2012 Season Preview: Platoon Opportunities

Via Reuters Photos

Platoons in baseball can be tricky machines. In theory they’re great. They allow batters to emphasize their strengths and hide their weaknesses. But in practice they don’t quite add up perfectly. There are all sorts of issues that go along with platoons, not least of which is the sheer number of roster spots available. As such, teams have to pick their platoon guys with care. The 2012 Yankees seem to have one prominent platoon pair, with a couple of other low-level ones to consider on occasion.

Andruw Jones

Heading into the 2010 season, the Yankees needed a righty outfield bat. They had just traded for Curtis Granderson, who had struggled against left-handed pitching for most of his career. They were also going to try Brett Gardner, another lefty, in left field. Having a right-handed outfielder to spell one of them seemed not only like a good idea, but a pretty necessary insurance plan. And so, despite Marcus Thames‘ subpar spring training, he made the team.

Deciding that they’d gotten the best of Thames, the Yankees sought another lefty masher for their 2011 lineup. Andruw Jones appeared to be a perfect fit. After slipping in 2007 and turning in a disastrous 2008, Jones had recovered to be a serviceable part-time player, excelling particularly against left-handed pitchers. His continued production against left-handed pitching earned him a return trip for 2012.

Jones has expressed a desire for a more regular role, facing both lefties and righties. He might get that opportunity, given the concerns with our next entrant on the platoon bats list. But chances are he’ll be at his most effective against left-handed pitchers. Since 2009 Jones has produced a 129 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, which ranks 55th among all major leaguers with at least 200 PA (against LHP).

Raul Ibanez

Once the Yankees traded Jesus Montero, their DH situation became a big clearer. Jones could take reps at DH against left-handed pitching, leaving Brett Gardner to a full-time role in left. But that still left open the strong side of the DH platoon. By that point in the off-season there weren’t many viable options remaining, and so the Yankees picked the player whom they thought gave them the best combination of the skills they valued. That turned out to be Ibanez.

Like Thames two years ago, Ibanez has started slowly in the spring. Given his guaranteed contract and lack of competition, however, he’ll likely break camp with the team and commence his role as the platoon DH. Yet it’s difficult to expect big things from him. Since 2009 Ibanez has produced a 112 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, which ranks 65th out of 147 qualified hitters. That does include a poor 2012 as well as a torrid 2009. The Yanks will do best to avoid all confrontations between Ibanez and lefties.

While Ibanez and Jones represent the bulk of the Yankees’ platoon opportunities, they do have a few other players who carry platoon splits. They likely won’t get platooned, at least not frequently, but their rest days would preferably come when facing same-handed pitchers. (Though that should be the rule of thumb regardless, right?)

Brett Gardner

Last year Gardner saw fewer at-bats against left-handed pitching. This is partly because Jones hit them so well. But there were also signs that he was struggling against them. He didn’t hit for average (.233) and had absolutely no power (.039 ISO). While he did walk and strike out against lefties less frequently than he did against righties, the overall result was pretty negative (75 wRC+).

With the DH spot open against left-handed pitching, Gardner could see more opportunities this year. He did hit lefties fairly well in 2010, a .373 OBP and a 102 wRC+. He’ll get days off against lefties for sure, but it does appear that he’ll get a few more chances to prove his mettle against them in 2012.

Derek Jeter

Jeter did bounce back in the second half of last year, but his total season numbers against righties still disappointed. In fact, it was his torrid production against lefties, a 160 wRC+ in 168 PA, that contributed greatly to his overall success. Against rigthies, whom he faced 439 times, he hit just .277/.329/.338. Still, that was an improvement on his 2010 season, in which he hit .246/.315/.317 in 500 PA against RHP. The last time he hit righties effectively was 2009: .311/.381/.435. Given his age it’s difficult to expect more out of him than he hit last year. If he can keep up that pace he’ll be OK. But it’s easy to see how his production against righties will hurt his overall numbers in the final years of his contract.

Alex Rodriguez

Larry covered A-Rod’s continued woes against left-handed pitching earlier in the off-season. He did a pretty comprehensive job, so there’s no need to rehash it here. A-Rod‘s poor production against lefties makes Eric Chavez an unideal understudy, since he’ll face mostly right-handed pitchers. But perhaps the new, more balanced A-Rod will buck the trend and once again mash left-handed pitching.

There could also be room here to mention both Nick Swisher‘s and Mark Teixeira‘s struggles against righties, but that’s not really a platoon issue. That is, they’re not going to sit against right-handed pitching, since they’re their own platoon partners. But those issues do exist. Just to be clear.

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2012 Season Preview: Power Sources

Granderson provided more power than any other Yankee in 2011. (via Reuters Images)

Since the Yankees’ 2009 championship run, power has largely defined the offense. In both 2009 and 2011 the Yankees led the majors in isolated power, and in 2010 they finished third. They’ve hit 15 more home runs than any other team in that three-year span. Even more impressively, they’ve done this at a time when they’re getting less and less from their once-premier slugger, Alex Rodriguez. But that’s the point, really. The Yankees have many power sources, which helps keep the team ahead of the pack.

Curtis Granderson

When the Yankees traded for Granderson after the 2009 season, people salivated over his power potential. He’d just smacked 30 home runs while playing half his games in homer-suppressing Comerica Park. What could he do with the short porch at Yankee Stadium? It wasn’t uncommon to hear predictions of 40 homers. While that didn’t come immediately, it did last season.

From the start Granderson’s power was evident. Not only did he homer on Opening Day, but he did so against a lefty. He continued belting homers throughout the year, putting on his best displays in May and August. This was made possible in large part because of his improvement against left-handed pitching. In 2010 he managed a paltry .120 ISO against lefties, hitting just four of his 24 homers against them. In 2011 he actually had a higher ISO against lefties than against righties, .325 to .273. If that’s a real effect of the adjustments he made to his swing, the Yanks will continue reaping the benefits in 2012.

Andruw Jones

The Yankees originally signed Jones last winter, because he added some right-handed pop to an outfield that featured two flawed lefties. One had little power, and the other, to that point, had shown little power against lefties. Jones was coming off a season in which he mashed lefties, producing a .302 ISO and hitting eight homers in 102 PA. But a slow start threatened to end the relationship prematurely, as Jones produced little power through June. From then on, though, he was phenomenal.

While his power numbers against lefties were a bit better than against righties, he still produced solid overall power numbers. In fact, his .234 ISO against right-handed pitchers was higher than Robinson Cano‘s ISO on the season.* He comes back this year with a chance to play a bigger role and provide even more power. While Jones is nowhere near the player he was during his heyday with the Braves, his ability to hit baseballs with authority has kept him well employed in the last few years.

*This is not a demonstrative statement, just a little illustration of how well Jones did hit against righties in his limited at-bats against them.

Mark Teixeira

The story of Mark Teixeira’s 2010 and 2011 seasons centers on overall disappointment. His batting average dropped precipitously, and it affected all of his numbers. That is, except his power numbers. While they look low on a superficial level, that’s in part because power numbers are down across the league. Last year in particular he produced very good power numbers, ranking 12th in the majors in ISO and fourth in home runs.

Unless he brings up his batting average, which will in turn prop up his other numbers, Teixeira will be seen as a disappointment. But even if he doesn’t, he’ll still provide an excellent source of power. Batting in the fifth spot, that could come in handy. He might miss out an opportunity for an RBI single, but he can clear the bases with a homer as well as almost anyone else in the majors.

Robinson Cano

Since his early days in the league, people saw in Cano a perpetual .300 hitter. At the same time, they saw his smooth as silk swing and thought that he could drive plenty of pitches over the fence. Yet in his first four seasons he failed to crack 20 home runs. It wasn’t until 2009 that he found his true power stroke. He hit 25 that year and has topped that in the following two. Could 2012 be the year he finally cracks 30?

The best part about Cano’s increased home run output is that it hasn’t affected his gap power. That is, he’s not driving pitches over the fence that he once drove into the gap. From 2009 through 2011 he ranks second in the majors in doubles with 135, seven ahead of No. 3, Miguel Cabrera, and five behind No. 1, Billy Butler. At the same time he ranks No. 23 with 82 home runs in that span. Perhaps most impressively of all, he’s No. 3 in total bases during the last three seasons.

Alex Rodriguez

Rounding out the middle of the order is a player whose production has faded a bit in the last few years. Clearly injuries hampered Rodriguez in 2010, to the point where he provided no more power than Nick Swisher. That he missed nearly two months of action, among all of his ailments, didn’t help his cause. In a year when the Yankees hit, according to some, too many home runs, Rodriguez managed just 16, sixth most on the team.

During his prime years, from 2001 through 2007, Rodriguez averaged a .287 ISO. It’s unlikely that, even if healthy, he reaches that mark again. But he did produce a .236 ISO in 2010, and .245 in 2009. Those are higher than the marks that he produced in 2006 and 2004, times when the offensive environment was a bit more potent than it has been recently. If he can simply reach those levels in 2012, hitting 30 homers and 30 doubles with a solid batting average, he’ll produce enough power for the Yankees’ already powerful lineup.

Yankee designated hitter production of recent vintage, and a look at 2012

One of the bitterest pills to swallow in the aftermath of the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero trade was the fact that the Yankees were removing what many expected to be a substantial cog in the offensive machine, not only in 2012 but for years to come. Prior to being traded, Montero’s average projected wOBA for 2012 was .360 (his revised projections as a Mariner average out to a .347 wOBA, or .272/.334/.461), which was the fifth-best projected wOBA of the projected starting Yankee nine.

Interestingly, for all of Brian Cashman‘s skill at building an incredibly talented roster on the offensive side of the equation, getting robust production out of the DH slot in the lineup has never really seemed to be a primary interest. To wit (as always, click to embiggen):

Of the 14 Yankee teams Cash has presided over, they have received below-league average production (sOPS+) out of the DH slot five times. That may not seem like a lot, but it is a tad eyebrow-raising given how robust the Yankee offense has been with Cash at the helm. Only four times has the team received DH production 10% better than league average in the last 14 seasons, which seems like a fairly large waste of resources when considering we’re talking about a lineup slot solely extant to produce offense.

Cashman’s high-water mark DH season was 2009, the year in which Hideki Matsui had primary designated hitter duties and responded with a DH campaign 19% better than the league. The Yankees also got a surprising amount of production out of the 2008 DH, which was mostly filled by Jason Giambi, along with Matsui and Johnny Damon. The only other really standout year for DH production above was 1998, which saw Darryl Strawberry, Rock Raines and Chili Davis collaborate on a .276/.378/.493 line.

That .360 projected wOBA for a Montero as a Yankee worked out to roughly a .270/.360/.470 triple slash, mighty fine production out of a 21-year-old, not to mention a line that would’ve been among the better performances the Yankees received from the DH during the last 14 seasons. However, for all the hullabaloo about the Yankees wanting to fill Montero’s vacated production, it appears they’ll have a pretty good shot at doing just that with the platoon of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez.

In 2011, Andruw Jones put up the following slash against LHP  in 146 PAs: .286/.384/.540, .400 wOBA.
In 2011, Raul Ibanez put up the following slash against RHP in 437 PAs: .256/.307/.440, .322 wOBA.

If you average those lines (and obviously this is exceptionally rough math, as the PAs are not even close to comparable), you get a .271/.346/.490, .361 wOBA hitter. Docking for the fact that PAs against RHP are roughly double those against LHP and you’re probably close to a .340 wOBA hitter, which is right around the average of SG’s 2012 CAIRO-projected platoon splits for Jones (.337 vs. LHP) and Ibanez (.349 vs. RHP).

While Jones probably won’t produce a .400 wOBA against LHP again, on the flip side Ibanez seems like a fairly reasonable bet to outdo a .322 wOBA against RHP with 81 games at Yankee Stadium, and taken together I don’t think it’s terribly unrealistic to expect the duo to combine for somewhere in the neighborhood of a .350 wOBA. While that may not quite be Jesus Montero territory, it should be enough for the Yankee offense to not miss much of a beat, especially when considering the ~.309 wOBA received from Jorge Posada in the majority of DH plate appearances in 2011.

2012 Season Preview: Contract Years

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.

Don't go Mo. (REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The Yankees are known for their free-spending ways, and while that may be scaled back in the near future, the team still has plenty of roster and financial decisions to make. Eight players on the club’s projected 25-man Opening Day roster are scheduled to become free agents after the season, assuming the no-brainer 2013 options for Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson are exercised. No less than four of those eight impending free agents can be considered critical pieces of the roster.

Things have a way of changing over the course of a 162-game season (plus playoffs), but the Yankees are going to have some tough choices to make in about eight months. In some cases, the may not have a choice at all.

Freddy Garcia
The Yankees quickly re-signed Garcia to a one-year, $4M contract early this offseason, but now he’s an extra piece. It’s easy to say they jumped the gun and should have waited to re-sign him, but they got him on such ridiculously favorable terms compared to what similar pitchers — Bruce Chen (2/9), Chris Capuano (2/10), and Aaron Harang (2/12) — received this winter that the Yankees will have no trouble trading him later this summer if they decided to go that route. Pitching depth is never a bad thing, and even if the fifth starter competition is rigged, I’m sure we’ll see Sweaty Freddy make some starts this year. Right now, it seems all but certain that Garcia will move on to another team as a free agent next offseason.

Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez & Eric Chavez
Three spare parts on cheap one-year contracts, Ibanez ($1.1M) will be the left-handed half of the DH platoon while Chavez ($900k) backs up both corner infield spots. Jones ($2M) will get playing time against southpaws, either in the field or at DH. None of the three players are all that crucial to the team’s short- or long-term success, with Andruw representing the most indispensable part. That said, he’s on the short end of a platoon. Injuries have a way of forcing guys like these into larger roles than expected. Jones will be the priority re-sign after the season if all goes well, but the other two will have to wait like they did this winter.

Hiroki Kuroda
The 37-year-old Kuroda was non-committal about his future when he arrived at camp a few weeks ago, instead saying he’s ready “to give 100% and contribute to the Yankees as much as possible.” Hal Steinbrenner agreed to expand the budget to sign the veteran right-hander for $10M, a signing of tremendous importance that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves because of the Michael Pineda trade.

With youngsters Pineda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes in the rotation, Kuroda and CC Sabathia will be counted on to provide stability and innings every five days. He’s being reunited with former Dodgers battery-mate Russell Martin, which will hopefully get his ground ball rate back into the 50% range after a one-year hiatus. There’s no secret regarding Kuroda’s status with the team; he’s a one-year stopgap brought in to solidify the rotation while the younger pitchers take their lumps. If he performs well and is willing to return in 2013, I’m sure the Yankees would welcome him. If not, then no big deal. Both parties will move on.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Russell Martin
The Yankees have already touched base with Martin’s camp about a three-year contract extension, but talks are now on hold until after the season. Yadier Molina’s hilariously huge contract (five years, $75M with an option and a no-trade clause) is a total game-changer, raising the salary bar for above average catchers in their prime years substantially. Martin will benefit, the Yankees will not if they choose to re-sign him.

While Austin Romine and Frankie Cervelli represent viable and payroll friendly alternatives, there is definite value in having a guy like Martin around for the next few seasons. He can ease the transition of the youngsters and provide some certainty at a position where so many teams have none at all. By no means is Martin a star, but he fits the Yankees well and there are several reasons for the team to re-sign him after the season. Molina’s contract will make that extraordinarily difficult, as the Rangers and Diamondbacks learned when impending free agents Mike Napoli and Miguel Montero abruptly ended extension talks this week.

Nick Swisher
Unlike Martin, the Yankees have not approached their right fielder about any kind of contract extension. Also unlike Martin, the Yankees don’t have an obvious, in-house replacement for Swisher. Things could change during the course of the summer, but as of today there’s no player in the system who you could point to as a viable corner outfielder for 2013.

Swisher has made it obvious that he loves playing for the Yankees, but he also said he won’t force the issue and is willing to test the free agent waters next winter. Concerns about a down walk year because of his playoff failures (and thus his “inability to handle pressure”) are misguided because Swisher was playing for a contract last season too. If he performed poorly, he was faced with the same fate as today: heading out onto the open market coming off a bad season on the wrong side of 30. The Yankees seem more content to play this one by ear, mostly because finding a replacement corner outfielder won’t be as difficult as say, finding a replacement catcher. That said, Swisher is a pretty important piece of the offense and losing his production would hurt.

Mariano Rivera
Based on his comments from a few weeks ago, the Yankees may not have a choice when it comes to retaining Rivera after the season. The greatest relief pitcher in the history of the universe hinted at retirement his first day at Spring Training, saying he’s made a decision about his future and won’t change his mind even if he saves a zillion games or if they offer him a zillion dollars. That seems like a weird thing to say if he was planning on giving it another go in 2013.

Mo is the only player in this post the Yankees would absolutely, no doubt about it retain after the season if given the chance. Other roster decisions would be based on him and around his new contract, which is something that applies to very few players in today’s game. The Yankees have plenty of potential replacements should Rivera hang ‘em up after 2012, but a pitching staff is a unique thing. They could carry Rivera and his potential replacements at the same time, unlike say Martin, Romine, and Cervelli. This is pretty much out of the Yankees’ hands. If Mo is willing to come back next year, they’ll bring him back. If not, well then we’ll see him in Cooperstown in six years.

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.

* * *

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.