s career are about as good as it gets for relievers; he’s racked up 3.6 fWAR total (1.6 in 2010, 2.0 in 2009), good for eighth best among all relief pitchers. He’s just a win-and-a-half away from the reliever fWAR leader (Brian Wilson), but he’s also just half-a-win better than guys like Rafael Betancourt and Darren Oliver. I don’t love WAR for pitchers, so if we use FIP, Soriano ranks tenth among all relievers at 2.66 over the last two seasons.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Soriano has nasty stuff, regularly using three pitches to attack hitters. His bread-and-butter is a 92-95 mph fastball and low-80’s slider combo, pitches that rated as nine and 7.4 runs better than average last year. A pitcher is usually lucky to have one offering that good, Soriano’s one of the few with two. His third pitch is a hard cutter that he throws mostly to left-handers, helping him solve those guys last season after a few years without answers. Hitters have swung and missed at Soriano’s pitches more than 12% of the time in his career, and missing bats is the name of the game when it comes to late-inning relief work.

In a best case scenario, you’re looking at Soriano returning to his 2009 form, when he had a worse ERA than he did in 2009 (2.97 to 1.73) but better peripherals (2.54 FIP, 2.99 xFIP vs. 2.81 and 3.81). A 2.50 FIP reliever throwing 70 innings of higher leveraged work (LI of around 1.60-1.70) is a two-and-a-half win player, and Soriano is capable of that if some things break his way. A three win season as a setup man is very hard to do, but not impossible.

Worst Case

Unfortunately, we’ve lived this nightmare before and know just how ugly multi-year contracts for relievers can get. There’s Steve Karsay (four years, $22.5M), Kyle Farnsworth (three years, $17M), Paul Quantrill (two years, $6.8M), and Damaso Marte (three years, $12M), all of whom inked their deals within the last ten years and all of whom ended (or will end) their Yankee tenures on the business end of the chopping block. History is not on Soriano’s side, and there are some warning flags.

Despite the high swinging strike rate, Soriano struck out just 8.23 men per nine innings last year, down nearly four full strikeouts from 2009 and about a K-and-a-half from his career average. Yes, there’s the NL-to-AL East switch to consider, but remember, as an eighth and ninth inning guy with the Braves, Soriano wasn’t facing opposing pitchers, he was getting pinch-hitters. His fly ball rate is also extreme at 49.8% over the last two years, a rate he’s maintained throughout his career. Despite the improvement against lefties last season, yet still has a ways to go before proving that platoon split (LHB had a .313 wOBA off him prior to 2010) is a thing of the past. That .199 BABIP last year? Don’t expect that to sustain itself either.

Oh, and then there’s the injuries. Soriano has never stayed healthy for three consecutive seasons in his entire career, and he’ll be shooting for that milestone in 2011. A history of elbow trouble (two surgeries, one of which was Tommy John) and shoulder issues reside  in the cons column. The worst case scenario is pretty much Farnsworth’s tenure in pinstripes, a homer prone faux-setup man that will strike out enough guys to remain useful, but not really qualified for late-inning, leveraged work. During his two-and-a-half years in New York, Farnsy was worth just half-a-win total.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

This part is very tricky, because you want to believe that Soriano is different from everyone else, that he’s not one of those flaky late-inning guys because he’s “proved himself” with the AL East winning Rays last summer. We’ve thought that before though, and I refuse to get caught in that trap again. There’s no denying that Soriano improves the team’s bullpen on paper though, there’s just no argument against that, especially when you consider the chaining effect that pushes the whiff-happy Robertson and Chamberlain into the middle innings, where oh so many games are won and lost.

Performance-wise, I don’t believe Soriano will be as good as he was last year again in 2011. The move from Tropicana Field into homer-happy Yankee Stadium will have a very real impact on his performance, and the dip in strikeouts is concerning. Ditto the super-low BABIP and historical struggles against left-handers. All told, if Soriano manages to stay healthy all year and puts up a 3.00 FIP in 70 innings, I’d take it in a heartbeat. The Yankees won 80 of 87 games when leading after seven innings last year, and three of those losses are attributed to Mo in one way or another. Soriano won’t be that big of an upgrade at the end-game, but he’s an upgrade nonetheless.

We can’t ignore the contract either. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the Yankees gave Soriano the ability to opt out of his contract after each of the first two years. He and agent Scott Boras are the ones in control here. With any luck, he’ll have a monster year and opt out in hopes of landing a huge payday as a closer somewhere. That should allow the Yankees to recoup the lost draft pick, assuming they offer him arbitration and the compensation rules aren’t changed in the upcoming Collective Bargaining agreement. Best case scenario: Soriano’s awesome in 2011 and heads elsewhere as a free agent after the season. Worst case: he gets hurt and the Yankees are stuck paying him for the next three years. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to envision this signing turning into a disaster than it is a masterstroke. It’s not fair, but Randy Levine & Co. made their own bed.

2011 Season Preview: Mariano Rivera

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Kathy Willens/AP)

One day Mariano will grow old. Years ago writers tried to predict his decline. A blip on the radar would inspire articles questioning whether he could continue dominating hitters. It still hasn’t happened. In fact, there have been fewer articles predicting his decline in recent years than there were wen he was in his mid-30s. He’s been that dominant in the past few years. 

In some ways, Mo’s 2010 was better than his 2009. His strikeout rate dipped, but so did his WHIP and home run rate. His numbers won’t stay this way forever, but he’s given no indication that he’s ready to slow down. 

Best Case

(Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Is there really a ceiling for Mo? Sure, he won’t pitch 80 innings and allow two earned runs, but his ceiling isn’t too far off from that. In an absolute best case, he’s probably good for 70 innings and a 1.50 ERA. That’s around his performance from 2008, when, at age 38, he produced the best ERA+ of his career. If anyone can repeat that task three years later, at age 41, it’s Mariano.

To hammer home the best case scenario, we can put Mariano’s performance at age 40 into context. Since 1980 there have been only 34 instances of a relief pitcher aged 40 or higher throwing 50 or more innings. Of those, only 19 have produced an ERA+ of 120 or higher. Mariano’s 238 ERA+ from last year ranks first on the list. That he could top that at age 41 boggles the mind.

Worst Case

Even the worst case scenario for Mariano this year isn’t devastating. Sure, there’s the minute possibility that he falls off a cliff, but that’s the case with every player. It’s the same thing with injuries. Any player at any time can suddenly decline in production or get hurt. But we’re looking for a more realistic worst case, rather than one that has Mo giving up homers and then getting hurt.

Mo’s worst case involves a few more blips than he’s had in the past few years. That is, maybe three weeks where his cutter isn’t cutting and he blows a few saves. Think 2007, but with a small blip mid-season and then another one later on, rather than him just starting slowly. The worst case also involves a few injuries. We know Mo is prone to soreness and spasms that keep him out for a few games. If things go wrong that could happen a few more times than it has in the recent past.

What’s Likely To Happen

The most likely scenario for Mo is far closer to his best case than his worst case. He’s been incredibly consistent in the past eight seasons, keeping his ERA under 2.00 in all of them except 2007. Even then he regained his dominant form after a rough April. Even at age 41, his most likely scenario has him pitching around 65 innings to a 2.00 ERA. Few closers will ever match that kind of production, never mind doing it year after year.

If this preview seems a bit lacking, it’s because there’s no need to dive into the case of Mariano Rivera. Since 1996 he has been the most beloved Yankee, and his folk hero status has only grown with time. What I find most striking is that while he is at an age where pitchers are watching games on TV, Mariano remains dominant. We’ve been lucky to watch him for the past 15 years, and I don’t think we can be reminded of that too frequently.