For good reason, there’s already been plenty of talk in Yankees camp about the defensive shift. Not about the ways the Yankees might use the shift this season, but about the ways the might try to beat it.
“We’ve talked about it as an organization,” Joe Girardi said. “We will discuss things with players. This is the adjustment defenses have made, and we need to make (offensive) adjustments too. I’m not asking you to be something you’re not. I’m not going to ask you to do something that you’re not comfortable doing, but it’s something that we need to have discussions about and see how we attack it.”
Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira in particular have lost plenty of hits because of shifted infielders. Their thoughts:
McCann: “I want to hit the ball where it’s pitched. It’s not necessarily that I’m going to try to go up there and hit the ball to left field. If it’s away from me, it needs to go to left field. If they come in on me, I need to be able to pull it, but pull correctly. If you pull correctly, you create back spin which is going to help you hit home runs. … If I hit two or three singles in a row to left field, they’re going to continue to play the shift because that’s where my power is. That’s just the way it is and whether that takes a couple of points off my batting average, if I take the approach I have day in and day out for 500 at-bats, at the end of the year things will be there.”
Teixeira: “Thoughts on (beating) the shift? Hit more home runs, hit more doubles, and walk more. We’ve talked about it ad nauseam. Every time I try to slap the ball the other way, it doesn’t go well for anybody. That’s what the other team wants. They want to take a middle-of-the-order power hitter and turn him into a slap hitter. So if I can hit more home runs, more doubles, walk more, that takes care of the shift. I don’t want to ground out to second base. That’s not what I’m trying to do up there.”
It goes without saying that it’s good to use the whole field, good to take what the defense is giving, and it’s bad to hit ground balls to an area crowded with defenders. The Yankees obviously agree with those principles, but they also seem focused on sticking with a player’s strengths.
“The biggest thing for me is don’t let it get in your head and don’t force things,” new hitting coach Jeff Pentland said today. “Obviously the ability to use the whole field is important. I’m not going to stand here and tell you we’re going to try to force things through the infield or through the shift. We’ve still got to go up there and hit the ball, but there are things we’ll spend time on.”
• Girardi met face-to-face with Alex Rodriguez today. Girardi said he told A-Rod that he would get all the spring at-bats “that he could physically handle.” Girardi also told Rodriguez that he would play some third base this spring, and formally asked him to get some reps at first base. “He’s willing to do anything,” Girardi said.
• Mark Teixeira on working with Rodriguez: “I’m looking forward to working with him over there. Alex and I have been friends for a long time now. I’ll enjoy working with him over there. It’s funny; I was a rookie when Alex was the best player in the world. He got to teach me some things, and now I’m going to be able to teach him some things at first.”
• According to Girardi, the plan is for Rodriguez to play in either the first or second game this spring. The Yankees will not hold him out of games when the exhibition schedule starts. They want him to start getting at-bats right away.
• Pentland on Rodriguez: “I’ve always been a big fan of Alex, are you kidding? … I don’t think he’s going to have that many issues. He was born to hit. That’s the way I feel about him.”
• As usual, Girardi said the Yankees have reached out to National League teams for permission to use a designated hitter in road games against N.L. teams in spring training. Typically, teams are perfectly happy to do that in the first half of the spring schedule. Girardi said some teams aren’t willing to do it as the schedule gets closer to Opening Day. I would expect, though, that there will be a DH when the Yankees open the exhibition schedule against the Phillies on Tuesday.
• Mariano Rivera is expected to be in Yankees camp for nine or 10 days. “He has free rein to help out as much as he can,” Girardi said. “I think the advice that he’ll give young players should be something they should listen to.”
• In full uniform, Rivera watched bullpens and then shagged some fly balls today. I wouldn’t hold out hope for an Andy Pettitte-like return, but it’s hard not to think of it. “I joked with him,” Girardi said. “I said, ‘The last time a guy like you came to spring training, he made two days of coaches meetings and then he went home for three days and decided he wanted to pitch again. So I’m just curious to see how long you’re going to make it in our meetings.’”
• I watched Gary Tuck leading catching drills for a while this afternoon. That group gets pretty intense, and both Joe Girardi and Tony Pena seem to love watching it. Worth noting that each day the Yankees update a contest for which catchers have the fewest drops in camp so far. Right now, three catchers still have zero, and it’s the three big league guys: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine.
• Pitchers going to the minor league complex to face hitters tomorrow: Andrew Miller, Adam Warren, Jose Ramirez, Nick Rumbelow, Nick Goody, Diego Moreno, James Pazos and Danny Burawa. Austin Romine is heading over there with them, presumably to catch some guys.
• Final word goes to Teixeira: “We have the talent in here. There’s a lot of teams that would love to have our roster right now. It takes talent, it takes health, it takes execution. We have the talent, so it’s the health and execution are the ones we’re going to work on this year. I think we all believe in each other here.”
Associated Press photos
Pinch hitting: Tyler Patterson • 02.13.15
Quick and to the point, today’s Pinch Hitter sent a one-line bio: “Tyler is a life-long Yankee fan and an attorney in Washington, D.C.” That’s Tyler Patterson in an incredibly small nutshell. Perhaps he kept the bio so short because he was saving so many words for his actual post.
As for his post, he calls it: “The 2015 Yankees and Elite Team Defense.”
Inspired by Ruth, Gehrig, and many, many others, the Yankees at their best are an offensive juggernaut. Not to mitigate the team’s past pitching accomplishments (indeed, some old-time Yankee pitchers are criminally underrated) but success for the Yankees has been predominantly associated with the organization’s offensive prowess over the years. Such is the case for the teams that the organization has fielded since 1995, the first year I, like many other millennials, began watching the team.
I challenge anyone to name me a Yankee club since the 1995 season that has been known for its defense (in a positive manner). I know I can’t do it. Not that the Yankees haven’t fielded stout defensive teams since 1995, but the point is that defense is just not what the Yankees are ever known for. And when you look past player reputations and at the numbers, it is not difficult to understand why.
For example, recently retired Yankees legend Derek Jeter is easily one of the greatest shortstops in MLB history and one of the greatest Yankees of all time. However, none of that was due to his defense. For his career, Jeter had a TZ of -129, a DRS of -159 and a UZR/150 of -7.1. If you do not know what any of these stats are, that’s fine. As you might guess, all those negatives indicate Jeter was not a strong fielder. This jives with the traditional eye-test as well, the jump-throws and Gold Glove awards aside.
The same can be said about many other Yankees since 1995 (Williams, Posada, Giambi, O’Neill, Soriano, Sheffield). None of these players was an especially good fielder, and the list goes on. Very few Yankees since 1995 were great (or in most cases, even average) fielders. In fact, from 1995 through the 2014 season, the Yankees ranked dead last in all of baseball with a Def rating of -440.8 (Def, as calculated by FanGraphs, is a combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average [fielding runs] and positional value relative to other positions [positional adjustment]). The next worst club, the Cubs, had a Def of -308.5.
Since 1995, the Yankees cumulatively have been far and away the worst defensive squad in all of baseball.
That being said, the Yankees have showed marked improvement in team defense in the past several seasons. For example, the Yankees’ Def in 2013 was 21.4 and in 2014, 10.8.
This trend should continue in 2015, a season in which the Yankees might easily field their best defensive team since 1995.
The Yankees have made a conscious effort to get younger and cheaper wherever they can, and in baseball’s current suppressed run environment, the Yankees have realized that it is easier to upgrade the roster defensively rather than offensively. That is not to say there is not offensive upside to some of the Yankees’ offseason acquisitions, but improved team defense has certainly been on the mind of the front office, especially during the last two offseasons.
Let us run through the 2014 squad position by position and compare it to the projected team for the upcoming season. It is clear that the 2015 squad projects to be fantastic defensively, perhaps the best defensive team since 1995.
McCann is the Yankees’ catcher for the foreseeable future after the team signed him to a five-year deal following the 2013 season. He saw the bulk of the work behind the plate in 2014 and did not disappoint, at least defensively. McCann is a world-class defender and one of the best defensive backstops in baseball. His Def of 11.5 in 2014 was exactly what the Yankees signed up for, as was his pitch-framing performance (11.4 Runs Above Average, good for 11th in MLB. This represents a “down” year for McCann, who is consistently top 10 in MLB every season in this category). Long story short, McCann is an elite defensive backstop, and he projects to continue to be so, as his 2015 projected Def of 8.8 illustrates.
Backing up McCann will presumably be Murphy, who anyone will tell you is an above average defender behind the plate. The Yankees have been emphasizing catcher defense for some time now, and with Murphy (and McCann for that matter) the Yankees continue the trend. It is not actually settled who will be the Yankee backup catcher, as Austin Romine will also be “competing” for the role in spring training, but my money is on Murphy with Romine being dealt or placed on waivers. Murphy is clearly the better player, both defensively and offensively.
Obviously, Teixeira will be the Yankees’ first baseman in 2015, at least until the obligatory injury. Unlike last year, the Yankees have a back-up first baseman on their roster in Jones, although his defensive abilities leave a lot to be desired. First base, like catcher, is a position where I do not put too much stock in advanced statistics because, at least in my experience, the stats do not measure up to the eye test. Teixeira is a perfect example of this. Teixeira has had a pretty consistent negative Def rating throughout his career, and last season was no different, as his -3.6 shows. His UZR/150, however, was 7.1 last season and has been consistently positive in his career. That jives more with my perception of Teixeira and my experience watching him pretty regularly since 2009, but it is also obvious confirmation bias.
Either way, I’m not the only one who will tell you Tex is at least an average defender at first, and probably slightly above average. I expect no different in 2015, so long as he can stay on the field (a BIG if in his age-35 season). If injured, the aforementioned Jones figures to man first base. He is projected for a -9.1 Def, which is not very good, and unlike Teixeira, the eye-test does not save Jones; he has never been thought of as a strong defender, and the stats back that up. Let’s hope Teixeira remains healthy. Or, if not, that Greg Bird is mauling in Trenton and gets a call. Unlikely, but I can dream.
Offensively, second base was a mess for the Yankees last season until they dealt for Martin Prado, who was fantastic in his 37 games for the Yankees (his true value was as trade bait, allowing the Yankees to obtain Jones and Nathan Eovaldi). Defensively, however, the myriad of players the Yankees played at second combined for a -1.9 Def, which is not awful but not great either. A carryover from last season, Drew, was signed to a no-risk, one-year, $5-million deal to hold second base down until Refsnyder is ready to permanently take over (or until the Yankees gain another year of team control by manipulating Refsnyder’s service time).
Drew’s calling card in his career has been his defense at short, which has always been excellent. There is no reason to think that, save for a minor adjustment period, he will not be able to excel at the less-demanding second base position. A legitimate reason why the Yankees may not, as of this moment, be comfortable opening the 2015 season with Refsnyder as their everyday second basemen is his defense. A converted outfielder, Refsnyder has taken to second base well, but there is certainly room for improvement. The scouting reports peg Refsnyder as an average defensive second baseman at best, but combined with Drew’s projected performance, as well as Brendan Ryan’s skill as the infield backup, the team’s second base defense should be at least as good as it was last year, and probably much better. Backing up either of these players will be Ryan, a world-class defensive infielder.
We have already discussed Jeter’s defensive shortcomings, and last season was no different as he compiled a -4.0 Def, a -12.5 UZR/150, and a -12 DRS. By any measure Jeter was a very, very bad fielder last season. His replacement this season will be Gregorius, who projects to compile a 4.3 Def, a huge improvement over 2014 Jeter.
Gregorius has a reputation as being a strong defender with excellent range and a cannon for an arm, and let’s hope we see that in 2015. Under team control for the next several seasons, the position is Gregorius’s to lose (at least until Jorge Mateo is ready to take over) and the Yankees will give him every opportunity to be their everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future. Having Chase Headley manning third base will also make his job much easier, allowing Gregorius to shade up the middle more so than he normally would.
The Yankees opened 2014 with Kelly Johnson as their starting third baseman, and the position was a mess until Headley was acquired before the trade deadline. Signed to a four-year deal this offseason (at a below market rate), Headley is the Yankees’ third basemen moving forward. From a defensive standpoint, the Yankees are set. In only 58 games with the team last year, Headley compiled a 12.4 Def and has been an absolute defensive stud throughout his career.
Combined with Gregorius, the defense on the left side of the infield will be among the best in baseball. Like second base, third base was not as bad defensively as I thought it was in 2014 (thanks mainly to Headley), but with Headley in pinstripes for an entire season, third-base defense will be an absolute strength for the 2015 squad. Headley is among the best defensive third baseman in all of baseball, and it will be fun watching him man the hot corner for the Yankees in 2015 and beyond.
Gardner was signed to a team-friendly four-year deal that begins this season, and barring a trade (which I do not think is out of the question) he will be the Yankees’ left fielder in 2015 and for the foreseeable future. Gardner is a superb defender in any outfield position, and left field is no different. It is important for the Yankees to man left field with a strong defender given the stadium’s dimensions, and Gardner handles it about as well as a player can. Because of this, he has more value to the Yankees than most other (if not all) teams.
Look for Gardner to continue his defensive excellence, giving the Yankees another above-average defended position. He also serves as a backup to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, further adding to Gardner’s value.
In the second year of a seven-year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season, Ellsbury will once again man center field. There is not much to say here, as Ellsbury has always been a very strong defensive center fielder, and 2015 projects to be no different.
This gives the Yankees yet another position fielded by an above-average defender.
Right field is the only position on the diamond I believe the Yankees will field below-average defenders in 2015. Last season, Beltran projected to be the everyday right fielder. Long gone are the years when Beltran was an elite defender in center field. Since 2009, Beltran has been a below-average fielder wherever he has played, mainly in right, and 2015 projects to be no different. Beltran suffered a myriad of injuries in 2014, and the Yankees were forced to play multiple players in right as a result. I expect the Yankees to DH Beltran quite a bit this season due to his age and the fact that he can still hit plenty when healthy. That will leave Young to get plenty of reps in right in 2015, especially against lefties as he is a career 116 wRC+ hitter against them.
Projection wise, Beltran sits at a -11.8 Def for 2015, while Young sits at a -2.2 Def. It is important to note that there is not a lot of room in right field in Yankee stadium, so bad defense in right for the Yankees is far less detrimental than it would be to, say, the Athletics or Padres. This is also a reason why I tend to shy away from advanced defensive statistics for Yankees’ right fielders, but I digress. The stats back up the eye tests for both Beltran and Young.
I am not going to analyze Ryan or Young any more than I already have because the backup infielder and fourth outfielder positions are very fluid on every team in baseball and it would not be a shock if Ryan and/or Young end the 2015 season off the active roster. That being said, the Yankees project to field an exceptional defensive squad in 2015 and, save for right field, will have at least an average fielder at every position.
In an era where run scoring is down significantly due mainly to an ever-expanding strike zone, it is far easier to upgrade pitching and defense. The Yankees have done a very, very good job upgrading team defense the past two offseasons, and it should be fun to watch.
Associated Press photos
With the Yankees first spring workout nine days away, our countdown moves onto the ninth-most pressing decision facing the Yankees in spring training. It’s a common question in every camp throughout baseball.
What’s the best way to stack the batting order to take full advantage of the pieces in the lineup?
It’s a question that might rank higher on this list if not for the limited options available.
Clearly Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner fit best near the top of the order, while Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew — or potentially Rob Refsnyder — seem like bottom-of-the-order guys (at least to start the season). That leaves a bunch of less-than-ideal choices to fill those crucial spots in the middle. Last year, the Yankees opened with Carlos Beltran batting third, Brian McCann fourth, and Mark Teixeira fifth, and it seems entirely possible they’ll have the same Opening Day heart-of-the-order this season.
But is that the best way to do it?
Ellsbury is a fairly flexible hitter, Chase Headley is a bit of a wild card, and no one knows what Alex Rodriguez is capable of doing this season. Those three could fit various spots in the lineup. The abundance of left-handed hitters — perhaps as many as six on any given day — also creates some interesting arrangement challenges.
I’ll offer nine points of lineup consideration, one for each spot in the order.
1. Is Ellsbury the Yankees’ best leadoff hitter?
Clearly the Yankees signed Ellsbury with visions of him hitting leadoff for years to come, but he wound up hitting third much of last season while Gardner had a pretty nice year in the leadoff spot. That’s two years in a row that Gardner’s been pretty good in the leadoff spot. Surely one of those two will hit leadoff on Opening Day. Which should it be?
2. Is there a third top-of-the-order option?
Conventional thinking seems to say that, regardless of which one bats first, Ellsbury and Gardner should be the Yankees’ top two hitters. But should that be a given? Would it make sense to put a switch-hitter like Headley (with his .347 career on-base percentage) in the No. 2 spot, leaving either Ellsbury or Gardner (remarkably, two of the Yankees’ better power hitters last season) in a spot that might get more RBI opportunities? Might also be a way to keep from having three or four lefties in a row. Worth recognizing the recent research suggests this might be the most important spot in any lineup.
3. How does Beltran look this spring?
Little surprise considering he might be a Hall of Famer, but Beltran has far more career at-bats in the No. 3 spot than in any other spot in the order. It’s the spot the Yankees intended him to occupy last season, and he was thriving in that role before the elbow injury that sent him to the disabled list and ultimately limited his second-half production. Does surgery seem to have left Beltran capable of being that kind of hitter again? If so, he might be a natural for this spot again.
4. What do the Yankees expect from Teixeira?
If we’re thinking of these lineup spots in a traditional sense, then cleanup needs to be in the hands of a true power hitter. Even as understanding of batting orders has changed, the No. 4 spot is still found to carry significant weight. The Yankees don’t really have a reliable power hitter at the moment, but Teixeira hit for good power early last season. If the Yankees think he can maintain that production this season, maybe he belongs here. If not, what are the alternatives? Beltran? McCann? Rodriguez?
5. Does Rodriguez have anything left?
Having not seen a single spring at-bat, I’d say Rodriguez could hit anywhere from second to eighth without causing much surprise. It would be stunning to see him in the leadoff spot, and batting him ninth would be jarring just because of who he used to be, but everything else seems fair game. For a team desperate for a run production, is there a chance Rodriguez is still a guy worth key at-bats in the middle of the order?
6. How many platoon situations make sense?
For now, the Yankees have set pretty clear expectations at each starting position, but there are plenty of platoon possibilities. Should Garrett Jones play regularly against righties (and if so, should he hit somewhere in the middle)? How often will Chris Young play against lefties? Is Brendan Ryan also going to play against lefties? What about second base; will a guy like Refsnyder force Stephen Drew to play only against righties?
7. Is Didi Gregorius any kind of hitter?
Production in the bottom third of the order adds real depth to a lineup. Given the concerns about the guys expected to fill those middle-of-the-order spots, the Yankees would love to get some extended production from No. 7 and beyond. Gregorius actually showed a little bit of power in the upper levels of the minor leagues, and he’s slugged .411 against big league righties. Should he be dismissed as a non-factor on offense?
8. How important is splitting the lefties?
Let’s say Jones is at designated hitter on a day Beltran, Teixiera, McCann and Headley are batting third through sixth. That’s not an outlandish suggesting, but it could leave the Yankees with five consecutive lefties in their lineup (Jones, Gregorius, Drew, Ellsbury, Gardner). That could open the door to significant matchup issues at the bottom of the order. The eighth spot could be determined by the Yankees desire to split their lefties in the bottom third.
9. Was Drew a surprisingly savvy investment?
If there were a lineup spot lower than ninth, that’s where Drew would have fit best last season. He had an unthinkably bad offensive season, but the Yankees brought him back because he used to be a pretty decent hitter for a middle infielder. If he hits again, should he move up in the order? If so, how high? And if he’s nothing more than a No. 9 hitter at this point, is it better to let Refsnyder or Jose Pirela take those at-bats?
Associated Press photos
The biggest problem with this Yankees offseason?
It wasn’t passing on Max Scherzer or not trading for Troy Tulowitzki. It was making the decision in 2007 to re-sign Alex Rodriguez. It was pushing payroll in 2008 to sign Mark Teixeira. It was giving CC Sabathia an extension in 2011, and it was deciding last winter that Carlos Beltran was a safe-enough bet to deserve three years and $45 million.
The problem with the 2015 Yankees isn’t that they’ve gone cheap or stopped adding players, it’s that they’re already committed to players who have declined faster and more drastically than expected.
The Yankees didn’t go into this offseason oblivious to their offensive shortcomings. In fact, they were so aware of them that they fired hitting coach Kevin Long.
But where were the Yankees going to find the necessary upgrades this winter?
The outfield corners are usually good places to find power, but the Yankees have Beltran for two more years, and they just signed Brett Gardner to one of their more favorable contracts. Designated hitter could have been an obvious chance to upgrade, but the Yankees’ get-out-of-jail-free card on A-Rod expired. First base is typically a power position, but Teixeira’s signed for two more years with a full no-trade clause and no indication that he’s willing waive it.
So what did the Yankees have left?
The wide open spots for an offensive upgrade were second base (where there were no impact hitters available), shortstop (where the Yankees could have rolled the dice with Hanley Ramirez’s defense or given up the entire farm system for Tulowitzki), and third base (where the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley, choosing defense and on-base percentage over pure thump).
That left a middle of the order that looks a little too familiar. It looks too much like the middle of last year’s Opening Day lineup, with the biggest difference being Rodriguez at DH instead of released-by-mid-July Alfonso Soriano.
Fact is, power is getting harder to find these days. As disappointing as Teixeira’s been lately, his first three months last season were actually pretty powerful by today’s standards. If he’d maintained his .474 slugging percentage the second three months, Teixeira would have finished 12th in slugging in the American League. Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury were actually top 30 in slugging last season, and McCann’s brutal Yankees debut still placed in him the top 20 in home runs.
Are there ways to find more power this season? There might be, but they all seem to involve Beltran staying healthy, Teixeira staying strong, and McCann building on his powerful September. Role players like Chris Young and Garrett Jones might add some pop here and there – and Rodriguez could be surprisingly productive – but the middle of the Yankees lineup is going to hinge on the guys who are coming back, not the guys who were added this winter.
This morning, Bill recommended a buy-low trade for Josh Hamilton. I’m sure others could have made a similar case for Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder or B.J. Upton (pretty much anyone who found a place among Jonah Keri’s 10 worst baseball contracts). I would argue that even contract-for-contract, none of those trade possibilities represent a real upgrade over the pieces the Yankees already have in place.
Yes, the Yankees lineup is a giant question mark heading into this season. But that uncertainty has less to do with the players they didn’t add this offseason, and more to do with the players they did add in the past.
Associated Press photos
If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about the Hall of Fame, you might already know this: I love the Hall of Fame, but I don’t get too worked up about Hall of Fame debates. I think they’re interesting, and I think they’re worthwhile — they force us to re-examine some great careers, and that’s meaningful — but I ultimately don’t get too fussed about who’s in and who’s out.
Erik’s post this morning made a pretty incredible case for Mike Mussina as a Hall of Famer, but I’m still not mad that Tom Glavine is in and Mussina is not. I thought of Mussina as a Hall of Famer before, I’m more convinced now, and I find the conversation interesting. I’m just not losing sleep over the end result. I think Glavine deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I think Mussina should join him. And even if he doesn’t, Mussina will still have been a really, really great pitcher.
What Erik’s post got me thinking about most was the idea of an underappreciated baseball player. Perhaps Mussina was one. Maybe Tim Raines was one. I realized a few years ago that Fred McGriff was one. Most underappreciated players, though, far fall short of the Hall of Fame standard and will never be a part of a Hall of Fame debate.
Until last year, I think you could argue that Brett Gardner was an underappreciated baseball player. He had to walk on to his college team. He spent much of his minor league career labeled as a fourth outfielder. He had a hard time winning everyday playing time in the big leagues. The past two years, though, Gardner’s emerged as a legitimate everyday left fielder. Maybe he’s not a conventional left fielder — not so much power, more speed and defense — but he’s been a good one, and the Yankees have rewarded him with a contract extension and regular at-bats.
So who from this year’s Yankees might be underappreciated at the moment? Here are a few possibilities:
1. Stephen Drew
Last year’s numbers were awful, and because of that, Drew’s easy to dismiss as an absurd investment, even on a relatively small one-year, $5-million contract. But only a year ago, plenty of Yankees fans wanted Drew on the roster. He has a career OPS of .747, and until last season he’d never finished remotely close .536. His strong 2013 with Boston was pretty close to a typical season for him. Now, Drew’s had a regular offseason and should have a normal spring training, which is surely a good sign for him. He missed much of the 2011 spring training because of an abdominal issue. He missed the start of 2012 because of an ankle injury. He missed most of the 2013 spring training with a concussion. He got a late start last year because of his contract situation. Drew’s been a pretty good middle infielder through most of his career, and could be a solid buy-low opportunity for the Yankees.
2. Mark Teixeira
Granted, he’s being paid like an MVP, and there’s little hope that he’ll actually hit like an MVP. In terms of contract status, Teixeira is far from underappreciated. But at some point, public opinion might have swung too far toward the negative. A severe wrist injury forced Teixeira to miss nearly all of 2013 and forced him into an unusual winter heading into 2014. If that’s the reason his bat declined in the second half of last season — because he wasn’t in his usual shape — then Teixeira might not be the lost cause he’s often made out to be. Through the first three months of last season, before fatigue might have set in, Teixeira slugged .474, which is a really good slugging percentage these days. He doesn’t have the all-around production that the Yankees expected in 2008, but if he can maintain his power numbers this year, he could still be a viable run producer.
3. Adam Warren
He’s only seven months older than Dellin Betances. His fastball has gotten sneaky fast out of the bullpen, averaging 95 mph last season. His 2014 WHIP, FIP and strikeout rate were each better than Hiroki Kuroda’s or Brandon McCarthy’s (after McCarthy came to New York). And while it’s not really fair to compare a reliever to a starter, all of Warren’s numbers except his strikeout rate were better than Shawn Kelley’s last season. He’s not a flashy guy — and he had an unmistakably bad month — but Warren had a really nice year. And while he was never a huge prospect, he was always a good one. The guy can pitch, and given his background as a starter, he’s probably worth considering as solid rotation insurance in spring training. If we thought of David Phelps that way, why not Warren?
4. Nathan Eovaldi
Just an observation, but there seems to have been a lot of regret about losing Shane Greene without much excited about the addition of Eovaldi. Last season, Eovaldi had a lower FIP, a lower WHIP, and a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Greene. Eovaldi is also younger than Greene by more than a year. And if this is a comparison of upside, it’s worth noting that Eovaldi was considered a Top 100 prospect, which is far higher than Greene ever ranked on lists like that. Greene took a giant step forward the past two years, and that made him an organizational success story, but there’s certainly a chance — maybe even a good chance — that Eovaldi will be better than Greene this season. For a 25-year-old fourth starter, Eovaldi could be a better addition than he gets credit for being.
5. Chris Young
As an everyday player, no thank you. Young used to bring a fairly reliable .750 OPS with about 20 homers and 20 steals while playing center field. That’s not superstar quality, but he was a 5 WAR player twice (Jacoby Ellsbury was only 3 WAR last year, according to Baseball Reference). These days, though, Young’s numbers have slipped, and advanced metrics show he’s not nearly the center fielder he used to be. He’s more of a fourth outfielder at this point … and that’s exactly what the Yankees are asking him to be. His splits against lefties were unusually low last season — even in his disappointing 2013 season, he hit lefties much better than last year — and as long as those drift back toward the norm, he should be a nice fit as a right-handed bench player. If someone gets hurt, those splits should help him fit nicely in a replacement platoon. Teams can’t get much for $2.5 million, but Young might actually be a better fit than he gets credit for being.
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On the 40-man: Mark Teixeira • 01.23.15
Up next in our look at each player on the Yankees 40-man roster is a first baseman who nearly delivered an MVP season in his first year with the team, only to see his production gradually decline ever since. Still locked into a long-term deal, he’s still a key part of the lineup despite his diminished numbers.
Age on Opening Day: 34 (turned 35 a few days later)
Acquired: Signed just before Christmas, 2008
Added to the 40-man: Officially added January 6, 2009
In the past: The fifth overall pick in the 2001 draft, Teixeira was a big league regular by 2003 and an All-Star by 2005. His first seven seasons were defined by his strong glove at first base and his potent all-around production at the plate. After stops in Texas, Anaheim and Atlanta, he joined the Yankees in 2009 and promptly won a World Series and finished second in MVP voting. His numbers have dragged since then, and the past two seasons have been especially disappointing after a severe wrist injury that required season-ending surgery in 2013.
Role in 2015: Starting first baseman. Middle-of-the-order hitter. The Yankees made their commitment to Teixeira six years ago, and that commitment continues. The Yankees added Garrett Jones as an experienced backup, and they’ve talked about Alex Rodriguez possibly getting some time at the position, but first base still belongs to Teixeira. And since Chase Headley might be the most potent bat the Yankees added this season, Teixeira could get another shot in the cleanup spot as well.
Best case scenario: Healthy and strong after finally having a normal offseason, Teixeira is back to his 2010-11 production. Asking that he go back to 2009 is probably a bit much, but a .252/.353/.487 slash line in this offensive climate would be a welcome boost in the middle of the order. As long as Teixeira can still hit for power, he can still be a really valuable offensive piece (and he should be a contributing piece to an infield that’s improved defensively). If Teixeira simply hits the way he did in the first three months of last season, but carries it through September, that would be pretty solid as well. The best-case scenario is probably better than that, but the Yankees might sign up for a continuation of those first three months.
Worst case scenario: After hitting .242/.344/.474 through the first three months last season, Teixeira hit just .191/.282/.324 from July 1 to the end of the year. That’s probably the worst-case scenario, a repeat of last year’s second half along with nagging injuries that keep Teixeira out of the lineup occasionally but never really send him to the disabled list so that a guy like Kyle Roller can get a look. Basically, the worst-case scenario is that the days of a reliably productive Teixeira ended with that wrist injury in 2013, when he still had four years left on his deal.
What the future holds: Teixeira’s eight-year, $180-million contract ends after the 2016 season. He’s built a home and a life in Connecticut, so there seems to be very little chance he would waive his no-trade clause even if the Yankees could find someone to take on part of these final two seasons. If Teixeira can be reasonably productive, he could hold down the first base job until 2017, when prospect Greg Bird will be ready (potentiall) to give it a shot. If he can’t be reasonably productive … well, that would make his contract even harder to move.
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Whatever the batting order, it’s the hitters themselves that will determine whether the Yankees lineup is any good this season. Joe Girardi could put them in the perfect 1 through 9, but if key players don’t perform up to their abilities, the offense simply won’t work. Hitters don’t have to be at their absolute peak to become valuable assets again, but key hitters reverting back toward key career stats would be a good strong step in the right direction.
If these specific players could bounce back in these specific ways, it would make a big difference.
MARK TEIXEIRA – Slugging percentage
Last season: .398
Teixeira has acknowledged that he’s probably not going to be a .300 hitter at this stage of his career. The shift has taken away a lot of his hits, and he’s just not a .300/.400/.500 guy anymore. But in 2012 — his last healthy season before last year — Teixeira slugged .475. That would have been the 12th-heighest slugging percentage in the American League last season. And it’s not that Teixeira absolutely can’t do that any more (he was slugging .474 at the end of June before a brutal second half). Power is at a premium these days, and Teixeira doesn’t have to be a great overall hitter to be a productive run producer.
BRIAN MCCANN – OPS vs. RHP
Last season: .633
McCann actually hit pretty well against lefties last season. Even exceeded his career numbers against them. What he did not do is hit against right-handers. He’d typically crushed them, but last season McCann slugged less than .400 with a sub-.300 on-base percentage against right-handers. Blame it on the shift. Blame it on the transition. Blame it on a bad year fully of lofty expectations. For whatever reason, McCann simply didn’t hit right-handers. Now that the American League East has lost several left-handed starters — including standouts Jon Lester and David Price — McCann should be able to feast on a bunch of righties in the division. Improve his splits, and McCann should significantly improve his production.
CARLOS BELTRAN – RBI
Last season: 49
Because of the elbow injury, it’s hard to know what to make of Beltran’s capabilities at this point. Was last year’s diminished slash line the product of age or injury? As recently as 2013, Beltran was still an .830 OPS guy. In his career he’s typically hit for a good average, hit for good power, and played a role in the middle of the order. That’s why he’s averaged more than 100 RBI per 162 games. Clearly RBI is not really an individual statistic. It depends heavily on playing time, and it depends on the rest of the lineup, and that’s why it’s such a key stat for Beltran. However he does it — through raw power or clutch hits or simply an abundance of opportunities — another 100 RBI season from Beltran would indicate that he’s stayed healthy and stayed in a lineup that’s generating plenty of run-scoring chances. As a guy the Yankees will surely count on in the middle of the order, a lot of Beltran RBI would be a good sign for the entire Yankees team.
JACOBY ELLSBURY – Stolen bases
Last season: 39
This is just a guess, but if Ellsbury is back at the top of the order (focusing on getting on base and creating havoc) rather than hitting in the middle (focusing on driving in runs and being a typical No. 3 hitter), I bet he’ll steal more bases this season. I might be completely wrong — and certainly a 39-steal season isn’t bad by any measure, it was the second-most in the American League — but a higher number of stolen bases would seem to indicate a better job getting on base and a willingness to run. In each of Ellsbury’s two highest-steal seasons, he’s had a .355 on-base percentage, which is 27 points higher than his on-base percentage last season. Stolen bases are hardly an absolute proof of Ellsbury’s productivity — he also had 39 steals in 2011, which was easily his overall best season — but a lot of steals in 2015 could be a sign of several things for the Yankees: It would suggest Ellsbury’s getting on base a lot, and that someone else hitting well enough in the middle of the order that Ellsbury gets to stay in his more-natural No. 1 or 2 spot.
STEPHEN DREW – Batting average on balls in play
Last season: .194
At times, BABIP is considered a measure of luck. If a typically good hitters has abnormally bad numbers, then a low batting average on balls in play could be an indication that he’s a few inches away from typical production. In the case of Drew, last year’s abnormally low BABIP could also be explained by his abnormally low line drive percentage. His home runs per fly ball were also down, as were his infield hits. His strikeout rate was significantly higher than usual. All of that could be an indication that Drew wasn’t simply unlucky last season, he simply wasn’t as prepared, making weaker contact when he made contact at all. Surely the Yankees aren’t banking on Drew being a dominant offensive player, but they’re obviously banking on him being better than last season’s .162/.237/.299. Better and more consistent contact should help.
CHRIS YOUNG – OPS vs. LHP
Last season: .561
Similar to the McCann situation, but from the opposite side of the plate and in a much smaller role. Even with that strong month of September, Young’s splits last season were not at all what’s come to be expected. He was alright against right handers, but he was brutal against lefties. Given all of the left-handed hitters in the Yankees regular lineup — and the presence of Garrett Jones as left-handed outfield option off the bench — Young’s role this season seems to be entirely in a platoon situation, bringing some right-handed balance to a team that leans to the left. Whether he’s in the lineup against lefties or coming off the bench to pinch hit for Drew or Didi Gregorius, Young could have a real impact if he’s able to make the most of his limited playing time against left-handers.
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Earlier today we looked at a few problems the Yankees would like to have in spring training (too much pitching depth, too many hitters exceeding expectations). But what if the opposite happens? What if the things that could go wrong, do go wrong? This isn’t meant to be a doomsday scenario — it’s not about unpredictable injuries or unlikely declines — but rather a look at realistic problems that could pop up based on past performance and familiar issues. How would the Yankees react if the roster begins to crumble before Opening Day?
What if Alex Rodriguez is absolutely finished?
This morning we considered a resurgent A-Rod, but what if the opposite is true? He’s 39 years old, he’s hardly played the past two years, he didn’t play at all last season, and he’s gone through multiple injuries in recent seasons. How would the Yankees react if Rodriguez is not only incapable of playing third base everyday, but is also no longer able to hit well enough to deserve regular playing time? Would Rodriguez get the benefit of the doubt for a few months, or would Joe Girardi decide he’d seen enough in spring training and open the season with Garrett Jones as the regular designated hitter against righties? Is it possible for Rodriguez to play so poorly that he’s not even worth platoon at-bats against lefties? Surely Rodriguez would have to be epically bad for the Yankees to completely cut ties.
What if Dellin Betances can’t throw strikes?
After last season, it seems like a near ridiculous idea. Betances has been a very good relief pitcher for basically a season and a half now (making a terrific transition in Triple-A, then putting together an All-Star rookie season for the Yankees). But what if some of his old minor league problems resurface in spring training? Maybe the pressure of trying repeat last season gets to him. Maybe the closer role is too much. Whatever the reason, let’s say Betances just isn’t sharp in spring training. The stuff is still great, but he’s inconsistent, and there’s a snowball effect as Betances tries to sort it out. If the Yankees don’t see the same old Betances in spring training, how thoroughly would they have to rearrange their bullpen? Would they chalk it up as an exhibition fluke and keep Betances in a key role, or would he have to prove himself all over again?
What if Didi Gregorius isn’t an everyday shortstop?
Last spring, the Diamondbacks went into spring training giving Gregorius a chance to be their everyday shortstop, and he lost the job to Chris Owings. The Yankees are already well aware that Gregorius has some flaws — he hasn’t hit well against lefties, his offense as a whole remains somewhat questionable — but they’re banking on his defense and his ability to at least hit righties. If Gregorius is a massive disappointment, would the Yankees change plans to give the shortstop job to Stephen Drew (opening second base for either Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela), or are they fully committed to Gregorius regardless of spring performance? Basically, how long is the leash on a new guy who might be the Yankees shortstop of the future, or might be in over his head as an everyday player? Girardi hasn’t seen much of Gregorius. How important is his first impression?
What if the rotation really does fall apart?
This probably qualifies as a doomsday scenario, but it’s a scenario rooted in realistic possibility. We all know about Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow, Michael Pineda’s shoulder and CC Sabathia’s knee. We saw each of those three miss significant time last season. What happens if those three show up in spring training and immediately run into familiar injuries problems. Tanaka’s ligament can’t hold up, Pineda’s shoulder suffers another setback, and Sabathia’s body continues to break down. If the Yankees rotation basically runs into the same health problems as last season, but does it right away, would the Yankees desperately try to find replacement starters (sacrifice the farm for a guy like Cole Hamels) or would they simply roll the dice with guys like Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell, deciding this season isn’t worth trying to save?
What if there’s a clear need for firepower?
What’s the biggest source of offense the Yankees added this offseason? Garrett Jones? Chris Young? Chase Headley? A-Rod? Ultimately, the Yankees plugged a lot of holes this winter, but they didn’t necessarily add one big bat meant to make a major difference in the middle of the order. This team struggled offensively last season, and it’s really banking on bounce-back seasons from Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira to significantly boost the run production. How would they react this spring if it looks like those bounce-backs aren’t going to happen? Could a guy like Tyler Austin suddenly get a longer look? Would the Yankees accelerate the development of Aaron Judge or Greg Bird? Would they try to get regular platoon production out of Jones or Young? Would they bat Jacoby Ellsbury third again?
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Some odds and ends from today’s Jeff Pentland conference call:
On Alex Rodriguez
“I’ve seen Alex for a long time. I saw him in his first professional games in the instructional league. He’s been a tremendous talent over the years. I’m looking forward to being around him and being with him. Him and I have talked over the years, just hi and hello kind of conversations, but I have a great deal of respect for his career and what he’s done, so, you know, I have a great deal of respect for him. I hope he has a successful season and I’ll be there for him.”
On Carlos Beltran
“I had Carlos when he was a little younger (in Kansas City), but him and I had a great rapport and I’m sure that will continue. He was a tremendous athlete. Obviously he’s not 25 anymore, but there’s plenty left in him, and his experience and his knowledge of hitting, he’s been in New York before. We just got to keep him healthy.”
On Mark Teixeira
“You’ve got to remember, I’m not a young guy, so I’ve seen most of these guys probably. Mark Teixeira was certainly a plus player in Texas, and he has been with the Yankees. I think you said it best; if we can keep him injury-free, and he needs any adjustments, we’ll be there for him. I’ve talked to him briefly when he was with the Rangers, kind of like a ‘hello, how are you’ kind of deal. I’m looking forward to spending time with him and being around him. I have an open mind. Whatever happened in the past means nothing to me. We’ll start anew, and from what I understand, he’s had some wrist injuries. Injury is part of this game. Hopefully we can keep him healthy.”
On Didi Gregorius
“I saw Didi a lot when I was with the Dodgers. I was there when they brought him up, and he started out very well, but just like most young hitters, they figure him out eventually. He’s an incredibly athletic player, he’s got a huge future, and I’m very excited that he’s a Yankee. I always thought there’s a lot (of ability) in there. We’ve got to get it out, and we’ve got to work it, but the problem with younger players, you’ve got to be a little bit more patient. I think this guy has a big upside.”
On assistant hitting coach Alan Cockrell
“Obviously hitting coaches have their own circle; we’re kind of like a fraternity. And we have spoken more than a few times. I don’t there will be any problems among the two of us, it’s just our ability to deal with the players. … The job has just gotten huge. The technical ability of video and TVs and statistics, it’s just become overwhelming. As hitting coaches, we have to weed out information to give the hitters a simple approach. When you’re sitting in there against 95 (mph), your brain can’t do a whole lot. It kind of has to be focused on the ball. Walks and staying in the strike zone and the information on pitchers, it’s not so much mechanical or technical side of it from a hitting standpoint, it’s gathering all the information, putting together good plans and good information, (to build) a simplistic, easy plan for a hitter to understand and go up there with somewhat of an empty mind. Most of your great athletes, they don’t think a lot. They have the information in the back of their mind, but they’re basically on the attack.”
On having been a pitcher for part of his playing career
“I’ve been asked that question all my life. I was very good at pitching, I just hated it. The days that I played, there wasn’t a lot of money in, so we basically did what we wanted, and I loved to hit. Hitting was a little bit harder for me, and if you look at me, I’m not a gigantic guy, and I’m left-handed so I was very limited in the positions I could play. But I was born with a good arm. … Most of the communication and talk I have is with pitchers because I have to know pitchers to attack them, and pitchers have to know hitters to get them out. I have been with Larry (Rothschild) before, and Larry is as good as it gets, so we talk a lot. It might be about opposing hitters, or it might be about opposing pitchers. We have always had a great relationship, but there’s a bond there just because of what our jobs are.”
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I believe I was 13 years old when Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park, and because I was 13 years old, I absolutely loved it. The dinosaurs were cool — dinosaurs are always cool — Jeff Goldblum laid out the movie’s central message with a not-so-subtle line:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
I thought of that line because among the challenges for new Yankees hitting coach Jeff Pentland — among the challenges for any hitting coach, really — is the question of how to handle defensive shifts that have become commonplace throughout baseball. Is it possible to teach a shift-susceptible player to go the other way? And if it can be done, should it be done?
“That’s the rub,” Pentland said this morning. “Do you change them, or do you let them keep doing it? The only thing I try to tell them is, if we’re going to do anything, let’s do it in Spring Training. Once the season starts, it’s very difficult to even think about changing swings. You’re always tinkering and fine tuning, and you’ve got older guys (so) you’re not inventing the wheel here. You’re not making wholesale changes. If I tried to do that, they’d shut me out in a heartbeat. These guys have been around, they know what they’re doing and they know how successful they’ve been. You’d be surprised how open-minded most of them are. I’ve got my work cut out for me as far as them getting to know me and trust me. Then we go from there. If we’re not making any adjustments at all, then I’m not doing my job.”
For the Yankees, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann stand out as key middle-of-the-order run producers who tend to pull the ball. Teams shift against them, and those shifts have cost them hits. The question is whether it’s worthwhile for these guys to go the other way more often, potentially raising their batting averages, but perhaps taking away the pull power that made them All-Star sluggers in the first place.
On the right is a Brooks Baseball chart of McCann’s career spray angles. Little surprise that he’s shown an obvious tendency to hit groundballs to the right side — that’s why teams are shifting in the first place — but the chart also shows that last season he showed a significant uptick in balls hit the other way. He seemed adjust to the shift by hitting more groundballs up the middle and to the opposite field.
The result was the worst offensive season of his career.
“As far as hitting the ball the other way, that’s something I’ve definitely done going into spring training,” McCann told MLB Network earlier this offseason. “And then a month into the season you look up and you sacrifice power and driving the baseball. Or at least I do. That’s the line I have to walk. I’ve hit a certain way for a long, long time.”
Here’s what Teixeira told Dan Barbarisi about beating the shift:
“You beat the shift by hitting line drives,” Teixeira said. “Don’t hit ground balls. If you hit a slow ground ball in the hole, you don’t deserve a hit. It’s a rollover. With line drives, yeah, every now and then you hit a line drive at somebody, but that’s baseball.”
There are obvious benefits to changing an approach and beating the shift, but it may be that the next generation of players — the guys who have faced shifts throughout the minor leagues — are better equipped to make those changes. Veteran guys like Teixiera and McCann got to the big leagues by hitting a certain way, and making a drastic change in the name of adding a few singles could do as much harm as good.
“We’ll talk about it,” Pentland said. “The player has to buy in, No. 1. We’ve got four or five weeks of spring training, and obviously I’m going to pick their minds. The shift becomes almost a mental block sometimes. It’s not only the Yankees, it’s a lot of teams that are going through that situation. You can’t completely change players, but we certainly could talk about it and work on it and make them understand. Sometimes you’ve got to think more in the middle of the diamond rather than focus on so much pull. But obviously that’s something between me and the player.”
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