Mailbag: Potential Cubs’ Trade Targets

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Dustin asks: According to Bob Nightengale, nearly everyone on the Cubs but Jeff Samardzija is available. Looking at this realistically, who are some guys the Yankees should call in on?

Here’s the MLBTR write-up on Nightengale’s report and also clarification from Theo Epstein that shortstop Starlin Castro is not available. I’m sure they’re going to listen if someone is willing to blow them away, but I don’t think the Yankees have the pieces to land a young guy like Castro.

Anyway, the Cubs have a number of players that are both interesting and potentially useful to the Yankees. Some are obvious like Matt Garza (4.09 FIP), who Jon Heyman says New York is most interested in. I’m a Garza fan and think he’d be an ideal trade target for the rotation, though it would be costly. They’d be getting him for a season and a half at a below market salary, so I think something along the lines of the Dan Haren package — one premium prospect and two or three secondary pieces — would be reasonable. Heyman says the Yankees aren’t interested in Ryan Dempster (3.48 FIP) and I don’t love him either. Quality pitcher but not someone I consider a difference maker. Here’s what I wrote about Garza and Dempster last year.

Slugging first baseman/corner outfielder Bryan LaHair could be a fit for the Yankees depending on what they think of his defense in the outfield. He doesn’t have enough big league time for the defensive stats to be meaningful but it’s safe to assume he’s best at first given how often he’s played there this year and in the minors. The 29-year-old left-handed hitter is having a huge year (158 wRC+), but his primary skills are his ability to draw walks (12.7 BB%) and hits for power (.273 ISO), making him an ideal fit for Yankee Stadium. He strikes out a ton (28.9 K%) and struggles against southpaws (61 wRC+), so he’s cut from the Russell Branyan/Jack Cust cloth. LaHair came into the season will less than two years of service time, so he’ll be dirt cheap for the next five years and fit right into that 2014 payroll plan if he can handle a corner outfield spot on an everyday basis and essentially replace Nick Swisher.

Lesser pieces like David DeJesus (113 wRC+) and Reed Johnson (95 wRC+) could make sense if Brett Gardner‘s injury lingers, plus DeJesus is under contract for next year and could help replace Swisher in the short-term. I’m not the guy’s biggest fan but it is an option. The Yankee Analysts wrote more about DeJesus recently, so check that out. A reliever like changeup specialist Shawn Camp (3.17 FIP) could be a fit given the Mariano Rivera‘s injury, but I consider Carlos Marmol (5.47 FIP) a no-no. He’s just way too erratic and makes too much money. Kerry Wood could have been an option had he not retired a few weeks ago.

Garza and LaHair are the two most obvious players who could interest the Yankees if the Cubs do indeed conduct what amounts to a fire sale. A few lesser pieces like DeJesus and Camp could make sense but that’s really it; the north-siders don’t really have the most exciting roster in the world. The Yankees have never made a trade with the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime because of the whole Red Sox thing, but I can’t imagine that would impact any trade talks. Both parties know what’s up.

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The 2012 Bench Wishlist: A righty who can hit righties

(Photos: Johnson via Jonathan Daniel/Getty, Reimold via AP)

While many have given Andruw Jones his proper due for a terrific 2011 season off the bench, a closer review of his numbers made me wonder just how good his year was in a historical context. Granted, the bar for past Yankee bench players’ performances is a low one, but a look at every player who has played for the Yankees since 2002 shows that Jones — with a .371 wOBA and 1.4 fWAR — was probably the best non-full-time player on a Yankee roster of the past decade.

Jones of course was brought in to fill the Marcus Thames lefty-masher role, and rather thoroughly obliterated expectations. Unlike Thames, he unfortunately didn’t also have a surprisingly strong campaign against same-side pitchers (only a .316 wOBA vs. righties), but he of course torched lefties (.400 wOBA) while — again, unlike Thames — actually contributing on defense.

Indications are that Brian Cashman is interested in a return engagement with Jones, and while on the surface that seems like a strong move for the 2012 bench, it’s also probably a bit of a reach to expect that Jones has another .371 wOBA year in his bat going into his age 35 season.

Given the team’s relative struggles against northpaws this past season, it may might make some sense for the Yankees to buck orthodoxy and look into signing a right-handed hitting reserve who can actually hit right-handed pitching. I realize that no team in MLB is likely to actually specifically target a bench player with a reverse platoon split given everyone’s obsessions with matchups, but I don’t see why we have to limit ourselves to right-handers who can only hit lefties. The Yankees already destroy left-handed pitching as it is.

Reviewing the list of potentially available righties who fared well against RHP in 2011 yields two interesting names: Reed Johnson (.359 wOBA vs. RHP in 157 PAs), and Nolan Reimold (.360 wOBA vs. RHP in 207 PAs). Personal favorite Josh Willingham also fits the bill, though it seems incredibly unlikely that he won’t get a starting gig somewhere.

If it seems like the Yanks have been looking at Johnson forever, it’s because they pretty much have — back in the 2009-2010 offseason, there was a fair amount of speculation about the Yankees possibly looking at Johnson as the right-handed component of a left field platoon. Remember, this was before Brett Gardner established himself as a capable everyday player. Johnson wound up signing a one-year, $800,000 contract ($250k in incentives) with the Dodgers and had a terrible year, putting up a .287 wOBA over 215 PAs. He was abysmal against righties (.235 wOBA) and serviceable against lefties (.342). Johnson then signed a one-year, $900,000 minor-league contract with the Cubs last offseason, and wound up turning in a .354 wOBA in 266 PAs, with the aforementioned .359 wOBA vs. righties and .347 against lefties.

However, a deeper look into the numbers shows that the .359 wOBA was quite fluky, as Johnson’s a career .312 wOBA hitter against righties in over 2,000 PAs. Signing Johnson in the hope that he’ll be an asset against RHP is likely wishful thinking unless he all of a sudden figured out how to hit righties at age 35. That said, if the Yankees don’t bring Jones back, Johnson could probably fill the designated lefty-masher role, as he is the owner of a career .363 wOBA against LHP.

The 27-year-old Reimold’s a bit more of an interesting case. He burst onto the scene in 2009, and raked to a .365 wOBA over 411 MLB PAs after beginning the year utterly annihilating AAA (.530 wOBA in 130 PAs). Reimold took a huge step backwards in his sophomore season, breaking camp with the team but slumping horribly out of the gate, and bottomed out at .205/.302/.337 on May 11 before being demoted to AAA. Reimold hit OK after his demotion, though didn’t exactly light the world on fire (.341 wOBA in 401 PAs) and was recalled in September more due to rosters expanding than really deserving it. Reimold finished the year even worse than he began it, posting a woeful .212/.229/.303 line over the season’s final month.

Reimold began the 2011 season back in AAA, and didn’t really do anything to distinguish himself (.332 wOBA) but got called up anyway in mid-May and stuck in the bigs for the remainder of the season, ultimately posting a .341 wOBA across 305 PAs (including finishing the year out strongly with a .426 September wOBA). As previously noted, that full-season wOBA consisted of a .360 mark against same-sided pitchers (though strangely only a .295 mark against lefties), and Reimold has been a slightly reverse-platoon hitter throughout his brief MLB career, with a .345 mark against righties compared to .332 against lefties.

Now, I’m not saying Reimold is the answer to the team’s bench prayers — nor would he be particularly easy to acquire, given how loath Peter Angelos is to trade with the Yankees — but given that he’s spent the last two seasons still trying to reacquire his 2009 mojo, perhaps a change of venue would be beneficial. As to what Reimold would cost, I have no idea, but value-wise he’s probably not worth more than perhaps a B-level pitching prospect.

Again, the likelihood of the Yankees and Orioles actually consummating a deal is slim to none, but if new Oriole GM Dan Duquette was willing to talk and the price was right, the Yanks could do worse than considering Reimold (10.3% career BB%) for a seat on the bench.

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

Report: Dodgers close to deal with Reed Johnson

Via MLBTR, the Dodgers are closing in on a deal with free agent outfielder Reed Johnson. Johnson was considered a candidate for the Yanks’ left field job until they signed Randy Winn, and it’ll be interesting to see what his contract looks like.  If you’re curious, Johnson has been worth 1.7 WAR over the last two seasons with the Cubs. Winn was worth that in his down 2009 season alone.

Cashman: ‘Our team is, for the most part, set’

The headline is what Brian Cashman said to The Record’s Pete Caldera. But Cashman didn’t leave it at that. He got a bit more specific about the teams plans.

On left field: “We have a left fielder. We do like Brett Gardner.”
On any further acquisitions: “We’re just playing with the bench right now.”

Though there’s no quote for it, Caldera notes that the team is not quite done: “Cashman acknowledged that he’s searching for a right-handed hitter.” That would seemingly take Johnny Damon out of play, but I’ll drop the never say never cliche with that. It seems more and more likely that the Yankees will sign, or attempt to sign, Reed Johnson.

Left field closing arguments: Reed Johnson

I recently said that all we’re going to talk about is left field, but that will get boring, if it hasn’t already. So I’m going to make this easy. Over the next few days I’ll write up something about the available left fielders, then wrap it up at the end. That will conclude our left field discussion, unless something unforeseen happens. For all predictable rumors, we’ll point back to these.

If not for constant injuries, the market for Reed Johnson might be a lot more competitive. The 33-year-old has battled back issues for most of his seven-year major league career, and has suffered other maladies, mostly to his lower body. Not even the Cubs, Johnson’s most current team, wants him back. So, then, why would the Yankees even consider him?

Because he’s a potentially undervalued commodity.

In 2006, at age 29, Johnson experienced his breakout season. He started off with a 3 for 5 performance against the Twins and kept up the hot hitting for the next five months, ending August with a .327/.400/.501 line. His numbers dropped off a bit in September, probably due to a hip issue that eventually led to a stress fracture in his foot just days before the season ended.

Despite a training program to help correct the hip issue, Johnson still struggled through physical issues in 2007. He rested early in the spring because of a sore back, but by mid-April he was back on the DL, needing surgery for a herniated disc. After over two months of recovery, Johnson returned in July, but didn’t produce anything near his 2006 effort, ending the season with a .302 OBP and a .307 SLG. The Blue Jays tendered him a contract that off-season, eventually agreeing to a deal worth over $3 million. But after they added Shannon Stewart they cut Johnson in Spring Training, paying him only about $500,000 in termination pay. To the Cubs he went.

Back problems again affected Johnson in 2008, though he only missed the minimum 15 days. From his return through the end of the season, which included only 165 plate appearances, Johnson hit .342/.377/.461. The Cubs tendered him a contract for 2009, and he produced well enough, hitting .268/.336/.446 through June 20. But, at just about the same time as in 2008 he hit the DL with back soreness. Again he missed only the minimum 15 days, but soon after fractured his foot. A slow recovery meant he got just 20 more plate appearances before the end of the season, though he made them count, hitting three doubles and a triple.

Johnson has demonstrated that he can hit, and for stretches can hit very well. He also plays excellent defense, positing a 23.3 UZR/150 over 2,666.2 career innings in left field. In terms of platooning, he’s an ideal caddy for Gardner, or even Granderson, because he mashes lefties, to the tune of .313/.378/.463 over 1,027 career plate appearances. Even in his poor 2009 and 2007 campaigns he posted an OPS of over .900 against lefties.

It appears Johnson’s only major downside is his injury history. The frequency of his back injuries makes this no light consideration. If he misses just 15 days because of back issues, it’s no big deal. Thankfully, that’s all he’s missed in each of the past two seasons. His two recent lower body injuries also raise a red flag. His stress fractures were in different legs — right leg and left foot — so maybe there’s not a connection. But for a player with Johnson’s injury history, it’s certainly a concern.

As a platoon player, Johnson does make sense. Facing primarily lefties will not only emphasize his strength in that regard, but will also keep him rested, possibly helping him avoid injury. His excellent defense in left field will also make it easier to play him out there, even if Brett Gardner is as good as his small sample UZR numbers indicate. Since the Yankees seek only a low-cost option for their outfield, it seems Johnson fits the profile.

(Bonus: If the Yankees sign Johnson, he’ll have to cut his King Tut goatee. Many people sport good facial hair. Johnson is not one of them.)

So now, whenever a rumor surfaces involving Johnson and the Yankees, we can refer back to this post and its comments. Have your final say now.

Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America

Christmas Eve rumors: Yanks talking to Reed Johnson

The baseball world slows down a bit on Christmas Eve as executives, agents and players settle in for some quality time with their families. The Yankees though are still working on their holiday shopping. As Joel Sherman reported this afternoon, the Yankees are “talking regularly” with Reed Johnson and his representatives. Johnson, 33, would be a left field target for the Yanks, and he would give them some flexibility as he is a right-handed batter who can play all three outfield positions. He doesn’t, however, hit too well. He has a career line of .282/.344/.411 with a 95 OPS+ and has had an OPS+ above 100 just twice in seven years and not at all since 2006. He played just 65 games last year and has averaged 84 games per season over the last three years while hitting just .269/.333/.383. Brett Gardner and Jamie Hoffmann can probably do that.