Checking in with former Yankees

Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees aren’t the only team trying to acquire players at the winter meetings. In fact, some other teams are even trying to acquire players that played for the Yanks at one time or another. Jon Lane at YESNetwork.com rounded up the latest on some former Bombers, including Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, and Kerry Wood. One former Yank he did not mention is Tom Gordon, who I’ve seen in the halls in the few times. Flash lives in the area and does some broadcasting work for MLB Network Radio, but Gordon Edes says the 43 year old is trying to find a team willing to take a chance on him. He hasn’t appeared in a game since early-May 2009, so I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were him. Still kinda cool to see him hanging around though.

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Was Nick Johnson really the wrong choice?

A post this morning on Baseball Time in Arlington got me thinking about the DH situation. There were four big DH free agents heading into the offseason — Nick Johnson, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jim Thome — and it looks like the Yankees made the wrong choice. Nick Johnson is out for the year and is providing the team no value. Meanwhile the other three remain healthy. Throughout the season I’ve seen fans complain about the team picking Johnson over Matsui, since it was such an obvious mistake. Yet when I looked at it, the result isn’t so obvious.

Johnson has been out since early May, having produced 0.1 WAR before hurting his wrist. That’s not a great return on $5.5 million. Matsui has been healthy enough to accumulate 411 PA, more than four times the number Johnson managed. Yet Matsui has produced an identical 0.1 WAR. In other words, while Matsui has stayed healthy he hasn’t done much to help his team. Hell, even Juan Miranda has produced 0.1 WAR this season.

The big winner among the foursome is obviously Vlad, who has produced 2.1 WAR despite a recent downturn. Yet Jim Thome, in 212 fewer plate appearances, has produced 1.8 WAR. If the Yanks were looking for a left-handed DH, he gets the hindsight award for the pick I’d endorse.

Former Yankees on Opening Day

On Sunday night we got to see the new Yankees in action. Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson batted in the starting lineup, while Chan Ho Park pitched two thirds of an inning out of the bullpen. But what about the guys they replaced? Here’s a rundown of how former Yankees fared in their new team debuts.

Hideki Matsui: 2 for 4

Photo credit: Jae C. Hong/AP

Matsui made an impresion in his Angels debut. With runners on first and second with two out during a tie-game in the fifth, Matsui singled to right field to give the Angels a lead. That chased Twins starter Scott Baker from the game. Then, with the Angels holding a one-run lead in the eighth, Matsui led off the inning with a 401 foot home run to center field. Kendry Morales followed with a shot down the left field line, sealing the Opening Day victory for the Angels.

Johnny Damon: 2 for 5

In his first at-bat as a Tiger Johnny Damon grounded out to second. No big deal. In his second at-bat he flied out to right. He was facing Zack Greinke, so again, it wouldn’t have mattered if Damon went 0 for 4. He didn’t, though. Leading off the sixth, he singled to right off Greinke, advanced on a Magglio Ordonez single, and then scored on a third straight single, this one by Miguel Cabrera. Then, with Roman Colon in for relief the Tigers broke open the game, and Damon contributed by doubling home two, including Austin Jackson.

Austin Jackson: 1 for 5

The Tigers found themselves down 4-2 heading into the seventh, but luckily for them Greinke had left the game by that point. Scott Sizemore walked and Ramon Santiago, pinch hitting for Adam Everett, singled, setting up Jackson with runners on the corners and none out. He lined a double to left for his first major league hit and RBI. He scored his first run one batter later on Damon’s double. He struck out looking twice in the game.

Phil Coke: 0.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R

Joel Zumaya pitched a scoreless sixth for the Tigers, and then came out to start the seventh. After allowing an infield single to Jason Kendall, Jim Leyland lifted him for Phil Coke, who came in to face the lefty troika of Chris Getz, David DeJesus, and Scott Podsednik. Getz singled, DeJesus popped out in foul ground to third, and Podsednik singled. Kendall, had he been a bit faster, might have scored, but Austin Jackson gunned him down at the plate.

Melky Cabrera: 0 for 5

The Braves rallied for six runs in the first inning on Opening Day, handing Carlos Zambrano yet another poor season debut. Melky got things started with a walk and eventually scored on a Chipper Jones single after going first-to-third on a Martin Prado single. Melky made the last out of that inning, and then made outs in his next four plate appearances. He was the only Braves starter, non-pitcher, to not record a hit, though his walk did set up the definitive inning for the Braves.

Evaluating the DHs

This off-season, the Yankees, Angels and Rangers all landed themselves shiny new injury-prone but solid-hitting guys to man the DH spot. The Yanks picked up Nick Johnson and his .426 OBP, the Angels Hideki Matsui and his World Series MVP award and the Rangers Vlad Guerrero and his ability to hit any pitch. The Yanks like their guy because of his on-base prowess. He’ll hit second and give Mark Teixeira and A-Rod numerous opportunities to drive home runs. But what of the other two? Yesterday, Jay Gargiulo at Fack Youk analyzed the DH signings and came out a bit bearish on Vlad and Matsui. I predict, not too boldly, that the best one of the three will be whichever avoids the disabled list the longest this year.

Link Roundup: Former Yankees in the news

Damon a fit in Atlanta?

Want to read 1000 words on how and why Johnny Damon would be a great fit for the Braves’ lineup? Well, then point your browsers to this David O’Brien blog post and prepare for a lengthy analysis. O’Brien says Atlanta has around $7-$8 million per season for two years to offer to Damon, and since Scott Boras has yet to field a better offer, Damon just might accept.

Now, if that salary figure sounds familiar, that’s because it is reportedly what the Yankees were willing to pay Damon for at least 2010 and maybe 2011. Would Damon then accept a lesser salary with another team than he would with his former employers? Joe tackled just that question in his closing arguments, and it’s worth noting that some people are more comfortable taking lesser money from a new team than they are with taking a paycut to stick with their old one. In the end, Damon will produce no matter the salary, but he could have a better early-season outlook in Atlanta than with the Yankees.

If the Braves opt against pursuing Damon, I’m not sure where or for how much Damon ends up. The Braves — and of course the Yankees — are simply the two best and last real remaining options for Johnny. Unless the Cardinals lose out on Matt Holliday, Damon will have few choices for a player coming off a great year. He really is this year’s Bobby Abreu.

Yanks, 14 others ask about Wang

Yesterday, we learned that Chien-Ming Wang would throw off a mound in mid-to-late Feburary. Today, we hear of interest in the rehabbing right-hander. Alan Nero, Wang’s agent, told Andrew Marchand that 15 teams have inquired into the status of the former 19-game winner and erstwhile ace. The Yankees, but not the Mets, were among those teams, and I still would not be surprised if Wang returned to the Bronx on an incentive-laden deal this year.

Matsui: I want to play the outfield

Hideki Matsui‘s insistence that he will play some games in the outfield in Anaheim continues to amuse me. Last week, the World Series MVP returned home to Japan and held a press conference at which he reiterated his belief that he will see some time in left field in 2010. “I’d like to prove I can play defense at spring training,” Matsui said during a news conference. “It will be difficult to play defense every day like in the past, but I’d like to reach the point where I’m able to play defense once every few games.”

Matsui, never a great defender, last played the field on June 15, 2008 — coincidentally the same day Chien-Ming Wang suffered his career-derailing Lisfranc injury. Since then, he has undergone at least one knee surgery and a few procedures to drain fluids from his knees, but if the Angels want to risk, so be it.

The story behind Fred McGriff and Tom Emanski

How, you may ask, does Fred McGriff end up on a link dump of news concerning former Yankees? Well, New York drafted McGriff in the ninth round of the 1981 amateur draft, and then the team traded him with Dave Collins and Mike Morgan on December 9, 1982 to the Blue Jays for Tom Dodd and Dale Murray. It wasn’t a good trade. Anyway, while McGriff made a name for himself with the bat, he is in one of the longest running baseball video commercials of all time, and today, Tyler Kepner gets the story behind the Emanski endorsement. His teams did win back to back to back A.A.U. National Championships, after all.

Randy Johnson will announce his retirement tomorrow

The Big Unit spent two productive years in pinstripes, and his Hall of Fame career appears to have ended: Bob Nightengale says RJ will announce his retirement tomorrow morning. He went 34-19 with a 4.37 ERA in pinstripes, though he really made his mark with the Diamondbacks. When Arizona signed Johnson to a four year, $53M contract in 1999, they were rewarded with four Cy Youngs and a 2.52 FIP with 1,417 strikeouts in 1030 innings. Wow.

By the Decade: More designated, less hitting

The offensive part of our Yankees By the Decade retrospective is coming to an end. After looking at the eight position players, we’ve landed on that catch-all designated hitter spot. Through the 2000s, the Yanks used 61 players at least one at the DH spot. From A-Rod to X-Nady, nearly everyone had a chance to DH. To whittle down the candidates, the chart shows those with at least 10 games as a designated hitter.

  AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBP SLG
Jason Giambi 1267 297 52 0 77 225 261 16 51 322 20 .234 .384 .458
Hideki Matsui 930 264 47 2 49 176 117 4 7 137 18 .284 .365 .497
Bernie Williams 430 111 22 0 11 62 57 3 1 78 22 .258 .343 .386
Ruben Sierra 409 97 13 1 20 81 27 3 0 77 11 .237 .280 .421
Johnny Damon 386 106 20 3 7 38 48 1 0 70 4 .275 .354 .396
David Justice 363 88 15 1 18 55 53 4 0 81 8 .242 .337 .438
Nick Johnson 294 77 11 0 12 46 50 4 10 77 13 .262 .387 .422
Gary Sheffield 191 61 8 0 13 42 30 1 2 26 4 .319 .415 .565
Jorge Posada 171 35 7 0 4 17 30 3 3 49 6 .205 .330 .316
Shane Spencer 165 37 5 4 5 19 19 0 1 27 2 .224 .302 .394
Chuck Knoblauch 164 47 8 1 2 21 27 0 10 31 3 .287 .412 .384
Jose Canseco 89 23 3 0 5 16 19 1 0 29 1 .258 .378 .461
Glenallen Hill 86 27 4 0 9 14 7 0 1 24 0 .314 .368 .674
Alex Rodriguez 82 24 2 0 9 24 17 0 2 21 3 .293 .417 .646
Derek Jeter 57 16 3 0 2 6 5 0 2 11 1 .281 .359 .439
Bubba Trammell 44 10 4 0 0 4 4 0 0 8 1 .227 .292 .318
Jim Leyritz 44 11 0 0 0 3 5 0 0 13 1 .250 .327 .250
Shelley Duncan 42 9 1 0 4 10 5 0 0 14 2 .214 .298 .524
Totals 5684 1448 253 12 263 920 824 45 94 1218 133 .255 .355 .442

What leaps out at me from this chart is how the Yanks’ designated hitters weren’t that great at hitting. Most of the regulars who DH’d hit well below their career averages, and the team never really had a true DH this decade either. Jason Giambi led the pack with 22.3 percent of all DH at-bats, and Hideki Matsui was second with 16.4 percent. Beyond those two, the Yanks used the DH spot to rest regulars and give aging stars a spot in the lineup.

Early in the decade, the Yanks went after sluggers for the DH spot. They used a Glenallen Hill/Jose Canseco tandem in the second half of 2000 to some stellar results. Hill, acquired on July 21, 2000, from the Cubs for Ben Ford and Oswaldo Mairena, turned in a 175 OPS+ in 143 at bats, and around half of those came as a DH. Canseco, acquired on August 7, 2000, in a waiver move designed to block him from going to the Red Sox, had a great power spurt too. The duo combined for 15 home runs in just 175 DH at-bats.

After that though, the Yankees used the DH as a spot of convenience. They tried Chuck Knoblauch there in 2001 and Nick Johnson to some success in 2002 and 2003. After Johnson was traded, the Yanks turned to Jason Giambi, and he surprisingly hit significantly worse as a DH than he did as a first baseman. As the first baseman of the decade, Giambi hit .280/.420/.567. As the DH, he hit .234/.384/.458. That’s a swing of .145 OPS points.

Back in my younger and more ignorant days as a rookie baseball blogger at Talking Baseball, I explored the differences amongst hitters when they DH and when they play the field. My study then confused causation with correlation, but I’ve always believed that many hitters are better when they play the field too. Giambi always said that he preferred to play first because it kept him more in the game. It kept him warmer and more ready to bat. The decade’s numbers seem to bear him out.

At the same time, though, Giambi DH’d when he wasn’t healthy enough to play the field, and he would, in all likelihood, hit better when healthy. He DH’d, when he could, in 2004, 2006 and 2007 when sapped by injuries, and he played first in the years he was healthy. Somewhere, somehow, it’s probably a mixture of both.

Beyond Giambi, the Yankees’ DH numbers really highlight their love for the concept of the rotation DH. Hideki Matsui took over with great success over the last two years, but the team has used A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada as the DH enough times to put them on this list. A-Rod, it seems, just loves to hit.

And so as Nick Johnson prepares to take over the DH mantle, I will anoint Jason Giambi as the Yanks’ DH of the decade. Had Hideki closed the playing time gap, he probably could have stolen this one from the Giambino; after all, he put up a better DH-only OPS this decade. But with over 300 at-bats, 28 home runs and approximately 43 runs created separating the two, Jason takes the crown but only barely.

By the Deki-ade: Left field strengths

Throughout the latter half of the 1990s, the Yankees won without a true left field solution. They used Tim Raines and Chad Curtis, Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer to try to fill the hole. It was not until 2003 with the arrival of Hideki Matsui that the Yankees had a true left field solution.

Now, as the Aughts came to a close, the Yankees’ left field position is again up for grabs. Johnny Damon is gone, and someone will step in to fill the hole. That is a concern for other posts. Today, as we continue our Yankees By the Decade retrospective, we come to toast the left fielders. The table below is those who made at least 10 appearances in left from 2000-2009.

  AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBP SLG
Hideki Matsui 2080 605 122 8 82 357 265 18 9 293 54 .291 .371 .475
Johnny Damon 974 293 61 6 35 146 109 1 2 142 12 .301 .372 .484
Melky Cabrera 569 157 32 3 11 64 58 2 3 65 14 .276 .345 .401
Chuck Knoblauch 424 104 14 2 7 27 45 1 8 52 9 .245 .329 .337
Rondell White 410 101 19 0 12 55 21 1 7 75 9 .246 .292 .380
Shane Spencer 387 106 22 1 14 67 26 1 3 76 8 .274 .320 .444
David Justice 201 67 13 0 17 42 25 1 1 25 1 .333 .406 .652
Xavier Nady 176 47 8 0 9 30 11 1 4 39 5 .267 .323 .466
Tony Womack 160 36 0 1 0 7 7 0 0 22 1 .225 .256 .237
Juan Rivera 160 38 12 0 2 15 9 1 0 21 10 .237 .275 .350
Ricky Ledee 148 41 11 1 6 27 22 2 1 28 6 .277 .370 .486
Luis Polonia 57 17 3 0 1 4 7 0 0 3 1 .298 .375 .404
Brett Gardner 56 8 1 0 0 6 4 0 1 17 0 .143 .210 .161
Ruben Sierra 51 17 8 1 0 9 2 1 0 9 1 .333 .358 .529
Karim Garcia 46 18 1 0 3 5 2 0 0 10 1 .391 .417 .609
Glenallen Hill 41 15 1 0 5 10 2 0 0 8 1 .366 .395 .756
Ryan Thompson 34 8 1 0 1 7 5 0 0 9 0 .235 .333 .353
Bubba Crosby 31 8 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 5 0 .258 .281 .355
Jerry Hairston 27 4 1 0 2 3 3 0 0 3 0 .148 .233 .407
Clay Bellinger 21 2 0 1 1 3 1 0 0 6 0 .095 .136 .333
Gerald Williams 16 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 7 0 .062 .118 .062
Totals 6303 1743 346 25 214 912 649 30 42 977 137 0.277 0.346 0.441

By virtue of playing time alone, Hideki Matsui is the left fielder of the decade. For a few years from 2003-2007, before his knees gave out, Matsui brought stability to the spot and man, did he hit. Over his 2080 left field at-bats, he hit .291/.371/.475 with 82 home runs and 357 RBIs.

Even with this gaudy counting stats, I’m a little hesitant to flat-out proclaim Matsui the best of the decade. The simple truth is that Matsui’s fielding in left was, for five years, atrocious. He never once put up a UZR better than -1.6, and his combined left field UZR for his time in the Bronx was -57.8. Without Matsui’s big bat, the Yanks would have been in deep trouble in left.

For the 2000s, though, the trend for the Yanks in left focused around a big bat with less emphasis on fielding. Johnny Damon, the successor to Matsui in left, put up nearly identical numbers to Matsui. He hit .301/.372/.484 and sported a better OPS out of left than Matsui did. For the first two seasons, Damon put up positive UZR totals in left, but in 2009, that figure dipped to -9.2. It was ugly for sure.

Before these two stalwarts of the late 2000s, the Yankees tried everyone. The Rondell White era was a misguided attempt to plug a hole left by the end of the Paul O’Neill era. Never able to stay healthy, White signed a multi-year deal with the Yanks, put up some atrocious numbers and was traded for Bubba Trammell. The two-year, $10-million deal White signed was one of the worst of the early 00s.

As the early years of the decade wore on, others came and went. The Yankees tried to put Chuck Knoblauch in the left field spot in 2001 after he couldn’t throw from second to first. They tried Melky Cabrera when Matsui went down with an injury in 2006. They even gave Ruben Sierra 51 at bats in the field during the mid-decade years.

Now, though, the era of Matsui and Damon is over. The Yanks’ DH went west, and the Yanks’ incumbent left field is trying to find some team willing to overpay him in both years and dollars. Maybe Damon will return; maybe Brett Gardner will fill the void. For the Yanks, that left field hole is nothing new, and as the decade ends, we will be Matsui, the man who received just 33 percent of all Yankee LF at-bats, as the position’s best.