What Went Wrong: Winn & Kearns

You hit it in the wrong direction, Randy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Given the general construction of their roster, it’s always difficult for the Yankees to sign quality bench players as free agents in the offseason. No one in their right mind wants to sit for weeks at a time behind a cast of All Stars, especially when their playing time will impact their future earnings. As a result, the Yanks have had to resort to signing cast-offs late in the offseason and/or trading for help at midseason. They did both in 2010, signing a reserve outfielder right before pitchers and catchers reported, then replacing him with a trade deadline pickup. Unfortunately, neither worked.

Randy Winn

The Yankees signed Winn to a relatively cheap contract in February, a one-year pact worth just $1.1M guaranteed, though there was another $900,000 tied up in incentives based on plate appearances against left-handed pitchers only. That told everyone right away that they viewed him as some sort of a platoon bat, not to mention a defensive specialist and occasional pinch runner.

As it turned out, Winn’s tenure in pinstripes lasted less than two months. He was designated for assignment on May 28th, less than 50 games into the season. His time with the Yanks featured just 71 plate appearances (0-for-11 vs. LHP) and a lowly .276 wOBA, though I will say that I thought he had some decent at-bats. He seemed to work the count well and at least make the pitcher work, though the results just weren’t there. Perhaps even more damning is that the supposed defensive specialist cost the team 1.2 runs in 162.2 defensive innings. Mash it all together, and Winn was worth three-tenths of a win below replacement level during his time in New York. Thankfully the Cardinals lessened the blow somewhat by assuming roughly $270,000 of Winn’s contract when they signed him in June.

Austin Kearns

Fans know Kearns' strikeout face well. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

After Winn flunked out of pinstripes and it became painfully obvious that Marcus Thames was a hazard to himself and anyone around him defensively, the Yanks went out and acquired Kearns from the Indians in exchange for a player to be named later (Zach McAllister) at the trade deadline. The former Red had rebuilt his value with the Indians in the first half, wOBA’ing .343 overall and (more importantly to the Yanks) .353 against southpaws.

Kearns instantly improved the team’s bench and overall depth, and his first three weeks in pinstripes were superb: .434 wOBA in 45 plate appearances while filling in at both outfield corners and occasionally pinch-hitting. That was basically all the Yankees would get out of Kearns though, as his production simply cratered after that. His final 74 plate appearances of the season featured just 24 times on base (inflated by four hit by pitches and one reached on an error) and 26 strikeouts, or one every 3.08 times to the plate. Although he made the postseason roster, Kearns didn’t make it into a single game even after Mark Teixeira‘s injury.

Kearns wasn’t a total loss for the Yankees (.310 wOBA) because his defense was rock solid (1.6 runs better than average), coming in at three-tenths of a win better than some replacement level scrub. In his defense, he was battling some sort of hand/wrist injury down the stretch that I’m sure hampered his swing, but still. Kearns was as close to useless as it gets in the last six or so weeks of the season.

* * *

A pair of approximately replacement level fourth (or fifth, depending on your point of view) outfielders didn’t sink the Yankees’ season, though they certainly didn’t help. Thankfully the starting trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher were all above average performers this year, ditto Thames in a reserve role, so the lack of a true outfield bat off the bench wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been.

Austin Kearns in 2011?

Will we see this in 2011? (AP Photo/Wagner)

I know I’m getting ahead of myself this year, but should the Yankees try to resign Austin Kearns in the offseason?  Assuming  they are sold on Brett Gardner and will not be signing Carl Crawford, I think Kearns might have a role for this team beyond 2010.

Kearns has had a solid year after signing for 1 year/$750k with the Indians in the offseason, but has he done enough to either make significantly more money and get signed to be a full time player?  On point #1, I’d say the answer is no.  I don’t see him getting a multi-year deal in the offseason for very much money.  On point #2, I can see him getting a chance to start full time, but likely on a bottom feeding team.  Maybe he’d rather do that than sign on as a 4th outfielder, but if he’s willing to become a part time player next year at the age of 31, I think he’s a great fit for the Yankees.

Kearns would become a great 4th OF for this team, filling the role many had hoped of Randy Winn.  He can play the corners well defensively, and could probably still handle in CF in a pinch(though Mo forbid it ever got to that).  He also shows no drastic splits vs. lefties or righties, which can be viewed as both a positive and a negative for a bench player.  The negative is that he doesn’t provide any great skills(like Marcus Thames vs. LHP) but I think the positive that he isn’t completely inept against either RHP or LHP outweighs the lack of a great skill.  And anyway, if Kearns was great against either hand while being adequate against the other he would certainly be a starter elsewhere.

I have no idea what Kearns has in mind for 2011 and at this point maybe he doesn’t either. He’s played in almost 1000 games without ever reaching the playoffs.  Maybe a deep run this season and he realizes he’d rather get 300 AB’s for a contender than 600 for a bottom feeder.  Maybe he knows that next huge contract isn’t coming and is content with the $20+ million he’s made so far (assuming he hasn’t gone Antoine Walker or Mark Brunell on us).  It truly comes down to Kearns’ desires, but I would love to see him back in the pinstripes in 2011.

Indians select McAllister to complete Kearns deal

The Yankees announced tonight that the Cleveland Indians have selected right-handed pitcher Zach McAllister to complete the Austin Kearns deal. After rocketing through the Yanks’ system, McAllister could not get outs efficiently at AAA this year. The 22 year old is just 8-10 on the year with a 5.09 ERA and a 4.59 FIP. He’s struck out just 88 in 132.2 innings while walking 38 and has given up 20 home runs.

Both Baseball America and our own Mike Axisa ranked McAllister as the organization’s fifth best prospect in the preseason lists, but as Baseball America said, his stuff just isn’t that overpowering. Calling him “trade bait,” the magazine said, “Only McAllister’s slider grades as a plus pitch, and his fastball sometimes sits in the upper 80s. He must be precise with his fringy curveball and changeup.” In his post-draft organizational rankings, Mike had McAllister ranked 18th. His star has fallen, and the Yanks will likely not miss him.

The projected improvement of the Yankees

In the past two days we’ve been introduced to the newest bunch of New York Yankees. While the team has sat in first place since mid-June, there are always opportunities to improve. The Yankees took advantage of that by acquiring Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns, and Kerry Wood for Mark Melancon, Jimmy Paredes, two players to be named later, and partial payment of the players’ remaining salaries. If that sounds like a haul, well, it is — and not just because the three carry name value. They’re all upgrades over the in-house alternative.

In essence, Berkman replaced Juan Miranda as the DH against right-handed pitchers (I assume Marcus Thames will continue to get at least some starts at DH against LHP), Kearns replaced Colin Curtis, and Wood replaced Chan Ho Park. Again, the upgrades are clear just by looking at the names. Just how much difference will they make? Let’s take a look at the in-house player and his replacement using ZiPS rest of season projections.

Berkman over Miranda

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

With Nick Johnson out, the Yanks have had to make a few adjustments with the DH spot in the lineup. For a while Jorge Posada was playing there, but after his foot was declared fully healthy he slid back in behind the plate, where his bat provides more value. That left a vacancy at DH against right-handed pitching, since Marcus Thames had it covered against lefties. Juan Miranda was the obvious choice, a lefty with a questionable glove and some pop. He appeared at the plate just 67 times this year, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can really do. The Yanks, apparently, were not willing to have a look and see.

In those 67 PA Miranda produced a .323 wOBA, mostly because of his .213 ISO. His OBP was .299, which is never productive for a DH. ZiPS actually had him a bit worse the rest of the way, a .242/.313/.392 line that amounts to a .313 wOBA. That’s not the stuff of a DH. Even if you want to adjust it upward, thinking that he’ll face almost no LHP, I don’t think you could get even to league average with the adjustment. Juan Miranda just wasn’t the answer at DH.

The most important part of the Berkman trade, I think, is how he’s improved every month since undergoing knee surgery in March. That should make for a more optimistic rest-of-season projection, and ZiPS doesn’t fail us there. It projects him to hit .265/.385/.488 the rest of the way, or a .384 wOBA. That’s more DH-like production. Even if he produces a bit less than that, say a .370 wOBA, it’s still a significant upgrade over the in-house options. It will look even better if that .384 projection includes his numbers against LHP. Replace those with Marcus Thames, and that’s a strong DH platoon.

*Though I’m not entirely certain they’ll employ a platoon. Tough to tell a player of Berkman’s caliber that he’s sitting against lefties.

Kearns over Curtis

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Surprisingly, I found a few Yanks fans who weren’t so hot on this deal. I couldn’t figure out why. Colin Curtis is nice and all, and his mid-at-bat pinch-hit home run last month remains one of my favorite memories of 2010. As a useful player, though, give me Kearns every time. He can play defense at the corners and can get on base at a decent clip. Despite a few down years he still has a .353 career OBP.

ZiPS does not cover Curtis, since he didn’t factor into the Yanks’ roster during the off-season. We can safely assume that he wouldn’t produce a .337 wOBA, which is what ZiPS projects for Kearns the rest of the way. For a fourth outfielder that’s rather impressive. It will also give the Yanks the option to sit Curtis Granderson against the tougher lefties in the league, which will not only remove his production against lefties, but also perhaps help Kearns’s numbers since he’d be facing mostly opposite-handed pitchers. Colin Curtis would not afford them that opportunity.

Wood over Park

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The idea behind acquiring Kerry Wood is that he can provide the Yankees an additional option in the late-innings — the Bridge to Mariano if you will. Maybe he’ll be that good, maybe he won’t. Yet in terms of direct value, he is probably an excellent upgrade over Chan Ho Park, the pitcher the Yankees removed from the roster after acquiring Wood.

Despite a good season out of the pen for Park in 2009, ZiPS isn’t so high on him for the rest of the season. I fully expected to see something like a 3.90 ERA projection, but instead ZiPS sees Park as we fans do, as someone who can’t get the job done. It projects a 5.59 ERA with a 4.84 FIP for the final two months. Clearly the Yanks can do better than that, even if they chose to go in-house.

ZiPS projects Wood a bit more favorably, a 4.50 ERA and 3.80 FIP, including 10.13 K/9 and an acceptable home run rate. That’s not the stuff of a primary setup man, but it’s certainly better than Park. Plus, the idea behind this acquisition was pure upside. The Yanks know that Wood can beat those projections if everything is working. They’re hoping, in other words, that they get the 2008 version of Wood, the guy who struck out 11.40 per nine, kept his walk rate below 2.50, and kept the ball in the park.

But even if he doesn’t, he’s still one of the better options in the bullpen.

Yankees acquire Austin Kearns

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The Yankees have acquired Austin Kearns from the Indians for a player to be named later or cash, so says Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman. The identity of the PTBNL is “still undetermined” according to Bob Klapisch. Buster Olney says the Yanks are already hard at work on their next deal, presumably for a utility infielder but don’t rule out bullpen help.

Kearns started in leftfield for the Indians on Friday night, but was lifted for a pinch-runner after singling in the 7th inning. After a big time start (.313/.388/.494 through June 7th), the 30-year-old has cooled off considerably over the last several weeks (.212/.305/.311 since). The Yanks were reportedly looking for an outfield bat that can hit lefties, and Kearns fits the bill (.353 wOBA vs. LHP career, .339 vs. RHP). It’s also worth noting that he’s a stud defensively in rightfield with three-year UZR of +11.4, but he’s a bit below average in left (-2.1) and hasn’t played much center in recent years.

There’s only $278,000 left on his contract this season, and he isn’t close to being any kind of compensation free agent once the winter rolls around. I don’t expect much, but he’s an upgrade over Colin Curtis.

Filling X’s spot

We’re still waiting for the official diagnosis and treatment needed for Xavier Nady‘s injured elbow, but everyone expects grim news that will sideline X for the remainder of the season. The Yanks called up Juan Miranda yesterday to replace Nady on the roster, but more than likely this is just a temporary solution. This morning MLBTR pointed us to a report indicating that two possible options are Jason Repko of the Dodgers and Austin Kearns of the Nationals. The problem is that both Repko and Kearns kinda stink.

Let’s just eliminate Kearns as an option right now. He’s hitting .167-.310-.375 this year after hitting .217-.311-.316 last year. He’s owed $8M this year with a $1M buyout on his $10M option for next year. Sure he sort of has a big name after being an elite prospect back in the day, but Kearns doesn’t offer the Yanks anything they don’t already have in John Rodriguez. So he hits righthanded, big deal. I’ll take a good lefty hitter over an inferior righty hitter any day of the week. Pass. Pass emphatically.

Repko, on the other hand, is only slightly less useless. In nearly 500 big league plate appearances he’s hit .229-.300-.375 but has a spiffy 8.9 UZR rating in the outfield (primarily in center). Melky Cabrera‘s career line is .268-.329-.375 and his UZR is a combined -2.4 in the various outfield spots, but he’s four years younger than Repko. Where’s the upgrade? Really, the best replacement option would have been Delwyn Young, who the Dodgers traded to the Pirates the day before Nady got hurt. It’s just a case of unfortunate timing.

I understand that the Yankees have likely just lost an everyday outfielder for the rest of the season, but given their current roster construction, why does he have to be replaced with another outfielder? They’re already carrying four players on their roster capable of manning the big swath of grass past the infield, and all four of those guys can play center in a pinch. That’s normally what a team carries. They could use this opportunity to upgrade the black hole that is currently third base, perhaps by picking up Mark Grudzielanek. That, of course, assumes he would be willing to assume a utility infielder role once Alex Rodriguez comes back.

We do know one thing for sure, Brian Cashman won’t rush into finding a replacement for Nady outside of the organization. He’ll let the market come to him like he did with Bobby Abreu and … well … Xavier Nady.