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.

Poll: Rafael Soriano’s Opt-Out Clause

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

An expensive — and injured — luxury at this time last season, Rafael Soriano has become an indispensable part of the Yankees’ bullpen with Mariano Rivera out for the season and David Robertson shelved for a month. He’s pitched to a 0.73 ERA (1.91 FIP) with ten strikeouts and just two walks in 14 appearances since mid-May, and he’s kept the closer’s job despite Robertson’s return from the DL. That’s due to his 12-for-13 effort in save chances.

The return to the ninth inning already has some wondering about Soriano’s future with the team beyond this season, specifically his ability to opt-out of the final year and $14M left on his contract. This morning Joel Sherman wrapped up the situation succinctly…

Some teams in need of closers will appreciate (his performance), indeed, it continues. Soriano might not get $14 million a year, but what if he, say, were offered three years at $30 million? It would probably be in his best interest to jump at that, especially if it looks as if Rivera would return in 2013. Because, in that scenario, Soriano would almost certainly go back to being a set-up man in his walk year and run the risk of not being as enticing to the rest of the sport.

Soriano is a Scott Boras client and Boras isn’t stupid, he’ll gauge the closer market before pulling the trigger on the opt-out clause. The upcoming free agent market for late-game relievers is quite weak, with Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Valverde, and an injured Ryan Madson highlighting the crop. Soriano is the best healthy pitcher of the bunch and teams will pay for saves, just look at Heath Bell last winter.

Losing Soriano to the opt-out after the season would hurt the bullpen but also probably represents a net gain. Not only could the Yankees find a replacement setup man with that $14M, but they should have enough left over to help fill the right field and/or catching holes. Since the opt-out indicates a search for a larger payday, the Yankees could also make Soriano a qualifying offer — one year at approximately $12.5M — and be eligible for draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere. Again, his performance won’t be easy to replace, but it’s not impossible.

We’re still months away from the opt-out becoming an issue, and Soriano’s performance (and health) over these next few weeks are going to play a major role in his decision to stick it out for another season — as Mariano’s setup man — or leave for greener pastures. I’ve been saying since Day One that he wouldn’t opt-out, then again I also didn’t expect him to fill-in for Rivera for what amounts to 75-80% of the season.


Soriano unavailable due to blister, should be good for tomorrow

Rafael Soriano was unavailable tonight due to a blister on his right index finger, but it isn’t anything serious and he should be available tomorrow. The YES cameras showed him standing around in the bullpen in the sixth inning and he told Joe Girardi he could pitch if needed, but they held him back. Soriano had pitched in each of the last two games so the night off was probably a blessing in disguise.

Mailbag: Willingham, Soriano, Betances, CoJo

I’ve got five questions for you this week and I was able to keep the answers to four of them reasonably short. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send up mailbag questions or anything else.

(Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Daniel asks: Is Josh Willingham a possible trade target at the trade deadline? He’s having a good year, signed to a reasonable mid-term deal, and the Twins are awful. Any idea what sort of return he would command?

Willingham is having an insane year with the Twins — 173 wRC+ and eleven homers — after signing a three-year, $27M deal this offseason. Given Minnesota’s terribleness — 22-34 with a -70 run differential — and the fact that his value is at its apex at age 33, it would make sense for them to shop him around before he comes back to Earth. Kinda like what the Pirates did with Xavier Nady in 2008. Because he signed as a free agent this winter, the Twinkies can not trade him without his consent until one week from today. In other words, it’s no big deal.

Anyway, the Yankees don’t really have anywhere to play Willingham this season unless Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury lingers. He’s supposed to play in his first minor league rehab game tonight, so we’ll find out how well he’s recovering soon enough. The Yankees will presumably need a corner outfielder to replace Nick Swisher after the season however, and Willingham is affordable enough. His defense is terrible though and his best position is DH. Still, right-handed power is in short supply.

I usually try to think of comparable players when thinking up trade scenarios, but I can’t come up with anyone like Willingham. Older guy who’s still productive with two full seasons left on his market rate free agent contract? Does Miguel Tejada to the Astros work? Scott Rolen to the Reds? Those two got traded for quantity over quality packages. I’m sure the Yankees could cull something together in that case, but this isn’t a vacuum. Willingham would help any team but he really doesn’t fit New York’s roster.

A different Daniel asks: If Rafael Soriano can put together an above average statistical season, what would you say the odds are that he hits the road after this season?

Zero percent. Soriano is owed $14M next season and there’s no chance he’ll match that on the open market. No one wanted to sign him two offseasons ago coming off the best season of his life and I doubt the sentiment has changed this time around. Heck, Ryan Madson is flat out better than Soriano and there was no market for him last winter. I’m sure every club will have Heath Bell in the back of their mind whenever they think about signing a free agent reliever going forward, and that won’t help his case. Considering that he’s a health risk and is very good but not dominant, I can’t imagine any number of saves will have Soriano thinking about opting out of his current deal.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jacob asks: Do you think Dellin Betances needs a mechanical change to help with his walks? Maybe more of a sidearm or 3/4 delivery (Randy Johnson-esque) could possibly allow him to harness his abilities?

Dellin needs something to help with the walks and a mechanical change seems like an obvious solution. I’m not pitching coach or anything, so I have no idea if changing his arm slot or something like that will have a positive impact. I’ve always gotten the impression that it’s difficult to throw strikes with anything below a three-quarters slot, especially if there’s anything more an average velocity involved. Johnson was just a freak of nature and an extreme outlier, I wouldn’t use that guy as blueprint for anything.

At some point the Yankees need to do something about Betances, I can’t imagine an 8.1 BB/9 (19.0 BB%) is good for his confidence. I don’t know if it’s a move to the bullpen or a change in mechanics or a stern talking to, but this can’t go on forever.

Andrew asks: Why is nobody giving more attention to Corban Joseph? I know Single-A is the future, but he seems to have real pinstripes potential if he switches to the left side of the infield.

That’s the problem, he can’t switch to the left side of the infield. Joseph’s defense basically meets the minimum standards at second base and isn’t nearly good enough for short. He hasn’t even played one inning at shortstop in the minors and that’s not an accident. If he had a chance to play the position, they would have tried him there at some point. Joseph can handle third but not well, plus he’s unlikely to provide enough to play the position for a meaningful amount of time.

I don’t really know what Joseph is long-term. He makes good contact from the left side and draws some walks, so he has offensive value. Do they pigeon-hole him into a bench role and hope to hide his defense? Do they try him in an outfield corner and hope he can play second base as well as left and maybe right? I don’t really know. Joseph is on the 40-man though, so the Yankees see something they like in him.

J.R. asks: Mike, with all of the pre-draft deals that apparently took place this year, do you expect MLB to try and crack down on these next year?

They can try, but I’m not quite sure what they can do about it. I doubt the teams are getting these agreements in writing, so they’d basically have to look over the shoulder of every area scout to make sure he isn’t taking money with a player before the draft. I’m sure MLB would love to crack down on pre-draft arrangements, but it just might not be possible. Teams will always find a workaround.

Report: Soriano will remain closer when Robertson returns

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees intend to keep Rafael Soriano in the closer role even after David Robertson returns from his oblique strain in (hopefully) two weeks. I’m a fan of the move, I’ve wanted Soriano to close ever since Mariano Rivera got hurt. It frees up Robertson to be used a little more liberally in the seventh and eighth rather than be married to one specific inning late in the game. Soriano will make you sweat a bit but that’s unavoidable, he’s done the job these last few weeks and actually looks comfortable for the first time in pinstripes.

Rafael Soriano: Closer

All I'm saying is that I only tuck in my shirt for weddings and funerals, and funerals are debatable. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

When Mariano Rivera tore his ACL earlier this month, we knew that life would change in a way we haven’t experienced since 1996. Sure, Rivera had been hurt before, but never in season-ending fashion. That meant handing the closer role to someone not just for a particular stretch of the season, but the entire season, from May through hopefully October.

David Robertson, unsurprisingly, got the first crack. In 2011 he ascended the bullpen ranks, starting as a random reliever before graduating to the seventh inning in Rafael Soriano‘s absence, and then eventually to the eighth once the Yankees lost Joba Chamberlain. Even when Soriano returned, Robertson remained Rivera’s primary setup man. He had earned it with his performance.

In his brief time as closer, Robertson picked up just one save, a sweat-inducing performance against the Tampa Bay Rays. The next night he blew a save, and before he could get another opportunity he landed on the DL with an oblique strain. There are worse things, of course, and Robertson appears to be on his way back; he’ll throw off a mound for the first time on Saturday, three weeks after his DL stint began. Yet in his absence someone else has risen to the occasion.

When the Yankees lost Rivera, there was brief consideration of Rafael Soriano for the closer role. Prior to signing with the Yankees he had been Tampa Bay’s closer in 2010, amassing 45 saves with an ERA well under 2.00. The year before he split closer duties in Atlanta with Mike Gonzalez. All in all, he entered the 2012 season with 90 saves, giving him the vaunted “closer experience” that people in the game seemingly value so highly. Given that experience, and his performance in Rivera’s and Robertson’s absences, he could hold onto the closer role from here on out.

No, Soriano does not make matters easy. He’s yet to record a 1-2-3 inning this season. Yet that merely reminds me of another Yankees closer who kept us on the edges of our seats. In 1996 John Wetteland had a penchant for making things interesting, but he still got the job done. Setting up for him was strikeout artist Mariano Rivera. The Yankees could create a similar dynamic this year, using Robertson to reprise Rivera’s role once he returns.

(Girardi could even go so far as to use Robertson for the Rivera Special, a two-inning setup job, given the emergence of Cory Wade and Boone Logan as late-inning options on days Robertson is not available.)

While it’s difficult to assign causation, Soriano has flourished in his brief time as Yankees closer. In seven appearances he’s struck out six and walked just one, allowing a single run — and that in his first save opportunity of the season. He’s held opponents to a .231/.259/.346 line, which is all the more impressive when you remember that he’s allowed at least one walk or hit in every outing. That is, he’s bending ever so slightly, but he’s not particularly close to breaking.

In many other years, losing Rivera would have crippled the Yankees. They perpetually lacked setup men, so inserting one of those ragtag relievers into the closer role would have likely been disastrous. These days they have a little more cushion — so much, in fact, that there’s a legitimate debate about who should close games. Given the dynamic of the current bullpen, though, the Yankees would probably do best to leave Soriano in the closer role, where he’s clearly comfortable, and using Robertson in tougher situations. Both have shown that they can handle those roles with aplomb.