Archive for 2014 Season Preview
Last year, the Yankees got close to zero help from their farm system. The only player to come up from the minors and establish himself as a big leaguer was Adam Warren, who spent the year as the swingman. Guys like David Adams, Preston Claiborne, and Zoilo Almonte got off to hot starts, but they all tailed off once they were pressed into regular playing time. Austin Romine also failed to impress as the backup catcher. The system offered close to no help as the injuries mounted and the poor stretches turned into poor seasons.
The Yankees were not oblivious to this — Hal Steinbrenner called a staff meeting and essentially had the scouting and player development staff audited to figure out why there were no internal solution. No major personnel changes were made, but some procedural changes were implemented and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. Turning around the system probably won’t happen overnight, but the team did take some steps in the right direction these last few months.
At some point this season, the Yankees will have to dip into their farm system for help. It’s inevitable. Injuries will strike and fringe players will play their way off the roster. When that happens, the first attempt at fixing the problem will come from within. The Yankees have shown they will be patient and not jump right into the trade market when they need help these last few years and I have no reason to think that will change in 2014. Here are the prospects who could come up and help the MLB team this summer.
Catcher: John Ryan Murphy
Murphy, 22, got his first taste of the big leagues late last year, but that was nothing more than a September cup of coffee following a breakout season in Double-A and Triple-A. He hit .269/.347/.426 with 29 doubles and 12 homers between the two levels and has improved so much defensively that he is now viewed as a no doubt catcher long-term. Had the Yankees not signed Brian McCann, the temptation to start Murphy in 2014 would have been be great. Instead, he figures to bide his time in Triple-A and await an injury after jumping Romine on the depth chart. Of course, he might be nothing more than trade bait. Sleeper: Eh, there really isn’t a sleeper behind the plate for 2014.
Infield: Dean Anna
Similar to Murphy, Anna figures to be the first called up whenever injury strikes the infield. The Yankees acquired the 27-year-old from the Padres in a minor offseason deal and he can do a little of everything except hit for power. He can get on base and play both second and short, where the offensive bar is pretty low. I’d say the chances of Anna coming up and being an impact player this summer are remote, but he does enough to potentially help the team both at the plate and in the field if pressed into duty. Sleeper: Jose Pirela, who’s hit .264/.334/.401 and played four positions (second, short, third, left) at Double-A the last three years.
Outfield: Zoilo Almonte
Technically, Almonte had his chance to help the MLB team last year. He came up in mid-June and had five pretty great games to start his career, but it went downhill fast and he finished the year with a .236/.274/.302 batting line in 113 big league plate appearances around an ankle injury. Almonte, 24, offers sound corner outfield defense and a switch-hitting bat, and there’s a case to be made that he’s a better fit for the bench than Ichiro Suzuki right now. Instead of making the Opening Day roster, Zoilo will have to settle for a trip to Triple-A, where he will be the first called up whenever an extra outfield body is needed. He’s the clear first in line. Sleeper: Ronnie Mustelier, who didn’t get a shot last year but could hit his way into the conversation again.
Right-handers: Dellin Betances, Mark Montgomery, Jose Ramirez
Of everyone in this post, the 25-year-old Betances probably has the best chance to crack the Opening Day roster. He finally found something resembling sustained success in the bullpen last year, pitching to a 2.06 ERA with a 93/28 K/BB in 65.2 innings after shifting into a relief role. It feels like a foregone conclusion that Betances will get a chance to not only stick in the big leagues this year, but also assume a high-profile, late-inning role. The time is now for Dellin.
Had Montgomery not gotten hurt last year, he probably would have been called up instead of Claiborne. Instead, the 23-year-old struggled to throw strikes while missing time with shoulder problems. Montgomery will likely have to show he’s back to being the guy he was from 2011-12 before getting a chance to help the MLB team with his wipeout slider. Ramirez, 24, has had trouble staying healthy over the years and sure enough, he’s already been sidelined with an oblique problem in camp. When right, his fastball-changeup combination is electric and could have a huge impact out of the bullpen, assuming the Yankees are ready to give up on him as a starter given his career-long lack of durability. Sleeper: Danny Burawa, assuming he can figure out how consistently throw strikes.
Left-handers: Cesar Cabral, Vidal Nuno
I wouldn’t be a complete shock if either Cabral or Nuno made the Opening Day roster, but, more likely, they figure to serve as up and down arms this season. The 25-year-old Cabral is a pure lefty specialist with a low-90s fastball and a sweepy slider, and his late-season cameo was impressive (nine lefties faced, six strikeouts). Nuno, 26, has a deep enough repertoire to start and we saw him do that last summer before his groin injury. In a perfect world, he’d turn into a left-handed 2009 Al Aceves, a rubber-armed swingman who could come in for one batter or four innings without much of a problem. Sleeper: Fred Lewis, who lacks sexy numbers but has the fastball-slider combination to help as a specialist.
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The Yankees do not have a Xander Bogaerts or a Gregory Polanco in their farm system, that super high upside MLB ready prospect with a clear path to big league playing time in 2014. Any help they get from within this summer figures to come in small doses, from bench players or relievers. Sure, Murphy could take over as the starter if McCann gets hurt or Nuno could grab the fifth starter’s spot and run with it, but that would be a surprise. The system is not a position to provide an immediate impact right now unless it involves trading prospects for a big leaguer.
Remember back when the Yankees struggled to find a reliable setup man once Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson skipped town? They spent a ton of money on guys like Steve Karsay and Kyle Farnsworth over the years — in fairness, both of them had their moments — but it wasn’t until David Robertson emerged three years ago that they had a consistently dominant eighth inning guy ahead of Mariano Rivera.
Mo retired after last season and Robertson will take over ninth inning duties, meaning the setup role is again something of a question. Joe Girardi has indicated he won’t necessarily have a designated eighth inning guy in 2014, instead relying on platoon matchups to get the ball to his new closer. While these things are always subject to change, two veterans who throw with different arms figure to share setup duties at the start of the season.
RHP Shawn Kelley
Kelley was a nice little find for the Yankees a year ago. They acquired him in a minor trade with the Mariners just as Spring Training started and he gave the team 53.1 innings of 4.39 ERA (3.63 FIP) ball. An ugly April and an ugly September were sandwiched around three excellent months as Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) in 39.2 innings from May 1st through August 31st. During that time, he struck out 51 of 162 batters faced (31.5%).
The Yankees unlocked the 29-year-old’s strikeout potential with a tried and true formula: get ahead in the count and bury hitters with a wipeout slider. Out of the 125 relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Kelley ranked fifth in slider percentage (49.4%) and 16th in first pitch strike percentage (65.6%). Simple, right? Get ahead in the count and go to the slider. That helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .225/.290/.417 (.308 wOBA) batting line with a 32.8% strikeout rate.
Kelley is not without his warts, however. Left-handed hitters knocked him around a bit (.329 wOBA) and, perhaps more importantly, he is very fly ball and homer prone. His 33.1% ground ball rate last summer was the 17th lowest among those 125 relievers with at least 50 innings, and when you give up fly balls, you’re going to give up homers. That’s just the way it is. Kelley allowed eight dingers in his 53.1 innings (1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB), and the scary thing is that only two came in Yankee Stadium. His homer rate might go up in 2014.
That propensity to give up the long ball is what scares me most about Kelley pitching high leverage innings. I won’t go as far as saying it will be like watching 2011-13 Phil Hughes, when every pitch feels like he was walking on egg shells, but it won’t be too far off. Kelley earned the opportunity to be the setup man with last year’s performance and because he both pounds the zone and misses a ton of bats, two things that tend to make pitchers very successful. That potential for the ill-timed homer is always going to be in the back of my mind though.
LHP Matt Thornton
Boone Logan gave the Yankees three and a half very nice years — he got way more crap than he deserved and I’m guilty of handing some of it out — and those years earned him a fat three-year contract with the Rockies this offseason. New York signed Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M to take over as Girardi’s primary left-hander out of the bullpen. He went from the White Sox to the Red Sox last year but was left off Boston’s postseason roster because of a lingering oblique problem.
Thornton, 37, was once one of the very best relievers in baseball, regardless of handedness. He posted a 2.84 ERA (2.50 FIP) with a 29.1% strikeout rate from 2008-11, and he didn’t have much of a platoon split either — lefties had a .247 wOBA while righties had a .267 wOBA. Thornton’s overall effectiveness has slipped in recent years, not coincidentally as his trademark fastball started to lose some juice:
|ERA||FIP||K%||HR/FB%||FB velocity||RHB wOBA||LHB wOBA|
Thornton’s game has clearly slipped over the years but he remains a viable matchup left-hander, which is what the Yankees signed him to be. At least that’s what I hope. Asking Thornton to consistently get righties out at this point of his career is not a good idea, not with his fastball shortening up and not even with Yankee Stadium’s left-center field death valley behind him. He’s a straight matchup lefty right now. As long as Girardi uses him properly, he should be fine.
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Both Kelley and Thornton have been in the league a while now and both have experience pitching in the later innings (Thornton moreso), so it makes sense to have them share setup duties based on platoon matchups at the start of the season. The bullpen is ever-changing though, and chances are the setup crew at the start of the year will be different from the setup crew come September (and hopefully October). I’m not hating on Kelley and Thornton when I say that, it’s just that bullpens are known for turnover.
Barring injury or a trade, 12 of the 13 position player spots are already set. Joe Girardi made it clear Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson will be the starting second and third basemen, respectively, leaving Brendan Ryan on the bench with Frankie Cervelli and Ichiro Suzuki. The fourth and final bench spot is up for grabs in Spring Training and the Yankees have indicated it will go to an infielder. More than a few players are competing for the job.
IF Dean Anna
Acquired in a minor November trade with the Padres, Anna had a big year in Triple-A (.331/.410/.482) but was unable to land a 40-man roster spot with San Diego. They flipped him to the Yankees for a Single-A reliever rather than lose him for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft. The 27-year-old lefty hitter has a ton of experience on the middle infield and a little at third, making him prime backup infielder fodder.
Anna lacks a standout tool but he’s okay at everything. His plate discipline is his strongest skill but there is more to life than minor league strikeout and walk rates. Last year was the first year in which he hit higher than .280 and he’s never been much of a power guy or base-stealer. His defense is generally regarded as solid even though last Saturday’s play in the hole makes you think he’s the best defender ever. It’s a classic backup infielder’s profile and a strong spring could push Anna onto the Opening Day roster.
1B/OF Russ Canzler
As of right now, Johnson is the backup first baseman according to Girardi even though he only has 18 career innings at the position. The 27-year-old Canzler is the only other true first baseman in camp, though he has a good amount of left field experience as well. The Yankees had him working out at third base earlier in camp in an attempt to increase his versatility. Canzler is a pure right-handed platoon bat, hitting .307/.390/.531 against lefties in Triple-A over the years compared to .267/.346/.442 against righties. He only has 102 career big league plate appearances to his credit. Canzler is a long shot for the bench despite his ability to play first, so he’s likely ticketed for Triple-A.
IF Corban Joseph
CoJo, 25, made his very brief big league debut last season before needing season-ending shoulder surgery. They Yankees dumped him off the 40-man roster over the winter and he went unclaimed on waivers, giving you an idea of how he’s regarded around the league. Joseph had a big 2012 season split between Double-A and Triple-A (.276/.375/.465 with 15 HR) and while he’s versatile in that he can fake first, second, and third bases, he’s a liability everywhere. If he shows he can hit like he did two years ago, Joseph might have value as a bench player. If not, well there’s really nothing he can offer. He seems to be well behind the rest of the pack in the race for the final bench spot.
IF Eduardo Nunez
Boy did Nunez blow a golden opportunity last summer. Rather than cement his place in the future of the team by playing well at shortstop during Derek Jeter‘s various leg injuries, he got hurt himself and showed little improvement at the plate or in the field. Nunez had a strong November as the (almost) everyday third baseman, but one good month wasn’t enough to salvage his season, nor should it be.
Nunez, 26, came to camp as the incumbent backup infielder but that doesn’t guarantee him anything. The Yankees could have very easily handed him the job and been done with it — they really seem to like Nunez, don’t they? — but instead they brought in several players as legitimate competition. It definitely appears as though he fell out of favor with last summer’s continued lack of progress. I don’t think they would bring in so many infielders if they were comfortable with him.
We all know what Nunez can do at this point, right? He is a high contact hitter who can run but doesn’t have much power — he did say he spent most of the winter trying to bulk up and add strength, for what it’s worth — and his defense is a complete wildcard. He’ll make a stunning play one inning and botch a routine one later in the game. Unfortunately the bad plays outweigh the good ones. Nunez is not being handed a bench job and if he doesn’t make a strong case for one in camp, he has a minor league option left and can go to Triple-A.
2B/3B Scott Sizemore
After missing all but two games over the last two years due to back-to-back torn ACLs, the 29-year-old Sizemore signed a minor league contract and got into his first post-surgery Grapefruit League game last night. He had a nice half-season with the Athletics in 2011 (.249/.345/.433 with 11 HR) but given the sample size and the long layoff, I don’t think we can say that’s the real Sizemore. Healthy or not, he’s a tough guy to predict for the upcoming season.
If you’re a believer in uniform numbers being an indicator of a player’s roster chances, then Sizemore is sitting pretty after being issued Robinson Cano‘s old #24. Everyone else in this post other than Nunez has a number north of 70. Maybe that’s a sign the team considers Sizemore the favorite for the job as long as he’s healthy. Who knows. Either way, he has a lot to prove after missing two full years. I believe Sizemore has a best chance of being a league average player (that’s very valuable!) out of everyone in this post but making the team is not a given.
UTIL Yangervis Solarte
I didn’t expect to include the 26-year-old Solarte in this post initially, but he’s hit the snot out of the ball early in camp (.778/.800/1.444) and is very versatile, spending a bunch of time at the three non-first base infield positions as well as both corner outfield spots in his career. That would be nice to have off the bench. The switch-hitting Solarte has hit .282/.332/.404 in 1,145 Triple-A plate appearances the last two years, which is pretty underwhelming considering how hitter friendly the Pacific Coast League is.
The Yankees have shown a willingness to give roster spots to big Spring Training performers in recent years (2009 Ramiro Pena and 2012 David Phelps, most notably), so it’s not completely out of the question that Solarte could sneak onto the Opening Day roster if he keeps raking. A versatile switch-hitter would be nice to have. Then again, nothing in his track record suggests he’s some kind of hidden gem or in the middle of an early spring breakout.
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Others like Zelous Wheeler and Jose Pirela have utility man profiles and are technically competing for that bench job in camp, but they are clear long shots to me. Solarte really belongs in that group as well, hot spring start notwithstanding. Because of the questionable starting infield arrangement and various injury risks, whoever gets that final bench spot may wind up playing a larger role than expected. Despite being the 24th or 25th spot on the roster, this bench spot offers quite a bit of opportunity.
It is in no way an exaggeration to say CC Sabathia was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last season. Out of the game’s 81 qualified starters, he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR. He also led the league with 112 earned runs allowed. Last season was the worst of Sabathia’s career by a large margin and it was a big reason why the team failed to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.
Why did Sabathia struggle so much in 2013? There is no shortage of theories. He lost too much weight, he lost too much velocity, he had offseason elbow surgery, all the innings are catching up to him, his mechanics were out of whack … on and on we could go. Sabathia never made excuses and pitching coach Larry Rothschild blamed it on inconsistent mechanics that led to too many pitches out over the plate. My guess? All of it. All of that stuff and more contributed to his poor year.
That disastrous 2013 season is in the past now. Sabathia is now more than a full year out from elbow surgery and he remade his body this winter, shedding bad weight and adding muscle in hopes of building power and stamina. He looks marvelous and in better shape than he’s ever been as a Yankee, but that was also true last spring, just not to the same extent. Physical condition is not going to be excuse, not that it ever was. CC is always going to be a big guy, that’s just his body type, but now he is slightly less big.
In his first Spring Training outing on Saturday, Sabathia came out firing 88 mph bullets that raised a little red flag but are not really freakout worthy yet. It was his first Grapefruit League start and we’ll re-evaluate his fastball when he builds up some more arm strength and gets another start or two under his belt. Sabathia’s velocity has steadily declined in recent years …
… and there is little reason to think that will stop. That’s the reality of being a 33-year-old workhorse who will top the 3,000 career innings (regular season and postseason) mark this summer. Once the fastball starts to go, it tends to continue going. Reversing the velocity decline is just not something that happens. The best the Yankees and Sabathia can hope for is halting the decline and maintaining this level of velocity for a little while longer.
Lefties who can pump 94-96 mph consistently — like Sabathia a few years ago — are the exception. Lefties who sit right around 90 are the rule. That’s Madison Bumgarner (91.2 mph in 2013), C.J. Wilson (90.9), Cliff Lee (90.4), and Mike Minor (90.4) velocity, and that foursome combined for a 3.06 ERA and a 3.12 FIP in 841 innings last year. Sabathia averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball last season and even if he loses another mile an hour this year, it should still be enough.
At his peak from 2007-12, CC maintained an ~8 mph separation between his fastball (93.7 mph) and changeup (86.0 mph). Last year it was only a 6.5 mph separation and that’s a big difference. That’s the difference between squaring a pitch up and hitting it off the end of the bat or flat out swinging and missing. Linear weights reflect the reduced effectiveness of his changeup (-8.3 runs saved in 2013 after +35.6 from 2007-12), a pitch that his been one of his most dangerous weapons the last seven years or so.
Of course, velocity and separation between the fastball and changeup is only one small piece of the pitching pie. Sabathia’s location flat out stunk last season, anecdotally because his arm slot wavered (he admitted as much) and his pitches cut back over the plate. According to Baseball Heat Maps, a whopping 39.2% of Sabathia’s pitches were over the heart of the plate last season, up from 30.7% in 2012 and 31.7% from 2011-12. That’s a big, big deal. He averaged 104.25 pitches per start last season, so we’re talking an extra nine pitches (!) over the heart of the plate per start on average. Big deal. Really big deal.
Improving on last season’s performance will require a number of things. Sabathia’s not finding more velocity so just forget about that. He needs to improve his location first and foremost. I’m not sure there is any way you can improve performance quicker than by not throwing the ball in the hitter’s wheelhouse. If Sabathia can get back to living on the corners and at the knees, it doesn’t really matter if he’s throwing 85 or 95. Easier said than done, obviously. Regaining that 8-ish mph separation between the fastball and changeup is another key.
How does Sabathia go about improving his location and the effectiveness of his changeup in 2014? Damned if I know. That’s up to Sabathia and Rothschild to figure out. The problems could be mechanical or the result of the elbow surgery — he underwent a biomechanical analysis over the winter and things checked out okay, for what it’s worth — or they could be the result of muscling up and trying to manufacture velocity. Overthrowing is a great way to miss spots. Again, it’s probably a little of everything.
Maybe I’m just a raging homer, but I truly believe Sabathia can rebound and be an effective starter for the Yankees this summer. He has to make several adjustments first and even if he does, I still think it’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to peak CC form, that Cy Young caliber ace. Simply being not one of the worst pitchers in baseball like last year seems reasonable to me though. A guy who can give the team 200+ innings of 3.70-ish ERA ball is still really valuable, even if it is not what we’re used to seeing from Sabathia.
I don’t know if the Yankees can make the postseason in 2014 with a good but not great performance from Sabathia, but I do know they have almost no chance of going to the playoffs if he pitches like he did a year ago. Even with Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda around to anchor the rotation, I believe a rebound from the club’s erstwhile ace is a necessity for contention this season.
As Joe explained last week, the Yankees have several important players coming back from injury this season. They also have several players who, due to their age and/or recent history, are at risk of getting hurt in 2014. Injuries are part of the game and many times they’re completely unpredictable or unavoidable, but there are certainly players who are more likely to get hurt than others. The Yankees haven’t exactly been good at keeping their guys healthy these last few years either. Here are New York’s biggest injury risks for the coming season and their respective backup plans.
Injury Risk: Derek Jeter
Backup Plan: Brendan Ryan
Aside from the dislocated shoulder back in 2003, last season was the only time Derek Jeter spent an extended period of time on the DL in his career. A twice-fractured left ankle and various leg muscle problems limited him to only 17 games, and even though he’s been healthy this spring and working out for weeks, his age (39) and the series of leg problems will make him an injury risk pretty much all year. The Cap’n is very much day-to-day at this point of his career.
The Yankees acquired Ryan last September when Jeter went to the DL for the fourth and final time, then they re-signed him to a two-year contract (with a player option!) over the winter to serve as shortstop insurance. If Jeter does go down with injury this summer, regardless of whether it’s two days or two weeks or two months, Ryan will step right in and play shortstop everyday. He can’t hit a lick but his defense is among the best in the game.
Injury Risk: Brian Roberts
Backup Plan: Ryan, Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, etc.
There is no greater injury risk on the roster than Roberts. He has appeared in only 192 of 648 possible regular season games since 2011 due to a variety of injuries, including back spasms (2010), concussions (2010-11), hip labrum surgery (2012), and hamstring surgery (2013). Second base is a dangerous position because of the blind double play pivot and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Roberts hits the DL, kinda like it did with Travis Hafner last summer.
Infield depth is something the Yankees spent most of the offseason accumulating, though none of it really stands out. They don’t have a 2005 Robinson Cano waiting in the wings, for example. Ryan, Anna, Nunez, Yangervis Solarte, and Corban Joseph are the various backup plans at second base, though only Ryan and Nunez have any kind of substantial MLB time. The player who gets the job when Roberts goes down with injury may simply be the guy who’s playing the best at that time.
Injury Risk: Frankie Cervelli
Backup Plan: Austin Romine, John Ryan Murphy
Cervelli seems to have a knack for the fluke injury. His wrist was broken by a home plate collision in Spring Training 2008 and he’s also had foul balls break his foot (2011, again in Spring Training) and hand (2013) in recent years. The broken hand last year turned into a stress reaction in his elbow. More seriously, Cervelli has had four concussions in his pro career, including three from December 2009 through September 2011. Romine and Murphy will both be stashed in Triple-A as insurance, and I suspect Romine would get the call as a short-term replacement while Murphy would be the guy if Cervelli misses most of the season again.
Injury Risk: Michael Pineda
Backup Plan: Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Adam Warren
When a player misses two full years due to a major surgery, it’s really hard to count on him staying healthy going forward. Pineda is an unknown and unreliable until he proves otherwise, which might never happen. His surgery was serious stuff and that’s why he hasn’t been handed a rotation spot as of yet. Pineda has to earn it by showing he can be effective post-surgery in camp. Phelps, Warren, and Nuno are all competing for the same fifth starter spot and will be ready to jump into the rotation at a moment’s notice if Pineda makes the team and goes down for any reason.
Injury Risk: Jacoby Ellsbury & Brett Gardner
Backup Plan: Ichiro Suzuki, Zoilo Almonte
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury and Gardner have combined to play in 686 of 972 possible regular season games, or 71%. Go back four seasons and it’s only 66%. Both guys have had injury problems over the years but the major ones can mostly be classified as flukes. Here are Ellsbury’s notable injuries …
- Fractured Ribs, 2010: Crashed into a teammate chasing a pop-up then suffered a setback after returning too soon.
- Shoulder Subluxation, 2012: Fielder fell on top of him following a break up slide at second base.
- Foot Fracture, 2013: Fouled a ball off his foot.
… and here are Gardner’s:
- Fractured Thumb, 2009: Slid into second base on a stolen base attempt.
- Wrist Debridement, 2010: Hit by a pitch, needed offseason surgery after playing hurt in second half.
- Inflamed Elbow, 2012: Made a sliding catch and suffered three setbacks (!) before having season-ending surgery.
- Oblique Strain, 2013: Swung a bat. Nothing more.
There has been other day-to-day stuff over the years but those are the big injuries. Gardner’s oblique strain last September is the only one that isn’t a fluke to me, though I think it’s also important to understand both guys have a playing style that puts them at greater risk of injury. When you steal a ton of bases, you risk hurting your fingers and having an infielder fall on top of you. When you run around the outfield making sliding and diving catches, you can jam something pretty easily.
Is it fair to consider Ellsbury and Gardner injury risks for 2014? Maybe not, but they have been hurt a bunch in recent years and I felt they were worth discussing. If Ellsbury were to get hurt, Gardner would slide right into center field. If Gardner got hurt, Alfonso Soriano would probably take over as the everyday left fielder, as he would if Gardner moved to center. Ichiro would see more playing time — I think Soriano and Carlos Beltran would still get regular turns at DH even if Ellsbury or Gardner gets hurt — and Zoilo is the early favorite to be the first guy called up from Triple-A. If both Gardner and Ellsbury got hurt at the same time … well that’s a mess I don’t want to think about. A trade for a center fielder would seem likely.
Injury Risk: Mark Teixeira
Backup Plan: ???
A tendon sheath problem in Teixeira’s right wrist that eventually required surgery limited him to only 15 games last year and still has him on the mend in camp. He’s been brought back slowly — he faced live pitching in batting practice for the first time just today — and is slated to get into a game later this week, but wrists are very tricky. Even if the doctors say they’re healed, they tend to sap power for another few weeks and months. David Ortiz (2008-09) and Jose Bautista (2012-13) have had similar tendon sheath problems and they didn’t regain their previous form until well after returning to the lineup.
Given the nature of the injury, it might be more accurate to say Teixeira is a risk for reduced production than he is a risk for injury. He hasn’t exactly been Mr. Durable the last few years though, most notably missing more than a month with a calf strain in late 2012 and blowing out his hamstring during the 2010 postseason (forgot about that, huh?). That doesn’t include the infamous cough/vocal cord damage that hampered him two years ago. The Yankees don’t have an obvious backup first baseman — Kelly Johnson and his 18 career innings at the position is currently the backup at first — so a trade would be in order if Teixeira goes down. It’s either digging up another Lyle Overbay or playing Russ Canzler everyday.
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I think it goes without saying that pitchers are inherently risky. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Masahiro Tanaka have been very durable throughout their career (Kuroda less so, but he’s been healthy with the Yankees) but it would surprise no one if they got hurt this year. Same with all the relievers. Pitchers get hurt. It’s what they do.
Carlos Beltran’s knees were a big problem from 2009-10, but he has played at least 140 games in each of the last three seasons. Brian McCann had shoulder problems in 2012 that required offseason surgery, which kept him out for the first month of 2013, but he has been healthy and productive since. Scott Sizemore has played a total of two games the last two seasons because of back-to-back torn left ACLs, but he is far from a lock to make the roster, nevermind play regularly. Same goes for Nunez, who missed a bunch of time with a ribcage problem last year. Just about every player has been hurt somewhere along the line.
The Yankees are well-equipped to deal with an injured outfielder, catcher, or back-of-the-rotation starter. The infield is were it gets dicey and unfortunately that is where we find the most at risk players (Jeter, Roberts, Teixeira). The backup plans on the infield are interesting of nothing else, but they’re all wildcards. I don’t think we can reasonably estimate what any of them would do if pressed into regular duty. The Yankees have a lot of important players at risk of injury this year and their ability to stay on the field will play a huge role in whether they return to the postseason.
Last year, the Yankees were faced with the impending free agency of Robinson Cano, the best second baseman in the game and a player who was always going to require a massive contract commitment. The Yankees don’t have a player of that caliber set to hit the open market after this season, but they do have a number of guys entering their walk years. Some, obviously, are more important than others.
After spending the last three years as one of the top two or three setup men in the game, the 28-year-old Robertson is about the begin the most important season of his career. He will be tasked with replacing Mariano Rivera at closer and he’s also pitching for a new contract, two things that are very much tied together. If he steps in and pitches well in the ninth inning, his next contract will be much larger than if he had remained a setup man. That’s the way the economics of the game work.
There is little reason to think Robertson won’t be able to close games out in 2014. He misses a ton of bats (10.45 K/9 and 29.4 K% in 2013) and gets a ton of ground balls (50.9%), plus he’s managed to cut his walk rate in half these last two years (2.62 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%). When Robertson stopped walking guys in the second half of 2012, it was easy to wonder if it was a half-season fluke given his track record. When he continued to not walk hitters last year, we knew it was legitimate improvement. Robertson does everything you could possibly want a prospective closer to do.
Brian Cashman recently confirmed the Yankees have not had extension talks with their new closer and it seems unlikely they will sign him long-term at any point during the season. Obviously the club would love to have Robertson back in the future, especially if he steps right in and replaces Rivera without a hiccup. Closers make good money though, and it could wind up costing the team upwards of $10-12M annually on a four-year term after the season. Maybe more, the market has been pretty unpredictable.
Aside from Rivera and the ownership mandated Rafael Soriano, the Yankees have not signed a reliever to a multi-year deal worth more than $4M annually since Kyle Farnsworth almost a decade ago. Will they buck that trend for Robertson next winter? I suspect they will. Another question is whether the team is willing to risk the qualifying offer so they recoup a draft pick if leaves. My guess right now is they would — Robertson is unlikely to top ~$15M annually but he would get more total money across multiple years.
Man, how good have the Yankees had it with Kuroda these last few years? Not only has he been their best starter and one of the best in all of baseball (ninth by bWAR from 2012-13), but he’s also been willing to work on a series of one-year contracts. How great is that? The Yankees have had a very productive pitcher on a bunch of low risk, short-term deals. It’s awesome.
Kuroda, 39, is on yet another one-year contract, meaning in a few months we’ll do the “will he play or retire?” dance once again. He has been quick to make his decisions the last two winters — re-signed in late-November last offseason and early-December this past offseason — and that has made the whole process even better. If he had been dragging things out until after the holidays and into mid-to-late-January, it would be quite annoying. Thankfully that has not been the case.
As with Robertson, I’m sure the Yankees would love to have Kuroda back in 2015 if he has another strong, productive season in 2014. That strong season is not a guarantee given his age but the one-year deal means the team can simply walk away if he does hit that final wall. The Yankees spent a boatload of money on Masahiro Tanaka and they have some young arm knocking on the door, but there is no such thing as too much pitching. They can always make room for Kuroda on another one-year deal and they should if he continues pitching well.
Up until now, I hadn’t thought about the possibility of re-signing Soriano after the season all that much. That massive eight-year, $136M contract he signed with the Cubs way back when finally expires this year, though the Yankees are only paying him $5M in 2014. Soriano just turned 38 last month and he continues to hit dingers with very little signs of slowing down.
The Yankees have Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran locked up to big money deals for the foreseeable future, but Soriano is someone who would have a role on almost any team if he is willing to sign a one-year deal after the season. The Bombers could use him basically like they will this year, as a regular who splits time between the outfield and DH. If his game starts to slip and he becomes a platoon guy, that’s still a useful player.
The question with Soriano will be his willingness to sign a one-year contract. He could push for a two-year deal with another strong, typical Soriano season in 2014, at which point it makes sense to walk away. A one-year deal is much a different story. The Yankees could retain him as a power bat and if some prospect comes up from the minors and forces his way into the lineup, the team will have the flexibility to make it work.
It is very hard to envision a scenario in which the Yankees re-sign Ichiro following the season. They tried to trade him over the winter and he’s already been pushed into a fifth outfielder’s role by the team’s free agent signings, so bringing him back for another year seems very unlikely. Younger guys like Zoilo Almonte and maybe even Slade Heathcott don’t have the same name value but they could do the same job next year and maybe even do it better considering how much Suzuki’s game has slipped in recent years. If they don’t trade him at some point this year, the smart money is on the Yankees parting ways with Ichiro when his contract expires after the season.
Kelly Johnson & Brian Roberts
Simply put, Johnson and Roberts are hired guns. They were signed to low cost one-year deals to plug short-term holes and if they play well this year, the team could re-sign them for 2015. It should go without saying that Johnson is more likely to be brought back after the season than Roberts, just given their age and recent history. Because of his versatility and left-handed bat, Johnson is someone the team would have little trouble squeezing onto the roster even if they make some big moves for infield help next winter.
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Technically, there is one other player due to become a free agent next winter, but Derek Jeter‘s final season and impending retirement is another post for another time. He’s not in a contract year in the traditional sense. Someone like Frankie Cervelli, Eduardo Nunez, or Shawn Kelley could play themselves into a non-tender candidate and thus free agency, but the Yankees control them as arbitration-eligible players beyond 2014.
The six guys above are the team’s only notable free agents to be, with Robertson and Kuroda standing out as the most serious cases. Soriano and Johnson are a little further down the priority list. Keep in mind that so few impending free agents means there isn’t much money coming off the books, which could affect how the team approaches trades and free agency in another few months.
For what feels like the umpteenth straight year, the Yankees will hold a Spring Training competition to fill their final rotation spot. These competitions have been rigged in recent years — Joba Chamberlain in 2009, Phil Hughes in 2010, Ivan Nova in 2013 — but things feel legitimately wide open this spring. There are four guys vying for that fifth starter’s spot and I honestly would not be surprised if any one of the four walked away with the job. Here are the candidates.
Nuno, 26, jumped from independent ball to the big leagues in less than two years, pitching well (2.25 ERA and 4.50 FIP) in 20 innings spread across three starts and two relief appearances for New York early last season. A groin injury ended his season in early-June but Nuno did heal up in time to pitch in the Arizona Fall League after the season. He started the team’s first exhibition game of the spring against Florida State earlier this week, but that doesn’t mean anything as far as his standing in the competition.
Unlike the other three fifth starter candidates, Nuno is a left-hander, though I don’t think that gives him any kind of leg up. Sure, it would be nice to have another southpaw in the rotation given Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, but the team has to focus on taking the best arm north at the end of camp regardless of handedness. Nuno has gotten results everywhere he’s pitched but his lack of a big league put away pitch is a negative — he threw 314 pitches with the Yankees last summer and batters swung and missed only 20 times, a well-below-average 6.4%. It’s not a big sample but it backs up the scouting report.
Whether he wins or loses the fifth starter job, we’re going to see Nuno in the big leagues at some point in 2014. I’m certain of that. Sixth and seventh starters will be needed — last time the Yankees went a full season with fewer than seven pitchers making at least two starts was 2003, and the last time before that was 1971 — and even if they aren’t, he could always wind up in a bullpen role. Second lefty, middle reliever, long man, you name it. Nuno doesn’t have a big ceiling but he will get another chance to help the team this year.
A few days ago, Joe Girardi confirmed Phelps will make the team in some capacity. If he doesn’t win the fifth starter spot he’ll go to the bullpen and perhaps be a one-inning setup reliever rather than a long man. The 27-year-old has done a little of everything in his relatively short MLB career, making 23 starts and 32 relief appearances these last two seasons. As you’d expect, he’s been better in relief:
Phelps did not pitch well as a starter last season (4.93 ERA in 65.2 innings) but he also missed more than two months with a forearm strain and subsequent setback, an injury that may have impacted his performance. His strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates all held steady from 2012-13, though his homer rate did drop from 1.26 HR/9 (13.6% HR/FB) two years ago to 0.83 HR/9 (8.9% HR/FB) last year, so there was some improvement in his game despite the inflated ERA.
Because he’s bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, Phelps is still something of an unknown heading into 2014. He’s never been a starter for more than two months with the Yankees and we don’t know how well he’ll hold up starting every fifth day over a full season. Obviously he’s done it in the minors, but doing it in the big leagues is a little different. Phelps not only has the most MLB experience of the fifth starter candidates, I also think he is most likely to pitch well in whatever role he’s given. Will he be an ace or a shutdown reliever? No, probably not. But there’s value in being solid and reliable.
If you gave the Yankees — everyone from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff — a truth serum, I’m guessing they would all say they’re hoping Pineda grabs that last rotation spot and runs away with it in camp. The team has spent the last two years waiting patiently as the 25-year-old right-hander rehabbed from shoulder surgery and it finally looks like they will get some return from a trade that hasn’t worked out for either side thus far.
Of course, missing two years following major shoulder surgery makes Pineda a total unknown coming into this season. Sure, he did throw 40.2 innings across three minor league levels last summer, but those were rehab innings and they don’t really tell us anything useful. Early reports say Pineda has looked strong during bullpens and live batting practice session in camp but it’s bullpens and live batting practice. Take that information to heart at your own risk.
I think it’s important to remember that before the injury, Pineda was not a finished product. He didn’t have much of a changeup and he was very fly ball prone, which made him a questionable fit for Yankee Stadium. I highly doubt he developed a third pitch and became a ground ball guy during his rehab, but stranger things have happened. Pineda was a bit of a project at the time of the trade but now he’s a project coming off a major arm injury.
A healthy Michael Pineda can be a very good pitcher but the Yankees have not yet seen a healthy Michael Pineda in their uniform. If he impresses and wins a rotation spot in camp, great. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the team went in another direction either, going with someone who isn’t as much of a wildcard while Pineda gets back into the groove of starting every five days in Triple-A, where results don’t matter. Either way, barring another injury or setback, I suspect we’ll finally see him pitch for the Yankees at some point this summer.
Of the four fifth starter candidates, Warren was the only one to make it through last season healthy. He really seemed to carve out a niche in long relief, pitching to a 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 77 total innings. Girardi used Warren as a one-inning setup man for a bit in September while David Robertson and Shawn Kelley were banged up, and he also made an impressive spot start (five scoreless innings on two days’ rest) in Game 161. Whenever the bell rang, he answered the call.
Warren, 26, was a starter his entire career up until last season. He threw all five of his pitches (four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curveball, changeup) at least 11% of the time in 2013, so he won’t have to put extra work in this spring to regain feel for one of those offerings. Left-handed batters destroyed Warren last year (.387 wOBA and 5.13 FIP) and if that continues, his days as a starter won’t last long. It’s a big negative.
I think Warren is very similar to Phelps in that we don’t really know what he can do starting every five days in the big leagues, but the general sense is that he will help the team in some capacity. In fact, Girardi already confirmed he will be on the Opening Day roster, either as a starter or reliever. Warren might not be an impact starter but I’ve always liked him and thought he could be a very good short reliever. He’s going to play a role this year, that much is certain, it’s just unclear what role that ultimately will be.
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The Yankees have all but confirmed Manny Banuelos will open the season in the minors, which makes sense after missing close to two full years with elbow problems. The 22-year-old still had to iron out some command issues before the injury and I assume that is still the case. Easing him back into things in an environment where wins and losses don’t matter seems best for his long-term development.
There are no other realistic fifth starter candidates other than the four guys above. The smart money is on all four pitching (if not starting) for the Yankees at some point this season, though they aren’t created equal. Pineda has the largest upside but he is also the biggest unknown because of his injury. Nuno seems to have the lowest upside of the bunch but he’s also the only lefty. Phelps and Warren are safe bets to be solid in some role yet we really don’t know what they can as full-time starters.
Remember, Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day. Whoever wins the fifth starter’s spot in camp will have to pitch well in the regular season to keep the job. The Yankees have enough rotation depth that they can quickly pull the plug and try another pitcher if the guy who wins the final rotation spot doesn’t work out right away.
It has been an easy to overlook part of their game, but the Yankees have been one of the most prolific base-stealing teams in baseball over the last decade. They’ve swiped 100+ bases in seven of the last eight seasons and their 1,117 steals since 2004 are the fourth most in the game. No one thinks of the Yankees as a base-stealing team but they’ve been among the best in recent years.
Of course, there is more to base-running than bulk stolen base totals. A lot more, really. Advancing on a ground ball, scoring from first on a double, going first-to-third on a single, all of that is important as well. Players don’t even need to be fast to be good base-runners, though speed sure does help. Between the incumbents and the players brought in over the winter, New York has a number of guys who can make plays on the bases if not flat-out cause chaos.
When the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that massive $153M contract back in December, they added arguably the best base-runner in the world to their roster. He led baseball with 52 steals last year and was only caught four (!) times, a 93% success rate that was easily the best among players who attempted at least 25 steals. Ellsbury has one 70 steal season (2009) and two other 50+ steal seasons (2008, 2013) to his credit. His career success rate is 84%, well above the current break-even point of 66-68%.
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury has taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) 49% of the time, which again is well above the 39-40% league-average. It’s worth noting that he took the extra base only 42% of the time last season, his lowest rate in five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ellsbury is slowing down or anything like that, we’re talking about a sample of 74 extra-base opportunities. The difference between 42% and 49% is five extra bases, that’s all. Ellsbury just turned 30 in September and there is little reason to think he will be anything but a base-running monster in 2014. If he stays healthy, 40+ steals and tons of extra bases taken feels like a lock.
I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed in Gardner’s stolen base total last summer. After stealing 96 bases (81% success rate) during his previous two healthy seasons from 2010-11, he dropped down to only 24 steals (75% success rate) in 2013. My hypothesis is that because their offense was so weak, the Yankees gave Gardner the red light a bunch of times last year in an effort to make sure there were runners on base for Robinson Cano. Maybe I’m crazy, who knows.
Gardner’s rate of taking the extra base is very similar to Ellsbury’s: 45% in 2013 and 48% from 2011-13. I think the thing that has kept both guys from being truly elite extra-base takers like Mike Trout (career 61%) has been their ballparks. Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park are small parks, so the outfielders can play a little shallower and get to balls hit in front of them a little quicker. It doesn’t take much to stop a guy from taking those extra 90 feet on a base hit.
Anyway, Gardner turned 30 about two weeks before Ellsbury, so he’s still relatively young and should continue to be a threat on the bases in 2014. Hopefully he gets back to being a 40+ steal guy because that’s when he’s at his best. Only once in their history have the Yankees had two 40+ stolen base players in one season (Steve Sax and Roberto Kelly in 1990), but Gardner and Ellsbury have a very real chance of doing it this summer.
Man, remember how exciting Soriano was when he first came up? He was this wiry little guy who hit for power and ran like the wind, hitting 95 homers and stealing 119 bases from 2001-03, his three full years with the Yankees. That was a baseball lifetime ago and 40+ steals are a thing of the past, but Soriano can still do some damage on the bases.
After swiping a total of 22 bases from 2009-12, Soriano rebounded to steal 18 bags last season, including eight in 58 games with New York. He wasn’t terribly efficient though, getting caught nine times total and four times in pinstripes. That 67% success rate is right on the break-even point. Soriano has also taken the extra base 38% of the time the last three years (41% in 2013), so he’s basically league average in that regard.
I’m not exactly sure what we can expect from the 38-year-old Soriano on the bases this coming season. Could he steal 10-15 bases with a 67% success rate while taking the extra base a league average amount of time? That seems very possible but I’m not sure he could do much better without a huge contract year push. I’d bet against one at his age. Soriano isn’t a Gardner/Ellsbury level base-runner, but he can steal the occasional bag and score from first on the occasional double.
Ichiro, 40, stole 20 bases in 24 attempts last year, second most on the team behind Gardner. His bulk stolen base total has gradually declined over the years but he remains highly efficient, with an 83% success rate both last year and over the last three years. He took the extra base 38% of the time last season and 40% over the last three seasons, so more or less league average.
The additions of Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran have pushed Ichiro into a fifth outfielder’s role, but he should still get plenty of chances to have an impact on the bases as a pinch-runner/spot starter. He keeps himself in phenomenal shape and even though he has clearly lost a step over the years, Ichiro is still a smart base-runner who picks his spots well. I think experience can be very valuable for a bench player and when it comes to running the bases in the late innings of a close game, few would be a better option than Ichiro. Running the bases is something he still does very well, it’s just a question of how often he’ll get to do it.
In the past, the Yankees could always count on their captain for stolen bases and smart base-running decisions, but following last season’s leg injury filled nightmare, it’s unclear if he’ll be of any value on the bases in 2014. Even when he was healthy in 2012, Jeter only stole nine base (in 13 attempts) while taking the extra base 38% of the time. What will he be able to do on the heels of a twice-fractured ankle and various leg muscle problems? The smart money is on not much.
It would be awesome is Jeter got back to being a threat on the bases this summer, but that should be the very least of his and the team’s concerns. He should focus on staying healthy and being productive at the plate, first and foremost. Those are the most important things in his final season. Any base-running value Jeter gives the team this year is icing on the cake. It just isn’t much of a priority at this point of his career.
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Kelly Johnson has stolen 37 bases over the last three years but he only went 7-for-11 (64%) last season, and he took the extra base at a well-below-average 29% over the last three years. He might steal 10-15 bases this summer, but his history suggests he won’t be all that efficient on the bases. Beltran’s knees don’t allow him to run much anymore but Eduardo Nunez is always good for double-digit steals, even as a part-timer, and he took the extra bag at a league average rate from 2011-13.
Gardner and Ellsbury will clearly be the stars of the Yankees’ base-running show this season, and they have some nice support in Ichiro, Soriano, Nunez, and maybe Jeter. It feels like a foregone conclusion that they’ll again top 100+ stolen bases as a team this year and they should improve on their overall extra-base taken rate, which was the second worst in the game at only 35% last year.
Does anyone honestly want to hear a recap of the 2013 Yankees injury situation? From the revelation that Alex Rodriguez would miss at least half the season, to Brett Gardner‘s strained oblique in September, injuries buried the team.
What hurt the 2013 team could make the 2014 team stronger. Two key players who missed almost all of the 2013 season appear to be healthy in 2014.
How much did losing Teixeira hurt the Yankees in 2013? His relatively weak 2012 campaign might obscure his overall impact. Particularly in terms of power output, losing Teixeira hurt badly.
The Yankees went from an AL-leading .188 ISO in 2012 to a third-lowest .133 in 2013. A good portion of that loss came from free agent departures. Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Nick Swisher, and Russell Martin were the Nos. 4 through 8 power producers on the team.
Not only was Teixeira the No. 3 power source on the 2012 team, but he ranked No. 23 (out of 143) in all of MLB. In a season when the Yankees needed their power guys more than ever, they lost almost all of them to injury.
Getting a healthy Teixeira in 2014 could provide the lineup with the power boost that it needs. (Particularly at first base, where they had the worst OPS in the AL in 2014.) Yet the question remains: what will Teixeira look list after serious wrist surgery?
The closest comparison is Jose Bautista, who did experience a power dip in 2013, after suffering a similar injury in 2012. Yet there are two mitigating factors here:
1) Bautista underwent his surgery almost two months later in the season than Teixeira, so Teixeira could be further along in the healing process.
2) Bautista did still produce quality power numbers in 2013, producing the eighth-highest ISO in the majors. That’s a drop-off from his No. 1 mark in 2011, but by no means a cliff dive.
There is no way Teixeira can be worse than Lyle Overbay and the 2013 cast of first-base misfits, so his return will be welcome regardless of actual outcome. At the same time, his return to form as a middle of the order bat will go a long way in powering the 2014 Yankees lineup.
Ladies and gentlemen, it feels so good to be back — only it didn’t. Each time Jeter returned last season he struggled physically. It honestly came as no surprise, at least in hindsight.
Baseball players rely on their lower halves. A novice observer might see the upper body central in every baseball movement; the ball and bat sit in our hands, after all. But everything that sets great players apart comes in the lower half. Swinging, throwing, and defensive range all rely on strong hips and legs.
Coming into 2014, Derek Jeter’s lower half was probably the weakest of his career. The ankle injury that ended his 2012 season prevented him from strengthening his hips and legs during the off-season. Sure, physical therapy got him to a certain base of strength, but that base is hardly enough to power a pro baseball player.
Jeter, unused to such physical limitations, pushed himself too hard and reinjured his ankle. Again, that meant rest and no opportunity to strengthen his lower half. Why did he injure his squad, then his calf, and then his ankle again in 2013? Because his legs were weaker than ever.
A full off-season to build strength should benefit Jeter. It’s tough to expect much of him this year, his final season, one during which he will turn 40 years old. At the same time, he is Derek Jeter. With physical strength behind him, perhaps he could come close to the .316/.362/.429 line he produced in his last fully healthy season.
As with Teixeira, it’s difficult to see Jeter not improving on last year’s shortstop production, which ranked 14th out of 15 AL teams.
Seeing as he’s the best second baseman in the league, the Yankees had no chance of replacing Robinson Cano‘s production this off-season. What they did, instead, was reinforce other areas of weakness in hopes that they can spread Cano’s production among many positions.
The man tasked with actually replacing Cano has not been known for his reliability in recent years. After three straight years of more than 700 PA, Brian Roberts has managed just 809 in the last four seasons combined. Worse, his combined numbers during that span are worse than any single season he’s produced since 2003.
Getting a relatively healthy 2014 from Roberts will go a long way for the Yankees. It’s tough to expect him to repeat his last fully healthy season, considering that was four full years ago. He did get better as last season progressed, though, so perhaps a healthy Roberts can still be a productive player.
The bet is a long one, as we all know. If the Yankees win, they get a slightly below average hitter at 2B (which would be above average for the position) for a low cost. If they lose, they have to replace Roberts from within, which means that the best among Eduardo Nunez, Dean Anna, or Corban Joseph gets the spot. (Or it could be Kelly Johnson with one of the above, or Scott Sizemore at third.)
In 2013 Cervelli got his big chance. With Russ Martin gone and no other surefire starting catcher candidate on the roster, he could get some consistent playing time. He responded well early, producing a .877 OPS in 61 PA.
Then he got hit with a foul ball and broke his hand. Before he came back he suffered an elbow problem that kept him on the shelf longer. Then he got suspended for his involvement in Biogensis. Now he’s sitting behind Brian McCann, one of the best-hitting catchers in the league, on the depth chart.
Given his lack of minor league options and his relative experience, Cervelli figures to get the backup job. His return from injury can help prevent the catcher spot from being an offensive black hole when McCann takes days off. He might also make it easier to give McCann days at DH, limiting the wear and tear on the starter.
Most of all, a successful return from injury could raise Cervelli’s trade value. The Yankees will absolutely need help at the trade deadline. A healthy catcher who still has a few years of team control remaining could prove a valuable bargaining chip. With John Ryan Murphy and even Austin Romine ready at AAA, they can certainly afford to part with Cervelli.
What hurt in 2013 can help in 2014. The Yankees will get back a number of players whose absences hurt them immensely. Combined with the new guys, and we could see significant improvement this time around.
Exhibition games start tomorrow and the regular season is five weeks away. Between now and then, we’re going to preview the 2014 Yankees not individually, but by grouping players (and personnel) together into different categories. Today we’re going to look at the guys who will put the Bombers in Bronx Bombers.
The Yankees made history last season and not in a good way. They hit 101 (!) fewer homeruns last year than they did the year before, the largest year-to-year drop in baseball history. New York went from leading baseball in dingers (245) and ISO (.188) in 2012 to ranking 21st out of the 30 teams in both categories (144 and .133) in 2013, and their runs-per-game average dropped from 4.96 (second) to 4.01 (17th). The lack of power is a big reason why they missed the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.
Blame injuries (Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira) and blame roster construction (Ichiro Suzuki and Chris Stewart replacing Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, etc.) for the decline in power. All of that and more was a factor. The Yankees set out to fix that problem starting at the trade deadline last summer and they continued to add some power-hitting pieces over the winter. I doubt they will be able to hit 240+ long balls this coming season, but they should improve on last year’s power production overall. Here are the team’s primary power sources.
To the surprise of no one, Robinson Cano led the Yankees with 27 homers last season. Soriano managed to finish second on the team with 17 despite not returning to the Bronx until the deadline. The Yankees were that power starved. Cano left for the Mariners over the winter but the club will now have a full year of Soriano, which will help compensate a bit.
Despite turning 38 last month, Soriano has put together back-to-back 30+ homers seasons these last two years and he’s hovered in the .225-.238 ISO range over the last four seasons. He’s no longer the 40+ doubles threat he was earlier in the career, but he has managed between 27-33 two-baggers the last three years. Soriano is a steady 60+ extra-base hit bat and, most importantly, the average direction and distance of his batted balls has not changed at all since 2007. From Baseball Heat Maps:
You can click the image for a larger view. The chart on the left is the horizontal angle of the ball off the bat — so +45° is the left field line and -45° is the right field line — and the chart on the right is the distance. Each red dot is an individual batted ball (grounders excluded, so this is everything he hit in the air) and the vertical clusters are individual seasons, so 2007-13 from left to right.
At Soriano’s age, any change in his batted ball angle or distance would have been a red flag and possibly an indication his bat has started to slow beyond the point of no return. Instead, Soriano continues to hit the ball to all fields (slightly more towards right field) and just as far as he did seven years ago. Sure, he’s had to make adjustments over the years, most notably switching to a lighter bat in 2012, but the end results are the same. He’s hitting the ball the same way he has for much of the last decade.
Now, that isn’t to say this will continue in 2014. Things can go south in a hurry when you’re talking about a player closer to 40 than 35, but there have been no obvious red flags in Soriano’s game to date. Outside of 2009, when he missed a month with a knee problem, Soriano has been a consistent 25+ homer, 25+ double, .220+ ISO hitter for a decade now, and aside from sudden age-related decline or injury, there is no reason to expect anything different in 2014. He is the Yankees’ best full-time right-handed power source by frickin’ far.
New York’s catchers hit eight total homeruns last season, three of which came from Frankie Cervelli before he got hurt in mid-April. The catcher position was an offensive blackhole in 2013 and the Yankees rectified that problem by giving McCann a five-year contract worth $85M. The just-turned-30-year-old is one of only two catchers with 20+ homers in each of the last three seasons (Matt Wieters) and one of only eleven players (all positions) with 20+ homers in each of the last six seasons.
Of course, McCann hit all those dingers while with the Braves in Atlanta, playing his home games in a park that has been perfectly neutral in terms of left-handed homers over the last five seasons according to the park factors at FanGraphs. His lefty power was extra desirable to the Yankees because of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, which is tailor made for McCann’s pull happy swing:
Don’t trick yourself into thinking McCann is something he isn’t. This guy is a pure grip it and rip it hitter who is going to try to yank everything over the right field wall. He’s going to hit .250-ish and walk enough (9.9% walk rate since 2011) to post decent but not great OBPs, but his real offensive value comes from his power. Homers too, forget about doubles.
I think the whole “sign a left-handed hitter and he’ll automatically hit a bunch more homers in Yankee Stadium” idea is generally overstated — not everyone’s swing fits the ballpark (see: Overbay, Lyle) — but McCann is exactly the kind of hitter who can really exploit that short porch. His career-high is 24 homeruns (2006 and 2011) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finishes this year with 30-35 homers, especially if he spends some of his catching off-days at DH.
Over the last three years, only ten outfielders have racked up at least 50 extra-base hits in each season. Soriano is one of them and another is Beltran, his new teammate. Heck, if you want to bump up the arbitrary criteria, Beltran is one of only four outfielders with at least 55 extra-base hits these last three years. Soriano is not one of the other three.
The Yankees finally snagged their white whale (well, I think he was the fans’ white whale more than the team’s) this winter by signing Beltran to a three-year deal worth $45M, nine years after declining to sign him at a discounted rate before he joined the Mets. Beltran has aged remarkably well as a hitter, dipping below a 120 wRC+ only once in the last eight years, and that was his injury-plagued 2010 campaign. He’s also managed 20+ homers and 25+ doubles in each of the last three years and six of the last eight years, with 2009-10 being the only exceptions. Injuries limited him to 145 total games those two seasons.
Unlike Soriano and McCann, Beltran is a switch-hitter. He maintained a .200+ ISO against both righties and lefties these last two years (.214 vs. LHP and .202 vs. RHP) but he is a different type of hitter from each side of the plate. Beltran is pretty much a dead pull hitter as a righty and an all-fields guy as a lefty, though he does the most damage from the left side when he pulls the ball to right field at this point of his career (spray charts). That’s perfectly fine and plays right into Yankee Stadium. The concern is the declining distance of his batted balls:
Given his age (37 in April), that little downtick last year (really the last two years) is a concern. It’s not much, but pretty much anything is a red flag with a player this age. On average, Beltran did not hit the ball as far last year as he did the year before. Could be a one-year fluke, could be a sign of age-related decline. We’re going to find out in the coming months.
I am pretty confident Beltran will be a 20+ homer, 25+ double guy for the Yankees this coming season and right now that is the most important thing. He could fall completely off a cliff in 2014 but it would be a surprise to me. (The 2015-16 seasons are another matter for another time.) Even if he is starting to slip due to age, some of Beltran’s would-be homers should still go for doubles in 2014. The guy is such a good pure hitter and it’s not like he was bad in 2013. The somewhat early signs of decline are there though. No doubt about it.
Teixeira is a total unknown heading into this season. He missed almost all of last summer with a wrist injury, an injury that required season-ending surgery after a brief and failed return to the lineup. Teixeira is currently taking batting practice and is slated to start playing in Spring Training games in early-March, but wrist injuries are known to sap power even after the player has been cleared by doctors.
Even as his overall production has declined, the 33-year-old Teixeira has always remained a source of homers, hitting at least 33 dingers from 2008-11 and then 24 in 123 games in 2012. He has never once had a sub-.220 ISO during a full season in his entire career. Teixeira has admitted to changing his hitting style to take advantage of the short porch as a left-handed hitter and there’s no reason to think he’ll do anything differently going forward.
Guys like Jose Bautista and David Ortiz had similar wrist tendon sheath problems in recent years and it took them a few months before returning to their previous form. It’s easy to say Teixeira will hit for power because he’s always hit for power, but there’s just no way of knowing what he can do following the injury. He’s included in this post because hitting the ball over the fence is his thing, but there is a chance he might not do that in 2014, at least not early in the season. It might take him a while to get back in the swing of things.
The Yankees gave Johnson a nice little one-year, $3M contract back in December and he is now their everyday third baseman in the wake of Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension. The 32-year-old isn’t much of a doubles guy but he has hit at least 16 homeruns in each of the last four seasons, and he has power to all fields:
Johnson can hit the ball of the park in any direction, which is a good thing. He’ll get some help from the short porch but he’s also shown he’s strong enough to drive those outside pitches the other way. Is he ever going to hit 26 homers with a .212 ISO like he did in 2010 again? Probably not, but the 16 homeruns he hit in 2012 and 2013 might become 18-22 in the Bronx. Considering the Yankees only had one guy mash 18+ taters last summer, getting a similar number from a player like Johnson, who is slated to bat seventh, will be a welcome addition.
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On the other end of the spectrum, the Yankees do not figure to get much power from second base (Brian Roberts), shortstop (Derek Jeter), left field (Brett Gardner), or center field (Jacoby Ellsbury) this year. From that group, only Jeter (15 HR in 2012) and Ellsbury (outlier 32 HR in 2011) have managed to hit double-digit homers at some point in the last three years and neither is a lock to do it in 2014. Sure, Ellsbury might pop a few extra dingers with the move into Yankee Stadium, but for the most part his ground ball/opposite field approach won’t boost his homer total all that much. Those four guys will pick up some extra-base hits with their speed, but over-the-fence power isn’t happening. Soriano, McCann, Beltran, Teixeira, and Johnson will be leaned on for homers and extra-base hits.