Must-Click Link: The Silent One

Here’s a fantastic story for the afternoon: ESPN’s Jorge Arangure wrote about fill-in closer Rafael Soriano, a quiet man who puts baseball and family above all else. Arangure chronicled Soriano’s climb to the majors, which started as the child of a poor single mother who refused to falsify documents so he could sign with the Hiroshima Carp as a switch-hitting outfielder at age 16. It’s an awesome read and gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation, so make sure you check it out.

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Thoughts following the doubleheader sweep

(Al Bello/Getty)

After going nearly a month without consecutive wins, the Yankees won two games in the span of about nine hours yesterday. They’ve also won four straight, six of seven, and nine of 13. If the Mariners had been something other than pitiful these last two nights, the division lead would be two or three games instead of just one. But hey, I’ll take the one-game lead. Better than being one back.

1. I don’t want to make too much of one game (one day, really), but man it would be such a huge lift if Ichiro Suzuki got hot and became a more consistent offensive threat these next few weeks. No one is asking him to go 4-for-4 with four steals every game — he’s more than welcome to do that, if he wants — but something more than the three or four hits a week he was providing would be nice. Prior to yesterday Ichiro had only been 6-for-9 in stolen base attempts with New York, so adding some more speed to the offense would be appreciated as well. He was awesome on Wednesday and I hope he builds on it going forward.

2. Ichiro started against the left-handed Ricky Romero last night because it appears that Joe Girardi has finally run out of patience with Andruw Jones. He’s been dreadful in the second half (.137/.250/.225 in 120 plate appearances), and that sure looked like his last pinch-hitting hurrah in Game One. When Girardi needed a right-hander off the bench with the go-ahead run on third and the left-handed Aaron Loup on the mound in Game Two, he went to Steve Pearce. If he’s not hitting, especially against lefties, there won’t be any reason to carry Andruw on the postseason roster should the Yankees qualify.

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

3. Speaking of not making the potential postseason roster, what about Raul Ibanez? He’s only been slightly less useless than Jones since the All-Star break, putting up a .190/.287/.356 line in 143 plate appearances. Remember when Hideki Matsui fell into a slump and every single at-bat was a weak ground ball to second? That’s Ibanez now, everything is weakly hit to the right side. He could just be worn down from playing the field so much earlier in the year or he could just be completely done, but at some point soon the Yankees will have to pull the plug on the other half of their preseason DH platoon. There isn’t much season left and neither guy is getting it done.

4. It goes without saying that the biggest positive development from yesterday was Andy Pettitte. He wasn’t sharp, but he still managed to throw five shutout innings against a bad offense after spending the last twelve weeks or so recovering from a leg fracture. Pettitte will need every bit of his final two regular season starts to a) build his pitch count back up over 100, and b) shake the rust off, but it was definitely encouraging to see him come out and pitch well in his first start off the DL. With all due respect to David Phelps, who pitched well in the spot start last night as well as last time out against the Red Sox, getting Andy back in the rotation is huge. Tack on Ivan Nova replacing Freddy Garcia, and suddenly the starting staff looks a lot more formidable.

5. Thanks to Rafael Soriano‘s two-save effort yesterday, the Yankees are up to 50 total saves as a team this year. Soriano has 42, Mariano Rivera had five before he got hurt, and the trio of David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Derek Lowe have one each. It’s only the second time since 2005 that the Yankees have had more than 50 team saves in a single season, joining the 2009 squad (51). Obviously that means they’ll go on to win the World Series this year. Okay … in all seriousness, it’s a function of all the close games they’ve been playing. One hundred and fifteen of their 148 games have been decided by fewer than five runs, a whopping 77.7%. Last year it was 71%, the year before 68%, and the year before that 69%. Soriano has saved each of the team’s last six wins and ten of their last 12. He’s been absolutely huge for the Yankees this year, and yesterday’s performance was probably the highlight of his season to date.

Mailbag: Draft Picks, Gordon, Girardi, Soriano

I went with short-ish answers this week so I could squeeze in as many questions as possible, but I still only got to six. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

Missin’ you. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Mark asks: Assuming Brett Gardner is indeed out for the year and that the Yanks’ main AL title competitor, the Rangers, make another big trading deadline splash and acquire either Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke, should the Yanks counter by acquiring a solid hitting left fielder?

Nah, don’t make moves to “answer” another team’s moves. That’s how you end up with a Kei Igawa situation. If the Yankees are able to find a reasonable upgrade for the outfield given Gardner’s surgery, then by all means go for it. What another team — particularly a non-division rival — does is immaterial. Put the best possible team on the field and it doesn’t matter what everyone else does.

Cory asks: One big element missing from the offense this year is speed. Obviously Gardy’s out and his 49 steals from a year ago makes a big difference, but a 36-year-old Alex Rodriguez is the team leader. 38-year-old Jeter is second, and rounding out the top eight are guys with limited action (Jayson Nix, Dewayne Wise, Eduardo Nunez, Gardner), a 40-year-old Ibanez, and Curtis Granderson. Do you expect Cashman to target speed come July 31, or is that an element they can live without this year?

We’re already heard that if they do make a trade to acquire a replacement outfielder, that it would be a speedy center field type similar to Gardner. Overall team speed is the club’s one glaring hole just because there is none of it. They’re very station-to-station but they can live with that because they get guys on base and hit a bunch of extra-base hits. I think they can get by without any speed but it is something that would be nice to have, just to add a different element to the offense and occasionally put some pressure on the pitcher. Like I said, if they find someone reasonable to fill that need, by all means go for it.

Mike asks: Does signing money from competitive lottery picks factor into a team’s bonus pool? Could you see the Yanks sending a prospect to a team in exchange for the pick and the pool money, someone like a Adam Warren or Corban Joseph? Other team gets a prospect near MLB ready and doesn’t have to pay $1M for him, Yankees get the pick and don’t have to lose the prospect in the Rule 5 draft.

Yep, the extra competitive balance lottery picks comes with extra draft pool money and they can be traded. There are a dozen such picks and the Yankees don’t have one because they’re the Yankees. I have no idea how teams will value those picks in a trade but I’d guess they’d value the draft pool money more than the pick itself. Trading a near-MLB ready guy like Warren or CoJo seems like a backwards move given the high attrition rate of draft picks in general. I’d rather use them as part of a package for a piece to help the big league team or just keep them for depth. These competitive lottery picks seem like they would be the second or third piece in any trade, not the headliner.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Jon asks: A lot has been mentioned about the Royals looking for starting pitching (now and future). Could a package of David Phelps, Brett Marshall, and another lesser prospect get us Alex Gordon?

I don’t think that’s nearly enough. Gordon’s one of the better outfielders in the game even if his power dropped off quite a bit this year, and he’s signed to very reasonable long-term contract ($50M through 2015 with a player option for 2016). As impressive as Phelps has been in the first half, he’s still just mid-to-back-end starter and that’s not enough incentive for Royals. If they’re going to move Gordon, they’ll need a potential impact, number one type guy in return. Just look at what the White Sox gave up to acquire Nick Swisher at a similar point of his career — a potential front-line guy in Gio Gonzalez, another high-end pitching prospect (Fautino DeLoSantos), and a solid outfield prospect (Ryan Sweeney). Gordon obviously makes sense for New York but they would really need to sweeten that pot.

Michael asks: What do you think it would take for Joe Girardi to get fired in the next couple of years? Losing in the ALDS, losing in the wild card round, not making the playoffs, or maybe even just not winning the World Series?

An awful lot. Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman, and the rest of the brain trust hand-picked Girardi for the job so it would take a ton for him to get fired. They’d have to miss the playoffs a few years in a row I believe, and even then he would just be a scapegoat. More than likely, the end of the Girardi era will come when he says he’s had enough and decides to walk away due to burnout or because another team offers a megacontract.

Anonymous asks: Given Rafael Soriano‘s success in Mariano Rivera‘s absence, do you see the front office pushing Cashman to renegotiate a contract and extend him beyond 2013 when this season is over? Despite the tools, something tells me David Robertson won’t be successful as our closer and there’s no telling how Mo will perform coming back from an injury at 43 years of age. Speaking of which, what kind of money will Mo receive next year if he’s healthy?

I really hope they don’t push to re-sign Soriano. If he opts out, say thank you very much and let him walk. That $14M he’s owed next season can go not just towards replacing Soriano with another high-end reliever, but also replacing Swisher in right (or even re-signing him) and maybe even adding various depth pieces. Soriano’s been awesome, better than we could have possibly expected once Mo went down, but he won’t continue pitching at this level because no reliever not named Mariano ever has sustained a performance like this across multiple years. It just doesn’t happen and I wouldn’t expect a 32-year-old with a history of elbow problems to do it.

As for Mo, I think they’ll re-sign him to a one-year deal at similar money to what he’s making now, so $15-16M. I know he’s 43 and coming off knee surgery and all that, but I have a hard time thinking they’ll play hardball with the money. They might hold the line on one-year but I doubt they’d balk at a high salary. It’s just money and Mo’s one of the few players with legitimate high-end marquee value that transcends his on-field value.

Midseason Review: Exceeding Expectations

During the next few days we’ll take some time to review the first half of the season and look at which Yankees are meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, and falling short of expectations. What else is the All-Star break good for?

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Any time a team in any sport wins a championship or even sits in first place for a prolonged period of time, there’s always a few players on their rosters exceeding expectations. Talent can only take you so far, it’s those unexpected contributions that push one team ahead of the rest. The Yankees have the best record in baseball and comfortable lead atop the AL East, and as you’d expect they have some players on their roster doing more than expected.

Rafael Soriano
When Mariano Rivera crumbled to the ground in Kansas City, all of Yankeeland held their collective breath. The worst case scenario played out — Rivera had torn his ACL and is expected to miss the rest of the season — and New York was suddenly without the one undisputed advantage they had over every team. No matter who they faced, regular season or playoffs or whatever, the Yankees have always had the advantage in the ninth inning thanks to Mo.

Replacing Rivera’s brutal effectiveness is impossible, but the Bombers had the pieces in-house to get by. David Robertson got the first crack at the closer’s job but almost immediately hit the disabled list with an oblique strain. That’s when Soriano, the 2010 AL saves champ who signed on as a setup man prior to last season, stepped in. Since Rivera and Robertson hit the DL, Soriano’s pitched to a 1.25 ERA (2.00 FIP) in 21.2 innings while going 20-for-21 in save chances. He’s allowed just three runs total during that time and has held hitters to a .210/.273/.272 batting line. Soriano has avoided the disabled list and after a rocky first season in pinstripes, he’s settled into a crucial role for the team. He’s not Mariano, but my goodness has he been effective as his replacement.

(AP PhotoPeter Morgan)

Phil Hughes
When the season opened, it was more of the same from Hughes. He allowed 22 runs in his first five starts (21.2 IP) and batters were tagging him for a .298/.365/.617 batting line. After a second-half fade in 2010 and a disastrous 2011 season, it seemed that the Phil’s days as a starter were number.

The Yankees stuck with him though, and Hughes has rewarded them by pitching to a 3.46 ERA (3.91 FIP) in his last dozen starts. Only thrice in that span did he allow more than three earned runs in a start, only four times more than two earned runs. His strikeout (8.31 K/9 and 21.5 K%) and walk (2.08 BB/9 and 5.4 BB%) numbers are so good that he’s actually fourth in the league among qualified starters with a 4.00 K/BB. The only guys ahead of him are Colby Lewis (7.50), Justin Verlander (4.27), and Jake Peavy (4.15). That’s pretty great.

Hughes still has a homerun problem — fourth in the league with 19 allowed (1.72 HR/9) — but that’s just going to be who he is. He’s a fly ball pitcher (just 33.7% grounders), but because he walks so few the majority of them has been solo shots. Only six of those 19 homers have come with men on base, and five of those six were two-run shots. The Yankees have remained patient with Phil and he’s rewarded them in the first half by (finally) becoming a solid and sometimes dominant starter.

Raul Ibanez
Considering his age (40), his performance last year (.245/.289/.419), and his Spring Training showing (.150/.190/.333), it was very easy to write Ibanez off as a non-factor just before Opening Day. Rather than burn out and get released by June 1st like we all expected, Raul was the team’s most reliable hitter for the first six or seven weeks of the year and has settled in as a very nice weapon against righties — .250/.311/.484 vs. RHP — in the lower third of the lineup.

Furthermore, Ibanez has had to step in for the injured Brett Gardner and has effectively been the everyday left fielder for the last three months or so. He’s started 45 of the team’s 85 games in the outfield and has only been the DH a dozen times. That’s hard to believe. Ibanez has certainly had his share of lol-worthy moments on defense, but just being able to step in and play everyday while maintaining a reasonable level of offense is far more than we could have expected. Raul was supposed to flame out and have the Yankees hunting for a new DH at the deadline, but he’s instead provided very real impact.

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Eric Chavez & Dewayne Wise
The bench has been one of the team’s strengths this year, thanks in large part to Chavez. He had an okay year in 2011 while missing lots of time due to injury, but this year he’s stayed on the field — minus a seven-day concussion hiatus — and legitimately mashed. Chavez owns a .282/.336/.504 batting line with seven homers already, two more dingers than he hit from 2008-2011. Gardner’s injury has forced him into the lineup a little more than expected, but he’s produced both at the plate and in the field. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Chavez has been one of the biggest surprises of the season so far.

The trickle down effect of Gardner’s injury is quite substantial; it forced Ibanez into the outfield, Chavez into a healthy amount of at-bats, and it brought Dewayne Wise up from Triple-A. The team’s fourth outfielder has 13 hits in 50 at-bats, but two are doubles, one’s a triple, and three (!) are homers. He’s also six-for-six in stole base chances. With the Yankees struggling to score runs and having lost six of their previous seven games, Wise laid down a perfect bunt hit against the Royals to load the bases and ignite a game-winning rally on May 22nd. They won the game and have won 30 of 42 since. Dewayne Wise’s bunt turned the season around. Okay, maybe not. But he’s been awesome.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

David Phelps & Cody Eppley
The Yankees went into camp with six starters for five spots, but Michael Pineda‘s injury opened the door for Freddy Garcia to return to the rotation. It also created a competition for the final bullpen spot, a spot Phelps won in Spring Training. He shined in six long relief appearances before taking Garcia’s place in the rotation, at least until Andy Pettitte showed up. Phelps returned to the bullpen and has since bounced back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A, mostly notably striking out eight in 4.1 innings in a spot start last Wednesday.

Overall, Phelps has pitched to a 3.05 ERA (4.37 FIP) in 41.1 innings, striking out a ton of batters (9.15 K/9 and 23.6 K%) while doing a respectable job in the walk (3.70 BB/9 and 9.6 BB%) and ground ball (43.8%) departments for an AL East rookie. He generated buzz in Spring Training with improved velocity and it carried over into the season, to point where he not only looks like he can get big league hitters out, he looks like a potential long-term starting pitcher.

Joining Phelps in the bullpen has been Eppley, who the Yankees plucked off waivers from the Rangers back in April. He assumed a regular spot on the roster once Rivera got hurt and he’s seized the opportunity by pitching his way into Joe Girardi‘s late-game mix. The sinker-slider sidearm guy has pitched to a 2.70 ERA (3.84 FIP) in 23.1 innings, holding right-handers to a .226/.298/.308 batting line. Eppley’s 65.2% ground ball rate is the fifth highest in the baseball (min. 20 IP). The Yankees do as good a job of find useful arms in unusual places as anyone, and they’ve dug up another good one in Eppley.

Mailbag: Martin, Shoppach, Bourjos, Choo

Just four questions this week, and they’re all geared towards potential roster moves. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us something.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Matt asks: Given his current performance, do you think the Yankees are going to re-sign Russell Martin (and, should they)? If so, what kind of contract do you think he’s going to get?

I wrote about the catching situation yesterday and how the Yankees should look for an upgrade behind the plate, but that’s obviously easier said than done. I don’t think Martin’s true talent is a .178/.297/.347 batting line, he’s probably closer to a .225/.320/.380 guy. That’s not great but it’s at least tolerable, you can live with it behind the plate as long as he’s solid defensively and hitting eighth or ninth. I think that Martin’s back may still be bothering him, which would at least help explain the recent dreadful production.

Anyway, looking for an upgrade and potentially re-signing Martin after the season are two different thing. I’m sure Russ is kicking himself to turning down that three-year extension before the season but then again the catching market is weak. After Mike Napoli, Martin will be the best free agent catcher this offseason. Someone may and probably will overpay. If the Yankees could bring him back on one of those one-year, “re-establish your value” contracts, wouldn’t that be a pretty decent stopgap option until that 2014 payroll plan takes effect? Pair him with Austin Romine as a veteran caddy, they could do worse as long as they actually split time behind the plate.

Gabriel asks: What about trading for Kelly Shoppach as a back-up? I just read on MLBTR that the Red Sox were thinking of dealing him. Red Sox-Yanks deals are always tough, but what do you think?

Shoppach can hit a little, though he’s not really a .267/.359/.522 hitter like he has been this year. His primary value comes against left-handed pitchers, who he’s tagged for a .249/.348/.465 line over the last three seasons. That’s a useful platoon guy and would be a clear upgrade for the Yankees. The problem, as you know, is the whole Red Sox-Yankees thing. I can’t see those two teams getting together for a trade unless Boston just completely falls apart and decides to sell before the deadline (or even during the waiver trade period in August). I think they would have to get a real prospect in return as part of the trade, otherwise the negative PR from “helping the Yankees” probably isn’t worth it. He’d be a fit, he knows the division from his time with the both the Sox and Rays, but I just don’t think he’s actually obtainable.

Alex asks: According to Jayson Stark, the Angels are willing to give up Peter Bourjos in a deal for the right bullpen piece. Given that David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain will be back this summer, would it be worth dealing Rafael Soriano to pick up an outfielder for the next few years?

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

No, I don’t think so and for a few reasons. For one, the goal is still to win this year and trading Soriano for Bourjos decreases the team’s chances of doing so. Aardsma just had his setback and despite all his progress, we have no idea what the Yankees will get out of Joba until he’s actually on a mound for them. They can’t start counting their chickens before they hatch.

Secondly, I’m just not a big Bourjos fan. I know he’s young and cheap and under control for the next half-decade and all that, but I’m just not a fan of defense-first players. We’ve — well not me specifically, but the baseball analysis community in general — come a long way with advanced defensive metrics but I still don’t have a ton of faith in them. That doesn’t mean I think Bourjos or Brett Gardner are bad players, just that I don’t think WAR accurately grades out their value. Plus could you imagine those two in the outfield at the same time? Even with Curtis Granderson the Yankees would still be lucky to get 45 homers out of their outfield.

The Bombers do need to add some kind of young outfielder for the long-term, but not enough to trade Soriano for him unless you’re getting a Mike Trout or something. Soriano may opt-out after the season and sign elsewhere and leave the Yankees with nothing to show for his tenure, who knows, but the best chance for the Yankees to win this season — before Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, etc. get a year older — is with him in the bullpen closing games.

Joe asks: What is Shin-Soo Choo’s contract status and do you think he would be a viable candidate to play right field and therefore let Nick Swisher walk?

Choo is making $4.9M this season and will be under team control one more time as an arbitration-eligible player next year. He’ll be a free agent after 2013. The Yankees would have to trade for him and any kind of extension would probably be in the range of whatever Swisher gets this winter. Choo’s a year or two younger, better defensively, and more of a on-base/gap power/stolen base guy that someone who hits the ball over the fence. Similar players and the difference between the two really isn’t worth arguing.

I think rentals are generally undervalued; there’s nothing wrong with giving up prospects for one year or even half-a-year of a player if he improves your chances of winning that year enough. Choo falls into that category but I’m not sure if the Indians would actually make him available, and if they did the price would be pretty high since he’s their like, franchise cornerstone guy. Him and Carlos Santana. He’d be a perfect fit for the Yankees but as always, it comes down to the price.