Mailbag: Duncan, McCann, Expansion Draft

Six questions this week. Use the Submit A Tip box to send us anything throughout the week, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

Several people asked: What about Shelley Duncan?

The Yankees are looking for a right-handed bat and the Rays designated former Yankee Shelley Duncan for assignment earlier this week, so this seems like a natural fit. The 33-year-old forearm-smasher hit just .182/.297/.309 (75 wRC+) in 64 plate appearances for Tampa, and during his three years with the Indians (2010-2012) he put up a .231/.309/.430 (103 wRC+) overall line in 770 plate appearances. That includes a .239/.316/.421 (102 wRC+) line against southpaws, meaning he didn’t have a platoon split.

Duncan is a three true outcome type, with healthy power (career .193 ISO), walk (9.7%), and strikeout (24.4%) rates. He doesn’t do much other than that, meaning he won’t steal any bases or play even average defense in left or at first base. Is he better than Ben Francisco? Yeah, probably, but it’s not slam dunk. If the Yankees can pluck him off waivers, then go for it. Francisco’s been terrible. I wouldn’t go out of my way to acquire Shelley or sweat missing out on him, though.

Nick asks: Given his start, how likely is it the Vernon Wells matches/exceeds Nick Swisher‘s performance this year? If he does (or gets close), should we credit the front office with a brilliant move or did the Yanks just get lucky?

I don’t think that will happen, honestly. Even with the hot start, Wells is on a .298/.362/.532 (139 wRC+) line while Swisher is at .265/.386/.410 (123 wRC+). There’s a nice gap there, but Swisher is underperforming his career norms while Wells is far exceeding his. They’ll wind up meeting in the middle at some point. I expect Verndog to wind up closer to his updated ZiPS projection (113 wRC+) than his current numbers.

Brian Cashman basically admitted the Yankees got lucky with Wells a few weeks ago, saying “there was no magic, unearthed data point” they uncovered. They expected him to fill the Andruw Jones role according to the GM. Maybe Cashman’s just playing coy, but Wells has been so outrageously good that I can’t imagine anyone saw this coming. It’s 95th percentile stuff.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

Mark asks: Are you surprised by Jose Tabata’s free fall in Pittsburgh since his debut season in 2010 at the young age of 21? Maybe I’m off base here, but I have to think he’d be a prime candidate to replace Curtis Granderson next year as I suspect the Yanks would have kept him in the minors to develop and mature his game — something he hasn’t had the opportunity to do in Pittsburgh playing in the big leagues.

Not really, you can never be truly surprised when a prospect fails. Tabata was never the same caliber of hitter/prospect as say, Jesus Montero, plus he is apparently older than originally believed. He never showed much power for a corner outfielder and that’s continued to this day.

The Yankees value makeup too highly to bring Tabata back. He had (at least) two incidents in the minors that led to his trade in the first place, plus he’s had off-field issues with the Pirates. The guy’s a .269/.335/.369 (97 wRC+) career hitter in over 1,300 plate appearances, plus he’s probably closer to 30 than his listed age of 24. Tabata can get the bat on the ball — career 14.8 K% and 82.8% contact rate — that’s always been his thing, but otherwise there’s not much to see here.

Dustin asks: Any chance the Yankees could pry Justin Ruggiano from the Marlins?

Oh I’m sure of it. No reason to think the Marlins wouldn’t move him for the right offer. Ruggiano, 31, had an insane BABIP-fueled (.401!) half-season with Miami last year, when he hit .313/.374/.535 (146 wRC+) in 320 plate appearances. He’s back down to .239/.300/.402 (95 wRC+) this year, which is right in line with his career norms.

As a right-handed hitting outfielder, Ruggiano owns a career .263/.328/.516 (128 wRC+) line in 236 plate appearances against southpaws. That’s spread across seven seasons, so it isn’t very useful. Ruggiano plays okay defense in the outfield corners and will steal a bag here and there, so he’s definitely someone worth looking into as a Francisco replacement. I don’t know what it would take to acquire him, but Scott Hairston was traded to the Athletics for a middling Triple-A relief prospect (Ryan Webb) following his breakout with the Padres. Seems like decent framework, no?

Jonathan asks: What do you think about possibly acquiring one of Atlanta’s catchers this year? It’s a strange situation because we don’t know if Evan Gattis is for real, Gerald Laird was awful for years and Brian McCann is coming off the surgery. Which, if any would you be interested in acquiring and what do you think it would take to get them. Thanks!

(Drew Hallowell/Getty)
(Drew Hallowell/Getty)

I wouldn’t touch Laird, the Yankees have enough backups as it is. That’s the easy part. Gattis is a great story — seriously, read this — and the 26-year-old has hit .253/308/.542 (132 wRC+) as McCann’s replacement early this year. The consensus is that he isn’t good enough defensively to be an everyday guy behind the plate.

McCann, 29, was arguably the best catcher in baseball for the better part of a decade (118 wRC+ from 2006-2012) before hurting his right shoulder and struggling last year (86 wRC+). He had offseason surgery and is due to return to the team soon, as in next week. That will likely send Gattis back to Triple-A, though I suppose they could finagle the roster and work out a way to keep all three, at least for the time being.

I love the idea of acquiring McCann for half-a-season — he’ll be a free agent this coming winter — even considering the risk following his surgery. He’s strong defensively and a left-handed bat with power and patience. The team would also get a few weeks to evaluate him firsthand before decided whether to pursue him after the season. The price would have to be reasonable though, maybe something along the lines of two pretty good but not great prospects (assuming a deal happens right at the deadline).

Alex asks: Under the rules of the 1992 expansion draft, which players would you protect on the Yankees roster? Subsequently, if you were then picking, which unprotected player would you take?

We do this question every so often and it’s always fun. The expansion draft rules are right here, but here’s the short version: each team can protect 15 total players, but players with no-trade clauses must be protected. Players who were free agents during the offseason and players drafted in the previous two drafts (so 2011 and 2012 for us) are not eligible for the draft. AL teams can protect an additional four players after each round. Here’s who I would protect, assuming the draft was held last November 17th (same date as 1992 draft)…

No-Trade Clauses (4) Protected Pitchers (5) Protected Position Players (6) Notable Unprotected
Alex Rodriguez Phil Hughes Robinson Cano Boone Logan
Mark Teixeira David Robertson Brett Gardner Joba Chamberlain
CC Sabathia Ivan Nova Curtis Granderson Frankie Cervelli
Derek Jeter David Phelps Gary Sanchez Eduardo Nunez
Michael Pineda Mason Williams Vidal Nuno
Tyler Austin Slade Heathcott
Adam Warren

I think this is pretty self-explanatory, no? I was on the fence with Nunez because of the dearth of even decent middle infielders, but I opted to protect the third prospect (Austin) instead. The Yankees could probably trade him for a better infielder than Nunez anyway.

Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera would not be eligible for the draft since they were free agents last winter. Nunez, Nuno, Heathcott, and Warren would the four guys I would add after the first round, but a few of them would probably get plucked in the draft. Such is life. If was the expansion team picking from that lot of players, I’d take Heathcott first, no doubt about it. Warren and Nuno are useful pieces, but Heathcott has star potential and that’s what you’re looking for when you’re building a team from scratch.

The Right-Handed Outfield Bat Scrap Heap

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

With each day that ticks off the calendar, the less likely it is the Yankees will spend real money to upgrade the roster. That could change in an instant of course, but the currently available options aren’t all that appealing or worth big bucks. There are no legitimate starting catchers available, few quality DHs, and outside of Scott Hairston and his demands for a multi-year deal, no right-handed hitting outfielders of note.

The Yankees have been stocking up on miscellaneous right-handed outfield bats in recent weeks, or at least as much as signing Matt Diaz to a minor league deal and claiming Russ Canzler off waivers can be considered “stocking up,” anyway. Melky Mesa is the team’s best in-house option for the role, so I expect them to continue digging around for low-risk players to compete with these three in camp. Here are five such players who could presumably be had on minor league contracts.

Shelley Duncan
Fun Fact: Duncan actually started three games as the cleanup hitter for the Yankees back in 2008. That was the year after the big five homers-in-seven games binge put him on the map. The 33-year-old moved on to the Indians a few seasons ago and has hit .238/.316/.421 (102 wRC+) against left-handers over the last three years (92 wRC+ in 2012). As always, Duncan will draw walks (9.5% walk rate since 2010), strike out (24.8%), play poor defense in the outfield corners and at first base, and smash forearms. More than anyone else in this post though, Shelley can hit the ball out of any park when he does run into one. That just doesn’t happen often enough.

Ben Francisco
Francisco, 31, has been typecast as a right-handed platoon bat over the years despite a negligible split — .247/.315/.408 (97 wRC+) against lefties and .252/.324/.380 (94 wRC+) against righties since the start of 2010. Having no platoon split is generally a good thing, but it doesn’t help when the player is a below-average hitter overall. Like everyone else in this post, Francisco won’t steal any bases or offer much help on the bases. He fits best in left field but can play right in a pinch and center in an emergency, so that’s nice. Still, if you’re looking for a platoon bat, it would be nice if he could, you know, actually hit well against pitchers of the opposite hand.

Lou Montanez
Once upon a time, the Cubs made Montanez the third overall pick in the entire draft (2000). He has just 323 career plate appearances in the show since then, during which time he’s posted a 50 wRC+ overall with a .204/.234/.279 (31 wRC+) line against left-handers in a meaninglessly small sample. Over the last two seasons in Triple-A, the 31-year-old had tagged southpaws for a .345/.429/.525 batting line with a 8.1% strikeout rate compared to a 12.3% walk rate. More walks than strikeouts is always fun. Montanez has a ton of experience in all three outfield spots and actually played the middle infield once upon a time (drafted as a shortstop), but that ship has sailed.

(Christian Petersen/Getty)

Juan Rivera
Another former Yankee, the 34-year-old Rivera had the worst season of his career in 2012 (81 wRC+ overall) while battling hamstring issues. He still managed a decent .260/.312/.433 (107 wRC+) line against southpaws, and over the last three seasons it’s a .270/.329/.434 (109 wRC) line. Rivera’s strength remains his ability to get the bat on the ball (12.9 K% and 84.2% contact rate since 2010) and be somewhat willing to work a walk (7.1 BB%), though he’s butcher defensively both in left field and at first base. There’s more big league experience here than with the other four guys in this post combined, but I’m not sure how much that helps Rivera’s case at this point of his career.

Vinny Rottino
Rottino, 32, received 97 of his 110 career big league plate appearances with the Mets and Indians this past season. He owns a miniscule 43 wRC+ in the show, but that tells us nothing given the sample size. Rottino has tagged Triple-A southpaws for a .333/.383/.502 batting line over the last two seasons though, which includes an 11.4% strikeout rate and a 7.5% walk rate. He has a ton of experience at the four corner positions as well as first base and behind the plate, though he’s just an emergency option at catcher. Still a nice skill to have. No one in this post offers as much position flexibility or as little big league experience as Rottino.

The last Yankee days of Shelley Duncan


In 2007, a 27-year-old rookie named Shelley Duncan arrived in the Bronx. Drafted by the Yanks in the second round of the 2001 draft, Shelley, son of Dave, brother of Chris, had a Major League pedigree, and a body to match. He is 6’5″ and 215 pounds, and when he hits, he puts all of those pounds behind his swing.

Through his first 16 games, Duncan reminded Yankee fans of Shane Spencer, another old rookie who came up and smashed. After just 46 big league at-bats, Duncan was hitting .317/.391/.756 with six home runs and 13 RBIs. He played with enthusiasm, smashing forearms with his teammates after each home run and seemed destined for a spot on the Yanks’ bench as a pinch hitter extraordinaire.

But soon thereafter, the holes emerged. Duncan would play in just 18 more games in 2007, earning himself 37 plate appearances. He hit a meager .182/.250/.303 and struck out nine times. In fact, overall, since his hot start, Duncan has been given 117 plate appearances with little successful. He has hit .181/.250/.276 with 27 strike outs and just two home runs. He loves himself some fastballs, but against the breaking balls, Duncan comes up empty.

Yesterday, for the second time during his career, the Yankees outrighted Duncan to AAA, and for all intents and purposes, Duncan’s Yankee career is all but over. When a player is outrighted for a second time, he can refuse the assignment to AAA and become a free agent. Chad Jennings spoke with the 30-year-old this evening, and Duncan said he would do that. “I’ll wait and see,” Duncan said. “I might clear on Monday or something, and if do, then I’ll become a free agent.”

Jennings also sums up the Yanks’ view on Shelley. “The Yankees were clearly never sold on Duncan,” he writes. “He toiled in Tampa and Trenton too long, and his chances of being an impact player in this organization were slim. Duncan, though, has done all he can to prove himself and earn a chance at some big league at-bats.”

The Lo Hud scribe goes on to compare Shelley Duncan to Garrett Jones on the list of those who never made it with their original organization. Jones was a Twins farmhand who broke out this year for the Pirates, but Jones was never the Minor League hitter Duncan was nor was he given the same chance with the Twins Duncan was given with the Yankees. New York brought Duncan with them out of Spring Training in 2008, but after two months of nothing, he was shipped back to AAA.

In the end, Duncan is a consummate Quadruple-A guy. He crushes Minor League pitching but can’t take that next step to become at least a serviceable hitter. Without his oversized personality, he would never be remembered in the Bronx. This year, he’ll get a World Series ring. He did, after all, play in a handful of games in October, but he is also going to have to find himself a new baseball home for the first time in his career. And so it goes with the feeling demands of baseball success.

The Return of Shelley Duncan

Via Chad Jennings, the Yanks have called up Shelley Duncan. No word on a corresponding move, but most likely either Jon Albaladejo or Mark Melancon will be optioned out. Calling up Shelley also requires a 40-man roster move, but they can easily slide Xavier Nady or Chien-Ming Wang to the 60-day DL. Scheduled to face three lefty starters the next three games, expect to see Shelley get himself a handful at bats.

On the composition of the bench

With Xavier Nady out for the rest of the season, the Yankees’ roster picture has become clearer. Whereas before they were awaiting the return of a player who would add depth, now they know that player is not coming. The Yankees have a number of options moving forward, both for the immediate future and in preparation for the July 31st trade deadline.

Starting in the present, PeteAbe reports that Jose Molina will return in about a week. The Yankees could do one of three things:

  1. Carry three catchers and option Ramiro Pena to Scranton
  2. Option Cervelli to Scranton
  3. DFA Jose Molina

Let’s rule out the third option, since it’s not at all likely. If they release Molina and Posada gets hurt, they’d be stuck with Cervelli and Cash instead of Cervelli and Molina. The latter is preferable. Cervelli isn’t that much better than Molina, anyway — if he’s better at all, which at this point I’m not about to declare.

Carrying three catchers would mean Jorge Posada is the de facto DH. Pete says that Jorge isn’t “going to be the DH because the Yankees aren’t releasing or trading Hideki Matsui.” Yet this scenario would allow them to start one of Cervelli and Molina, use Matsui as a pinch hitter, and then substitute the other, with Posada still available as an emergency. It’s certainly not the most efficient use of roster space. This option is also unlikely, unless the Yankees are more concerned about Jorge’s health than they let on.

This leaves optioning Cervelli to Scranton. By all appearances, this is what will happen. He’ll get regular reps at AAA in preparation of taking over for Molina in 2010. Meanwhile, he serves as an insurance policy in case either Molina or Posada go down again. Yes, it’s nice to have him around, and I can see why everyone is high on him, but let’s not let his personality overshadow his ability. Right now, there’s no harm in having him in AAA.

Pete also brings up another notion: option both Cervelli and Pena, and opt to bring up a better bat off the bench. Once Molina returns, the bench will be him, Cody Ransom, Gardner/Cabrera, and Ramiro Pena. There’s not exactly a bopper in there. True, Pena can serve as a late-inning pinch-runner, especially if Gardner starts. Pete suggests recalling Shelley Duncan or John Rodriguez. I’m not so sure.

Over whom in the starting lineup would Shelley Duncan be an upgrade? In other words, for whom would he pinch-hit? Maybe Gardner or Carbera, but even that’s debatable. The league seemingly figured out Shelley after 32 plate appearances — he started his career .321/.406/.857 in 32 PA and finished the season with a .217/.280/.370 run in 51 PA, plus his .175/.262/.281 in 65 PA last year. In theory it would be nice to have Shelley Duncan on the bench — if Shelley Duncan would actually represent an upgrade. Maybe he can provide a short-term burst of production, but he’s not someone who should be on the roster August 31.

As it stands, the Yankees might just be better off keeping both Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena on the bench. Pena can play multiple positions and has some wheels. Ransom also plays many positions. They have four outfielders, and Matsui in an emergency situation. Since they don’t have someone on the farm who can provide an upgrade in a pinch-hitting situation, it’s tough to call on such a move. Again, since the team has some flexibility with Pena they could give it a shot, but they shouldn’t expect much from either Shelley or J-Rod.

This leads to the longer-term lookout, i.e., the rest of the season. Could the Yanks pull a trade for an outfield bat? Someone who could, perhaps, provide a platoon partner for Matsui against tough lefties and buy some days or half-days off for the other outfielders? Perhaps. Steve Lombardi wants a more consistent alternative to Nick Swisher. Says he:

Don’t get me wrong. I know that Swisher works counts and gets walks. And, when he’s hot, Swisher can hit the ball out of the park. But, when he’s cold, he’s beyond ice cold. And, at times, Swisher takes some curious routes on fly balls. Basically, when he’s bad, the Swish Hawk is “T-Long Like.”

While I’m an unabashed Swisher fan, I’m not going to stick my fingers in my ears and ignore his shortcomings. He does have some pretty bad cold streaks, and it would be nice to have someone to give him some time off during them. What’s that worth, though? Can the Yankees get the import (because the answer is not in the system currently) at a reasonable enough price? Can they get him enough playing time to justify the price? Those questions will be clearer as the Xs mount in July and we get closer to the 31st.

For right now, the Yanks can afford to stand pat. There is no pressing need to make a roster move. If the Yankees want to give it a whirl with Shelley or J-Rod, they can do so with minimal risk. If they want to keep things how they are and have two multi-position players, one who can run, on the bench, they can do that. It just goes to show that when you have a solid starting nine, a bench becomes far less important.

Hughes, Shelley return to Scranton

Per Tyler Kepner, both Phil Hughes and Shelley Duncan will make their triumphant return to Triple-A Scranton this week follow short rehab stints in the lower minors. Hughes will slot into the rotation sometime this weeked, likely taking the spot currently occupied by Billy Traber. Shelley should return to the lineup in the next day or so. You may remember that he separated his shoulder making a diving catch in the outfield a few weeks back. (h/t to loyal reader Gurpreet for the email)