Left field closing arguments: Rocco Baldelli

Again, we thought we were at the end yesterday with Xavier Nady. But Mike mentioned Baldelli to me today. At first I wrote it off, but then I realized the advantage Baldelli has over other candidates. I promise, unless a strong rumor arises, this is the LAST of this series.

As we’ve browsed through the available free agent left fielders in search of a suitable candidate to caddy for Brett Gardner, we’ve mostly touched on complementary, platoon-type players. So why not touch on a high-risk, high-reward one? Chances are the Yanks won’t sign him — probably won’t go near him. But that won’t stop us from discussing the case for Rocco Baldelli.

Baldelli makes a simple case. He’s the most talented of the second- and third-tier outfielders. The sixth overall pick in 2000, Baldelli struggled through his first year and a half in the minors before breaking out in 2002 when he moved from A+ ball all the way through AAA. His first major league season went well, as he hit .289/.326/.416 and finished third, behind Angel Berroa and Hideki Matsui, for the AL Rookie of the Year award.

He repeated his performance in 2004, though he and the Rays got the first sign of things to come. He battled thigh problems late in the season, eventually causing him to hit the 15-day DL in mid-August. He came back with some pop, hitting six home runs in September and giving the Devil Rays hope for 2005. Those were soon dashed, however, as Baldelli tore his ACL playing baseball with his brother over the winter. Then, during rehab, he tore his UCL, resulting in Tommy John surgery.

Finally, 19 months after he last played in a major league game, Baldelli returned to the Devil Rays on June 7, 2006. The rest of the season went very well, as Baldelli posted a .302/.339/.533 line, finally developing his power tool. He did miss eight days in August with hamstring issues, but nothing that required a DL stint. Again, the D-Rays had hope that their former No. 1 pick would fulfill his potential.

While Baldelli didn’t dash those hopes during the off-season, he didn’t last long into the 2007 season. Those hamstring issues returned, but this time it was serious, requiring a 60-day DL stint that ended up keeping him out for the rest of the season. It was during that off-season that doctors discovered “metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities,” which explained why Baldelli couldn’t stay healthy, though it was not a specific diagnosis. He changed his eating and supplement habits, hoping to adapt to the limitations the disease placed on him.

Unfortunately, Baldelli couldn’t make it through Spring Training 2008, and again opened the season on the DL. Finally, in August the Rays activated him, playing him sparsely and selectively. The plan worked. He avoided further injury that season while posting good numbers in limited playing time. In the playoffs for the first time in his career, Baldelli became a hero during the ALCS, hitting a three-run homer off Paul Byrd to give the Rays the lead in the game and, six Red Sox outs later, the series.

During the off-season Baldelli got good news. He underwent further tests which showed that he had a form of channelopathy, a more treatable condition than a mitochondrial disorder. Seeing an opportunity, the Red Sox signed the native New Englander for the 2009 season. They planned to play him part time, but even that couldn’t keep him off the DL. In total he missed 33 games due to injury in 2009, including two DL stints. He appeared in just 62 games, amassing 164 plate appearances and a batting line of .253/.311/.433. The power was there, but that’s about all.

So, after this breakdown of Baldelli’s injury history, it’s clear why no teams have approached him about playing in 2010. His lower body has been a wreck for the past five years, and though his medical condition isn’t as bad as it could be, it’s still an enormous concern. Maybe the off-season of rest will do him good, but a good team can’t take that gamble. Baldelli would have to fill a part-time role, and any acquiring team would have to build a solid backup plan. That’s the high-risk part.

Again, Baldelli has tremendous upside. That’s the high-reward part. He plays good defense, hits for power, and, at least at one point, had incredible speed, especially out of the box. He also hits lefties very well, posting a .831 OPS against them over 610 career plate appearances — including his early, leaner years. So is that upside, weighed against the risk of a couple DL stints, worth the gamble?

The only way I can see the Yankees even consider Baldelli is if he’s willing to sign for a very small base salary. He did that last year, actually. The Red Sox guaranteed him only $500K, with $5.25 million in plate appearance bonuses — of which he reached none — and $1.75 million in roster days bonuses — which amounted to between $1.25 and $1.5 million. Still, the low base salary is the key here. Since all we’ve heard is that the Yankees have just $2 million to spend, Baldelli might be the best value for the dollar.

Hey, maybe we’ll get two players from this list. Given the supposed $2 million, maybe the Yanks could bring aboard Baldelli and Jerry Hairston. That would finish off the bench and give the Yanks enough flexibility to make a mid-season move. At a $500K base salary, I don’t think they’d hesitate to DFA Baldelli if anything went wrong.

Photo credit: AP Photo/LM Otero

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Left field closing arguments: Xavier Nady

Every time I think we’ve concluded this series, a rumor pops up and I think to add another player to the list. Yesterday, Joel Sherman said that the “player that most enticed the Yankees is Xavier Nady.” So, in what is hopefully the last post of this series, we’ll discuss Nady’s case.

It feels like we hardly got to know Xavier Nady. Acquired at the 2008 trade deadline with Damaso Marte, Nady made just 276 plate appearances during his tenure. An April elbow injury cut short his 2009 campaign right after it began, leaving many questions unanswered. Could he repeat his breakout 2008, or was it a fluke? Even without a breakout, could he hold the starting right field job with Nick Swisher right behind him?

Nady’s elbow injury, which resulted in his second Tommy John surgery, changed the outlook of his first crack at free agency. Even with a year that mirrored his 2007, a team with corner outfield needs, like the Braves and Giants, would probably have shown interest in him. The injury, however, has given teams pause. It shouldn’t take Nady the full 12 to 18 months of recovery — he doesn’t throw at max effort for 100 pitches at a clip, so he should recover quicker than a pitcher. Still, considering the low success rate of second time Tommy John victims (among them is Dave Eiland), it’s understandable why a market for Nady has yet to develop.

Offensively, Nady showed improvement in most aspects of his game from 2006 through 2008. His power jumped in 2007, as he went from a .178 and .173 mark in 2005 and 06 to .197 in 07. He sustained that in 2008, posting a career high .205 ISO. His batting average increased in 2008 as well, going from around .280 in 2006 and 2007 to .305 in 2008. This coincides with a rise in BABIP, .337 in 2008, up from .323 in 07 and .311 in 06. Nady did hit fewer fly balls and more line drives in 2008, which helps explain the spike.

Earlier in his career a platoon player, Nady showed improvement against righties from 2006 through 2008. His batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage each rose every year, most notably from 2007 to 08. Whether he could repeat that in 2009 was another question left unanswered due to injury. As I noted in this post, Nady was hitting .335/.368/.538 against righties in 2008 at the time of the trade. He ended up with a .317/.357/.529 line against righties. But while he didn’t sustain his first half marks against righties, his numbers against lefties also declined. So maybe he has turned a corner against right-handed pitching. But, because the most marked improvement came in one season, we can’t really say one way the other.

While Nady’s time in New York doesn’t look great on paper, he did continue to hit while the Yankees were still in the race. In August, while the team still had a fighting chance, Nady hit .308/.351/.523 in 114 plate appearances. The moo wore off in September, however, as he hit .223/.270/.379 in 111 plate appearances. So it’s not like he came to New York and fell off a cliff. That’s a good sign, I thinkā€¦

On the down side, Nady’s ability to avoid making outs rests largely on his batting average. His 6.6 walk percentage in 2008 was a career high, though not by a lot. For comparison, Melky Cabrera walked in 6.5 percent of his plate appearances in his horrible 2008, and 8.1 percent in 2009. Thankfully for Nady, he’s shown himself to be a .280 to .300 hitter over the last four years he played, so that does help his case. But if he sees a decline in that batting average, he’ll be far less valuable to the team.

Defensively, he has shown himself as a below average player. Throughout his career he has almost exclusively been worth negative runs in terms of UZR. That did change in 2008, as he posted a 4.6 UZR/150 in left field and a 3.7 mark in right. He was, however, negative at both positions in 2006 and 2007 (though he didn’t play left in 2006). This suggests that Nady is a below average outfielder. It would have been nice to get a better read on him in 2009.

Yesterday afternoon, ESPN’s Keith Law commented on Nady, saying that he and Reed Johnson “represent marginal improvements ha may not justify the cost.” This, I think, holds true if Nady regresses to his 2007 form. His power is nice, but unless he keeps his walk rate at around 6.5 to 7 percent and sustains his .280 to .300 batting average, he doesn’t represent a significant upgrade over Brett Gardner. If, however, Nady comes back and plays to his final 2008 numbers, then he might be an improvement. Is that upside worth gambling the remaining budget?

In the skills post from last night, Gardner profiled as a three-skill player: speed, discipline, and defense. Nady possesses two: contact and power. Four current Yankee starters possess both of those skills. Other than Gardner, only Curtis Granderson has speed. So, unless Nady’s demands come down — perhaps to a million with incentives — the Yankees are probably better off saving that cash for a possible addition down the road. That is, of course, if they truly plan to stay within their current budget all season. If that’s just the Opening Day budget and the team is willing to spend more mid-season, well, then all bets are off.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Left field closing arguments: Jerry Hairston

We were just about finished with the left field closing arguments series, but then we learned that the Yankees and Jerry Hariston are in serious talks. So we’ll bring back the series to examine the Yankees’ 2009 second-half utility player.

We titled this series left field closing arguments, but Jerry Hairston isn’t so much a left field solution as he is a roster solution. Because he can play every position except pitcher and catcher 1, the Yankees can better cover their bench. One player becomes the backup outfielder and backup infielder, thereby creating in essence an extra roster spot. The Yankees can find many uses for that, both to start the season and later on, when they could swing a trade for a more valuable bench asset.

With a 12-man pitching staff, the Yankees have room for just four bench players. Usually that would consist of a backup infielder, outfielder, and catcher, plus one wild card position. By combining the backup infielder and outfielder into one player, Hairston, the Yankees can then afford two wild card bench spots. That allows them the flexibility to give Jamie Hoffmann a real shot to stick with the team. They could also keep Juan Miranda on the bench for pinch-hitting situations.

As a left field solution, Hairston doesn’t provide an attractive case. In only two seasons has he hit above league average, and in this seasons he came to the plate a total of 631 times. His highest OPS+ during a season in which he got 400 or more plate appearances was 92, all the way back in 2002, when he was the regular second baseman for the Orioles. It looks like too much exposure can be detrimental to his production.

The Cincinnati Reds found that out first hand last season. They got excellent production from Hairston in 2008 after signing him to a minor league deal, the second straight year in which Hairston had to settle for one. In 297 plate appearances he hit .326/.384/.487 while playing all positions 4 through 9. Apparently impressed, the Reds signed Hairston to a $2 million major league contract for 2009.

He started off slowly in April, but from May 5 to May 30, over 103 plate appearances, Hairston hit .326/.370/.620. It wouldn’t last. From May 30 through July 30, the last game he played for the Reds, Hairston came to the plate 191 times and got just 43 hits (.247 BA), including 10 doubles and two home runs. Already out of the race, the Reds traded him to the Yankees for Chase Weems. Used as A-Rod‘s primary backup at third base and as the fourth outfielder, Hairston hit fairly well as a Yankee, going 18 for 76 (.237) with five doubles two home runs, and 11 walks (to just eight strikeouts).

Offense, however, is just a bonus for Hairston. His true value lies in his ability to cover every position on the diamond. That provides the Yankees with flexibility for their final bench spot. It’s very much like the Mariners trading Bill Hall for Casey Kotchman. As Jeff from Lookout Landing explains, “this isn’t about Kotchman over the alternative first basemen. Chances are, this is about Kotchman and a righty OF over the alternative first basemen and Hall.” For the Yankees, this is about Hairston and the extra bench spot over a left fielder like Reed Johnson a utility infielder like Ramiro Pena.

As a pure left fielder, there are better options. But as a total roster solution, the Yankees will do well to sign Jerry Hairston. He provides them the flexibility to build and change their bench over the course of the season, adding players as they need them. On a team with just four bench slots, combining two of them provides value. Hairston should be well worth a $2 to $3 million contract.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Elise Amendola



1And in the playoffs, after Jorge Posada subbed for Jose Molina, Hairston was said to be the emergency catcher. (Up)

Left field closing arguments: Johnny Damon

Each player in our left field closing arguments series has potential upside with considerable downside. Today’s player offers upside with little downside. I think Damon remains the preference of nearly everyone out there, but just in case…

For the past four years, Johnny Damon has been awesome. When the Yankees signed him to a four-year, $52 million contract in the winter of 2005, they were widely praised, though with the caution that they might regret it in the last year or two. Then, when he started off slow in 2007, people wondered if the Yankees would get just one good year out of Damon. Alas, he recovered in 2008 and posted two of the best seasons of his career to finish the contract. Now a free agent without a home, we’re all wondering if Damon will swallow some pride and return to the Yankees.

Issues of money and contract length separate the two sides. Scott Boras originally sought a multiyear contract at $13 million per annum, Damon’s salary through his last contract, but no team came close to biting. While Damon can still produce, he’s just not the same player that signed the contract in 2005. The Yankees acquired him to play center field, but by the end of his contract he was stuck in left field and not playing well even there. His hitting ended up better than expected — his OPS+ was actually higher with New York than with Boston, where he played during his prime years.

How far will Damon’s salary fall? The Yankees, reportedly, offered him a two-year, $20 million contract, but Damon wouldn’t take. Then, when the reports surfaced that the Yankees were talking to Nick Johnson, Damon acquiesced, only to find that he was too late. The Yankees were already too far in the Johnson negotiations, and didn’t want to pay Damon his 2/20 along with Johnson’s salary. We haven’t seen anything linking the two parties — and even saw explicit denials of interest after the Yankees traded Melky Cabrera to the Braves. But this is all part of a larger game. The Yankees and Damon still match up, and we could certainly see them strike a deal.

There’s no questioning Damon’s ability to hit, especially at Yankee Stadium. During his four years in New York he posted a .285/.363/.458 line, dragged down by a poor 2007 in which he hit. 270/.351/.396, mostly due to a terrible start. In the second half of that year he hit .296/.364/.450, much closer to his Yankees career than his terrible first half. He’s even better at home, a big attraction to the Yankees. In the inaugural season of the New Yankee Stadium, he hit .279/.382/.533 in 318 PA. His road numbers, .284/.349/.446, weren’t quite as good, but still very good considering what he does at home.

Damon does show a platoon split, but it’s not an enormous cause for alarm. In 2009 he had a .889 OPS against righties and a .776 OPS against lefties. In 2008 the split was .889/.710, a bit more drastic but still not horrible, especially because of his .342 OBP against lefties that year. No, it’s not an ideal platoon scenario, but the Yankees have help if they want to sit Damon against tough lefties. That’s one advantage of having the lefty-mashing Jamie Hoffman on the roster. But even if Damon plays against tough lefties, he’s not useless. He can handle himself, and perhaps handle himself better at his home ballpark.

On the negative side there are three areas of concern. First, Damon’s age. He’ll play his age 36 season in 2010, an age where many players see their numbers decline. On a multiyear deal that might be cause for larger concern, but on a one-year deal, especially one for seven figures (rather than eight), the Yankees can mitigate that risk. The major risk, really, is that he falls off a cliff, but while that’s possible, I don’t think it’s probable. Again, Damon is coming off perhaps the best season of his career, and if he re-signs with the Yankees will have the same ballpark benefits.

Second, his late-season slump. Damon posted excellent numbers in almost every month of the 2009 season, his best coming in August when he hit .327/.371/.622 and helped the Yankees run away with the division. But he fell flat in September, hitting just .247/.350/.315. Could that have been a sign of decline? Perhaps. He did continue the futility in the first round of the playoffs, going 1 for 12 with a walk in the ALDS. But then he bounced back to have a good ALCS and excellent World Series. It looks like Damon’s slump was just that. Plus, if there really is tiring with age, the Yankees can sit him more in favor of Brett Gardner. In fact, that might be the ideal scenario for Gardner heading into the 2010 season: 4th outfielder who regularly spells Damon in left.

Third, his defense. It was pretty bad in 2009, both by scouting and by statistical standards. I tried to find a glimmer of hope, but was unsuccessful (Keith Law even added a negative scouting report to supplement the numbers). The good news is that, just like players can have bad offensive seasons, so they can on defense. Maybe Damon’s poor 2009 in left was just a blip. Maybe he really did, as he claims, get better as the season moved along. There’s no guarantee, of course, that Damon bounces back. But his bad 2009 doesn’t mean he can’t. He certainly can, and if he does he’ll be of even more value — and perhaps compensate for any decline he sees on offense.

Of all the options we’ve so far explored in this series, Damon makes the most sense. He’s familiar with New York and has thrived in the spotlight. He’s also a much better bet with the bat than any of the other suitors, and though he had a bad 2009 on defense he could rebound in 2010. Money separates the two sides now, but as we get closer to pitchers and catchers reporting, maybe Damon will realize that the market isn’t quite what he had imagined. It might hurt his pride to take a one-year deal with a massive pay cut, but it’s also in his best interests as a player. If the Braves and the Yankees offer the same deal, why would he go to Atlanta? They don’t offer the opportunity and familiarity of New York.

We each have our own reasons for the decisions we make. Maybe Damon wouldn’t be comfortable returning at a greatly reduced salary. Maybe he’s insulted that the richest franchise in the game won’t overpay for him. But if he wants the best chance to win, it’s with the Yankees. At the right price, I’m sure they’d like to have him back.

So now, whenever a rumor surfaces involving Damon and the Yankees, we can refer back to this post and its comments. Have your final say now.

Photo credit: Eric Gay/AP

Left field closing arguments: Ryan Church

After a New Year’s hiatus, we return with our ongoing series on the left field situation. Given the parameters — mostly a caddy for Gardner — we’re looking at the available free agents to determine whether or not they fit. I’ll present the data, you’ll comment, and that will be that. Today, we get the final say on Ryan Church. You can check out the previous closing arguments on Reed Johnson and Marlon Byrd.

Just a few years ago, Ryan Church looked like a budding star. In 2005, his first full season in the big leagues at age 26, he hit .287/.353/.466 in 301 PA, despite battling multiple injuries. These included a day-to-day shoulder issue, a ribcage injury that caused him to miss 16 games, and a toe injury that forced him to miss 15. Time missed due to injury would become a major theme in Church’s major league career.

Despite his successful 2005 campaign, the Nationals started him in AAA for the 2006 season. That ended quickly, and Church hit fairly well in his first 78 plate appearances. The only thing he didn’t do, really, was hit singles. His .215 average must have stuck out to the Nats, because they demoted him on May 20, despite his .346 OBP and .477 SLG. Of the 14 hits he amassed in that short stint, eight went for extra bases.

The Nats recalled him again after the All-Star break, and this time Church hit his way into a more prominent role. In 152 plate appearances he posted a .305/.376/.550 line, sending half of his 40 hits for extra bases. Best of all, he got through the season without injury. In two partial major league seasons, Church had hit .282/.359/.491 in 531 plate appearances. His BABIP was a bit high, at .350, but that’s not too uncommon for a high strikeout player.

(While Church toiled in the minors after his 2006 mid-season demotion, the Yankees actually expressed interest in him. While Church would have been a decent addition at the time, I think everyone was more than pleased with Abreu.)

In 2007 Church would get his chance, and he responded well. He missed just two games due to injury, and racked up 530 plate appearances, hitting .272/.349/.464. That was good for a .351 wOBA, 116 wRC+, and a 114 OPS+. In other words, solidly above average. His power fell a bit, from a .250 ISO to .191, but that’s still a good mark. Apparently, though, the Nationals had seen enough, shipping Church and catcher Brian Schneider to the Mets for Lastings Milledge.

It appeared Church would continue his hot hitting ways in New York. He got off to a torrid start in 2008, hitting .311/.379/.534 in 183 plate appearances through May 20. But then his head collided with Yunel Escobar’s knee in the ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader. It was the second concussion Church had suffered that year — the first came in Spring Training when he and teammate Marlon Anderson ran into each other while tracking a fly ball.

Even though it was his second concussion in two months, and even though he had to visit a doctor after the game, Mets manager Willie Randolph used Church as a pinch hitter the very next day. He actually pinch hit three times in the four days following the Escobar incident. Church tried to return full-time at the beginning of June, but apparently couldn’t handle it. After striking out three times in four at-bats on June 5, Church missed the next 19 games with post concussion issues. He tried to come back in July, but that experiment ended after five games, and he missed the next 41.

Since then Church just hasn’t been the same player. He finished the 2008 season horribly, hitting .219/.305/.307 in 128 plate appearances. An off-season of rest didn’t bring him back to form, as he hit .272/.328/.352 through May 22, when he injured his hamstring. He kept a consistent line upon his return, and eventually Omar Minaya traded him to the Braves for Jeff Francoeur. He hit better in his new home, .260/.347/.402 in 144 plate appearances, but nothing approaching his 2006, 2007, and beginning of 2008 seasons. The Braves cut loose Church on December 8.

On the plus side, Church has demonstrated that he can hit. From 2006 through May 22, 2008 he posted solidly above average offensive numbers. He also plays average to above average defense in the outfield — above average at the corners, which is what the Yankees seek. His strikeout rate historically is a bit high, but he still hits for a good average. I’m not sure if it means anything or it’s just an outlier, but Church drastically reduced his strikeout rate in 2009, dropping it nearly 10 percent from 2008.

On the negative side, we never know if he’ll be the same again after the two concussions. That the Braves, who could use some outfield help, cut him loose makes that even more doubtful. Another area of concern, at least as it involves the Yankees, is his platoon split. They already have the lefty Granderson in center field, so in order for Church to make sense he’d have to hit about equal against lefties and righties. But, as is the case for many lefties, he shows a large split, .813 OPS vs. righties in his career and a .700 OPS against lefties.

For another team, Church might be worth a gamble. He has the ability to hit and field well, but it’s unknown whether he can actually handle it. Given that uncertainty and his platoon splits, however, he doesn’t appear a good fit for the Yankees.

So now, whenever a rumor surfaces involving Church and the Yankees, we can refer back to this post and its comments. Have your final say now.

Photo credit: Ray Stubblebine/Reuters