What Went Wrong: Winn & Kearns

You hit it in the wrong direction, Randy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Given the general construction of their roster, it’s always difficult for the Yankees to sign quality bench players as free agents in the offseason. No one in their right mind wants to sit for weeks at a time behind a cast of All Stars, especially when their playing time will impact their future earnings. As a result, the Yanks have had to resort to signing cast-offs late in the offseason and/or trading for help at midseason. They did both in 2010, signing a reserve outfielder right before pitchers and catchers reported, then replacing him with a trade deadline pickup. Unfortunately, neither worked.

Randy Winn

The Yankees signed Winn to a relatively cheap contract in February, a one-year pact worth just $1.1M guaranteed, though there was another $900,000 tied up in incentives based on plate appearances against left-handed pitchers only. That told everyone right away that they viewed him as some sort of a platoon bat, not to mention a defensive specialist and occasional pinch runner.

As it turned out, Winn’s tenure in pinstripes lasted less than two months. He was designated for assignment on May 28th, less than 50 games into the season. His time with the Yanks featured just 71 plate appearances (0-for-11 vs. LHP) and a lowly .276 wOBA, though I will say that I thought he had some decent at-bats. He seemed to work the count well and at least make the pitcher work, though the results just weren’t there. Perhaps even more damning is that the supposed defensive specialist cost the team 1.2 runs in 162.2 defensive innings. Mash it all together, and Winn was worth three-tenths of a win below replacement level during his time in New York. Thankfully the Cardinals lessened the blow somewhat by assuming roughly $270,000 of Winn’s contract when they signed him in June.

Austin Kearns

Fans know Kearns' strikeout face well. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

After Winn flunked out of pinstripes and it became painfully obvious that Marcus Thames was a hazard to himself and anyone around him defensively, the Yanks went out and acquired Kearns from the Indians in exchange for a player to be named later (Zach McAllister) at the trade deadline. The former Red had rebuilt his value with the Indians in the first half, wOBA’ing .343 overall and (more importantly to the Yanks) .353 against southpaws.

Kearns instantly improved the team’s bench and overall depth, and his first three weeks in pinstripes were superb: .434 wOBA in 45 plate appearances while filling in at both outfield corners and occasionally pinch-hitting. That was basically all the Yankees would get out of Kearns though, as his production simply cratered after that. His final 74 plate appearances of the season featured just 24 times on base (inflated by four hit by pitches and one reached on an error) and 26 strikeouts, or one every 3.08 times to the plate. Although he made the postseason roster, Kearns didn’t make it into a single game even after Mark Teixeira‘s injury.

Kearns wasn’t a total loss for the Yankees (.310 wOBA) because his defense was rock solid (1.6 runs better than average), coming in at three-tenths of a win better than some replacement level scrub. In his defense, he was battling some sort of hand/wrist injury down the stretch that I’m sure hampered his swing, but still. Kearns was as close to useless as it gets in the last six or so weeks of the season.

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A pair of approximately replacement level fourth (or fifth, depending on your point of view) outfielders didn’t sink the Yankees’ season, though they certainly didn’t help. Thankfully the starting trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher were all above average performers this year, ditto Thames in a reserve role, so the lack of a true outfield bat off the bench wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been.

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Yankees designate Randy Winn for assignment

I didn’t expect it, but the Yankees designated Randy Winn for assignment today, clearing room on the roster for Curtis Granderson, who’s been activated off the disabled list. “I was ready, I was prepared,” said Winn. “I played terrible, that’s the bottom line.”

Winn didn’t do much of anything during his short time in pinstripes, except for hitting that three run homer a few weeks back. Otherwise, he’s been a zero with the bat and hasn’t played enough to make a difference on defense. The Yanks still owe Winn the $1.1M his contract calls for, but he didn’t reach any of the incentives.

Granderson roulette: Russo, Winn or Pena

On May 1, Curtis Granderson injured his groin in a game against the White Sox, and the Yankees fell to 15-8 on the season. Since then, the Yankees have gone just 13-11, and even though Granderson is hitting just .225/.311/.375 on the young season, he brings depth to the Yanks’ lineup and bench. His return from the disabled list — rumored to come tonight — is a welcome development indeed.

When Granderson is activated, the Yanks will have their center fielder back. Granderson told reporters that he is at around 90-95 percent. “The groin is actually good. I haven’t felt anything with it,” he said. “If you dig in and touch it, it’s still tender to the touch. But I don’t feel anything with it.”

The Yankees, notoriously tight-lipped, haven’t yet decided on a corresponding roster move. As far as I can tell, the team has three options. Because Joe Girardi prefers a full bullpen, they will ship Kevin Russo back to the minors, designate Randy Winn for assignment or send Ramiro Pena down to AAA. Let’s evaluate.

1. Send Kevin Russo back to AAA

Our first option remains both most likely and least popular with the fans. By virtue of a few clutch hits and some solid work in left field, Kevin Russo has turned himself into a household name. He could still find himself ticketed to Scranton.

Why Russo will go: With Granderson’s return, the Yankees will have their three starting outfielders, Randy Winn, and — gulp — Marcus Thames as their five outfielders. For his defensive capabilities, Russo is a better long-term option than Thames ever will be, but he’s hitting just .250/.286/.350 and has a career Minor League OPS of .763. By sending him down, the Yankees can give him some every-day experience and work on his infield and outfield skills. He’ll remain under team control and would probably be the first guy up in case of emergency.

Why Russo could stay: Randy Winn looks like toast. Ramiro Peña, not known for his offense, hasn’t hit a lick this year. If anything, Russo is the best of three less-than-desirable choices.

2. Designate Randy Winn for assignment

I have to admit that I’m no fan of Randy Winn. I expected him to be a decent enough outfielder with some bat, but he’s shown no ability whatsoever this year. He hits like Melky and seems to throw like Johnny Damon, and his bad play in the Citi Field games did little to endear him to fans. The Yanks are paying him a guaranteed $1.1 million with some performance bonuses, and they could easily just cut him loose.

Why Winn will go: Handed the left field job when Curtis Granderson went down, Winn did everything in his power to lose it. He’s hitting a weak .213/.300/.295 this year and can’t seem to get around on a fastball. On the bright side, he has a 1.4 UZR in left field but with an arm below average. He is easily replaceable.

Why Winn will stay: With that positive UZR, the Yankees could utilize Winn as a late-innings defensive specialist. They don’t particularly need his bat with Granderson’s return to the lineup, and once the team cuts Winn, they won’t be bringing him back. With Russo or Peña, the team can simply summon either player from AAA and be none the worse for it. The Yankees like their old veterans, and Winn fits that bill — at least for a few more weeks.

3. Send Ramiro Peña to AAA

The Yanks’ final option would involve sending out their lone back-up middle infielder to AAA. The all-glove, no-hit 25-year-old could head back to Scranton to take some innings at the corner outfield positions with an eye toward replacing Randy Winn if he can handle the job.

Why Peña will go: If you thought Randy Winn’s bat was slow, get a load of Peña’s. He’s appeared in just 18 games this year and has come to the plate 42 times. Whatever offense he might have is just withering away, and he’s hitting .211/.244/.237. He somehow managed to hit .287 last season, but his minor league career triple slash — .255/.315/.320 — is more in line with his 2010 numbers than his 2009 campaign. In a very small sample, his defense has been nothing spectacular this year, and he is, simply put, dead weight on a roster with too much dead weight.

Why Peña will stay: Only one trait is keeping Ramiro in the Bronx: He can play short stop. The Bombers do not appear to believe that Kevin Russo could man short should Jeter go down, and the team would prefer to keep their only versatile back-up infield at the big league level. It’s flimsy reasoning at best, but it should be enough to save Peña’s job for the next few months as Russo learns short.

As roster moves go, the one the Yanks must make later today is rather inconsequential, but it certainly provides us with a glimpse into the inner workings of a GM’s mind. Someone will have to go, and while three candidates could be shipped out, which one goes will have an impact on the make-up of the current Yankee roster.

Randy Winn and a lesson in outfield positioning

When the Yankees lose, we tend to look everywhere for someone or something to blame. Among the many perceived goats for last night’s game is Randy Winn, not just for his game ending strikeout, but because of his positioning on Jeremy Hermida’s go-ahead double in the top of the ninth. Winn was playing shallow (so was centerfielder Brett Gardner, but we like him), only to have the ball go over his head for a double. MJ Recanati went so far as to say Johnny Damon would have caught that ball, wondering if the 13-year big league vet had ever heard of no doubles defense.

I’ll give MJ a pass on that because I’m sure when he wrote that after the game he was just as livid as I was, but no doubles defense is the wrong call in that spot. Before we touch the philosophical side of outfield positioning, let’s first look at the facts. Below is Mariano Rivera‘s spray chart from 2009, courtesy of Katron.org

For further reference, here’s his 2008 spray chart as well. 2010 is a tiny sample, it does nothing for us.

Clearly, Rivera does not allow many balls to be hit to deep left field, just five total from ’08-’09. It’s the nature of the cutter. If a righty is going to hit it, he’s got to slap it the other way. If a lefty wants to hit it, he’s got to pull his hands in and muscle it out of the infield, hence all the bloops hits and shallow singles Mo gives up. Only three balls during the 2009 season were hit like the ball Hermida hit off Rivera last night, and you’re talking about 247 batters faced (130 lefties).

Furthermore, even if Mo wasn’t on the mound, just think about the situation. There were two outs in the inning, so the runners on second and third (Marco Scutaro and Darnell McDonald, respectively) were going on contact. They were going both going to score on a single, nevermind a double. You bring the outfielders in to play the percentages, cutting off the most likely event. With Mo and his amazing ability to induce weak contact on the mound, it makes even more sense to do that.

Sometimes though, you just gotta tip your cap and credit the other guy. Give Hermida some props for a nice piece of hitting. Seriously, look where this pitch was…

That’s a great pitch, a 90 mph cutter on the outer black. Hermida just went out and got it. It happens. Not very often, but it happens.

I know it’s easy to jump on Winn or the coaching staff or whoever for poor positioning on a play like that, especially since Randy kinda stinks, but in this case it’s not justified. He was positioned properly, Rivera executed his pitch, and Hermida just beat him. Simple as that.

Joba, Mo can’t finish off the Twins

No one likes to see a game like that. The Yanks seemed in control the whole time. Sergio Mitre did his job, and then David Robertson did his. To have it come apart in the hands of your two best relievers will certainly break hearts. We know that Joba can’t K ‘em all, and we know that Mo has one of these hiccups once or twice a year. I hope that, by this point, everyone knows it’s not time to write a column about how Mo’s time has come. Sadly, you know it’s there.

Biggest Hit: Winn splits the outfielders

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

The Twins got on the board in the second when Justin Morneau hit a solo homer, but that wasn’t the biggest deal. Morneau will do that from time to time, and the Yanks were sure to score a run at some point. It didn’t look like that would come in the second. The first two batters made outs, though Jorge did come through with a single up the middle. Marcus Thames drew a rare walk, but even then things didn’t look good, for Randy Winn was at the bat.

During Curtis Granderson‘s absence I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Winn swing over pitches. Even with fastballs it seems like his bat passes through the zone a good few inches above where the ball crosses. This time, though, he went down and got a low fastball and drove it into the gap. The Twins fielders seemed ill positioned for such a drive — it takes a special kind of hit to score Marcus Thames from first, even with two out. That put the Yanks up 2-1.

Winn picked up another big hit, though we’ll get to that later. I want to like him — he’s been a solid player throughout his career and would make a quality fourth outfielder — but it just hasn’t clicked for him this year. It might not at all.

Biggest Pitch: Duh

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

After inexplicably walking Jim Thome with the bases loaded, Mo got another chance to finish the eighth, this time against the lefty Jason Kubel. He opened with a cutter low and in, which Kubel looked at for ball one. The next one was in a similar spot, just a bit higher, and Kubel crushed it into the right field stands. We were all crushed, though it’s not an unfamiliar scene. It actually reminded me of Mo’s early appearance against the Rays last season (the one in May, not the one during the summer).

The first sin, of course, was walking Thome, who just wasn’t biting on those cutters low and in. He took one way off the plate for ball one, but the next two were much closer. After getting one over middle-low, Mo went back to working inside, generating two foul balls before his errant seventh pitch. That one was up and away, which makes me think he completely missed. He got another chance, though, and just didn’t come through. I’m sure he will next time they call his name.

Still, it was on Joba

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

Mo might have thrown the pitches that turned the game, but Joba put him in that position. He actually started off the inning well enough. Denard Span singled to lead off, which is never ideal with a runner of his speed. But those types of things happen, and good pitchers work around them. Joba did by inducing a ground ball, but not one that would allow the Yanks to double up Orlando Hudson. He then pitched around Joe Mauer, an understandable strategy, before striking out Justin Morneau. All seemed well.

It was not all well, of course. Joba threw four straight breaking balls to Michael Cuddyer, and found himself in a 2-2 count. He did go to the fastball, 96 mph and high in the zone, but not quite high enough. Cuddyer fouled it away. Joba, ever the predictable one, went back to his slider, and Cuddyer crushed it towards Teixeira, who couldn’t hold on. I thought going to Mo was a bit premature there, especially with the slumping Jim Thome at the plate, but it was by no means a bad move. Calling on Mo never is. I just would have rather seen Joba clean up his own mess.

When the bottom of the order hits…

Joe Girardi sure knows how to waste his bench. When Greg Golson, defensive sub for Marcus Thames, came up in the eighth, Girardi still had Nick Swisher off the bench to pinch hit. Because the lefty Brian Duensing was on the mound, Girardi could use Swish, who can swing pain-free only from the right side. Ron Gardenhire predictably went to his righty, so Girardi had to burn yet another pinch hitter, Juan Miranda. And Miranda predictably struck out. That meant Randy Winn and Ramiro Pena were set to open the ninth.

Yet, by some stroke of luck, both singled off Jon Rauch, giving the Yankees three opportunities with the tying run at the plate. But Rauch got his bearings and struck out the next three batters he faced, the top of the order. It’s quite disheartening to see the scrubs give you a chance, only to see your best blow it. I don’t know what to say after that, other than that’s baseball.

WPA Graph and box score

Yes, you can make the joke about falling off a cliff.

More WPA info at FanGraphs and the box score at MLB.com.

Up Next

The Red Sox come into town for a pair. Phil Hughes and Daisuke Matsuzaka kick off the series tomorrow night at 7. The RABbis will be in attendance.

2010 Season Preview: The Four Benchmen

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The days of the 11-man pitching staff seem behind us. Bullpen specialization, combined with managers employing a slightly quicker hook for starters, makes teams more comfortable with seven available bullpen arms rather than six. This becomes a big deal when creating a 25-man roster. In the AL it means a shallow bench. Eight position players plus a DH leaves just four sports for reserve players, one of which must be a backup catcher. Teams must be cautious, then, when choosing their bench players.

Thankfully, the Yankees have the personnel to make the bench work. While both Nick Swisher and Nick Johnson start at other positions, they can fill in for Mark Teixeira at first if needed. They also have a number of players in the system who can play the other three infield positions, making only one of them necessary for the 25-man roster. That leaves one spot for a reserve outfielder and one spot for a pinch hitter. The bench need not necessarily work that way when the team breaks camp, but it should end up that way soon enough.

Photo credit: Charlie Riedel/AP

Last season the Yankees started the year with a heavy bench, even with A-Rod sidelined with his hip injury. The only consequence was a downgrade from Cody Ransom to Ramiro Pena, not a huge one at all even considering Pena’s rookie status. In the outfield they had Melky Cabrera and Nick Swisher, both starters the previous year. It’s tough, actually, to build a better bench than that. It was probably the Yankees’ best in five or more years. Xavier Nady‘s injury thinned it out in April, though, and the team had to react. They later traded for Eric Hinske for pinch hitting purposes. The bench, again, seemed strong.

Photo Credit: Steve Senne/AP

This season the Yankees’ bench doesn’t appear as strong as 2009, but it still provides the Yankees with what they need. Ramiro Pena or Kevin Russo will serve as the all-purpose utility man, Brett Gardner or Randy Winn will serve as a reserve outfielder and possibly half of a platoon, Francisco Cervelli will back up Jorge Posada, and Marcus Thames will get at-bats late in games mixed with the occasional start against a lefty. That doesn’t seem too bad at all. Perhaps the Yankees will seek a better pinch hitter than Thames come mid-season, but he’s a serviceable option to start the season.

Even though solid, the bench doesn’t come into play a lot, especially the utility infielder. Robinson Cano played 161 games, Derek Jeter played 153, and Alex Rodriguez, a year removed from his surgery, likely won’t take as many days off. This should limit the utility infielder to 100 plate appearances or so through August (there’s no telling what happens in September when rosters expand). If the winner of Pena/Russo doesn’t hit, or has problems in the field, the Yanks can swap them. The actual difference it makes, though, will be marginal. There will be chances in the outfield, as the left field situation doesn’t seem quite settled. Also, since neither Brett Gardner nor Randy Winn carries a heavy bat, a pinch hitter could get late-game opportunities.

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Just how do the projection systems view the Yanks’ four bench players? Mike already covered Winn in his left field preview, so here are the remaining three.

Cervelli:


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Pena:


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Thames:


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The average projections seem fairly reasonable. Thames, as we know, is all power and not much else. That could make for a good bench player, at least to start the season. If he doesn’t prove effective, the Yankees can go shopping in June. That yielded Eric Hinske last year and could easily net them a similar player this year should the need arise. Pena and Cervelli appear perfectly reasonable for their roles. Cervelli could see more playing time, depending on Jorge’s situation.

Again, the Yankees’ advantage is that they don’t need the bench for very much. Pena will give the infielders a day off, while Winn will spell the outfielders. Thames will come up when the team needs a long fly and Gardner or Winn is due up. Those all seem like very limited roles. Cervelli is the only one who figures to play regularly, though we hope not too regularly. He’s fine as a backup. Hopefully that’s the only role he fills this season.

2010 Season Preview: Sacrificing offense for defense in left

Every so often we see an organization get stuck looking to fill one position for an extended period of time. The Red Sox have been searching for a shortstop ever since they traded away Nomar Garciaparra, and the Twins are still trying to find a solid third baseman to replace Corey Koskie. For a while the Yankees had their own positional problem, using a different Opening Day leftfielder every season from 1994 to 2003. That problem was solved when Hideki Matsui came aboard in ’03, and in recent years Johnny Damon had taken over the position, but with both of those stalwarts now playing elsewhere, the Yankees once again are left searching for a long-term leftfield solution.

Typically considered a power position, the Yanks have instead decided to focus on defense in left. The tremendous offensive production they receive from the four up-the-middle positions allows them to take a bit of a hit in one of the corner outfield spot. With the speedy Brett Gardner already in-house, the team opted to complement him with free agent signing Randy Winn, who managed to be close to a two win player in 2009 despite a .302 wOBA because of his superlative defense. Add in Rule 5 pick Jamie Hoffmann, and it’s clear the Yankees made a conscious effort to improve their defense when replacing Damon in left.

Gardner played nothing but centerfield last year, saving 7.2 runs in 628.2 defensive innings. Winn, on the other hand, saved 16.6 runs in just under 1,200 defensive innings for the Giants. Unlike Gardner, he shifted around and spent time at all three outfield spots. Looking at three-year UZR, we’re talking about 55.2 runs saved in just over 4,700 defensive innings combined between these two, so clearly the defensive ability is there. Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg Winn as a +2.0 UZR defender in left next year, and Brett Gardner as perfectly average at the position. Both players project to be better defenders at different positions (Winn in right, Gardner in center), but the Yankees aren’t about to shift Curtis Granderson and/or Nick Swisher around for marginal improvements with the glove. These projections seem a little light, but let’s roll with them.

Aside from defense, the other aspect of the game where these guys excel is on the bases. Gardner stole 26 bases last year (83.9% success rate), and according to EqBRR he was worth 4.9 runs in all baserunning situations, 11th best in baseball despite being a part-time player. Believe it or not, Winn is just as much of a threat on the basepaths, having stolen 16 bases with an 88.9% success rate in 2009, and his 4.8 EqBRR was a tenth of a run behind Gardner for the 12th best in the game. No matter which player the Yankees have patrolling leftfield next season, they’re guaranteed of getting solid (or better) defense with top of the line baserunning.

Offensively, we have a different story. Let’s review some projections, starting with Gardner…

After posting a .270-.345-.379 batting line with a slightly above average .337 wOBA in 2009, the five freely available projection systems see Gardner basically repeating that performance. It’s slightly above league average overall but generally below average for a corner outfielder. Combine the offense with the +0.0 UZR projection and say another +5.0 runs on the bases, and Gardner’s looking at a 1.4 WAR season. The shift from center to left decreases Gardner’s value more than anything. It wouldn’t take much to get him over the two win plateau, just a slightly better than league average UZR and another 50 or so plate appearances of similar production.

Now for the grizzled vet…

Winn’s offense doesn’t project to be as good as Gardner’s because of a 20 point difference in on-base percentage, but the good news is that they see an improvement over his .262-.318-.353 (.302 wOBA) performance from last year. Granted, the .316 wOBA projection is nothing to brag about, and when combined with a +2.0 UZR and say +5.0 runs on the bases, you get a one win player. Nothing to get excited over, but not a bad return on a minimal investment ($1.1M) at all.

Of course, figuring out the actual production the Yanks will get out of leftfield is slightly more complicated because Gardner and Winn will presumably split playing time. If Gardner gets say, two-thirds of the playing time, Joe Girardi‘s club is probably looking at two wins total for the position, which for all intents and purposes is league average. That doesn’t account for Marcus Thames and/or Jamie Hoffmann, both of whom are trying to state their case for a job this spring. Since both players are projected to perform at replacement level next year, we really don’t have to worry about them. Anything the Yanks get from either is gravy.

For the most part, whoever the Yankees send out to leftfield on a given day will be their weakest player on the field. However, given their strength up-the-middle and two .400 wOBA corner infielders, they can afford to add another to dimension to the team in the form of strong defense and elite baserunning. I don’t expect them to have nine different Opening Day leftfielders in the next nine years like they did a decade ago, but what the Yankees have right now isn’t anything more than a stopgap.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP