Position player questions starting to be answered

Boesch seems like a safe bet for the Opening Day roster. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Boesch seems like a safe bet for the Opening Day roster. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees showed up to camp last spring with the bench mostly set, but this year was a different story. None of the four bench spots were accounted for when position players reported last month — there were favorites for jobs, but nothing was close to set in stone — and right now the only guarantee is that either Chris Stewart or Frankie Cervelli will be the backup catcher while the other starts. The backup infielder, backup outfielder, and remaining bench spot are still undecided.

Less than two weeks before Opening Day, those three bench questions are joined by two injury-related questions in the starting lineup. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira will be out until May, possibly longer in the case of the latter, meaning the Yankees must also sort through their assorted scraps for an outfielder and a first baseman. Thanks to some recent roster moves, these five position player questions are starting to be answered.

“There is no guarantee for anything … We will continue to evaluate these guys as we move forward,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings and Dan Martin after Matt Diaz was released over the weekend. “Maybe one piece is gone, but it’s still going to play out probably for the next two weeks … We just thought the other guys were ahead of him and to be fair to him to have a chance to [play] somewhere else.”

In addition to Diaz being released, youngsters like Slade Heathcott and Zoilo Almonte were sent to minor league camp and effective removed from the outfield competition. Juan Rivera has played an awful lot of first base lately in the wake of Teixeira’s injury — he’s played the outfield just once in the last eight Grapefruit League games — and seems to have been dropped from the outfield race. That leaves Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, Melky Mesa, and Thomas Neal in the competition.

With all due respect to Neal, who has quietly had a nice camp, the other three guys stand out as prohibitive favorites. I think the Yankees consider the 27-year-old Boesch is the no-doubt replacement for  Granderson — I think he would play right with Ichiro Suzuki shifting to left, putting the weaker defender in the smaller field — just because he’s left-handed and has played everyday the last three years. That said, Boesch signed a split contract and Buster Olney confirmed he has two (!) minor league options left, so he could be sent to Triple-A in a heartbeat. The fact that he’s the only left-handed hitter left in the competition leads me to believe he has a leg up on a big league roster spot come Opening Day.

Francisco. (Presswire)
Francisco. (Presswire)

That leaves Francisco and Mesa to battle it out for the right-handed outfield/DH role, and the Yankees always seem to lean towards the veteran when it comes to these part-time/reserve roles. Going with Francisco and sending Mesa to Triple-A allows the team to keep both players and frankly they could use the depth. Neither guy is like to hit much and while Melky2.0 is the better defender, Francisco is solid in the corner spots. Keeping him with Mesa in Triple-A is preferable to having Mesa in the show with no backup in the minors just in terms of having as many warm bodies as possible. Both guys will be needing over the course of the 162-game season.

Since the Yankees don’t need a fifth starter until their seventh game of the season and can backdate a DL stint ten days into Spring Training, they could have Phil Hughes start the season on the DL due to his back problem and carry an extra position player. Hughes would still be eligible to come off the DL in time for that seventh game, but the club would buy itself just a tiny bit more time to evaluate their position player options. It’s the difference between carrying both Rivera and Dan Johnson at the start of the season rather than just one or two. The Yankees only figure to see one left-handed starter in those first six games (Jon Lester on Opening Day), so having Johnson around would be helpful.

We still have no idea who the Yankees will carry north as the utility infielder, but Jayson Nix might have a leg up on Eduardo Nunez because of his versatility and defensive reliability. Going into the season with Boesch, Francisco, Rivera, and Johnson leaves the team just one spot for a utility man even if they open with Hughes on the DL. We know they’re just dying to use Nunez at short when Derek Jeter plays DH against lefties, but he hasn’t played any other position in camp. If they’re going to use him as the utility infielder, they’ll need to get him a few reps at second and third just to prepare him for the season.

With Diaz released and some others assigned to minor league camp, it looks more and more likely the Yankees will have both Boesch and Francisco on their Opening Day roster. Rivera and Johnson are the obvious first base fill-ins, but the club would need to manipulate Hughes’ injury — if they backdate his DL stint ten days, he can’t pitch in a Grapefruit League game during that time and will have to get his work in on the minor league side — to buy a temporary extra roster spot. The competition for the outfield, first base, and bench spots is still relatively wide open, but the picture is much clearer right now than it was just one week ago.

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Yankees sign Brennan Boesch

(David Maxwell/Getty)
(David Maxwell/Getty)

7:14pm: The Yankees have officially announced the signing, so it’s a done deal. Boesch will be in camp tomorrow. Michael Pineda was moved to the 60-day DL to free up a spot on the 40-man roster.

4:58pm: Another day, another outfielder. The Yankees have agreed to sign Brennan Boesch to a Major League contract worth $1.5M with $600k in plate appearance-based incentives, according to Jon Heyman. The club will need to make a 40-man roster move to accommodate the Scott Boras client, who was released by the Tigers earlier this week. That’s not an issue though, both Michael Pineda and Cesar Cabral are 60-day DL candidates. Boesch was dealing with an oblique issue earlier in camp and probably has to pass a physical before the contract is official.

The 27-year-old Boesch hit .240/.286/.372 (77 wRC+) with 12 homers in 503 plate appearances for Detroit last season. One year earlier he managed a .283/.341/.458 (117 wRC+) with 16 homers in 472 plate appearances before tearing a ligament in his thumb and needing surgery. The Yankees are presumably hoping the further he gets away from surgery, the more his production will increase because Boesch doesn’t steal, is a total hacker, and is a terrible defender. He has a slight reverse split (110 wRC+ vs. 92) despite having a much higher strikeout rate (23.3 K% vs. 17.9) and a lower ISO (.134 vs. .162) against lefties, though it could be a sample size issue since we’re talking about 374 plate appearances against southpaws over three years.

The one thing Boesch will give the Yankees is flexibility. He has at least one minor league option remaining and can be assigned to Triple-A Scranton without a problem whenever Curtis Granderson‘s forearm is healthy. Because he only has three years of service time, the Yankees will also control him as an arbitration-eligible player through 2016 as well. Always nice to have that extra layer of control and know the player is more than a rental if he actually proves to be useful.

I don’t think the Yankees signed Boesch to a big league contract only to send him down before Opening Day, so he’s a safe bet to make the roster as Granderson’s replacement. Either full-time or as part of a platoon, I’m sure he’ll be in there regularly. Hopefully the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium helps boost Boesch’s power output while his defense doesn’t completely negate any value he provides. Decent depth pickup but nothing special. One (or maybe two) dimensional player who fills a need created by injury.

Sherman: Yankees will look into Brennan Boesch & David Cooper

Via Joel Sherman: The Yankees will look into signing Brennan Boesch and David Cooper, who were released by the Tigers and Blue Jays this morning, respectively.

Boesch, 27, hit .283/.341/.458 (117 wRC+) with 16 homers in 472 plate appearances in 2011, but last year he managed just a .240/.286/.372 (77 wRC+) line in 503 plate appearances. He’s a total hacker — swung at 39.7% of pitches outside of the strike zone since 2010, the eighth worst in baseball — which is not the type of player the Yankees usually target. Boesch is also a brutal defensive player in the outfield corners. Still, the Yankees need to replace Curtis Granderson for a few weeks and the left-handed Boesch has power, plus he has at least one minor league option remaining. Of course the Yankees should look into signing him.

Cooper’s claim to fame is being a former first round pick (17th overall in 2008). The 26-year-old has hit .270/.310/.441 (103 wRC+) with six homers in 226 big league plate appearances over the last two years while battling various ailments, including a back injury that has kept him out of camp and is so serious it could end his career. He’s likely to rehab in 2013 and eye a return in 2014. Like Boesch he is a left-handed hitter, a poor defender, and has an option remaining. Given the back injury, there’s not much to see here. The Yankees need first base help right now, not next year.

Mailbag: Boesch, $200M, Harper, Slash Lines

Got five questions for you this week. Make sure you use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything at any time.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Mark asks: If the Tigers end up with Torii Hunter, this probably means the end of Brennan Boesch‘s time in Detroit. Any sense taking a flier on him?

Obviously this was sent in before the Tigers signed Hunter. Boesch, 27, hit .283/.341/.458 (117 wRC+) with 16 homers in 472 plate appearances last year before thumb surgery ended his season. I picked him as a breakout candidate this year — manager Jim Leyland said he was going to hit second between Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera, and while lineup protection doesn’t exist to the extend usually portrayed, I do believe it’s a factor in the case of elite hitters like Miggy — and he rewarded me by hitting .240/.286/.372 (77 wRC+) with 12 homers in 503 plate appearances. I sorta hate him for that.

With five outfielders now on the roster — Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, Quintin Berry, Avisail Garcia, and Hunter — there’s talk that the Tigers may non-tender Boesch this winter rather than pay him a projected $2.1M salary next season. I believe he has a minor league option left, so they could just send him down and make him a well-paid Triple-A insurance plan. I do think the Yankees should take a look if Boesch does get non-tendered, especially if they get him on a minor league deal and can stash him in Triple-A for a while. With Melky Mesa, Zoilo Almonte, and Chris Dickerson still around though, I’m not sure they could let more of these fringy outfield types chew up 40-man spots.

@aradmarkowitz asks: What players in baseball right now, would you take a on a 10/200 contract right now? I say Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw.

Those four are the obvious candidates, though Strasburg wouldn’t be a slam dunk for me given his injury history. It’s not just the Tommy John surgery, he also spent time on the DL with shoulder inflammation in 2010 and had a knee problem way back in college. I’d take the plunge given his age (24), but I feel more comfortable giving it Kershaw. I think the only other guy I’d consider signing for ten years and $200M right now is Buster Posey because he’s still so young (25) and athletic enough to play another position if needed. Plus, you know, he’s awesome. Andrew McCutchen is in this discussion as well, maybe even Giancarlo Stanton.

Drew asks: Do you think that Bryce Harper deserved the ROY? Seems like he was rewarded based on the hype surrounding him, and not on his actual numbers. Frazier had better numbers and he finished 3rd!

Harper: .270/.340/.477 (122 wRC+) with 22 homers and 18 steals in 597 PA
Frazier: .273/.331/.498 (121 wRC+) with 19 homers and three steals in 465 PA

Frazier didn’t have better numbers, if anything they were equal. Harper is also six and a half years younger (!), which I take into consideration. A 19-year-old doing what Harper did is far more impressive to me than a 26-year-old doing what Frazier did. I thought Harper should have won and would have had Wade Miley second on my ballot, but I wouldn’t have argued much if you had the two reversed. Frazier probably would have been third, but I also would have considered Norichika Aoki as well even though I hate that Japanese league veterans are considered rookies. The rules say they are though.

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Philip asks: Mike how do you think your understanding and analysis of the game has changed/grown since the site started?

It’s both changed and grown exponentially. I used to not be much of a stats guy at all, even back when we started the site in February 2007. I was a total jerk about it too, which I kinda regret. I understood that OBP was important and that pitcher wins and RBI weren’t the best way to evaluate players, but I didn’t take the time to fully grasp things like park effects and DIPS theory and different eras and leveraging relievers, stuff like that. Understanding context was the other big thing and I think it’s still lacking in most baseball writing, especially when dealing with the minor leagues.

Joe and (to a lesser extent) Ben slowly looped me into the world of advanced stats and the problem was that I just didn’t understand them. I didn’t want to early on, so I didn’t make much of an effort. There are some pretty great ways to measure a player’s performance and everyone is welcome to pick their favorites. For example I prefer wRC+ for hitters because it’s one easy to understand number (100 is league average, 120 is 20% better than league average, 80 in 20% worse, etc.) and it’s adjusted for both park and league. Simple, right? The idea of WAR is a good one but the execution isn’t great, mostly because the defensive metrics aren’t completely reliable. I use it directionally (this guy is above-average, this guy is below, etc.) but I don’t take the actual number to heart. The different between a 5.5 WAR player and a 5.0 WAR player is negligible and not worth arguing about. That level of accuracy doesn’t exist within the stat.

Obviously I’ve learned a ton since we started RAB and baseball’s one of those things where you just keep learning about every day. It’s like everything else in life, not a day goes by without learning something new. I’ve found that the more I learn about baseball the more I both enjoy and dislike watching it, if that makes sense. It’s neat to understand the value of a stolen base in a particular situation or understand why David Robertson is more valuable to the Yankees in the eighth inning instead of the ninth, but at the same time I can’t watch a sacrifice bunt without rolling my eyes. I’ll take being informed and frustrated at times over just “enjoying the show,” so to speak. My level of appreciation for the game has skyrocketed.

GB asks: Would you rather have a player that hit .350/.350/.350, a player that hit .280/.350/.470, a player that hit .050/.500/.050 or a player that hit .200/.300/.900?

This is a decent follow-up to the last question, no? My preference would be …

  1. .200/.300/.900
  2. .280/.350/.470
  3. .350/.350/.350
  4. .050/.500/.050

I remember reading something this summer that showed SLG actually correlated better to runs scored than OBP over the last five or six or however many years it was. I wish I could find it now. That’s not why my top choice is the .200/.300/.900 guy though, it’s just that the power numbers are so extreme. A .700 ISO? That’s insane. The largest ISO in baseball history is .536 by 2001 Barry Bonds, and no one else is over even .455 since Babe Ruth. If you offered me .200/.300/.600 instead, I probably would have had that guy second.

The #2 and #3 guys have the same OBP, so I’ll happily trade some batting average for more power. More hits are nice, but at some point you need to be able to drive yourself in or get a man home from first base with one swing. Stringing together a bunch of singles to score a run isn’t as easy as many people seem to think it is. The #4 guy has to be like, three feet tall or something. If you can’t hit the ball you won’t get challenged and the walks (and hit-by-pitches) aren’t going keep coming to maintain that OBP.