Heyman: Gardner, Prado, Drew all clear trade waivers

Via Jon Heyman: Brett Gardner, Martin Prado, and Stephen Drew all cleared trade waivers this month. That means they can all now be traded to any team. It doesn’t mean the Yankees want to move them, of course, but they can if they want. The Nationals claimed Matt Thornton off trade waivers the other day and the club let him go for nothing.

As a reminder, teams will pass almost all of their players through trade waivers this month. They are completely revocable, so players can be pulled back if claimed. Most of the time they try to hide a player they’re looking to move by putting a whole bunch of players on waivers on the same time. The Yankees figure to claim a player or three this month if for no other reason than to block them from going to one of the teams they’re trying to catch in the standings. I’m surprised no one claimed Gardner.

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2014 Midseason Grades: The Outfielders

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We’ve already covered the catchers and infielders, so now let’s move on to the outfielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brett Gardner — Grade A

Through the first 94 games of the 2014 season, Gardner has been the Yankees’ best position player. The team got out ahead of his impending free agency by signing him to a four-year extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a deal that looked sensible at the time and looks like a bargain now given his production and the lack of quality outfielders in the upcoming free agent classes.

Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Gardner leads the team in one-base percentage (.353) and total bases (146), ranks second in batting average (.279), slugging percentage (.424), stolen bases (15), OPS+ (116), and wRC+ (116), and first in both bWAR (2.9) and fWAR (2.7). He’s already set a career-high with nine homers. Gardner actually started the season in a funk, going 15-for-62 (.242) in the team’s first 18 games, but he’s hit .286/.366/.447 (126 wRC+) in the 76 games since. That’ll do just fine.

Gardner’s defense continues to be excellent as well. He slid back into left field seamlessly and has performed up to his usually defensive standards, which are rather high. Inside Edge data rates his glovework very well. The Yankees tried shuffling things around and actually started Gardner in right field during a game at Fenway Park in April, but that was a disaster. It looked like he had never played the outfield before. Left field is where he remains and whenever the need has arisen for whatever reason, he’s slid over and filled in at center without missing a beat.

The only negatives in Gardner’s game are his career-high 21.7% strikeout rate and career-low 11.6% stolen base attempt rate. The strikeout issue seems to have to do with him being a little more aggressive in certain counts and swinging for a fences, hence the homers. The stolen base this is weird — he ran in 14.3% of his opportunities last year and in 25.0% of his opportunities from 2010-12. Gardner is still on pace for 26 steals (in 33 attempts), but it appears his days of 45+ stolen bases are over. That’s a shame. Either way, he’s having an unreal season.

Jacoby Ellsbury – Grade B

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

As the story goes, it became clear to the Yankees they were going to lose Robinson Cano on a Friday, so they acted quickly to sign Ellsbury before a bidding way broke out. The two sides were in agreement the following Tuesday, and the Friday after that, Cano hooked on with the Mariners. The Yankees replaced Cano with the second best free agent in Ellsbury even though he wasn’t a great fit for the roster — they already had a perfectly capable speedy leadoff hitter and strong defensive center fielder in Gardner.

Ellsbury has been very good through his first season in pinstripes, hitting .282/.346/.400 (105 wRC+) with six homers and 24 steals in 29 chances. That’s right in line with the .289/.341/.407 (103 wRC+) batting line he put up from 2012-13 following his outlier 2011 campaign. Ellsbury’s power has not ticked up despite the move into lefty friendly Yankee Stadium and that makes total sense — almost all of his hits are line drives to left and center field. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not conducive to taking advantage of the short porch.

As expected, Ellsbury has had an impact both on the bases and in the field. He’s on pace for 41 steals with an 82.8% success rate, which would make him the team’s first 40-steal guy since Gardner in 2011. The defensive stats hate Ellsbury this year and I don’t get it — it’s a Gardner thing, it happened with Curtis Granderson too, he must be stealing outs and hurting the center fielder’s defensive numbers — but based on the eye test he’s been phenomenal in center. Better than Gardner last season and Gardner was awesome.

Because of injuries and underperformance and all that, the Yankees and Joe Girardi have had to improvise with their lineup. That means Ellsbury has been miscast as a three-hole hitter for most of the year while Gardner bats leadoff. They really don’t have an alternative at this point. Ellsbury lacks the traditional three-hole hitter skills in that he can’t create a run with one swing, but that’s not his fault. He’s a leadoff hitter the team is asking to hit third. Either way, Ellsbury was pretty awesome in the first half.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Carlos Beltran — Grade F

Worst case scenario? Possibly. The Yankees signed the 37-year-old Beltran (for three years!) to be the middle of the order hitter they lost in Cano, but so far all they’ve gotten is a broken down former star who has struggled to both be productive and stay on the field. This is the position player version of Randy Johnson — the right player, only nine years too late.

Beltran has hit .216/.271/.401 (78 wRC+) with nine homers in 228 plate appearances this year while missing time with elbow, knee, and concussion problems. He has a bone spur in his elbow that cost him a month and will require offseason surgery. It has relegated him to full-time DH duty because he can’t throw. (He tried a throwing program but had to shut it down due to discomfort.) The concussion was a fluke injury that occurred when he lined a ball off the cage and back into his face during batting practice. It’s that kinda year.

It’s easy to forget Beltran actually mashed at the start of the season. He was hitting .298/.339/.614 (151 wRC+) with four homers through the team’s first 16 games, then he flipped over the short wall in Tropicana Field while trying to catch a foul pop-up, and has hit .189/.249/.331 (56 wRC+) in 193 plate appearances since. I don’t know it it’s just a coincidence or if he hurt himself flipping over the wall, but he hasn’t hit for nearly 200 plate appearances now. Clutch hits? Beltran hit that walk-off homer against Zach Britton but otherwise has a .156/.216/.297 (25 wRC+) batting line with men in scoring position and a .130/.241/.391 (55 wRC+) batting line in high-leverage situations.

Because he’s not hitting and can’t play the field — not that his defense was a positive, he hurts the team less as the DH, to be honest — Beltran has very little value to the Yankees right now. He could start hitting at any moment and it would be a huge help if he did, but the combination of injuries and age are working against him. Beltran’s first three and a half months in pinstripes couldn’t have gone much worse.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Alfonso Soriano — Grade F

Man, this sucks. Soriano was one of the most fun to watch players when he on a roll and having a full season of him was supposed to give the Yankees a big offensive shot in the arm. Instead, he put up a .221/.244/.367 (60 wRC+) line with six homers and an unsightly 71/6 K/BB in 238 plate appearances before being dropped from the roster roughly two weeks ago. He wasn’t even hitting lefties anymore (80 wRC+). That’s it. Without warning he went from 34 homers and a 121 wRC+ in 2013 to being done in 2014. Like done done.

Soriano started the year as the full-time DH in deference to Gardner, Ellsbury, and Beltran in the outfield. He eventually moved to right — he had never played the position before (other than Spring Training) and I thought he did about as well as he could have realistically been expected to perform defensively — once Beltran got hurt, but eventually he lost playing time to Ichiro and was pushed into the light half of a platoon. The Yankees released Soriano earlier this week and he told Marly Rivera he might simply retire rather than continue playing. It was not a pretty end.

Ichiro Suzuki — Grade C

The Yankees relegated Ichiro to fifth outfielder status with their offseason spending spree, and even that was only after they were unable to trade him. And yet, through the traditional first half, he has batted 220 times and appeared in 81 games, the sixth most on the team. He took over as the most of the time right fielder a few weeks ago thanks to both his strong performance and the underwhelming performance of others.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ichiro is hitting .297/.347/.337 (90 wRC+) with six stolen bases on the season, though his bat predictably cooled once pressed into everyday duty. He went 25-for-37 (.373) with a 142 wRC+ as a reserve player during the first 47 team games of the season but has managed only a .259/.308/.289 (63 wRC+) line as a regular in the 47 team games since. Ichiro’s defense has been fine and he’ll still steal the occasional base, but that’s pretty much it. He’s a very good extra outfielder and a pretty terrible regular outfielder at this point of his career.

Zoilo Almonte — incomplete

I get the feeling the Yankees are not going to give Almonte an opportunity to show whether he can be of some use at the MLB level, even as a nothing more than a fourth outfielder. He’s been up and down a few times this year thanks mostly to Beltran’s injuries, getting into ten games and going 4-for-25 (.160) with a homer. Even with Soriano gone, the Yankees have opted to play Ichiro everyday and sub in Zelous Wheeler on occasion. Meh

* * *

Coming into the season, the outfield was expected to be the strength of the team, and it has been. It just hasn’t been as strong as expected due to Beltran’s struggles and Soriano’s brutal ineffectiveness. Gardner and Ellsbury have been the team’s two best players all season and have lived up to expectations in my opinion. Everyone else in the outfield has kinda stunk. Getting Beltran back and producing at an above-average rate will be imperative in the second half. The Yankees will only be able to acquire so much offense in trades.

Jeter voted in as starting shortstop for AL All-Star team, Tanaka and Betances also selected to roster

As expected, Derek Jeter has been voted in as the starting shortstop for the AL All-Star team by the fans. His double play partner will be Robinson Cano. Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances will also represent the Yankees at the Midsummer Classic. The full All-Star Game rosters are right here.

Jeter will be playing in his 14th All-Star Game and starting at short for the ninth time. His performance this year doesn’t really warrant the selection, but he’s a star of the first order and fans want to see him in the All-Star Game in his final season. That’s what the All-Star Game is all about in my opinion. Tanaka and Betances are obviously very deserving of their selections. They will be the first Yankees rookie pitchers to make the game since Spec Shea in 1947. Congrats to all three guys.

Gardner working to correct messy mechanics, cut down on strikeouts

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

As a team, the Yankees have one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball. They came out of last night’s game with a 19.6% strikeout rate, below the 20.5% league average and the tenth lowest rate in the game. Guys like Derek Jeter, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Brian Roberts, and Yangervis Solarte have had little trouble putting the ball in play, and that’s five-ninths of the starting lineup right there.

And then there’s Brett Gardner. He has a career 18.2% strikeout rate and last season it was 20.9%, both of which are more or less league average when you consider baseball’s perpetually increasing strikeout rate. (MLB has set a new record high for strikeout rate in each of the last seven seasons.) This season as been different though. Gardner has a 24.4% strikeout rate, by far the highest of his career. His 6.1% swing-and-miss rate is also a career-high (but still below the 9.3% league average). He’s been piling up the whiffs in 2014.

Gardner isn’t oblivious to the strikeout issues he’s had these last few weeks and he’s working to correct them. He cites a mechanical flaw and says he isn’t planning any kind of major overhaul to his game. That would be a little silly at this point. From George King:

“I have been striking out too much,’’ said Gardner, who didn’t whiff Wednesday night against the Angels in Anaheim after fanning seven times in the previous four games. “My mechanics have been a little off, rushing the swing and swinging with my head moving. I have been swinging and missing more than I would like.’’

“I have to do a better job, but I don’t want to change my game. I have to be aggressive so when I get a pitch to hit, I put the ball in play and use my speed,’’ said Gardner, whose 31 Ks were tied for 22nd among AL hitters Thursday. “I felt better [Wednesday].’’

Even if you’ve never playing anything higher than Little League, you know that too much head movement during your swing is a recipe for swinging and missing. If you can’t see the ball properly, you’re not going to hit it. Gardner isn’t chasing more bad pitches or anything like that — 23.0% swing rate on pitches out of the zone, down from 23.6% last year — he’s just coming up empty when he does swing. The swing-and-miss punishment fits the head movement crime.

Gardner struck out 12 times in his first 40 plate appearances of the season (30%) and more recently he had a stretch with 11 strikeouts in 27 plate appearances (40.7%), which is just way too high, especially for a non-power hitter. He has gotten better as the season has progressed …

Brett Gardner strikeout rate

… but it’s clear there is still some work to be done. It’s not like Gardner isn’t hitting at all — both his AVG (.283) and OBP (.352) are better than last season (.273 and .344), he’s just hitting for zero power (.053 ISO) — he’s just struggling to put the ball in play. It’s actually kinda amazing he’s remained as productive as he has despite the high strikeout rate.

The most important thing is that Gardner isn’t chasing more pitches out of the zone. That would be a real big concern. Since his plate discipline seems to be fine and he’s identified a mechanical issue with his head, I think it’s only a matter of time before he snaps out of his swing-and-miss funk. It’s frustrating, I know it is, but as long as Gardner is getting on base, stealing bases (7-for-7 this year), and playing high-end defense, he remains a productive player for the Yankees and worthy of an everyday lineup spot.

Thoughts following the Opening Day loss

(Scott Halleran/Getty)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

I know I just did a thoughts post yesterday, but there’s a bunch of stuff going on after Opening Day and none of it is worth a full post. This is the worst time of the season because we know the samples are still way too small to mean anything, but what else are we supposed to talk about? Baseball, man. It can be cruel.

1. I’m really curious to know what adjustment CC Sabathia made after the second inning last night. There had to be something, he looked like a completely different pitcher in his last four innings than he did his first two. Joe Girardi told Dan Barbarisi his pitches were cutting early and Sabathia told Bryan Hoch he was too amped up, but that doesn’t help us any. If there was a tangible adjustment made, that’s good. You want to be able to point to something specific for the improvement, something real. Everything gets magnified on Opening Day, that’s just the way it is, and Sabathia was far from impressive on Tuesday. I am looking forward to seeing his next outing though. Something changed after that second inning.

2. The offense was mostly a no show on Opening Day, but I thought Mark Teixeira looked really good. He hit a ball to the warning track in his first at-bat, ripped a line drive to right that sliced just foul in his second time up, then slapped a single the other way later in the game. He also drew a walk and saw 18 total pitches in four trips to the plate. Teixeira said he is still a little apprehensive about his surgically repaired wrist at the end of camp, which is a concern for obvious reasons, but he didn’t show it last night. He swung hard, made some solid contact, and he’s seeing the bell wall. Does that mean he’ll be fine going forward? Who knows. This one game, those four at-bats, were encouraging.

3. I’m fully on board with batting Brett Gardner seventh after being on the fence about it at first. Yeah, he would serve as the second leadoff man by batting ninth, but I think batting him seventh does a better job of helping the middle of the order. Gardner’s whole thing is not making outs, and by batting him closer to the middle of the lineup, he’ll get more of an opportunity to extend rallies and cap them off. The middle of the order is the key to everything; Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson aren’t going to generate much offense no matter where they slot into the lineup. Batting Gardner two spots higher to get that one extra good hitter behind Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano gives them more of a chance to turn rallies into runs. Instead of being a leadoff guy, he’ll be expected to drive in some runs. Plus he might get an extra at-bat once in a while.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

4. I am wrong all the time, about everything, yet I’m still surprised at how wrong I’ve been about this last bench spot stuff. Literally every step of the way. I thought they’d take Scott Sizemore, then when it was clear he was out of the running, I thought they’d take Eduardo Nunez. When they didn’t take Nunez, I thought they’d keep him in Triple-A as insurance. Instead, he was designated for assignment yesterday to make room on the roster for Yangervis Solarte. Wrong, every step of the way. Even by my terrible standards, that’s amazing. The Yankees don’t have much shortstop depth now — Addison Maruszak figures to be the starter in Triple-A with Nunez gone — especially with Brendan Ryan out for a few weeks, so they’ll probably have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for an extra body.

5. Dellin Betances is going to be my favorite sidebar this season. He was great in relief last year, very good in Spring Training, and just electric last night. Betances has been in the farm system for an eternity and he’s had a ton of ups and downs, and we’ve watched them just about every step of the way. It’s great to finally see him find some sustained success and a niche in the bullpen. His stuff is obviously excellent, and now that he’s throwing strikes regularly, Betances can be a late-inning force. There is plenty of opportunity in the bullpen with a clear path to higher leverage seventh and eighth inning work, so this is a good time for everything to be clicking. Very much looking forward to seeing more.

6. As a team, the Yankees saw 138 pitches in last night’s game. That isn’t a huge number, but out of their 150 nine-inning games last year, they saw 138+ pitches only 72 times. Less than half the time. The 2014 offense had a bad day on Opening Day and yet they still saw pitches at a higher rate than last year’s squad. Roberts did the heavy lifting with 20 pitches in his four trips to the plate while Gardner, Teixeira, and Soriano saw 18 apiece. That was by far the worst part of the 2013 offense. They made a ton of outs and they were mostly quick outs, two or three pitch at-bats. This group isn’t like the 2004-12 lineups or anything, but they make the pitcher work for whatever he gets. It’s refreshing.