Let the shakeup start with Soriano

Soriano strikes out
Lot of this going on lately. (Elsa/Getty Images North America)

The Yankees are bad right now. They weren’t bad the whole season. They might not be bad in a week or so. But for the past few weeks they’ve been pretty bad.

When the going gets rough, people want a shakeup.

“If George were alive [insert desired shakeup here].”

…because George presided over nothing but winning teams, and they definitely didn’t build the 90s dynasty while he was out of the picture.

A shakeup sounds great. It means that ownership is taking action to correct a problem. Mistakes were made, and someone is to blame. Someone has to pay.

Where would such a shakeup start with the Yankees?

Brian Cashman? He’s the one who built this roster. Why should he get a free pass for its poor performance?

Perhaps Cashman has worn out his welcome with the Yankees. I’ve always been a fan, but there could certainly be some Stockholm Syndrome aspect to that opinion. But is the time now to fire him?

Absolutely not. What would that accomplish? The draft is tomorrow. The Yankees have spent months preparing. It’s not as though you can just let them draft guys and then fire everyone. (Because if you fire Cashman, you fire the entire front office essentially.) They still have to sign those guys.

Hell, when the Cubs finally fired Jim Hendry, they kept him on for nearly a month after making the decision. Why? Because a new general manager — or worse, and interim GM — would probably fare worse than the guy they were firing in dealing with the roster at the trade deadline.

A new GM is rarely, if ever, a savior. He or she might bring a change of philosophy, but it can take years for that philosophy to make a difference on the field. A new GM will not turn around a team that is underperforming.

Cashman’s contract is up after this year. If they want to get rid of him, they have the opportunity to do so soon enough. (Although as Buster Olney said on the podcast, there is every indication that the Steinbrenners will opt to bring back Cashman even if the Yankees miss the postseason.)

There is one thing the Yankees can do to shake things up, at least a little bit.

They can DFA Alfonso Soriano.

Getting Soriano at last year’s trade deadline worked wonders. He went on an immediate tear, and kept the Yankees relevant for a month longer than they had any business being relevant. But his role diminished early in the off-season, when they signed Jacoby Ellsbury. Unless they traded Brett Gardner, Soriano would have to DH or play out of position. Signing Carlos Beltran meant DH, a non-position Soriano had vocally opposed in the past.

The Yankees have four outfielders once Carlos Beltran is healthy. Both Kelly Johnson and Yangervis Solarte have some experience playing out there, so they can act as emergency options. Zoilo Almonte can come back up at some point and be the fifth outfielder if the Yankees feel they need one.

We know Soriano can go on ridiculous hot streaks. Mike and I discussed that on the latest podcast. But can you really count on that happening this year, given how absolutely terrible he’s looked? His lone hot streak this year lasted 12 games, during which he hit four doubles and three homers. In the other 41 games? Nine doubles and three homers.

The Yankees can’t exactly afford to wait on Soriano at this point. They need to turn around a stagnant offense. Getting improved production from Brian McCann, Beltran, and Jacoby Ellsbury would help. Keeping Mark Teixeira healthy would help as well.

You know what else would help? Replacing the least productive starter with someone who is potentially very productive*. Replacing Soriano at DH with Kendrys Morales, a process they can start as early as Friday, could jolt an offense that has struggles going on a month at this point.

*Sorry, they’re not replacing Jeter. Cry about it if you want, blame everyone for letting it happen. Just understand that you’re arguing with reality.

There isn’t much the Yankees can do with the current roster. Is there anyone who should be getting less playing time — other than Jeter, who I mentioned, and McCann, who is in a similar position? Brian Roberts? With whom would you replace him, and would it be enough of an upgrade to the offense?

The Yankees lose little by replacing Soriano with Morales. It costs them some money, but there will be a return on that investment.

Like Morales or not, he’s the most efficient and potentially effective upgrade at this point.

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Olney: Soriano will retire if he has a poor 2014 season

Via Buster Olney (subs. req’d): Alfonso Soriano said he intends to retire if he has a poor 2014 season. If this year goes well, he’d like to stick around and play another two seasons, preferably with the Yankees. Soriano first admitted to considering retirement during Spring Training.

Following a brutal start to the new season (0-for-17), the 38-year-old Soriano has come around recently and is hitting .222/.271/.467 (104 wRC+) with three homers overall. I think he’d be a great candidate for the Hiroki Kuroda series of one-year contracts plan, but it takes two to tango. Soriano still has power and he can play both outfield corners as well as DH. There is definitely room for him on the roster. I think the whole “play two more years” thing is an indication he’ll seek a two-year deal, however.

2014 Season Preview: Back To Offensive Basics

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.

Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.

The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.

Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.

The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.

Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.

As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.

Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.

Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.

* * *

Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.

2014 Season Preview: Defensive Liabilities

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I suppose the silver lining of last season’s terrible offense was a strong team defense. The Yankees employed guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Alberto Gonzalez, Reid Brignac, and Brendan Ryan as regulars at various points of the year, guys who can’t hit but can play some solid defense. The club sported a collective +12.5 UZR and +21 DRS in 2013, rates that are only slightly above-average (13th and 10th in MLB, respectively) on a team-wide scale.

The roster has turned over substantially this past offseason, especially on the position player side. That should greatly improve the lineup, but it will also impact the team defense. Some of the players the Yankees acquired over the winter are very good defenders but others simply are not. Not every player the team added is a two-way threat. Far from it. Let’s look at where the Yankees are vulnerable in the field thanks to subpar defenders.

The Infield
Last month I detailed how the team’s ground ball heavy pitching staff is not a good mix for their generally shaky infield defense, particularly at the non-first base spots. Mark Teixeira is a stud in the field and I have no reason to think a wrist injury will severely compromise his glovework. Maybe he’ll lose a step or two or some hand-eye coordination with age, but I don’t think the injury will have a huge factor on his defense.

Derek Jeter has moved around well in the field and on the bases this spring following all the leg injuries, but he’s still a negative on defense. We all know that. Brian Roberts has looked surprisingly agile during Grapefruit League play, so maybe he’ll be a positive in the field, at least while he’s healthy. Kelly Johnson comes into the season with only 118 career innings at third base and only 18 innings at first base, where he’s expected to be the starter and backup, respectively. He’s muffed a few hard-hit balls in camp so far, the kind that earned the position the nickname the “hot corner.”

The backup plans aren’t much better. Eduardo Nunez is inconsistent at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst defensively, and Scott Sizemore is coming off back-to-back left ACL surgeries. He hasn’t played enough in camp for us to get an idea of how he’s moving in the field. The various scouting reports indicate Dean Anna is an adequate to solid defender. Teixeira should be fine at first but all of the other infield spots come with defensive questions. I think the Yankees would be pretty happy if the infield graded out as a league average unit come the end of the season.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Right Field
As of right now, it seems like the plan is to have Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran split right field and DH duties most of the time in 2014. There have been some rumblings Brett Gardner could wind up in right with Soriano in left, but that seems unlikely to happen. The Soriano/Beltran timeshare in right field appears to be the way things are heading.

Aside from one defensive inning in right field during Game Five of the 2003 World Series, Soriano has never played the position. Moving over there at 38 years old may not be an easy transition, and that doesn’t even consider his weak throwing arm. Runners will be going first-to-third on him all day. Beltran was once a top flight defender but he has slowed down considerably with age and injury, to the point where he’s graded out as a below-average defender over the last few years by the various defensive stats. Regardless of whether Soriano or Beltran starts, the Yankees will have a subpar gloveman in right.

It’s not all bad though. First and foremost, right field in Yankee Stadium is pretty small, so there’s isn’t much ground to cover in the first place. Two, with Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ellsbury figures to shade towards right to help cover the gaps. Three, Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close. Even if Ichiro is traded or released or whatever, Zoilo Almonte can do the same job. Whenever they’re in right though, both Soriano and Beltran will be liabilities.

Outfield Arms
I mentioned this with Soriano in right, but it’s worth pointing out the Yankees have some weak outfield arms in general. Beltran’s is by far the best and might be the team’s best right field arm since Raul Mondesi way back in the day. Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak and downright Damon-esque while Gardner’s is solid at best. Not particularly strong but accurate. Soriano’s arm is both weak and not accurate while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball. Gardner and Ellsbury more than make up for their arms with their range, but don’t expect to see many plays at the plate this summer. Beltran’s the only regular with a quality arm.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brian McCann‘s Arm
McCann does a lot of things well, specifically hit and frame pitches. He is also said to be very good at blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers. The one thing McCann does not do well is throw. Last season he threw out only 24 of 100 attempted base-stealers, below the 27% league average. The year before it was 22%, and in case you’re thinking this might be related to his October 2012 labrum surgery, McCann threw out only 24% of base-stealers from 2006-11. He’s simply not good at shutting down the running game.

In order to compensate for McCann’s arm, the pitcher will have to make sure to pay attention to runners on first base. CC Sabathia should have it the easiest as a left-hander, but runners have been successful in 70% of their stolen base attempts the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has held runners to a 62% success rate since coming to New York and Ivan Nova has held them to a 63% success rate in his relatively short big league career. Masahiro Tanaka … who in the world knows. Frankie Cervelli has an excellent arm (after some mechanical tinkering last spring) but McCann is going to be the starter because he does so many things well. One of those things is not throwing and it’s something the Yankees will have to deal with this summer. It’s the essence of taking the bad with the good.

* * *

The Yankees have premium defenders at first base and in both left and center fields. The rest of the team will probably be net negative in the field, which is not ideal in an offensive ballpark in a tough division with a sketchy middle relief crew. This club is going to have to out-hit and out-pitch their defensive shortcomings in 2014.

Mailbag: Tulo, Soriano, Gardner, Rivera, Damon

Seven questions for this week’s mailbag. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything throughout the week, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(Scott Cunningham/Getty)
(Scott Cunningham/Getty)

Anthony asks: After Derek Jeter retires at the end of the season, could you see the Yankees trying to swing a trade for Troy Tulowitzki? The Rockies could use some catching depth — what would a package headlined by Gary Sanchez look like? And given the length of his current contract, would such a trade make sense?

Well, the Yankees could try to swing a trade for Tulowitzki, but I’m not sure they have the pieces to get it done. This isn’t a Sanchez plus two or three okay prospects thing. Tulowitzki may be owed a ton of money ($118M from 2015-20) and he is injury prone, but he’s also the best all-around shortstop in baseball when he’s on the field. It ain’t particularly close either. It’s going to take an enormous package to land him.

Tulo will turn 30 after this season and given how much salaries have inflated the last year or two, his contract is actually something of a bargain. Don’t you think he’d get a lot more than six years and $118M if he hit free agency next winter? He’d blow right past that. Tulowitzki is so good that 120 games of him and 42 games of some replacement level shortstop is still arguably the best shortstop in the game.

I can’t think of a comparable player who was traded in recent years — maybe Prince Fielder? — but the Rockies would be right to ask for two top young players and another two pieces. If the Yankees offered me Sanchez, Ivan Nova, Eric Jagielo, and Jose Ramirez for Tulo, I’d probably say no because I can plug only one of those right into my big league roster. There’s way too much value in a shortstop who can hit*, play defense, and is signed to a below-market contract. The Yankees could try for Tulowitzki after the season and I hope they do, but their farm system would have to take a huge step forward in 2014 to get Colorado’s attention.

* Tulo has a 130 wRC+ at home and a 138 wRC+ on the road over the last three years, so he isn’t just a product of Coors Field.

Ryan asks: Any idea why Shinnosuke Abe never tried to make the jump to MLB? He appears to be a power-hitting catcher who also hits for average and gets on base well. Those are rarities in MLB (obviously why the Yankees went after Brian McCann so hard). Any idea why he was never posted? I know the Japanese league is more like AAAA, but it seems like he could’ve been a decent catcher in MLB looking at his statistics. He’s 34 now, so this is more of a question of the past, not about the future.

Abe (pronounced Ah-bay) turns 35 next month and he is one of the best catchers in Japanese baseball history, if not the best. Here are his career stats:

Year Age Tm G PA 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2001 22 Yomiuri 127 428 18 0 13 44 31 79 .225 .293 .373 .666
2002 23 Yomiuri 127 511 26 0 18 73 46 81 .298 .377 .478 .854
2003 24 Yomiuri 94 370 15 1 15 51 40 52 .303 .392 .500 .892
2004 25 Yomiuri 108 436 22 1 33 78 43 87 .301 .391 .625 1.016
2005 26 Yomiuri 130 534 16 0 26 86 51 78 .300 .365 .498 .863
2006 27 Yomiuri 129 497 26 2 10 56 35 76 .294 .349 .427 .776
2007 28 Yomiuri 140 580 20 0 33 101 57 76 .275 .355 .513 .868
2008 29 Yomiuri 125 484 27 0 24 67 44 66 .271 .350 .502 .852
2009 30 Yomiuri 123 462 20 2 32 76 34 87 .293 .357 .587 .943
2010 31 Yomiuri 140 569 27 2 44 92 58 91 .281 .368 .608 .976
2011 32 Yomiuri 114 437 21 0 20 61 35 66 .292 .363 .500 .863
2012 33 Yomiuri 138 555 22 1 27 104 69 47 .340 .429 .565 .994
2013 34 Yomiuri 135 529 17 0 32 91 86 59 .296 .427 .564 .991
13 Seasons 1630 6392 277 9 327 980 629 945 .290 .371 .520 .891
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/28/2014.

From what I understand, Abe wanted to play in MLB but the Yomiuri Giants were not willing to post him. They did the same thing to Hideki Matsui years ago. (Matsui signed with the Yankees after qualifying for international free agency.) Abe qualified for international free agency after 2009, but according to a report passed along by Yakyu Baka, he gave up on coming to MLB because his English was not good and his numbers had slipped in recent years (I assume he was referring to 2006-08). Obviously his performance rebounded.

Abe probably isn’t coming over to MLB at this point, so he’ll have to settle for being an NPB Hall of Famer and arguably the best catcher the country has ever produced. Oh, and he’s also the first (and so far only) man to ever hit two homeruns in one inning during the World Baseball Classic (video). That’s kinda neat. How many homers would he have hit in Yankee Stadium with that swing? All. He would have hit all the homers.

Kevin asks: As long as he’s productive doesn’t Alfonso Soriano seem like the next candidate for the Yankees to go year-to-year with on one-year deals? I’m sure they can continuously find 400+ at-bats for him as long as he’s still hitting it out of the park and isn’t terrible in the field.

(Ron Antonelli/Getty)
(Ron Antonelli/Getty)

I think so. Soriano just turned 38 but he can still hit, making up for his low OBP with power. If he adjusts well to being a DH regularly, he makes sense for a lot of teams as a year-to-year guy. (Red Sox, anyone?) The Yankees could use him as a part-time DH and part-time outfielder in the coming years, especially against left-handed pitchers.

What’s a reasonable salary? I don’t know, maybe something like $6-8M? That would be awesome. The team can definitely find a spot for Soriano on the roster in the coming years if he’s willing to go one year a time. He’s a real nice guy to have lying around at the right price.

Elliot asks: Because Brett Gardner received an extension vs. a new contract, is his salary for luxury tax purposes next year (189 is moot for 2014) calculated $11.72 million as 1/5 of $58.6 million, or is it $13 Million next year (12.5 + .5 for the guaranteed money from the buyout)?

I’m so happy the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold is kaput because trying to figure out “tax hits” was a pain in the ass. Anyway, Brian Cashman confirmed to Chad Jennings that the extension acts as a new contract that starts next season for luxury tax purposes. Gardner’s tax hit this year will be $5.6M (the one-year deal he signed to avoid arbitration last month) and then it’ll be $13M from 2015-18 (the guaranteed dollars spread across the guaranteed years of the new extension). Things will get complicated if the 2019 club option is exercised, but that’s a very long ways off. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires before then anyway and who knows what’ll happen to the luxury tax system. No point in thinking about it now.

Andrew asks: Do you think Gardner’s extension is a bit of a warning klaxon to the prospects?

Nah, I don’t think Gardner’s extension has anything to do with the prospects. I think the extension was simply about signing a productive player for the next few years rather than dealing with a potential bidding war after the season, when he was scheduled to become a free agent. None of the team’s top outfield prospects are close to making an impact and besides, there are three outfield spots. There’s always a way to squeeze someone in if they earn the playing time. Gardner is a good MLB player right now and those are the guys you keep regardless of who is coming up through the system.

John asks: Did Mariano Rivera set a record for most time as a player in the Yankees organization? I can’t think of anyone else under contract for 23+ years.

I don’t even know how to go about looking this up. The Play Index says Rivera and Derek Jeter currently hold the record for most seasons with at least one game played for the Yankees at 19, and Jeter will make it 20 in a few weeks. Mo spent parts of six years in the minors before making his MLB debut while Jeter was down for parts of only four seasons. (Remember, some of those MLB and MiLB seasons overlap.) Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra both played at least one game in 18 seasons with the team and they spent hardly any time in the minors. Jorge Posada played in 17 seasons with the Yankees and had another five or so years in the minors. Jeter, Mantle, Berra, and Posada seem like Rivera’s only real competition here, and since the Cap’n is retiring after the season, Mo’s spot is safe for the foreseeable future.

Sad Sally asks: Is Johnny Damon the most underrated player of our lifetime?

Was Damon ever underrated? I never thought so. He was obviously very good for a very long time, and in a few years he should garner some Hall of Fame votes. I don’t think he belongs in Cooperstown but voting for him would not be insane. Know who I think is more underrated than Damon? Mike Mussina. The guy had a career of almosts — almost won a Cy Young, almost threw a perfect game, almost won a World Series — until winning 20 games in his final season and I feel like he gets overlooked because of his lack of hardware. Moose is a Hall of Famer in my opinion and it sure seems like a lot of people don’t realize how great he was, maybe because he played at the same time as Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and other all-timers. Easy to get overlooked in that era.