Plenty of low-risk options available for DH

The free agent market brims with left-handed hitters who could play the role of part-time DH for the Yankees. The list comprises many household names, and each could provide the Yankees with quality at-bats in a part-time role. Each is also flawed, which is pretty standard for any remaining free agent (Prince Fielder excepting). Yet that could work in the Yankees’ favor. It means the players are likely open to a part-time role, which fits the Yankees’ needs well enough. It also means that they’ll likely fit into the $1 to $2 million budget the Yankees have reportedly set for the DH spot.

Even better: Most, if not all, of these candidates could sign minor league deals. That means all the upside for virtually no risk. Here they are, in the reverse order of preference.

Nick Johnson: Many, if not most, Yankees fans will retch upon seeing this. The last go-round with Johnson ended horribly. He came to the plate just 98 times and hit for extra bases just six times. He did walk a lot, as can be expected, but that’s about all he did. Last year Johnson rehabbed in the Indians system, though he didn’t even crack a .320 OBP at AAA. He also experienced wrist issues, again, earlier in the season. If the Yankees do want to give Johnson another look, it simply has to be in addition to someone else.

Dan Johnson: We all remember the other Johnson from his bottom of the ninth heroics in Game 162 last season. Johnson apparently has a penchant for this type of hit. They do call him The Great Pumpkin, after all, because he comes around once a year and hits a big homer, usually to the Red Sox peril. Problem is, he hasn’t really hit in the majors since 2007. He does clobber AAA, having produced a .445 wOBA in 2010 and a .374 wOBA in 2011. But that apparently doesn’t help his major league performance much. Again, he’s a fine option if there’s someone else ahead of him.

Hideki Matsui: We know that the Yankees have been in contact with Matsui, but they’ve likely been in contact with many other similar players as well. As Mike noted in that brief post, Matsui’s 2011 stunk pretty badly. He was stuck in Oakland, and his slow start did not help his case. At age 38, he could be all but finished in the bigs. But on a minor league deal he could be an interesting option. After all, he did have a decent 2010 season, particularly in the second half. Return him to the familiar confines of Yankee Stadium and limit his at-bats to right-handed pitchers, and he might have one more year left in him.

J.D. Drew: There is no doubt that Drew, now age 36, is in stark decline. After putting up two phenomenal years for the Red Sox in 2008 and 2009 he’s seen his numbers drop in the last two years, and last year particularly. Drew also spent considerable time on the DL last year. A platoon DH role could help mitigate some of that injury risk, but the declining numbers, particularly in terms of power, are a bit disconcerting. He gets bumped to the mid-tier because of his name value, his batting eye, and his ability to play the outfield if necessary. The Yanks would really have to believe that they can get a quality 400 PA out of him if they were to even sign him to a minor league deal.

Casey Kotchman: Last season the Rays signed Kotchman to a minor league deal, and that worked out exceedingly well for them. In 563 PA he produced a 125 wRC+, mainly on the strength of his .378 OBP. At the same time, much of that value came from his .306 batting average, which was almost 40 points higher than his career average. As expected of a left-handed hitter, he did handle righties quite a deal better than lefties, producing a 136 wRC+ against them. But unless Kotchman turned something around for real in 2011, it’s tough to get past his career 102 wRC+ against righties.

Raul Ibanez: There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Ibanez, whose 2012 will be his age-40 season. His numbers took a big dip in 2011, particularly his walk rate. He managed to walk in just 5.7 percent of his PA, his lowest rate since 1998 (when he came to the plate just 103 times). The good news is that he’s one year removed from a pretty decent season, and even in his poor season he hit righties well enough. In 2010 he was even better, with a 116 wRC+ against righties. He’s a risk, for sure, but if the Yankees can keep Ibanez fresh he could whale quite a few homers at Yankee Stadium.

Russell Branyan: This is my official endorsement for Branyan, who is the ideal candidate for a platoon DH role. His career 120 wRC+ against righties looks attractive enough, but it’s his .259 career ISO against righties that looks the most attractive. He’ll strike out his share, but he’ll also launch quite a few bombs — we’ve already seen two mammoth homers of his at Yankee Stadium. While last year was a down year, in 2010 Branyan produced a 137 wRC+ against righties, including 19 homers and 17 doubles in 322 PA. A return to that level, minus all PA against left-handed pitching, makes for an ideal fit. He and Andruw Jones would make a powerful and cost-effective DH platoon.

Again, every player on this list is flawed, some greatly so. Clearly they’d be better off with a more sure things, such as Carlos Pena. But if they really do have a budget of $1 to $2 million for a DH, one or more of these guys might be the way to go. They all have the potential to produce decent to very good numbers against right-handed pitching, which is just what the Yankees seek. That they’d all come on minor league deals makes them even more attractive, since that eliminates almost all of the risk. If the Yankees do not find a true righty-mashing DH, they’d do well enough with a Branyan or an Ibanez.

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Yanks have been in contact with Hideki Matsui

With their DH job now up for the grab, the Yankees have been in contact with Hideki Matsui according to Jon Heyman. Since they reportedly only have about $2M to spend on a bat, it figures that they’d go for players they know to try to maximize value.

Matsui, now 37, had the worst season of his MLB career in 2011, posting a .306 wOBA and 93 wRC+ with a dozen homers for the Athletics. It wasn’t just the ballpark either, his .313 road wOBA was below average as well. Aside from a ridiculously hot 24 game stretch after the All-Star break (.432/.481/.663), Godzilla was pretty awful last year. Given Matsui’s well-documented knee problems, I’d rather have Johnny Damon assuming similar contracts, but that’s just me.

Remember Hideki’s arrival as Darvish slips away

All of the recent brouhaha over Yu Darvish, I got to thinking about Hideki Matsui. Unlike many high-profile Japanese players who made the jump to the states, Matsui hit the Majors as an unrestricted free agent. There was no blind bidding process and subsequent negotiation. Hideki was free to pick whatever team he wanted. It almost made sense.

For Darvish, the decision to push his team to post him was a calculated risk. As ESPN.com’s Patrick Newman and Eno Sarris showed (in an Insider-only piece) on Tuesday, Darvish probably could have made more had he waited a few more years. If his deal with the Rangers ends up being at an annual level of around $12 million, there’s a good chance he would earn more in the long term by returning to Japan this year and entering the States via bidding process. Teams wouldn’t have to pony over sunk dollars on a posting fee, and Darvish would stand to make all of the money from his contract.

Yet, the allure of guaranteed dollars is a tough one to resist. It’s why pitchers are willing to sign seemingly below-market deals earlier in their careers. The threat of injury lurks, and easy access to millions is too tempting to turn down. Darvish will sign a deal that locks him up for five or six years, but if he’s as good as advertised, he’ll cash in again in his early 30s. That said, he would be wise to sign a high-dollar, low-year deal with the Rangers and hit free agency at 29. Texas, though, would rather lock him up for longer.

Anyway, I digress. The erstwhile World Series MVP was my original focus. I realized a few days ago, as the Yanks continued through a silent off-season, that I missed Matsui. Now, I don’t believe the Yanks should bring him back, but I miss his presence in left field and his bat in the lineup. Bring back the glory days of Matsui, the player who hit .292/.370/.482 on the Yanks, and I’ll be happy.

So how anyway did the Yanks land Hideki? It was the more traditional path. By the end of 2001, Matsui’s name was bandied about as a future Major Leaguer. He was the highest paid Japanese player at the time, and the next stop for him would be the States. The first time the Yanks were tied to him arrived in August of 2002 when Jack Curry reported that Jean Afterman was scouting Matsui. Over the next few months, rumors of the Yanks’ interest hit the news. Would the Bombers land both Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui prior to 2003?

Hideki was a new — and seemingly rare — breed of Japanese players. He used a quick bat to pull the ball and was a power hitter more in the American baseball mode. As the offseason wore on, both the Yankees and the Mets emerged as potential suitors for Matsui’s services. As the Yankees tried to determine if they wanted Bartolo Colon or Roger Clemens for 2003, they stepped up their pursuit of Matsui as well, and by mid-December, they seemed poised to land him for three years and $20-21 million. It was an easy negotiation and an easy deal. Godzilla came to New York.

Since Matsui’s arrival, no Japanese player has made quite the same impact on Major League Baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka and, to a greater extent, Kei Igawa failed to deliver as advertised, and no power hitters or All Star position players in the Ichiro or Matsui mold have arrived on U.S. soil. Now, it’s Darvish’s turn, and in Texas, where the defending AL Champs are in bad need of pitching, he’ll get a chance to star. The whole world will be watching.

Food For Thought: World Series WPA Leaders

Beyond The Box Score ran a great post today looking at the career leaders in Win Probability Added (WPA) in World Series play. The graphic up top (which you can click for a larger view) is the pitcher leaderboard, and you can click through the link to see the position players. At 2.40 WPA, Mariano Rivera has helped improved his team’s chances of winning in the Fall Classic more than any other player in the modern era (pitcher or hitter), dating back to Red Ruffing in the 30’s and 40’s. That 2.40 WPA came in only 36.1 career World Series innings too. For some perspective, Rivera had a 2.24 WPA in 60 IP last season. That’s how big he’s been in the postseason.

Mike Stanton (the lefty reliever, not the Marlins’ masher) is the only other recent pitcher to crack the top 12 leaderboard (1.59 WPA), Yankees or otherwise. He just barely made it too. Hideki Matsui (1.18 WPA) is the only recent player in the position players top 12, tied with Tim McCarver of all people. Godzilla only has 41 career plate appearances in the World Series, so he sure did a good job of making his contributions count. That list features the greatest Yankees of all-time basically, guys like Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson … all those guys make an appearance. Check out the post for more info, it’s pretty neat stuff.

Mailbag: Former Yankee Edition

Here’s a special Thursday edition of the RAB Mailbag, with three questions about former Yankees that may or may not be useful to the 2011 team. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in any questions.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

Sam asks: Would you have any interest in trading for the Giambino to take over for Posada as a DH?

The Rockies just placed Jason Giambi on the disabled list with a quad strain, so he won’t be traded before the deadline. This question was sent in before then, obviously. Giambi is a prime candidate for an August waiver trade though, assuming the quad isn’t that serious and he can get back on the field within two weeks or so.

Unlike the subject of the next question, Giambi has hit all year and really hasn’t stopped hitting for any length of time in recent years. He’s got a .253/.378/.486 batting line in just about two seasons with the Rockies, and this year he’s rocking a .418 wOBA in 112 plate appearances. Giambi has been a part-time player though, mostly pinch-hitting and starting at first once or twice a week. Because he’s outperforming Jorge Posada both this year and last year (especially against RHP), he’d be a fine upgrade, though I doubt he maintains that level of performance playing every day. He might fall off to what, maybe a .360 wOBA? .375? .340? Either way, it’s an upgrade, but one they would have to wait to acquire if they wanted to at all.

Chris asks: What would it take to get Matsui? I’d rather him than a guy like Beltran. 1. Matsui is a proven clutch player unlike Beltran who was left holding the bag in 06-08 during the worst collapses ever. 2. Matsui knows and hits Red Sox pitching unlike Beltran and 3. He costs less (in terms of money and probably prospects).

This was sent in before the Carlos Beltran trade, and I’m not going to spend any time disproving the three points made. Beltran’s a better player than Hideki Matsui and always has been (as for the clutch stuff, look their numbers with RISP, Beltran destroys Matsui), and there’s very little to argue otherwise. But Beltran’s not an option now and probably never really was, so let’s move on.

Anyway, signs point to Matsui being pretty much done. He had a great game against the Yankees on Sunday (5-for-5 with two doubles) and has been on a tear over the last week or so (.500/.528/.882 in eighth games), but that doesn’t make the rest of the season moot. Before this current hot streak, Godzilla was hitting just .212/.294/.328 overall with sub-.300 wOBA’s both at home and on the road. It wasn’t just an Oakland Coliseum thing. Posada’s days as a productive player are over, but he’s still outhitting Matsui against right-handed pitchers, .339 wOBA vs. .290. Andruw Jones is also outhitting Matsui against lefties, .374 wOBA vs. .367, so I’m not sure where the upgrade is.

If the Athletics were to trade Matsui, the return would have to be minimal. He’s got no defensive value and is in clear decline, one hot week doesn’t change that.

(AP)

Matt asks: Any chance the Yankees will make a play for Melky Cabrera? He’s having a good season in KC and he’s a switch hitter.

Melky’s having a great year, he’s hitting .297/.333/.453 (.347 wOBA) and has been worth 3.2 fWAR, more than the first five-plus years of his career combined (2.6). Where does he play though? Is the plan for him to replace Andruw? Jones is outhitting Melky against left-handed pitchers (.374 wOBA vs. .332), though he’s a definite upgrade over Chris Dickerson. What would happen when Alex Rodriguez comes back though? Dickerson’s the one going down for him. I’m also unconvinced that Melky could play like he has in a part-time role, it’s not an accident that he’s having his best season when he knows he’ll be playing everyday (or when he’s in his age 26 season, but that’s besides the point).

The Royals appear uninterested in dealing Cabrera because they will be able to retain him as an arbitration-eligible player next year, and it would take quite a bit to acquire him now. I don’t think the upgrade is big enough to warrant a move, not when he’d only be a bench player.

* * *

I don’t really see any of these three guys as a fit for the Yankees. They have a big bat waiting in Triple-A if they want to replace their designated hitter, and the cost associated with acquiring Melky to replace Jones makes it a lateral move at best. Reunions are always fun, but there’s no match here. Nostalgia won’t win them anything this year, not unless they bring back early-2000’s Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina.

Mailbag: Matsui, Noesi, Montero, Banuelos

Just a heads up, we’re getting lots and lots of Joba Chamberlain-related questions into the inbox. So much so that I might do a Joba-specific mailbag on Monday, once the dust settles and we’re all thinking clearly. Plus I just didn’t have enough time to do one for today. So anyway, here is this week’s mailbag. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send in your questions, as always.

(Photo Credit: Flickr user rburtzel via Creative Commons license)

Daniel asks: Do you think Matsui has anything left as bench bat and part-time DH? By the trade deadline, the A’s should be even further back and might want to shed the remaining ~ $2M or so on his deal. With his current level of production, can’t imagine it’d take much more than a C level prospect no?

You have to remove the name when talking about guys like this, because Hideki Matsui‘s status as a True Yankee™ will certainly create biases and cloud judgment. Do the Yankees have a need for a left-handed hitting, part-time designated hitter/bench bat? Not, not really. They already have one in Jorge Posada. Here, look…

Posada in 2011: .203/.311/.366, .303 wOBA, 87 wRC+
Nameless Player: .215/.265/.337, .264 wOBA, 65 wRC+

Posada vs. RHP in 2011: .234/.331/.435, .342 wOBA, 114 wRC+
Nameless Player vs. RHP: .210/.267/.297, .249 wOBA, 55 wRC+

Posada with RISP in 2011: .171/.356/.257, .290 wOBA, 78 wRC+
Nameless Player with RISP: .209/.280/.302, .243 wOBA, 51 wRC+

The triple-slash and wOBA numbers are FYI more than anything, wRC+ is the most important number there because it’s park adjusted. There’s an obvious difference between Yankee Stadium and Whatever They’re Calling It These Days Coliseum. I don’t put much stock in performance with runners with scoring position, so that’s there for those that do more than anything.

In addition to just the overall offense, at least Posada is a switch-hitter, and there’s a tiny bit of value in that even though he’s been brutal (-16 wRC+ … -16!) against lefties this year. He can also play catcher in an emergency, which is more defensive value that Nameless Player provides. In reality, neither of these players should be on the Yankees’ roster, but one is and apparently it’s going to take a minor miracle to get him off it. Adding a second player like that doesn’t make sense to me, regardless of how little he makes or how easy it would be to acquire or what he did in the past.

Dan asks: I thought Hector Noesi was supposed to be a fastball-changeup guy? (“He backs [the fastball] up with quality changeup, his second best offering, and he also throws both a slider and a curveball.” From Mike’s prospect profile) So far in the majors he’s throwing a ton of sliders, and a decent amount of curveballs. Only 6 changeups in 71 pitches Tuesday night, and about 7% coming into the night. What’s the dealio?

Hey, I’m not the only one that said that. From Baseball America’s write-up of the Yankees’ top ten prospects before the season (subs. req’d)…

He pounds the zone with an 89-93 mph fastball, reaching as high as 96. His maintains his velocity deep into games, and his fastball has some run and tail. Noesi’s No. 2 pitch is a changeup with similar action, though he doesn’t quite command it like his fastball. His curveball and slider remain below-average offerings, but he flashes the ability to spin the ball.

Remember, we’re talking about a ridiculously small sample size. Noesi’s faced 58 batters and thrown 204 pitches in the big leagues, which is nothing. Here’s the breakdown of those 204 pitches: 107 fastballs, 61 sliders, 14 curves, and 14 changeups. That adds up to 196, and the missing eight pitches were part of intentional walks. He’s faced 29 righties and 29 righties, so it’s not a platoon thing (changeups are used primarily against batters of the opposite hand).

I honestly don’t know what the deal is, but I suspect it’s more of a fluke than anything given the number of batters faced and overall pitches we’re talking about. Pitchers typical go with their two best offerings in relief, maybe he felt the slider was a better swing-and-miss pitch at the time? Maybe Russell Martin (who’s caught all 204 of those pitches) just hasn’t called it enough and Noesi’s too rookie-ish to shake him off?

Ross asks: When will we get to see Montero in the Bronx? This Cervelli experiment has run its course. If we’re going to accept mediocre defense, we can at least have a bat in the lineup for when the bottom half of the order gets on base. Would there be any takers on the trade market for Cervelli?

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Keith Allison via Creative Commons license)

I think we’ve reached the point where Jesus Montero could be called up literally any day now. If it happened today, I would not be surprised. It’s bad enough that Frankie Cervelli can’t throw anyone out (he’s gunned down 11 of the last 84 that have tried to steal off him, 13.1%), but now he’s gotten into the habit of throwing the ball into center field and giving runners an extra base. It’s not just some annoying problem anymore, it’s in the scouting report and teams are exploiting it.

Despite his general awfulness, I’m certain that Cervelli has some value on the trade market. He’s cheap and young, and the position itself is pretty much a wasteland these days. The Giants are looking for catching help following Buster Posey’s injury, the Pirates are as well with Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder on the shelf. I’m not saying there’s a trade match between the Yankees and either of those clubs, but there are teams out there looking for catching.

J.R. asks: I know that Banuelos has had control problems in the minors, but I’m wondering how he has done against lefties. With both an innings cap coming up (not sure what you would guess it is) and the need for a LOOGY, would it make sense to put him in the pen for August and September (maybe even October)? It wouldn’t really hurt his development and would give him major league experience.

I’m glad someone asked this because Banuelos is not exactly an ideal LOOGY candidate. Here’s the numbers, first…

vs. LHB in 2011: 14.1 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 7 BB, 15 K, 1.22 GB/FB
vs. RHB in 2011: 36.1 IP, 37 H, 17 R, 15 ER, 22 BB, 30 K, 1.27 GB/FB

vs. LHB in 2009-2010: 34.1 IP, 27 H, 12 BB, 30 K, 4.15 FIP, 5.04 xFIP
vs. RHB in 2009-2010: 139.33, 116 H, 40 BB, 151 K, 2.54 FIP, 3.99 xFIP

The 2009-2010 numbers are park adjusted, courtesy of the minor league splits database at Driveline Mechanics. The numbers from this year come right from his milb.com player page. First of all, this does a great job of showing you just how relatively inexperienced Banuelos is. He’s faced a total of 485 batters in the last 32 months. For some perspective, CC Sabathia has faced 424 batters this year alone.

Secondly, Banuelos has a reverse split. Not necessarily this year, but from 2009-2010 and as a whole from 2009 through today. Why? Because he’s a fastball-changeup pitcher (with a great changeup), and changeups (as I said earlier) are used primarily against batters of the opposite hand. Banuelos’ best pitch doesn’t help him at all against lefties; he’s got to use his fastball and curveball (easily his third best pitch) to get those guys out.

Just because a pitcher throws left-handed doesn’t mean he’s a LOOGY candidate. Banuelos projects as a starter long-term because he can neutralize right-handed batters with that changeup, but he’s still got to work on improving the rest of his repertoire and his command, especially this year. The Yankees have other LOOGY options in house, namely Randy Flores, and there are always guys like Jerry Blevins and David Purcey on waivers. Given the complete debacle of Joba Chamberlain’s development, I’d rather not see the team turn another high-end pitching prospect into a reliever for the big league club then try to turn him back into a starter long-term. I honestly have very little faith in it being done in a way that won’t hurt Banuelos’ long-term development/future.

An old friend lands in Oakland

While we waited out our server problems and the Cliff Lee news, the A’s picked up an old Yankee friend of ours. Hideki Matsui and Oakland came to terms on a one-year deal believed to be worth just south of $5 million. He’ll be introduced at the Coliseum later today.

Matsui left New York after winning the 2009 World Series MVP, and he turned in a solid 1.9-win season for the Angels last year. He hit .274/.361/.459 with 21 home runs in 554 plate appearances and even managed to survive 123 innings in left field. While the signing could be a good one for the A’s, Matsui is moving to a home stadium where left-handed batters hit just .241/.325/.349 with just 32 home runs in 2549 plate appearances last year. Playing out his age 37 season in a pitcher’s park, Matsui could very well see his production fall off the table in 2011. Buyer beware.