Archive for Jacoby Ellsbury
The more deeply you examine the 2013 New York Yankees, the more unbelievable their win total seems. On the whole they did nothing well. The putrid offense, which ranked 28th in wRC+, was on display daily. Pitching? They ranked 18th in the league in ERA.
You’d think that if they couldn’t put together a decent offense that they’d compensate with a solid defense. You’d be wrong. They ranked 24th in team defensive efficiency. The guys who couldn’t hit apparently also couldn’t field well.
The 2014 Yankees figure to perform a bit better on defense. They not only brought in an upgrade in Jacoby Ellsbury, but they get back Mark Teixeira. There are a couple of other subtle upgrades, too, that could add up to at least an average defense.
Derek Jeter as a defensive upgrade? Surely I’m just pulling your chain. Sadly, I’m not. Jeter did improve his defense for a few years starting in 2008, but by 2012 it had again declined. How can we expect he’ll provide any value in 2014, at age 40?
Defensive statistics have enough shortcomings that they’re hardly worth bringing into serious discussions. In fact, once the new fielding system becomes public, I think we’ll look back at UZR and laugh. Yet it’s troubling when not just UZR, but essentially every publicly available defensive metric says that Eduardo Nunez absolutely killed the Yankees at SS.
UZR: -20.6 (-40.7/150!)
* This includes all defense, while the others are at SS only
Given Nunez’s deficiencies, Jeter could actually be an upgrade. Furthering the upgrade is a full year of Brendan Ryan on the bench. He’ll provide value as a late-inning defensive replacement and as an occasional starter when Jeter needs a day off. His high level of play could even offset Jeter’s to an extent, even in a fraction of the time.
There is little doubt that the 2014 Yankees will provide better defense at short than the 2013 Yankees. It’s no wonder the Yankees moved quickly to get Ryan into the fold.
To be fair, the Yankees did find an adequate defensive first baseman in Lyle Overbay. He came nowhere near Teixeira’s offensive production, even if you erase his late-season slump. But on defense he held his own.
At the same time, Mark Teixeira is on another level. If we could precisely quantify everything a first baseman does on defense, I have to imagine Teixeira would consistently rank among the league’s top five. He might not be the quickest or most athletic guy on the diamond, but his instincts and reflexes at first more than compensate.
Just because first base is all the way at the end of the defensive spectrum does not mean it lacks importance. Sure, plenty of big lumbering power hitters can stand at first base, but few play the position well. As Ron Washington so aptly put it, “It’s incredibly hard.”
Teixeira handles it with agility and grace. It’s easy to forget the days of Jason Giambi playing first.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner
In the last few years Ellsbury has improved his game in center field. A few years ago the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron and moved Ellsbury to left. Perhaps that was the kick in the ass he needed. Whatever the case, he tracks balls well and has plenty of speed, making him a high quality center fielder.
The Yankees had a very good center fielder last year in Brett Gardner. Speed takes center stage in Gardner’s game. He doesn’t always get the best read, nor does he always take the best route. But he makes a lot of plays, because he can compensate with his legs. This year he’ll play center a bit, but not on a day-to-day basis. This helps the Yankees outfield tremendously.
Again taking defensive metrics with a grain of salt (to the point where I won’t quote actual numbers), Gardner produced insane numbers playing left field in 2010 and 2011. Yes, he’s good, but multiple wins good? Here’s the thing with defensive numbers: they compare players at the same position. Since left field is reserved for those lumbering sluggers who don’t have much of an arm, they typically don’t play high-caliber defense. Gardner runs laps around them.
So the Yankees marginally upgrade in center, going from Gardner to Ellsbury. But they upgrade insanely in left field, relative to the league, because Gardner will track down so many more fly balls than his peers.
His bat might not have much left in it, but Ichiro can still run down balls in the outfield. This will come in handy at various points during the 2014 season. He’s the obvious defensive replacement on the bench, giving the Yankees a lockdown outfield in later innings. But that’s not his only role.
If everyone stays healthy – and given Ellsbury’s current injury that’s far from a given – Ichiro wouldn’t get many starts. But guys get bumps and bruises. Carlos Beltran could need days off to rest his knees. Ellsbury and Gardner will need days off here and there even if they do stay healthy. In each instance, playing Ichiro in right makes a degree of sense.
In the the case of longer-term injuries I’d like to see them call up Zoilo Almonte to take more reps, since he still has at least a modicum of big league potential. Ichiro is almost certainly gone after this season, and could be gone before that under the right circumstances. But as long as he’s on the roster, he’ll provide a good defensive option in right field when the Yankees need it.
The Yankees sent Jacoby Ellsbury for a precautionary MRI on his tight calf after he was scratched from his scheduled batting practice session earlier today, Joe Girardi told reporters. The tests came back negative and the team is hopeful he’ll play this weekend. Ellsbury has continued to say the calf is a non-issue and he could play if needed, but it’s clearly more serious that he’s letting on. He’s got 12 days to heal up before the start of the season.
Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.
Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.
The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.
Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.
Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.
The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.
Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.
As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.
Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.
Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.
Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.
* * *
Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.
As Joe explained last week, the Yankees have several important players coming back from injury this season. They also have several players who, due to their age and/or recent history, are at risk of getting hurt in 2014. Injuries are part of the game and many times they’re completely unpredictable or unavoidable, but there are certainly players who are more likely to get hurt than others. The Yankees haven’t exactly been good at keeping their guys healthy these last few years either. Here are New York’s biggest injury risks for the coming season and their respective backup plans.
Injury Risk: Derek Jeter
Backup Plan: Brendan Ryan
Aside from the dislocated shoulder back in 2003, last season was the only time Derek Jeter spent an extended period of time on the DL in his career. A twice-fractured left ankle and various leg muscle problems limited him to only 17 games, and even though he’s been healthy this spring and working out for weeks, his age (39) and the series of leg problems will make him an injury risk pretty much all year. The Cap’n is very much day-to-day at this point of his career.
The Yankees acquired Ryan last September when Jeter went to the DL for the fourth and final time, then they re-signed him to a two-year contract (with a player option!) over the winter to serve as shortstop insurance. If Jeter does go down with injury this summer, regardless of whether it’s two days or two weeks or two months, Ryan will step right in and play shortstop everyday. He can’t hit a lick but his defense is among the best in the game.
Injury Risk: Brian Roberts
Backup Plan: Ryan, Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, etc.
There is no greater injury risk on the roster than Roberts. He has appeared in only 192 of 648 possible regular season games since 2011 due to a variety of injuries, including back spasms (2010), concussions (2010-11), hip labrum surgery (2012), and hamstring surgery (2013). Second base is a dangerous position because of the blind double play pivot and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Roberts hits the DL, kinda like it did with Travis Hafner last summer.
Infield depth is something the Yankees spent most of the offseason accumulating, though none of it really stands out. They don’t have a 2005 Robinson Cano waiting in the wings, for example. Ryan, Anna, Nunez, Yangervis Solarte, and Corban Joseph are the various backup plans at second base, though only Ryan and Nunez have any kind of substantial MLB time. The player who gets the job when Roberts goes down with injury may simply be the guy who’s playing the best at that time.
Injury Risk: Frankie Cervelli
Backup Plan: Austin Romine, John Ryan Murphy
Cervelli seems to have a knack for the fluke injury. His wrist was broken by a home plate collision in Spring Training 2008 and he’s also had foul balls break his foot (2011, again in Spring Training) and hand (2013) in recent years. The broken hand last year turned into a stress reaction in his elbow. More seriously, Cervelli has had four concussions in his pro career, including three from December 2009 through September 2011. Romine and Murphy will both be stashed in Triple-A as insurance, and I suspect Romine would get the call as a short-term replacement while Murphy would be the guy if Cervelli misses most of the season again.
Injury Risk: Michael Pineda
Backup Plan: Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Adam Warren
When a player misses two full years due to a major surgery, it’s really hard to count on him staying healthy going forward. Pineda is an unknown and unreliable until he proves otherwise, which might never happen. His surgery was serious stuff and that’s why he hasn’t been handed a rotation spot as of yet. Pineda has to earn it by showing he can be effective post-surgery in camp. Phelps, Warren, and Nuno are all competing for the same fifth starter spot and will be ready to jump into the rotation at a moment’s notice if Pineda makes the team and goes down for any reason.
Injury Risk: Jacoby Ellsbury & Brett Gardner
Backup Plan: Ichiro Suzuki, Zoilo Almonte
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury and Gardner have combined to play in 686 of 972 possible regular season games, or 71%. Go back four seasons and it’s only 66%. Both guys have had injury problems over the years but the major ones can mostly be classified as flukes. Here are Ellsbury’s notable injuries …
- Fractured Ribs, 2010: Crashed into a teammate chasing a pop-up then suffered a setback after returning too soon.
- Shoulder Subluxation, 2012: Fielder fell on top of him following a break up slide at second base.
- Foot Fracture, 2013: Fouled a ball off his foot.
… and here are Gardner’s:
- Fractured Thumb, 2009: Slid into second base on a stolen base attempt.
- Wrist Debridement, 2010: Hit by a pitch, needed offseason surgery after playing hurt in second half.
- Inflamed Elbow, 2012: Made a sliding catch and suffered three setbacks (!) before having season-ending surgery.
- Oblique Strain, 2013: Swung a bat. Nothing more.
There has been other day-to-day stuff over the years but those are the big injuries. Gardner’s oblique strain last September is the only one that isn’t a fluke to me, though I think it’s also important to understand both guys have a playing style that puts them at greater risk of injury. When you steal a ton of bases, you risk hurting your fingers and having an infielder fall on top of you. When you run around the outfield making sliding and diving catches, you can jam something pretty easily.
Is it fair to consider Ellsbury and Gardner injury risks for 2014? Maybe not, but they have been hurt a bunch in recent years and I felt they were worth discussing. If Ellsbury were to get hurt, Gardner would slide right into center field. If Gardner got hurt, Alfonso Soriano would probably take over as the everyday left fielder, as he would if Gardner moved to center. Ichiro would see more playing time — I think Soriano and Carlos Beltran would still get regular turns at DH even if Ellsbury or Gardner gets hurt — and Zoilo is the early favorite to be the first guy called up from Triple-A. If both Gardner and Ellsbury got hurt at the same time … well that’s a mess I don’t want to think about. A trade for a center fielder would seem likely.
Injury Risk: Mark Teixeira
Backup Plan: ???
A tendon sheath problem in Teixeira’s right wrist that eventually required surgery limited him to only 15 games last year and still has him on the mend in camp. He’s been brought back slowly — he faced live pitching in batting practice for the first time just today — and is slated to get into a game later this week, but wrists are very tricky. Even if the doctors say they’re healed, they tend to sap power for another few weeks and months. David Ortiz (2008-09) and Jose Bautista (2012-13) have had similar tendon sheath problems and they didn’t regain their previous form until well after returning to the lineup.
Given the nature of the injury, it might be more accurate to say Teixeira is a risk for reduced production than he is a risk for injury. He hasn’t exactly been Mr. Durable the last few years though, most notably missing more than a month with a calf strain in late 2012 and blowing out his hamstring during the 2010 postseason (forgot about that, huh?). That doesn’t include the infamous cough/vocal cord damage that hampered him two years ago. The Yankees don’t have an obvious backup first baseman — Kelly Johnson and his 18 career innings at the position is currently the backup at first — so a trade would be in order if Teixeira goes down. It’s either digging up another Lyle Overbay or playing Russ Canzler everyday.
* * *
I think it goes without saying that pitchers are inherently risky. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Masahiro Tanaka have been very durable throughout their career (Kuroda less so, but he’s been healthy with the Yankees) but it would surprise no one if they got hurt this year. Same with all the relievers. Pitchers get hurt. It’s what they do.
Carlos Beltran’s knees were a big problem from 2009-10, but he has played at least 140 games in each of the last three seasons. Brian McCann had shoulder problems in 2012 that required offseason surgery, which kept him out for the first month of 2013, but he has been healthy and productive since. Scott Sizemore has played a total of two games the last two seasons because of back-to-back torn left ACLs, but he is far from a lock to make the roster, nevermind play regularly. Same goes for Nunez, who missed a bunch of time with a ribcage problem last year. Just about every player has been hurt somewhere along the line.
The Yankees are well-equipped to deal with an injured outfielder, catcher, or back-of-the-rotation starter. The infield is were it gets dicey and unfortunately that is where we find the most at risk players (Jeter, Roberts, Teixeira). The backup plans on the infield are interesting of nothing else, but they’re all wildcards. I don’t think we can reasonably estimate what any of them would do if pressed into regular duty. The Yankees have a lot of important players at risk of injury this year and their ability to stay on the field will play a huge role in whether they return to the postseason.
It has been an easy to overlook part of their game, but the Yankees have been one of the most prolific base-stealing teams in baseball over the last decade. They’ve swiped 100+ bases in seven of the last eight seasons and their 1,117 steals since 2004 are the fourth most in the game. No one thinks of the Yankees as a base-stealing team but they’ve been among the best in recent years.
Of course, there is more to base-running than bulk stolen base totals. A lot more, really. Advancing on a ground ball, scoring from first on a double, going first-to-third on a single, all of that is important as well. Players don’t even need to be fast to be good base-runners, though speed sure does help. Between the incumbents and the players brought in over the winter, New York has a number of guys who can make plays on the bases if not flat-out cause chaos.
When the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that massive $153M contract back in December, they added arguably the best base-runner in the world to their roster. He led baseball with 52 steals last year and was only caught four (!) times, a 93% success rate that was easily the best among players who attempted at least 25 steals. Ellsbury has one 70 steal season (2009) and two other 50+ steal seasons (2008, 2013) to his credit. His career success rate is 84%, well above the current break-even point of 66-68%.
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury has taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) 49% of the time, which again is well above the 39-40% league-average. It’s worth noting that he took the extra base only 42% of the time last season, his lowest rate in five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ellsbury is slowing down or anything like that, we’re talking about a sample of 74 extra-base opportunities. The difference between 42% and 49% is five extra bases, that’s all. Ellsbury just turned 30 in September and there is little reason to think he will be anything but a base-running monster in 2014. If he stays healthy, 40+ steals and tons of extra bases taken feels like a lock.
I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed in Gardner’s stolen base total last summer. After stealing 96 bases (81% success rate) during his previous two healthy seasons from 2010-11, he dropped down to only 24 steals (75% success rate) in 2013. My hypothesis is that because their offense was so weak, the Yankees gave Gardner the red light a bunch of times last year in an effort to make sure there were runners on base for Robinson Cano. Maybe I’m crazy, who knows.
Gardner’s rate of taking the extra base is very similar to Ellsbury’s: 45% in 2013 and 48% from 2011-13. I think the thing that has kept both guys from being truly elite extra-base takers like Mike Trout (career 61%) has been their ballparks. Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park are small parks, so the outfielders can play a little shallower and get to balls hit in front of them a little quicker. It doesn’t take much to stop a guy from taking those extra 90 feet on a base hit.
Anyway, Gardner turned 30 about two weeks before Ellsbury, so he’s still relatively young and should continue to be a threat on the bases in 2014. Hopefully he gets back to being a 40+ steal guy because that’s when he’s at his best. Only once in their history have the Yankees had two 40+ stolen base players in one season (Steve Sax and Roberto Kelly in 1990), but Gardner and Ellsbury have a very real chance of doing it this summer.
Man, remember how exciting Soriano was when he first came up? He was this wiry little guy who hit for power and ran like the wind, hitting 95 homers and stealing 119 bases from 2001-03, his three full years with the Yankees. That was a baseball lifetime ago and 40+ steals are a thing of the past, but Soriano can still do some damage on the bases.
After swiping a total of 22 bases from 2009-12, Soriano rebounded to steal 18 bags last season, including eight in 58 games with New York. He wasn’t terribly efficient though, getting caught nine times total and four times in pinstripes. That 67% success rate is right on the break-even point. Soriano has also taken the extra base 38% of the time the last three years (41% in 2013), so he’s basically league average in that regard.
I’m not exactly sure what we can expect from the 38-year-old Soriano on the bases this coming season. Could he steal 10-15 bases with a 67% success rate while taking the extra base a league average amount of time? That seems very possible but I’m not sure he could do much better without a huge contract year push. I’d bet against one at his age. Soriano isn’t a Gardner/Ellsbury level base-runner, but he can steal the occasional bag and score from first on the occasional double.
Ichiro, 40, stole 20 bases in 24 attempts last year, second most on the team behind Gardner. His bulk stolen base total has gradually declined over the years but he remains highly efficient, with an 83% success rate both last year and over the last three years. He took the extra base 38% of the time last season and 40% over the last three seasons, so more or less league average.
The additions of Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran have pushed Ichiro into a fifth outfielder’s role, but he should still get plenty of chances to have an impact on the bases as a pinch-runner/spot starter. He keeps himself in phenomenal shape and even though he has clearly lost a step over the years, Ichiro is still a smart base-runner who picks his spots well. I think experience can be very valuable for a bench player and when it comes to running the bases in the late innings of a close game, few would be a better option than Ichiro. Running the bases is something he still does very well, it’s just a question of how often he’ll get to do it.
In the past, the Yankees could always count on their captain for stolen bases and smart base-running decisions, but following last season’s leg injury filled nightmare, it’s unclear if he’ll be of any value on the bases in 2014. Even when he was healthy in 2012, Jeter only stole nine base (in 13 attempts) while taking the extra base 38% of the time. What will he be able to do on the heels of a twice-fractured ankle and various leg muscle problems? The smart money is on not much.
It would be awesome is Jeter got back to being a threat on the bases this summer, but that should be the very least of his and the team’s concerns. He should focus on staying healthy and being productive at the plate, first and foremost. Those are the most important things in his final season. Any base-running value Jeter gives the team this year is icing on the cake. It just isn’t much of a priority at this point of his career.
* * *
Kelly Johnson has stolen 37 bases over the last three years but he only went 7-for-11 (64%) last season, and he took the extra base at a well-below-average 29% over the last three years. He might steal 10-15 bases this summer, but his history suggests he won’t be all that efficient on the bases. Beltran’s knees don’t allow him to run much anymore but Eduardo Nunez is always good for double-digit steals, even as a part-timer, and he took the extra bag at a league average rate from 2011-13.
Gardner and Ellsbury will clearly be the stars of the Yankees’ base-running show this season, and they have some nice support in Ichiro, Soriano, Nunez, and maybe Jeter. It feels like a foregone conclusion that they’ll again top 100+ stolen bases as a team this year and they should improve on their overall extra-base taken rate, which was the second worst in the game at only 35% last year.
Five questions and five answers this week. If you want to send us a mailbag question, you probably know how to do it by now. (Hint: the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.)
Paul asks: Are there still deals that haven’t been made official yet? What’s the hold-up? Is it a 40-man roster thing?
The Brian Roberts and Matt Thornton signings are still not official. I don’t know why but the Yankees tend to drag these things out. I’m guessing the holidays gummed up the works as well. The 40-man roster is full so they’ll have to clear up spot for both guys. They’ll need to do the same if they add another starting pitcher as well, Masahiro Tanaka or otherwise. I suppose they could be working on an Ichiro Suzuki trade to open one spot, but who knows. Roberts and Thornton are the only big league contracts that are still not official yet, however.
To the table:
Ellsbury was the better player overall in the three years prior to signing with the Yankees — Damon was way more durable; his ability to stay on the field was always a big part of his value — but remember that a lot of his production came during that outlier 2011 campaign. Like, 32 of the 45 homers and 9.4 of the 16.3 fWAR came that year. That season is getting further back in the rear-view mirror and I’m not all that confident Ellsbury will come close to that production again. Hopefully he proves me wrong.
I think the best way to answer this question is that Ellsbury is the more exciting player and he offered a greater upside, but Damon was more predictable and reliable. Ellsbury is a few years younger now than Damon was when he joined the Yankees and that’s a big deal. The team will, at least theoretically, get more of Ellsbury’s prime years. The Yankees are obviously counting on that considering the contract they gave him.
Alex asks: What about Joe Blanton as a depth signing? The Angels appear ready to release him this offseason and if the Yanks don’t add Tanaka (or even if they do), there could be value in a workhorse who underperformed his peripherals. What would his upside realistically be?
I mean this is in the nicest possible way:
Blanton was the worst pitcher in baseball last year, so bad that the pitching-starved Angels dropped him from their rotation. He hasn’t been even a league average pitcher since 2009 and he’s underperformed his peripherals in each of the last four seasons (5.09 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 540.2 innings since 2010). I have no reason to think a righty with a below-average fastball (averages a touch over 89 mph these days) will buck that trend in a small ballpark in the AL East. I don’t see Blanton as an upgrade over David Phelps, Adam Warren, or Vidal Nuno. He’s not even worth a 40-man roster spot in my opinion. Easy pass, even if he comes for the minimum. The Yankees need to add good pitchers. Emphasis on good.
Nick asks: With all the talk of contract overpaying this winter, I’d like to bring up Alfonso Soriano. If the Cubs are paying $13m of the $18m he’s owed in 2014, and even at age 38, couldn’t he be a bit of a bargain? $5m for a .250/.310/.480 hitter with 30+homers seems reasonable no?
Oh yes, absolutely. The three projection systems at FanGraphs (ZiPS, Steamer, Oliver) work out to a combined .240/.293/.455 batting line with 25 homers and 11 steals per 500 plate appearances, and that’s with Oliver expecting him to fall off a cliff (-0.1 fWAR). That is definitely worth $5M right there, especially to the Yankees given where they sit on the win curve. Soriano just turned 38 and there’s a chance he will completely crash and show his age next year, but the upside is a 30-homer, 10-steal right-handed batter. Getting that for $5M is great in this market. Among the guys who are not still in their arbitration or pre-arbitration years, Soriano is probably the best dollar-for-dollar player on the roster.
Kevin asks: Am I the only one who really likes Nik Turley? I don’t think he’ll be more than a #4 but the Yankees need to stop walking away from these back-end starter prospects. We could really use a young guy to soak up innings, even if its not elite status.
I see Turley as another member of the Phelps, Warren, and Nuno group, just a notch below because he hasn’t spend significant time in Triple-A yet. Solid enough to be a back-end starter but not exactly someone who is going to come up and make a real impact in the rotation. There is value in that, don’t get me wrong. Teams need those cheap back-end types for depth and to help cover for injuries, and heck, every once in a while one will exceed expectations and turn into Doug Fister. Turley had a good year with Double-A Trenton in 2013 (3.88 ERA and 4.18 FIP in 139 innings) and as a left-hander with a good breaking ball, he’ll get a million chances in this league, at worst as a reliever. I wouldn’t call him untouchable but he’s certainly worth keeping around. The only problem is that the Yankees have a serious 40-man roster crunch and Turley is near the bottom of the pile.
The Yankees have officially signed outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year contract, the team announced. The deal will pay him $148M over the seven years and includes a $21M club option ($5M buyout) for an eighth year, so the total guarantee is $153M. Ellsbury will be introduced during a press conference at Yankee Stadium on Friday.
For years we’ve seen comparisons drawn between new Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury and entrenched Yankee Brett Gardner. Naturally, people speculated that the Yankees might trade the latter, given their $153 million commitment to the former. “Absolutely not,” according to an ESPN NY source. The source further speculated that both will bat atop the order, which might mean an ego hit for Derek Jeter (though Jeter could presumably hit second against lefties). It’s certainly an interesting approach, both atop of the order and in the outfield. Much of the success, I imagine, rests on the power that Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Alfonso Soriano, and hopefully Robinson Cano, generate behind these guys.
The Yankees made their second huge splash of the offseason last night, landing Jacoby Ellsbury with a seven-year contract worth $153M that could wind up paying him $169M thanks to an eighth year club option. He still has to take a physical and all that before the deal becomes official, but apparently that could happen as soon as today. Here are some thoughts while we wait for things to wrap up.
1. Might as well come right out with it: I am not a fan of the signing at all. Don’t get me wrong, Ellsbury is a very good player when he’s healthy and he will be an enormous upgrade next season, but the Yankees are paying him like he’s an elite player and I just don’t see it. His one truly elite skill is stealing bases and best base-runners in the game provide maybe one win of value with their legs (Ellsbury was at ~1.2 WAR base-running in 2013). That’s nothing. His glove is very good but the net defensive upgrade from Ichiro Suzuki (who I assume is losing his starting outfield spot as a result of the signing) to Ellsbury is small. The offense isn’t anything special at all, especially when you treat that 2011 season like the giant outlier it is. Ellsbury is a ~.350 OBP leadoff guy who will hit single-digit homers. That ain’t elite. That’s pretty good. Ellsbury is going to help the Yankees a ton in the short-term but there’s no way I view him as a $150M+ player. Not even close.
2. As for Yankee Stadium boosting Ellsbury’s power output, yes it will help some. There will inevitably be a fly ball or two that sneaks over the wall each summer that otherwise would have been caught for an out, just like some of those routine fly balls turned into doubles thanks to the Green Monster over the last few years. Ellsbury is not the kind of hitter who can really take advantage of the short right field porch though. He’s a classic speedster, hitting the ball on the ground and using his legs. He also does most of his hitting the opposite way to left:
Going the other way is not a bad thing. The Yankees could use someone who can hit for a relatively high average, but be careful not to make the blanket assumption that his power output will improve just because he’s a left-handed hitter moving into Yankee Stadium. Ellsbury would have to change his hitting approach to seem meaningful uptick in power and … no. Stick to what works. The idea of having two powerless hitters in the outfield full-time is not appealing at all, especially if they can’t retain Robinson Cano.
3. Speaking of Cano, you know all that talk about holding a hard-line with him? Pretty worthless right now. Refusing to budge off that seven-year, $165M-ish offer after bending over backwards to give Ellsbury all that money is borderline insulting. Cano’s the far superior player and he’s the homegrown star. He deserves more. A lot more. Maybe his rookie agents will botch these negotiations and the Yankees can bring him back at something far below fair value, but the team set the market by giving the second best free agent that huge contract. The gap between Cano and Ellsbury is a lot bigger than the gap between Ellsbury and the third or fourth best free agent and he should look to be paid accordingly. The Yankees might be trying to put the pressure on Robbie but I think there’s a chance they’ll wind up pushing him away, and if they lose him after spending all this money on Ellsbury and Brian McCann … I would not be pleased. Losing an actually elite player after giving a non-elite player elite player money would really suck.
4. The plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold is obviously not happening. I mean, I guess it still could if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended for the entire 2014 season, but that’s pretty much the only way it happens. It seems like the Yankees decided to spend as if A-Rod is getting banned for the year and if he doesn’t, oh well, then they’ll go over the limit. It’s hard not to notice the timing – his appeal hearing ended on a Thursday and the McCann deal was struck on Saturday. Maybe the Yankees know something is up. I guess the plummeting television ratings and overall decline in attendance could have spooked them into changing course as well. Either way, staying under the luxury tax limit almost certainly isn’t going to happen after the Yankees spent the last two years making sure they had as much flexibility under the threshold as possible.
5. This is worth exploring further in a full post, but the Bombers are going to be very vulnerable against left-handed pitchers next season if Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter don’t rebound. Ellsbury and McCann have noticeable platoon splits and Brett Gardner‘s been up and down against lefties through the years. Their best weapon against southpaws right now is Alfonso Soriano, but it’s pretty much him and him alone until Cano re-signs and Jeter and/or Teixeira show they’re healthy. The AL East isn’t a lefty heavy as it once was but there’s still David Price, Matt Moore, Jon Lester, and maybe Felix Doubront to contend with. Another right-handed bat (Mark Reynolds?) or two is a necessity, and no, Vernon Wells doesn’t count.
On the same day they officially announced the Brian McCann signing, the Yankees made their second huge signing of the offseason (and it wasn’t Robinson Cano). New York has agreed to a seven-year contract worth $153M with former Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. That’s a $21.9M luxury tax hit. The deal is pending a physical and includes both a club option for an eighth year that could push the total value to $169M and a full no-trade clause. Jon Heyman and Mark Feinsand originally broke the news.
Ellsbury, who turned 30 in September, is the 18th player to receive a $150M+ deal in baseball history. It’s the third largest contract ever given to an outfielder, behind the identical eight-year, $160M contracts signed by Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp prior to 2001 and 2012, respectively. The Yankees will forfeit their next highest draft pick to sign Ellsbury — either their second rounder or the compensation pick they receive when Cano, Hiroki Kuroda, or Curtis Granderson signs elsewhere. Their first rounder was already surrendered for McCann.
In 134 games and 636 plate appearances this past season, Ellsbury hit .298/.355/.426 (113 wRC+) with 31 doubles, eight triples, and nine homers. He hit 32 homers in that giant outlier of a season in 2011 but has otherwise never managed double-digit homers in a single season. The short right field porch will help Ellsbury’s power output somewhat but not a ton unless he changes his approach — he’s a classic speedster who hits the ball on the ground (50.8% grounders) and slashes it the other way to left field. After seeing what’s happened with Mark Teixeira, let’s hope those approach changes are not made. Stick what what earned him that huge contract.
Ellsbury is baseball’s premier base-stealer, going 52-for-56 (!) in stolen base attempts in 2013. He provides both bulk steals and tremendous efficiency. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say he figures to be the team’s best base-stealing threat since Rickey Henderson. Surprisingly, Ellsbury is not all that great at taking the extra-base (first-to-third on a single, etc.), doing so only 42% of the time this past season. That’s roughly league average. I suspect that’s at least somewhat attributable to funky orientation of Fenway Park, especially in left field. Outfielders can play shallower and prevent runners from taking that extra base. Ellsbury has a 70-steal season to his credit (2009) but I’m not sure if that will ever happen again.
In addition to being a great base-stealer, Ellsbury is a high-end defensive center fielder who has graded out exceptionally well in UZR (+29), DRS (+23), FRAA (+18), and Total Zone (+19) over the last three seasons. His arm is awful though, legitimately Johnny Damon-esque. The Yankees will play Ellsbury in center and shift Brett Gardner back into Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field while Alfonso Soriano moves to right, a position he has never played as a professional and doesn’t really have the arm for. Runners are going to be going first-to-third on Soriano like crazy. Outside of Ellsbury in center, the outfield alignment is a bit of question at the moment. The team could always sign another outfielder and make Soriano the full-time DH.
Injuries have been an issue for Ellsbury over the years. He missed 144 games in 2010 with fractured ribs suffered after colliding with a teammate and then missed 88 games in 2012 with a right shoulder injury after a fielder landed on him while sliding into second. Ellsbury played through a foot fracture this past September and some kind of left hand injury in the postseason. He had an MRI after the season but I’m not sure what the tests revealed. Ellsbury has played in only 384 of 648 possible games over the last four seasons so the Yankees will really have to check him out — the ribs, shoulder, foot, hand, everything — during the physical.
Obviously, given his time with the Red Sox and as an important player on two World Series winning teams, there is no concern about how Ellsbury will handle New York. The spotlight won’t be anything new to him. He’s a career .301/.361/.414 (104 wRC+) hitter in 38 postseason games, in case you’re wondering. The Yankees have placed a renewed emphasis on makeup and work ethic in recent years and I’m sure that is an especially serious consideration with a contract of this season. There are no concerns about Ellsbury in that department. He knows the big market/super high expectations routine by now.
The Yankees had their worst offense since 1991 this past season and have made two pretty huge upgrades in McCann and Ellsbury already this winter. McCann replaces one of the game’s least productive catching situations while Ellsbury essentially replaces the mess New York had in right field last year. I have to think the signing moves Ichiro Suzuki and/or Vernon Wells that much closer to the chopping block, so hooray for addition by subtraction. Even though they still need to figure out third base and take care of the Cano situation, the Yankees need to start focusing on their pitching staff. They still need to dig up two starting pitchers and a reliever or three. Ellsbury did not exactly come at a reasonable price, but will he will be an enormous upgrade next season and should give the club another few years of high-end production in center.