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.

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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.

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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