What Went Wrong: Mark Teixeira

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with former ironman who has been anything but recently.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

When the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira following the 2008 season, part of the appeal was his durability. A quad strain cost him a month in 2007, but otherwise he appeared in at least 145 games in five of his first six seasons. That includes 157 games during his walk year in 2008 and the full 162 games in both 2005 and 2006. He was an ironman.

That held true during Teixeira’s first three years in pinstripes as well, when he played in at least 156 games each season and 470 of 486 possible games from 2009-2011. That changed last season, when a nagging cough and a calf injury limited him to a career-low 123 games. With an offseason of rest and treatment, Teixeira figured to be as good as new come 2013.

When Spring Training opened, everything was fine. Teixeira was healthy and he played in five Grapefruit League games before heading to Arizona to join Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. During batting practice on March 5th, Teixeira felt some discomfort in what was first reported to be his right forearm but was ultimately his right wrist. He was shut down immediately and pulled from the tournament.

Teixeira went for tests the very next day and they confirmed a strain in the wrist, and injury that would sideline him for 8-10 weeks. He was going to be out of the already depleted Yankees lineup until at least mid-May. It was later revealed to be a tendon sheath problem, the same injury that derailed Jose Bautista and Mark DeRosa for extended periods of time in recent years.

Brian Cashman acknowledged there was only a 70% chance Teixeira would be able to avoid surgery, but things were going well during his rehab. His checkups went as expected and there were no problems reported during his minor league rehab assignment, so he returned to the team on May 31st, just a little later than expected.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Teixeira had an almost immediate impact after returning to the lineup. He hit a grand slam in his fourth game back, a three-run homer in his fifth game back, and then a solo homer in his seventh game back. The power-starved Yankees suddenly had one of their top power hitters in the lineup and it wasn’t a moment too soon.

A rough eight-game slide — 3-for-31 (.097) with nine strikeouts — following the three homers in four games binge, and while that was sucked, the worst came on June 15th, when Teixeira left the game with discomfort in his wrist. Initial tests showed only inflammation but about a week later surgery was recommended. Soon after that, Teixeira went under the knife. His season was over.

In between wrist injuries, Teixeira hit .151/.270/.340 (58 wRC+) with those three homers in 63 plate appearances spread across 15 games. That’s it. On the bright side, the World Baseball Classic paid for Teixeira’s salary during the first DL trip, which saved the team something like $8M. Unfortunately, almost all of that money went to Vernon Wells. Because he was activated off the DL before having surgery, the Yankees were the only hook for his salary during the season DL trip. They did recoup some through insurance, reportedly.

Teixeira’s performance has slipped these last few years, but the Yankees were almost always able to count on him to play every single day. That has changed these last two years, especially now given the uncertainty of a wrist injury. They can sap power for several months even after being medically cleared and returning to the field. For the first time in his career, Teixeira will come to Spring Training as a question mark next season, on top of already being a declining player. That’s not a good combination but it’s all too familiar for the Yankees.

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What Went Wrong: Eduardo Nunez

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a young-ish player who couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Despite all the optimism about an Opening Day return, Father Time remained undefeated as Derek Jeter was slow to recover from his offseason ankle surgery and unable to start the season with the Yankees. That gave the team the opportunity to do something they’ve seemed eager to do for a long time: play Eduardo Nunez everyday. Jeter’s injury was the perfect chance to play the kid without him having to look over his shoulder.

For about three games, everything went fine. The 26-year-old Nunez went 4-for-10 with a walk in the season-opening series against the Red Sox, but then he took a pitch to biceps in the fourth game and went into a deep 7-for-55 (.127) slump through the end of the month. The bat wasn’t working, but Nunez actually showed off some improved throwing mechanics and went from disaster to merely shaky in the field. Errors aren’t the best way to measure defense, but he did go from 30.1 innings per error from 2010-2012 to 62.3 innings per error in April 2013. Like I said, shaky instead of a disaster.

With his batting line sitting at a weak .200/.290/.275 through 95 plate appearances on May 5th, Nunez was pulled from a game after hurting his ribcage, apparently on a swing. An MRI came back clean but rest and treatment didn’t work, so a few days later the Yankees placed their backup shortstop on the DL. On the DL is where he stayed for two months and 57 team games. In typical Yankees fashion, his rehab moved very slowly.

Nunez returned on July 6th and five days later, Derek Jeter came off the DL (for the first time). Luckily for Nunez, the Cap’n hurt himself in his first game back and the shortstop position remained open. Eduardo went 16-for-62 (.258) with three doubles and a triple (.611 OPS) in between his return from the DL and Jeter’s second return from the DL. Nunez sat on the bench for a few games while Jeter played short, but on August 3rd, the shortstop job was his once again.

During the Cap’n’s third DL stint, Nunez went a respectable 23-for-80 (.288) with seven walks (.341 OBP), three doubles, one triple, and one homer (.728 OPS) with four steals in four attempts. Jeter returned for about two weeks in late-August and early-September, but the combination of his need to DH and Alex Rodriguez‘s hamstring and calf problems kept Nunez in the lineup, either at shortstop or third base. Nunez had a very nice .295/.321/.487 batting line in September as the season wound down.

Surprised his helmet stayed on. (Scott Halleran/Getty)
Surprised his helmet stayed on. (Scott Halleran/Getty)

Despite that strong late-season performance, Eduardo’s season batting line sat at an ugly .260/.307/.372 (83 wRC+) with three homers and ten stolen bases (in 13 attempts) in 336 plate appearances. The league average shortstop hit .254/.308/.367 (85 wRC+), so Nunez wasn’t far off the mark with the bat. The problem was, as always, his defense. That improvement he showed in April was not evident late in the season, when he was back to booting grounders and airmailing throws.

The various defensive stats — -20.6 UZR, -28 DRS, -12.1 FRAA, and -18 TotalZone — absolutely crush him at shortstop, like worst defensive player in baseball bad, but defensive stats don’t really work in small samples. Nunez only managed 608.1 innings at shortstop this summer, only about 40% of a full season. Going back to silly ol’ errors, he made eight in the final month and a half of the season, roughly one for every 35.3 innings in the field. Right in line with his pre-2013 work.

Both fWAR (-1.4) and bWAR (-1.5) agree Nunez was one of the ten worst position players in baseball this season. That’s out of the 955 players who had at least one plate appearance. If you don’t want to use WAR — I actually don’t, I prefer it for multi-year stuff but not single seasons — then all you need to know is that Nunez was (at best) a league average hitter relative to position this season while being well-below-average defensively. That adds up to a below-average player.

This was Nunez’s Big Chance. Capital letters. Jeter was going to be out for a while and even if he came back at some point, A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis were sure to miss a bunch of time as well. Instead, Nunez did nothing to stand out in regular playing time. He didn’t hit all that much — not even show a sign that there was something more to come, really — and his defense was bad. Nunez seems to have some serious backers in the organization though, so much like Phil Hughes The Starter, I get the sense he will continue to get chances to show he is something he probably isn’t, which in this case is a depth infielder best used in an emergency.

What Went Wrong: Travis Hafner

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the designated hitter who didn’t hit (and got hurt).

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Ever since Hideki Matsui was allowed to leave and Jorge Posada called it a career, the Yankee have tried to keep their DH spot open and use it as a way to keep their regulars both fresh — “half-days off,” as Joe Girardi calls it — and still in the lineup. With Derek Jeter likely coming back plus Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira (and soon enough, Robinson Cano) not going anywhere thanks to their long-term contracts, expect the team to continue the rotating DH approach for the foreseeable future.

Last year the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez to serve as the left-handed half of a DH platoon and that worked well enough as long as you’re willing to ignore everything before mid-September. This season the Bombers turned to another veteran lefty masher, this time former Indians slugger Travis Hafner. Unlike Ibanez, Hafner was both injury-prone and unable to play a position, even in an emergency. Still, at $2M guaranteed, it was a relatively low (financial) risk signing.

Early on, it appeared the Yankees had struck DH gold. Hafner mashed out of camp, starting the season with a seven-game hitting streak (9-for-23, .391) that included two mammoth homeruns. Pronk went on to hit four more homers with nearly as many walks (ten) as strikeouts (12) during the rest of April and he carried that performance right into May. On May 14th, through 37 team games, Hafner was hitting .260/.383/.510 (140 wRC+) and was the team’s second best hitter behind Cano.

As if on cue, right when things seemed to be going well for the Yankees, Hafner’s surgically repaired shoulder started barking. He received a cortisone short and missed four days with tendinitis, and he actually hit well immediately after returning, like 6-for-19 (.316) with a double and two homers well. That didn’t last though. Hafner crashed and crashed hard in late-May and never recovered. In 54 team games from May 27th — the start of the home-and-home series with the Mets, in case you were wondering — through July 26th, Pronk hit .154/.218/.265 with four homers, ten walks, and 44 strikeouts.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

With his season batting line sitting at .205/.300/.384 (86 wRC+) through 293 plate appearances, the Yankees placed Hafner on the 15-day DL with a shoulder problem on July 27th. The move cleared a roster spot for Jeter. The bum shoulder kept Hafner out right until the final series of the season, when New York activated him only because he was healthy and they were obligated to activate him. He took an 0-for-4 (with two hit-by-pitches) in the final game of the season, his last act in pinstripes.

Including incentives, the Yankees paid Hafner a total of $3.125M for a .202/.301/.378 (86 wRC+) batting line with 12 homers in 299 plate appearances. He was brought in to mash right-handers, but he instead had no platoon split (88 vs. 85 wRC+ in favor of lefties). That’s a bad thing. Pronk did take advantage of the short porch in right field though, hitting .222/.300/.452 (100 wRC+) with eight of his dozen homers at Yankee Stadium. That was pretty much his only redeeming quality, taking advantage of the short porch.

The Yankees and Brian Cashman have made it very clear they prefer hitters who hit for power and are patient at the plate, two traits that Hafner most definitely offered (on paper). It’s hard to ignore how his performance went south immediately after the shoulder problem in May, so perhaps his dreadful showing for most of the summer can be blamed on injury. Then again, no one should have been surprised when Hafner got hurt. Like so many players this season, the Yankees asked Pronk to do more than he was capable of doing at this point in his career and they got burned.

What Went Wrong: Frankie Cervelli

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a young-ish player who finally got a big break before suffering a big break.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees made little effort to solidify the catcher position this winter. They were seemingly caught off-guard when Russell Martin took a two-year contract worth $17M from the Pirates in November — Martin was reportedly open to returning to New York on a one-year contract — taking the best all-around catcher in a weak free agent class off the market. Rather they overextend themselves for an imperfect solution (A.J. Pierzynski?), the Yankees decided no solution was best.

Spring Training started with what was supposedly a three-man competition for the two roster spots, but that was never really the case. The Bombers have a knack for holding fake competitions. Austin Romine was always a long shot for the Opening Day roster while, barring injury, Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli were the favorites. A career backup catcher and a guy who was sent to Triple-A to make room for the career backup catcher last year.

None of the team’s in-house catching options stood out offensively in camp — seriously, all one of these guys had to do to win the starting job was swing the bat decently during Grapefruit League play, but no one did it — but Cervelli showed off some seriously improved throwing mechanics, gunning down seven of 14 attempted base-stealers. That was enough to win him the starting catching job on Opening Day. This was how the Yankees sorted out their catching situation coming into a year in which ownership repeatedly called he team “championship-caliber.”

Anyway, Cervelli made the Yankees look very smart for a few weeks. He was one of the team’s best hitters out of the gate, picking up a single and a walk on Opening Day before hitting a homer two games later. During a two-week stretch in the middle of April, Frankie went 10-for-28 (.357) with three doubles, a homer, five walks, and four strikeouts. Cervelli started 16 of the team’s first 22 games and hit .269/.377/.500 (143 wRC+) with three homers in 61 plate appearances, plus he threw out two of four attempted base-stealers. For the first time in his career, he looked like a starting big league catcher.

Then, in the very first inning of the team’s April 26th game against the Blue Jays, Rajai Davis foul tipped a pitch off Cervelli’s unprotected right hand. It was a direct hit, right on the knuckles:

After being looked at by the trainer and trying to talk his way into remaining in the game, Frankie was lifted and sent for tests. X-rays showed a fracture in his hand that required surgery, which was expected to send him to the DL for a minimum of six weeks. Not only had the Yankees lost one of their most productive early-season players at a crucial position, but Cervelli’s big chance to show what he could as a regular catcher was kaput.

Those six weeks turned into at least two months when the Yankees slid Cervelli over to the 60-day DL to clear a roster spot a few days after the injury. He continued his rehab over the next several weeks at the team’s complex in Tampa and progressed to the point where he was swinging a bat and taking batting practice pretty much everyday, which meant an official minor league rehab assignment wasn’t too far away.

Unfortunately, since he’s a Yankee, Cervelli suffered a setback in early-July. It was a stress reaction in his right elbow — the precursor to a stress fracture, so they caught it early — which apparently happened when he changed his throwing motion to compensate for the hand injury. I’m not exactly sure how that happens, but it sounds plausible. Either way, it happened and Cervelli’s #obligatorysetback effectively ended his season. In the unlikely event he got healthy enough to rejoin the team, it wouldn’t have happened until late-September.

On top of all of that, the injury and the setback and losing his chance at a starting catching job, Cervelli was one of 12 players suspended 50 games in early-August for his ties to the South Florida performance-enhancing drug hub Biogenesis. Frankie did not appeal the ban and was officially done for the rest of the year. He suffered both a season-ended injury and a season-ending suspension. Rough. To his credit, Frankie faced the music and admitted he used a banned substance after breaking his foot in Spring Training a few years ago.

All told, Cervelli played in just 17 games this year before the injuries and suspension ended his season. He never got a chance to show if his hot start was something sustainable or if he could even play at an acceptable level as a starting backstop. The Yankees never got a chance to see that either, meaning right now they don’t know if he in the middle of a breakout age 27 season or if he was a small sample size fluke. Given the half-assed catching situation, the team had an opportunity to learn something about Cervelli, about whether he deserved to be in their plans going forward. Instead, he remains an unknown.

What Went Wrong: Curtis Granderson

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a player whose season was sabotaged by fluky injuries.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As the Yankees went through last offseason with nary an offensive upgrade, there were two things Yankees fans could count on in 2013. We all knew with damn near certainty that Robinson Cano would be an elite all-around player with high-end production at the plate. It was pretty much a given and Cano delivered.

We also knew Curtis Granderson would hit a ton of dingers and be the team’s primary power source. Ever since revamping his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long in August 2010, Granderson has been one of baseball’s preeminent homer hitters, going deep 40+ times in both 2011 and 2012. Maybe he wouldn’t do that again in 2013 — that’s an frickin’ ton of homers, I have a hard time expecting almost anyone to do that in a given year — but 30+ homers seemed like a lock.

Instead, Granderson’s season was derailed before it even got a chance to start. Five pitches into his very first plate appearance of Spring Training, he took a J.A. Happ fastball to the right forearm and suffered a fracture. The injury was expected to sideline him for three months, so in a sense the Yankees were lucky it happened so early in camp. The first half of that three-month recovery time took place before Opening Day.

On May 14th, after three months on the sidelines and a week’s worth of minor league rehab games, Granderson finally made his season debut for the Yankees. He took an 0-for-4 in the first game but had a hit the next day and three hits the day after that. A few days after that he had three more hits, including a double and a homer. Curtis missed all of Spring Training and it made sense that he would start a little slow, but he was starting to show signs of life and the Yankees desperately needed offense.

Then, just ten days after returning from the DL, Granderson took a Cesar Ramos fastball to his left hand. He stayed in the game to run the bases but was eventually lifted and sent for tests. The result: a fractured pinky and hand and a six-to-eight week recovery timeframe. He didn’t need surgery, but just like that, Curtis was back on the DL and the Yankees were woefully short on power.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

That six-to-eight week recovery time turned into ten weeks for no apparent reason — Granderson was just slow to heal, I suppose. He didn’t return to the team until August 2nd, and in his second game back he hit a two-run homer at spacious Petco Park in San Diego. By then the Yankees were well out of the AL East race and only on the fringes of the wild-card race.

In his first month off the DL, Granderson hit .278/.394/.444 (132 wRC+) with three homers in 109 plate appearances. He wasn’t hitting for the kind of power we’re used to seeing, but he was certainty having an impact at the plate. In his second month off the DL, Curtis hit .177/.233/.375 (60 wRC+) with three homers in 105 plate appearances. Suddenly he wasn’t having an impact. Not coincidentally, the Yankees faded right out of the postseason picture.

Overall, Granderson hit .229/.317/.407 (97 wRC+) with seven homers and eight stolen bases (in ten attempts) in 245 plate appearances around the injuries this year. His power production took a big step back from last season, but there’s really no way to tell if he was still suffering the lingering effects of the injuries — hand/wrist injuries are notorious for hurting a player’s performance even after he’s been cleared medically — or if this was a sign of age-related decline or if he just had 245 substandard plate appearances. Could be all or that or none of that. Who knows?

The Yankees had planned to shift Curtis to left field and install Brett Gardner as their regular center fielder before the season started — they never committed to it and called it an experiment in Spring Training, but it was pretty obvious a change was being made — a plan they implemented when Granderson came off the DL (the first time). He bounced between left field, right field, and DH before Gardner’s oblique injury forced him back into center. I thought Granderson actually look pretty good defensively in the corners. Maybe not above-average, but pretty solid. That was a plus.

“There’s no getting around [it], missing 100 games the year you’re becoming a free agent isn’t great,” said Matt Brown, Granderson’s agent, earlier this month. The 2013 season was disastrous for Granderson due to two unpredictable fluke injuries and the shift to a less valuable defensive position. Maybe the Yankees will be able to bring Curtis back on a one-year pillow contract — his “first choice” is to return to New York, reportedly — but I suspect he’ll wind up with a multi-year contract elsewhere. The Yankees were power-starved this summer and losing Granderson for so much time was a huge reason why. He brings a power element to the team that is damn near impossible to replace these days.