Baseball America’s Top 20 Rookies

After releasing their Midseason Top 25 Prospects List last week, the crew at Baseball America posted their midseason list of the Top 20 Rookies today. Ricky Romero of the Blue Jays tops the list, while Brett Gardner checks in at number nine. The Yankees part-time centerfielder has put up strong numbers with spectacular defense this year, but his Rookie of the Year chase is being held back by not playing every day. Gardy did claim one of the three outfield spots on their All Rookie Team.

No love for Al Aceves, apparently. Don’t get all bent out of shape though, it’s not often a swingman gets any kind of recognition.

First Half Review: Outfielders and DH

At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. We already looked at the starting pitchers, relievers, corner infielders, catchers, and middle infielders, so now it’s time to take a look at the outfielders and designated hitter.

The expectations

Coming into the season with no fewer than five outfielders on their projected Opening Day roster, the Yanks figured to sport a solid but relatively unspectacular outfield in 2009. Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady figured to man the corner outfield spots and work in some kind of harmonious rotation where everyone stayed rested and productive. Centerfield was going to be occupied by Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner, whichever one happened to be hitting at the moment. Hideki Matsui was expected to contribute nothing beyond DH duty, which was fine.

After posting a .765 OPS as a unit in 2008 (20th best in baseball), the team figured to see an improvement in its outfield production this year given their depth. Damon was expected to produce at a similar pace to his first three years in pinstripes, while everyone assumed that a rebound for Nick Swisher and slight step back from Nady would combine to produce at the very least average production. Gardbrera was a bit of a crapshoot, and in most circles it was believed the team would probably need to go out and get someone at some point. Matsui just had to be Matsui, or close to it.

The results

Aside from a season-ending elbow injury to Nady just eight games into the season, everything has gone better than expected. Swisher has rebounded from his down year in Chicago while Cabredner has been better than anyone could have expected. Johnny Damon is enjoying the best season of his long career, just in time for his contract year. As a unit, the Yanks rank third in AL with an .815 OPS, trailing two of their AL East counterparts. You get one guess who those two teams are. Hideki Matsui has stayed relatively healthy and is having his best season since 2005.

It’s hard not to be pleased with the production the Yankees have gotten out of the outfield and DH this year. Aside from Nady everyone’s been able to stay on the field, and there’s more bodies than spots so there should be enough opportunity to keep the seemingly ageless Damon fresh.

Johnny Damon

Amazingly, Damon is having the best season of his career at age 35. However, it looks like the New Yankee Stadium has contributed greatly to his resurgence, as his home OPS is more than 200 points greater than his road OPS. He’s taken to the two-spot in the order like he’s been hitting there his entire career, which I think is what most of us figured would happen.

Unfortunately it’s not all good news for Johnny, because his defense in left field has been downright dreadful in 2009. Whether you trust newfangled defensive metrics or just judge defense with your eyes, it’s easy to see the Damon went from an above-average left fielder to one that’s shaky at best. In the team’s final two wins of the first half up in Minnesota, Joe Girardi replaced Damon with Melky Cabrera in the late innings for defense. More than likely we’ll see that continue in the second half.

Melky Cabrera & Brett Gardner

After winning the centerfield job outright in Spring Training, it took only 15 games or so for Melky Cabrera to reclaim the job. In what looks like an annual occurrence, Melky started the year on fire (.326-.394-.517 through May 13th) but trailed off afterward (.261-.320-.395 since). Gardner did pretty much the opposite, starting slow (.214-.273-.257 through May 12th) before picking up the pace (.322-.398-.492 since). The two have combined for a .293-.361-.439 batting line, fourth best among centerfielders in the AL and behind only the Orioles in the AL East.

Gardner has been a hero on defense, putting up an ungodly 20.1 UZR/150, trailing only Colby Rasmus and Franklin Gutierrez. Melky’s been solid, but as usual he tends to get overrated because of his arm. As a whole, the Gardbrera tandem has given the Yanks everything they could have wanted and more.

Nick Swisher & Xavier Nady

We weren’t sure how Girardi was going to get both Swisher and Nady regular at-bats this year, but that problem took care of itself barely a week into the season. Swisher has handled the everyday job with aplomb, doing his usual schtick of getting on base (.360 OBP) and hitting for power (.464 SLG). While he’s prone to the occasional botched play, overall he’s been slightly above average in right field with a 1.8 UZR/150. While it would be nice to have Nady healthy for the depth, Swisher has held down the fort just fine.

Hideki Matsui

It’ll be easy to talk about Matsui’s first half since all he’s done is hit, and hit he has. His .264-.367-.517 batting line is his best in years, and while the common perception might be that the New Stadium is artificially beefing up his numbers, Godzilla’s road OPS is more than 60 points higher than his home effort. While his knees look ready to explode whenever he has to run, Matsui’s a hitting savant that produces in all situations against any kind of pitcher regardless of what arm they throw with.

Expectations for the second half

Brian Cashman added some insurance in Eric Hinske not long before the break, which helps mitigate what would have been a disaster should another outfielder go down with injury. It’s tough to expect Damon to continue his career year, but a regression to his previous performance would be acceptable. The real question is whether or not Melky and Gardner can keep it up in center, because the Yanks have less than three weeks to decide if they need an upgrade.

I guess the expectation for the second half is what it was coming into the season, rock solid production but far from spectacular. Anything else is gravy.

Two outfielders, heading different ways

It’s still early enough in Brett Gardner‘s season for last night’s game to make a big difference in his numbers. By going 5 for 6 with a home run and a triple, he raised his average .022 points to .303, his on-base percentage .016 to .374 and his slugging by a whopping .051 to .441.

For Gardner, last night’s game was the crowning moment in his 2009 renaissance. Handed the starting job out of Spring Training, Gardner faltered. Through April 26, he was hitting just .220/.254/.271, and with Melky’s bat showing signs of life, Gardner was out of a regular job. That would be the low point of the season for Brett. While his average eventually dipped to .214, his OPS and stock has been on the rise since then.

Since his benching, Gardner has played his way back into consideration. From May 1 through last night, he has 111 plate appearance, and he is hitting .355/.444/.548 in that span with 22 runs scored and 12 stolen bases. In a season with 650 plate appearances, that would put him on pace to score over 120 runs and steal 70.

While the power is a welcome bonus, that .444 OBP since the start of May is the key for Brett. He’s a fast guy who can, as the age-old baseball cliché says, make things happen on the base paths. He steals; he moves the defense; he scores runs. He can handle the bat well and has a discerning eye. Right now, he’s crediting a more aggressive approach with his recent success. Whatever it is he’s doing sure is working.

On the other side of the center field battle is Melky Cabrera. After a very poor 2008, Cabrera has rebounded with a solid 2009. He’s hitting .287/.351/.446 with 7 home runs and a few key walk-off hits. After losing the job in Spring Training, Melky played his way into the starting role by hitting .342/.422/.534 through May 8. Since then, though, as Gardner has improved, Melky has not. Over 145 plate appearances since May 9, Melky is hitting .256/.310/.395. While not nearly as bad as he was last year, Melky has hit another post-April cold streak.

Right now, the Yankees are in an envious position. They have two viable candidates for center field who can both field their position well. The solution is to go with the hot hand. For now, Brett Gardner should be playing until he’s no longer performing at above-average production. After the game, Joe Girardi acknowledged that Gardner had earned regular playing time. It’s hard to argue with that.

Yanks grit out win against Jays

With the Yanks 2-7 in their last nine games, any kind of win last night would have felt good. The Yankees did us one better, winning in a convincing manner and getting production from all around the lineup. Best of all, they beat up on a pitcher they have never seen before, who was actually pitching well. Thoroughly enjoyable game all around.

Things started off a bit shaky in the first. After Mark Teixeira ripped his first single since May 6, A-Rod walked to put him in scoring position. Yet Robinson Cano, hitting .186 with runners in scoring position coming into the game, flied out. And so continued the team’s futility with runners in scoring position.

The bottom of the first can be summed up thusly: If I told you that Andy Pettitte would walk three Blue Jays in the inning and allow only one run, would you believe me? I don’t think I’d believe me. But it happened. The run scored in maddeningly frustrating fashion, which made it all the worse. In the end, considering the circumstances, one run wasn’t all that bad.

Then, in the second, something amazing happened. Something glorious. The Yanks put together a rally, and it started with the bottom of the order. It actually started with the sixth hitter, but under normal circumstances Melky will hit much lower, so we’ll just call it bottom of the order, mmmmkay? After he doubled, Brett Gardner put every ounce of grit and heart and hard work behind a swing and deposited a ball just over the 328 ft. sign in right. Gardner’s first career homer gave the Yanks a 2-1 lead.

As if things could get stranger, Ramiro Pena followed that with a triple. Then, after a Frankie Cervelli ground out, Johnny Damon hit yet another triple. Mark Teixeira poured it on with another hit, this one a double, giving him a 2-2 start to the night. Finally, after an A-rod walk, Robinson Cano came up in the exact situation as the previous inning: first and second, two out. Only this time his team was up 4-1. Once he put a ball in right field, it was 5-1.

While big innings are quite fun — and good for the nerves — we’ve seen the Yanks post a few of them this season, yet we haven’t seen the kind of consistent offensive output one would expect from a serious contender. So it came as a relief when Tex hit a sac fly in the fourth to plate the Yanks’ sixth run of the game. Things got even brighter in the fifth, when a Robinson Cano leadoff double led to two more runs, including a triple by Gardner. Looks like the kid wants to play. Too bad Melky is going so well right now.

The game wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Pettitte, but he got the job done for six innings. After the three walks in the first he allowed only one the rest of the game. The only real trouble he ran into after the first was in the fourth, when the Jays mounted something of a two-out rally which was kickstarted by a Scott Rolen “oops” infield single. Six innings, two runs. The Yanks will take it almost every time from Pettitte.

Get this: a Blue Jay doubled to lead off in three innings last night. None of them came around to score. That’s Scutaro in the third, Rolen in the sixth, and Wells in the eighth. Each time the Yanks pitchers — Pettitte and Al Aceves — were able to retire the subsequent Jays in order. Pettitte benefitted from a caught stealing in the third. While you’d like not to see the leadoff double in the first place, that’s a good job of the Yanks tonight of bearing down and not letting it hurt them.

The only downer of the night was Nick Swisher, who did not join the Yanks onslaught. His 0 for 5 night extended his slump to 3 for his last 30. Despite this, he still has an OPS of .956. That’s how awesome Nick Swisher is. Want to see another reason Nick Swisher is awesome:

click for full size

While Nick Swisher has actually hit .143/.208/.333 over the last seven days, has him at .333/.429/.750. Apparently, they took his awesomeness factor into consideration.

CC gets a chance to follow up his brilliant performance from last Friday. He’ll oppose reliever-turned-starter Brian Tallet. After last night’s win, this one I’m looking forward to.

Gardner takes home 2009 Dawson Award

Via PeteAbe, new center fielder Brett Gardner was named this year’s winner of the James P. Dawson Award, given annually to the most outstanding rookie in Yankees’ Spring Training camp. He’ll be honored before tomorrow’s game against the Phillies, the Yanks’ final game in Florida of the preseason. Let’s hope things go better for Gardner than they have for the previous winners, which includes Shelley Duncan, Kei Igawa, Eric Duncan and Bubba Crosby.

Update by Ben: While we’re on the subject of Spring Training awards, MLB announced today that the Yankees along with the Astros have captured the Bobby Murcer Award. The Yanks earned these honors by donating the most money in the A.L. to the Baseball Assistance team, an organization devoted to ensuring the financial security of former baseball players and coaches. B.A.T. raised $1.5 million this spring, an increase of nearly seven percent over last year. For more on B.A.T., check out its website.

Graphing the Yanks’ outfield defense

Outfield Defense

That graph comes courtesy of Dan Turkenkopf at Beyond the Box Score. Dan took the vector data from Dave Pinto’s database and plotted it to show where each of the Yanks’ starting outfielders excels defensively. Basically what you’re seeing is how good each player is on balls hit to a specific “zone,” with green being good and red being bad. The center fielder is shown above the corner guys just so you can see the overlap, it doesn’t mean that balls hit to corners will go undefended or anything like that. And also don’t worry about the background, the New Stadium will have the same dimensions as the old joint.

The very first thing I noticed was how bad Nady is on balls hit right at him, basically about five outs worse than expected. He’s even weak to his immediate right and left, which tells me that he’s just not very instinctive out there, and is at his best defensively when it’s obvious off the bat that he’ll need some hustle to get to the ball. You know what would be cool? If Mr. Turkenkopf put one of these together with Swisher in right instead of the X-man. (nudge nudge)

Damon is the opposite of Nady, eating up everything hit close to him, which is what you’d expect from a veteran Major League outfielder. He’s also stronger going to his right, which probably has something to do with him not having to reach across his body with his glove to field balls on that side. Gardner’s very strong out there, making plays on everything hit even remotely close to him. He shows the same pattern of struggling to get to balls that would require him to reach across his body with his glove, so my theory might hold a little water. Of course the small sample size police are in full force with Gardy.

Judging from the graph, it looks like the biggest problem areas are the gaps (expected), specifically the left-center field gap. And, you know, the whole Nady in right field thing. Joe and I have mentioned on the podcast several times that the hardest ball to field is the one hit right at you, but it looks like Nady is the only one in the Yanks outfield with this issue.

This is some really interesting stuff. What do you guys think?

Everybody loves Brett

In Disney World today, the Yankees’ three long relief candidates — Brett Tomko, Al Aceves and Dan Giese — are each scheduled to make their cases for that final spot in the bullpen. Meanwhile, the center field job is all but wrapped up, and Brett Gardner is emerging as the one to start the season manning center field.

For those of us watching the Yankee news over the last few days, this revelation can hardly come as a surprise. After all, the Yankees, as Ken Rosenthal reported, would be willing to trade Melky Cabrera at this point. That kind of news doesn’t leak out five days before you name the trade candidate as your starter.

At the same time, though, Kat O’Brien says that both players will earn jobs with the Big League club. For the Yankees, that’s simply a personnel matter. Melky Cabrera is out of options, and while the Yanks may not have a trade lined up, the Yanks would have to put Melky through waivers to send him down to AAA. We might not be too high on Melky’s future potential, but a 24-year-old with 415 MLB games under his belt wouldn’t clear waivers.

Rob Neyer agrees but only to a point. In a blog post yesterday, Neyer analyzed the Yanks’ center field situation and urged the team to send off Melky if they can. In fact, he doesn’t think both players should earn a spot on the team. While Neyer has a point about that, as I said, the Yanks don’t want to lose Melky and will probably try to trade him this spring. Writes Neyer:

[If] you’re going to get rid of one of them, Cabrera’s probably the guy. At least Gardner’s demonstrated that he can do something (run and field) and might do something else (reach base). At this point, it’s not clear that Cabrera can do anything. And I say that having written — just two or three years ago — that by now Melky would be one of the 10 best center fielders in the majors (not one of my more brilliant predictions).

Cabrera’s upside might still be higher than Gardner’s … but the Yankees can’t worry about upside. They’re trying to win right now, and Gardner gives them a slightly better chance of doing that…

The Yankees aren’t going to trade Nick Swisher because they need him. If Joe Girardi can’t somehow get Swisher nearly 500 plate appearances this season, then he’s not a good enough manager for this club. I’m at the front of the line criticizing the supposed decision to make Nady the everyday right fielder, but I’m willing to cut Girardi just a little slack for the moment. There just isn’t any justification for Nady getting more playing time than Swisher in the long run.

In a way, this news is good for Brett, bad for Melky, but in another way, it doesn’t really matter. Gardner will earn the center field at bats until his hitting becomes a liability. If he isn’t doing the job out of the gate, the Yanks can put Melky back into that lineup spot if they haven’t traded him. If neither emerge as viable candidates for the job, Nick Swisher may be pressed into service or Brian Cashman will look elsewhere. For now, though, April 6 will mark the start of the Brett Gardner Era in the Bronx.