2014 Season Preview: Speed Demons

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

Jacoby Ellsbury
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.

Brett Gardner
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.

(Nick Laham/Getty)
(Nick Laham/Getty)

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.

Alfonso Soriano
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.

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

Ichiro Suzuki
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.

Derek Jeter
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.

* * *

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.

2014 Season Preview: Power Sources

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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

Alfonso Soriano
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:

Alfonso Soriano Batted Ball Angle and Distance

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.

Brian McCann
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:


Source: FanGraphs

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.

Carlos Beltran
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:

Carlos Beltran Batted Ball Distance

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.

Mark Teixeira
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.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

Kelly Johnson
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:


Source: FanGraphs

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.

* * *

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.

Squeezing four outfielders into three spots could lead to creative rotations

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For all the talk about their shaky infield, the Yankees figure to boast one of the strongest outfield units in baseball this season. They have two legitimate starting caliber center fielders in Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as two veteran, middle of the order corner outfield bats in Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran. Fitting all four guys into one lineup will take some creativity on Joe Girardi‘s part but nothing crazy.

Girardi confirmed earlier this week that Ellsbury will be his everyday center fielder because duh. They didn’t give the guy $153M not to play center field. Since the Ellsbury and Beltran signings, I think the general assumption has been that Gardner will move back to left field everyday while Soriano and Beltran split time between right and DH. Obviously you want Gardner in the field for his defense, and considering their ages, giving Soriano and Beltran regular turns at DH makes sense.

It’s a wonderful plan in theory, but it is a little more complicated than that. Soriano has never played right field in his entire professional career and neither he nor Beltran have spent much time at DH. In fact, they’ve combined to start only 36 games at DH since 2005. Aside from Soriano’s return to New York in the second half last year, both guys spent the entirety of that 2005-13 period in the National League, so when they were in the lineup, they played the field.

“I don’t know,’’ said Soriano to George King earlier this week when asked about his spot in the lineup. “They said something about DH and left field. I want to be in the lineup, it doesn’t matter where … If I am the DH I will have to make adjustments. When the team is playing defense I will have to find a way to keep my body warm and ready.’’

Being the DH is tough, especially for a veteran player used to playing the field everyday. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and when the routine they’ve spent years crafting has to change, it can be a tough adjustment to make. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it is something to consider. For all we know, both guys could make that adjustment immediately and make this a non-issue.

The right field thing is a little different, particularly for Soriano. Like I said, he’s never played right field before, so if the Yankees do plan to use him and Beltran in what amounts to a right field/DH platoon, he’ll have to learn the position in Spring Training after spending most of his career in left. Again, it’s not impossible, but it is an adjustment that will have to be made by a veteran player with a routine already in place.

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

It’s possible that Soriano will not have to make that adjustment, however. The Yankees could instead keep him in left field, where he’s comfortable, and put Gardner in right field. Gardner has never played right field in his career either, but his athleticism and relative youth should make the transition easier for him than it would be for Soriano. His speed would also allow him to simply outrun his mistakes. Gardner has a better arm than Soriano and that should be considered as well — runners are going to go first-to-third on singles all day, everyday against Soriano.

“I played [left field] for a couple of years a few years ago. I feel comfortable over there,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings the other day when asked about moving out of center. “I told Joe I can play right too if he needs me to. I’ll do whatever I’m needed to do to help the team win. Wherever I’m playing out there, wherever I’m hitting in the lineup, whatever he needs me to do, I’ll be ready.”

Gardner has already broached the idea of playing right field, so I assume he is on board with the idea. Aside from learning the position, the issue here is that right field in Yankee Stadium is tiny and it would be a waste to stick such a good defender there. There’s more real estate to cover in left and that’s where you want the rangier outfielder. That’s not a deal-breaker but it is something to keep in mind.

If the Yankees want to keep Soriano comfortable and play him in left, the best solution might be a rotation based on whether the team is home or away. At home, Gardner could play left with Beltran in right. On the road, Soriano could play left while Gardner is in right. That way Gardner’s range is used in Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field and Soriano gets to play his usual position.

That arrangement does sound great in theory, but it is a little more complicated than it seems. How will Gardner handle shifting back and forth between positions? Most guys like to have one set position and know where they’re playing everyday. Long homestands and road trips will also throw a wrench into things, especially if the team wants make sure Soriano and Beltran get regular turns at DH to stay fresh.

The Yankees are all but guaranteed to have an excellent outfield defense because of Gardner and Ellsbury, but it will be interesting to see how they handle the right field/DH rotation with Soriano and Beltran. Someone is going to wind up playing out of position most days, it’s just a question of who.

King: Soriano considering retirement after 2014

Via George King: Alfonso Soriano is considering retiring following the 2014 season. He is only 12 steals away from becoming the fifth player in history with 400+ doubles, 400+ homers, and 300+ steals. “It depends on how I feel,” he said. “If I am healthy I will play [in 2015]. If not, I will let it go. It depends how I feel.”

Soriano, who turned 39 last month, has been one of the most durable players in baseball these last few years, missing only 18 games due to injury since 2010. He is up there in age though, and that alone brings injury concerns. Soriano will spend the year splitting time between the outfield and DH and it is way too early to know if the Yankees are even considering re-signing him after the season, when the mammoth contract he originally signed with the Cubs finally expires.

Mailbag: Ellsbury, Damon, Blanton, Soriano

Five questions and five answers this week. If you want to send us a mailbag question, you probably know how to do it by now. (Hint: the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.)

(Gail Oskin/Getty)
(Gail Oskin/Getty)

Paul asks: Are there still deals that haven’t been made official yet? What’s the hold-up? Is it a 40-man roster thing?

The Brian Roberts and Matt Thornton signings are still not official. I don’t know why but the Yankees tend to drag these things out. I’m guessing the holidays gummed up the works as well. The 40-man roster is full so they’ll have to clear up spot for both guys. They’ll need to do the same if they add another starting pitcher as well, Masahiro Tanaka or otherwise. I suppose they could be working on an Ichiro Suzuki trade to open one spot, but who knows. Roberts and Thornton are the only big league contracts that are still not official yet, however.

Jake asks: Who was the better player when they signed with the Yankees, Jacoby Ellsbury or Johnny Damon?

To the table:

Age Games AVG OBP SLG wRC+ HR SB SB% DRS fWAR
2011-13 Ellsbury 27-29 366 .303 .356 .469 123 45 105 82.6% +23 16.3
2003-05 Damon 29-31 443 .298 .364 .440 110 42 67 81.7% -17 9.4

Ellsbury was the better player overall in the three years prior to signing with the Yankees — Damon was way more durable; his ability to stay on the field was always a big part of his value — but remember that a lot of his production came during that outlier 2011 campaign. Like, 32 of the 45 homers and 9.4 of the 16.3 fWAR came that year. That season is getting further back in the rear-view mirror and I’m not all that confident Ellsbury will come close to that production again. Hopefully he proves me wrong.

I think the best way to answer this question is that Ellsbury is the more exciting player and he offered a greater upside, but Damon was more predictable and reliable. Ellsbury is a few years younger now than Damon was when he joined the Yankees and that’s a big deal. The team will, at least theoretically, get more of Ellsbury’s prime years. The Yankees are obviously counting on that considering the contract they gave him.

Alex asks: What about Joe Blanton as a depth signing? The Angels appear ready to release him this offseason and if the Yanks don’t add Tanaka (or even if they do), there could be value in a workhorse who underperformed his peripherals. What would his upside realistically be?

I mean this is in the nicest possible way:

Blanton was the worst pitcher in baseball last year, so bad that the pitching-starved Angels dropped him from their rotation. He hasn’t been even a league average pitcher since 2009 and he’s underperformed his peripherals in each of the last four seasons (5.09 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 540.2 innings since 2010). I have no reason to think a righty with a below-average fastball (averages a touch over 89 mph these days) will buck that trend in a small ballpark in the AL East. I don’t see Blanton as an upgrade over David Phelps, Adam Warren, or Vidal Nuno. He’s not even worth a 40-man roster spot in my opinion. Easy pass, even if he comes for the minimum. The Yankees need to add good pitchers. Emphasis on good.

Nick asks: With all the talk of contract overpaying this winter, I’d like to bring up Alfonso Soriano. If the Cubs are paying $13m of the $18m he’s owed in 2014, and even at age 38, couldn’t he be a bit of a bargain? $5m for a .250/.310/.480 hitter with 30+homers seems reasonable no?

Oh yes, absolutely. The three projection systems at FanGraphs (ZiPS, Steamer, Oliver) work out to a combined .240/.293/.455 batting line with 25 homers and 11 steals per 500 plate appearances, and that’s with Oliver expecting him to fall off a cliff (-0.1 fWAR). That is definitely worth $5M right there, especially to the Yankees given where they sit on the win curve. Soriano just turned 38 and there’s a chance he will completely crash and show his age next year, but the upside is a 30-homer, 10-steal right-handed batter. Getting that for $5M is great in this market. Among the guys who are not still in their arbitration or pre-arbitration years, Soriano is probably the best dollar-for-dollar player on the roster.

Kevin asks: Am I the only one who really likes Nik Turley? I don’t think he’ll be more than a #4 but the Yankees need to stop walking away from these back-end starter prospects. We could really use a young guy to soak up innings, even if its not elite status.

I see Turley as another member of the Phelps, Warren, and Nuno group, just a notch below because he hasn’t spend significant time in Triple-A yet. Solid enough to be a back-end starter but not exactly someone who is going to come up and make a real impact in the rotation. There is value in that, don’t get me wrong. Teams need those cheap back-end types for depth and to help cover for injuries, and heck, every once in a while one will exceed expectations and turn into Doug Fister. Turley had a good year with Double-A Trenton in 2013 (3.88 ERA and 4.18 FIP in 139 innings) and as a left-hander with a good breaking ball, he’ll get a million chances in this league, at worst as a reliever. I wouldn’t call him untouchable but he’s certainly worth keeping around. The only problem is that the Yankees have a serious 40-man roster crunch and Turley is near the bottom of the pile.

Mailbag: Franklin, Soriano, Anna, Lineups, Rule 5

Only five questions this week, and some of the answers are kinda short. We must have received about a dozen different variations of the first two questions. Great minds think alike, I hear. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the best way to send us anything.

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Many people asked: What about Nick Franklin?

Now that Robinson Cano is locked in at second base for the next decade, the Mariners don’t have an obvious spot for the 22-year-old Franklin. He hit .225/.303/.382 (90 wRC+) with 12 homeruns and six stolen bases in 412 plate appearances this past season, his first taste of the show. Franklin is a switch-hitter who has always struggled against lefties, so much so that there’s been talk of making him hit exclusively left-handed. He’s the anti-Derek Jeter on defense — good amount of range but makes a lot of errors because he boots grounders and makes bad throws — and the total package is more solid regular than future All-Star.

Franklin has understandably been getting talked up as a trade chip since the Cano signing and the hype has surpassed reality, kinda like Mike Olt a year or so ago. He’s good but not truly great. The Yankees can use a young second baseman now and Franklin would certainly fit, though I don’t think the Mariners are ready to move him. They could always send him back to Triple-A and have him work at other positions or wait for a better offer. There’s no need to rush into a decision. I’m more intrigued by Dustin Ackley to be honest, because at least there’s All-Star caliber talent hiding in their somewhere. I’d rather see New York buy super low on him and hand him over to Kevin Long than pay market rate for Franklin. Franklin fits a need, no doubt, but I feel like there’s a disconnect between what he actually is and how he’s being valued.

Many people asked: What about moving Alfonso Soriano to second base?

This ain’t happening. Soriano hasn’t played second base at all since 2009 or regularly since 2005, and, in case you forgot, he was pretty terrible there. We saw it firsthand from 2001-2003. He wasn’t Eduardo Nunez bad, but he misplayed a lot of balls on the infield during his time there. Soriano is going to be 38 next month and he’s played 3.2 innings at second base over the last eight years. This isn’t even something the Yankees can seriously consider.

Andrew asks: Will Dean Anna be competing for a MLB roster spot in Spring Training or was he added purely for depth in the minors? I have not heard any discussion about him being a potential 2B option for the Yanks.

Can’t it be both, compete for a job in camp and be added for depth? The Yankees have an open position player spot right now — could be two if they cut one of Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki — and that figures to go to whatever infielder they acquire in the coming weeks. If they don’t add an infielder, Anna probably has to beat out Nunez for a roster spot. For some reason the incumbent always seems to have up in these competitions. I’m intrigued by Anna’s on-base skills and like him as an up-and-down depth player, but if he makes the team out of camp as even a semi-regular at second, something probably went wrong somewhere.

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Andy asks: Can you make up what a potential Yankees line-up would look like now? Against both lefties and righties.

Given the roster as it sits today, meaning no obvious second/third baseman, here are the lineups I would run out there:

                  vs. RHP                   vs. LHP
1.   CF Jacoby Ellsbury 1.   CF Jacoby Ellsbury
2.   LF Brett Gardner 2.   SS Derek Jeter
3.   RF Carlos Beltran 3.   1B Mark Teixeira
4.   C Brian McCann 4.   DH Alfonso Soriano
5.   DH Alfonso Soriano 5.   RF Carlos Beltran
6.   1B Mark Teixeira 6.   C Frankie Cervelli
7.   3B Kelly Johnson 7.   3B Kelly Johnson
8.   SS Derek Jeter 8.   2B Brendan Ryan
9.   2B Brendan Ryan 9.   LF Brett Gardner

You and I both know Jeter will bat second against righties and lefties as long as he’s healthy. That’s just the way it is. I would bat him lower in the order against righties until he shows he can hit them, however. The Cap’n had a 99 wRC+ against same-side pitchers even during his big bounceback 2012 season, so I’m skeptical about what he can do at his age and following what amounts to a lost season.

Ellsbury and Gardner had almost identical batting averages (.246 vs. 247) and on-base percentages (.317 vs. .323) against lefties last season, but Gardner hit for much more power (.071 vs. .180 ISO). That doesn’t really jibe with the rest of his career though. Ellsbury and Gardner have identical career 96 wRC+ against southpaws, so the tiebreaker goes to the guy who will steal 40+ bases no questions asked (who also happens to have a $153M contract). Batting Gardner ninth instead of eighth against lefties allows him to serve as a second leadoff man, so to speak.

The rest is pretty straight forward, right? Soriano was awesome last year but McCann is the (much) better hitter against right-handers, which is why I have him batting cleanup against righties. I’d use a straight splatoon at catcher as a way to give McCann regular time off as well. He’s going to need the rest, it comes with the territory, so you might as well rest him against southpaws and get Frankie in there. Jeter and Teixeira still mash left-handers (or at least they did the last time they were healthy), making them a natural fit for the two-three spots against southpaws.

Laying the lineup out like this makes it easy to see how much the team needs a second or third baseman, preferably a righty bat. Those lineups would look so much better if they moved Ryan to the bench, shifted Johnson to second, and had someone like Mark Reynolds to bat seventh or eighth, no?

Jon asks: Explain the minor league Rule 5 Draft. How could you just lose players for $12,000? How many could you protect? Could the Yankees have chosen players from other minor league teams for $12,000 or did their lack of room on the 40-man roster prevent it?

The lack of 40-man space has nothing to do with the ability to make picks in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. The minor league phase is pretty complicated, so I’ll direct you to this J.J. Cooper explanation. I don’t even fully understand it. All I know is that if you take a player in the minor league phase, he’s yours to keep. Those guys do not have to go through the same roster hoops as the players drafted in the Major League portion. The Rule 5 Draft exists as a way to give players an opportunity with a new organization if they’re buried or overlooked by their current team, and, for the most part, it accomplishes that goal.

What Went Right: Alfonso Soriano

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the best position player acquired by any team at the trade deadline.

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

Coming into the season, I think we all knew the Yankees were not going to hit for the same kind of power they have in the past. This was even before Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira got hurt in Spring Training. You don’t replace Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, and Alex Rodriguez with Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, and Kevin Youkilis and not expect to hit fewer homeruns. Not realistically, anyway.

Once Granderson and Teixeira (and Youkilis) got hurt, the lack of power was alarming. At one point Yankees went nine straight games without a homer, their longest such streak since going ten straight in 1984. They went four straight home games without a dinger for the first time in new Yankee Stadium history and just the third time this century. The Yankees hit 18 homers in June and just ten (!) in July, the first time they hit 18 or fewer homers during a calender month since April 1989 (min. 20 games). They managed to do it in back-to-back months. Their 78th game of the season was their 31st homer-less game, matching 2012’s total. It was bad.

Aside from the lack of power in general, the biggest problem specifically was the complete lack of thump from the right side of the plate. From June 25th through July 28th, a span of 477 plate appearances, the Yankees did not get a single homer from a right-handed batter. Not one. Literally zero in 28 team games and more than a calendar month. That’s just unfathomable. Triple check the numbers kind of unbelievable. And yet, it’s true. The Yankees didn’t have the ability to close the gap or extend the lead quickly with one swing of the bat and it cost them games all summer long.

On July 26th, after about a week’s worth of rumors, team ownership pulled the trigger on a trade with the Cubs that brought Alfonso Soriano back to New York in exchange for minor leaguer right-hander Corey Black. Brian Cashman said he preferred to wait rather than trade a good but not great pitching prospect for a good but not great corner outfielder, but ownership wanted Soriano and what ownership wants, ownership gets. The Cubs ate $17.7M of the $24.5M or so left on Soriano’s contract to facilitate the deal.

Just like that, the Yankees had a legitimate right-handed power source. Soriano whacked ten homers in his final 21 games with the Cubs and that carried right over into pinstripes. He went deep in his third game back with the team and 12 times in his first 32 games with New York. During a four-game rampage from August 13th through the 16th, Soriano went 13-for-18 (.722) with five homers and 18 runs driven in. That tied the all-time record for runs driven in during a four-game span in baseball history. Here’s where Soriano ranked in MLB following the trade (min. 200 plate appearances for the rate stats):

AVG OBP SLG wRC+ HR RBI ISO fWAR
Soriano 0.256 0.325 0.525 130 17 49 0.269 1.8
MLB Rank 81st 63rd 11th 31st 1st 1st 3rd 40th

For the cost of a good minor league arm and $6.8M in salary obligation, the Yankees acquired a top 40 position player for the remainder of the regular season. Maybe top 30 or so depending on your opinion of fWAR and all that stuff. Despite not arriving until the trade deadline, Soriano finished second on the Yankees in homers (first among righties), third in runs driven in, and sixth in total bases (115). As an added bonus, New York finally had a player who could flip a bat, pimp a homer, and a put on a nice show:

This wasn’t a homer, but he thought it was and it’s the thought that counts.

Soriano was exactly what the Yankees needed: a legitimate middle of the order hitter who could hit the ball out of the park from the right side of the plate. His defense in left field was surprisingly solid as well, especially when ranging to his right towards the foul line. I thought he struggled a little bit on balls hit to his left and into the gap, but overall he was good defender. Certainly not below-average, which is what I had expected given his reputation with the Cubbies.

Unfortunately, Soriano’s heroics weren’t enough to get the Yankees into the postseason. He was the only player they acquired at the trade deadline, which meant many other holes (catcher, shortstop, rotation) were left unaddressed, and that led to the club falling short of a wild-card spot. Soriano did his part though. He was more than just the team’s best non-Robinson Cano hitter after the trade — he was one of the very best hitters in baseball and the team’s best trade deadline pickup since David Justice back in 2000.