2012 Season Preview: Part-Time Help

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

Via Reuters Pictures

A full-time DH is something we’ve grown accustomed to. From Jason Giambi to Hideki Matsui to Nick Johnson to Jorge Posada, the Yankees have entered each of the previous six seasons with a guy whose only job was to hit. Yet in recent years those plans have gone awry. Last year Posada became a platoon player when his futility as a right-handed hitter became evident. Johnson got hurt within the first month of 2010. Matsui missed 63 games in 2008 with knee troubles. Giambi’s injury history runs pages, including a big chunk of the 2007 season.

This year, they’re trying something different. While they brought in Raul Ibanez, he’s by no means the full-time DH. He’ll fill a platoon role, taking reps mostly against right-handed pitchers. Against lefties, however, not only will Ibanez sit, but the lineup as a whole could see some interesting changes. The Yankees can afford to do this, because they’ve employed useful part-time players. They should make the Yankees more flexible in 2012.

Raul Ibanez

For most of the off-season, the idea of Raul Ibanez on the Yankees wasn’t even considered. They already had a full outfield plus a DH, and a reunion with Andruw Jones seemed probable. Combine that with Ibanez’s poor 2011 season, at age 39, and the idea was a complete non-starter. That is, until the Yankees swapped their young DH for a young pitcher. That opened up a roster spot, which started the discussion about which left-handed bat would best fit. From the start, though, the Yanks had their eye on Ibanez.

The hope, apparently, is not only that he can bounce back at age 40, but also that a role that pits him primarily against right-handers will help bolster his production. After all, from 2001 through 2010 his OBP never dipped below .342 against right-handed pitchers, and his SLG never dipped below .442. In 2010 he hit .277/.366/.455 against righties. Still, his numbers last year, .256/.307/.440 in 402 at-bats, don’t bode well for his future. Not for a guy who turns 40 in early June.

Still, in Ibanez the Yankees have a low-cost option to whom no one is attached. That is, if he pulls a Randy Winn the Yankees can simply give him the Randy Winn treatment, DFAing him in May if it comes to that. (And who knows, by that point Johnny Damon might still be available.) Given his age and performance, it’s tough to expect much from him.

Andruw Jones

Last year, it appeared that Jones was on his way to being 2011’s Winn. In 2009 and 2010 Jones started strong, but his production started to dip in May. In 2011 he never even got that head start. By the All-Star break he was hitting .195/.278/.356 in 97 PA. The lack of production combined with the minimal playing time portended an imminent release — perhaps after the Yankees acquired a replacement on the trade market.

Jones made some adjustments, thanks to a call from his mom, and tore through the second half. He started 31 games, got into 41, and hit .291/.416/.612 in 126 PA. This year he’s back, as he says, to take someone’s job. That could come in handy, should Ibanez falter.

It’s tough to set reasonable expectations for Jones at this point. His numbers started to decline precipitously at age 30, after he he produced two of his best-ever offensive seasons at ages 28 and 29. But his numbers have been back on the rise as he enters his mid-30s. By all accounts he’s a man on a mission, trimmer than ever and ready to go with a repaired left knee. Even if he is healthy and ready, can his performance scale? He had only 222 PA last year. How will he fare with double that?

Eduardo Nunez

It seems that the biggest controversies arise over part-time players. Is Eduardo Nunez a future starter? Is he inadequate, given his defensive miscues, for even a reserve role? Yankees fans debate Nunez far more than his playing time warrants. In his current role of backup middle infielder, he suffices. He’s not without his shortcomings, but that’s precisely why he’s a reserve.

With both Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez spending time on the DL last year, Nunez did get a fair share of playing time, 338 PA in 112 games. In that time he predictably produced below-average numbers, though not horribly so; a .265/.313/.385 line amounted to an 84 OPS+. He showed some pop at times, socking over 30 percent of his hits for extra bases. Some improvement, both on offense and defense, in his age-25 season, could go a long way.

The only issue for Nunez is the same one he had last year: playing time. A big chunk of his playing time came during two spans: first when Jeter was on the DL, and then when Rodriguez was on the DL and Eric Chavez had not returned. His biggest opportunity for playing time could come against left-handed pitching. If Jones is in for Brett Gardner in left, that still leaves the DH spot vacant. Rodriguez, or even Jeter on occasion, could slide into the DH spot, leaving some playing time for Nunez.

Eric Chavez

The Yankees enjoyed Chavez’s presence last year, enough so that they brought him back when it seems fairly unnecessary. During the winter the Yankees talked about getting Nunez more playing time, but Chavez only eats into that. While he does provide a left-handed look off the bench, something they might not have if Ibanez has been in the lineup that day, his overall role remains difficult to decipher.

Basically, Chavez’s role is Rodriguez insurance. If he needs days off against righties, then maybe Chavez gets more playing time. But how many days off is Rodriguez really going to get if he’s healthy? It seems, then, that Chavez is there in case Rodriguez gets hurt — which is not an ideal role for him, since he himself gets hurt frequently enough. He might be a nice player to have around, but it’s hard to envision his role on the 2012 Yankees.

Francisco Cervelli

Cervelli is what he is: a backup catcher. There’s really not much more to say than that. He has some defensive issues, sure. Just as he over-exaggerates his fist pumps, he over-exaggerates his pitch framing. He’s not very proficient at picking off base runners. But he’s not quite a terrible hitter. In 2010, pressed into semi-regular duty, he hit .271/.359/.335. In 2011, as Russell Martin‘s primary backup, he hit .266/.324/.395. Those aren’t standout numbers, but they’re only slightly below average. Many, if not most, teams wish they had a backup catcher who could produce that kind offense.

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In the last few years we’ve seen the Yankees put a greater emphasis on their bench. This allows them to be a bit more flexible. It affords veterans days off without the team losing too much production. It also allows them to use players in their optimal roles. That is, they can platoon players who need it, because they have a complementary player. Given the general state of the Yankees’ starting offense, the bench might make only a one- or two-win difference in any given year. But in the dogfight that is the AL East, that can play a large role in the end-of-year standings — even more so now that winning the division is that much more important.

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Optimism running high in Yankees’ camp

Right now, every team is a contender. Even the Houston Astros, losers of 106 games and with nary an off-season upgrade, could make waves this year. It would take about a dozen things breaking their way, and at least half of them would be of the greatest improbability. But even then, chances are we’ve seen crazier things happen in baseball.

With the Yankees, though, the sense of optimism is justified. After winning more games than any other AL team in 2011, they’ve upgraded the team in the off-season. Acquiring both Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda to the rotation is exciting enough. Add to that a few optimistic reports from camp in Tampa, and it’s pure spring ecstasy.

The wave of optimism started before the Yankees officially opened camp. A few players showed up early, Phil Hughes among them. After a disappointing 2011 season, marred by injuries and ineffectiveness, Hughes reportedly dedicated himself to conditioning this winter. Reports surfaced last week that he showed up in much better shape, much to everyone’s relief.

Yesterday Chad Jennings added fuel to the fire when he quoted Joe Girardi on Hughes’s progress. “I think his curveball has been a little bit more crisp. I think there’s more arm speed there. I think the ball’s coming out better.” A healthy and effective Hughes in that last rotation spot would be a boon for the 2012 Yankees.

Another player with high expectations who delivered a disappointing 2012 is Alex Rodriguez. In December we learned that A-Rod underwent an experimental knee procedure — the same one that Kobe Bryant underwent after last season. Bryant, but most accounts, has bounced back considerably this year. He’s playing more minutes and is putting up superstar numbers. That makes it much easier to imagine A-Rod returning to form in a similar manner.

(That A-Rod is dedicated enough to bring his own food to restaurants is another optimistic sign. He knows the tabloids follow him everywhere, and surely knew they’d catch on to this and try to make it seem embarrassing. But all it is, is a guy dedicated to his nutrition so he can play baseball at the most elite level. Rock on, A-Rod.)

Want the mother of all optimistic reports? How about the one Buster Olney filed on Tuesday about Michael Pineda? Even Brian Cashman admitted that if Pineda never develops a changeup and doesn’t become an ace, he’ll have made a mistake trading Jesus Montero for Pineda. So it warms the hear to see the following paragraph:

But after Pineda arrived in the Yankees’ camp, pitching coach Larry Rothschild worked with him to alter the grip on his changeup. Rothschild mentioned to Martin that Pineda’s changeup is a work in progress before the veteran catcher crouched to work with Pineda in a bullpen session Monday, and Martin was taken aback by how good Pineda’s changeup is already. He turned to Rothschild and said, “Larry, what are you guys talking about?”

In other words: Pineda already has made strides with the changeup, a sign of his aptitude.

It’s not just the big names that are making splashes this spring. This morning Joel Sherman, in a column about Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame chances, drops some gems. By his account, Jones seems more determined than ever. He believes that the adjustments he made to his swing last season will help him not only mash lefties, but also handle righties as well — something he did well during his prime years. Apparently, one of the reasons Jones chose to come back to the Yankees, despite more lucrative offers from other teams, was Kevin Long’s influence.

The most telling line in the column, as Sherman writes it: “[Jones] told hitting coach Kevin Long last year to inform Yankees GM Brian Cashman that he was returning in 2012 to take someone’s job.” Can you imagine what the Yankees lineup would look like if Jones were indeed to the point where he could legitimately take at-bats away from Brett Gardner?

These types of stories appear every spring. They help us warm up from the cold of winter — metaphorical cold, of course, given this winter’s behavior. Still, the odds are long that all of these factors fall into place. It’s wonderful to jump back into baseball and imagine the Yankees with an effective Phil Hughes in the rotation, with an ace-like Michael Pineda behind CC Sabathia, with a back-to-form Alex Rodriguez, and with a rejuvenated Andruw Jones. It’s really the only thing that gets us through the last parts of the off-season and through the preseason. The harsh reality might be a bit less exciting, but it’s still nice to bask in these stories now, while they still bring us hope.

Yankees roster flexibility going forward

In the mid-00s the Yankees frequently fielded inflexible teams. Led by expensive veterans, they typically had set players in each of the nine lineup spots, with little room for platooning or pinch-hitting. That made it tough to sign bench players, leaving the Yankees without much depth. Those times have clearly changed.

With some veterans needing extra days off, and with platoon-able players at some positions, the Yankees of late have taken advantage of those bench spots. They’ve filled them with guys who can hit, and guys who can run. That comes in handy not only when handling the eight players in the field, but also the DH spot. Best of all, the Yankees still have some room to maneuver with the final bench spot.

Raul Ibanez will likely get most of his playing time as the DH against right-handed pitching. Since the Yankees faced a righty starter roughly twice as often as they did a lefty starter, this could constitute a significant number of plate appearances. In fact, against righties the Yankees are pretty well set one through nine. When a lefty comes in, they still have Jones to pinch hit.

Andruw Jones will play a hybrid role. He signed with the Yankees for less money than other teams offered, so it stands to reason that he expects more playing time. Chances are he’ll start every game against left-handed pitching, whether in the DH spot or in left field, giving Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson a day off.

Eduardo Nunez‘s role will involve subbing for all three infielders when they need time off. The Yankees have talked about using Nunez more often, though, perhaps spelling Alex Rodriguez on some days, while A-Rod DHs. That could come against left-handed pitchers, perhaps on days that Jones subs for Gardner in left field. That would certainly help fill the remaining DH at-bats against left-handed pitching.

With these three shuffling playing time, the Yankees will have filled a lot of at-bats — and innings in the field. After counting Francisco Cervelli as the backup catcher, the Yankees still have one bench spot left. That could go to either:

Eric Chavez, with whom the Yankees have been speaking, could return to his role from last year. That would involve him spelling A-Rod at third from time to time, and perhaps taking reps at first when Mark Teixeira takes a rare day off. Chances are the Yankees would want to use Chavez primarily against right-handed pitching, in order to maximize his value at the plate. Those reps at third would come best when A-Rod needs a full day off, rather than a half day (since Ibanez figures to be DHing against RHP).

Bill Hall, whom the Yankees signed to a minor league deal, is a bit more flexible than Chavez, since he can play the outfield in addition to third base. He’s probably not playable at shortstop or second base at this point, but he does at least have experience there. He’s right-handed, so he could more cleanly spell A-Rod, even when A-Rod is taking a half day off to DH.

The crazy thing is that the Yankees could conceivably take both Chavez and Hall, if they were so inclined. We always work on the assumption that they will carry 12 pitchers and 13 position players, but the pitching staff really only needs 11 pitchers — especially if Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia is there to absorb innings as a multi-inning reliever. They probably won’t do this, though; they could use that final roster spot on Clay Rapada or Cesar Cabral, giving them a second lefty in the pen. There is also the issue of finding enough at-bats for a fifth bench player. Chances are, they’ll be able to find bullpen innings a bit more easily.

Still, the Yankees clearly have options this spring. The baseball ops department has done a good job of identifying the team’s strengths and augmenting them. The Yankees now have flexibility on the roster. They can give guys rest without missing too much. That’s in stark contrast to the teams of the mid-00s, which featured veterans and superstars in the lineup, but nary a substitute on the bench. They Yankees might not have a superstar at every position, but they’re pretty well set up to hand out at-bats to capable hitters.

What’s In A Number?

New faces, new numbers. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

One of the general rules of thumb in Spring Training is the higher the number, the less likely the player is to make the team. Chase Whitley (#96) and Graham Stoneburner (#95) should probably start looking for apartments in Trenton rather than start planning for life in the Bronx. Non-roster players with a legitimate chance to make the team like Bill Hall (#40) and Russell Branyan (#45) were issued numbers a little closer to respectability.

New faces Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda were given some old, familiar numbers. Numbers with tiny little bit of history, either for the Yankees or in general. During the number-issuing process, Andruw Jones got caught in the crossfire. Let’s review…

Michael Pineda – #35
For the first time since Mike Mussina in 2008, someone will wear #35 in pinstripes. Pineda wore #36 with the Mariners last season, but Freddy Garcia has seniority and got to keep his number. Moose was a great Yankee, but not great enough to have his number retired. Keeping #35 out of circulation for three years before handing it over to an extremely talented young hurler like Pineda is a fine tribute in my eyes.

(AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Hiroki Kuroda – #18
Believe it or not, there’s actually a little something behind Japanese pitchers and the #18. It’s the country’s recognized “ace number” according to NPB Tracker’s Patrick Newman (and his commenters), a tradition that started way back in the 1930s with Akira Noguchi of the Tokyo Senators. It was later popularized by Tsuneo Horiuchi of the Yomiuri Giants in the 1960s and 1970s. After Horiuchi retired, Masumi Kuwata was given the number and went on to have a lengthy career. The tradition spread and now most staff aces in Japan wear #18, though #11 has started to gain popularity as an “ace number” thanks to Kenshin Kawakami and more recently Yu Darvish. Daisuke Matsuzaka wears #18 with the Red Sox, and the recently signed Tsuyoshi Wada will wear it for the Orioles. So yeah, neato.

Andruw Jones – #22
I don’t know if he got dinner or a watch or something else out of it, but Jones gave up #18 to Kuroda and will now don #22. If you’re the superstitious type, I have bad news for you: the #22 has been worn by some sketchy fourth outfield types in recent years, including Greg Golson (2011), Colin Curtis (2010), Chad Huffman (2010), Randy Winn (2010), and Xavier Nady (2008-2009). Jones is substantially better than all of those fellas, plus I’m not usually one to worry about the bad vibes given off by certain numbers. I expect Andruw to do just fine in 2012, regardless of what number he’s wearing on his back.

* * *

Raul Ibanez will be issued #27 when he reports according to Jack Curry, which can’t be good news for Chris Dickerson. Last year’s #27 is out of minor league options (can’t be sent down without first clearing waivers) and on the outside of the roster bubble looking in at the moment. He’s been given #41.

The numbers 6, 20, 21, 46, and 51 remain out of circulation, and four of the five are likely to get retired at some point. I have a real hard time thinking Paul O’Neill’s number will be retired unless they’re planning some kind of grand, late-90s dynasty number retirement night, where all those guys have their numbers put in Monument Park at the same time. O’Neill’s been retired for eleven years now, it’s time for something to happen with #21, one way or the other.

Cashman Speaks: Scandal, Mo, Sabathia, More

Duke Castiglione cares not about your personal bubble.

Happy pitchers and catchers day. Joe Girardi was/is late for a scheduled meeting with the media because of a lengthy flight delay, but Brian Cashman did hold court with reports. Here’s the round up of the news and notes…

  • “It’s not going to affect my job,” said Cashman when asked about his divorce and stalker, calling the situation “very difficult.” He doesn’t believe his job is in jeopardy. (Dan Barbarisi)
  • Cashman confirmed that Mariano Rivera will be late to camp. “What am I going to do? He’s Mariano Rivera,” said the GM. “He’ll get his eight innings in … He knows what he needs to do.” (Bryan Hoch, Pete Caldera & Erik Boland)
  • CC Sabathia and Cashman had a conversation about the left-hander’s weight soon after he signed his new contract extension. Cashman called it a “healthy dialogue,” and the conversation included Girardi and head trainer Steve Donohue. Sabathia lost 10-15 lbs. this winter (though David Waldstein says it looks like more) and will focus on maintaining it throughout the season. (Marc Carig & Boland)
  • Michael Pineda will not start the season as the number two starter, with Cashman citing his need to improve his changeup as a reason why. My prediction? He’ll be the four on Opening Day, which is completely meaningless in the grand scheme of things. (Boland)
  • Andruw Jones will report to camp before the rest of the position players because he’s working his way back from offseason knee surgery. He had a small tear repaired and played through the injury last season. (Carig)
  • Brad Meyers, one of the team’s two Rule 5 Draft picks, hurt his shoulder lifting weights over the winter and will be behind the other pitchers in camp. He was a long shot to make the roster already, and this certainly didn’t improve his chances any. (Carig)
  • Not surprising, but Cashman said they want a left-handed hitting DH that can play some outfield. Raul Ibanez is reportedly the top target, though Cashman didn’t mention him by name. The GM also said Eric Chavez‘s return is not a sure thing. (Hoch)
  • Last but not least, Cashman admitted that the Yankees weren’t trying to win the division in 2010. They decided they were better off winning the Wild Card and focusing on getting healthy in September. (Hoch)

(Photo via Mark Feinsand)

What remains on the Yankees’ shopping list?

The answer to the headline question might seem obvious. For the past few weeks we’ve discussed the Yankees’ new situation, which mainly involves filling one starting role. Jesus Montero‘s departure and Jorge Posada‘s retirement left vacant the regular DH role for 2012. Yet it’s not that simple. While we’ve seen the Yankees enter the past five seasons, at least, with a regular presence at DH, that likely won’t be the case this year. They already have the makings of a part-time DH on the roster.

Andruw Jones represents the first component of the 2012 DH spot. While he’s typically seen as a platoon partner with Brett Gardner and, to a lesser extent, Curtis Granderson, that probably won’t be his only role this season. During the Winter Meetings, Joel Sherman reported that Jones sought a larger role. “The friend also revealed that following offseason knee surgery that Jones has said if he comes back to the Yankees, he is coming in the kind of shape with the idea of winning a corner outfield job, not just accepting a back-up position.” Additionally, ESPN NY’s Wally Matthews talked to a source who said that Jones “took less money to return to the Yankees.” That could mean he’s expecting an expanded role.

While Jones worked out well last season, he played less frequently than he had in the previous two seasons. With Texas in 2009 he came to the plate 331 times, and with Chicago in 2010 it was 328 PA. Last season he was limited to 222 PA. He could instantly pick up more PA by DHing when Gardner starts in LF against a left-handed pitcher. He might also pick up some at-bats at DH against righties. He didn’t hit them particularly well last year, batting .172/.303/.406 against them in 76 PA, but he did flash good power (.234 ISO, just .020 lower than his ISO against LHP), and he maintained a solid 14.5 percent walk rate. In the last three seasons, Jones has produced average numbers against right-handed pitching (101 wRC+). It won’t give him a full-time job, but he could pick up some at-bats vs. righties as the DH.

Alex Rodriguez could also pick up at-bats from the DH spot in 2012. While he’s still penciled in as the starting third baseman, it’s difficult to see him playing there every day all season long. He hasn’t reached the 140-game mark since 2007, and played in just 99 last season. While he could return to form following a platelet-spinning procedure, it’s not something the Yankees can count on. Additionally, the Yankees want to play Eduardo Nunez more often this season, so subbing him for Rodriguez, while the latter fills the DH role, remains a possibility.

It is conceivable, then, that Rodriguez and Jones play up to 60 games combined at DH. That leaves around 100 games for others, though there will certainly be days when Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and even Robinson Cano take a half-day off. These accommodations render the DH a part-time position. Additionally, since both Rodriguez and Jones could fill the spot against right-handed pitchers, and since the DH spot will be open when Jones plays the outfield in place of Gardner against left-handed pitchers, a strict platoon isn’t necessarily the answer.

The Yankees can approach this situation in one of two ways. The most likely route is filling their remaining bench spots with veterans who can handle a part-time role. They might need some versatility, especially if one of the two players doesn’t play a position (ahem, Raul Ibanez). This might be one reason the Yankees are pursuing Bill Hall; he can handle both the infield and the outfield, and is also best suited for reps against left-handed pitching. Ibanez, on the other hand, can take the remaining reps at DH against right-handed pitching. A combination such as this could fit the Yankees needs well.

The other option is to fill the empty spots with young or flawed players. We’ve heard Jorge Vazquez’s name bandied, and there’s a chance he could take those reps at DH against LHP when Jones is in the outfield. There’s also Justin Maxwell for a similar role, though he has the added benefit of playing the field as well. Chris Dickerson, as Mike will discuss in more detail later, could be another fit, playing right field against some right-handed pitchers while Nick Swisher occupies the DH spot. Alternatively, the Yankees could swing a trade for a more versatile player who can provide a role similar to Maxwell or Dickerson (or Hall or Ibanez).

Immediately following the Jesus Montero trade, it appeared the Yankees were in the market for a full-time DH in his stead. But given the way their roster breaks down, they need something less than that. If they were so inclined, they could have half a season’s worth of DH at-bats already on the roster. Given the slow-moving market, they are right in taking their time in finding the right players to fill those last two roster spots. They can go in a number of directions, with each one having its plusses and minuses.

It’s official: Andruw’s back for another year

The Yankees announced that they’ve officially re-signed Andruw Jones to a one-year contract, meaning he passed his physical. He did have his knee scoped after the season, so the check-up was slightly more than routine. Back in December we heard that it was going to a one-year, $2M pact, and the AP has a breakdown of the plate appearance-based incentives. The 40-man roster is now full, so someone will have to get the boot when the Hiroki Kuroda signing becomes official. I ran down the list of candidates a few weeks ago. Welcome back, Mr. Jones.