Link Dump: Backups, Cervelli, Media Jerks

Let’s start Friday off with a few random links from around the netweb…

Projecting the backup outfielders

Sean at Pending Pinstripes took a look at some projections for the Yankees’ reserve outfielders, which essentially includes everyone not named Curtis Granderson or Nick Swisher. Unsurprisingly, Brett Gardner projects to be the best player of the bunch in 2010 on the strength of his outstanding defense and slightly better than league average bat. What is surprising is that the second best projected performance comes from Reid Gorecki, a minor league free agent the Yanks signed back in January. Although his offense will be below average, his defense isn’t all that far off from Gardner’s.

Cervelli may go all Dark Helmet on us

After suffering a concussion last week when he took a pitch to the noggin, Frankie Cervelli might use one of those big Rawlings S100 batting helmets this year. It’s the same helmet David Wright comically wore a few times last year, when he did his best Rick Moranis in Spaceballs impression. Safety first, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh on the inside.

Bill Conlin is a jerk

Hopefully you remember this post from a few days ago, which disputed a claim from the Philly Inquirer’s Bill Conlin that the Phillies might have the best infield of the modern era. It’s pretty obvious he’s wrong, as they don’t even have the best infield of 2010. However, when a NoMaas reader by the name of Matt respectfully disagreed with Conlin, his emails were met with inflammatory responses. How could someone in Conlin’s position possibly be this disrespectful to his readers?

We joke about how the media in New York can be overly dramatic and stuff, but I’ll say this much, I’ve never felt disrespected by any of the guys who cover the Yankees, even when we were in disagreement. I feel bad for Phillies’ fans that have to put up with that.

2010 Season Preview: Sacrificing offense for defense in left

Every so often we see an organization get stuck looking to fill one position for an extended period of time. The Red Sox have been searching for a shortstop ever since they traded away Nomar Garciaparra, and the Twins are still trying to find a solid third baseman to replace Corey Koskie. For a while the Yankees had their own positional problem, using a different Opening Day leftfielder every season from 1994 to 2003. That problem was solved when Hideki Matsui came aboard in ’03, and in recent years Johnny Damon had taken over the position, but with both of those stalwarts now playing elsewhere, the Yankees once again are left searching for a long-term leftfield solution.

Typically considered a power position, the Yanks have instead decided to focus on defense in left. The tremendous offensive production they receive from the four up-the-middle positions allows them to take a bit of a hit in one of the corner outfield spot. With the speedy Brett Gardner already in-house, the team opted to complement him with free agent signing Randy Winn, who managed to be close to a two win player in 2009 despite a .302 wOBA because of his superlative defense. Add in Rule 5 pick Jamie Hoffmann, and it’s clear the Yankees made a conscious effort to improve their defense when replacing Damon in left.

Gardner played nothing but centerfield last year, saving 7.2 runs in 628.2 defensive innings. Winn, on the other hand, saved 16.6 runs in just under 1,200 defensive innings for the Giants. Unlike Gardner, he shifted around and spent time at all three outfield spots. Looking at three-year UZR, we’re talking about 55.2 runs saved in just over 4,700 defensive innings combined between these two, so clearly the defensive ability is there. Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg Winn as a +2.0 UZR defender in left next year, and Brett Gardner as perfectly average at the position. Both players project to be better defenders at different positions (Winn in right, Gardner in center), but the Yankees aren’t about to shift Curtis Granderson and/or Nick Swisher around for marginal improvements with the glove. These projections seem a little light, but let’s roll with them.

Aside from defense, the other aspect of the game where these guys excel is on the bases. Gardner stole 26 bases last year (83.9% success rate), and according to EqBRR he was worth 4.9 runs in all baserunning situations, 11th best in baseball despite being a part-time player. Believe it or not, Winn is just as much of a threat on the basepaths, having stolen 16 bases with an 88.9% success rate in 2009, and his 4.8 EqBRR was a tenth of a run behind Gardner for the 12th best in the game. No matter which player the Yankees have patrolling leftfield next season, they’re guaranteed of getting solid (or better) defense with top of the line baserunning.

Offensively, we have a different story. Let’s review some projections, starting with Gardner…

After posting a .270-.345-.379 batting line with a slightly above average .337 wOBA in 2009, the five freely available projection systems see Gardner basically repeating that performance. It’s slightly above league average overall but generally below average for a corner outfielder. Combine the offense with the +0.0 UZR projection and say another +5.0 runs on the bases, and Gardner’s looking at a 1.4 WAR season. The shift from center to left decreases Gardner’s value more than anything. It wouldn’t take much to get him over the two win plateau, just a slightly better than league average UZR and another 50 or so plate appearances of similar production.

Now for the grizzled vet…

Winn’s offense doesn’t project to be as good as Gardner’s because of a 20 point difference in on-base percentage, but the good news is that they see an improvement over his .262-.318-.353 (.302 wOBA) performance from last year. Granted, the .316 wOBA projection is nothing to brag about, and when combined with a +2.0 UZR and say +5.0 runs on the bases, you get a one win player. Nothing to get excited over, but not a bad return on a minimal investment ($1.1M) at all.

Of course, figuring out the actual production the Yanks will get out of leftfield is slightly more complicated because Gardner and Winn will presumably split playing time. If Gardner gets say, two-thirds of the playing time, Joe Girardi‘s club is probably looking at two wins total for the position, which for all intents and purposes is league average. That doesn’t account for Marcus Thames and/or Jamie Hoffmann, both of whom are trying to state their case for a job this spring. Since both players are projected to perform at replacement level next year, we really don’t have to worry about them. Anything the Yanks get from either is gravy.

For the most part, whoever the Yankees send out to leftfield on a given day will be their weakest player on the field. However, given their strength up-the-middle and two .400 wOBA corner infielders, they can afford to add another to dimension to the team in the form of strong defense and elite baserunning. I don’t expect them to have nine different Opening Day leftfielders in the next nine years like they did a decade ago, but what the Yankees have right now isn’t anything more than a stopgap.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Brett Gardner is one to watch for

Over at ESPN’s new and entertaining (but poorly named) The Max Info blog, Yankee fan and RAB reader Katie Sharp named leftfield favorite Brett Gardner the Yankees’ player to watch for the 2010 season (Insider req’d). She points out that Gardner had by far the best speed score (9.2, a metric developed by Bill James that considers things like stolen base percentages, triples, etc) of any batter with at least 250 plate appearances last season, and that his 16% infield hit rate was tied for Ichiro as the best in the business. As soon as he improves his bunting, I’m hopeful that number will go up even more.

I don’t think Gardner’s quite as good defensively as his small sample UZR suggest, but he’s obviously very good. If he can work his way into being a non-zero offensive player out of the nine-hole, then I’ll take it every day of the week.

Friday Night Linkage: Gardner, Draft, Ohlendorf

Here’s some link to check out if you’re stumbling in at 3am…

Could Gardner be the next Nyjer Morgan?

Over at FanGraphs, Matt Klaassen wonders if gritty, gutty Brett Gardner could develop into this year’s version of Nyjer Morgan. Morgan, who posted a measly .320 wOBA and 0.9 WAR in 2008, broke out last season by putting up a respectable .340 wOBA to go with spectacular defense that made him just about a five win player. It was until the Morgan was traded to the Nats at midseason (and moved to centerfield) that he really took off, so maybe the Yanks should just stick Gardner in center right from the get-go.

I’m not bullish on Brett’s offensive ability, but if his defense is as good as the small sample sized metric says it is, he could legitimately be a four win player out of the 9-hole next season. That would be some helluva boost.

KLaw’s Top 50 Draft Prospects

It’s still super early, but that didn’t stop Keith Law from posting a list of his top 50 prospects for the 2010 Draft (sub. req’d). Bryce Harper predictably tops the list, and is followed by righties Anthony Ranaudo and Jameson Taillon of LSU and The Woodlands High School (Texas), respectively. KLaw ranked Lakeland High (Florida) third baseman Yordy Cabrera as the 32rd best draft prospect, which is where the Yanks are picking. At this stage of the game, these are nothing more than a very preliminary rankings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it.

Ross Ohlendorf is a nerd

As you probably know, one time great Yankee Ross Ohlendorf interned with the Agriculture Department this winter, and talked about his experience with Tyler Kepner. “If there are things that interest me, and I am interested in a lot of things, I try to make an effort to learn more about them,” Ohlendorf said Wednesday. “If I’m going to do something, I want to put in the time to do a good job with it.” Next winter, Rock ‘N Rohlendorf wants to work in the legislative branch, perhaps in a the congressional agricultural committee. If that doesn’t work out, he wants to go home to Texas to work for a private equity firm. I’m serious.

Well, excuse me if being a big leaguer isn’t intellectually stimulating enough for you, Ross. Some guys…

(I kid, I kid)

T-Dubs holds the World Series trophy

Longtime RAB reader T-Dubs got to chill with the 2009 World Series trophy at the State Capitol in Connecticut on Friday. The first link takes you to some photos of his little adventure, and I have to say I’m pretty jealous.

Sticking the new guy in left field

Spring Training doesn’t officially start until later this week — tomorrow to be exact — but already, most players have descended upon Tampa. The core of the Yankee team is already working out at the team’s minor league complex, and the reporters are starting to settle into their Spring Training routines. Some semblance of order is returning to this crazy time we call the Hot Stove League.

In Tampa, all eyes are on the new guys, and that obsession thrusts Curtis Granderson, who just wants to fit in, into the spotlight. Other than the return of Javier Vazquez to serve as the team’s fourth starter, Granderson is the biggest acquisition, and he’s being asked to replace Johnny Damon in the lineup. Considering Damon’s departure involved stealing two bases on one play and being lauded as a key offensive piece to the Yanks, that’s no small feat.

So after an off-season during which we obsessed over left field and searched for ways the Yanks could fill a left field gap, the reporters asked Curtis Granderson about his take on the corner slot. Maybe he’ll be the one to take it, he said to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch. “People forget that I came up as a left fielder,” Granderson said yesterday. “In the Minor Leagues all the way up to Double-A, I didn’t start playing center field consistently until my second year in the Minors. Even when I came to the big leagues, I played a few games in left. I have no problem going back over there if that happens to be.”

It seems so simple, but does it make sense for the Yanks? In essence, the team would be shifting Brett Gardner to center field while deploying Curtis Granderson as the left fielder. On days in which the Yanks are facing a lefty and want to rest Gardner, they can slide Granderson to center and use Randy Winn, Marcus Thames or someone else in left. Granderson is versatile enough and comfortable enough to make the move.

The numbers too bear out this alignment. Playing his home games in spacious Comerica Park, Granderson has generally been an above-average center fielder. He put up double-digit UZR totals in 2006 and 2007 before slipping below 0 in 2008. He rebounded last year with a 1.6 mark, and we can assume that he would be as good if not better covering ground in left. Brett Gardner meanwhile has shined as a center fielder. In limited duty, he put up a 9.5 mark in 2008 and a 7.2 mark in 2009.

As for the guys they would be replacing, a duo of Granderson in left and Gardner in center would far outshine Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera. Damon, after two disastrous years in center with the Yanks, had an above-average full-season showing in 2008 as a left fielder but saw his UZR slip to -9.2 in 2009. Melky, meanwhile, put up a 0.6 mark in center in 2008 and a 1.4 mark in 2009. Even assuming just a duplication of their 2010 numbers, the Gardnerson/Gardner duo would be nearly 9 defensive runs above average while the Cabrera/Damon duo would be just under -8 defensive runs below average.

The wild card in these moves remains Brett Gardner’s offense. The Yankees won’t ask Curtis Granderson to move to left if they don’t believe Gardner can hold down a starting job for long enough, and the team might not ask Granderson to move if their plan includes pursuing Carl Crawford after he hits free agency next winter. After all, they might not want Granderson to be bouncing back and forth between the outfield slots for one year with a more certain solution just around the corner.

With run prevention the next frontier in baseball analysis and team-building, the Yankees are bound to give many outfield permutations a good hard look in Spring Training. When Opening Day rolls around, no one should be surprised if the solution to the Johnny Damon hole had been around since early December after all.

What a novel idea! Gardner’s learning to bunt

File this one under the “what took so long” category: Brett Gardner, the likely left fielder going into 2010, has spent this offseason developing his bunting skills. I mean, what’s the point of having a speed guy with little power work on his bunting game as he climbed the ladder in the minors? “Now it’s just a matter of being comfortable enough with it,” said Gardner, “not to be scared to do it in a game and have confidence that I’m going to put it where I want it. Not only can it be a tool to get on base, but it keeps defenses honest and can bring the corners in and maybe I can shoot some balls by them.”

Better late than never, I guess.

Gardner taking aim at key improvements

At every minor league level, Brett Gardner has shown improvements in his approach to the game, and now that the left field job is his to lose, he’ll have to again adapt his style. After a good, but not great, 2009 that saw Gardner hit .270/.345/.379 as a part-time player, Yankee fans know what to expect. He’s fast, but so far, he hasn’t gotten on base quite often enough to capitalize on his speed. He’s a contact hitter, but he has shown a tendency to be a bit too selective at the plate. Over the weekend, Chad Jennings talked with Gardner about his off-season approach, and what Brett said should be encouraging. He’s already working on improving his bunting, and he wants to be more aggressive by putting more balls in play this year. It might just be the words of a baseball player gearing up for Spring Training, but those areas are exactly the ones upon which Gardner should be focusing.