2014 Season Preview: Speed Demons

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It has been an easy to overlook part of their game, but the Yankees have been one of the most prolific base-stealing teams in baseball over the last decade. They’ve swiped 100+ bases in seven of the last eight seasons and their 1,117 steals since 2004 are the fourth most in the game. No one thinks of the Yankees as a base-stealing team but they’ve been among the best in recent years.

Of course, there is more to base-running than bulk stolen base totals. A lot more, really. Advancing on a ground ball, scoring from first on a double, going first-to-third on a single, all of that is important as well. Players don’t even need to be fast to be good base-runners, though speed sure does help. Between the incumbents and the players brought in over the winter, New York has a number of guys who can make plays on the bases if not flat-out cause chaos.

Jacoby Ellsbury
When the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that massive $153M contract back in December, they added arguably the best base-runner in the world to their roster. He led baseball with 52 steals last year and was only caught four (!) times, a 93% success rate that was easily the best among players who attempted at least 25 steals. Ellsbury has one 70 steal season (2009) and two other 50+ steal seasons (2008, 2013) to his credit. His career success rate is 84%, well above the current break-even point of 66-68%.

Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury has taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) 49% of the time, which again is well above the 39-40% league-average. It’s worth noting that he took the extra base only 42% of the time last season, his lowest rate in five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ellsbury is slowing down or anything like that, we’re talking about a sample of 74 extra-base opportunities. The difference between 42% and 49% is five extra bases, that’s all. Ellsbury just turned 30 in September and there is little reason to think he will be anything but a base-running monster in 2014. If he stays healthy, 40+ steals and tons of extra bases taken feels like a lock.

Brett Gardner
I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed in Gardner’s stolen base total last summer. After stealing 96 bases (81% success rate) during his previous two healthy seasons from 2010-11, he dropped down to only 24 steals (75% success rate) in 2013. My hypothesis is that because their offense was so weak, the Yankees gave Gardner the red light a bunch of times last year in an effort to make sure there were runners on base for Robinson Cano. Maybe I’m crazy, who knows.

(Nick Laham/Getty)
(Nick Laham/Getty)

Gardner’s rate of taking the extra base is very similar to Ellsbury’s: 45% in 2013 and 48% from 2011-13. I think the thing that has kept both guys from being truly elite extra-base takers like Mike Trout (career 61%) has been their ballparks. Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park are small parks, so the outfielders can play a little shallower and get to balls hit in front of them a little quicker. It doesn’t take much to stop a guy from taking those extra 90 feet on a base hit.

Anyway, Gardner turned 30 about two weeks before Ellsbury, so he’s still relatively young and should continue to be a threat on the bases in 2014. Hopefully he gets back to being a 40+ steal guy because that’s when he’s at his best. Only once in their history have the Yankees had two 40+ stolen base players in one season (Steve Sax and Roberto Kelly in 1990), but Gardner and Ellsbury have a very real chance of doing it this summer.

Alfonso Soriano
Man, remember how exciting Soriano was when he first came up? He was this wiry little guy who hit for power and ran like the wind, hitting 95 homers and stealing 119 bases from 2001-03, his three full years with the Yankees. That was a baseball lifetime ago and 40+ steals are a thing of the past, but Soriano can still do some damage on the bases.

After swiping a total of 22 bases from 2009-12, Soriano rebounded to steal 18 bags last season, including eight in 58 games with New York. He wasn’t terribly efficient though, getting caught nine times total and four times in pinstripes. That 67% success rate is right on the break-even point. Soriano has also taken the extra base 38% of the time the last three years (41% in 2013), so he’s basically league average in that regard.

I’m not exactly sure what we can expect from the 38-year-old Soriano on the bases this coming season. Could he steal 10-15 bases with a 67% success rate while taking the extra base a league average amount of time? That seems very possible but I’m not sure he could do much better without a huge contract year push. I’d bet against one at his age. Soriano isn’t a Gardner/Ellsbury level base-runner, but he can steal the occasional bag and score from first on the occasional double.

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

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro, 40, stole 20 bases in 24 attempts last year, second most on the team behind Gardner. His bulk stolen base total has gradually declined over the years but he remains highly efficient, with an 83% success rate both last year and over the last three years. He took the extra base 38% of the time last season and 40% over the last three seasons, so more or less league average.

The additions of Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran have pushed Ichiro into a fifth outfielder’s role, but he should still get plenty of chances to have an impact on the bases as a pinch-runner/spot starter. He keeps himself in phenomenal shape and even though he has clearly lost a step over the years, Ichiro is still a smart base-runner who picks his spots well. I think experience can be very valuable for a bench player and when it comes to running the bases in the late innings of a close game, few would be a better option than Ichiro. Running the bases is something he still does very well, it’s just a question of how often he’ll get to do it.

Derek Jeter
In the past, the Yankees could always count on their captain for stolen bases and smart base-running decisions, but following last season’s leg injury filled nightmare, it’s unclear if he’ll be of any value on the bases in 2014. Even when he was healthy in 2012, Jeter only stole nine base (in 13 attempts) while taking the extra base 38% of the time. What will he be able to do on the heels of a twice-fractured ankle and various leg muscle problems? The smart money is on not much.

It would be awesome is Jeter got back to being a threat on the bases this summer, but that should be the very least of his and the team’s concerns. He should focus on staying healthy and being productive at the plate, first and foremost. Those are the most important things in his final season. Any base-running value Jeter gives the team this year is icing on the cake. It just isn’t much of a priority at this point of his career.

* * *

Kelly Johnson has stolen 37 bases over the last three years but he only went 7-for-11 (64%) last season, and he took the extra base at a well-below-average 29% over the last three years. He might steal 10-15 bases this summer, but his history suggests he won’t be all that efficient on the bases. Beltran’s knees don’t allow him to run much anymore but Eduardo Nunez is always good for double-digit steals, even as a part-timer, and he took the extra bag at a league average rate from 2011-13.

Gardner and Ellsbury will clearly be the stars of the Yankees’ base-running show this season, and they have some nice support in Ichiro, Soriano, Nunez, and maybe Jeter. It feels like a foregone conclusion that they’ll again top 100+ stolen bases as a team this year and they should improve on their overall extra-base taken rate, which was the second worst in the game at only 35% last year.

email

It’s official: Yankees extend Brett Gardner

The Yankees have officially signed outfielder Brett Gardner to a four-year contract extension with a fifth year club option, the team announced. Yesterday we heard the deal was worth $52M guaranteed with a $12.5M option ($2M buyout). Gardner is already under contract for $5.6M for 2014, so the extension covers 2015-18 and potentially 2019. Can’t say I was expecting to write something like this as recently as 48 hours ago.

Yankees agree to four-year extension with Brett Gardner

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time in a long time, the Yankees have signed a homegrown player long-term. Jon Heyman and Jack Curry report the team has agreed to a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $52M with outfielder Brett Gardner. The deal includes a $12.5M club option ($2M buyout) for a fifth year and it kicks in next season, so the contract covers 2015-18 and potentially 2019. Brian Cashman told Curry negotiations began way back during the Winter Meetings.

“I love it here, I love everybody in the organization, the coaching staff and all my teammates and this is where I want to be,” said Gardner to Erik Boland, Jorge Castillo, and Mark Feinsand. “Free agency is something that kind of intrigued me, but it also kind of scared me. I’ve never been anywhere else … I made it known to them that I wanted to stay here and be a part of this. I learned from guys that come from other places that there’s no better place to play, so I look forward to staying here and helping the team win.”

The Yankees and Gardner avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract worth $5.6M a few weeks ago, so consider this one big five-year, $58.6M deal with an option for a sixth year. Joel Sherman says the contract will pay Gardner exactly $12.5M annually from 2015-18, and he gets a $1M bonus if he is traded during the life of the deal. Curry adds the contract does not include a no-trade clause. Gardner asked for one but the team was unwilling to do it.

The four-year deal is right in line with the four-year, $48M contract the Indians gave Michael Bourn last spring. Gardner gets an extra million bucks per year — chalk that up to inflation — but his option is a club option, not a vesting option like Bourn’s. Given the contracts handed out this offseason, Gardner might have been able to get five gauranteed years had he hit free agency after this season as scheduled. He and Bourn are two very similar players who signed very similar contracts at the same age. Have to believe Bourn’s deal was the framework for this extension.

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

Gardner, 30, was the team’s third round pick in the 2005 draft after walking on at the College of Charleston. He hit .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) with 24 stolen bases last year while setting career highs in plate appearances (609), hits (147), doubles (33), triples (ten), and homers (eight). He’s a career .268/.352/.381 (101 wRC+) hitter with two 40+ steal seasons to his credit. As you know, Gardner is a top notch defensive outfielder, though he will now slide back to left field with Jacoby Ellsbury and his $153M contract on board. The Yankees obviously value having two premium defensive players in the outfield.

As with every long-term contract, this deal comes with risk for the team. Gardner has not been the most durable player throughout his career, most notably missing almost the entire 2012 season due to an elbow injury and a series of setbacks. He’s also had thumb (2009), wrist (2010), and oblique (2013) problems over the years. The good news is that none of the injuries involved his legs, Gardner’s money-maker(s).

Just the other day I said I didn’t expect the Yankees to re-sign Gardner when he hit free agency after the season. I didn’t think the team would be open to paying top of the market salaries to two no-power, defense-first outfielders, and I also thought Gardner would prefer to play center field and leadoff, two things that won’t happen in New York thanks to Ellsbury. Wrong on both counts, I was.

The signing is a welcome break from the team’s archaic no extensions policy, which Cashman confirmed to Feinsand is a thing of the past. The Yankees tried to extend Russell Martin, Hiroki Kuroda, and Robinson Cano prior to free agency in recent years, but to no avail. The last homegrown player to sign a long-term deal with the team before becoming a free agent was Cano, who inked a four-year deal with a pair of club options way back in February 2008, four years before he was due to hit the open market.

The Yankees now have three outfielders signed through 2016, though the smart money is on Carlos Beltran being relegated to DH duty at some point during the life of his three-year contract. There is only one outfield spot open long-term for prospects like Zoilo Almonte, Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Tyler Austin, but only Almonte is close to the big leagues right now, so this isn’t even a thing worth worrying about just yet. All of those guys are trade bait, now more than ever.

Squeezing four outfielders into three spots could lead to creative rotations

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For all the talk about their shaky infield, the Yankees figure to boast one of the strongest outfield units in baseball this season. They have two legitimate starting caliber center fielders in Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as two veteran, middle of the order corner outfield bats in Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran. Fitting all four guys into one lineup will take some creativity on Joe Girardi‘s part but nothing crazy.

Girardi confirmed earlier this week that Ellsbury will be his everyday center fielder because duh. They didn’t give the guy $153M not to play center field. Since the Ellsbury and Beltran signings, I think the general assumption has been that Gardner will move back to left field everyday while Soriano and Beltran split time between right and DH. Obviously you want Gardner in the field for his defense, and considering their ages, giving Soriano and Beltran regular turns at DH makes sense.

It’s a wonderful plan in theory, but it is a little more complicated than that. Soriano has never played right field in his entire professional career and neither he nor Beltran have spent much time at DH. In fact, they’ve combined to start only 36 games at DH since 2005. Aside from Soriano’s return to New York in the second half last year, both guys spent the entirety of that 2005-13 period in the National League, so when they were in the lineup, they played the field.

“I don’t know,’’ said Soriano to George King earlier this week when asked about his spot in the lineup. “They said something about DH and left field. I want to be in the lineup, it doesn’t matter where … If I am the DH I will have to make adjustments. When the team is playing defense I will have to find a way to keep my body warm and ready.’’

Being the DH is tough, especially for a veteran player used to playing the field everyday. Baseball players are creatures of habit, and when the routine they’ve spent years crafting has to change, it can be a tough adjustment to make. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it is something to consider. For all we know, both guys could make that adjustment immediately and make this a non-issue.

The right field thing is a little different, particularly for Soriano. Like I said, he’s never played right field before, so if the Yankees do plan to use him and Beltran in what amounts to a right field/DH platoon, he’ll have to learn the position in Spring Training after spending most of his career in left. Again, it’s not impossible, but it is an adjustment that will have to be made by a veteran player with a routine already in place.

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

It’s possible that Soriano will not have to make that adjustment, however. The Yankees could instead keep him in left field, where he’s comfortable, and put Gardner in right field. Gardner has never played right field in his career either, but his athleticism and relative youth should make the transition easier for him than it would be for Soriano. His speed would also allow him to simply outrun his mistakes. Gardner has a better arm than Soriano and that should be considered as well — runners are going to go first-to-third on singles all day, everyday against Soriano.

“I played [left field] for a couple of years a few years ago. I feel comfortable over there,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings the other day when asked about moving out of center. “I told Joe I can play right too if he needs me to. I’ll do whatever I’m needed to do to help the team win. Wherever I’m playing out there, wherever I’m hitting in the lineup, whatever he needs me to do, I’ll be ready.”

Gardner has already broached the idea of playing right field, so I assume he is on board with the idea. Aside from learning the position, the issue here is that right field in Yankee Stadium is tiny and it would be a waste to stick such a good defender there. There’s more real estate to cover in left and that’s where you want the rangier outfielder. That’s not a deal-breaker but it is something to keep in mind.

If the Yankees want to keep Soriano comfortable and play him in left, the best solution might be a rotation based on whether the team is home or away. At home, Gardner could play left with Beltran in right. On the road, Soriano could play left while Gardner is in right. That way Gardner’s range is used in Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field and Soriano gets to play his usual position.

That arrangement does sound great in theory, but it is a little more complicated than it seems. How will Gardner handle shifting back and forth between positions? Most guys like to have one set position and know where they’re playing everyday. Long homestands and road trips will also throw a wrench into things, especially if the team wants make sure Soriano and Beltran get regular turns at DH to stay fresh.

The Yankees are all but guaranteed to have an excellent outfield defense because of Gardner and Ellsbury, but it will be interesting to see how they handle the right field/DH rotation with Soriano and Beltran. Someone is going to wind up playing out of position most days, it’s just a question of who.

Mailbag: Kimbrel, Robertson, Infield, Key, Wells

Got six questions for you this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything and everything throughout the week.

(Mike Zarrilli/Getty)
(Mike Zarrilli/Getty)

Bill asks: Does Craig Kimbrel’s new extension with the Braves give us a better idea at what it would take to lock up David Robertson to an extension?

No, I don’t think so. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Braves signed Kimbrel to a four-year, $42M deal earlier this week and it is the largest contract ever given to a pitcher in his first year of arbitration eligibility, starter or reliever. Even if they went to an arbitration hearing and Kimbrel had lost, he still would have made more in his first year of arbitration ($6.55M) than Robertson will earn in his final year this season ($5.215M). These two are at very different places in their careers.

Not only do saves pay very well, but Kimbrel is just flat out better than Robertson. Don’t get me wrong, Robertson is awesome, but Kimbrel is in his own little world right now. He’s clearly the best reliever in baseball at the moment. I looked at a potential extension for Robertson months ago and wound up at three years and $21M, which is basically high-end setup man money. Robertson will be a free agent after the season and if he has a typical Robertson year but with say, 35+ saves, then something like three years and $35M (Rafael Soriano money) or four years and $46M (Francisco Cordero money) might more appropriate. I guess that is Kimbrel money, we just got there in a roundabout away.

Anonymous: Let’s say the Yankees sign Stephen Drew and he indeed opts out after the first year. Is there any way they can get a supplemental pick from whoever signs him? Is it guaranteed, a property of the specific contract they agree upon, or impossible?

Yep, they can get definitely get a pick. If they were to sign Drew to a multi-year deal with an opt-out after the first year, they can make him the qualifying offer if he uses the opt out. They’d then get a pick if he declined. It’s exactly what happened with Soriano — when he opted out a year ago, the team made the qualifying offer and received a draft pick when he declined. Because they would only surrender a second rounder to sign him, the Yankees could conceivably “trade” their 2014 second rounder for a 2015 supplemental first rounder by signing Drew.

Dan asks: If I told the Yankees they could get 200 combined games out of Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts, do you think they’d sign up for that? If they’d even think hard about it, they should be calling up Boras right now to sign Drew.

Against my better judgement, I think I would say no to 200 combined games from those two. I think it’s possible they’ll combine for 240-250 games or so — 100 from Roberts, 140-150 from Jeter — but that’s basically the best case scenario. The Yankees haven’t exactly done a good job of keeping people healthy over the alst few years. The thing is that, even if he plays 100+ games, will Roberts even be any good? He’s 36 and has hit .246/.310/.359 (82 OPS+) when healthy over the last four years (192 games).

AJ asks: With the one infield spot open, would their be any thought of keeping three catchers on the roster? Someone will have to backup firstst base and Frankie Cervelli has proven versatile in the past backing up second base. John Ryan Murphy has played third and Brian McCann could backup Mark Teixeira at first.

Well, Cervelli hasn’t really proven himself to be versatile. He’s played five innings at third base and three innings at second base in his career, plus he spent one game in left field in the minors nine years ago. Those are emergency assignments, nothing more. Murphy has only played 14 total games at third base in his career as well, so it’s not like he has a ton of experience at the hot corner either. Both guys are catchers, that’s all. Given their roster, that last bench spot absolutely has to go to a real infielder. Carrying a third catcher rarely makes sense and it certainly doesn’t for this squad.

Jacob asks: Do you think the Yankees will re-sign Brett Gardner and should they?

I think the Jacoby Ellsbury signing pushed Gardner right out the door. I’m not sure how many no power, defense first outfielders one team can carry on expensive free agent contracts. It’s fine now while Gardner is playing for relative peanuts, but he’s looking at $10M+ per year as a free agent. Would they really commit $30M+ annually for the next three or four (or five) years for these two guys? Should they even want to do that? I don’t think so. One such player is enough. Besides, I’m guessing Gardner wants to play center field and bat leadoff, two things that won’t happen with the Yankees now.

(AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
Key. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

Anonymous asks: Better FA pickup in your opinion, Jimmy Key or David Wells (first time)?

Without looking, I’m thinking Wells.

The Yankees gave Key a four-year, $17M deal during the 1992-93 offseason and he pitched to a 3.68 ERA (13.5 bWAR) in 604.1 innings during the life of the contract. He was also limited to five starts during the 1995 season due to a torn rotator cuff. Key was a big part of the 1996 team though, including beating Greg Maddux in the deciding Game Six of the World Series.

Wells, on the other hand, signed a three-year deal worth $13.5M during the 1996-97 offseason, replacing Key. He pitched to a 3.85 ERA (9.1 bWAR) in 432.1 innings across the first two years of the contract and finished third in the 1998 AL Cy Young voting. Wells helped the team to the 1998 World Series title and was then the center piece of the Roger Clemens trade after the season.

On a rate basis, Key and Wells (first stint) were very similar with the Yankees. Key missed almost an entire season to injury and Wells was traded away mid-contract, plus both guys were key parts of a World Series winner. Without going ridiculously in depth (this is only a mailbag, after all), I’d say Wells was the better pickup because he was more durable and then flipped for arguably the best pitcher in baseball at the time. Not sure there’s a wrong answer here, both were very good in pinstripes.

Derek Jeter, Brett Gardner, and the second spot in the lineup

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Last summer, Joe Girardi was forced to fill out his lineup card by putting the hottest hitters around Robinson Cano on a daily basis. That’s how guys like Thomas Neal, Ben Francisco, David Adams, Brennan Boesch, and Zoilo Almonte wound up starting games as high as fifth in the order. Alfonso Soriano settled things down late in the season, but for the most part the lineup was subject to change drastically each and every day.

This coming season figures to be different. Cano is gone, but the Yankees added two middle of the order bats to Soriano in Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. I expect those three to hit 3-4-5 in whatever order most days, or maybe we should add Mark Teixeira and make it 3-4-5-6. That seems very likely. The team didn’t give Jaocby Ellsbury over $20M a year not to leadoff, so he’ll displace Brett Gardner atop the lineup. Girardi’s biggest lineup question this year might be who the number two hitter behind Ellsbury and ahead of that 3-4-5(-6) group will be.

Traditionally, the number two hitter is someone who can handle the bat and bunt all do all that nonsense. For the Yankees, a team built around power hitters who play in a tiny home ballpark in a division full of tiny ballparks, the number two hitter should function as a second leadoff guy trying to get on base for the middle of the order. Furthermore, given Ellsbury’s speed, the two-hole hitter should also be someone who is patient and gives him a chance to run. If you’re not going to do that, it defeats the point of paying a premium to add an elite base-stealer. Ellsbury has to steal to really have an impact.

The Yankees have two obvious number two hitter candidates in Gardner and Derek Jeter. Jeter has been batting second almost his entire career and I suspect that as long as he’s healthy, he’ll open the season behind Ellsbury in the lineup. That’s fine. Jeter was very good in his last full season and he’s earned the opportunity to show whether he can do that again despite his age and the lost 2013 season. The Cap’n isn’t especially patient (3.78 pitches per plate appearance from 2011-13) and is very double play prone (GIDP’d in 19% of opportunities from 2011-13), two traits that aren’t ideal for the second spot in the lineup. That’s never stopped him from hitting there before though.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

Gardner, on the other hand, is very patient (4.21 P/PA from 2011-13) and he rarely grounds into double plays (7 GIDP% from 2011-13) thanks to his speed. He’s a much better fit for the two-hole in that sense, at least against right-handers. Jeter has destroyed lefties his entire career and if he continues to do that in 2014, he’ll deserve a prominent lineup spot against southpaws. A Gardner vs. righties/Jeter vs. lefties platoon in the second spot behind Ellsbury seems ideal if Jeter struggles against same-side hitters.

The question is how long should the Yankees give Derek to prove he can still be a productive hitter given his age and recent injuries? A month? Six weeks? Half a season? I don’t know the answer and it probably depends on how Jeter looks during games. If he’s completely overmatched and unable to lift the ball — sorta like how he looked during his limited time last year — the team will have to pull the plug on him as a number two hitter sooner rather than later. At least against righties. It won’t be a pleasant move to make but it may be necessary at some point rather soon.

There has been a ton of research showing the two-hole is the most important lineup spot and thus your best hitter should bat second, but that only applies over a full season, and even then the impact is relatively small. Optimizing your lineup in such a way that it makes a meaningful difference across 162 games isn’t all that practical. Guys get hurt, need days off, get hot and cold, etc. The lineup can make a big difference in an individual game though; I remember at least two instances in which Cano was left on deck while the final out of a close game was recorded last summer (one, two). The Yankees have many reasons to emphasize pure patience and on-base ability from the two-hole this year and if that means Gardner, not Jeter is the best man of the job, so be it. The race for a postseason spot will be too tight to stick with an unproductive hitter near the top of the lineup for so long.

Sherman: Yankees avoid arbitration with Brett Gardner

Via Joel Sherman: The Yankees have avoided arbitration with Brett Gardner by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $5.6M. He was projected for $4M by Matt Swartz, but the players’ union expected him to receive a “considerably higher” salary. The union was right.

Gardner hit .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) with eight homers and 24 steals last season. The Yankees’ only two remaining unsigned arbitration-eligible players are David Robertson ($5.5M projected) and Ivan Nova ($2.8M projected). They’ve already signed Gardner, Shawn Kelley ($1.7625M), and Frankie Cervelli ($700k).