Archive for 2011 Season Preview

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.

Still can't believe that ball stayed in the park. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Curtis Granderson in 2010. Not necessarily in that order, either. He was brought to town for a number of reasons, one of which was to help replace the left-handed power the Yankees let walk in the form of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, which he did, by and large. It wasn’t always pretty though.

Year two of the Granderson era is promising because of the way he finished year one. His improvement after working with hitting coach Kevin Long is well-documented, but we still have no idea if it’s a) real, and b) sustainable. Grandy has already smacked an opposite field homer in Spring Training, which is generally much ado about nothing, but it stands out a bit because he’s hit zero of those in the last two regular seasons. February and March are the time for blind optimism, what can I say.

The Grandyman was the team’s best player in late-August and September, and would have been their best player in the postseason if it wasn’t for Robbie Cano‘s superhuman efforts. What could 2011 have in store?

Best Case

The best case scenario for Granderson is incredibly exciting. We’ve already seen him produce at a seven-plus win pace, which he did back in 2007 with the Tigers by hitting .302/.361/.552 (.395 wOBA) with 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 homers, and 26 steals all while playing phenomenal defense (+14.9 UZR) at an up-the-middle position. It’s been three full seasons since Grandy had that monster campaign, but he’s far from old (turns 30 in about two weeks) and still has that kind of talent.

Hopefully Grandy will be running people over again in 2011. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

To hit on that best case scenario, the improvements he showed after working with Long would have to prove to be real and permanent. Granderson hit .274/.378/.570 (.417 wOBA) with 15 homers in just 230 plate appearances (counting playoffs) after he got together with the hitting coach compared to just .239/.306/.415 (.310 wOBA) with ten homers in 336 plate appearances before. Maintaining a .417 wOBA pace over a full season is extremely tough to do, but based on how dominant Granderson was down the stretch, a .390-ish wOBA in 600+ plate appearances doesn’t seem out of question in the best case scenario.

Within that overall improvement came considerable improvement against southpaws, long Granderson’s bane. He hit just .206/.243/.275 with just four extra-base hits against lefties in just over 100 plate appearances before the fix, even worse than the .217/.270/.324 line he produced against them in 2008 and 2009. After working with K-Long, Granderson tagged lefties to the tune of .286/.275/.500 in 64 plate appearances, not all that far off from his performance against righties. If his platoon issues have been corrected, even just somewhat, holy cow.

Granderson’s defense has never really been a question. He’ll occasionally take a bad route on a ball hit in front of him, but overall he’s an above-average defender in center (+5.3 UZR last season) that could be even better after having a year to adjust to his new ballpark. Even if turns in a similar defensive effort with a .390 wOBA in a full season’s worth of playing time, we’re talking about Granderson being at least a six win player and a guy that should get some MVP love.

Worst Case

As exciting as Granderson’s best case is, his worst case scenario is just as ugly. The improvement following the work with Long could prove to be nothing more than small sample size noise, easily negated after the league has had an offseason and Spring Training to revise their scouting reports and game plans. Left-handers could continue to flummox the lefty swinging center fielder, who sees his strikeout rate and walk rates continue to head in opposite directions for the third straight season. That .310 wOBA he produces in the first half or so of 2010? Turns out that is Granderson’s true talent level.

On the other side of the ball, those funny routes continue to be an issue, and the dam eventually cracks. Grandy turns into a below average defensive outfielder, forcing the team to move him to left and insert Brett Gardner in center. A below average defensive left fielder with below average offense is … wait for it … a below average player, basically a fourth outfielder. Andruw Jones would see more and more playing time to compensate for Granderson’s shortcomings, overexposing him. Without the boost from playing a prime position, Grandy is little more than a one win player in the worst case scenario.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

What’s Likely To Happen

As much as we’d like it to be, the #cured version of Granderson probably isn’t the real version. Fourteen homers in a month-and-a-half is a 56 homer pace over a full season, and that’s just not going to happen. Even the most optimistic of Grandy lovers can agree on that. Joe broke down Granderson’s underlying skills last month, forecasting a .275/.365/.490 (~.375 wOBA) batting line in 2011, almost identical to what he did with the Tigers in 2008. The only full-time center fielders more productive offensively than Grandy that season were Grady Sizemore (.384 wOBA) and Carlos Beltran (.380), two guys that are now shells of their former selves due to injuries.

While I do believe the late-season improvement is real and sustainable, I still have a hard time expecting more than .265/.340/.480 (~.355 wOBA) out of the Grandyman, which is better than his 2010 effort but not quite as good as what Joe expects (and what 2008 produced). I should mention that I’m a sucker for low expectations, I guess you can’t be disappointed if you don’t expect much in the first place. At his age, there’s no reason to expect Granderson’s defense to fall off a cliff, so I think his floor in 2011 is basically his 2010 self with a pretty strong likelihood of even more. If he manages to stay healthy and put together a four-plus win season, I’ll be thrilled. Anything more is gravy.

Categories : Players
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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.

(Seth Wenig/AP)

“I guarantee you, [the Yankees] outfield next season will not be Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.” – Ken Rosenthal on December 22, 2009.

To a distant observer, Rosenthal’s proclamation might have seemed accurate. Brett Gardner is hardly anyone’s idea of a left fielder, and these are the Yankees. They weren’t going to settle for a slap-hitting speedster in a position normally reserved for power bats, were they? Even when they had Johnny Damon out there in 2008 and 2009 he provided a decent amount of power — his .183 ISO in those two years ranked ninth among left fielders. With options, including Matt Holliday, still on the market, surely the Yankees would seek an upgrade.

Yet to the close observer, the idea of starting the season with Gardner in left field didn’t seem that absurd at all. The Yankees clearly liked the kid. They gave him the starting center field job out of camp in 2009, and even though he played his way out of it, he made an impressive bounce back after April. From May 1 through season’s end Gardner hit .286/.372/.413 in 219 PA. That’s a fairly small sample, of course, but there was definitely something in Gardner’s game that made him seem appealing.

The Yankees, of course, went into the season with Gardner starting in left, and the experiment went as well as anyone could have hoped. He hit .277/.383/.379 and played what might have been the best defense at his position. It added up to 5.4 WAR, sixth among MLB left fielders (and that counts Aubrey Huff, who spend most of the season at first base). Even in terms of offense he matched up well, finishing with a .358 wOBA, seventh among MLB left fielders (again, with Huff included). This year, no one is questioning the Yankees decision to stick with Gardner in left.

Best Case

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

As we’ll see throughout this preview, Brett Gardner might be one of the toughest Yankees players to peg. Intuitively, it doesn’t appear that his skill set should work. He’s a slap hitter who draws much value from his patience at the plate. But why wouldn’t pitchers just throw him strikes? The worst he can do in most cases is hit a single. But for Gardner, that’s a pretty valuable outcome.

Whatever the actual case, pitchers don’t appear to throw Gardner strikes any more frequently than they do anyone else. He uses that to his advantage, drawing more than his share of walks. In fact, of the 216 times he reached base last year, 184 were a single, walk, or hit by pitch. But when you combine that with 47 stolen bases , those singles become more valuable. Of the 27 times Garnder was standing on first when a single was hit, he advanced to third base 10 times. Of the 9 doubles hit in that situation, Gardner scored six times. First base is not a bad spot for him to stand.

The question, of course, is not of what Gardner has done, but what he can do. Does he have the skills to repeat his performance from 2010? From the looks of his progression through the professional ranks, it appears so. He displayed a distinct trend starting in AA. He would get a mid-season promotion and falter a bit at first. Then he’d start the next season at that level and thrive. This carried over to the majors. He debuted with 141 PA in 2008 and sported a paltry .282 wOBA. In 2009 he stumbled out of the gate, but as noted above he recovered and finished the season with a .337 wOBA. Last year it was .358, which represented further improvement. Can he take another step forward this year?

As we’ve written many times, Gardner’s numbers took a dive after he was hit on the wrist on June 27. From that point forward he hit .232/.363/.340. Some of that might have been natural regression. Still, I don’t think his absolute ceiling is far off from the .321/.403/.418 he was hitting after getting hit on the 27th. A .300/.400/.400 line is certainly possible if he remains healthy all season.

Worst Case

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

Gardner has suffered hand and wrist injuries in each of the last two years, which is always cause for concern. He doesn’t rely on power, so if his is sapped it shouldn’t make much of a difference. But as he showed in the second half of last year, simply swinging the bat can become a chore. He took more and more pitches — good pitches, too — as the season wore on. IT sometimes played to his advantage, but more and more often he was caught looking at strike three.

After undergoing wrist surgery this off-season, Gardner appears to be back in form. But what if he suffers another injury, whether via bean ball or by sliding hard into a base, as he did in 2009? If that happens early in the season it could be an enormous detriment. But regardless of when it happens, it will certainly affect him at the plate. For a player who relies so much on a small skill set, that can be a crippling problem.

Beyond injury, there’s a chance that Gardner just got incredibly lucky in the first half of 2010. I’m not sure I totally buy that, but it’s certainly possible. What, then, is his floor in terms of production? I think it’s safe to say that he’ll always hit better than he did in 2008. Could he hit worse than in 2009? Could he turn in a Reggie Willits type season, .258/.341/.302? Again, I suppose that’s possible. Given what we’ve seen from Gardner, I’d say that’s absolutely the worst case.

What’s Likely To Happen

Not many hitters ever attain a .383 OBP, and even fewer sustain it. Given Gardner’s ability to slap singles and take walks, he can continue to hit that mark. If not, I don’t see him far below it. Here is how the projection systems see him:

Bill James: .275/.377/.371
Marcel:     .269/.357/.378
PECOTA:     .260/.357/.364
ZiPS:       .260/.356/.367
CAIRO:      .270/.358/.372

They’re all pretty much in the same range — except, of course, for James, where the projections always trend higher than the others. Still, if I were picking a most likely scenario for Gardner, that’s the one I’d choose. The others seem a bit pessimistic, perhaps because of Gardner’s high BABIP in 2010. But some players simply have that ability. For a guy who walks a lot, Gardner might be a guy who only swings at good pitches and therefore makes better than average contact (even if the ball will only go for a single). I think that when we’re getting down in to PECOTA and ZiPS range, we’re looking at something closer to his worst case.

At this time last year, none of us knew what to expect from Gardner in the upcoming season. This year we have something of a better idea, but the disconnect between Gardner’s appearance and his numbers leaves many of us skeptical that he can continue producing at an elite level. But given his history of improvement at each professional level and the possibility that he stays healthy all season, I think we’ll see something of a repeat performance out of Gardner.

Categories : Players
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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.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last summer, Alex Rodriguez managed to hit .270/.341/.506 (.363 wOBA) with 30 homers, 3.9 fWAR, and more runs driven in (125) than anyone not named Miguel Cabrera. It was the worst full season of his career. Those are the kinds of standards A-Rod has set for himself, when being the seventh most valuable third baseman in the game is a self-admitted disappointment.

Finally given a clean bill of health for his surgically repaired hip after the season, nearly two years out from surgery, Alex went out and shed ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat this winter in an effort to streamline a body that was hardly out-of-shape. He came to camp noticeable slimmer and said he felt lighter on his feet, but all the workouts in the world can’t change the fact that A-Rod is a soon-to-be 36-year-old third baseman with a questionable hip.

Even if you discount the contract that runs through Phil Hughes‘ age 31 season, the Yankees need Alex to be a middle-of-the-lineup force in 2011, a guy that strikes fear into the heart of opposing pitchers and produces runs by the bucketful. If things break right, it will be glorious. If it doesn’t … well there’s some serious ugly potential.

Best Case

For most players, an MVP caliber season represents their best case scenario. For A-Rod, it seems like he’s capable of so much more; you know he has the talent to put up a year that re-writes the record books. The chances of him doing so are far less likely now than they were five or ten years ago, of course, but I’ll never put anything beyond Rodriguez.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

With his hip finally a-okay, A-Rod’s once again capable of fully rotating his lower half during his swing, bringing back his power stroke and making those 30 homers he’s hit in each of the last two years look like child’s play. He’s able to hang in more against pitches on the outer half, raising his .304 wOBA on balls hit to the opposite field over the last two years back to the .359 mark he posted in the three years before the surgery. With some help from Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, he might even be able to top that. A-Rod’s sharp decline against left-handed pitchers (.323 wOBA in 2010 after .402 in 2009 and .395 career) turns out to be nothing more than a one year blip, explained by his comically low .212 BABIP against southpaws last season. More power means more walks as pitchers avoid him, raising that on-base percentage back up to an elite level. The statistical correction against lefties and his rediscovered power stroke bring back the glorious days of no doubt about it, take it to the bank .400+ wOBA production with 35+ homers.

Thanks to the decreased bulk and fully healed hip, A-Rod’s defense at the hot corner improves dramatically. His increased range on balls hit to his left saves a few extra runs and makes Derek Jeter‘s defensive shortcomings slightly more tolerable. Improved durability, well-above average offense, and above average defense at the hot corner makes Alex a legitimate MVP candidate again, a six win player that is always a three week hot streak away from a seven win season.

Worst Case

As wonderful as the clean bill of health for the hip is, it can’t reverse the aging process. A-Rod’s declining ISO just keeps going south, meaning the days of 30+ homers are long gone. Without the constant threat of being taken deep, pitcher pound him inside with fastballs with reckless abandon, resulting in a whole lot of broken bats and weak grounders that kill his average. Walks become even harder to come by, and the issues with southpaws turn out to be very real. Without warning, A-Rod’s turned into a glorified Edwin Encarnacion with the stick.

The defense doesn’t improve even with Rodriguez’s new streamlined physique and healthy hip; the reflexes just aren’t quick enough anymore. For the fourth straight year, he’s unable to play in more than 138 games, overexposing the likes of Eric Chavez, Ramiro Pena, and Eduardo Nunez. The similarities between A-Rod and late-career Mike Lowell become painfully obvious on the field, and it would be fitting since they both had the same major injury as they approached their mid-30’s.

Although the worst case scenario probably has the Yankees’ third baseman putting up a 2.5 or 3.0 fWAR season in 2011, it’s very possible that he’d be the fifth best player at the position in the AL East. That says as much about the abilities of Evan Longoria, Kevin Youkilis, Jose Bautista, and Mark Reynolds as it does A-Rod’s floor. Having the fifth best third baseman in the division while there’s $143M left on his contract would be an albatross of the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s tough to nail down reasonable expectations for A-Rod. On one hand his production and durability has been down over the last three seasons (relatively speaking, of course), but on the other you know he’s capable of a monster campaign. If he hit put up a .350 wOBA with 25-30 homers, I don’t think anyone would be too surprised. If he posted a .400 wOBA with 35-40 homers, yeah I don’t think that would be a huge shock either. Unlikely at his age, but we’ve seen Alex do amazing things before.

Although I’m encouraged by how he looked over the weekend with regards to his weight loss and mobility, it was two games in February and tells us basically nothing. It’s very likely that the power decline is real and will continue, though we’re talking about a guy still capable of a .200+ ISO and 25 homers. I think he’s due for some positive regression on balls in play in 2011; his .270 BABIP in 2010 was good amount below his .296 expected BABIP (xBABIP), and that performance against southpaws is just so out of the ordinary that I can’t help but think it’s a fluke (jut 173 plate appearances against lefties last year, not a big sample at all). Even if he doesn’t return to the .450 wOBA monster he’s been throughout his career against left-handers, splitting the difference and getting back to a .380 wOBA would be a major upgrade over last season.

A-Rod is going to continue to hit in the middle of the Yankees lineup and will be heavily counted on for run production, and he’s fully aware of this. His skills are undeniably in decline in his mid-30’s, but his starting baseline was so high that if he’s just 75% of his peak, he’s still one of the best players in the game. Another season with a .270/.340/.500-ish line would be somewhat disappointing, sure, but still incredibly valuable.

Categories : Players
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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.

(Mark Humphrey/AP)

When, at age 36, a player produces career lows in basically every offensive statistic, one word comes to mind. There is a real possibility that Derek Jeter has entered an irreversible decline. Yankees fans don’t want to admit this. The 2010 season was just a down year, and everyone experiences down years. Considering Jeter’s previous low came during his sophomore season, he was due. Right?

If we’ve learned one thing about Jeter during his 15 years with the club, it’s that he won’t simply accept declining numbers. This off-season he signed a contract that rewards him handsomely for his contribution to a championship team, and he’s going to take that seriously. He already has, as we’ve read frequently this off-season. A new, shorter stride is supposed to help him stay in front of the ball, so that he’s not hitting dinky grounders to second every other at-bat. But will this one change lead to a more productive 2011?

Best Case

Those are some good looking swing mechanics (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

In seasons past, pegging Jeter’s ceiling was pretty easy. Lately the answer has been simple: 2006. That year, riding a near-.400 BABIP, Jeter hit .343/.416/.483 (.399 wOBA) and nearly won the AL MVP Award. In 2009 he came close to those numbers, .334/.406/.465, so in 2010 that appeared to be his ceiling. Instead we got what was in essence his floor. At a younger age we could probably reset his ceiling to that 2006/2009 level. But at age 37 I’m not sure we can do that.

Maybe Jeter’s shortened stride will indeed allow him to get his bat around faster. Maybe, as we’ve heard reported this spring, that he’ll also pull the ball with a bit more authority this year. And maybe that turns into a BABIP around .360, which would put him well above the .300 batting average mark. Since we’re talking best case, that could be in the cards. It’s also possible that, with a bit more reaction time, he can again eclipse a 10 percent walk rate, which would put his OBP around .400. He could also pop a few cheapie homers over the right field porch.

In that way, there is a chance that Jeter could hit somewhere around .330/.400/.450. I wouldn’t call it a good chance. If he did that, he’d essentially be Honus Wagner exactly a century later. In 1911, his age-37 season, Wagner hit a league-leading .334, with a .423 OBP and .507 SLG. The only other shortstop, aged 37 or older, who qualified for the batting title with a .300 or greater average is Luke Appling. Jeter, in other words, is either in decline or in elite company. His best case is pretty clear, given his and baseball’s history.

Worst Case

(Charles Krupa/AP)

This is the part that no one wants to discuss. What if Jeter’s bat slows even more? What if the stride doesn’t help him get out in front of the ball and he ends up hitting a deluge of grounders to second? What if — gulp — he performs even more poorly than last year?

When we discuss worst case scenarios for players, we’re usually talking about an injury or a string of horrible luck. For Jeter, neither of these is the worst case. The worst case is that he hits poorly and looks old doing it. The worst case is that he plays an even more noticeably poor shortstop. The worst case is that he keeps saying he can get himself out of it and delays his drop from the top of the lineup. These might all be worse than an injury. At least with an injury he has something to blame.

It’s tough to imagine just how bad matters could get for Jeter, and I don’t think there’s a reasonably accurate floor for him right now. Could he hit worst than .250? Could he lose even more power? Could his fielding decline further? The answer to these questions has to be certain degrees of yes. In terms of overall worst case, I imagine it involves him hitting ninth by season’s end. Imagine how bad things would have to go for him to hit that mark.

What’s Likely To Happen

If we’re going siding with baseball history, it’s most likely that Jeter hits somewhere around his 2010 level, with perhaps a slightly lower average. If we’re going with Derek Jeter as a generational talent hellbent on improving on his previous season, it’s likely he hits .300 again. This makes pegging the actual likely scenario as tough as, if not tougher than, pegging his worst case.

A week ago Joe Posnanski wrote about two aging superstars: Jeter and Tiger Woods. In it he described both players’ efforts to stave off the effects by aging by making mechanical adjustments. This he dubs Carlton’s Law, after Steve Carlton:

We call it Steve Carlton’s law because no athlete of the last 50 years fought harder to fight off the effects of age. Carlton had all sorts of new-age and mystical training techniques. He would run a lot (at a time when pitchers often said their main form of exercise were 12-ounce curls), and he did all sorts of Martial Arts exercises, and he was probably most famous for moving his arm around in a barrel of rice. He felt certain that all this work, and the mental drive he had for fighting off age, would allow him to pitch effectively until he was at least 48 years old. And he DID win his last Cy Young when he was 37 and pitch effectively at 39 … both pretty extraordinary achievements when it comes to age-postponing.

But then he turned 40. And he was done. Few in baseball history have ever raged as hard against the dying of the light. Carlton played for five different teams after he turned 40 — and though he went 16-36 with an 84 ERA+ over those years, he STILL did not believe he was done when baseball mercifully retired him. His last career start was for the Minnesota Twins, and it was against the Cleveland Indians, and he gave up nine runs. He felt sure he still had something left. All he needed to do was make a couple of adjustments.

Maybe Jeter can turn it around for one more season. Maybe the mechanical adjustment will combine with a bit better luck and create something of a last hurrah for Jeter. But given the number of players who have played shortstop and hit at an elite level at Jeter’s age, it’s tough to bank on it.

In order to keep emotions out of this, I’ll turn to a post I did last week on projected stats for Jeter, Teixeira, and A-Rod. The various projection systems view Jeter differently, but their aggregated conclusion — .286/.353/.399 — sounds good. If we’re able to peg Jeter’s most likely scenario, this is probably it.

No one wants to witness Derek Jeter’s decline. He was a beloved Yankee from his first year with the team, and he has proven during his 15-year career that he is one of the greatest shortstops to play the game. Yet even the best decline. We know what Jeter can do, and we know that he’s working to reverse last year’s results. We just don’t know whether that’s physically possible.

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Feb
25

2011 Season Preview: Robbie Cano

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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 be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees have been waiting for Robbie Cano to step up and become a cornerstone player rather than the really, really good complementary piece he was earlier in his career for a few seasons now. Cano took that step forward last year. He was a legitimate MVP candidate, finishing third in the voting thanks to a .389 wOBA and 6.4 fWAR, the sixth highest among AL position players. Just one Yankee position player was within two wins of his production. By all methods of evaluation, he was the team’s best player in 2010.

And now comes the hard part. The Yankees are expecting their still 28-year-old second baseman to maintain that production in 2011, counting on him to be that cornerstone player as the roster turns over. His offense is no longer an added bonus at the bottom third of the lineup, it’s being counted on in the middle of the order. With no fewer than 159 games played in each of the last four seasons, he’s the only player on the infield to not experience some kind of injury or age-related setback recently, and that durability is part of what makes Robbie so important to the team. Everyone knows he’ll be there day-in and day-out.

What does 2011 have in store for the young superstar? Let’s take a look…

Best Case

In the prime of his career, last season was just a jumping off point for Cano. His power stroke is propped up by what is now a five-year trend of increasing fly ball rates, steadily climbing from 28.2% in 2006 to 36.5% last year. Cano’s line drive rate has stabilized at a little over 19% in the last three years while his ground ball rate continues to fall. Lots of fly balls and line drives is a recipe for extra base hits, and with a little help from Yankee Stadium, Robbie eclipses the 30 homerun plateau for the first time in his career, chipping in his usual 40+ doubles.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Chicks did increases in power output, but Cano’s bread-and-butter is still his uncanny ability to hit for average. A .320 and .319 hitter in the last two seasons, respectively, Robbie again matches that mark and picks up 200 hits for the third straight season. The improved batting eye he showed off in 2010 continues to get better, and his 8.2% walk rate (6.3% removing intentionals) climbs into double digits, pushing his on-base percentage north of .400 for the first time in his career.

On the other side of the ball, the advanced defensive metrics finally recognize what we’ve all known for the last few years: Cano is a Gold Glove caliber defender at second. His range to his right somewhat compensates for Derek Jeter‘s perpetually declining range to his left, saving the pitching staff a couple extra runs during the course of the season. Put it all together and you’ve got the game’s best offensive second baseman and one of its best defensive second baseman, resulting in a pace that threatens, if not flat out exceeds 7.0 fWAR.

Worst Case

Aside from the obvious (injury, etc.), the worst thing that could happen to Cano is that the league finally figures out a way to get him out consistently. So far that hasn’t happened; Cano’s always been a guy that’s fallen into slumps because of his bad habits, not because pitchers have exploited a weakness. He can be prone to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, probably his biggest drawback, but so far he’s mitigated the damage with his exceptional contact skills (just 6.2% swings and misses in his career, 5.7% since 2008).

As a guy that makes so much contact, Cano’s offensive production will always be closely tied to his BABIP. It’s been in the .320’s in three of the last four years, and the one year it wasn’t was 2008. That’s the year he hit .271/.305/.410 with a .307 wOBA (.283 BABIP), resulting in a total worth of just 0.7 fWAR. The unpredictability of the BABIP beast will be Robbie’s enemy just as much as the opposing pitcher, perhaps moreso. Randomness can be a bitch.

With 30 homers now within react, Cano could start selling out for power to the pull side. He might hit a few more dingers, but his average and on-base percentage will take hits, possibly considerable ones. Barring a complete breakdown either physically or mechanically, the worst case scenario for Cano has him returning to those 2008 levels of production, which would be almost a six win drop-off for the Yankees.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

In all likelihood, 2010 was a career year for Robbie, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean he’s going to tail off and turn into a glorified version of Juan Uribe this season, but the performance might be merely very good instead of MVP caliber. Cano set career highs in homers (29), walks (57), unintentional walks (43), on-base percentage (.381), slugging percentage (.534), and isolated power (.214) last season, so it’ll be tough for him to top that performance. It’s possible, but unlikely.

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

If I had to lay out some odds, I’d say there’s a 50% chance that Cano repeats his 2009 performance this season, a 35% chance he repeats his 2010 performance, a 14% chance he exceeds his 2010 performance, and a 1% chance that he falls off a cliff. Robbie’s floor is very high in 2011, a .370 wOBA and 4.0 fWAR seem to be the bare minimums here.

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What up, Mark? (Mike Carleson/AP)

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 be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

It started in 1985. Don Mattingly, coming off his first full season in the bigs, during which he led the league in hits and won the batting title, got his first start at first base on Opening Day. In the two years before that, Ken Griffey opened the season at first. Dave Revering, Bob Watson, and Chris Chambliss held the honors in the years before that. But from 1985 through 1995, it was Mattingly who manned first on Opening Day. It was the start of a tradition.

When Mattingly retired after the 95 season he passed the torch to Tino Martinez, who started at first on Opening Day from 1996 through 2001. The honors then went to Jason Giambi, who was supposed to start at first on Opening Day from 2002 through at least 2008. Only Josh Phelps starting at first on Opening Day 2007 broke that streak. Now Mark Teixeira is the man at first, and in 2011 he will open his third pinstriped season there. Save for that one anomalous Opening Day, the Yankees have had four men man first base on Opening Day since 1985. It is a tradition, once maligned, that we all hope continues through 2016, when Teixeira perhaps passes the torch to the next great Yankees first baseman.

For now we can enjoy the current first baseman in his prime. While Teixeira had his second worst, and certainly most disappointing, season in 2010, he’s still a world class athlete in the prime of his career. Despite the down year the expectations range high.

Best Case

Game changer. (Charles Krupa/AP)

By the time a player reaches age 30, we usually have a good idea of his true talent. This appears to be the case with Teixeira, who produced a wOBA between .402 and .410 from 2007 through 2009, peaking at .410 in 2008. Since he’s 31 and unlikely to dramatically improve, we can safely peg his peak value at 2008, when, on the strength of his best offensive season and a particularly impressive defensive one, he produced 7.3 WAR.

That would make his best case section pretty boring. That’s not going to fly. As I examined earlier this week, a hot start could make a big difference for Teixeira. In that quick and dirty analysis I substituted Teixeira’s second-worst month for his worst one. It made something of a difference in his season numbers, particularly in batting average and slugging. But what if Teixeira were to have an otherworldly April, and then go on to have a season similar to 2009?

The last season in which Teixeira produced good numbers in April was 2006, when he hit .293/.391/.495 in 115 April PA. If we simply substitute those numbers for Teixeira’s April 2009 numbers — .200/.367/.371 in 90 PA — this is what we’d come up with:

.303/.387/.575

And yet, in 2007 Teixeira hit .306/.400/.563, so this isn’t really out of line at all out of line with what Teixeira can do. Yet it’s a bit better than his 2009. The best case for Teixiera, then, is an MVP.

Worst Case

No one wants to see this again in 2011. (Paul Battaglia/AP)

Most of us don’t want to acknowledge the worst case scenario for any player. Not at this point in the year. It involves injury, of course, and with Teixeira that possibility is a bit more real than it was at this time last year. While he didn’t spend any time on the DL, the year was marked by a series of injuries that hampered his production, and which culminated in a hamstring strain during the ALCS.

Baseball Injury Tool notes four different instances in 2010 when Teixeira was listed as day-to-day. There was the foul ball he took off his foot at the end of May, but the real litany came towards the end of the season. He missed a game at the end of August with a thumb contusion, an injury that probably lingered the rest of the season; he had a cortizone shot sometime at the end of September. Then, towards the middle of September, it was revealed that he had a toe fracture — which he suffered at the end of August. Then came the hamstring strain.

Most of these injuries, it appears, stemmed from fluke things such as getting hit by pitches. That’s good news going forward, since it doesn’t portend a repeat in 2011. Still, we know that small injuries, especially the thumb one, can seriously hamper Teixeira’s production. Repeating any part of his 2011 injury wise would probably bring on the worst case scenario.

The other part of the worst case is that Teixeira’s production truly has declined. Again, it’s easy to look at the injuries as an explanation. He did produce two stellar months in July and August, and those were two months where he was a month removed from any day-to-day injuries. Still, we have no idea the degree to which that link is causal. There have been first baseman who have produced similarly to Teixeira early in their careers, only to decline around age 30. The worst case, then, would be a facsimile of his 2010 season, but perhaps without the torrid July and August production.

What’s Likely To Happen

Given the injuries that slowed his 2010 season and his focus on getting off to a decent start in 2011, I think that Teixeira’s most likely case involves a compromise between his 2008 and 2009 seasons. That is, an OBP close to, but not quite at, .400, and a SLG that ranges around .550 rather than .565. That would still provide tremendous production for the Yankees, and would put him among the best first basemen in the American League.

Despite Teixeira’s best efforts, it’s tough to envision anything but a slow start. This is now a four-year trend, and to predict a reversal is to bet blindly on optimism. As long as his start doesn’t resemble 2010, which was his worst April ever, the Yanks can weather the extra outs from the No. 3 spot.

Thankfully, along with the trend of slow starts comes the trend of torrid production later in the season. Even in his down year last season he crushed the ball during the summer months. If it is blind optimism to predict a hot start, it is equally blind pessimism to predict a drop-off in summer numbers. When healthy Teixeira is a proven second half hitter, and that will help the Yankees tremendously heading into a September pennant race.

As Mark Teixeira goes, so will the Yankees. He occupies a key spot in the lineup, and the Yankees rely on his production to help lead their league-best offense. While 2010 represented a down year, it was also one marked by injuries. If he remains healthy in 2011, it’s hard to expect anything but another elite season.

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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 be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

For the first time since 1999, the Yankees will have someone not named Jorge Posada behind the plate on Opening Day. Former Dodger Russell Martin was inked to a one-year, $4M contract in the offseason, pushing Posada to designated hitter and (presumably) Frankie Cervelli to the backup role. The move was made not in hopes that Martin would recapture his 2007 magic (though that would be welcome), but that he would simply solidify the defense behind the plate.

The Yankees assumed risk in this move (just like all them), though perhaps more than usual. Martin is on steady decline offensively, particularly in the power department. He missed the end of the 2010 season after suffering a hairline fracture in his hip when he stepped on home plate awkwardly, though the good news is that he did not damage the labrum. His pre-signing physical revealed a partially torn meniscus that required minor surgery. The Dodgers know Martin better than anyone, and they chose to walk away from an expected salary around $7M in 2011 plus another year of control in 2012 (via arbitration-eligibility) by non-tendering him.

That said, Martin just turned 28 years old, so he’s theoretically in prime baseball playing age. Things could go well, things could go poorly, or it could end up being a mix of the two. Let’s explore…

Best Case

There is no more demanding position in the game than catcher. The physical abuse from squatting behind the plate, foul tips, and miscellaneous bumps and bruises often lead to short peaks, and Martin’s workloads over the last three seasons have been excessive. He started no fewer than 133 games behind the plate every year from 2007 through 2009, and he was on pace to start another 135 in 2010 before the hip injury ended his season in August.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A winter of rest and a manager willing to play his backup catcher twice a week helps rejuvenate Martin’s career, and he gets back on the path that he appeared to be on after 2007. Hitting coach Kevin Long makes some minor tweaks that bring back Martin’s power stroke (.095 ISO over the last three years), along with an assist from Yankee Stadium. Coupled with 11.4% walks (his rate over the last three seasons, removing intentional walks), the 2007 All-Star resurfaces, and Martin gets on base more than 37% of the time and pops close to 20 homers with double-digit steals out of the eighth and ninth spots of the lineup.

With the hip and knee fully healed, Martin’s mobility behind the plate is a non-issue, and he’s blocking A.J. Burnett breaking balls in the dirt and framing Phil Hughes cutters on the corners with aplomb. His 33.9% success rate at throwing out basestealers over the last two years proves to be no fluke, and Martin posts the best throw-out rate by a Yankees starting catcher since before the Posada era. The entire package adds up to a four or five WAR pace and a player in high demand at the trade deadline.

Worst Case

That heavy workload has taken just too much of a toll on Martin’s body. His power is completely gone and Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines are no help despite his tendency to go the other way into right field. The downward trend of his contact skills (6.4% swinging strikes in 2008, 6.8% in 2009, 7.1% in 2010) not only continue, but are exacerbated by battle tested AL East pitching staffs. Without the pitcher hitting behind him, Martin is finding walks harder to come by.

The hip and knee issues sap agility and quickness behind the plate, rendering Martin a slightly better version of Posada when it comes to blocking balls and moving around. Elite burners like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Rajai Davis, and Jacoby Ellsbury expose Martin’s throwing arm, showing that anyone can appear to be good at gunning down base stealers when the biggest speed threats in your division are Chris Young, Tony Gwynn Jr., and Dexter Fowler.

With little defensive value and offense that makes fans pine for Cervelli’s .315 wOBA of a year ago, Martin barely keeps his head above replacement level and ends up in the pile of cast-offs with Kelly Stinnett and Todd Pratt and Chris Widger after the season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s clear that Martin is no longer the budding superstar that he appeared to be in 2007, when he hit .293/.374/.469 (.368 wOBA) with 19 homers and 21 steals while piling up 5.8 fWAR, but the Yankees don’t need him to be. He was brought in to solidify the defense behind the plate and be something more than an automatic out at the bottom of the lineup, rather modest expectations. The knee and hip injuries are a legitimate concern, though Martin has already done catching drills in camp and so far all is well.

Offensively, Martin should benefit from a move into Yankee Stadium. He does a solid job of going the other way towards right field, and about 74.4% of his balls-in-play in that direction are non-grounders (about 55% pure fly balls). He’ll definitely hit a cheapie homer or five this season. The walk rate has consistently been in double-digits throughout his career, peaking over the last three seasons, and it’s not like he’s been facing crappy pitching in the NL West. The intentional walks won’t be there to inflate Martin’s on-base percentage, but anything over .335-ish with solid defense is an upgrade for New York.

Ultimately, Martin is just a role player for the Yankees. He’ll hit in the bottom third of the lineup and be asked to shut down the opponent’s running game first and foremost. It’s a dirt cheap contract and the Yankees have the ability to retain him in 2012 as an arbitration-eligible player, so if Martin proves useful, they’ll have plenty of option with regards to his future. Quality catching is at a premium around the league, so teams will come calling if he’s just decent.

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