Staff Notes: Harkey, Long, Cavalea, Wakamatsu

Cavalea won't be back next year. Maybe not A-Rod either. (AP)
Cavalea won’t be back next year. Maybe not A-Rod either. (AP)

Some updates on the coaching staff and whatnot, courtesy of Mark Feinsand, Joel Sherman, and Jeff Wilson:

  • Brian Cashman reached out to the coaching staff last week to discuss new contracts. Their deals all expire on October 31st. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has reportedly agreed to a new contract and bullpen coach Mike Harkey — Joe Girardi‘s closest confidant — is expected to return as well.
  • There’s a chance hitting coach Kevin Long will leave the team to join Don Mattingly, either with the Dodgers if he gets a contract extension or with a new team if he is let go and winds up elsewhere. The two grew close in 2007, when they were both on New York’s coaching staff.
  • Strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea will not be brought back when his contract expires next week. He had been with the team since 2007. The Yankees told Cavalea they plan to go “in a different direction with the position.”
  • Pro scout Don Wakamatsu recently interviewed for the Rangers’ bench coach job. They hired Tim Bogar away from the Angels instead. The Yankees brought Wakamatsu on board last winter and I assume he’s still with the team.
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Season Review: Joe Girardi & Coaching Staff

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Evaluating a manager and his coaching staff is a very difficult thing for outsiders. The vast majority of their work takes place behind the scenes, so we’re left looking for clues in places they might not be. That pitcher learned a changeup? Great job by the pitching coach! That hitter is only hitting .250 when he usually hits .280? Fire the hitting coach! We have no idea what clues we dig up are actually attributable to the coaching staff, so we end up guessing.

Because of that, I don’t want to review Joe Girardi and his coaching staff in our typical “What Went Right/What Went Wrong” format. This review is almost entirely subjective and we can’t really pin anything (good or bad) on the coaching staff specifically. We know Curtis Granderson essentially revived his career after working with Kevin Long two summers ago, but having a specific example like that is very rare. Instead, we’ll have to take a broader approach.

Joe Girardi
I think 2012 was Girardi’s worst year as Yankees’ manager. Every manager makes questionable in-game moves during the season, but I felt Girardi made more this year than he had in any year since 2008, and it all started in the very first inning on Opening Day with the intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez. That still bugs me.

Girardi has long been considered a strong bullpen manager given his ability to spread the workload around and squeeze water out of scrap heap rocks, but this year he leaned very heavily on Boone Logan, David Robertson, and Rafael Soriano. Working Soriano hard wasn’t a huge deal because he was expected to leave after the season, but Logan made more appearances in 2012 (80) than any other reliever under Girardi, including his time with the Marlins. Robertson appeared in 65 games despite missing a month with an oblique injury. Part of it was a lack of alternatives (blame the front office for that) and the tight race, but this was something that started before the Yankees blew their ten-game lead.

Girardi also had two notable meltdowns (for lack of a better term), lashing out at a fan following a loss in Chicago and then getting into a shouting match with Joel Sherman after calling him into his office. Maybe my conduct standards are too high, but that kind of stuff is a major no-no in my book. It stems from pure frustration and there is zero good to come from it. Girardi didn’t have a bad year as manager, he did a fine job guiding the team despite an overwhelming about of injuries, but I feel that he’s had better years in the past.

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Larry Rothschild & Kevin Long
When the Yankees hired Rothschild as pitching coach two years ago, he came to the club with a reputation of improving both strikeout and walk rates. That is exactly what has happened overall, and we can see it specifically with someone like CC Sabathia (strikeouts, walks). Obviously the personnel has changed over the last few years, but the Yankees managed to get productive seasons from scrap heap pickups like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia last year while getting better than expected production from Hiroki Kuroda and even Andy Pettitte this year. We don’t know how much of a role Rothschild played in all of this, but the team’s pitching staff has exceeded expectations the last two years.

Long, on the other hand, came under big-time scrutiny following the club’s offensively-inept postseason showing and Mark Teixeira‘s continued decline from elite all-around hitter to pull-happy, one-dimensional slugger. At same time, he remade Granderson and helped Robinson Cano go from good to great. Long does preach pulling the ball for power and apparently that contributed to the team’s poor postseason, but the roster overall is built around guys who pull the ball for power. Outside of Cano and Derek Jeter (and later on, Ichiro Suzuki), the Yankees lacked hitters who could hit to the opposite field. Like Rothschild, we don’t know how much a role Long has played in all of this, and I’m not even convinced preaching power these days is a bad thing given the decline in offense around the league.

Tony Pena, Mike Harkey, Rob Thomson & Mick Kelleher
Not really much to add here. Thomson, the third base coach, does have a knack for being a little overly-aggressive with his sends in tight games while at other times he will hold guys who would have clearly been safe, but every third base coach does that. The Yankees have had an above-average stolen base success rate in recent years (77-79%), so I guess Kelleher is doing a fine job of reading moves and relaying that info over at first base. Other than that, we have very little basis for which to judge these guys on. Despite the whole “everyone should be fired because there are obviously better coaches available!” mentality than can fester following an embarrassing playoff loss, all indications are the entire staff will return fully intact next year.

Alex’s leg kick

Alex Rodriguez got off to a gloriously hot start to the season. In the first eleven games he hit .405/.511/.865 with 4 home runs, sporting an OPS of 1.376. Unfortunately, this hot start came to a screeching halt in Texas. On April 16th in Texas the Yankees removed Rodriguez from the game with a mild oblique strain. He avoided the disabled list, but he didn’t return to the lineup until April 20th. Whether the oblique strain was still bothering him or simply disrupted his timing is hard to say. What is clear is that Rodriguez went through a massive slump when he returned, hitting .188/.263/.294 with 2 home runs and 22 strikeouts in 22 games.

When the Yankees finished getting swept by Boston at home, they headed to Tampa. At the time talk surfaced of hitting coach Kevin Long working hard with Rodriguez to fix a mechanical flaw in his swing. They weren’t able to rectify it immediately, and in fact it seems that Rodriguez had difficulty implementing the change. In his first game in Tampa Alex went 0-4 with 3 strikeouts against Price. But they may have gotten a handle on it shortly thereafter. YES scribe and fan favorite Jack Curry had the details on this fix in a piece published May 18th, a day after Rodriguez clubbed two homers off Big Game James.

Long determined the cause of Rodriguez’s struggles, detecting that the third baseman hadn’t been using the lower half of his body to ignite his swing. Rodriguez called it a “disconnect” between his lower and upper body…

“We’ve diagnosed the problem,” Long said. “It’s vivid. We know what it is. But Alex said there’s been some hesitation. He knows he has to use his legs and he’s telling himself to use his legs. But when it comes time to do it, he hesitates. It’s all about fixing mechanics.”

Several hours after Long spoke to me about Rodriguez’s missing swing on Tuesday, Rodriguez corrected his mechanics and found that smooth swing again. Rodriguez blasted two homers off James Shields to help guide the Yankees to a much-needed 6-2 win over the Rays.

By taking a look at Rodriguez’s swing against the Red Sox Sunday night against Beckett and comparing it to his swing against Shields in Tampa, one thing stands out quite clearly: Alex almost completely eliminated his leg kick. Courtesy of friend of RAB Richard Iurilli, we can use .gif images to get a good slow-motion look at the difference. The first .gif is Alex striking out against Josh Beckett. (Update: Added the jump for site loading reasons)

[Read more…]

2011 Season Preview: Joe Girardi & Co.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Two years ago, it all clicked. The rebuilt starting rotation was one of the league’s most effective units, the offense was devastating, and the bullpen corps was deep and effective. Joe Girardi didn’t have to do much managing and his coaching staff didn’t have to do much coaching, they just rode their talent to the World Championship. It’s easy to look good when you have that team playing for you.

Last year was a little different. The rotation, stronger on paper than it was going into the 2009 season, fell apart at the seams down the stretch. The offense still led the world in on-base percentage and (not coincidentally) runs scored, but several notable players had down years. That the Yankees still won 95 games and were two wins away from the World Series is pretty remarkable. After the season, the Yankees rewarded both Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long with new three-year contracts. Pitching coaching Dave Eiland was replaced with Larry Rothschild, but the rest of the staff came back intact.

Ben put best when he previewed Girardi last year, so allow me to excerpt…

In that sense, Girardi is a fairly average manager. He changes pitchers as we would expect; he bunts a little less than we might expect him to; he doesn’t need pinch hitters and doesn’t use them often at all. Yet, he has gotten a handle on the media, and he knows what it takes — a trope really — to win in New York. He has made nice with the sportswriters who cover the team after a rough first year, and he has commanded the respect of his players, including the four with whom he was teammates not too long ago.

On the flip side, though, Joe Girardi doesn’t need to do much to manage the Yankees. He has the pieces to make up a great team, and it doesn’t take an expert strategist to know that A-Rod should bat clean-up, that Derek Jeter should leadoff, that CC Sabathia should be the ace, that Mariano Rivera will close games. It’s the Joe Torre argument all over again: All Girardi has to do is make sure everyone gets along well and no pitcher is overworked.

All of that applies again in 2011, though perhaps the decision to bat Jeter leadoff isn’t as obvious as it was twelve months ago. Penciling Andruw Jones‘ name into the lineup against left-handers and properly deploying not one, but two lefty relief specialists is the extent of the strategic managing Girardi has to do. Given all of the information we don’t know (who’s banged up, etc.), quibbling with those decisions is a fruitless endeavor. Girardi is no longer a lame duck manager and in reality he never really was. He was hand-picked for the job by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner three years ago, and his job is secure as ever. All he has to do is not screw it up, and the last three seasons suggest he won’t.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Long has drawn rave reviews for his work with pretty much every hitter in the lineup, most notably Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, though Jeter is his latest project. They haven’t revamped his swing, just shortened his stride, and the early returns in Spring Training are promising. Eiland spent a month away from the team last summer for undisclosed personal reasons, an issue that may or may not have led to his departure. “He knows why [he wasn’t brought back],” said Cashman. “He was given conditions that needed to be followed. So he knows why.”

Rothschild, the bullpen coach for the 1990 World Champion Reds and pitching coach for the 1997 World Champion Marlins, came over from the Cubs after spending seven years on Chicago’s north side. During his tenure, the Cubbies had the third best overall pitching staff (4.18 FIP) in the National League, and their starting rotation (4.15 FIP) was the the best in the league and third in all of baseball, behind the Red Sox (4.11) and Yankees (4.12). He has a reputation as a guy that helps his pitchers maximize strikeouts and reduce walks, two very welcome traits for a pitching staff that was just middle-of-the-pack with a 2.14 K/BB ratio last year.

His biggest project in 2011 will be getting A.J. Burnett back on track following a dreadful season. The two met at Burnett’s home over the winter, and so far Rothschild has him working on being more compact in his delivery and direct to the plate, modifications that have been on display in camp. Beyond A.J., he’ll have to coax quality innings out of Bartolo Colon and/or Freddy Garcia until a more suitable pitcher(s) is acquired. That may take a minor miracle, but Colon has thrown the snot out of the ball in camp so far.

By all accounts, the Yankees’ clubhouse is an upbeat and welcoming environment, something that wasn’t necessarily true a few years ago. Sabathia and Nick Swisher helped change that, certainly, but the it all starts at the top with Girardi and his coaching staff. It’s always tough to evaluate those guys because so much of their work happens behind the scenes, but given the team’s success over the last two years, it’s tough to think they’re not up to the challenge of another run at the World Series.

Link Dump: K-Long, Banuelos, NY-Penn League

Some spare links for a rainy Sunday in the Tri-State Area…

Q&A with Kevin Long

Hitting coach Kevin Long gets a lot of rave reviews around these parts, in part because of his work with guys like Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, and more recently Derek Jeter. Marc Carig sat down for a chat with Long, who spoke about how and why he decided to get into coaching, the toughest part of his job, his book, and whether or not he wants to someday manage a team. Check it out, it’s a great read.

Banuelos vs. Perez

Manny Banuelos has been the talk of spring so far and why not? He’s been extremely impressive in a pair of two-inning outings despite being a 19-year-old in big league camp, but this isn’t anything new. At this time last year, Rangers’ lefty pitching prospect Martin Perez was doing the same thing, but he went from a 2.71 FIP in Single-A (with a brief, late season call-up to Double-A) in 2009 to a 4.24 FIP in Double-A in 2010, seeing his prospect stock take a hit. John Sickels compared the two, concluding that they are “different but even.” Banuelos has the higher floor and the edge in intangibles and performance, but Perez offers more projection and upside.

Penn League Report

Just wanted to take a second and point you in the direction of a new site called Penn League Report, which will be providing news, updates, and more from the short season NY-Penn League, which houses the Staten Island Yankees. It’s run by Dave Gershman of Beyond The Box Score fame, and you can follow along on Twitter at @NYPL_Report. Today he offered up a brief scouting report on Yankees farmhand Tommy Kahnle. We need more information about the lowest levels of the minor leagues, so this is a welcome addition to the blogosphere. Add to your bookmarks, RSS feeds, etcetera, etcetera.