Wednesday Night Open Thread

As you may have heard, two-time former Yankee Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball yesterday. He retires as a .270/.319/.500 (111 wRC+) career hitter with 481 doubles, 412 homers, and 289 steals in parts of 16 big league seasons. Soriano never learned to lay off the down-and-away slider but became one of the best power-speed players in baseball anyway. His go-ahead solo homer off Curt Schilling in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series is one of the most forgotten clutch homers in history because of what happened in the ninth. Soriano was awfully fun to watch when he was at his best. Hell of a career, he had.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The (hockey) Rangers, Islanders, Knicks, and Nets are all playing tonight. Talk about those games, Soriano’s retirement, or anything else right here. Have at it.

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2014 Season Review: The Fall of Alfonso Soriano

The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new preview format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, and all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Coming into the season, there were many reasons to think the Yankees would have a better offense in 2014 than 2013. For starters, they committed more than $280M to the free agent trio of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Jacoby Ellsbury, each of whom brought a different dynamic to the lineup. The Yankees were also getting Mark Teixeira back from wrist surgery, and although Lyle Overbay filled in admirably last year, Teixeira at this phase of his career was still an upgrade.

On top of all of that, the Yankees would also have a full season of Alfonso Soriano. The club re-acquired Soriano at least year’s trade deadline and he was a force in the second half, hitting .256/.325/.525 (130 wRC+) with 17 homeruns in 58 games after the trade. He hit exactly as many homers and drove in nearly the same number of runs (51 to 50) in 58 games with the Yankees as he did in 93 games with the Cubs. Returning to New York seemed to reinvigorate the 38-year-old Soriano.

Because of the Ellsbury and Beltran additions, the Yankees forced Soriano into an unfamiliar role. He was either going to have to play right field or serve as the DH to stay in the lineup — and, coming into the year, there was every reason to want him in the lineup everyday — but he didn’t have much experience at either spot. In fact, Soriano had never played right field in his career until this year, and he had only 38 games of DH experience spread across the first 15 years of his career. He played DH only 14 times with the Cubs from 2007-13.

But, the Yankees painted themselves into a roster corner, so Soriano worked out in right field during Spring Training and also took some reps at DH to get familiar with sitting on the bench between at-bats. He opened the regular season as the regular DH while occasionally seeing time in left (whenever Ellsbury or Brett Gardner sat) and right (whenever Beltran sat). It wasn’t until Beltran’s elbow began to act up that Soriano moved into the field full-time — he took over as the regular right fielder in mid-May and was routinely taken out for defense in the late innings.

We can’t trust such a small sample of defensive stats but I thought Soriano actually looked decent in right field, especially considering he had never played the position before. I mean, he wasn’t great, but he made all the routine plays and occasionally surprised with a no-so-routine play. Opponents did run on his weak arm at will — runners attempted to take the extra base 12 times in 15 opportunities, a 20.0% hold rate that was well below the 46.4% league average — but that wasn’t surprising. You knew other teams were going to test him at a new position.

Adjusting to life as a part-time outfielder and part-time DH was not going to be easy, but the Yankees were expecting Soriano to be their top right-handed power source and a consistent threat near the middle of the lineup. Instead, they got one of the worst offensive players in baseball. Soriano hit .242/.275/.414 (88 wRC+) with five homers in 138 plate appearances as he regular DH before hitting .194/.200/.306 (29 wRC+) with one homerun in exactly 100 plate appearances after taking over in right field following Beltran’s injury. From May 5th through June 12th he went 16-for-83 (.193) with 37 strikeouts (43.5%).

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The end result was a .221/.244/.367 (64 wRC+) batting line with six homers in 238 plate appearances. Among the 349 players with at least 200 plate appearances in 2014, Soriano ranked 298th in AVG, 343rd in OBP, 228th in SLG, 316th in OPS+, 332nd in wRC+, 327th in strikeout rate, and 346th in walk rate. He struck out 71 times (29.5%) and walked six times (2.5%), including once intentionally. The Yankees were counting on Soriano to be a major weapon against lefties and he hit .249/.269/.416 (84 wRC+) against southpaws, which is both terrible and way better than the .204/.228/.336 (51 wRC+) line he put up against righties.

The Yankees finally pulled the plug on July 6th, designating Soriano for assignment to clear both a 25-man and 40-man roster spot for career minor league journeyman Bruce Billings. Joe Girardi had relegated Soriano to the bench for spot start study a few weeks before that, opting to use Ichiro Suzuki in right field full-time once Beltran returning and took over the DH spot. Soriano told reporters he would spend some time with his family before deciding whether to retire or continue playing, but we haven’t heard anything since. No team showed interest in him even at the pro-rated portion of the league minimum.

Soriano was one of the most exciting players in recent Yankees history when he first came up all those years ago because of his speed and big power despite a rail thin frame. He returned to New York a decade later and had an excellent half-season in pinstripes in 2013 before things came crashing down in 2014. Maybe changing positions hurt his offense — to his credit, Soriano never complained about being asked to change positions — or maybe it was just old age. He is 38 after all, and he had already switched to a lighter bat with the Cubs to compensate for lost bat speed. Add in his plate indiscipline and it’s not really a surprise he fell off the cliff so quickly.

The Yankees did improve their offense from 2013 to 2014 but not as much as expected for many reasons, including Soriano’s sudden fall from grace. He wasn’t even able to be a bench bat who played against lefties by the end. The fall of was that drastic. Maybe Soriano will decide to play again, but players his age usually don’t get job offers after seasons like this, which included spending the last three months at home. In all likelihood, his excellent but not quite Hall of Fame worthy career is over, and that makes me sad.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Outfielders

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We’ve already covered the catchers and infielders, so now let’s move on to the outfielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brett Gardner — Grade A

Through the first 94 games of the 2014 season, Gardner has been the Yankees’ best position player. The team got out ahead of his impending free agency by signing him to a four-year extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a deal that looked sensible at the time and looks like a bargain now given his production and the lack of quality outfielders in the upcoming free agent classes.

Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Gardner leads the team in one-base percentage (.353) and total bases (146), ranks second in batting average (.279), slugging percentage (.424), stolen bases (15), OPS+ (116), and wRC+ (116), and first in both bWAR (2.9) and fWAR (2.7). He’s already set a career-high with nine homers. Gardner actually started the season in a funk, going 15-for-62 (.242) in the team’s first 18 games, but he’s hit .286/.366/.447 (126 wRC+) in the 76 games since. That’ll do just fine.

Gardner’s defense continues to be excellent as well. He slid back into left field seamlessly and has performed up to his usually defensive standards, which are rather high. Inside Edge data rates his glovework very well. The Yankees tried shuffling things around and actually started Gardner in right field during a game at Fenway Park in April, but that was a disaster. It looked like he had never played the outfield before. Left field is where he remains and whenever the need has arisen for whatever reason, he’s slid over and filled in at center without missing a beat.

The only negatives in Gardner’s game are his career-high 21.7% strikeout rate and career-low 11.6% stolen base attempt rate. The strikeout issue seems to have to do with him being a little more aggressive in certain counts and swinging for a fences, hence the homers. The stolen base this is weird — he ran in 14.3% of his opportunities last year and in 25.0% of his opportunities from 2010-12. Gardner is still on pace for 26 steals (in 33 attempts), but it appears his days of 45+ stolen bases are over. That’s a shame. Either way, he’s having an unreal season.

Jacoby Ellsbury – Grade B

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

As the story goes, it became clear to the Yankees they were going to lose Robinson Cano on a Friday, so they acted quickly to sign Ellsbury before a bidding way broke out. The two sides were in agreement the following Tuesday, and the Friday after that, Cano hooked on with the Mariners. The Yankees replaced Cano with the second best free agent in Ellsbury even though he wasn’t a great fit for the roster — they already had a perfectly capable speedy leadoff hitter and strong defensive center fielder in Gardner.

Ellsbury has been very good through his first season in pinstripes, hitting .282/.346/.400 (105 wRC+) with six homers and 24 steals in 29 chances. That’s right in line with the .289/.341/.407 (103 wRC+) batting line he put up from 2012-13 following his outlier 2011 campaign. Ellsbury’s power has not ticked up despite the move into lefty friendly Yankee Stadium and that makes total sense — almost all of his hits are line drives to left and center field. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not conducive to taking advantage of the short porch.

As expected, Ellsbury has had an impact both on the bases and in the field. He’s on pace for 41 steals with an 82.8% success rate, which would make him the team’s first 40-steal guy since Gardner in 2011. The defensive stats hate Ellsbury this year and I don’t get it — it’s a Gardner thing, it happened with Curtis Granderson too, he must be stealing outs and hurting the center fielder’s defensive numbers — but based on the eye test he’s been phenomenal in center. Better than Gardner last season and Gardner was awesome.

Because of injuries and underperformance and all that, the Yankees and Joe Girardi have had to improvise with their lineup. That means Ellsbury has been miscast as a three-hole hitter for most of the year while Gardner bats leadoff. They really don’t have an alternative at this point. Ellsbury lacks the traditional three-hole hitter skills in that he can’t create a run with one swing, but that’s not his fault. He’s a leadoff hitter the team is asking to hit third. Either way, Ellsbury was pretty awesome in the first half.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Carlos Beltran — Grade F

Worst case scenario? Possibly. The Yankees signed the 37-year-old Beltran (for three years!) to be the middle of the order hitter they lost in Cano, but so far all they’ve gotten is a broken down former star who has struggled to both be productive and stay on the field. This is the position player version of Randy Johnson — the right player, only nine years too late.

Beltran has hit .216/.271/.401 (78 wRC+) with nine homers in 228 plate appearances this year while missing time with elbow, knee, and concussion problems. He has a bone spur in his elbow that cost him a month and will require offseason surgery. It has relegated him to full-time DH duty because he can’t throw. (He tried a throwing program but had to shut it down due to discomfort.) The concussion was a fluke injury that occurred when he lined a ball off the cage and back into his face during batting practice. It’s that kinda year.

It’s easy to forget Beltran actually mashed at the start of the season. He was hitting .298/.339/.614 (151 wRC+) with four homers through the team’s first 16 games, then he flipped over the short wall in Tropicana Field while trying to catch a foul pop-up, and has hit .189/.249/.331 (56 wRC+) in 193 plate appearances since. I don’t know it it’s just a coincidence or if he hurt himself flipping over the wall, but he hasn’t hit for nearly 200 plate appearances now. Clutch hits? Beltran hit that walk-off homer against Zach Britton but otherwise has a .156/.216/.297 (25 wRC+) batting line with men in scoring position and a .130/.241/.391 (55 wRC+) batting line in high-leverage situations.

Because he’s not hitting and can’t play the field — not that his defense was a positive, he hurts the team less as the DH, to be honest — Beltran has very little value to the Yankees right now. He could start hitting at any moment and it would be a huge help if he did, but the combination of injuries and age are working against him. Beltran’s first three and a half months in pinstripes couldn’t have gone much worse.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Alfonso Soriano — Grade F

Man, this sucks. Soriano was one of the most fun to watch players when he on a roll and having a full season of him was supposed to give the Yankees a big offensive shot in the arm. Instead, he put up a .221/.244/.367 (60 wRC+) line with six homers and an unsightly 71/6 K/BB in 238 plate appearances before being dropped from the roster roughly two weeks ago. He wasn’t even hitting lefties anymore (80 wRC+). That’s it. Without warning he went from 34 homers and a 121 wRC+ in 2013 to being done in 2014. Like done done.

Soriano started the year as the full-time DH in deference to Gardner, Ellsbury, and Beltran in the outfield. He eventually moved to right — he had never played the position before (other than Spring Training) and I thought he did about as well as he could have realistically been expected to perform defensively — once Beltran got hurt, but eventually he lost playing time to Ichiro and was pushed into the light half of a platoon. The Yankees released Soriano earlier this week and he told Marly Rivera he might simply retire rather than continue playing. It was not a pretty end.

Ichiro Suzuki — Grade C

The Yankees relegated Ichiro to fifth outfielder status with their offseason spending spree, and even that was only after they were unable to trade him. And yet, through the traditional first half, he has batted 220 times and appeared in 81 games, the sixth most on the team. He took over as the most of the time right fielder a few weeks ago thanks to both his strong performance and the underwhelming performance of others.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ichiro is hitting .297/.347/.337 (90 wRC+) with six stolen bases on the season, though his bat predictably cooled once pressed into everyday duty. He went 25-for-37 (.373) with a 142 wRC+ as a reserve player during the first 47 team games of the season but has managed only a .259/.308/.289 (63 wRC+) line as a regular in the 47 team games since. Ichiro’s defense has been fine and he’ll still steal the occasional base, but that’s pretty much it. He’s a very good extra outfielder and a pretty terrible regular outfielder at this point of his career.

Zoilo Almonte — incomplete

I get the feeling the Yankees are not going to give Almonte an opportunity to show whether he can be of some use at the MLB level, even as a nothing more than a fourth outfielder. He’s been up and down a few times this year thanks mostly to Beltran’s injuries, getting into ten games and going 4-for-25 (.160) with a homer. Even with Soriano gone, the Yankees have opted to play Ichiro everyday and sub in Zelous Wheeler on occasion. Meh

* * *

Coming into the season, the outfield was expected to be the strength of the team, and it has been. It just hasn’t been as strong as expected due to Beltran’s struggles and Soriano’s brutal ineffectiveness. Gardner and Ellsbury have been the team’s two best players all season and have lived up to expectations in my opinion. Everyone else in the outfield has kinda stunk. Getting Beltran back and producing at an above-average rate will be imperative in the second half. The Yankees will only be able to acquire so much offense in trades.

Yankees release Alfonso Soriano

As expected, the Yankees have officially released outfielder Alfonso Soriano. He was designated for assignment a little more than a week ago and the team was apparently unable to work out a trade. No club bothered to claim him and his salary off waivers either. No surprise there.

Soriano, 38, hit .221/.244/.367 (60 wRC+) with six homers in 238 plate appearances this year, including a weak .247/.269/.416 (80 wRC+) against lefties. He is free to sign with any team for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum now, but there is a chance his career is over all together. Soriano said he would consider retiring if he had a poor year in 2014, and this certainly qualifies. Sucks.

Yankees designate Soriano for assignment

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

The Yankees have designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, the team announced. The move clears both a 25-man and 40-man roster spot for Bruce Billings, who has been called up from Triple-A Scranton to help the overworked bullpen.

Soriano, 38, hit a miserable .221/.244/.367 (61 wRC+) with six homers in 238 plate appearances this season. He started the year as the everyday DH and, thanks in part to Carlos Beltran‘s elbow injury, wound up as a platoon right fielder losing playing time to Ichiro Suzuki. Soriano went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and some awful defensive plays yesterday, which might have been the final straw.

The Yankees are paying $5M of Soriano’s $18M salary this year — the Cubs are paying the other $13M — and they still owe him that. They now have ten days to trade him, release him, or place him on waivers. It’s inevitable he will clear waivers and be released with that salary. Soriano was a monster after being re-acquired last year, hitting .256/.325/.525 (130 wRC+) with 17 homers in 58 games. Father Time remains undefeated, unfortunately.

Earlier this season Soriano said he will consider retirement if he has a poor year and I have to think this qualifies. Another team can sign him for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum once he is released, so he might get another chance (Red Sox?) to show he still has something left in the tank. Soriano was as fun a player to watch as anyone when he was locked in, but the time had come to move on. He wasn’t helping at all this year.

Once the pitching staff gets settled in following the Brandon McCarthy trade, the Yankees figure to call up another position player to replace Soriano. Zoilo Almonte and Yangervis Solarte are on the 40-man roster, but Jose Pirela is an interesting non-40 man option. He has crushed Triple-A pitching this year (124 wRC+) and started playing right field about a week ago. That’s probably not a coincidence. We’ll see.