Ever go to a Broadway play to see a famous actor in a part, only to have the guy not show up? You’ve dropped some serious dough on Brad Pitt as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (work with me here). As you’re sitting in your seat waiting for the lights to go down, a little slip of paper flutters out of your Playbill. It says, “For tonight’s performance, the part of Willy Loman, normally played by Brad Pitt, will be played by Ethel Birnbaum.” You are, at the very least, nonplussed.
Wednesday’s game had the feeling of an Ethel Birnbaum performance. For reasons of necessity, Joe Girardi started only about half of his normal lineup. There was no Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher, and once the game was turned over to the bullpen — perhaps a bit hastily — there was no Phil Hughes. That the Yankees won in spite of these sacrifices is one of those “any given day” hand-outs that sports, and that Flying Dutchman of a pitcher A.J. Burnett, can grant.
I am reminded of an occasion during Casey Stengel’s Minor League managerial career when, desperate for a starter, he called on a pitcher lacking the stuff to break the proverbial pane of glass, and won. “Casey,” said the opposing manager, “I think you’re underestimating this league.” Girardi wasn’t guilty of that; he had his reasons, but the effect was the same. You wouldn’t want to try this again unless you had to, especially not against the Angels.
DEAR JOE GIRARDI
Can we please have more Brett Gardner? By this I am not asking that he make even more appearances as a pinch-runner or defensive substitute, but that he be given more starting assignments now and into the playoffs. He’s not dramatically more productive than Melky Cabrera is, but as we saw on Tuesday in Anaheim, his style of play can be a welcome change of pace from the usual Earl Weaver-style approach employed by the Yankees.
Now, I’m the last one to ever criticize Weaver-style on-base ‘n’ bash baseball, because I believe it is the most effective form of offense there is. You could almost say I’m religious about it, Joe. Yet, even Earl employed his base-stealers, players like Paul Blair, Don Buford, Al Bumbry and Don Baylor, who in his younger, more svelte period swiped 30 bases a year for Team Baltimore. Even Reggie Jackson swiped 28 bags his one year in the Crab Kingdom, a career high. Earl’s 1973 team even led the league, hard as that is to believe.
See, it wasn’t that Earl totally disdained the stolen base. He saw it as a tactical weapon, one to be used sparingly rather than fetishized. And if the base-stealer in question does some other things, like takes the odd walk and plays solid defense, well, Earl had his Mark Belanger, after all. Gardner is no Belanger, Joe. My point is our particular offensive cult does permit this kind of messing around with speed guys; as long as two guys are on when the home run hitters come up, we’re okay. Gardner would seem to provide your best option for getting that out of your center fielder.
As for the power you would be giving up, there’s not a whole lot there on Cabrera’s part, and its loss should be offset by Gardner’s larger contribution on defense, on the bases, and of course from his reaching base more often. Cabrera is a groundball hitter, and his current 12 home runs seems to be around the upper limit of his power. Sure, he gets into stretches where he gets a little more loft on the ball, resulting in his bunching four of his home runs into the month of April, but outside of those hot streaks the power production comes down to one or two home runs a month.
That’s not a lot to sacrifice given what’s being gained. And here’s another bonus: both Gardner and Cabrera hit a ton of ground balls, but the latter’s speed is unexceptional, resulting in a high percentage of double plays. The Major League average hitter (the number is almost the same in both leagues) hits into a double play in about 11 percent of his chances. Cabrera hits into one 14 percent of the time. Gardner, with his speed, hits into one only seven percent of the time. Over the course of a full season this is a gain of many outs. This is why, despite the gap in home runs, Gardner is creating 5.5 runs per 27 outs, while Cabrera trails at 4.7. Over a full season, this would work out to at least one added win, and that’s without considering defense. Speaking of which, most metrics agree that Gardner is the rangier fielder. I would say that most naked eyes agree as well, but I can only speak for myself, and being down one eye, I should probably leave that assessment to others not part of the Greater New Jersey Order of Cyclopians.
I understand why you’ve been reluctant to start Gardner of late; he had just come off the disabled list, and maybe his thumb isn’t up to the daily pounding. Cabrera would also seem to have “won” the job while Gardner was gone, but in truth, his recent production has been nothing special. He’s hit .255/.318/.382 in the second half, .243/.299/.361 in August-September. Cabrera is also getting to the point in his career where he’s going to cost the Yankees some significant dollars (he’s in his arbitration years), and given that the budget has proved to be only semi-infinite it would probably be a good idea to get Gardner established so the front office knows the full extent of its flexibility. Perhaps a Gardner/Austin Jackson combination next year will be just as good as a Gardner/Cabrera combination. In that case: voila, instant trade bait! Instant payroll reduction! This sounds like the best of all worlds to me.
Thank you for giving this matter your full attention.
Very Truly Yours,
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: PRETTY MUCH NONE (OR ONE)
…Although “Waiting for Melky Cabrera’s Next Hot Streak” would have made for a very good Johnny Cash song, something along the lines of “Big River”:
Now, I taught the weeping willow how to cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky
And I’m still waiting for Melky to start hitting again, Big River
Or I’m gonna sit right here until I die
This is hardly worth a complaint or cavil; with the Yankees having just swept the White Sox, there’s little to complain about. Well, we could always spend more time first-guessing the Joba Rules 3.0, or whatever version Joe Girardi is up to now. The experiment is fascinating in the completely blind way it is being conducted; there is no hope of ever knowing if the Yankees are helping or just sort of messing around. If Joba doesn’t get hurt, it isn’t necessarily because of anything the Yankees did or did not do, and the same thing is true if he does get hurt. Being careful to avoid too large a year-over-year increase in innings pitched seems correct both from an intuitive and anecdotal perspective, but in the final analysis, the only foolproof way to avoid pitching injuries is not pitching.
Simultaneously, if the Joba Rules are in conflict with the goal of developing Chamberlain into a consistently successful Major League pitcher, then it isn’t clear what the Yankees are accomplishing. To paraphrase a tragic Vietnam-era concoction, what if the only way to save the pitcher is to destroy him? Yet another thing we don’t know is if Joba’s recent stretch of weak pitching is due to the rules or just coincidental with their implementation. The righty made 11 starts with a 3.31 ERA in June and July. In August, the month all the messing around really took hold, his ERA was 8.22. If he’s miserable in the playoffs, if he’s miserable next year, then it will be difficult to argue that this was a goal worth pursuing, or that it was pursued correctly.
There is another imperative, one which is in conflict with the Joba Rules, and that is winning ballgames and championships. Had the Yankees been in a tighter race in the middle of this month, they would have faced a fascinating choice between holding to their principles and trying to get back to the postseason. Fortunately for them, and perhaps for Joba, we will never know what would have happened in that situation.
20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. ORIOLES
W-L RS/G RA/G AVG OBP SLG AB/HR SB CS HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Yankees 14-6 6.3 4.5 .298 .357 .513 20 9 2 1.2 2.9 8.6
Orioles 8-12 4.9 5.2 .281 .343 .465 31 11 5 1.3 3.3 5.9
Another August comes to a close, another series against an Orioles team that has packed it in for the year. The Orioles franchise goes back to the founding of the American League in 1901, when it came into existence as the St. Louis Browns. The Browns, as you can probably infer from the fact that they now play in Baltimore, were generally not too successful, their two high points being a terrific but losing race with the Yankees in 1922 and a random pennant in 1944. Much of the rest of the time, including the early Baltimore period, the club was hopeless, twice going more than 10 years without even putting up a .500 record. The first stretch, from 1930-1941, lasted 12 seasons. The second, from 1946-1956, lasted 11. When this season ends, the club will have equaled the former futile run, having not posted a winning record since 1997.
The Yankees have good timing in this series, in that they won’t see the two top pitching prospects the Orioles now have up, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz. Instead, they get the vet Jeremy Guthrie (hot lately, with consecutive seven inning/one run starts), the rookie David Hernandez, who they have handled before — he remains wild and prone to the home run — and another rookie, Jason Berken, who they battered back in July. This is not something to be boasted of, because pretty much everyone else who has seen Berken has basted him. He has pitched a little better of late, going 10.2 innings and allowing five runs in his last two starts.
The hottest hitter the O’s have won’t play against Andy Pettitte. Outfielder Felix Pie has been a bust in both Chicago and Baltimore, but the 24-year-old got a chance to play with Adam Jones nursing injuries and he made the most of it, batting .333/.394/.651 in August. This aside, the sights to see remain the same: veteran keystoner Brian Roberts, the three young outfielders, and rookie catcher Matt Wieters. If it sounds like I’m not too excited by this series, it’s because there isn’t much reason to be. The Orioles hit at about the same level of productivity as the White Sox, but their pitching is far worse. Given how the Yankees just handled the White Sox, there isn’t much suspense here. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be.
WAITING ON SEPTEMBER CALL-UPS
The Yankees still haven’t said who is coming, nor have they designated all of their Arizona Fall League attendees, so the immediate future of Yankees prospect-dom remains murky. One would hope that Austin Jackson is coming. As miserable as he has been lately (.236/.281/.299 since the break and largely pointless since May), the Yankees still need to get a look at him in big league situations to see what they have. There is some interesting slack in his numbers, including a homerless .302/.346/.414 against left-handed pitching, an oddity for a right-handed hitter. This is not something you would expect to continue, unless Jackson has become such a pronounced ground ball hitter this year that his power is going to stagnate from now on. With a big lead, Brett Gardner hurt, and Cabrera endlessly slumping (.212/.225/.333 in August, .239/.308/.380 since May), veterans in need of rest, and all the leverage in the world on Johnny Damon’s side in upcoming free agent negotiations, giving Jackson a cup of coffee in spite of his weak performance would seem the correct thing to do.
YANKEE STADIUM II (III) AND ITS DETRACTORS
In yesterday’s chat, I was asked “What do you think of the new Yankee Stadium? Does the avalanche of home runs to right bother you?” My response: “Not at all. It just is what it is. At worst, it really requires the Yankees to re-embrace their traditional love of left-handed hitters and pitchers, something that had gotten lost with the various shrinkages of the left side of Yankee Stadium over the years.”
As the year has rolled on, I’ve been mystified by the cynical response to the way the new park plays, not least because it has been competitively advantageous for the Yankees. The offense has out-homered the opposition 107-78 in the same number of at-bats, and the pitching staff’s ERA is a third of a run lower at home than on the road. As long as the Yankees keep the park in mind when building the team in the future, it can continue to be so. This year, Yankees opponents have gotten lefties to the plate at Yankee Stadium roughly 850 times, as compared to 1384 tunes for the Yankees. That advantage might be ephemeral — the Yankees won’t always have four switch-hitters and three lefties in the lineup every year — but if they can maintain some semblance of that balance, as well as place renewed emphasis on the drafting a development of left-handed pitchers, and the park should continue to be an asset.
Whatever the Yankees do, I hope that they won’t rush out as soon as the season is over and reconfigure the fences. First, 81 games (plus a few postseason contests) isn’t enough to get an accurate reading on the park. Second, if people talk, let ’em. Whether it’s Coors Field and its altitude or the old Polo Grounds with its shortened foul lines, which resulted in home runs which were criticized as cheap, or even Babe Ruth’s porch at Yankee Stadium I, they’re all legitimate versions of a playing field. The great thing about baseball there are no correct parks or incorrect parks. They just play the way they play. The Yankees have nothing to apologize for.
MATSUI’S MASHING AND THE FUTURE OF EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING
Whenever one of the Yankees’ potentially departing free agents has a big night, usually Johnny Damon but on Thursday night Hideki Matsui, a conversation starts up as to whether the player should be retained. The talk has some validity. The Yankees are not deep in outfield prospects, Austin Jackson’s .301/.362/.413 at Scranton translates to only .266/.330/.385 in the Majors, and he’s been cold for about 10 weeks; because the free agent class is going to be on the weak side, with an emphasis on older players. That limits Brian Cashman’s choices. He can let Damon and Matsui go, figuring that although they’ve done well this year, their negatives — age (Damon will turn 36 in November, Matsui next June) and defensive limitations (Damon has slipped, Matsui’s knees don’t even let him play) — are good enough reason to move on.
In a vacuum, letting the oldsters go would be correct call. However, it also means the menu of alternatives could be a Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera/Nick Swisher outfield and a rotating DH, which would be offensively light, or the above with Jackson mixed in, or the above with a very young Jesus Montero mixed in at DH, or giving too much money and too many years to Matt Holliday or Jermaine Dye or Magglio Ordonez … or hope to trade the entire farm system to the Braves for Jason Heyward, which won’t happen. It is because of scenarios like these that general managers are paid the big bucks.
As always, much pain could have been avoided if the Yankees had been more adept at drafting and development in recent years. The farm system has clearly improved over the last few seasons, but even having said that, it seems that too often there is cause to observe that the development of position players lags far behind that of pitchers. This has been a glaring problem for so long that it’s hard to believe that the Yankees have not spent time identifying the problem (I am not pointing fingers at anyone, but they need to point fingers at someone or someone(s) or some aspects of what they are doing) and doing something to remedy it, which surely would be cheaper than continuing to pay bonuses to players who end up doing little more than filling out the farm system.
Even if those changes are implemented tomorrow, they will take time to pay off for the big team in the Bronx, so this season’s dilemma remains. I wish I had a brilliant suggestion to solve the problem, other than Montero should be allowed into the mix before long if he heals up well — no use wasting a ready bat waiting for a defensive evolution that might never come — but whereas as season’s outset it seemed like there was no scenario in which it would be worthwhile to bring Damon and Matsui back, now one can at least glimpse situations in which retaining one or both on a short-term contract — most likely Damon given Matsui’s utter loss of speed — isn’t more likely to have a worse outcome than any of the other possibilities.
That’s not exactly a strong endorsement, but it’s more than you could have said in April.
SCRATCH THAT PITCHING DIET
As per George King, the Yankees have called up Anthony Claggett as protection for another blink-and-you-miss-it Sergio Mitre start. So much for my suggestion earlier today that the team experiment with a streamlined, 11-man pitching staff. Instead, Mitre necessitates a baker’s dozen. As Roger Daltey sang in “Who Are You,” “There’s got to be another way.” And then he swore.
Cody Ransom, meanwhile, has finally earned his letters: DFA. Ransom provides one of baseball’s best lessons, one that you can apply to just about anything: “Don’t get excited over small samples.” Ransom’s 2008 performance, .302/.400/.651 with four home runs in 43 at-bats, represents little more than the coin coming up heads over and over again for a small space of time. Some would say Ransom earned himself a chance with that performance, but the truth is that it shouldn’t have been a very long one given his age and track record. There are a few players out there–Mark Reynolds comes to mind-who are skilled enough hitters to survive an unusually high strikeout rate. When they do make contact, they do so solidly enough that good things happen a high percentage of the time. Ransom isn’t good enough to overcome the kind of pressure his strikeout rate puts on him. This year only 15 percent of his balls in play have been line drives, which means his batting average on balls in play is only .278. In short, he didn’t put balls in play very often due to the strikeout rate, and when he did put them in play nothing happened.
In the long term, the Yankees are going to need to get back down to 12 pitchers tops, and that could mean the return of Ramiro Pena. Austin Jackson would make more sense, given that the Yankees require a practiced centerfield reserve more than they need a kid with not very much offense and less experience in the pastures. There are only three weeks left in the Minor League season. If Jackson spends most of that time on the New York bench, it couldn’t possibly set him back in any permanent way, and might possibly help.
Of course, until the Yankees find a way to get more than three innings out of their fifth starter, that last roster spot is probably moot. The sad thing is that in the postseason, the fifth starter won’t matter one bit–you could practically send the guy home. The irony, then, is that they’ll need that guy, whoever he is, to make a contribution if they’re going to get to the postseason. In a word: woof.
In one of those unrequited love affairs that never seems to end, John Heyman reports that the Yankees have made inquiries about the availability of Seattle starter Jarrod Washburn. The Yankees are naturally impressed by Washburn given that he pitches like a Cy Young winner whenever they see him. Though his record against the Bombers is only 5-6 in 13 career starts, his ERA is just 2.76. If they’ve beaten him, it’s because he likes to give up home runs, and they like to hit them, but since he hasn’t allowed them many walks or hits overall, the overall scoring has been kept to a minimum.
Sergio Mitre doesn’t seem like much of an answer to the fifth spot in the rotation, and they are understandably nervous about pulling Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves out of the bullpen, though these worries may ultimately be self-defeating. The Yankees might be able to get through the remainder of the campaign without a reliable fifth starter, and they can certainly make it through the playoffs without ever calling the fifth starter’s name, but it might not be a fifth starter they really need. They might need something more. CC Sabathia has been inconsistent, Andy Pettitte alternates good starts and bad, with the result that his ERA since April is 5.17, and the Yankees also have to worry about Joba Chamberlain hitting a wall in September (whether through an innings limit or fatigue). Say Joba pitches poorly in the fall. That would make the playoff rotation Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and a lot fingernail-biting (new slogan: Sabathia, Burnett, and pray for a pedicurist). Adding a pitcher of Washburn’s abilities would help ease those fears.
The downside to such an acquisition is that Washburn is having his best year since 2002, and the Yankees would surely have to overpay for that. This is a guy who had a 4.69 ERA a year ago. However, Washburn’s contract status mitigates against a big return, as he’s a free agent after the season. Then, of course, there’s the entire question of if the Mariners want to run up the white flag on their borderline involvement in the pennant race.
Washburn is a fly-ball pitcher, which seems like a bad idea in Yankee Stadium II, although being left-handed he should be at a theoretical advantage in the new park. Indeed, left-handed batters can’t touch him, batting .172/.231/.273 in 137 plate appearances. This is well below his career rates of .239/.295/.389, but let’s take it at face value for the moment. Washburn has good control but is usually very proficient at giving up home runs, leading the AL back in 2003. One of the reasons that he’s having such a good year is that in his average season, over seven percent of the flies he’s allowed have left the building. This year, the percentage is down to five, the lowest rate of his career, and yet there is no corresponding increase in his groundball rate. That screams fluke, something that could change at any time.
Still, if you take his proficiency against lefties as gospel and figure his presence will tilt some opposing lineups to the right side, perhaps his fly ball tendencies are not too troublesome. Whereas left-handed batters are hitting a home run once every 19 at-bats at the new park, right-handed batters have hit them at a more manageable (though still high) rate of one every 25 at-bats.
All of the above still leaves the difficult question of who to deal. The Mariners need batters more than anything else, and the Yankees don’t match up well in that regard. Austin Jackson seems like the kind of overhyped player who would bring more in trade than he will the Yankees in production, but with the outfield in flux both now (with Brett Gardner’s injury) and in the future (with free agent departures), the Yankees probably need to hold on to him, while dealing a Jesus Montero for a Jarrod Washburn seems like the kind of deal that a general manager could spend the rest of his life apologizing for, like Lou Gorman and Jeff Bagwell. Montero hit another home run this weekend, bringing his Double-A line to .309/.366/.537 with nine home runs in 149 at-bats. That line is tempered by Trenton’s wholly impossible home park–Montero is batting .229/.280/.357 in the Garden State capital, but .380/.443/.696 on the road. If he was playing in a fairer home park, there would be a clamor to move this guy to Triple-A or the Majors now. Flags fly forever, but this is the kind of hitting talent that could get his number retired if the Yankees can just find a place for him.
20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES VS. RAYS
W-L RS/G RA/G AVG OBP SLG AB/HR SB CS HR/9 BB/9 K/9
Yankees 15-5 5.6 4.6 .290 .379 .473 25 9 8 1.0 3.0 6.9
Rays 10-10 3.7 4.7 .228 .315 .361 42 19 6 1.0 2.6 7.6
The Yankees have stopped stealing bases with any effectiveness, and that’s not going to change during Brett Gardner’s absence… This is a huge series for the Rays–the Yankees could knock them well back in both the AL East and wild card race. The Rays are lucky to have broken even on their last 20 games given their offensive slump. Other than the indefatigable Ben Zobrist and a rebounding Dioner Navarro, the entire offense has shut down this month. Carl Crawford is hitting .257/.333/.351; Jason Bartlett .238/.342/.349; Evan Longoria .197/.289/.382; Carlos Pena .145/.294/.290. What this means, of course, is that they’re due. Fortunately, the Yankees have Burnett, Sabathia, and Chamberlain going so it won’t be easy for the Rays to break out. They too have their best pitchers going this series, sort of, kind of. The pitching rotation, which lands on James Shields and Matt Garza, plus Scott Kazmir, who is motivated to turn things around after five weeks on the DL. He’s made five starts since coming back and the results have been mixed, with a 5.08 ERA in 28.1 innings.
MO, MO, MO (497 MORE MOS TO GO)
You can’t follow the Yankees without appreciating Mariano Rivera. He’s superhuman and yet human, approachable and professional. No doubt you’ve read a thousand thoughts along the same lines already today, so instead of heaping on more superlatives, let’s look at the actual record in all of its glorious length. Indeed, length is the key. What makes Rivera great is not only his rare dominance with one special pitch, but for just how long he’s maintained his high level of performance. Many closers rocket up the pop charts, but few have anything like the staying power of Rivera. Generate a list of the top 200 single-season performances of the last 55 years by a reliever (I’m using the context-sensitive wins added, or WXRL) and count everyone who appears on the list more than twice and this is what you get, ordered from lowest to highest:
3 Bruce Sutter
3 Eric Gagne
3 John Smoltz
3 Keith Foulke
3 Lee Smith
3 Lindy McDaniel
3 Randy Myers
3 Rollie Fingers
3 Stu Miller
4 Billy Wagner
4 Dan Quisenberry
4 Francisco Rodriguez
4 Joe Nathan
4 Trevor Hoffman
4 Troy Percival
4 Tug McGraw
5 Armando Benitez
5 Goose Gossage
9 Mariano Rivera
This is a fairer reflection of Rivera’s dominance than something more basic like seasons leading the league in saves-Rivera has done that only three times in 15 seasons. It’s not the number of saves that matters, it’s the quality of the performances, and no one has been as good as often as Rivera has. Twenty-four pitchers appear on the list only twice. There is normally a lot of turnover in the closer department, just as there is for all relievers. There is also much variability depending on how pitchers are used by their managers. Rivera has stuck there like no other pitcher in history. Throw in his extraordinary postseason work, his humanity and professionalism, and this is one inner-circle Hall of Famer that no one will be able to second-guess on induction day.
NADY BE GOOD (EVERYONE’S FAVORITE GERSHWIN TUNE)
The future is now, but in order to win the American League pennant, the Yankees will need to fight the future. No doubt few readers pity Brian Cashman, but he’s in the difficult position of needing to win this year while also thinking about how the Yankees win next year and in the years going forward.
While this page never roots for a player to suffer injury and never will, the removal of Nady for the season (if confirmed) helps to clarify the outfield picture for the rest of the season, or at least until the trading deadline. Nady had some value, but on the whole, 30-walk a year players who don’t also hit .330 or slug .500 are to be avoided. Nady is a stopgap-level player. The Yankees needed that kind of help last year, but don’t this year. The Yankees, particularly Joe Girardi, devoted a lot of air to Nady’s contribution in 2008, but it would seem that the first impression was a lasting one, because .268/.320/.474 isn’t memorable by the standards of corner outfielders. There was a reason that Nady played for four teams in four seasons from 2005 to 2008. The Yankees would have found out why at their own peril. The troubling aspect of the affair was that they seemed willing, if not eager, to do so.
Ironically, they might need Nady-style assistance next season. With Nady’s contract up, that might be the end of him as a Yankee, but one could imagine the team signing him to a low-base, make-good contract, because the outfield shelves could be bare this winter. The contracts of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon are up, and the arguments for bring each back are not strong. Matsui’s lack of mobility constricts the Yankees’ roster while his declining bat adds less than the team would should get for paying that price. Given his age, a multi-year contract would also be dangerous even if one expects a bounce-back next year, even if Matsui returns to Godzilla-style smashing in the second half (not that Matsui has been above Rodan-level in the U.S.).
Damon has obviously had a good year, and a couple of big nights in Atlanta and Queens have helped bring up his road numbers. Still, he too is 35, and there’s no guaranteeing that his Yankee Stadium II power boost is more than an ephemeral event. Last year, at 34, Damon was better than he had ever been before. This year he’s been better than that. That’s an unusual progression and one not likely to sustain itself over the course of another three-year contract, and perhaps even not over another two.
Thus, by the end of the World Series, three of the five current outfielders (counting the gimpy Matsui) could be in the wind. The free agent possibilities are not promising: Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay (if the Red Sox don’t extend him, which seems unlikely), Carl Crawford (a team option of $8.25 million seems likely to be picked up), senior citizen Vlad Guerrero, a long-ago Cashman crush vetoed by ownership, Randy Winn… There’s not much. Help won’t be coming from that direction.
Perhaps by the end of the year, Brett Gardner will have cemented himself in center field for a time. Melky Cabrera is not a sufficient bat for a corner, though the Yankees may choose to see him there, and at present levels, he can hit enough to be a rotating jack of all trades, though it should be noted that he’s going to be increasingly expensive in the coming seasons. As far as the farm system goes, you know about Austin Jackson (currently in a mini-slump). With two home runs, he doesn’t seem like a corner outfielder. A Jackson, Gardner, Cabrera outfield would be strong defensively but not very powerful. Swisher, who is signed through 2012, suddenly becomes very important in any conception of next year, not to mention this one.
This leads to an interesting question. If Matsui and Damon are truly to be gone next year, if Jackson is to be among the possible replacements, is it in the Yankees’ best interest to get him at least 100 plate appearances of Major League time this year? The answer is almost certainly “not yet”–while Jackson has had a solid season, his lack of power and moderate selectivity don’t portend production at the big league level. Remember, in the Majors the batting average is likely to slip, which leaves a medium walk rate and, at least this year, little in the way of power. This would change, though, if Jackson surged and/or Matsui or Damon began to slide. Then the needle that swings between present and future would be stuck exactly in the middle of the dial.
WE NOW PAUSE FOR THIS WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR
“Our hittin’ is off, our fieldin’ is off, our base-running’ is off and, I dunno, maybe the managin’ is lousy, too.” — Casey Stengel, August, 1952. Seemed appropriate.
ONE MORE OLD-TIME STORY
Came across this yesterday in a 1954 Arthur Daley column for the New York Times. Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance is talking about when he played for another Hall of Famer, the combustible second baseman Frankie Frisch. “One day I hit into two double-plays and my manager, a mild-mannered and butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth fellow named Frank Frisch blew his top. And the next day we’re playing an exhibition game against the House of David team, which has, believe it nor not, a 14-year-old girl pitching for them. Everybody starts hitting, and the bases are full when Frisch comes to bat. He hits into a double-play. Mad? He’s blazing when he gets to the bench. But I couldn’t resist. ‘Frank,’ I say to him, ‘I’ve hit into many a double-play in my life, but never against a 14-year-old girl pitcher.'”
A couple of splits for the Yankees: home ERA is 6.59, road ERA is 5.16. The pitchers are allowing 1.8 homers per nine innings at The Sequel, 1.2 on the road. The offense is hitting a home run every 20.3 at-bats at home, one every 25.6 at-bats on the road. Intriguingly, the Yankees are scoring more runs per game on the road, in part because they’ve hit in some bad luck at home, averaging just .285 on balls in play. I don’t have line drive splits handy, but one wonders if the Yankees have been so mesmerized by their home park that they’ve fallen into the Rockies-style of trying to hit fly balls. Just a thought.
A QUICK ONE FROM THE COMMENTS
A reader asked how or why I said that I didn’t expect Austin Jackson would be an impact player. The answer is that as good as he’s been, he doesn’t seem to have a big-time power tool. He’s hit only 26 home runs in 1,796 at-bats as a pro, including none this year (though he’s off to a fine start at .360/.430/.440). Baseball America says, “While Jackson’s power comes mostly to the gaps now, scouts and managers agree he’ll have average power as he continues to gain experience and strength.” They don’t really know that, of course; it’s just speculation, and I prefer to count birds in the hand, not hypothetical chickadees in an imaginary bush. As such, what I see right now is a player who might hit .280/.360/.420 in the major leagues. That’s not bad at all, especially coming from a center fielder — last year, the average Major League center fielder batted .268/.334/.420, .272/.338/.420 the year before.
If Jackson can do that in the middle pasture, his team will be ahead of the game (in the corners this wouldn’t be true). It’s not impossible that Jackson will do more than that, and he hits .360 the rest of the year we’ll be due for another conversation on the subject, and the same will be true if he starts lashing home runs every which way. Until then, though, Jackson the superstar center fielder remains conceptual, leaving us with Jackson the very decent player. It’s been very unusual for the Yankees’ system to produce even that much in a non-pitcher, so it would probably be ungrateful to ask for more just now.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
Giants 11, Nationals 7: It wasn’t pretty, but Randy Johnson picked up win number 298. He can still get the strikeouts — he’s sixth in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings — but he’s also leading the league in home runs allowed. The overall results are mediocre, but it’s not clear that we should be expecting a whole lot more from a guy who will turn 46 in September… Ryan Zimmerman went 4-for-5 with two home runs. It was his 29th consecutive game with a hit. I doubt Joe DiMaggio is nervous yet, wherever he is. The Zimmerman of 2006-2008 was pretty consistent, batting .278/.338/.458, not bad, but not as good as what had been predicted for him when he was a first-round pick in 2005. It’s easy to forget that he compiled those numbers in the majors at ages 21 to 23.
Braves 8, Mets 3: Omar Santos’ .302 average (13-for-43) is a mass hallucination… The Mets didn’t actually hit all that badly in this game, they just couldn’t master Derek Lowe’s anti-gravity ball, hitting into three double plays. The NL East remains compellingly bunchy. If the Braves could get healthy, they might make a move, but as Brian McCann came back, Chipper Jones went out, and it smells like the Braves might be doing that kind of dance all year.
Reds 13, Diamondbacks 5: Willy Taveras’ 5-for-5 pumped his rates to .315/.381/.414, and with his defense that’s a valuable package. Too bad he can’t do that every year…
Indians 9, White Sox 4: More trouble for Gavin Floyd, which is depressing. The law of averages is no fun, as you’d like to think we have some freedom of action in this life… Carl Pavano won, though he didn’t pitch particularly well, and Jose Contreras went to the Minor Leagues. Under 15,000 watched it all in Cleveland. Thus endeth a slow day in the Major Leagues.
In today’s New York Daily News, Mark Feinsand writes:
[Melky] Cabrera, who looked to be fighting for a roster spot more than a starting job, stayed the course and tried to let his play speak for itself. Apparently, his strategy worked.
“In this game, things aren’t always going to go the way you want that day or the next day — or maybe for a week — but Melky didn’t panic,” Joe Girardi said. “He just kept doing his thing, which is a sign of maturity.”
“I’m happy with the way Melky is playing; he’s really started to swing the bat,” Girardi said. “They’ve both played at a very high level. Gardy started a little quicker, but to me, they’re both playing at a very high level right now. It’s been a fun competition to watch.”
As Einstein said, and every man of woman born has since repeated, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Cabrera has been a regular player for three years now, and the Yankees have received three years of below average, declining results. He does not hit for a high average, and since he has little power and no particular love of taking ball four, he produces almost nothing at the plate.
The counter argument here is that Cabrera, now 24, was a young big leaguer and still has room to develop. Perhaps, but (1) at 24 he likely has sailed past the point that a breakout can reasonably be expected and (2) if there is a breakout, where is it to come? Should we expect a player who has never hit more than eight home runs in a season to whack 25 of them this year? Should we expect a fake switch-hitter who cannot bat right-handed (.251/.319/.329 career) to become a reliable .310 hitter? Should the Yankees project that a player who has averaged 50 walks per 162 games played to add another 25 of them to the back of his baseball card?
Now, these things could happen. Cabrera hit for power last April before quitting completely, and maybe whatever alchemy allowed him to be a slugger for one month could reconstitute itself over six months. Not likely, but it could happen. He could hit .300 just on luck. That happens too — every year some player sees an abnormally high (or, in the case of Nick Swisher last season, low) percentage of the balls he hits fall in. He could take more walks based on the understanding that if he doesn’t make every effort not to throw away his at-bats, he will forfeit millions in future salary.
If these things happen, swell — the universe is a capricious place. It giveth and taketh away and sometimes gives us cash bonuses we don’t deserve after we’ve helped cause a global financial meltdown. Such unpredictability is what makes life here so exciting. Betting on such events, however, is never a wise policy, especially when one requires offense to win a pennant, and particularly when one’s MVP just had his hip operated on and your team will require every iota of additional offense to support its gold-plated pitching staff.
It is hoped, and perhaps it is even probable, that Joe Girardi is not entirely serious in what he is saying, and he is merely trying to keep both players pumped or to stoke Cabrera’s trade value by exaggerating his performance this spring. We know that Girardi isn’t stupid and that he can be disingenuous. In this case, he may be letting the latter quality do some of Brian Cashman’s work for him. If that is true, then he’d better hope that potential partners don’t look too closely, as this spring Cabrera has batted .250/.341/.361. It’s more of the same-old, same-old, a movie we’ve seen before.
Post-script: today’s game in Fort Myers, Fla., wrapped up as I tossed these words onto the page. Brett Gardner went 1-for-3 with a stolen base. Cabrera did not play.
ONE FELLOW WHO DID PLAY
Austin Jackson. He hit his second home run of the spring and is now batting .303. Jackson has played consistently well this exhibition season, but I’ve been reluctant to say anything about it because generally he’s been coming into games late and doing his damage against roster fodder. That said, something is better than nothing, and you would have to think that he’s positioned himself to get an early jump on a Major League career should any injuries befall the Major League outfield cadre. That’s a fantastic development for the Yankees as — here’s one cliché that is completely true — you can never have too much depth.
NO ONE EVER LEARNS ANYTHING
I don’t like to single out other writers in this space so I’m going to be oblique here, but there was a piece published today that praised Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins for accepting a change in batting order position from leadoff to third, while castigating Jose Reyes of the Mets for reacting with less enthusiasm to a similar proposal from his manager. There’s a very simple problem with this line of thinking: Ramirez isn’t necessarily right and Reyes is definitely not wrong. The difference between the most optimal, second-most optimal, and eight-most optimal batting order in terms of generating offense is very, very small. To conceive of batting orders in this way is an act of ignorance and naivety. The batting order is more accurately viewed as a mechanism through which the manager distributes playing time. The leadoff hitter will play (come to bat) more than any other player on the team. The No. 2 hitter will have approximately 20 fewer turns than the leadoff hitter. The No. 3 hitter will have 20 fewer turns than the No. 2 hitter, and so on down the order.
Take last year’s Yankees team as an example. The leadoff spot came to the plate 762 times. The second place in the order batted 14 fewer times. The third spot batted 32 fewer times. If we drop down to number nine, we see a gap of 140 plate appearances from first in the order to last. Jerry Manuel of the Mets was proposing that one of his worst hitters, Luis Castillo, bat 40 or so more times this year than Reyes, one of his best hitters. Fredi Gonzalez is proposing a similar reduction in Ramirez’s playing time. Whatever the small effect of batting order changes, there is no way to justify voluntarily giving up the equivalent of eight to ten games worth of times at bat for one of your best hitters.
These days it is rare that a piece by a fellow toiler in these fields seems so wrongheaded that I am obliged to write about it, but this one got to me, being an excuse to take a cheap shot at Jose Reyes over an idiotic suggestion by his manager.
THE PLACE WHERE MY FEET ARE
None too soon for my somewhat fragile constitution, the book tour comes to a close next week with two appearances. First, Jay Jaffe and I will be in Philadelphia on Tuesday the 24th at 5 p.m., at the Penn Bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania (3601 Walnut Street, Philadelphia). Second, Jay, Cliff Corcoran, and I will be at the Rutgers University bookstore (Ferren Mall, One Penn Plaza, New Brunswick, N.J.) on Thursday the 26th beginning at 6 p.m. On both occasions we’ll be talking baseball in any of its multifarious forms. I am very much looking forward to seeing you.
THE MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO STAMFORD
Thanks to today’s winter event and my being a Cyclops, I missed it. I’ll be back in the Bunker next week. In the meantime, the Yankees have released a list of 20 non-roster invitees to Spring Training. The invitees break down into three categories: journeymen vets, up-and-coming prospects who are there just to bask in the Major League glow and guys who are around because you need a lot of extra bodies in Spring Training and won’t make the roster barring some kind of global catastrophe so bad that none of us will be paying any attention to baseball anyway.
Let’s start with the last category first:
GLOBAL CATASTROPHE BODIES
Kyle Anson, C: He only reached High-A last year, but he’s already 25. He only has two seasons in at catcher, having been drafted as a third baseman, but he hasn’t shown enough with the bat to be interesting. There are a lot of pitchers in Spring Training, and they all need a guy with a glove to help warm them up, so here’s Anson.
P.J. Pilittere, C: A three-time Yankees NRI, Pilittere just repeated Double-A and didn’t get any better. Of course, he was going on 27 at the time. He’s going to spend a long time in the Minors and never come closer to the Show than these Spring Training cameos, but it’s better than looking for a job in this economy, so more power to him.
Doug Bernier, INF: A 28-year-old who has spent his professional life in the Rockies organization, he has career .244/.357/.322 rates in the Minors, and when you hit like that, they don’t let you play even if you’re the new Ozzie Smith. That goes double if you’ve spent the last year at Colorado Springs and you didn’t hit there, either.
Justin Leone, INF: Leone, 32 in March, has been kicking around since 1999. He’s shown some decent pop in the Minors and has spent the last few years as a multi-position sub. He might actually hit kind of well for a 25th man, but defensively he doesn’t really fit anywhere. His primary position is third, but he can’t play there in the Majors, and his talents as a sub don’t include playing up the middle. With relievers eating every available roster spot these days, unless your bat is a proven commodity, you’re not going to make it as a corner reserve.
Todd Linden, OF. Former first-round pick Linden, 28 in June, has had 502 Major :eague at-bats over five seasons and has batted .231/.303/.335. He spent all of last season in the Minors. His problem is that he’s a corner outfielder who doesn’t have the offensive tools to carry left or right field, and not being able to play center is a huge impediment to a career as a Major League sub.
Kevin Cash, C: Because if Jose Molina gets hurt, the Yankees need to fill their hitless backstop quota. Career rates for 557 major league Pas: .184/.248/.285.
Angel Berroa, INF: Supposedly, the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year is competing for a bench spot. Your guess as to why is as good as mine. The Dodgers turned to him in desperation last year. The Yankees aren’t desperate, are they? Berroa drew 16 unintentional walks last year, and probably a solid dozen of them were attributable to the misguided NL idea that you should pitch around number-eight hitters like Berroa to get to the pitcher. Actually, you should go after both of them.
Shelley Duncan, 1B/OF: Until now, it wasn’t even clear that he was going to be back. I still like him to some degree, but the Yankees aren’t in the market for a platoon first baseman or corner outfielder. Maybe the restaurants are good in Scranton.
John Rodriguez, OF: Rodriguez, 31 in just a few days, can actually hit. The Cardinals gave him two years in the Majors as a reserve outfielder, and he did very well, batting .298/.378/.434. As a pinch-hitter, he’s batted .236/.353/.455, which isn’t actually that bad as pinch-hitters go. The Rays, who pinch-hit more than any team in the AL last year, would have won several more games if they had gotten even that much production from their pinch-hitters, who hit about .180 as a group. I’m sorry to keep repeating this, but Rodriguez doesn’t have a lot of defensive value, can’t play center field and thus has been unable to stick despite the decent bat. The Yankees signed him off the street back in 1996 and had him for years but never used him despite the fact that they’ve typically led the league in miserable bench players.
Kei Igawa, LHP: The perpetual trading showcase continues with no hope of ever ending.
Jason Johnson, RHP: He’s 35 and has been in and around the Majors for over 10 years. He has an amazing 56-100 career record, which he earned only partially because he’s largely been with Baltimore and Detroit. The rest is all about high ERAs and a strikeout-walk ratio that is a significant handicap. The Dodgers used him as an occasional swingman last year, and his presence, along with that of Berroa, suggests that the Yankees have embarked on a plan to embarrass Joe Torre by taking away all his fringe players.
Sergio Mitre, RHP: Coming off of TJ surgery, entering into a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance and has never shown much healthy, unplugged, however you want to categorize it.
That leaves the prospects. Of the bunch (OF Colin Curtis, OF Austin Jackson, RHP Mark Melancon, C Jesus Montero, INF Eduardo Nunez, INF Ramiro Pena, C Austin Romine, 2B Kevin Russo), you know the guys you have to pay attention to: for your long-term edification, Montero, one of the best hitters in the Minors, and Romine, who had a terrific second half last year and seems to have both the glove and a plus bat for the catcher’s position (he’s one of the reasons Montero will someday be a first baseman). The short-term view included Melancon, who will almost certainly pitch in the Majors at some point this season, and Jackson, who could be the starting center fielder any time from the All-Star break on. I’m going to get some cranky responses for not highlighting Russo here, but I’m not the believer a lot of my readers seem to be. This spring season will help show if I’m correct in my skepticism.
TO THE MATS WITH READER MAIL
1: GODS AND GODDESES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS
I enjoy reading the Pinstriped Blog. An interesting thought came to
mind after the Teixeira signing, which I love. Who do you think is
the most powerful person in baseball — Bud Selig or Scott Boras?
Does Boras have too much influence on the game and should
something be done to limit his control of the game, like a limit on
the number of players he can represent in general or each year?
Also, what are the best options for the Yankees in the outfield short
term and long term? If Cabrera and Gardner don’t perform well in center
field, how soon could we see [Austin] Jackson in there? Out of the
current candidates of Swisher, Nady, Cabrera, Gardner who has the
best arm (I leave off Damon and Matsui because I know they can’t
throw)? Thanks, Jeff
Thank you for writing, Jeff. The “power” of Boras is generally overstated. He’s a very smart, very successful agent who does good things for his clients. He doesn’t negotiate media rights contracts or decide who gets to own the Chicago Cubs, though maybe he should. He does his job, which is to drive a hard bargain for his clients. What power he has derives exclusively from teams wanting to hire the people he represents. If they refuse to bargain with him, he’s pretty helpless, although they do pay a penalty for that in not getting hold of some very good players. Power seems to imply the ability to impose your will on others, and Boras needs complicit partners before he can even start talking. As for the outfield, I believe in Gardner’s ability to get on base. The question is if he will do it often enough to overcome his utter lack of power.
As for Jackson, don’t get too excited too soon. His indifferent Arizona Fall League performance and good-not-great performance at Double-A Trenton argues for some Triple-A seasoning before he gets a crack at a full-time job. I expect you’ll see a lot of him in Spring Training just so the Major League staff gets familiar with him, and if he does well at Scranton, an injury call-up during the year is a distinct possibility. The center field job would seem to be something for 2010.
2: SOMETIMES YOU JUST FALL OUT OF LOVE (THERE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A REASON)
Why is it that lots of Yankee fans don’t like Gardner in center? He’s
very fast, an excellent defender and wasn’t half-bad with the bat in
his second stint last year. Also, what happened to the Yankees’
fondness of Xavier Nady? It seemed like when they got him, the
organization really liked him. But now they’re thinking of trading
him? Trading away a .305 AVG, 25 HR and 97 RBI from an offense that
had trouble scoring runs last year? Does that even make sense? –Tucker
It makes a ton of sense, Tucker, because Nady isn’t really a .305 hitter. In his career, he’s been far closer to the hitter he cooled from his hot pinstriped start, a .268/.320/.474 hitter. As far as corner outfield production goes, it’s subpar. If Nick Swisher gets back on track this year, he’ll get on base much closer to 40 percent of the time and show comparable power. The value in Nady last season was that he was a huge in-season upgrade on Melky Cabrera, who he displaced from the lineup by allowing Johnny Damon to go back to center. That was a very nice move by Brian Cashman to staunch a bleeding wound, but Nady isn’t someone a championship team plans on starting.
The knock on Gardner is that he’s a banjo hitter, but as you point out he did a fine job in his second stint with the Yankees. He’s a fine defender and an excellent baserunner, and if he can get on base with any regularity, he can show that there are more ways to contribute than hitting home runs. His upside is far superior to that of Melky Cabrera, who has but one skill right now, hitting for average, and that skill was absent this season.
3: MORE ON THE THEME OF THE DAY
Steve- in your PB column of today, you indicate the Yankees should
keep Swisher and trade Nady. Certainly, last year’s numbers would
scream for the opposite course of action. You seem to be thinking
that last year was an aberration for both players and that each will
return to their prior form. I would prefer the Yankees use a six-man
rotation of Matsui, Damon, Nady, Swisher, Melky and Gardner to
cover the DH and three outfield spots. Unless the a Nady trade yields
a significant prospect or an upgrade in center field, the only reason I
could see trading Nady and not going with this six man rotation is
financial. Do you agree?–Saul
Happy New Year, Saul. One problem I see right off the bat with the Six-for-One plan is that, assuming a staff of 12 pitchers, the Yankees aren’t going to be able to carry all those outfielders plus a reserve catcher and an extra infielder. Beyond that, it’s not necessarily the best application of resources. First, Cabrera is guilty until proven innocent. He was not a great Minor League hitter, and has yet to be even average in the Majors. His big skill is that he can throw. Last year he killed the Yankees, punished them very badly given what an even subpar center fielder would have done. Many among the readership are ready to forgive and forget, but it’s not clear that there’s a good reason to expect a great deal more. Unless Cabrera develops an unexpected ability to knock balls over the wall or suddenly becomes highly selective, he’s going to have to hit .300 to create any kind of offense. His Major League batting averages are, in order,.280, .273, and .249. Wake me when the movie’s over.
Matsui’s knees may anchor him to DH, and given what we’ve seen of his defense, that’s not a bad thing. Between offensive and defensive deficiencies, there’s no reason to ever play Cabrera, Gardner, or Damon in right field. Although every one of the players you list except for Nady has been a center fielder at some point in his life, only Cabrera and Gardner really have the ability to play the position at this point. Just to sort it all out, Nady would make a fine hedge against injury. Using him to rotate Damon or Swisher out of the lineup against select pitchers or for general rest would be a great thing. There are three problems: first, Nady might not want to spend his season that way. Second, given that he just spent half a season batting .330, his value will never be higher. Third, he’s off to arbitration, so he’s about to get expensive for a bench piece. Oh, and there’s a fourth thing: at the end of the year he leaves and the Yankees have to start all over again. If he brings a more youthful body who will be under team control for several years, the greater utility might be in sending him away.
AND ON THAT NOTE…
…I send myself away for New Year’s revelry. I wish each and every one of you a safe, happy, and loving new year, and I will look forward to seeing you in 2009. May it be a very good year for us all.