2013 Midseason Review: Grade D’s

We’ve spent some time dissecting the team’s performance through the first half of the year. Mike wrote about the A’s, the B’s, and the C’s. Notice he left me with the scrubs – the D’s!* Well, at least the D’s aren’t the F’s. Am I right?

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

David Phelps
I know some of you might protest our decision to give Phelps a “D” grade. Whether you’re lobbying to give him a “C” doesn’t make much of a difference though — it doesn’t change reality. He’s not been great overall despite some solid starts. It’s also funny, in a peculiar kind of way, how quickly the shine wears off of a guy.

Anyway, Phelps has pitched to a 5.01 ERA (3.85 FIP) and has been worth 1.1 fWAR thus far. He’s struck guys out at a decent rate (8.17 K/9) and hasn’t given up too many long balls (0.87 HR/9). Phelps has allowed a few too many free passes though (3.48 BB/9) and gives up more hits throughout his starts than one would ideally prefer.

Consistency has been the issue here. Despite several quality starts, Phelps has seen his numbers balloon thanks to some really awful games (particularly of late). He allowed four earned runs in 6.1 innings against Minnesota, nine runs against Baltimore (in 2.1 innings!), and four runs to the Mets in a third of an inning. On one hand you can look at Phelps a bit less critically when you consider that he is and always was expected to be a back of the rotation type of arm. One other hand, results are results. Sorry, David.

Phil Hughes
Getting tired of reading about Phil Hughes yet? Well, we all know the story here – frustrating inconsistency topped off by too many home runs surrendered (1.58 HR/9, here’s the list of pitchers with the most HR surrendered — good to know the Yankees have two guys cracking the top 15). Through 102.1 innings, Hughes has pitched to a 4.57 ERA (4.48 FIP), and has been valued at 0.9 fWAR. In terms of peripherals, he’s striking out 7.74 batters per nine and has limited the walks (2.29 BB/9).

Despite very legitimate concerns over next year’s rotation, it seems pretty clear the Yankees are willing to part ways with the once-heralded Hughes. If they don’t trade him for a bat by the deadline, they’ll give him the qualifying offer after the season, which he probably won’t accept. The funny thing is, as maddening as Hughes has been, he’s still capable of throwing the occasional gem and should he string together some solid starts through the remainder of the season, you know some team will decide he’s worth committing a lot of dollars and several years too. It’s a shame it hasn’t really worked out in New York but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Chris Stewart
This is a tough break for Chris. He’s basically producing at a reasonable level, I argue … for a backup catcher. The problem is he isn’t a backup catcher. After the Yankees elected to forego Russell Martin for Francisco Cervelli, the most obvious predicament in the world occurred. Cervelli was injured and the team had to figure out where to go from there. That’s when Chris Stewart stepped in as the every day guy.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

So what happens to a guy like Chris Stewart when he’s forced to play day in and day out? Well over 197 plate appearances he’ll hit .241/.316/.306 (.282 wOBA, 77 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR). He’ll take a decent number of walks (9.1 BB%) and will put the ball in play frequently (14.2 K%). He’ll also hit for no power whatsoever (three home runs, 0.65 ISO). Defensively, I think he’s generally regarded favorably. Again, I would argue that none of these stats are necessarily bad, they’re just not good.

To put it in perspective, the Yankees catchers collectively rank twentieth in all of baseball in terms of fWAR (1.1), twenty-fourth in wRC+ (68), and twenty-fifth in wOBA (.275). Obviously, not all of this production is Stewart’s doing, though he’s logged far and away the most innings behind the plate. Basically, the production the Yankees have received from their catchers ranks in the bottom third of all of baseball in just about every meaningful category.

Vernon Wells
Remember when Wells hit .300 with six home runs through April? Remember when folks were wondering whether Cashman was actually a genius for taking on one of the worst contracts in all of baseball? Yep, that didn’t last long. In completely predictable fashion, Wells turned back into the pumpkin he’s been for years — that is to say a grossly overpriced fourth outfielder.

Overall, Big Vern has batted .238/.276/.371 (.282 wOBA, 73 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). On the plus side, he’s been generally pretty good in the outfield defensively despite a few questionable plays of late. On the down side, he’s managed to hit only four home runs since April. He’s also hit in the heart of order basically all season, even during his putrid May slump.

Given the amount of exposure he’s seen thus far, it’s not surprising he’s shown noticeable splits either (batting .207 against righties). Back in late May, I wrote about Vernon and what we could expect moving forward. Long story short, the conclusion was that he most certainly wasn’t the player we saw in April, and hopefully also not the guy we saw in May. I think this still holds true. Unfortunately, what we can expect is a “D grade” player who was brought to the team out of necessity. Hopefully, he’ll be used more sparingly going forward when and if Curtis returns.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Travis Hafner
First, let me start by saying that I for one am shocked that Hafner has made it to this point. I was expecting Pronk to pull a Kevin Youkilis and suffer some season-ending injury after the first month or so. Surprisingly, he has generally kept himself in the lineup despite some nagging injuries here and there (most recently a foot contusion that happened during batting practice). Unfortunately (and much like Wells), Hafner has been lousy since May and he too, has shown noticeable splits as to be expected.

Overall, Pronk’s batting .218/.314/.407 (.317 wOBA, 97 wRC+) and has been worth exactly 0.0 fWAR through 277 plate appearances. He has knocked 12 balls out of the park though, which is second on the team to only Robinson Cano (though Lyle Overbay and Wells are right behind him with 11). Hafner continues to take his fair share of walks (11.2 BB%) while striking out at a fair pace (26.0 K%).

Pronk was brought on board for one thing: his job is to mash. The thinking was simple. As long as he’s healthy (or at least relatively healthy), he’ll hit the ball. This hasn’t really been the case though. He’s struggled a lot. He’ll need to turn it around for the rest of the season as the Yankees need some much needed depth in the batting the order.

*Mike did not stick me with the D’s. It just worked out that way because of timing. Actually, I claimed the F’s too.


Update: Chris Stewart leaves game with dehydration

9:47pm: Stewart left the game with dehydration, the team announced. I’m guessing he’ll be fine for tomorrow.

8:59pm: Chris Stewart left tonight’s game between the fourth and fifth innings for an unknown reason. He hit a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth and there didn’t appear to be anything wrong, but he has been battling that nagging groin issue in recent weeks. Stay tuned for any updates.

2013 Season Preview: The Bench

Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Previewing the bench will not be easy because we still — four days before Opening Day — have basically no idea who will fill these four spots. Sure, either Frankie Cervelli or Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher, but we don’t know which one yet. I’m guessing Joe Girardi has some kind of convoluted personal catcher situation planned; I feel like having two backup catchers on the roster is his managerial dream.

As for the backup outfield and infield spots … who knows right now? There are a lot of candidates for a few spots and the Yankees continue to look outside the organization for help. Given their massive 40-man roster logjam, a multi-player trade shouldn’t be ruled out at this point either.

It’ll be either Stewart or Cervelli and the Yankees have indicated a pretty even playing time split (maybe more like 60/40), I think it’ll only be a matter of time before Frankie grabs the job outright. His throwing has been greatly improved and he’s a far better hitter (but still nothing special), the two things that stand out most about a catcher. If they start the year with a 55/45 or 60/40 split, I think sometime in mid-May it’ll be slanted about 75/25 in favor of Cervelli. The Yankees love Stewart but they love winning more, and playing a guy with a legit chance to post a .200s across the board slash line will only last so long given how much offense they lost elsewhere.

Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Backup Infielder
Derek Jeter‘s nagging ankle issues cleared up the backup infield situation quite a bit. Eduardo Nunez will open the season as the starter and that paves the way for Jayson Nix to make the team as his backup. There really isn’t much competition for this spot — veteran Gil Velazquez is the only other guy in camp who could play a passable shortstop at the big league level. Again, we shouldn’t rule out a trade, but Nix seems like a lock for a bench spot right now.

The real question is whether the Yankees want to carry two backup infielders like they have the last two years, Nix and a corner infield guy like Eric Chavez. The only real candidates for that Chavez role are Dan Johnson — who seems to have little chance of making the team at this point — and Ronnie Mustelier. The 28-year-old Cuban defector has had a good spring — mostly against Triple-A caliber pitching according to B-Ref’s OppQual stat — and has seen a bunch of time at third base lately, so he’s at least earning consideration from the team. I guess we shouldn’t rule about a two-headed first base platoon with Juan Rivera and Lyle Overbay, which would soak up that second infielder’s spot.

Backup Outfielder
Assuming Vernon Wells is penciled in as the everyday left fielder, the fourth outfielder’s spot is down to Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Melky Mesa, Thomas Neal, and I guess Mustelier. Depending on whether they take a second backup infielder, it’s possible two of these guys will make the team. Mustelier makes the most sense really, since he could backup both the corner infield and corner outfield spots.

Boesch and Francisco presumably have a leg up on Mesa and Neal given their big league experience, and again, both could make the team. The Yankees were planning to open the season with three left-handed outfielders and a right-handed backup, and Boesch would give them that third lefty. He also has minor league options remaining and could be stashed in Triple-A. I’m not sure if Francisco has an out clause in his contract before the end of Spring Training, so sending him to the minors might not be an option. The Yankees will want to retain as much depth as possible given their rash of injuries.


Knocking on the Door
In addition to the guys mentioned above — Velazquez, Johnson, Mesa, Neal, etc. — the Yankees will have a handful of other bench options waiting in Triple-A Scranton. That is what the level is there for, after all. Austin Romine is the clear third catcher but would probably need an injury to earn a shot in the big leagues. He’s missed a lot of time these last two years with back problems and needs to play everyday.

Corban Joseph gives the team depth at second and third bases, though they had more before releasing David Adams yesterday. Zoilo Almonte is another warm body for the outfield mix, but he has never played above Double-A and will need some Triple-A time before coming to the show. He’s pretty much at the bottom of the outfield depth chart at the moment. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t win a bench spot will open the year in Triple-A as a backup plan. That’s who’s knocking on the door.

* * *

My opinion changes by the day/hour, but if the season started today I believe the Yankees would go with a four-man bench of Stewvelli, Nix, Mustelier, and Boesch with Francisco & Co. heading to Triple-A for the time being. The club could play finagle Phil Hughes‘ expected DL stint into a fifth bench player — Francisco would be the guy for that one, I assume — for the first few games of the season, but I don’t see that happening.

That four-man bench pretty much stinks. There is no speed to pinch-run — that would have been Nunez’s job before he forced into playing short everyday — and basically no versatility outside of Nix. Carrying Mesa over Boesch would address the speed issue while Mustelier is the only one who could offer real versatility. Barring an unexpected trade(s) these next few days, the bench figures to be a work in progress pretty much all season.

2013 Season Preview: The Catchers

Starting today and continuing through the end of the Spring Training, we’re going to preview the Yankees position-by-position and on a couple of different levels.

Chris Stewart got ejected for arguing a bang-bang play at first. Seriously. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)
(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

The Yankees made a lot of moves (and non-moves) this winter, but I don’t think any was quite as curious as letting catcher Russell Martin depart via free agency. The club offered him a three-year contract worth $20M+ a year ago, but something changed and they didn’t even bother making an offer this time around. I don’t think we’re ever going to know what happened behind the scenes there. Martin now plies his trade with the Pirates after taking a two-year pact worth $17M.

Since New York never bothered to find a replacement starting catcher, they’re left with a hodgepodge of has-beens and never-wases behind the plate. The Yankees are very likely to receive their worst offensive output from the position since before Jorge Posada broke into the league in the late-90s. Brian Cashman & Co. have preached defense defense defense at the position since Martin left for Pittsburgh, which is fine. Punting a position offensively is no way to win the AL East, however.

The Starter
The actual starting catcher is still to be determined, but based on the way the team’s decision makers talk about things, it sure sounds like Chris Stewart is the favorite. The 31-year-old was a zero at the plate — .241/.292/.319 (65 wRC+) in 157 plate appearances — as Martin’s backup last summer, and there’s nothing in his track record to suggest more offensive is coming. Pretty much the only thing Stewart has going for him offensively is his ability to make contact (career 12.2 K%), so maybe he’ll fluke into a .350 BABIP or something.

The defensive side of the ball is where Stewart earns his money. The various catcher defense rankings (2010, 2011, 2012) consistently rate him as average or better, plus those newfangled pitch framing studies say he’s one of the game’s best at turning would-be called balls into strikes. Whether that defensive value is enough to overcome his offensive shortcomings remains to be seen, but the Yankees have painted themselves into a corner and must hope that’s the case.


The Backup
With Stewart the likely starter, Frankie Cervelli is the odds on favorite to serve as his backup. Those two roles could easily be switched, but you know that already. Both guys are out of minor league options and Cashman has all but confirmed that ensures they will open the season in the big leagues.

Cervelli, 26, is another poor offensive player, but he is slightly better than Stewart — career .271/.339/.353 (88 wRC+) — and a bit more likely to surprisingly turn in a league-average performance. Despite coming up with a strong defensive reputation, Frankie’s defense was pretty awful from 2010-2011 and was part of the reason the team replaced him last year. The club had him work on some stuff in Triple-A last summer and the early returns are positive, especially with his throwing. That has been demonstrably better in camp.

Knocking on the Door
As they tend to do, the Yankees are faking a competition this year. The three “candidates” for the starting catching spot are Stewart, Cervelli, and 24-year-old Austin Romine, who has missed much of the last two years with back problems. He can hit a little and has a good defensive reputation, but he’s unrefined and in need of regular at-bats. Romine has the best long-term potential of the three catching options, but he’s very likely to open the year with Triple-A Scranton. Given all the lost time, playing everyday in the minors instead of playing half-time in the big leagues is the best thing for his development at this point. He’s miss a lot of at-bats since the close of 2010.


The Top Prospect
New York’s top prospect behind the plate also happens to be their top prospect overall, 20-year-old Gary Sanchez. He hit .290/.344/.485 (~125 wRC+) in 474 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa last summer, and his 18 homers led all minor league catchers. Sanchez doesn’t have the innate hitting ability of Jesus Montero, but he does have a bit more power — career minor league ISOs: .193 vs. .210 in favor of Sanchez — and a far better chance of remaining behind the plate long-term. Give the catching situation at the upper levels, that’s pretty good news. Sanchez is expected to return to Tampa to start 2013 and should receive a midseason promotion to Double-A Trenton, meaning the only way he will be a factor at the big league level this summer is as trade bait.

The Deep Sleeper
The good news is that the Yankees are blessed with quite a bit of catching depth, which is absolutely intentional. J.R. Murphy will start the year back with Double-A Trenton, sandwiched between Romine in Scranton and Sanchez in Tampa. Further down the later is 16-year-old Luis Torrens, who signed out of Venezuela for $1.3M last July 2nd. Despite converting from third base to catcher within the last year or so, the Yankees are expected to bring Torrens to the United States with one of their two Rookie Level Gulf Coast League affiliates this summer. His defense lags behind his offense at this point (duh), but he still has breakout potential because he has an advanced approach at the plate and can hit to all fields.

* * *

The 2013 outlook behind the plate at the big league level is pretty grim at the moment, and it will almost certainly be New York’s least productive position this summer. That isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the possibility of the catching tandem being several standard deviations below average is. Say what you want about Martin and his low batting averages, but he was close to a league average hitter with the Yankees (98 wRC+) while being above-average defensively and even on the bases. That’s an above-average player and the team will go into this season with a clear downgrade.