Damon, Bay, Holliday still too expensive for Yanks

With the trade of Melky Cabrera this morning, the Yanks are short a Major League outfielder. Although many assumed that Melky would be the starting left fielder with Johnny Damon‘s departure, the Yankees seemed willing to go into Spring Training with the position up for grabs. Now, though, it falls into Brett Gardner‘s lap. As some clamor for a better solution for left field, the Yanks are standing pat for now. The Yanks would reportedly prefer to spend around $5-$6 on a left fielder, and according to Mark Feinsand and Joel Sherman, the price tags on Johnny Damon, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay remain too steep for the Bombers. As Joe wrote last night, if the price is right on Mark DeRosa, he could be a good fit.

The perils of projecting a young player

In 2003, it seemed as though Scott Podsednik had broken out. Nine years after the Texas Rangers drafted him in the third round, he had a monster first full season in the bigs. Over 628 plate appearances he hit .314/.379/.443, ranking him second among NL center fielders in OBP and third in wOBA. It had been a long journey for Podsednik, a failed Rule 5 pick who eventually hit minor league free agency, and then waived by the team who signed him. But by 2003 Brewers fans had reason to be excited.

The production didn’t carry over to 2004, though. Podsednik, who had a .362 BABIP in 2003, saw that drop to .275 in 2004, which hampered his overall numbers. He fell to .244/.313/.364 and ranked fourth worst among qualifying NL center fielders in wOBA — and was further from the fifth worst than he was the absolute worst. He recovered to have a good season in 2005, but he’s been an inconsistent contributor since then. He had a hard time finding work in 2009, and is again many teams’ Plan B or C this winter.

Let this be a cautionary tale to those who extol the virtues of Brett Gardner. Yes, he put up good numbers in limited playing time during his first full big league season, but that’s hardly an indicator of what he’ll do next year. He had only 284 plate appearances in 2009, less than half the number of a full-time outfielder. That, plus his limited exposure in 2008, makes it difficult to project how he’ll hit in 2010. In other words, I wouldn’t buy CHONE, ZiPS, Bill James, or any other projection system on Gardner right now.

(Then again, I wouldn’t make any significant decisions based on projection engines. They might provide a good indicator of a player’s progression from year to year, but it’s nothing more than an indicator. This goes especially for young players, on whom we have much less available data.)

My main beef with the 2010 projections right now is how they assume Gardner will improve. Yes, that’s certainly possible. Many players improve in their second full major league seasons. But a player with Gardner’s skill set might find it difficult. Just look at his numbers in 2009 compared to Podsednik’s in 2003. They both had strikeout rates of around 16 percent, both had low isolated power marks (though Podsednik’s was about .020 better), and both had contact rates in the high 80s (though Gardner was about a percent better).

Podsednik and Gardner are similar in that they’re low-power, speedy center fielders who played to their strengths by taking a healthy number of walks — both had a walk rate of around 9 percent in their first full major league seasons. We often hear anecdotes of how this doesn’t bode well for the player’s future. Pitchers, unafraid of singles, will be more apt to throw strikes. Will this be true for Gardner?

It happened for Podsednik. In 2003 pitchers threw 49.8 percent of their pitches in the strike zone. In 2004 they threw him 56.2 percent in the zone. Podsednik maintained his contact rate, but predictably saw a dip in his walk percentage. He also hit far fewer line drives in 2004, dropping to 17.7 percent from 23.6 percent. That means more ground balls, which can be good, and more fly balls, detrimental for a low-power player like Podsednik. His fly ball rate rose by 3.5 percent and certainly factored in to his lower 2004 BABIP.

Brett Gardner, of course, is not Scott Podsednik. Maybe his second full season will play out differently than Podsednik’s. Maybe pitchers won’t make a similar adjustment, and Gardner can continue to walk at a good clip, allowing him to use his best asset, his speed, more frequently. But I don’t think that’s something we can count on. So many players of Gardner’s ilk — speedy, low power, mediocre contact rate — have struggled after initially succeeding.

So no, I don’t think that Gardner will be more valuable than Jason Bay in 2010. We have an idea of what Bay will produce. We do not really know what Gardner will do. Even though Gardner’s defense is easily superior to Bay’s, we still don’t have a good idea of how their offensive output will compare. I also think it’s way, way too early to just hand Gardner the center field job, especially after Melky Cabrera showed improvement in 2009. Yes, if his best case scenario plays out Gardner should get the nod over Melky. But it’s way, way, way too early to project that now. We just don’t have enough of an idea of how Gardner will produce over a full-time season.

For your own reference, here are three readily available projections on Gardner for 2010:

AB AVG OBP SLG
CHONE 357 .266 .351 .375
ZiPS 387 .253 .328 .344
Bill James 325 .277 .368 .375

To trade or not to trade a spare outfielder

By the time Spring Training starts, odds are good that the Yanks will head into Tampa with five outfielders for four positions. Although Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera are currently behind Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher on the Yanks’ depth charts, the team wants to bring Johnny Damon back at the best price and will look at Mike Cameron before the winter is out.

Therefore, the Yanks have a good problem to have: They have a trading chip. Either Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera will draw interest from other clubs. The question, then, concerns the expendable one: Of Gardner or Cabrera, which one should the Yanks try to move?

Over the last four seasons, Yankee fans have grown quite familiar with Melky, for better or worse. As a 21-year-old in 2006, he inherited the starting left field job when Hideki Matsui went down with a wrist injury and was a pleasant surprise with the bat. He hit .280/.360/.391 with a 95 OPS+. While 2006 was a decent showing for Melky, the next two years would show him trending in the wrong direction. Over his next 1065 plate appearances, he hit .263/.316/.369 with just 16 home runs. With more Major League experience, he should have been getting better, but his only redeeming quality was his arm, and by the end of 2008, he had lost his starting job.

This year, facing some competition for his outfield spot, Melky seemed to turn it on early. He hit .285/.347/.439 in the first half with a few key clutch hits. He faded during the second half, but still managed to put up a 99 OPS+ season. For those of us in the anti-Melky camp, 2009 was a very pleasant surprise.

Still, we don’t know what to expect out of the youngster going forward. The 2010 season will be his age 25 year, and after 2148 Major League plate appearances, he has a career line of .269/.331/.385. He doesn’t have much speed or power but has a strong arm. He seems to be an ideal candidate for a fourth outfielder spot on a good team or a starting job on a lesser team but could still improve.

Then, we have Brett Gardner. A year older than Melky, the speedster has just 425 Major League plate appearances and three fewer years of service time. This year, Gardner hit .270/.345/.379. He covers a lot of ground in center field but doesn’t have Melky’s arm. He has a lot of speed but hasn’t gotten on base at a high enough clip at the Major League level to be a game-changer. We don’t know what Melky’s eventual ceiling will be, but Gardner’s may very well be what we saw this year. He’s a fast slap hitter, valuable as a late-game pinch runner but needs to find another 15 to 20 OBP points to stick.

And so the rumors. When Curtis Granderson arrived, many figured the Yanks would be able to trade one of their young center fielders. So far, rumor has it that both the Royals and White Sox have called to ask Brian Cashman about Gardner. Is the outfielder I find more expendable actually in greater demand than Melky? It would seem so.

Right now, we don’t have a sense of the potential returns. Maybe the Yanks could get Brian Bannister from the Royals, but then again, maybe he’ll be non-tendered today. The Yanks fleeced Ken Williams and the White Sox last year when they acquired Nick Swisher for a bunch of nothing. Could they do it again with Gardner? It’s nice to dream.

As it stands, the Yanks have the luxury of holding a strong hand made stronger by the Rule 5 arrival of Jamie Hoffmann. So far, Cashman has been able to capitalize on that advantage. Let’s see how he does now with a glut of young outfielders. If I were a betting man, I’d say we’ve seen the last of Gardner in pinstripes. But then again, if the Yanks sign another outfielder, Gardner may be more useful than Melky as a bench player. And so it goes.

What Went Right: Gardbrera

Over the next week or so, we’ll again break down what went wrong and what went right for the 2009 Yankees. The series this year will be much more enjoyable than the last.

Gardbrera

Mid-way through the 2007 season, it became apparent that Johnny Damon was no longer a viable option in centerfield for the Yankees. The team was somewhat up a creek without a paddle, as Damon still had two-and-a-half years left on his contract, and they had to turn to the unproven Melky Cabrera full-time in one of the most important positions on the field.

In 2008, Yankee centerfielders hit just .261-.320-.391, which represented the fifth lowest OBP and seventh lowest IsoP in the league. Furthermore, the group’s defense didn’t make up for their offense shortcomings, as they posted a collective +1.9 UZR/150. Melky got the lion’s share of the work in center (67.5% of the total innings), but he was demoted to the minors in mid-August after a 300 plate appearance stretch of futility in which he hit .227-.277-.280.

After flirting with various trade scenarios in the offseason, the Yankees came into Spring Training this past February with the same cast of centerfield characters as last year. Most (myself included) figured a mid-season trade for a centerfielder was in order. Instead, both Melky and Brett Gardner excelled in camp (Melky hit .349-.408-.508, Gardner .379-.446-.621), and the Yanks started the season with a somewhat unconventional platoon in the middle outfield spot.

Across the board, the performance in centerfield improved in 2009. The Gardbrera duo (plus a two game cameo from Jerry Hairston Jr.) hit .273-.338-.400, as Melky once again carried most of the load. Not only was the offensive upgrade welcome, but the defense also improved immensely thanks to Gardner. The team’s UZR/150 in center jumped to +7.5, third best in the AL. The league average offense and well-above average defense gave the Yankees the most production out of the centerfield position since Bernie Williams was in his heyday.

Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac, Getty Images

Yanks battle back, walk off against Jays

Things looked so bright at the start of last night’s game. After Chad Gaudin set down the Blue Jays 1-2-3 in the first, including a strikeout of Adam Lind, the Yankees went to work. Derek Jeter worked a leadoff walk, and Mark Teixeira crushed a double to bring him home. Hideki Matsui made sure to plate the runner in scoring position, and the Yankees jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. It was as if they were sending a message: “We are not losing to the Blue Jays again.”

Yet for the next five frames, the Yankees managed just one hit and two baserunners — an Alex Rodriguez single and a Robinson Cano hit by pitch in the same inning — resulting in no runs. Even after starter Brian Tallet left the game before the bottom of the third, the result of taking a Robinson Cano grounder off the foot in the second, the Yanks couldn’t put up anything against the Jays middle relievers.

Meanwhile, the Jays were busy leading off innings with extra base hits. They did it four times, including a homer from Jose Bautista to start the third. The Jays tied it up in that frame, and then took the lead in the sixth when Vernon Wells singled, Lyle Overbay doubled, and Rod Barajas drove one in with a grounder. Those were all on Gaudin, and he left the game with two outs in the sixth, his team down 3-2.

It wasn’t a completely bad game for Gaudin. Yes, he got a bit lucky in avoiding big innings after leadoff hits, but the Yanks will take his final line every time. It would have been nice to see him get through the sixth, but Damaso Marte made that a moot point, fanning Travis Snider to end the threat. With the Yanks offense, a one-run deficit is nothing, right?

That might be true, but when Brian Bruney is in the bullpen — and worse, in the game — anything can happen. He came out to start the eighth, and things got ugly quick. Another leadoff double and a single set up the Jays with runners on second and third with none out. That was it for Bruney. With each of his appearances, it’s becoming harder and harder to remember when he last looked good.

Phil Coke cleaned up the mess, but not without allowing a run to score. It was a sac fly, hardly something you can blame on the guy who came into that situation. Even so, it was a relatively short fly, and it’s still a bit confusing as to why Jerry Hairston didn’t throw home. I guess it kept the double play possibility on, but the replay showed Hill still off first. In any case, the Jays had again capitalized on a leadoff XBH, and took a two-run lead to the bottom of the eighth.

As we’ve learned over the past few months, there is just no counting out the Yankees. They seem to save their best swings for the late innings. Coming into the game they were hitting .298/.383/.517 in innings seven through nine. As a team. They again added to those totals last night, going 6 for 14 with a walk and two extra base hits. The most important one, of course, was the two-run home run by Hideki Matsui, which tied the game at four. Once he hit that, there was no doubt that they were taking the game.

The winning run would come just one inning later. Brett Gardner, who came in as a defensive replacement in the eighth*, ran the count full before punching a single into center. If it wasn’t clear that they were winning the game yet, that pretty much sealed it. He swiped second, a necessity in that situation. Derek Jeter advanced him to third, and then the most beloved backup catcher in the history of baseball, Francisco Cervelli, slapped a single past a drawn-in infield, earning the pie and giving the Yankees the win.

* Replacing Hairston defensively raises the question of why Girardi didn’t pinch hit for him in the seventh, when the Yanks had the bases juiced with two outs. He could have gone to Eric Hinske there, but then Cito goes to Scott Downs. What’s a tougher matchup: Hairston v Accardo, or Hinske v Downs? I didn’t mind the non-decision, but if you’re going to replace Hairston with Gardner anyway, you might as well pinch hit there.

The win reduces the magic number to a Knoblauchian 11. It would have been 10 had the umpires punched out Nick Green on two different occasions. Then again, that would have been moot if Brian Fuentes did his job. The Yanks are just four wins, or four Rangers losses, away from clinching a playoff spot. They head into an off-day with a solid win. West Coast trip starts on Friday. See you at 10 p.m. Yippee.

Gardner out longer than expected

Earlier this week, the Yanks updated the world with their plans on Brett Gardner, and we overlooked that news. Basically, Gardner is going to be out for longer than originally expected. The doctor told him this week to keep his splint on for another seven days. With this delay, it is unlikely that the Yanks’ speedster will see action prior to September 1 but should be back by Labor Day. In reality, though, as long as Gardner is healthy enough to run for the Yankees in October, he’ll be available to play a big role for the team in the playoffs.

Subject of rumors, Gardner on DL with broken thumb

PeteAbe has the news. It seems Gardner broke his left thumb yesterday sliding into second, and will be in a cast for two weeks before being reevaluated. Jon Albaladejo has been called up temporarily, but the team replace him with a position player in a day or two. Ramiro Pena has been playing some CF in the minors, but I’m not sure if the team thinks he’s ready to do it in the majors.

Meanwhile, in his Sunday column, Bob Klapisch reports on a Brett Gardner rumor. According to Klapisch, the Mariners asked for both Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera for Jarrod Washburn. This move would have left the Yankees with another starter but neither of their center fielders. Despite his landing on the DL, Gardner could still be traded this week.

For what it’s worth, Klapsich also debunks Jon Heyman’s report concerning Joba Chamberlain and Roy Halladay. The Yanks, he says, are committed to Chamberlain and see him as a long-term solution to their number three starter spot.