Mailbag: Tanaka, Mayberry, Betemit, Setup Man

Got 12 questions for you this week, but some of the answers are really short. Like two sentences short. I also trimmed some questions a bit. A few were pretty long. Send us anything via the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar at any time.

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

Paul asks: Does Masahiro Tanaka have a legit shot at Rookie of the Year this year? I’m still bitter about Hideki Matsui getting robbed.

Hey, you can make a case Matsui wasn’t robbed. He hit .287/.353/.435 (109 wRC+) with 16 homers as a bad fielding left fielder while Angel Berroa hit .287/.338/.451 (101 wRC+) with 17 homers as an average fielding shortstop. If you want to take fWAR/bWAR at face value (fine for something like this), Berroa edges Godzilla out (Berroa: 2.7/2.5, Matsui: 0.2/2.2).

Anyway, yes Tanaka has a legitimate shot at RoY this season. The last three RoY starting pitchers (Jose Fernandez, Jeremy Hellickson, Justin Verlander) averaged a 14-8 record with a 2.94 ERA (~143 ERA+) and 4.7 bWAR in 180-ish innings, if you want a performance benchmark. That’s doable but a sub-3.00 ERA in the AL East and at Yankee Stadium will probably take some luck. Tanaka is going to have some stiff competition in Xander Bogaerts and Jose Abreu (my early RoY pick), plus the voting has been skewed heavily in favor of position players these last ten years (13 position players, four closers, three starters).

Craig asks: How about John Mayberry Jr.? He could double as the fourth/fifth outfielder and first base back-up. If they are looking for a lefty we could eat Ichiro Suzuki‘s contract or send Brett Gardner and get some bullpen help.

Mayberry, 30, had that huge season in 2011, hitting .306/.358/.595 (157 wRC+) against lefties with a 132 wRC+ overall. He hasn’t hit much since then, just .259/.309/.481 (111 wRC+) against lefties and an 86 wRC+ overall. There was talk the Phillies might non-tender him earlier this winter, but they kept him for $1.59M instead. Mayberry can play first and the two outfield corners, but he’s a net negative on defense. His only redeeming quality is his power against lefties. There’s no way I’d trade Gardner for him — the Phillies have been looking for bullpen help all winter, so I doubt they’d kick in a reliever, and I’d need a great reliever to even out a Gardner-for-Mayberry swap — but a straight up Ichiro-for-Mayberry deal would make some sense given the current roster. You’d wind up the same replacement level-ish extra outfielder, just instead of doing it with defense, he’d do it with power.

Billy asks: What are your thoughts on Brendan Ryan coming in for Derek Jeter defensively in save situations? Obviously it should be done but does Joe Girardi actually do it?

Should this happen? Yes, absolutely. Will it? I don’t think there’s any chance unless Jeter shows he is completely immobile following the leg injuries. If that happens, the team will have a bigger problem to worry about other than simply replacing Jeter for defense in the late innings. If he’s not used a defensive replacement, I’m not sure how the team will use Ryan this year aside from giving Jeter and Brian Roberts the occasional day off.

Can't find a Betemit. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Can’t find a Betemit. (Rob Carr/Getty)

Roy asks: Should the Yankees take a look at Wilson Betemit as insurance for Mark Teixeira? Can Betemit stabilize the infield better than Scott Sizemore, Russ Canzler or Eduardo Nunez?

Did you know Betemit is still only 32 years old? He just turned 32 in November too. I figured he would 35 or 36 by now. Anyway, he missed almost the entire 2013 season due to a knee injury, and he only has 81 games and 515.1 innings worth of experience at first base in his career. Betemit has played a ton of third but the defensive stats crush him there, and he’s a switch-hitter who should be a platoon bat because he punishes righties (127 wRC+ since 2011) but can’t touch lefties (36 wRC+). As a bench bat who backs up first and plays third base in an emergency, the 24th or 25th man on the roster, yeah it might work. It would be worth bringing Betemit to camp as a non-roster player, but I’m not sure he’s clearly better than Sizemore, Nunez, Canzler, or whoever else at this point.

UPDATE: Betemit agreed to a minor league contract with the Rays this morning, according to Jon Heyman. So scratch that idea.

Eric asks: Can and should the Yankees employ a six-man rotation this year or at least for part of it? You can lighten the load on Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia, help Tanaka transition from pitching every seven days in Japan, and give the young arms a better look other than just Spring Training.

I feel like the six-man rotation idea comes up every offseason around this time. The obvious question is this: do the Yankees even have six starters worthy of a rotation spot? Do they even have four at this point? No one really knows what to expect out of Sabathia, Tanaka, and Ivan Nova in 2014. Taking starts away from your top guys for someone like Vidal Nuno isn’t a luxury a team like the Yankees can afford. They’re going to have to fight for a playoff spot, remember. Kuroda’s and Tanaka’s (and Michael Pineda‘s) workloads are going to have to be monitored, no doubt about it, but I don’t think a straight six-man rotation is the answer. It sounds so good on the paper, but successfully pulling it off is so difficult.

Michael asks: I’m trying to find out what Tanaka’s nickname “Ma-kun” translates to English as, but i’m not having any luck. Do you know what it means?

According to Jim Baumbach, “Ma” is simply short for Masahiro while “kun” is a familiar way to address an equal. Wikipedia says it is an old high school nickname that stuck.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Jason asks: If I remember correctly, prior to being injured, there was an advantage to keeping Pineda in Triple-A until at least mid-May to push back his arbitration clock. Does that benefit still exist if the Yankees did that this year?

Pineda was the on the DL until the team activated him and sent him to Triple-A in early-July last year. He was down long enough to both delay his free agency and arbitration clock one year. Pineda will be a Super Two now (four years of arbitration rather than three), but they get to keep him for another season (through 2017) and that’s the important thing. They’ve already received the benefit and would have to keep him in the minors pretty much all season to push things back another year. If Pineda goes yet another year without pitching in the big leagues, it would be close to time to write him off completely.

Adam asks: When a player gets a non-roster invitation to Spring Training, what compensation does he receive?

Non-roster players don’t get paid anything during Spring Training. They get meal money and some kind of housing arrangement/allowance. That’s all. Guys on minor league contracts get paid a salary during the regular season only.

Dylan asks: Can you give an explanation for why pre-arbitration players don’t get exactly league minimum (i.e. J.R. Murphy‘s extra $2,700 on top of $500,000)? Thanks!

Most teams have a sliding salary scale based on service time for pre-arbitration players. Murphy was in the big leagues for a month, hence the extra $2,700. Teams can simply renew a pre-arb player’s contract for any salary as long as it is at least 80% of the previous year’s salary, but that’s a good way to get your players to hate you. A sliding scale based on service time (with adjustments for awards, All-Star Games, etc.) makes it nice and easy.

Anonymous asks: Would you guess Shawn Kelley is Opening Day setup man on this current Yankee roster?

Yeah, that’s the safe bet, but I wouldn’t count on him holding the job all summer. We’ve been spoiled these last few years by David Robertson. Here’s a quick recap of the team’s primary eighth inning guys from 2007-11, the five years before Robertson emerged.

Opening Day Setup Man End of Season Setup Man
2011 Rafael Soriano David Robertson
2010 Joba Chamberlain Kerry Wood
2009 Brian Bruney Phil Hughes
2008 Joba Chamberlain Joba Chamberlain
2007 Kyle Farnsworth Joba Chamberlain

Remember, Joba moved into the rotation at midseason in 2008. He only wound up in the bullpen late in the season after hurting his shoulder. Farnsworth took over as the primary setup man when Joba gave the starting thing a shot. Point is: don’t sweat who holds what bullpen role on Opening Day. They’ll all change. They almost always do.

Mike asks: Assuming it was allowed, how would you look at a Robinson CanoJacoby Ellsbury trade before the season starts? Would Ellsbury fit better with Seattle and would Cano fit better with NY than the way things stand now? Would either NY or Seattle have to throw in a player or pay part of a contract?

I completely understand why the Yankees didn’t match the Mariners’ offer to Cano, but there’s no doubt Robbie makes more sense for the current roster than Ellsbury. The team could go with an Alfonso Soriano-Gardner-Carlos Beltran outfield with Cano at second and a low-cost DH (or an expensive one like Kendrys Morales). The Mariners are going to let Dustin Ackley sink or swim in center this year while Nick Franklin slides into a utility role thanks to Cano, so they need the outfielder and not the infielder. Cano makes more sense for the Yankees, Ellsbury makes more sense for Seattle. I assume the Yankees would have to add another player to facilitate a trade (despite the salary difference) because Cano is the considerably better player.

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Can’t find a Betemit

(Photo by Leon Halip/Getty)

With the full 2011 starting nine returning in 2012, the Yankees have few holes to fill on the offensive side of the ledger. While many of us expect them to still add at least one pitcher via free agency or trade, the only jobs on the team that are actually open are the ones the Yankees generally spend the least amount of time on: the reserves.

However, the bench picture finally changed last offseason. After years of heading into a given season with whatever on the bench and waiting until the trade deadline to fill their needs, the Yankees went into 2011 having made what turned out to be two savvy veteran bench signings in Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez. As previously noted in this space, Jones had one of the best part-time seasons of any Yankee of the last 10 years, and we’ve heard all winter that the team is interested in another go-round. The Yankees have also expressed interest in bringing Chavez back as well, and while Chavez was an inspired pick-up, hitting .303/.410/.424 through May 5, his bat pretty much died after returning from his foot injury, with a .254/.295/.354 line over his final 139 PAs.

I’d be fine with giving Chavez another go of it, primarily due to how stellar his glovework has remained, but between his post-injury ineffectiveness and extreme brittleness, it could behoove the Yankees to pursue more of a sure thing (at least, offensively) for the backup infielder/Alex Rodriguez caddy role. Enter Wilson Betemit.

Now, for the record, I’m just as surprised as you are that I’m even considering a Betemit reunion with the Yankees. To put it gently, I was not exactly Betemit’s biggest fan during his brief pinstripe tenure, which saw him hit .226/.278/.417 (78 wRC+) in 92 PAs in half of the 2007 season, and .265/.289/.429 (84 wRC+) in 198 PAs in 2008, before Brian Cashman pulled off one of the more memorable swindles of all time in dumping the then-execrable Betemit for Nick Swisher prior to the 2009 season.

However, something bizarre happened after that deal. Despite being so bad as a White Sock (52 wRC+ in 50 April PAs) that he got demoted to AAA for the remainder of the 2009 season, he then hooked on with the Royals in 2010 and absolutely raked, putting up a .385 wOBA over 315 PAs. Betemit somehow completely defied his career-long ineffectiveness against lefties ( .299 wOBA, 79 wRC+) that season and put up a .402 wOBA against southpaws, against a .378 mark against righties.

In 2011, Betemit fell somewhat back down to earth, though still recording a respectable campaign as he split time with both the Royals and Yankee-beating Tigers in a season that saw him hit to a .340 wOBA (112 wRC+) in 359 PAs. Betemit also returned to his righty-hitting/useless-against-lefties ways, hitting northpaws to the tune of a 128 wRC+ and vanishing against lefties (64 wRC+).

Given his righty-mashing abilities (an area in which the Yankees could use a slight upgrade in), Betemit would seem to fit in seamlessly as the 2012 version of Eric Chavez, assuming that he’d be willing to sign as a reserve. For what it’s worth, Bill James forecasts more regression for Betemit in the form of a still-plenty-acceptable-for-a-reserve .331 wOBA, while SG’s CAIRO — typically far more pessimistic than James — actually likes him quite a bit more, at a .345 wOBA.

Of course, coming off two above-average campaigns likely means that some team out there may be willing to give Betemit a shot as their starting third baseman. However, it’s not entirely clear how any teams are viewing Betemit let alone what his status is, as there inexplicably doesn’t appear to be any information on the Internet regarding whether Detroit offered the Type B free agent arbitration and if so, whether Betemit planned to accept.

Any team considering Betemit no doubt knows that he’s a butcher with the glove, and so that could limit his starting opportunities and thusly perhaps make him a viable pursuit for the Yankees. I’ve been scouring the free agent ranks in hopes of finding potential diamonds-in-the-rough, but there really aren’t a ton of appealing options out there. As noted in that above-linked Jones post, I’ve endorsed the idea of pursuing free agent Reed Johnson or trading for the O’s Nolan Reimold should the Yankees not be able to come to an agreement with Andruw Jones, and other potential outfield options could include Johnny Gomes or maybe a trade for a different Oriole in Luke Scott, although the chances of dealing with Baltimore are quite slim.

As far as reserve infielders go, when you see names like Orlando Cabrera, Jerry Hairston Jr. (who actually would be a worthwhile pursuit, though it sounds like he may go back to Milwaukee), Edgar Renteria and Mark DeRosa, the idea of a reunion with Wilson Betemit becomes that much more appealing, so long as he’s forbidden from hitting from the right side. And the combination of the righty-bashing Betemit and lefty-smashing Jones would likely give the Yankees one of the more formidable benches in baseball.

The Right Trades

Like most GMs, Brian Cashman knows a little bit about making a smart trade. And while he’s certainly caused us to sigh in absolutely hopeless exasperation (sometimes followed by ‘We’ll never win a World Series again!’), he’s definitely struck gold a few times in recent history. Lately, right field has been patrolled by players brought over as a result of Cashman successes, and not only have they done well, but the trades themselves have been absolute steals. Works of art, even.

In 2006, a 38-year-old Bernie Williams was patrolling right field due to badly timed injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, and new call-up Melky Cabrera was in left. Williams was on his way to a .281/.332/.436 season, but Cashman was interested in more. He had his eye on Bobby Abreu, who was currently batting a career-low .277 and flitting with his career-low OPS of .871 in Philadelphia. Cashman refused to send Phil Hughes to the Phillies, but a deal was struck just before the deadline in 2006, sending Abreu to the Bronx with Cory Lidle for four minor leaguers. At that point, only one of them, Matt Smith, had logged any major league innings at all: a grand total of 12 IP, with four hits, eight walks, and nine strikeouts. The other three players — Carlos Monasterios, CJ Henry, and Jesus Sanchez — hadn’t played a single inning above A ball. Henry was a first round pick signed for $1.5M, so while the possibility was there, it was not exactly a sure thing. Sanchez and Monasterios were international free agents from Venezuela.

Abreu went on to hit .330/.419/.507 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs in his first 60 games in pinstripes and capped it off with four RBIs and a double in the postseason. It was a good start to his tenure, and his success would continue throughout 2007, where he hit posted an 117 OPS+, 16 homers, and five triples. The Yankees exercised his option for $16M for 2008, where he just kept getting better. He struck out less, hit more homers, and tacked twenty points onto his batting average. Meanwhile, the four minor leaguers pitched and hit in a grand total of 24 IP – all Matt Smith. There’s no question who got the better end of the deal. Abreu was worth a total of 7.3 WAR, while Smith clocked in at exactly replacement level.

Abreu would not return in 2009, though, due to the increase in his salary he was predicted to ask for. The Yankees had already picked up Xavier Nady (and Damaso Marte) near the 2008 trade deadline from the Pirates and were perfectly equipped to start him in right. They had traded Ross Ohlendorf (6.43 ERA in 40 IP), and three minor leaguers: Jose Tabata (AA), Jeff Karstens (AAA), Daniel McCutchen (AAA). Even better, Nady’s salary was a mere $6.5M in comparison to the +$16M Abreu was expected to ask for.

But Cashman wasn’t finished for 2009. He struck up talks with the White Sox for their first baseman/outfielder hybrid Nick Swisher, who had managed to hit career-worsts basically across the board, posting a pathetic .219/.332/.410. Cashman saw beyond the numbers, though; he saw a decent reserve outfielder who he could buy low and maybe even sell high on in the future. All Chicago asked for was Wilson Betemit, and minor leaguers Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez. Betemit had played in 87 games in 2008 and hit a decent .265/.289/.429. Sold.

Then, only seven games into the 2009 season, Nady went down with elbow trouble and required Tommy John surgery. Swisher, picked up as a reserve player, was pushed into the starting right fielder’s spot. The rest was history: Swish turned into a clubhouse asset, a semi-decent right fielder, and a power slugger. While he hit only .249, he also took nearly 100 walks and slugged thirty home runs in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. He posted a then-career high .869 OPS, fueled by his .371 OPB, and all for the low, low price of $5.4M. Swisher and Nady together cost less than Abreu had in 2008, too. Swisher’s only problem was his dismal October numbers: 7-for-54 with 15 Ks. Ouch. Regardless, Swisher’s numbers were far, far better than the .200/.280/.311 Betemit posted in 50 plate appearances in Chicago. Nunez made seven appearances and posted a 9.53 ERA, giving up 10 hits and 6 ER.

2010 only made the deal sweeter. Betemit signed with the Royals and went .297/.378./511 in 315 plate appearances, which wasn’t half bad, but Swisher outdid him. Not only did he play in 150 games, even when we all thought he should sit due to a busted knee and a September slide for the team, but he completed his transformation to slugger by posting career-high numbers. He traded in his walks for hits, improving on his .249 in 2009 to .288 in 2010, hitting the same amount of homers and completing the transformation to 4 WAR player. He destroyed the Twins in the 2010 ALDS with a home run and two doubles. He’s even super clutch.

While Swisher isn’t guaranteed to maintain his career-high numbers, he’s definitely in line for another great year in pinstripes. Betemit, meanwhile, has signed a 2011 contract with the Royals, and while a modest improvement might happen, it’ll certainly be nothing in comparison to Swisher. The man’s already posted the 3rd and 4th best Yankee right fielder performances (Sheffield is #1 and #2) since Paul O’Neil.  Meanwhile, Marquez and Nunez stew in AAA, with the first posting a 4.48 ERA, and the latter a 5.48.

I think it’s safe to say that Cashman has a pretty decent head on his shoulders. Like all GMs, he’s going to make a few mistakes, and things are going to happen that are out of his control. But even when taking away the free agent power that Cashman wields, he still proves to be pretty good at picking out a right fielder when he sees one he wants. Go Cash.

Should the Yanks bring back Betemit?

The White Sox will designate infielder Wilson Betemit for assignment today so they can call up uber-prospect Gordon Beckham, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Yanks should try to reacquire Betemit. Sure, we all remember watching him strike out a ton and boot grounders all over the infield, but when Angel Berroa and his .266 OPS occupy a bench spot, almost everyone’s an upgrade. Betemit would give the Yanks something they don’t have right now: power off the bench (.174 IsoP). And as an added bonus, he’s a switch hitter. The only downside is that Betemit’s kinda expensive ($1.3M this year), but that extra cost is worth the upgrade over Berroa. What do you guys think?

The end of Ensberg nears

A note from Chad Jennings: Jason Lane has an out in his contract that he can exercise on May 31. So the Yankees have a decision to make. Do you give Lane, who sports a .827 OPS at Scranton, a shot? Or do you let him walk? For what it’s worth, Jennings also notes that Lane was doing footwork at first base this week.

I’m personally of the mind that while the Ensberg experiment was a worthy one, it’s got to come to an end. Might as well plug in Lane and see what you’ve got there. Lane would take Ensberg’s 40- and 25-man roster spot, so there’s really no harm in this one. One experiment ends, another begins.

Wilson Betemit should be back soon, too. We could actually see the designation of Ensberg upon his return, with Lane taking the spot of Alberto Gonzalez. I actually like this a bit better. But in any case, there’s little chance Ensberg remains with the team past this week.

Today’s the deadline to exchange arbitration numbers

Not a huge milestone, but today is the day teams and players exchange arbitration figures. Wilson Betemit, Chien-Ming Wang, Brian Bruney, and Robinson Cano are due raises. Teams and players can negotiate contacts up until the hearing, so today is just a formality. As PeteAbe notes, the Yanks never give out long-term contracts to arbitration guys. They even went to a hearing with Derek Jeter before the ’99 season — and lost.