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.