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

New numbers for new players

There’s very little official business left for the Yankees to take care of this offseason. They still have to renew the contracts of their 19 pre-arbitration players, but that should happen in the next week or so. Other than that, it’s just show up for Spring Training, assign numbers to the new guys, and get to work.

During his introductory press conference, we learned that Curtis Granderson would be wearing No. 14, giving some credibility to a number that had been used exclusively for spare parts in recent years. The Yankees did make three other significant additions this offseason, though the numbers Nick Johnson, Javy Vazquez, and Randy Winn will sport in 2010 still aren’t listed on the official site.

However, as astute commenter Mo’s Savant noticed, their numbers are listed in MLB.com’s store, available for customizing a shirt or jersey. Of course these aren’t official, but if you’re like me and find a weird satisfaction in these kind of things, it’s worth mentioning. Let’s run through them one by one.

Nick Johnson: No. 26

NJ wore No. 36 during his first stint in the Bronx, but apparently Edwar Ramirez has too firm a grip on it. I suppose Nick could buy it from him in Spring Training, but I’m guessing it’s not that important to him; he wore No. 24 with the Expos/Nationals , and No. 20 with the Marlins. Jose Molina, who will always hold a special place in my heart as the best backup catcher of the Jorge Posada era, was the last to wear No. 26, and before him it belonged to other backup backstops like Wil Nieves, Koyie Hill, and Sal Fasano. The last significant player to wear the number was Orlando Hernandez during the Dynasty Years.

Photo Credit: Linda Kaye, AP

Javy Vazquez: No. 31

A former Yankee like Johnson, Vazquez wore No. 33 during his one season in pinstripes, and did the same with the White Sox and Braves. During the Expo and Diamondback years, Javy rocked No. 23. Nick Swisher is the proud owner of No. 33, and he went out of his way to get the number from Brian Bruney last year, so I don’t think he’s giving it up anytime soon. So Javy is stuck with No. 31, previously worn by Mike Dunn and Ian Kennedy, and Edwar Ramirez and Aaron Small before them. Dave Winfield was the last big time Yankee to wear the number, though Tim Raines also had it during the late-90’s and Steve Karsay during the early-00’s.

Photo Credit: Matthew Gunby, AP

Randy Winn: No. 22

During his time with the Devil Rays, Mariners, and Giants, Winn had always worn No. 2. Obviously, he’s not getting that as a Yankee. Instead, he doubles up on it and takes No. 22 from the departed Xavier Nady. That number has a prominent place in recent Yankee lore, having been worn by Roger Clemens, Robbie Cano, and Jimmy Key with a few LaTroy Hawkinses and Jon Lieberses mixed in. Jorge Posada even wore it for part of the 1997 season, his first full year in the majors as Joe Girardi‘s backup.

Photo Credit: Chris O’Meara, AP

Unfortunately, we still don’t have numbers for the likes of Boone Logan or Greg Golson, or any of the prospects added to 40-man after the season either. We’re just going to have to wait for camp to open and see what’s on their backs. I’m happy I can finally buy my Nick Johnson shirt, but damn, did they really raise the price of customizable shirts to $36.99? It’s a recession, you know.

Open Thread: Winn comes cheaper than originally thought

When the Yankees first reached an agreement with Randy Winn a few weeks back, reports indicated that he would receive the last $2M left in the budget. Not long after that, the Dodgers landed Reed Johnson for just a six-figure payout, and I said the Yanks overpaid to get their man, even though he was the right player.

Well guess what? It turns out Winn’s deal isn’t quite as rich as originally reported. Take it away, Joel Sherman

The Yankees today also officially signed Winn to his one year contract for a $1.1 million base with $900,000 available in incentives: $100,000 each for 50, 75 and 100 plate appearances, and $150,000 apiece for 125, 150, 175 and 200.

Yes, the incentives add up to $900,000 which would make the total value of the deal the original $2M. However that money is far from guaranteed, and if Winn pockets it, it means either a) something bad has happened in the outfield, or b) he played well enough to earn the playing time. Remember this is a very easy deal to back out of. If Winn’s not producing, they’ll just dump him.

Bottom line: Randy Winn at $2M was an overpay, but Randy Winn at 55% of that with some incentives is just fine. No reason to cancel your season tickets.

Update: Commenter Cecala points out that Winn’s incentives are based on plate appearances against lefty pitchers only. Even better.

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Once you’re finished disagreeing with me, go ahead and use this as your open thread for the night. In case you haven’t heard, we have a perpetual off-topic post now, available at the end of the nav bar above. You don’t have to wait all day to talk about something we don’t have a post for anymore. Anyway, the Devils are the only local team in action tonight, but there is a new hour of 24 on. Enjoy the thread.

Did the Yanks make a mistake by passing on Reed Johnson?

Just a few days after the Yankees brought Randy Winn aboard the Dodgers struck by signing Reed Johnson, who was also in consideration for the left field spot in the Bronx at some point as well. When the deal was first reported, I said it would be interesting to see how much money Johnson got compared to Winn, who was the recipient of the Yankees’ last $2M. As it turns out, the Dodgers landed Johnson for just $800,000, which makes the Winn contract look just awful.

It’s not that Winn is overpaid compared to the value he provides, in fact if he’s just a one win player in 2010 (something he’s been in every single one of his full seasons in the bigs) then the Yankees are getting a slight bargain. However with the market like it is and compared to his peers like Johnson, Winn is overpaid. Obviously there’s a lot more going on here than just what appears on the surface, and we have no idea what went on behind the scenes. Winn was reportedly ready to accept another offer (from the Nationals) and he certainly leveraged that against the Yanks, and Johnson may have taken a bit of a discount to go back to Southern California, where he grew up. We have no idea how (or if) those factors came into play.

But getting back to the players, the idea was that the Yanks were looking to bring in a righty hitting outfielder to platoon with Brett Gardner, and Johnson seemed perfect for the role. He’s a career .313-.378-.463 hitter against southpaws, compared to Winn who’s hit .280-.332-.426 off lefties in his career and just .158-.184-.200 against them in 2009. There’s just no disputing that Johnson was a far better fit for that role, however the game doesn’t end in the batter’s box.

Just looking at the players the Yankees have vying for bench spots – Winn, Ramiro Pena, Jamie Hoffmann, Greg Golson, Frankie Cervelli – it’s easy to see that the team is emphasizing defensive competence with their reserves. Johnson’s defense has been a mixed bag, as he’s posted an above average +5.4 UZR in 106 defensive games in left over the last three seasons, so it’s a nice number in a not large sample. Most of his recent action has come in center (just 21 games in right over the last three seasons), where he’s posted a -6.0 UZR in 121 defensive games. We’ve already discussed the fact that Winn is one of the best defensive corner outfielders (and best baserunners) in the game here, so the run prevention smiley face goes on Winn’s paper.

The prevailing thought is that the Yankees are susceptible to lefty relievers in the late innings with the likes of Curtis Granderson and Gardner hitting towards the bottom of the lineup, and that’s certainly true, but it’s not like Johnson has set the world on fire as a pinch hitter. In 90 career pinch hitting appearances, he’s a .238-.303-.375 hitter, and if we’re going to trash Winn for 125 at-bats vs. lefties in 2009, it would be hypocritical to not denounce Johnson for his small sample size shortcomings. And the Yankees aren’t a team that pinch hits all that much anyway (97 total pinch hitting appearances in 2009, most of which came when they were resting players in September), so we’re talking about a situation that might pop up once or twice a week.

Yes, giving Randy Winn $2M next season is drastically overpaying considering to how the market shook out, however we’re talking about a spare outfielder and the 23rd or 24th man on the roster. Overpaying that guy for one season isn’t a big deal, especially for the Yanks. Johnson is a nice player, but as fans we tend to focus on just one aspect of a player’s game and trick ourselves into thinking they’re more (or less) than they really are, and that seems to have definitely happened with these two players given their production against lefthanders. CHONE projects Winn for 0.8 WAR in 2010, Johnson got a whopping 0.1 WAR. Sure, Reed Johnson hits lefties well, but Randy Winn does everything else better. The price is definitely wrong, but the player is right.

Photo Credit: Paul Beaty, AP

What should the Yankees expect from Randy Winn in 2010?

When word got out that the Yankees had agreed to a deal with Randy Winn yesterday, many fans were up in arms over letting a silly little thing like a budget get in the way of bringing Johnny Damon back. Damon was a proven performer on the big stage after all, and he had just played a major role in helping the team capture their 27th World Championship. Instead the Yanks opted for Winn, who was so bad with the bat in 2009 that he got outslugged by Ramiro Pena. By 30 points!

Brian Cashman has been saying for weeks that he only had $2MM to spend on a left fielder, but almost no one took him seriously because hey, they’re the Yankees and they usually get what they want and will pay top dollar to do so. Not this time. Scott Boras told Cash that he wouldn’t take a penny less than $26M over two years for Damon back in December, and Cashman ended up calling his bluff. So now the Yankees are paying Winn $2M in 2010 to do something. Whether that’s serve as the every day left fielder or be a platoon partner for Brett Gardner or just provide a veteran presence on the bench, we don’t know. We won’t know until the season starts either.

Winn’s .262-.317-.353 batting line in 2009 represents the worse full season offensive output of his career, an ominous sign for a 35-year-old. His .158-.184-.200 line against lefties was the worst mark by a righty batter in 54 years, however that comes with the disclaimer of a microscopic .178 BABIP. One-seventy-eight. If he had posted his career average BABIP against lefties (.301), he actually would have picked up an extra 17 hits, nearly doubling his average to an even .300. That is some horrific luck ladies and gentlemen. It’s so horrible that even at his age, a rebound is all but guaranteed. Bouncing back against lefties alone will improve his overall offensive output, but moving from cozy AT&T Park Park to the New Stadium will help as well. I’m not saying Winn will revert to his ~.350 wOBA ways of ’07-’08, but matching Melky Cabrera‘s .331 wOBA from a year ago isn’t out of the question. He did have 22.3% line drive rate in 2009, his highest in at least eight years, so Winn’s bat hasn’t gone totally limp.

The one area of Winn’s game that doesn’t need to improve is his defense. He’s been well-above average in both corners over the last few years, and Jeff Zimmerman’s age-adjusted UZR projections peg him as a +2 defender in left and +9 in right. The Yanks could optimize their defensive alignment by sticking Winn in right and sliding Nick Swisher over to left (where he projects for +1 UZR), but for now let’s assume Winn’s staying in left. Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR metric rates him as well-above average on the bases, but if you’re into raw stolen base totals, then you’ll be pleased by Winn’s 56 steals and 88.9% (!!!) success rate over the last three years. Gardner’s fast, crazy fast even, but he was too hesitant in late-inning stolen base situations at times last year. Given his experience, Winn should absolutely be the new guy for that job, and he should be fantastic at it.

So let’s round it all up. We’ve got Winn as a .331 wOBA hitter next year (essentially replacing the Melkman), a +2 UZR defender in left, and let’s say +2.4 runs on the bases (half of his 2009 total). Assuming 400 plate appearances, Winn would be just a tad over a two win player in 2010, but let’s call it an even two. For all intents and purposes, that’s league average. Despite his struggles last season, Winn was worth just under two wins, so we’re not out of the realm of reality here. A two win player for $2M is a bargain, and even if the aging process is harsh or the NL-AL switch is tougher than expected and knocks Winn down to a one win player, the Yanks are still paying him about two-thirds of his market value. The Yankees should expect the bare minimum from Winn, but chances are they’ll be rewarded with more.

He’s certainly not a sexy name and he won’t be as productive as Damon, but the Yankees didn’t just take a match to $2M bucks. Remember, he’s not replacing Damon; Curtis Granderson is. Winn is essentially filling Melky’s spot (for $1.1M less). He’s a useful player and perfectly qualified for what the Yankees are asking him to do. Oh sure, there’s always a chance Winn will be just awful and is DFA bait by May, but I’d be shocked if he ends up being that bad. It’s a very easy move to back out of, and the Yanks did well to improve two of their roster’s biggest weaknesses (defense and baserunning) with Winn. And he’s going to bat ninth for cryin’ out loud, with this lineup they could let the pitcher bat and be a top five offense.

Update: As requested, here’s an overlay of the park dimensions of AT&T Park and the New Yankee Stadium. Keep in mind that the right field wall in San Francisco is 20-feet tall.

Photo Credit: Eric Risberg, AP

Yanks reach one-year deal with Randy Winn

Randy Winn doubles off Mike Pelfrey at Citi Field in August. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Proving once and far all that the team was serious about both having a budget and not overpaying for Johnny Damon, the Yankees today reached a one-year deal with Randy Winn, pending a physical. Joe Sherlman broke the news this afternoon via Twitter, and as Winn’s signing marks the definitive end of Damon’s tenure in the Bronx, Yankee fans were, unsurprisingly, up in the arms about the deal.

According to Sherman, Winn will probably get $2 million in 2010, and the Yanks opted for him over Reed Johnson both because of the price tag and because they view Winn as “a better overall player.” Even with this signing, it’s no sure thing that Winn will be the starting left fielder; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brett Gardner remain a starting outfielder with Winn as the Yanks’ defensive-minded fourth outfielder or see a platoon situation develop in the outfield.

Winn, 35, is seven months younger than Damon but hasn’t been nearly as productive a hitter as Johnny over the last few years. In 2009, Winn suffered through a .262/.318/.353 with just two home runs in 597 plate appearances. Based on his four-year line, he’s no better than Melky Cabrera but will cost $1 million less in 2010.Against lefties, he hit .158/.184/.200 in 125 PAs and was, according to Baseball Prospectus, the worst showing by a right-hander against left-handed pitching since 1954. It’s worth noting that Winn hit lefties to the tune of .289/.343/.470 in 2008, but with the most recent data on hand, it’s hard to see how Winn fills an offensive need. Joel Sherman reports that the Yanks could still ink a right-hander to a minor league deal.

On the other side of the ball, though, Winn is still a plus defender. He put up a overall OF UZR of 16.9 last year with a 7.9 mark in 54 games in left. His arm too is above average, and as he struggled offensively last year, he put up a 1.7 WAR. If he can simply duplicate those results, he will outperform the $2 million the Yanks are paying him.

And so Johnny Damon’s reign in New York comes to an end at the expense of someone no better than a fourth outfielder. The Yankees were drawn to Winn because he comes cheap and — with Carl Crawford nearing free agency — he comes for just one year. It was clear, based on recently discussions and rumors, that Damon wouldn’t re-up for a single season or at a price that fits the Yanks’ budget. Considering that the Yanks will probably still sport the same starting outfield tomorrow as they did yesterday, the team could have found a better fourth outfielder. Whether or not that player would have signed for so little is an entirely different story.

I couldn’t fit this into the post, but a good old tip o’ the cap to Jay Jaffe for highlighting the BP article about Winn’s 2009 platoon splits.