Open Thread: You say tomato, I say Tabata

Prospect season is in full swing these days, and Baseball America is in the middle of posting their top ten prospects for each team. The Yankees list won’t be released until December 18th, but the Pirates’ list came out today, and old pal Jose Tabata checked in at number two behind Washington Heights’ own Pedro Alvarez.

You probably all remember Tabata as the talented, yet troubled outfielder that would tantalize you with his natural ability but frustrate you with his childishness. The Yanks shipped him to Pittsburgh in the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade after having to suspend him twice for insubordination, and the now 21-year-old has enjoyed a bit of prospect rebirth with the Pirates. He hit .293-.357-406 between Double- and Triple-A in 2009, easily his best season since playing with Low-A Charleston back in 2006.

It’s all too easy to look back and judge trades in hindsight. Heck, the evaluation of Tabata trade has been a roller coaster since it was made. When it was made, everyone love it and called it a steal. When Tabata and Ross Ohlendorf were doing well for the Pirates while Nady and Marte went down with injuries, it was an awful move. When Marte turned Chase Utley and Ryan Howard into Corey Patterson and Yuniesky Betancourt en route to the World Series, it was pure genius. It doesn’t require any brainpower to judge a move in hindsight, nor is it an accurate way to do things.

The reality is that it was a move the team had to make and a move Tabata needed. The Yanks were just two games out of a playoff spot at the time of the trade, and adding an everyday outfielder enjoying a career year plus an accomplished lefty reliever made all the sense in the world. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Tabata was frustrated by the season he was having in 2008 (.248-.320-.310 before the trade), pulling himself from a game and leaving the park (suspension #1), then slamming his bat at the plate and showing up an umpire after looking at strike three (suspension #2). I can’t see Tabata making that kind of turnaround with the Yanks. He needed a change of scenery, and in the end it worked out for both parties.

Anyway, that’s my evening rant. Use this as your open thread for the night. The Knicks are in LA taking on the Lakers, while the Nets’ drive for 0-82 will continue out in Denver. Anything goes, just don’t be a jerk.

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Matsui noticeably absent from Elias Rankings

Elias Sports Bureau’s free agent rankings were released earlier this afternoon, and they contain a few surprises. Despite numerous projections placing him firmly in the Type B bracket, Yanks’ DH Hideki Matsui is an unranked free agent. Although Matsui missed much of 2008 with injuries, he rebounded to have a stellar 2009 regular season campaign, and over the last two years — the period considered by the rankings — he hit .282/.368/.473 with 37 home runs and 135 RBI. Meanwhile, Xavier Nady, who played in just seven games this year, is a Type B free agent.

In unsurprising news, Johnny Damon is a Type A free agent, and Pettitte is a Type B. As Joe wrote earlier, the Yanks will most likely resign Pettitte for 2010. The remaining Yankee free agents — Eric Hinske, Jerry Hairston and Jose Molina — are also unranked.

First Half Review: Outfielders and DH

At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. We already looked at the starting pitchers, relievers, corner infielders, catchers, and middle infielders, so now it’s time to take a look at the outfielders and designated hitter.

The expectations

Coming into the season with no fewer than five outfielders on their projected Opening Day roster, the Yanks figured to sport a solid but relatively unspectacular outfield in 2009. Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady figured to man the corner outfield spots and work in some kind of harmonious rotation where everyone stayed rested and productive. Centerfield was going to be occupied by Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner, whichever one happened to be hitting at the moment. Hideki Matsui was expected to contribute nothing beyond DH duty, which was fine.

After posting a .765 OPS as a unit in 2008 (20th best in baseball), the team figured to see an improvement in its outfield production this year given their depth. Damon was expected to produce at a similar pace to his first three years in pinstripes, while everyone assumed that a rebound for Nick Swisher and slight step back from Nady would combine to produce at the very least average production. Gardbrera was a bit of a crapshoot, and in most circles it was believed the team would probably need to go out and get someone at some point. Matsui just had to be Matsui, or close to it.

The results

Aside from a season-ending elbow injury to Nady just eight games into the season, everything has gone better than expected. Swisher has rebounded from his down year in Chicago while Cabredner has been better than anyone could have expected. Johnny Damon is enjoying the best season of his long career, just in time for his contract year. As a unit, the Yanks rank third in AL with an .815 OPS, trailing two of their AL East counterparts. You get one guess who those two teams are. Hideki Matsui has stayed relatively healthy and is having his best season since 2005.

It’s hard not to be pleased with the production the Yankees have gotten out of the outfield and DH this year. Aside from Nady everyone’s been able to stay on the field, and there’s more bodies than spots so there should be enough opportunity to keep the seemingly ageless Damon fresh.

Johnny Damon

Amazingly, Damon is having the best season of his career at age 35. However, it looks like the New Yankee Stadium has contributed greatly to his resurgence, as his home OPS is more than 200 points greater than his road OPS. He’s taken to the two-spot in the order like he’s been hitting there his entire career, which I think is what most of us figured would happen.

Unfortunately it’s not all good news for Johnny, because his defense in left field has been downright dreadful in 2009. Whether you trust newfangled defensive metrics or just judge defense with your eyes, it’s easy to see the Damon went from an above-average left fielder to one that’s shaky at best. In the team’s final two wins of the first half up in Minnesota, Joe Girardi replaced Damon with Melky Cabrera in the late innings for defense. More than likely we’ll see that continue in the second half.

Melky Cabrera & Brett Gardner

After winning the centerfield job outright in Spring Training, it took only 15 games or so for Melky Cabrera to reclaim the job. In what looks like an annual occurrence, Melky started the year on fire (.326-.394-.517 through May 13th) but trailed off afterward (.261-.320-.395 since). Gardner did pretty much the opposite, starting slow (.214-.273-.257 through May 12th) before picking up the pace (.322-.398-.492 since). The two have combined for a .293-.361-.439 batting line, fourth best among centerfielders in the AL and behind only the Orioles in the AL East.

Gardner has been a hero on defense, putting up an ungodly 20.1 UZR/150, trailing only Colby Rasmus and Franklin Gutierrez. Melky’s been solid, but as usual he tends to get overrated because of his arm. As a whole, the Gardbrera tandem has given the Yanks everything they could have wanted and more.

Nick Swisher & Xavier Nady

We weren’t sure how Girardi was going to get both Swisher and Nady regular at-bats this year, but that problem took care of itself barely a week into the season. Swisher has handled the everyday job with aplomb, doing his usual schtick of getting on base (.360 OBP) and hitting for power (.464 SLG). While he’s prone to the occasional botched play, overall he’s been slightly above average in right field with a 1.8 UZR/150. While it would be nice to have Nady healthy for the depth, Swisher has held down the fort just fine.

Hideki Matsui

It’ll be easy to talk about Matsui’s first half since all he’s done is hit, and hit he has. His .264-.367-.517 batting line is his best in years, and while the common perception might be that the New Stadium is artificially beefing up his numbers, Godzilla’s road OPS is more than 60 points higher than his home effort. While his knees look ready to explode whenever he has to run, Matsui’s a hitting savant that produces in all situations against any kind of pitcher regardless of what arm they throw with.

Expectations for the second half

Brian Cashman added some insurance in Eric Hinske not long before the break, which helps mitigate what would have been a disaster should another outfielder go down with injury. It’s tough to expect Damon to continue his career year, but a regression to his previous performance would be acceptable. The real question is whether or not Melky and Gardner can keep it up in center, because the Yanks have less than three weeks to decide if they need an upgrade.

I guess the expectation for the second half is what it was coming into the season, rock solid production but far from spectacular. Anything else is gravy.

Heyman on the Yanks: Nady, Girardi

Over the weekend, Jon Heyman has chimed in with two Yankee-centric items of note. Let’s break them down.

First, in a piece about the best and worst free agent signings, Heyman checks in on Xavier Nady‘s prognosis. Heyman wonders about Nady’s future: “One person said first surgeries have close to a 90 percent success ratio while second surgeries are as low as 20 percent.”

Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus had a different take in Friday’s Under the Knife. Carroll said that Nady “should be fine” for Spring Training. Nady, clearly, isn’t a pitcher and should have a slightly different rehab path. Unless the scar tissue presents a problem, I don’t see why Heyman’s source would be right.

In another piece, Heyman handicaps the managers on the hot seat. Girardi, says Heyman, won’t be fired this year no matter the ups and downs of the Yankee season. He will however have to get the team into the playoffs.

Heyman notes that Girardi is the “handpicked successor to the legendary Joe Torre.” While Girardi is under contract for next season, Yankee officials higher up in the food chain than Cashman may not be keen to welcome Girardi back in 2010 if the Yanks can’t make the playoffs this year. They didn’t spend all of that money this winter to stay home in October.

Musings on the Nady/Marte trade

Yesterday was an inauspicious anniversary for Xavier Nady. As the X Man announced that he would need a second Tommy John surgery and would be out for the season, he and the Yanks celebrated the 11-month anniversary of the trade that brought him and Damaso Marte from the Pirates to the Yankees. It was a bittersweet celebration indeed.

Last year, as the Yankees tried to mount a run on the Red Sox and Rays, they found themselves just a few games out of a playoff spot at the end of July. They need to fill a few holes. The bullpen needed a lefty power pitcher, and with Melky Cabrera mired in a season-long slump, the team needed an outfielder. Unwilling to pay or just not interested in the very steep price for Jason Bay, Brian Cashman killed two birds with one stone as he sent Jose Tabata, Dan McCutchen, Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens to Pittsburgh for Marte and Nady.

With Nady on the shelf now until he hits free agency and Marte MIA with an ambiguous shoulder injury, the word “bust” has floated around the Yankees. Was this trade — four young guys for two now-injured players — a bust? It’s easy to say yes, but I’m not so sure.

First, we have to consider how the two players the Yankees landed did at the time. That’s really what assessing this trade is about. If they performed to expectations, if they did the job, and if the Yankees didn’t give up all that much at the time, it isn’t a bust. Anything after that would be the proverbial icing on the cake.

Last year, Nady came over and impressed. A late September swoon left his triple slash line at .268/.320/.474, but as the team tride to amount an August attack, Nady hit .308/.351/.523 with 19 RBI. Marte had an ugly 5.40 ERA, inflated due to a 1.1-inning, five-earned run appearance in Texas. Without that appearance, he was a reliable reliever for the Yanks down the stretch.

This year, of course, the story has been anything but that success. Nady hurt himself early on, and Marte has a 15.00 ERA to go with a shoulder problem. While their 2008 numbers were good, the 2009 totals haven’t earned either much praise.

On the other side of the deal were the four players the Yanks gave up. Karstens and Ohlendorf have stuck around in Pittsburgh this year. That’s more a testament to the Pirates’ place at the bottom of the NL than anything else. Karstens is 3-4 with a 4.80 ERA. He has just 26 strike outs in 65.2 innings, a 1:1 K:BB ratio and a 1.45 WHIP. Ohlendorf is 6-6 with a 4.75 ERA. His K/9 IP is hovering around 4.5. These numbers look halfway decent on the Pirates, but in the AL they would amount to nothing.

While Ohlendorf and Karstens are what they are, the deal rests with the two players not in the Majors. Dan McCutchen is 26 at AAA with mediocre numbers (5-5, 4.34 ERA, 60 K in 74.2 IP). At best, he’ll be a swing man who makes a few spot starts for the Pirates. And then there is Tabata. After missing much of the season with an injury, Tabata has come on strong of late. He’s hitting .270/.354/.330 on the season. He is 11 for his last 34 but with no extra-base hits over that time.

To judge a deal, we have to look at it when it was made, and at that point, the deal was not a bust. It was nearly a steal. If Tabata develops the power and ability to be what people think he can be, the deal probably ends up being a wash. Yet, success has eluded Tabata, and his development has seemingly stalled out. It is disappointing to see Marte and Nady on the shelf, but that doesn’t make the deal a bust. If I were to go back in time and were to be unaware of what the future holds for Nady and Marte, I’d do it again. Would you?