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.
The Yankees made a solid move today in acquiring veteran left-handed hitter Eric Hinske from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hinske, a former Rookie of the Year (Toronto, 2002) was a solid reserve presence on back-to-back pennant winners with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and the Tampa Rays last year, and now has the chance to add a third postseason team to his resume.
Able to play all four corners, Hinske has some power and is willing to take more than the occasional walk, so he’ll fit right in with the Yankees. He’s a career .254/.337/.436 hitter, which is not a good figure for a corner starter but you’ll take it for a four-corner reserve. No fun against southpaws at .221/.298/.363, Hinske’s numbers against opposite side pitchers are .264/.347/.456.
The 31-year-old gives the Yankees the kind of valuable bat off the bench they haven’t had in some time. That he can play third base is key. If Alex Rodriguez is going to take days off, this is a better choice than Cody Ransom and about a thousand times better than Angel Berroa. Hinske is not a very good defensive third baseman, but his ability to hit the ball with some authority should ease the pain of those Rodriguez rest periods.
With Rodriguez swinging a hot bat, it seemed as if Rodriguez and Joe Girardi were going to make a point of forgetting their previous agreement about off days. This happened last week — after skipping one game in Florida, Rodriguez played in eight straight games and started seven straight. One wonders if Brian Cashman looked at the trouble that Mike Lowell has been having lately — he had 15 CCs of fluid removed from his hip yesterday, also received a shot of a lubricant, and today was placed on the DL — and wisely concluded that he’d better give Girardi a real alternative to Rodriguez at third base before they killed the presumptive team MVP.
This is not a criticism of Girardi. As I wrote here last week, Girardi has been given conflicting imperatives: win now, win every day, and then, somewhere down the line, don’t kill A-Rod. Given that the alternatives to Rodriguez were spectacularly weak, it’s hard to blame Girardi for prioritizing his first mission at the expense of his second. Breaking Rodriguez might not get him fired, but failing to reach the postseason will. You understand why his instinct, even if on a subliminal level, would be to gamble on the slugger triumphing over pain instead of hoping that Berroa, Ramiro Pena, or Ransom might deliver a big hit, or even a small hit. If the Yankees were 3.5 games ahead instead of behind, the decision to bench Rodriguez would be easier on Girardi, but they’re not.
Ironically, Girardi could end up back in the same head space, only for different reasons. Again, Hinske is not a great defensive third baseman, and it’s possible that he’ll be a bit rusty. He hasn’t played very much third base since 2004, making just 21 appearances at the hot corner (three this year). The Blue Jays bumped him off of third base for Corey Koskie and then Troy Glaus, while in his Boston and Rays stops he was behind Lowell and Evan Longoria, so he had to get into the lineup in other ways. A few well-timed misplays and Girardi’s sense of well-being might get shaken enough that he’ll be reluctant to entrust Hinske with too much hot corner time. Still, if he times the Hinske starts so they don’t coincide with Chien-Ming Wang’s games, the Yankees should be okay. It’s also not as if A-Rod has been excelling on the fielding job; the bad hip would seem to have limited Rodriguez’s range.
In exchange for making Girardi’s life more interesting, the Yankees only had to give up Eric Fryer, the Minor League outfielder acquired for Chase Wright, who does not project to be more than a role player in the Majors, if that, and righty pitcher Casey Erickson, a 23-year-old Sally League reliever.
In his career, Hinske has had the unusual honor of being both a surprise and a disappointment. A 17th-round draft pick of the Cubs in 1998, Hinske raked in the Minor Leagues, batting .285/.380/.511. His defense troubled the Cubs, though, and so even though they were in desperate need of a third baseman at the time, they palmed him off on the A’s for Miguel Cairo. This was a Hall of Fame-level dumb move, as Cairo didn’t last even a full season in Chicago, and in any case he was Miguel Cairo. The A’s held Hinske in the Minors for a season, then sent him to the Blue Jays for Billy Koch. This was a Hall of Fame-level smart move, as the A’s got 44 saves out of Koch in 2002 and then flipped him to the White Sox for Keith Foulke, who was even better. Meanwhile, Hinske played third for the Jays, hit 24 home runs, and won the Rookie of the Year award.
The Jays rushed right out and signed Hinske to a five-year contract, but Hinske was unable to follow up on his production. His walk rate slipped, and his power and batting average went along with it. His 2003 season was subpar and his 2004 was miserable. By 2005 he had been moved to first base, which was an odd decision for the Jays to make given just how bad he had been the year before. He bounced back to some degree in 2006, but by then he was already slipping into utility work.
Kudos to Brian Cashman on this one. Adding a player who slugged .465 a year ago really gives the Yankees the added A-Rod protection they’ve needed all season. The move comes a bit late, but it’s a good one. At this writing, the Yankees haven’t announced the roster move they’re making to get Hinske a spot in the dugout. It should be Brett Tomko who goes down, but it’s hard to imagine the Yankees reducing their staff to 11 pitchers, so one assumes that Pena is headed for the sticks.
ON REFLECTION, IT SEEMS UNLIKELY THAT BIN LADEN THINKS MUCH ABOUT BUCKY DENT, BUT THE POINT STILL STANDS
I’m normally pretty happy when publishers drop a free baseball book on me, but in the case of a new book on, well, something to do with Bucky Dent, they can leave me out. On Saturday, I received an unmarked envelope bearing only my address and a mint condition 1978 Topps Bucky Dent card. There was no return address.
I subsequently have learned that this was done on behalf of a forthcoming book. Now, look: as I said, it’s cool to get free baseball stuff in the mail, but sending mysterious envelopes with no return address to a fellow’s home is no way to go about it. This is, I am told, supposed to be viral marketing. That term is ironic, because that’s what it made me think of — viruses. It occurred to me the second after I unsealed the stupid thing that you’re not supposed to open unidentified mail, that not too long ago there was a freak sending anthrax all over the place, that every once in awhile some fringe reader expresses hostility that goes beyond a mere friendly disagreement about baseball, and that I have a wife and two young children in the house. I was not amused. I was worried, and I kicked myself for unsealing the envelope. The Bucky Dent card was no solace: sometimes bad things come in attractive packages, and anonymity would seem to be something of an antonym for publicity.
So hey, marketing geniuses: if your goal was to trouble me on a perfectly good Saturday and make me associate your book with anonymous anthrax mailings, congratulations. You did your job. Next time, be intelligent enough to include a return address and a flyer so it’s clear what the heck you’re trying to accomplish. I wish the author all the success in the world with his book, and this should not be construed as reflecting upon his efforts. In fact, I hope he does so we
ll that next time he’ll be associated with a better, smarter set of publicists.
MORE FROM ME
Reflections on relief pitchers at Baseball Prospectus.
STRANGE DAYS INDEED
Good evening, campers. I spent part of my day in a drawer undergoing a PET scan. I must have been a very troubled sweater in a former life because once in my overwhelming instinct is to get out. The good news is that I am out and that this sweater was given a clean bill, freeing what remains of my brain to consider baseball again.
The 1927 Yankees went 21-1 against the St. Louis Browns, one of two doormat teams in the league that season. Given the outcome of the late series with the Nationals, it is apparent that this ain’t 1927. Ironically, given the focus on pitching this year, starting and bullpen, the failure was largely offensive — when you score two runs in two games, you’re not going to beat anyone. There has been something like an obsessive grabbing onto the supposed fact that the Yankees supposedly can’t beat a pitcher they’ve never seen before, but that isn’t the issue so much as the absence of Derek Jeter from the lineup both nights, the absence of Jorge Posada in another, and the cooling bats of certain key players. Nor should we ignore the randomness of fate — if Robbie Cano had put the ball in play in any way other than where he did on Wednesday, the Yankees would have taken two of three games and the series would not have held such a bitter aftertaste.
Now comes the news that Alex Rodriguez will be taking two days off, his first since coming off of the disabled list. The way Joe Girardi has handled Rodriguez has been strange — you have a player coming off of a major injury, who was given an incomplete fix for that injury. That would seem to require handling with kid gloves whether the player liked it or not. There is, I think, a mutual enabling going on here, where Rodriguez did not ask out until now, and Girardi, who knows who he would have to list at third base in the alternative, did not ask him to sit out. Girardi’s job, after all, is to win today, and the way Rodriguez hit initially, quickly piling up nine home runs, was helping him do that. Perhaps Girardi needs to think more globally than that, but given that just a few weeks ago there were rumors about his job security, it might be impossible for him to do so.
The fault lies not in the stars but in the front office, which never gave Girardi a viable A-Rod substitute once it was clear that the player required surgery. Cody Ransom bombed and got hurt, Angel Berroa offers nothing in the way of offense or defense, and Ramiro Pena, while a very good glove, is not a hitter. Scranton’s roster is clogged with the likes of Eric Duncan, Justin Leone, Chris Malec, and a rehabbing Ransom, none of whom could be misconstrued as Major League regulars on the darkest of nights. Trenton’s third baseman is Marcos Vechionacci, who shed his prospect status what seems like eons ago.
Given this dearth of viable hot corner men and a clear need for hot corner men, it was incumbent upon the front office to make a deal for a viable Rodriguez substitute. Recently, I have been inveighing against the team making a hasty trade for a reliever, bringing up Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. The reverse of this is that giving up Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell is never a bad thing, and if you can’t get a Bagwell, any Tom, Dick, or DeRosa will do. It’s not a move anyone would want to make given a choice, but the Yankees have had a very finely balanced operation so far, and there is every reason to think that such a move will keep paying dividends. Rodriguez’s recovery may be lengthy, and his swing may continue to be affected. His energy level may continue to be low. His range has clearly been affected, suggesting an ongoing need for a late-inning substitute. Plus, there may be other injuries to other players.
The Yankees are now 10-7 in one-run games. They could just as easily be 7-10 — that’s the way one-run games work. They are basically coin flips. As we saw on Wednesday, one-run games can turn on one key double play, one missed opportunity. Either you get the big hit or the big out or you don’t. When the Yankees have to rely on an Angel Berroa, today, tomorrow and in the future, they’re reducing the chances that they will get that big hit or make that diving stop.
If you’re going to go through the season without winning a game over the Red Sox, you’d better win every game that you can. They didn’t do this in the Nationals series. Without some help for A-Rod, they might not do it in the future. This is no time for the usual blithe assumptions that a no-name player will rise to the occasion, Rey Sanchez- or Luis Sojo-style. The time to go hunt down a safety net is now.
THE ONE AFTER 909
As you know by now, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees will roll the dice on “hybrid” surgery (first thought: they’re turning him into a Prius?) and will hope to have the big guy back in six to nine weeks. We’ll see how that works out. Until then, the Yankees will have to walk on eggshells, because Rodriguez’s is only the first injury, not the last. What happens when you have Cody Ransom and Donald Duck in the lineup? As they say on the subway, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”
The lesson of Rodriguez’s injury is one that we’ve discussed here time and again over the years: You can spend all the money you want, sign all the big-name expensive contracts in the world, but if you don’t have good depth in the form of young players, your team is going to suffer. After years of having nothing on the farm at all, the Yankees now have a good supply of pitchers, something from which they will benefit as soon as the season’s first arm is scragged. The team has been unable to find the same success with position players, particularly as the club’s history with first-round picks (when it has them at all) rivals that of the New York Jets for sheer waste.
In today’s New York Post, George King quotes Brian Cashman: “But you have to remember Erick Almonte for (Derek) Jeter, and last year we went with Jose Molina and Chad Moeller (for Jorge Posada) until Pudge Rodriguez fell into our laps.” The GM is right that the Yankees might survive one injury, but the lesson of last season is that they couldn’t survive two or more. Maybe Molina/ Moeller/I-Rod would have been survivable if Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera had hit, but they didn’t. Their production was tantamount to their being absent.
One hopes that Ransom plays well — he’s certainly paid his dues — but he’s not going to be the straw that breaks the offense in any case. The replacement to fear is the one after Ransom.
A QUICK TO THE MATS WITH READER COMMENTS
Wanted to snag this response to Friday’s dash through the lineup’s possibilities:
Hey Steve, you sure are a negative guy. How can you possibly know what each player will or will not do for the Yankees. How can you say Damon should have a down year? How can you know that Nady and/or Swisher will not be lights out?
Give me a break!!!!!!!!!! — Yankeegirl224
Thanks for commenting, Yankeegirl. I’ve written this before: life is not a movie that you’ve never seen before. In fact, it presents all kinds of situations analogous to those that have come before. If you’re aware of the past, you can draw inferences about what’s going to happen next. No, I cannot say with absolute certainty what each player is going to do this year, but given 25 years of seeing how hitters behave first-hand, plus another 80 or so years of historical evidence, I can make some informed guesses. Let’s go back through what I wrote and look at the rationale for each — rationales that I’ve frequently explained throughout the winter, by the way.
1B Mark Teixeira: Solid producer, typically scrapes the underside of MVP-level production but could easily rise to that level with a good season.
I expect you don’t have a problem with that one. Teixeira is a very good hitter, and with some good luck or some slight tweak in his performance, like a mildly improved line drive rate, he could exceed expectations.
2B Robinson Cano: Has to hit .300 to contribute. He might do that, he might not.
Can’t argue here. This is just factual. Because Cano doesn’t walk and isn’t what you would call a slugger, when he doesn’t get his average above a certain level, he eats outs without giving the team much in return. I believe he has a decent-sized rebound in him, but whether he reaches the point of actually being an asset on offense I can’t guess.
3B Cody Ransom: Has some pop, but is unlikely to hit for sustainable average (PECOTA: .216/.293/.386).
This isn’t a big reach either. The Ransom of A-Rod is a career .242/.322/.426 hitter in nearly 1200 minor league games. His numbers at Scranton last year translate to .216/.295/.421 in the majors. At 33, he’s not going to find untapped pools of ability. He’s far more likely to find untapped pools of retirement. While he might find the odd hot streak, as he did last fall, I wouldn’t recommend betting on it. As I said above, I’m rooting for him, but that doesn’t mean having unfounded expectations.
SS Derek Jeter: Offense has declined in two straight seasons. Average of five projection systems: .300/.368/.419.
I didn’t make a prediction here so much as make two statements. If he reaches the numbers cited above, no one will complain.
LF Johnny Damon: Almost certain to take a giant step back.
Here’s one of the ones that caused Yankeegirl to straighten her curls. Unfortunately, I didn’t go out on a limb here either. First, Damon has never been a particularly consistent player, and at 35 he’s not likely to start. Second, his 2008 season was one of the best of his career if not the best. Players generally don’t set new performance norms at 34. I hope Damon does, because he’s had an interesting career and his having a Steve Finley-style last act would put a cherry on it, but it is unlikely to happen. Now, whether Damon dials it back a lot or just a little I don’t know, but the change will be significant either way because all the elements of Damon’s game have to work together for him to make a real contribution — a little batting average, a little power, a little baserunning, a little patience. You kick out any one of those legs and he starts to tread water on the league averages.
CF Brett Gardner and pals: Any production will be a bonus.
This is a conservative prediction, and between last fall and this year’s spring power surge I’m hoping that we’ve seen the birth of a new Gardner, but (as much as I think he’ll be a better regular than Melky Cabrera) until we see him hit with authority for a sustained period of time, he’s still Jason Tyner until proven innocent.
RF Nick Swisher: should be productive in a lower echelon kind of way, Xavier Nady less so, either way, not a big plus.
Swisher is another guy I think will help the Yankees with his walks and his power, but he’s not an MVP-type hitter, and the whole point of this exercise was to suggest that in the absence of Rodriguez, the Yankees are down to one player who meets that description.
DH Hideki Matsui: should hit decently, but not at an MVP level.
We’re entering the seventh year of Matsui’s American career, and he is who he is. There should be nothing remotely controversial about that statement. I actually considered throwing in a few caveats based on age and his physical problems.
C Jorge Posada: may or may not be ready to open the season, may or may not hit as well as he used to, and will probably have to yield to Jose Molina on a regular basis
Again, this is simply a statement of where things are.
So tell me, Yankeegirl and the others who responded negatively, what in here do you really want to argue with?
MORE OF ME
Wholesome Reading is back. After a sabbatical inspired by the BP annual and another urgent project, I’m recharged and ready to wade into current events. About a half-dozen posts went up over the weekend with more to come. WARNING: Politics!
For our readers in th
e Baltimore area (and judging by the number of attendees at O’s games wearing Yankees caps we must have many), the great Jay Jaffe, Clay Davenport, and I will be appearing tomorrow, March 10, at the Johns Hopkins University Barnes & Noble (3330 St. Paul Street, Baltimore) to talk baseball, sign books, and crack wise. Hope to see you, your wives, and girlfriends tomorrow night. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE IN SEARCH OF A-ROD’S REPLACEMENT
As the old Leadbelly song goes, “I may be right and I may be wrong, but you know you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” No doubt Alex Rodriguez will be singing this song now that hip surgery is apparently going to put him on the shelf for a projected 10 weeks. If the story as reported by ESPN is correct, the Yankees will be without their starting third baseman for something like six weeks of the regular season.
Since the news came through, I’ve been plumbing the depths like Cave Carson looking for replacement possibilities that won’t damage the Yankees’ efforts too badly. The two utility infield types currently in camp, Cody Ransom and Angel Berroa, are not good bets. The latter may be one of the worst bets of all time, a career .260/.305/.378 hitter. Ransom has a little more life in his bat, but despite his nice little September hot streak last fall, he’s not likely to produce at a satisfactory level. His career Minor League batting average is .242 and he’s hit about .250 over the last three seasons. Average isn’t everything, and Ransom has some power, but when you start out with a batting average that low, there’s a good chance you won’t hit safely often enough to reach an acceptable level of production.
There are a couple of Hail Mary options on the roster — Xavier Nady and Mark Teixeira (pictured) have done the third base thing in the past, Nady very briefly, Teixeira throughout his brief Minor League career. As with many young third basemen, Teixeira was prone to errors at the position, and the Rangers had Hank Blalock locked in at third, so Teix moved across the diamond and proved to be a very good first baseman. Moving Teixeira back to the hot corner now would allow the Yankees to drop Nick Swisher at first base and Nady into right field. Offensively, this is probably the best possible way to paper over Rodriguez’s extended absence. Defensively, it would all depend on Teixeira’s ability to handle a position he hasn’t touched for six years and what you gauge his risk of injury to be (if any), and if he’s even willing to make an attempt at it.
Such a solution could be flexible, depending on the starting pitcher for that day. CC Sabathia can probably stand to pitch with a weaker defense behind him. Chien-Ming Wang cannot, so his starts would have to feature a “real” third baseman, with Teixeira back at first. It’s messy, but it could work … And I can’t resist saying that Casey Stengel would have done it. Heck, down the stretch in 1954, as the Yankees were trying to avoid elimination, Casey put Yogi Berra at third and Mickey Mantle at short so he could get some extra bats into the lineup. Anything for a win, even if it seems outlandish. It should also be pointed out that the offensive damage done by a Ransom or Berroa would almost certainly outweigh the defensive damage done by putting someone like Teixeira at third.
The Minor League options on hand aren’t strong. Eric Duncan is still kicking around, but he has shown no sign of being a Major Leaguer (scratch one more Yankees first-round pick). Kevin Russo, America’s favorite utility choice, won’t hit either and has spent most of his professional life at second base. There are a number of veteran options soaking up bench spots for other teams, like Mike Lamb with the Brewers and Scott McClain with the Giants (an NRI, he’s probably expendable), but these will have to be pried free, however limited their value. The Yankees cannot give up a player of long-term value for a 10-week rental.
Whatever the solution, which at the moment is not obvious, the Yankees are now in some real trouble. The murder weapon used in the demise of last year’s Yankees team was not the shaky pitching but the presence of three replacement-level hitters in the lineup in Jose Molina, Robinson Cano, and Melky Cabrera. The Yankees just took a giant step back in that direction. If Jorge Posada isn’t ready, if Hideki Matsui isn’t ready, if the second baseman or center fielder doesn’t hit, and Rodriguez is out for an extended period, scoring could be a problem. It might have been a problem even with Rodriguez in the lineup, so short of a season-ending injury, this is about the worst news the Yankees could have received right now.