2014 Season Preview: Defensive Wizards

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The more deeply you examine the 2013 New York Yankees, the more unbelievable their win total seems. On the whole they did nothing well. The putrid offense, which ranked 28th in wRC+, was on display daily. Pitching? They ranked 18th in the league in ERA.

You’d think that if they couldn’t put together a decent offense that they’d compensate with a solid defense. You’d be wrong. They ranked 24th in team defensive efficiency. The guys who couldn’t hit apparently also couldn’t field well.

The 2014 Yankees figure to perform a bit better on defense. They not only brought in an upgrade in Jacoby Ellsbury, but they get back Mark Teixeira. There are a couple of other subtle upgrades, too, that could add up to at least an average defense.

Derek Jeter and Brendan Ryan

Derek Jeter as a defensive upgrade? Surely I’m just pulling your chain. Sadly, I’m not. Jeter did improve his defense for a few years starting in 2008, but by 2012 it had again declined. How can we expect he’ll provide any value in 2014, at age 40?

Defensive statistics have enough shortcomings that they’re hardly worth bringing into serious discussions. In fact, once the new fielding system becomes public, I think we’ll look back at UZR and laugh. Yet it’s troubling when not just UZR, but essentially every publicly available defensive metric says that Eduardo Nunez absolutely killed the Yankees at SS.

DRS: -28
UZR: -20.6 (-40.7/150!)
TZ: -17
FRAA: -11.4*

* This includes all defense, while the others are at SS only

Given Nunez’s deficiencies, Jeter could actually be an upgrade. Furthering the upgrade is a full year of Brendan Ryan on the bench. He’ll provide value as a late-inning defensive replacement and as an occasional starter when Jeter needs a day off. His high level of play could even offset Jeter’s to an extent, even in a fraction of the time.

There is little doubt that the 2014 Yankees will provide better defense at short than the 2013 Yankees. It’s no wonder the Yankees moved quickly to get Ryan into the fold.

Mark Teixeira

To be fair, the Yankees did find an adequate defensive first baseman in Lyle Overbay. He came nowhere near Teixeira’s offensive production, even if you erase his late-season slump. But on defense he held his own.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the same time, Mark Teixeira is on another level. If we could precisely quantify everything a first baseman does on defense, I have to imagine Teixeira would consistently rank among the league’s top five. He might not be the quickest or most athletic guy on the diamond, but his instincts and reflexes at first more than compensate.

Just because first base is all the way at the end of the defensive spectrum does not mean it lacks importance. Sure, plenty of big lumbering power hitters can stand at first base, but few play the position well. As Ron Washington so aptly put it, “It’s incredibly hard.”

Teixeira handles it with agility and grace. It’s easy to forget the days of Jason Giambi playing first.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner

In the last few years Ellsbury has improved his game in center field. A few years ago the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron and moved Ellsbury to left. Perhaps that was the kick in the ass he needed. Whatever the case, he tracks balls well and has plenty of speed, making him a high quality center fielder.

The Yankees had a very good center fielder last year in Brett Gardner. Speed takes center stage in Gardner’s game. He doesn’t always get the best read, nor does he always take the best route. But he makes a lot of plays, because he can compensate with his legs. This year he’ll play center a bit, but not on a day-to-day basis. This helps the Yankees outfield tremendously.

Again taking defensive metrics with a grain of salt (to the point where I won’t quote actual numbers), Gardner produced insane numbers playing left field in 2010 and 2011. Yes, he’s good, but multiple wins good? Here’s the thing with defensive numbers: they compare players at the same position. Since left field is reserved for those lumbering sluggers who don’t have much of an arm, they typically don’t play high-caliber defense. Gardner runs laps around them.

So the Yankees marginally upgrade in center, going from Gardner to Ellsbury. But they upgrade insanely in left field, relative to the league, because Gardner will track down so many more fly balls than his peers.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ichiro

His bat might not have much left in it, but Ichiro can still run down balls in the outfield. This will come in handy at various points during the 2014 season. He’s the obvious defensive replacement on the bench, giving the Yankees a lockdown outfield in later innings. But that’s not his only role.

If everyone stays healthy – and given Ellsbury’s current injury that’s far from a given – Ichiro wouldn’t get many starts. But guys get bumps and bruises. Carlos Beltran could need days off to rest his knees. Ellsbury and Gardner will need days off here and there even if they do stay healthy. In each instance, playing Ichiro in right makes a degree of sense.

In the the case of longer-term injuries I’d like to see them call up Zoilo Almonte to take more reps, since he still has at least a modicum of big league potential. Ichiro is almost certainly gone after this season, and could be gone before that under the right circumstances. But as long as he’s on the roster, he’ll provide a good defensive option in right field when the Yankees need it.

email

2014 Season Preview: Back To Offensive Basics

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.

Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.

The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.

Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.

The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.

Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.

As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.

Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.

Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.

* * *

Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.

2014 Season Preview: Injury Risks

(Mike Carlson/Getty)
(Mike Carlson/Getty)

As Joe explained last week, the Yankees have several important players coming back from injury this season. They also have several players who, due to their age and/or recent history, are at risk of getting hurt in 2014. Injuries are part of the game and many times they’re completely unpredictable or unavoidable, but there are certainly players who are more likely to get hurt than others. The Yankees haven’t exactly been good at keeping their guys healthy these last few years either. Here are New York’s biggest injury risks for the coming season and their respective backup plans.

Injury Risk: Derek Jeter
Backup Plan: Brendan Ryan
Aside from the dislocated shoulder back in 2003, last season was the only time Derek Jeter spent an extended period of time on the DL in his career. A twice-fractured left ankle and various leg muscle problems limited him to only 17 games, and even though he’s been healthy this spring and working out for weeks, his age (39) and the series of leg problems will make him an injury risk pretty much all year. The Cap’n is very much day-to-day at this point of his career.

The Yankees acquired Ryan last September when Jeter went to the DL for the fourth and final time, then they re-signed him to a two-year contract (with a player option!) over the winter to serve as shortstop insurance. If Jeter does go down with injury this summer, regardless of whether it’s two days or two weeks or two months, Ryan will step right in and play shortstop everyday. He can’t hit a lick but his defense is among the best in the game.

Injury Risk: Brian Roberts
Backup Plan: Ryan, Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, etc.
There is no greater injury risk on the roster than Roberts. He has appeared in only 192 of 648 possible regular season games since 2011 due to a variety of injuries, including back spasms (2010), concussions (2010-11), hip labrum surgery (2012), and hamstring surgery (2013). Second base is a dangerous position because of the blind double play pivot and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Roberts hits the DL, kinda like it did with Travis Hafner last summer.

Infield depth is something the Yankees spent most of the offseason accumulating, though none of it really stands out. They don’t have a 2005 Robinson Cano waiting in the wings, for example. Ryan, Anna, Nunez, Yangervis Solarte, and Corban Joseph are the various backup plans at second base, though only Ryan and Nunez have any kind of substantial MLB time. The player who gets the job when Roberts goes down with injury may simply be the guy who’s playing the best at that time.

Injury Risk: Frankie Cervelli
Backup Plan: Austin Romine, John Ryan Murphy
Cervelli seems to have a knack for the fluke injury. His wrist was broken by a home plate collision in Spring Training 2008 and he’s also had foul balls break his foot (2011, again in Spring Training) and hand (2013) in recent years. The broken hand last year turned into a stress reaction in his elbow. More seriously, Cervelli has had four concussions in his pro career, including three from December 2009 through September 2011. Romine and Murphy will both be stashed in Triple-A as insurance, and I suspect Romine would get the call as a short-term replacement while Murphy would be the guy if Cervelli misses most of the season again.

Injury Risk: Michael Pineda
Backup Plan: Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Adam Warren
When a player misses two full years due to a major surgery, it’s really hard to count on him staying healthy going forward. Pineda is an unknown and unreliable until he proves otherwise, which might never happen. His surgery was serious stuff and that’s why he hasn’t been handed a rotation spot as of yet. Pineda has to earn it by showing he can be effective post-surgery in camp. Phelps, Warren, and Nuno are all competing for the same fifth starter spot and will be ready to jump into the rotation at a moment’s notice if Pineda makes the team and goes down for any reason.

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

Injury Risk: Jacoby Ellsbury & Brett Gardner
Backup Plan: Ichiro Suzuki, Zoilo Almonte
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury and Gardner have combined to play in 686 of 972 possible regular season games, or 71%. Go back four seasons and it’s only 66%. Both guys have had injury problems over the years but the major ones can mostly be classified as flukes. Here are Ellsbury’s notable injuries …

  • Fractured Ribs, 2010: Crashed into a teammate chasing a pop-up then suffered a setback after returning too soon.
  • Shoulder Subluxation, 2012: Fielder fell on top of him following a break up slide at second base.
  • Foot Fracture, 2013: Fouled a ball off his foot.

… and here are Gardner’s:

  • Fractured Thumb, 2009: Slid into second base on a stolen base attempt.
  • Wrist Debridement, 2010: Hit by a pitch, needed offseason surgery after playing hurt in second half.
  • Inflamed Elbow, 2012: Made a sliding catch and suffered three setbacks (!) before having season-ending surgery.
  • Oblique Strain, 2013: Swung a bat. Nothing more.

There has been other day-to-day stuff over the years but those are the big injuries. Gardner’s oblique strain last September is the only one that isn’t a fluke to me, though I think it’s also important to understand both guys have a playing style that puts them at greater risk of injury. When you steal a ton of bases, you risk hurting your fingers and having an infielder fall on top of you. When you run around the outfield making sliding and diving catches, you can jam something pretty easily.

Is it fair to consider Ellsbury and Gardner injury risks for 2014? Maybe not, but they have been hurt a bunch in recent years and I felt they were worth discussing. If Ellsbury were to get hurt, Gardner would slide right into center field. If Gardner got hurt, Alfonso Soriano would probably take over as the everyday left fielder, as he would if Gardner moved to center. Ichiro would see more playing time — I think Soriano and Carlos Beltran would still get regular turns at DH even if Ellsbury or Gardner gets hurt — and Zoilo is the early favorite to be the first guy called up from Triple-A. If both Gardner and Ellsbury got hurt at the same time … well that’s a mess I don’t want to think about. A trade for a center fielder would seem likely.

Injury Risk: Mark Teixeira
Backup Plan: ???
A tendon sheath problem in Teixeira’s right wrist that eventually required surgery limited him to only 15 games last year and still has him on the mend in camp. He’s been brought back slowly — he faced live pitching in batting practice for the first time just today — and is slated to get into a game later this week, but wrists are very tricky. Even if the doctors say they’re healed, they tend to sap power for another few weeks and months. David Ortiz (2008-09) and Jose Bautista (2012-13) have had similar tendon sheath problems and they didn’t regain their previous form until well after returning to the lineup.

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

Given the nature of the injury, it might be more accurate to say Teixeira is a risk for reduced production than he is a risk for injury. He hasn’t exactly been Mr. Durable the last few years though, most notably missing more than a month with a calf strain in late 2012 and blowing out his hamstring during the 2010 postseason (forgot about that, huh?). That doesn’t include the infamous cough/vocal cord damage that hampered him two years ago. The Yankees don’t have an obvious backup first baseman — Kelly Johnson and his 18 career innings at the position is currently the backup at first — so a trade would be in order if Teixeira goes down. It’s either digging up another Lyle Overbay or playing Russ Canzler everyday.

* * *

I think it goes without saying that pitchers are inherently risky. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Masahiro Tanaka have been very durable throughout their career (Kuroda less so, but he’s been healthy with the Yankees) but it would surprise no one if they got hurt this year. Same with all the relievers. Pitchers get hurt. It’s what they do.

Carlos Beltran’s knees were a big problem from 2009-10, but he has played at least 140 games in each of the last three seasons. Brian McCann had shoulder problems in 2012 that required offseason surgery, which kept him out for the first month of 2013, but he has been healthy and productive since. Scott Sizemore has played a total of two games the last two seasons because of back-to-back torn left ACLs, but he is far from a lock to make the roster, nevermind play regularly. Same goes for Nunez, who missed a bunch of time with a ribcage problem last year. Just about every player has been hurt somewhere along the line.

The Yankees are well-equipped to deal with an injured outfielder, catcher, or back-of-the-rotation starter. The infield is were it gets dicey and unfortunately that is where we find the most at risk players (Jeter, Roberts, Teixeira). The backup plans on the infield are interesting of nothing else, but they’re all wildcards. I don’t think we can reasonably estimate what any of them would do if pressed into regular duty. The Yankees have a lot of important players at risk of injury this year and their ability to stay on the field will play a huge role in whether they return to the postseason.

Mailbag: Tulo, Soriano, Gardner, Rivera, Damon

Seven questions for this week’s mailbag. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything throughout the week, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(Scott Cunningham/Getty)
(Scott Cunningham/Getty)

Anthony asks: After Derek Jeter retires at the end of the season, could you see the Yankees trying to swing a trade for Troy Tulowitzki? The Rockies could use some catching depth — what would a package headlined by Gary Sanchez look like? And given the length of his current contract, would such a trade make sense?

Well, the Yankees could try to swing a trade for Tulowitzki, but I’m not sure they have the pieces to get it done. This isn’t a Sanchez plus two or three okay prospects thing. Tulowitzki may be owed a ton of money ($118M from 2015-20) and he is injury prone, but he’s also the best all-around shortstop in baseball when he’s on the field. It ain’t particularly close either. It’s going to take an enormous package to land him.

Tulo will turn 30 after this season and given how much salaries have inflated the last year or two, his contract is actually something of a bargain. Don’t you think he’d get a lot more than six years and $118M if he hit free agency next winter? He’d blow right past that. Tulowitzki is so good that 120 games of him and 42 games of some replacement level shortstop is still arguably the best shortstop in the game.

I can’t think of a comparable player who was traded in recent years — maybe Prince Fielder? — but the Rockies would be right to ask for two top young players and another two pieces. If the Yankees offered me Sanchez, Ivan Nova, Eric Jagielo, and Jose Ramirez for Tulo, I’d probably say no because I can plug only one of those right into my big league roster. There’s way too much value in a shortstop who can hit*, play defense, and is signed to a below-market contract. The Yankees could try for Tulowitzki after the season and I hope they do, but their farm system would have to take a huge step forward in 2014 to get Colorado’s attention.

* Tulo has a 130 wRC+ at home and a 138 wRC+ on the road over the last three years, so he isn’t just a product of Coors Field.

Ryan asks: Any idea why Shinnosuke Abe never tried to make the jump to MLB? He appears to be a power-hitting catcher who also hits for average and gets on base well. Those are rarities in MLB (obviously why the Yankees went after Brian McCann so hard). Any idea why he was never posted? I know the Japanese league is more like AAAA, but it seems like he could’ve been a decent catcher in MLB looking at his statistics. He’s 34 now, so this is more of a question of the past, not about the future.

Abe (pronounced Ah-bay) turns 35 next month and he is one of the best catchers in Japanese baseball history, if not the best. Here are his career stats:

Year Age Tm G PA 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2001 22 Yomiuri 127 428 18 0 13 44 31 79 .225 .293 .373 .666
2002 23 Yomiuri 127 511 26 0 18 73 46 81 .298 .377 .478 .854
2003 24 Yomiuri 94 370 15 1 15 51 40 52 .303 .392 .500 .892
2004 25 Yomiuri 108 436 22 1 33 78 43 87 .301 .391 .625 1.016
2005 26 Yomiuri 130 534 16 0 26 86 51 78 .300 .365 .498 .863
2006 27 Yomiuri 129 497 26 2 10 56 35 76 .294 .349 .427 .776
2007 28 Yomiuri 140 580 20 0 33 101 57 76 .275 .355 .513 .868
2008 29 Yomiuri 125 484 27 0 24 67 44 66 .271 .350 .502 .852
2009 30 Yomiuri 123 462 20 2 32 76 34 87 .293 .357 .587 .943
2010 31 Yomiuri 140 569 27 2 44 92 58 91 .281 .368 .608 .976
2011 32 Yomiuri 114 437 21 0 20 61 35 66 .292 .363 .500 .863
2012 33 Yomiuri 138 555 22 1 27 104 69 47 .340 .429 .565 .994
2013 34 Yomiuri 135 529 17 0 32 91 86 59 .296 .427 .564 .991
13 Seasons 1630 6392 277 9 327 980 629 945 .290 .371 .520 .891
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/28/2014.

From what I understand, Abe wanted to play in MLB but the Yomiuri Giants were not willing to post him. They did the same thing to Hideki Matsui years ago. (Matsui signed with the Yankees after qualifying for international free agency.) Abe qualified for international free agency after 2009, but according to a report passed along by Yakyu Baka, he gave up on coming to MLB because his English was not good and his numbers had slipped in recent years (I assume he was referring to 2006-08). Obviously his performance rebounded.

Abe probably isn’t coming over to MLB at this point, so he’ll have to settle for being an NPB Hall of Famer and arguably the best catcher the country has ever produced. Oh, and he’s also the first (and so far only) man to ever hit two homeruns in one inning during the World Baseball Classic (video). That’s kinda neat. How many homers would he have hit in Yankee Stadium with that swing? All. He would have hit all the homers.

Kevin asks: As long as he’s productive doesn’t Alfonso Soriano seem like the next candidate for the Yankees to go year-to-year with on one-year deals? I’m sure they can continuously find 400+ at-bats for him as long as he’s still hitting it out of the park and isn’t terrible in the field.

(Ron Antonelli/Getty)
(Ron Antonelli/Getty)

I think so. Soriano just turned 38 but he can still hit, making up for his low OBP with power. If he adjusts well to being a DH regularly, he makes sense for a lot of teams as a year-to-year guy. (Red Sox, anyone?) The Yankees could use him as a part-time DH and part-time outfielder in the coming years, especially against left-handed pitchers.

What’s a reasonable salary? I don’t know, maybe something like $6-8M? That would be awesome. The team can definitely find a spot for Soriano on the roster in the coming years if he’s willing to go one year a time. He’s a real nice guy to have lying around at the right price.

Elliot asks: Because Brett Gardner received an extension vs. a new contract, is his salary for luxury tax purposes next year (189 is moot for 2014) calculated $11.72 million as 1/5 of $58.6 million, or is it $13 Million next year (12.5 + .5 for the guaranteed money from the buyout)?

I’m so happy the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold is kaput because trying to figure out “tax hits” was a pain in the ass. Anyway, Brian Cashman confirmed to Chad Jennings that the extension acts as a new contract that starts next season for luxury tax purposes. Gardner’s tax hit this year will be $5.6M (the one-year deal he signed to avoid arbitration last month) and then it’ll be $13M from 2015-18 (the guaranteed dollars spread across the guaranteed years of the new extension). Things will get complicated if the 2019 club option is exercised, but that’s a very long ways off. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires before then anyway and who knows what’ll happen to the luxury tax system. No point in thinking about it now.

Andrew asks: Do you think Gardner’s extension is a bit of a warning klaxon to the prospects?

Nah, I don’t think Gardner’s extension has anything to do with the prospects. I think the extension was simply about signing a productive player for the next few years rather than dealing with a potential bidding war after the season, when he was scheduled to become a free agent. None of the team’s top outfield prospects are close to making an impact and besides, there are three outfield spots. There’s always a way to squeeze someone in if they earn the playing time. Gardner is a good MLB player right now and those are the guys you keep regardless of who is coming up through the system.

John asks: Did Mariano Rivera set a record for most time as a player in the Yankees organization? I can’t think of anyone else under contract for 23+ years.

I don’t even know how to go about looking this up. The Play Index says Rivera and Derek Jeter currently hold the record for most seasons with at least one game played for the Yankees at 19, and Jeter will make it 20 in a few weeks. Mo spent parts of six years in the minors before making his MLB debut while Jeter was down for parts of only four seasons. (Remember, some of those MLB and MiLB seasons overlap.) Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra both played at least one game in 18 seasons with the team and they spent hardly any time in the minors. Jorge Posada played in 17 seasons with the Yankees and had another five or so years in the minors. Jeter, Mantle, Berra, and Posada seem like Rivera’s only real competition here, and since the Cap’n is retiring after the season, Mo’s spot is safe for the foreseeable future.

Sad Sally asks: Is Johnny Damon the most underrated player of our lifetime?

Was Damon ever underrated? I never thought so. He was obviously very good for a very long time, and in a few years he should garner some Hall of Fame votes. I don’t think he belongs in Cooperstown but voting for him would not be insane. Know who I think is more underrated than Damon? Mike Mussina. The guy had a career of almosts — almost won a Cy Young, almost threw a perfect game, almost won a World Series — until winning 20 games in his final season and I feel like he gets overlooked because of his lack of hardware. Moose is a Hall of Famer in my opinion and it sure seems like a lot of people don’t realize how great he was, maybe because he played at the same time as Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and other all-timers. Easy to get overlooked in that era.

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.