Rumors from the trade market

    Thursday, July 8, 2010, 6:54 PM [General]

    WISHCASTING
    If the Mariners trade Cliff Lee in the next 24 hours, the Yankees wouldn’t have to face him on Friday.

    A FINE KETTLE OF FISH
    Yesterday, I wrote about the Marlins making right-handed outfielder Cody Ross available to potential trading partners. Subsequently, it was reported that the Fish might also make 26-year-old closer Leo Nunez available as well. Nunez isn’t expensive by the standards of most teams, but he’s arbitration eligible and the Marlins don’t do arbitration unless literally forced to by the Commissioner and the players’ union. It’s a bit odd that their owner thinks they can win a pennant while not actually paying anyone but Hanley Ramirez, but that’s the way his mind apparently works -- hence the firing of Fredi Gonzalez.

    Nunez, a useful reliever, started out with the Royals, who traded him to the Marlins for Mike Jacobs, a non-useful first baseman. Over the last three years, he’s pitched 151.2 innings, allowed but 132 hits, walked 51, and struck out 121. Batters have hit .234/.304/.382 in that period -- the .382 slugging represents 16 home runs (he’s a fly ball guy) and a seemingly high nine triples, something at least partially attributable to defense. His ERA for that period is 3.50. In truth, he hasn’t been quite that good, as over the years he’s been bailed out by subsequent relievers quite a few times, something that keeps a fellow’s ERA artificially low. His home run rate also means he’s ill-suited to close.

    Despite this, the Yankees need bullpen depth and Nunez is an established reliever with a solid fastball who could help out in the middle innings. I smell package with Ross… or day-old sushi. Maybe both.   

    MEANWHILE, BACK AT CLIFF LEE’S RANCH…
    CC Sabathia is hitting on all cylinders,  and AJ Burnett has had two good starts in a row, but Phil Hughes has struggled since April and Andy Pettitte’s age and history makes him a constant threat to regress. Javier Vazquez has a 3.05 ERA in 11 games going back to the middle of May, but is anyone prepared to believe that this is the way things will be from now on, or to trust him in a big spot? These are the issues that must be weighed as the Yankees decide whether to make a serious bid for Cliff Lee.

    If you believe that the rotation will show consistency, that Sergio Mitre (when healthy) could step into the fifth spot if someone got hurt, or that a young pitcher like Ivan Nova or David Phelps (2.07 ERA in 16 starts at Trenton and Scranton) could take a spot in an emergency then the Yankees have absolutely nothing to gain from burning prospects and treasure to acquire Lee. If, on the other hand, you think that one of the aforementioned five is going to pitch their way is due for a breakdown in body, mind, or outcomes, then that’s a different matter.

    If the latter is the case, then the key question is if the Yankees could successfully construct a three-way deal that would dispose of Vazquez at the same time that it reeled in Lee. This would have the effect of reeling in prospects at the same time that they went out, although the haul would inevitably be less than what the Yankees had to spend. A National League team with a large ballpark, say the Mets if they have the capability to add a salary, even that of a free agent to be, would be an intriguing choice, though their collection of prospects leaves a lot to be desired and they need them rather desperately.

    The most likely scenario is standing pat. The Yankees have more to gain and less to lose in terms of minor league talent by tinkering with the offense and the bullpen than they do with the starting rotation. They need four starters to get through the playoffs; the purpose of rotation depth now is to get there. With only a two-game lead on the division title and wild card spot, they’re hardly safe, but they’re in a stronger position than if they were trying to come from behind.

    ENOUGH WITH THE MARINERS ALREADY
    The Mariners got right back to losing since taking two of three games from the Yankees at the big ballpark in the Bronx, going 1-5 against the Tigers and Royals. Their hitting has been truly incredible in those few games; as a team, they’ve batted .228/.307/.345. In fairness to them, they saw a very difficult set of pitchers, guys who are very good or can be very good if you catch them on the wrong day -- in order, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Brian Bannister, and Zack Greinke. The sixth was Kyle Davies, who is almost never good (just eight quality starts in 17 tries), but they lost anyway. During that same stretch, the pitchers put up an ERA just over 5.00, but Lee and King Felix were just as dominating as ever. This is the frustrating thing about the Mariners: they’re on a pace for about 98 losses, but you can’t take them for granted, not with their rotation, and not at home, where they’re playing just under .500 ball. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of pitching around Russell Branyan in the big spots, and maybe a suddenly hot Casey Kotchman (9-for-18 with three homers in his last five games) -- there’s just not much else going on.

    Broken record time: one interesting aspect to this series will be how well Marcus Thames does, as the Yankees will see three lefties in four games. Another key will be how often Curtis Granderson sits. Kudos to Joe Girardi for giving him half a game off against Gio Gonzalez in the Oakland finale. That’s the funny thing about platooning Granderson, given his defensive skills -- you’re talking about his missing just two or three plate appearances a game. It’s a bit like football in that he’s going to play even if he doesn’t start.

    WELL DONE, NICK SWISHER
    Last night’s big game put him over the top. I stand by my believe that Kevin Youkilis is having a bigger year, but there was nothing in that to say that Swisher is undeserving or has been less than greatly valuable to the Yankees. Congratulations to the effervescent outfielder.

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    The target

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010, 5:22 PM [General]

    Since last winter and as the season has gone on and Nick Johnson has disappeared, I’ve said that the Yankees could use a platoon partner for Curtis Granderson, preferably one who had the defensive skill to play a better outfield than Marcus Thames, and wouldn’t kill you if he was pressed into everyday service. I just wasn’t clear on who that guy is. Now comes this report from the Palm Beach Post:

    Already there are rumblings within the organization that the Marlins may break up the roster by the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline.

    [snip]

    The feeling is that only Florida's two All Stars - pitcher Josh Johnson and shortstop Hanley Ramirez - are considered off-limits in any trade talks. The team also would likely keep all of their young players still under club control. [h/t Buster Olney]

    Meet Cody Ross, Flordia Marlins outfielder. A right-handed hitter, Ross was a fourth-round pick of the Tigers’ back in 1999. Ross took the slow road through the Minors, always showing good power but never hitting for enough of an average to look like a coming star. The Tigers gave him a taste of the Majors during their 2003 annus horribilus, then sent him to the Dodgers the following spring for a now-forgotten left-handed pitcher, Steve Colyer. The Dodgers had no real interest in him and sent him out for most of 2004 and 2005. He made the team out of spring training in 2006, but with an outfield of Kenny Lofton, J.D. Drew, and Andre Ethier he wasn’t going to play, so they dealt him to the Reds for another forgotten lefty, Ben Kozlowski. The Reds were also deep in outfielders, so they sold Ross to the Marlins, his third team of 2006.

    Ross didn’t hit well for the Fish that year, but it was the Marlins and they had nothing better to do, so he stuck. Since then, he’s been a consistently useful player, batting .279/.335/.488. Now, those aren’t very exciting rates, but Ross’s true strength is his ability to kill southpaws. He’s a career .292/.354/.596 hitter against left-handed pitchers. He’s had 590 career plate appearances against them, about one full-season of play, and has hit 39 doubles and 40 home runs. This year, he’s hitting .303/.354/.513 against lefties in 76 at-bats. Granderson has hit .244/.336/.480 against righties , .203/.250/.291 against lefties, giving him an overall line of .228/.304/.408. Sub in Ross’s vs. lefties line for Granderson’s, and you get an overall line of .266/.342/.493.

    Ross’s production against righties is much less exciting, .259/.314/.424, but were the Yankees to acquire him, they likely wouldn’t be asking him to play much against regular-handers anyway. Ross’s other weakness is defense—sort of. He’s not an ideal defensive center fielder, but the Marlins keep listing him there because everyone else they’ve tried has failed. The glass-is-half-full view of this is that a under-qualified center fielder should be an over-qualified left fielder, as Johnny Damon was two years ago.

    Ross won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2011. Arbitration eligible, he’s making about $4.5 million this year, which would rank on the low end of the Yankees payroll. I don’t know how easy Larry Beinfest is to deal with, but you’d think that Ross’s modest talents wouldn’t provoke requests for Jesus Montero in trade. If the Yankees don’t go after a big-time DH, this could be a useful pickup to strengthen the bench and lessen the team’s vulnerability to lefty starters and spot relievers in the postseason.

    ALL-STAR GAME STUFF
    Robinson Cano out of the Home Run Derby with a minor back injury that conveniently just popped up: Good. No use risking so valuable a player on something as useless as the Derby. I enjoy watching batting practice, but at least BP has a purpose. The HRD is a tedious exhibition.

    Nagging injuries keep Mariano Rivera out of the game: It’s always a loss when you miss an opportunity to watch baseball’s version of Fred Astaire (by which I mean grace and poise personified), but the guy is 40. It would be shocking if he didn’t have some injuries. Joe Girardi has been very careful about his usage, treating him like a Fabergé Egg at times. If Rivera really is so frangible, there’s no reason to risk whatever time he has left on the mound in a meaningless game that has injured so many excellent players (Dizzy Dean and Ted Williams come to mind) for no real gain.

    MORE FROM ME
    Still dealing with family stuff, but I’m slowly getting back into the flow at Wholesome Reading, with more to come as soon as I’m done here. Warning: politics, oily lakes, oceans, hair.

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    Youkilis vs. Swisher in Final Vote

    Tuesday, July 6, 2010, 7:31 PM [General]

    YOUKILIS VS. SWISHER
    As I write this, Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox first baseman, has overtaken Nick Swisher in the fan vote for the All-Star game. With all due respect to Swisher’s boosters and the manhood issues inherent in any my-player-is-better-than-yours tilt with Boston fans, Swisher isn’t having the season Youkilis is. The All-Star selections this year have been painful -- Omar Infante? -- and Youkilis’s exclusion was a mistake that needs correction. You can’t say the same thing about Swisher.

    Let’s look at the players on the ballot, not just Youk and Swish but the other three players as well:

                     PA      AVG    OBP    SLG    HR    BB    TAV
    Youkilis     339    .299    .416   .586   17    51   .335
    Konerko    319    .299    .386   .562   20   38    .320
    Swisher    332    .296    .375    .509   13   34   .303
    D. Young   280    .298    .332   .488    9    15    .289
    M. Young   373    .306    .351   .484   11   25    .285

    As usual, the last category is the park- and league-adjusted True Average, the stat which the cognoscenti used to call Equivalent Average or EqA. Youkilis outranks Swisher in every measure of production listed above.
    Clearly, this conversation has to be restricted to Youkilis, Konerko, and Swisher. Consider where they rank among the players at their position. With apologies to Billy Butler (and Mark Teixeira, too -- have a better second half, lad) there are only four first basemen in the AL having MVP-type seasons: Justin Morneau, Miguel Cabrera, Youkilis, and Konerko. Swisher’s place among his right field peers is solid but less distinct. He’s in a crowd with Magglio Ordonez, David DeJesus, Shin-Soo Choo, Ichiro, J.D. Drew, and others. Expand your focus to the larger population of outfielders and even more hitters having good-not-great seasons wash out the picture. Were the argument restricted only to outfielders, Swisher would have a case, but not one dramatically more compelling than those mentioned above, not to mention Alexis Rios.

    Longtime readers will recall that I have long been a Swisher booster, and that remains the case. However, I have a must remain objective.  Fans are not obligated to have the same loyalties, but I’ve always figured that informed partisanship is superior to blind, undiscriminating worship. That kind of slavish devotion is for dogs, not baseball. It’s a bit like what G.K. Chesterton said about patriotism: “‘My country right or wrong’ is a thing no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My Mother drunk or sober.’”

    Thus: Nick Swisher right or wrong? Right for the Yankees, a very fine player having his best year. Wrong for the All-Star game if pitted against Kevin Youkilis, also a very fine player having a better year.

    BLOOMQUIST: A LOVE STORY
    I’m not saying I have supernatural powers or anything like that. On the other hand, if you’ve experienced coincidence so many times that it’s not coincidental anymore, you might start to believe in some kind of determinism being at work in your life.

    Sometimes, depending on her mood, I have a younger sister. She is almost four years younger than me. Our town growing up had a three-year high school, grades 10 through 12. Thus I graduated and she entered in June and September of the same year. Kids that I knew as juniors my senior year would be seniors her sophomore year, and so on.

    That last year, there was a guy I knew, a year younger, who would sometimes trail around after my group of friends. Some writers would say, “like a puppy” here; I would say, “like a tick.” Call him Omar. Omar was a strange bird, by which I mean that he was a human male with the face of an owl. He was also nervous, geeky, and powerfully stupid. When I graduated, I looked forward to leaving many people behind forever, some with more intensity than Omar, but none with more pleasure. On more than one occasion, I told my good friends, “When my sister is here next year, I don’t care who she goes out with as long as it’s not Omar.”

    You know what happened next, right? Suddenly Omar was everywhere in my life. In my house. In my chair. Eating my food. Tumbling out of cabinets. Standing in the shower when I pulled back the curtain. Hovering just below the ceiling. Omnipresent, morning until night, or until my father lost his temper and kicked him out (thanks for that, dad). There were many evenings that I would come home for dinner, unlock the door, see that Omar was still there, turn around, lock the door, get in my car, and go out for pizza.

    A year or two later, Omar having moved on somewhere in the interim, I was talking baseball with friends. At that time, the Yankees needed a third baseman. Heck, they needed just about everything. The Yankees had no regular third baseman in 1991, trying Mike Blowers, Randy Velarde, Pat Kelly, Jim Leyriz, and more, including an extremely reluctant Steve Sax. This ragged band hit .220/.286/.306, and it was considered an automatic that the Yankees would acquire a third baseman during the offseason. “I don’t care who they get,” I said to the very same friends who I had spoken to about Omar, “as long as it isn’t Charlie Hayes.” Not only did the Yankees then go get Charlie Hayes, to that point a .247/.276/.361 career hitter, they got him twice.

    So, you can see why I might be reluctant to discuss the following with you: when trade rumors have gone out across the land, what one hears is that the Yankees very much want to bolster their bench, and among their targets are Ty Wigginton and Willie Bloomquist. We can talk about Wigginton another time, but let me once more risk invoking those powers that seem to hear me when I say things like this: “I don’t care who they get, as long as it’s not Willie Bloomquist.”

    Bloomquist has two skills: versatility and speed. All the other usual stuff, like getting on base and hitting with authority, elude him. He’s a career .263/.317/.334 hitter. In the three years that Clay Bellinger spent as a miserable utilityman for the Yankees, he hit 12 home runs in 311 at-bats. Bloomquist has also hit 12 home runs, but in 1763 at-bats. With no power, pitchers can challenge Bloomquist so he doesn’t walk much. To invoke Gertrude Stein, there’s just no there there.

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a versatile player on your bench to use in an emergency, but the problem is that injuries come up and someone always thinks it’s a good idea to make that bench guy a regular. That’s where the problems begin, because a player like Bloomquist (or Bellinger, or Miguel Cairo in most years) can really damage your offense through sub-replacement-level hitting. Basically, there are a lot of good things that are very unlikely happen, like a double, triple, or home run. That’s a high price to pay for versatility, too high a price.
    Will the universe again challenge one of these absolute statements? Will Brian Cashman be too wise to make such a self-defeating deal? These and many other questions to be answered in the next few weeks. You know, it just occurred to me: with my luck, they won’t get Bloomquist, they’ll get Omar.

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    An offensive conundrum

    Friday, July 2, 2010, 8:57 PM [General]

    THE SLUMP!

    Can we call what the Yankees are going through right now, with the Yankees pushing past four runs just once in the last seven games a slump? Sure we can, because it has gone on a lot longer than that. After hitting .286/.367/.452 in April and May and scoring an average of 5.7 runs per game, they dropped off to .245/.333/.401 and 4.8 runs per game in June. It wasn’t just the Mariners or the six games played without the designated hitter in NL parks. The Yankees didn’t hit much in the first half of the month, then slid off as the days went on.

    You can pick a half-dozen culprits. Brett Gardner (.383/.472/.533) and Robinson Cano (.333/.398/.510) had good months. Mark Teixeira was about average for an AL first baseman, which isn’t saying much this year. Everyone else was different flavors of slumpy. Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez hit some home runs but had on-base percentages around .300. Derek Jeter hit .243/.339/.379, which isn’t terrible only because the average MLB shortstop is hitting only .264/.321/.371. The worst slumps took place in the DH/catching axis. Francisco Cervelli’s good luck on balls in play ran out and he hit .180/.275/.246 on the month. Jorge Posada was better because he was willing to walk but hit only .203/.337/.351.

    The question here is, who can you expect to get better? Teixeira should continue to heat up. A-Rod was great in May (.330/.408/.534) and seems to be waking up again. Curtis Granderson might find some consistency if the Yankees would just stop asking him to do things he’s incapable of doing, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now, so don’t expect much more. Jeter has been roughly consistent at his current level since the end of April, and at 36 he might not find his way back to the light. Posada is 38; the same thing goes for him. Nick Swisher has changed his style, so while we can note that so far he’s had one major hot streak bookended by two very mediocre months, we can’t know where the ride is going to stop. Cano might maintain something like consistency; Gardner is going to get worse.

    Finally, I know that I was a bit infatuated with Cervelli earlier in the year, but I hereby renounce any statements made in that moment of limerence. I spent the winter and the spring saying he wouldn’t hit and I should have stuck with that. Even at his April-May rates of .320/.388/.400, he wasn’t a major offensive threat. Then he went 0-for-June. The aggregate leaves the Yankees with an everyday player who doesn’t really do anything well. Even if he rebounds to .275, it’s a powerless, low-walk .275 -- Cervelli is on a bullet train to the replacement level.

    In a close race, those low-level performances are the ones a team can’t tolerate. The last thing the Yankees need to do is trade for a catcher given that they have enough of them in the minors to staff out a performance of “Cirque du Backstop.” However, given the unknowns about the offense -- whether this is a slump that is going to heal itself in a big way -- they will need to do what they can to augment things. That means more Posada behind the plate, because even a diminished Posada is a more productive hitter than Cervelli. It means platooning Granderson and Marcus Thames when the latter comes back, and doing so religiously. It means acquiring a real DH. Brian Cashman could kill two birds with one stone by acquiring an everyday player who could bounce between DH against right-handers and left field against left-handers, but that seems a tall order. There are some interesting part-time types that might be available, free agents to be like Austin Kearns and Coco Crisp, but while they might be cheaper than trying to pry away a star, they won’t solve the whole problem. On the other hand, getting a right-handed hitting outfielder like Kearns who can actually catch the ball would free Thames to DH against lefties, improving the defense. Alternatively, the Yankees could go for a big prize, live with Thames in the outfield once or twice a week, and just pick up Prince Fielder and let him hit every day.

    Fixing the offense will take some pressure off the pitching staff, be it a now-revived A.J. Burnett (no longer a castaway without an Eiland) or the bullpen, which needs to be gutted. It’s easy to pick on Chan Ho Park since he never should have been signed. (It’s so easy for even a good GM to make a mistake with a reliever -- almost every bullpen acquisition is a game of Russian roulette. With Park, a couple of extra barrels were clearly loaded.) He is, however, not the whole problem. These problems leave Brian Cashman and the Yankees’ braintrust with a conundrum: in this year’s edition of Pursue the Pennant, how much in prospects and treasure do you want to spend?

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    Just what they needed

    Friday, July 2, 2010, 10:40 AM [General]

    It was the Yankees’ misfortune to suffer bad timing, to encounter Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, two of the best pitchers in baseball even if they are on a bad club, with two pitchers who were not up to matching their aces taking the mound in opposition. Since pitching seven shutout innings against the Tigers in his sixth start on May 12, Hughes has made eight starts, four of them quality, four of them factory rejects (there is no accepted term for a “not quality start,” but “irregular pants” or “mismatched socks” would do fine). His ERA for the period was threatening to crest the fragile barriers that hold the oily 5.00 water out at sea, and he finally did swamp the lowlands in tar against the M’s; his ERA since May 12 is now 5.33 in 49 innings. The good news is that although his start on Tuesday was a true thrashing, Hughes’ overall performance during the period hasn’t been terrible. He’s allowed a few home runs, sure, but his walks and strikeouts are still in the right place. However, over the course of the season, his results on balls in play have gone from “otherworldly lucky” to “about average” to “kind of unlucky.” The Yankees play strong defense and it’s not like they’ve let him down in the field, but even a good defense can watch balls elude gloves when they’re hit to the right place. Whatever the cause of Hughes’ recent foibles, there is a basis for recovery here.

    Javier Vazquez pitched well enough against the Mariners to win under most circumstances (one of those quality starts again), and he completed June with a 3.23 ERA, his best yet this season. Yet, Vazquez, with his propensity towards giving up long flies, is not particularly likely to match a shutout with a shutout—he hasn’t pitched one since 2005. He last pitched seven scoreless innings last September. He last pitched eight scoreless innings two years ago. The Yankees couldn’t stay in these games, Lee and Hernandez didn’t bend, and you had the Yankees being shut out on consecutive days for the second time this season, an encore of their poor showing in Detroit back in mid-May, when Rick Porcello, a pitcher now in the minor leagues, and a couple of relievers held them to four hits, followed by Justin Verlander and two relievers pulling the same stunt a day later. Note I said days and not games;  the Yankees played a doubleheader on May 12, and the aforementioned Phil Hughes performance led to an 8-0 win in the nightcap. The Porcello shutout came first.

    You’ve read about how the last time the Yankees had consecutive complete games hurled at them by teammates was by Chris Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar back in 2000. That’s not insignificant, because the 2000 Yankees were probably the weakest championship team in club history. Only three of the regulars—Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Bernie Williams—were above-average performers, and Brian Cashman was ultimately forced to deal three prospects to the Indians for David Justice so as to put a little pep in the lineup. The 2010 squad is a far deeper offensive unit, but it still seems as if it could use a little extra help.

    The Yankees haven’t suffered too many back-to-back shutouts in recent years. They have mostly had excellent offenses, and the era has been offensively supercharged, making shutouts more unlikely, so in some seasons they’ve only  been shut out two or three times. They were blanked in consecutive games once in 1999 (Chuck Finley and Omar Olivares, with Troy Percival closing both games), once in 1996 (the Angels again, this time Jason Grimsley, the only complete game shutout of his career, and Finley again with the bullpen), once in 1991 (Jim Abbott for the Angels—what is it with the Angels?—and Randy Johnson and the pen for the Mariners),  once in 1989 by the A’s—we’re getting into ancient history here.  Suffice it to say that it has been a rare occurrence going back to 1984, when a struggling edition under Yogi Berra was blanked on consecutive days four times. They experienced the one thing we haven’t seen this year, back to back complete game shut outs by an opponent. That took place that May, when—guess who?—the Angels came to Yankee Stadium and Geoff Zahn and Ron Romanick did the honors. Omar Moreno led off the second game for the Yankees; sometimes shutouts are self-inflicted.

    Fortunately, Mr. Sabathia came along to throw some biscuits at the Mariners and salvage something from the series. Now the Yankees are back in roughly the same position as they were at the outset of the Mariners series. They face a Blue Jays club that is vastly inferior to their own and need to capitalize.
    In an earlier post about the Blue Jays, I predicted their stab at contention would be but a memory by mid-July: it seems as if they’re a bit ahead of my proposed schedule. Having been swept by a Cleveland club that was on a pace for 100 losses, the Jays will face the Yankees this weekend having lost five straight games and seen their record plunge back to .500.

    In the month just ended, the Jays went 9-17. Their bullpen let them down and their offense just quit, averaging .221/.293 /.367 in the month for weddings. When I typed that, it came out as “the month for weeding,” and perhaps that’s right—in June, the Jays were weeded out of the postseason race. None of their hitters had a good month, and Jose Bautista, who had shocked baseball by smashing 16 home runs in the first two months, almost completely vanished, hitting .179, albeit with four more home runs. On the pitching side, Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero continued to pitch quite well, but Brett Cecil has been roughed up in three consecutive starts and Jesse Litsch, fresh off the rehab trail, has split quality starts and crushings.

    As the old saying goes, in baseball momentum is dependent on the next game’s starting pitchers. The Jays bring Brett Cecil, whose last three starts, all against National League opponents, have been miserable. He went 0-3 with a 9.19 ERA. Earlier, he held the Yankees to one run in eight innings. It would be nice if the home team could keep the pressure on him, keep up the scare as they used to say in the Civil War (I wasn’t there, but I heard about it), but their own starter is A.J. Burnett. Unless you’ve been napping, you know the sorry tale: five starts in June, five losses, an 11.35 ERA in 23 innings. Burnett allowed hits, he allowed walks, he allowed a volley of home runs. He was truly a one-man band.

    The Yankees have a tough schedule in July. After the Jays’ series, they undertake one of those western road trips that tend to cause problems regardless of the opponents. The trip includes four games against the Mariners, which should also mean facing Lee and Hernandez again, not to mention Erik Bedard, who could be back from rehab by then. They return home to face the Rays, those Angels again, and a Royals club that can hit a bit if nothing else. It would be helpful to close out this homestand with a solid series before enduring the travails of the road. Burnett has to get the team off on the right foot, but will he? And what will the Yankees say if he does not? That he needs more of a reunion with Dave Eiland?

    AND ONE MORE NOTE
    As shaky as back-of-pen men Chan Ho (Ho! What a shot!) Park and Chad Gaudin have been, making a change to the relief crew makes sense, but why in the name of Firpo Marberry is Dustin Moseley the choice? I realize there is a contractual imperative at work here, but this is a 28-year-old with a career ERA of 4.35 in the Minors, few strikeouts, and a Major-League ERA of 5.41. A pitcher can surprise you with just a few small tweaks, but  Moseley’s 4.21 ERA at Trenton with the usual ratios doesn’t seem to hold much promise.

    Better news is that Scranton has added David Phelps from Trenton (h/t to the LoHud guys). Now three years and 55 games into his pro career, the Notre Dame righty has a 27-6 record and 2.37 ERA to date. Phelps has an excellent fastball and strong command of it, but the jury is still out as to whether his other pitches are good enough for him to make it as a starter. Whatever his ultimate role, he has far more promise than the pitcher he’s replacing in Pennsylvania.

    A final thought on this matter: who did Jonathan Albaladejo offend? He hasn’t performed well before, but 12 strikeouts per nine innings would seem to cry out for another chance.

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    Can this be the real Mariners, can it?

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010, 5:59 PM [General]

    Today’s subject line with apologies to Pete Townshend… Coming into the season, the Mariners were rated contenders for the AL West title. They had gone 85-77 last year despite being outscored on the season, and while that should have been a clue that the M’s were due to go backwards, offseason acquisitions such as Casey Kotchman, Chone Figgins, and Milton Bradley were viewed as giving them a sufficient offensive basis to support their already-strong pitching. That staff was augmented by the acquisition of Cliff Lee from the Phillies in one of the most bizarrely self-defeating trades in the history of that ballclub. The new Mariners didn’t figure to hit a lot, but the thought was that they could pitch and defend their way to a bunch of 4-3 wins.

    Despite last night’s seven runs against the Yankees, the Mariners offense has been so bad that they have not been above to get four runs on anything like a regular basis. They are last in the AL in runs scored per game (3.45), last in slugging (.347), and second-to-last in batting average (.241) and on-base percentage (.309). None of the acquisitions hit, and with the exception of Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki, none of the holdovers did either. Lee got hurt and didn’t start the season until the end of April. Erik Bedard has yet to pitch due to shoulder surgery (he’s rehabbing now). The bullpen, a major asset last year, has been one of the worst in the game this year.

    And yet, the Mariners have been winning. They haven’t been winning a lot, of course; 100 losses seemed possible just a few weeks ago. Still, for a team that has no player with even eight home runs, they have scraped close to a .500 record in two out of three months this season, going 11-12 in April and 13-13 in June. There is honestly no good reason for that; this month they have been outscored 79-114. When your team is averaging three runs of offense a game and you look at the calendar and it’s not 1906, there is no way you should be breaking even. The Mariners have gotten there through excellent pitching and some luck. Of their 13 wins this month, five have been of the one-run variety. Three wins were shutouts against NL teams, two of the Reds (started by Lee and Ryan Rowland-Smith) and one of the Cubs (Jason Vargas). When the M’s scored seven runs off of Phil Hughes and pals last night, it was just the ninth time all season that they’ve reached or exceeded that total. The Yankees have gotten there 27 times.

    This is all a long-winded way of exploring the idea that the Mariners are headed for a change of direction in the standings, with the elevator taking the express downwards and picking up speed when they deal Cliff Lee away. It remains for the Yankees to speed them on their way, primarily by not allowing a flatlining offense to score seven runs.

    3.2 (1 Ratings)

    Intentional walk leads to big inning vs. Mariners

    Tuesday, June 29, 2010, 11:48 PM [General]

    ALMOST DID IT AGAIN
    The Mariners let the Yankees make it interesting, but a 7-2 deficit in the ninth is too big a mountain to climb, even against a bad Mariners club and a tiring Cliff Lee. At the risk of seeming hypercritical (although that’s an official part of my job description, and yours as fans) given that it’s not exactly shameful to lose to Cliff Lee -- some days you’re just not going to get the bear, so just tip your cap and, as Casey Stengel would have said, try to get out gracefully -- but the game might have at least been competitive if not for a Coffee Joe moment in the sixth inning.

    Let me say in advance that you can debate this one; it’s not as clear-cut a miss as was the decision to let A.J. Burnett complete his journey to the century of the Earth (“Keep digging, Allan James, you haven’t met your quota yet”) last weekend against the Dodgers. This is more a matter of general philosophy. With rare exceptions, intentional walks are nonsensical on their face. Entering Tuesday’s games, the American League leader in on-base percentage, Justin Morneau, reached base about 45 percent of the time, which is to say that gets out about 55 percent of the time, or a little more than once in every two trips to the plate. The average AL hitter has a .332 OBP, failing to reach base two-thirds of the time. Franklin Gutierrez has reached base 35 percent of the time, hit his way on 27 percent of the time. When he does hit, he doesn’t have a lot of power. Despite his home run in the game, he isn’t an impact hitter.

    Let’s say he was an impact hitter, though. Let’s say he’s Babe Ruth, or go to the other end of the spectrum and say he was Babe Adam Everett, a terrible hitter. When you intentionally walk a hitter, whatever his ability to reach base, you’re taking his chance of reaching base, be it .290 or .390, and throwing it in the trash in order to replace it with a 1.000 on-base percentage. Even against the worst pitcher in the majors, the odds aren’t totally one-sided for the hitter until the manager holds up four fingers.

    Predictably enough, the strategy often backfires. In over 100 years of baseball, managers don’t seem to have realized that it plays into the opposing teams hands to put their runners on base. It’s surprising, I know, but the other team can’t score runs until it gets some runners on base, and when they do, those runners sometimes score. If, on the other hand, you retire their batters, they tend not to score, being, you know, out. Consider the situation in which Coffee Joe issued his intentional walk today, two outs and a runner on second. If you look at Baseball Prospectus’s expected runs matrix, with a runner on second and two outs, teams have scored about .32 runs. With runners on first and second and two outs, they’ve scored about .47 runs. In other words, with more runners on, teams score more runs. Try not to let the shock get to you.

    There are situations where the intentional walk might make sense, such as in the National League when the number eight hitter is up with runners on and the pitcher on deck. Even then, though, a judgment must be made as to the quality of that hitter. When not being intentionally walked, NL eighth-place hitters have an OBP of about .319. Pirates number eight hitters are hitting .187/.252/.249, intentional walks and all. Why not go after that guy AND the pitcher and get two outs? The Pirates are an extreme example, but about two-thirds of the NL teams offer lesser variations on the same theme. (There are also a few, like the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants who are getting strangely robust production from the eighth spot while suffering at other positions—Mssrs. Torre, Black, and Bochy: time to rethink the way you’ve ordered things?)

    You can see things Girardi’s way. Jack Wilson and Rob Johnson, the batters following Gutierrez are such poor hitters that it must have looked as if there were big glowing THIS WAY TO THE EXIT signs floating above their heads. Better still to look at such players as gifts, go after Gutierrez, hope you get him, and then take on the two apparent freebies next inning, where their occasional random hits are less likely to do damage.

    Chances are, the intentional walk to Gutierrez, which helped turn the 4-1 deficit into 7-1, didn’t affect the outcome of the game. We can’t know for sure, because we can’t know what would have happened if Phil Hughes had pitched to Gutierrez, or had Girardi gone to the pen before attacking Gutierrez. Given that the Yankees ultimately lost the game 7-4, it’s not unfair to ask if yet another caffeinated chess move detonated on the launch pad—and no apologies for the mixed metaphor; I like it.

    TRADE ZONE DUNN
    Word has gotten about that the White Sox and Angels are fishing around for slugger Adam Dunn to goose their postseason chances. A natural designated hitter who has been pressed into service at first base this season after spending most of his career at the outfield corners, Dunn is a high-strikeout (as many as 195 in a season), low-average  (.251 career), high-OBP (.382 career) power hitter who is having an excellent season for the Nationals at .276/.366/.559. The highest-paid National, Dunn’s contract is up and with the team going nowhere fast he’s apparently on the block.

    At 30 years-old, Dunn wouldn’t be too risky an acquisition, even if he has a reputation as being a small-town, big-city-hating kind of guy. He certainly could do some damage to right field in Yankee Stadium. He would probably be a cheaper solution to the open DH slot than the younger Prince Fielder. There are two risks with Dunn, and they apply to Fielder as well: expecting a Senior Circuit player to transition to the AL without leaving a good chunk of his production behind, and, more specific to the Yankees, is whether locking up the DH spot is desirable given issues in the second half of this year and next with players like Jorge Posada and Jesus Montero. We don’t know what Brian Cashman’s position on this matter is as of yet, but we’ll be able to tell by his actions over the next four weeks or so.

    EVEN A HALF-BLIND SQUIRREL
    I don’t get all the calls right, but I nailed this one. Back on June 4, as the Yankees were getting ready to open a series against the Toronto Blue Jays, I wrote:

    In short, everything is stacked in Toronto’s favor for this meeting and they still aren’t going to take more than one out of three unless the Yankees have one of their periodic lost weekends. In fact, with a road trip to Tampa, Colorado, and San Diego followed by a homestand against the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies, this is where the bubble bursts for the Blue Jays. After that difficult stretch, they pause briefly to visit Cleveland, then have nine games against the Yankees, Twins, and Red Sox. By the middle of July, the “surprising Jays” are very likely to be a distant memory.

    The Yankees did have one of their “periodic lost weekends” and lost two out of three in Toronto. However, it seems I was correct in saying that the schedule was about to deal the Jays a mortal blow. Since the Yankees left town, the Jays have gone 7-13. Over the last two nights they’ve dropped consecutive one-run decisions to the Indians, which is a difficult thing to do. After three more games with the Tribe, it’s three at Yankee Stadium. The only thing you can say in their favor about their subsequent schedule is that they seem to be catching the slumping Twins and the post-demolition Red Sox at the right time.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Not trading a kingdom for a bullpen horse

    Monday, June 28, 2010, 10:16 PM [General]

    OH ME OF LITTLE FAITH
    I never stopped watching, never looked away (in my position you can’t), but I had mentally resigned myself to another Yankees loss Sunday night. Andy Pettitte didn’t have his best stuff, and Joe Torre wisely exploited the American League’s more laid-back style of play by going all bunt-y on him. Clayton Kershaw was dealing. Brett Gardner’s injury had shortened the bench and put the game in the hands of Chad Huffman and Colin Curtis at critical junctures. The bullpen inspires little confidence aside from Mariano Rivera. Kershaw was cruising and Jonathan Broxton hadn’t blown too many saves. You know what happened next: pretty much every reasonable expectation was upended.

    The key moment was Jorge Posada’s incredible 10-pitch at-bat with one out. Broxton was unnerved, or perhaps just fatigued, and good ol’ passive Joe Torre, the same guy who just watched as Joba Chamberlain was eaten by insects, just stayed with his guy, the captain going down with the ship (or is it vice-versa in this case?), and watched the game fade away. In the process, he pushed Broxton to a career high in pitches thrown (48), a rather pointless gesture given that Broxton wasn’t getting the job done anyway. In a less venerated manager, this might be a firing offense.

    In any case, Torre is no longer the Yankees’ problem in any sense except the one in which they eventually capitulate to history and hang his number on the wall. Of larger concern to the Yankees is the state of the bullpen. Had the Dodgers not yielded the lead and the game had continued, Joe Girardi would have had to turn to Chad Gaudin, given that he had already gone through David Robertson, Damaso Marte, and Joba Chamberlain. This left only Chan Ho Park and Boone Logan, and they had already had their chance to give up runs the day before. Given that Chamberlain seems to veer between dominance and mediocrity and Robertson has only recently shown any consistency, there is really only one pitcher in the pen that Girardi can trust, and that’s the aging-though-still-dominant Hall of Famer. It would have been heartbreaking had the Yankees overcome Broxton only to have to lose the game on a Park or Gaudin moon-shot.

    Trading for relievers is a tough business. A general manager can get burned -- the infamous Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen deal of 1990 is merely the most extreme example of what can happen when a GM feels obligated to trade a potential long-term asset for a short-term patch. Larry Andersen was a fine pitcher for close to 20 years, and he pitched well for the Red Sox as well. It wasn’t that the Red Sox acquired a bad player; it’s that they traded a probable Hall of Famer for someone they weren’t going to keep for longer than a month or six weeks. The player being given away doesn’t have to be a future star to make that a painfully embarrassing exchange. On the octopus’ other hand, flags fly forever, so if that last reliever is the one that can get you over the hump, who cares if you toss away a Bagwell? It’s making value judgments like these that leave four out of five ex-GMs as shivering, incontinent wrecks.

    Of the teams that are out of the postseason running and whose free agents-to-be include relievers, the Diamondbacks count the sometimes sort-of effective Aaron Heilman and the not-at-all effective Chad Qualls. Qualls would actually be an interesting acquisition; though he’s been absolutely lambasted this year, over the prior six seasons he was one of the most consistently effective relievers in the game, posting a 3.32 ERA in 409.2 innings. The batting average on balls in play against Qualls is a remarkable .467, which suggests he’s not only been bad, he’s been unlucky. Luck can change. What doesn’t change is injuries, and when a pitcher has a sudden loss of effectiveness it’s natural to suspect that what’s happening is an unacknowledged or undiscovered physical breakdown. If Qualls is healthy, you would think that as a pending free agent who has pitched about as badly as one can that he might come cheaply.

    The Indians, another club dead in the water, would no doubt shift Kerry Wood in a heartbeat since there is no way they’re going to pick up his option for 2011, but he has been too wretched to trust. The Brewers could deal David Riske rather than pick up his 2011 option, but Riske is risky, both in terms of health and performance. That leaves the Yankees trying to pry someone better from a team that might not be under any obligation to divest, which means paying a higher price. Ask yourself this question: would you give up Jesus Montero for, say, Brad Ziegler? What if you really believed that Ziegler would make the difference between winning the division and watching the Rays and Red Sox in the playoffs, or that the extra reliever would help you get through the playoffs to the World Series? What if you knew that ownership was going to make your life hell if your team crashes and burns?

    It’s a tough job. I would argue there’s more than one way to attack this particular problem, and it involves acquiring a durable good in exchange for a durable good, i.e. if you give up a future star, you get a present-day star back. Being just a little short of pitching is sometimes the same thing as saying you’re just a little short of offense.

    And speaking of Montero…

    MONTERO ALERT
    He’s waking up. In his last 10 games, the 20-year-old is hitting .342/.375/.711 with three home runs in 38 at-bats, boosting his overall rates for the month to .299/.337/.540. He might have needed time to adjust to being a very young player at Triple-A, or last summer’s hand injury held him back, or the pressure of trying to improve his defensive game had him overly distracted. Perhaps it was all three, or maybe none -- sometimes even great hitters go into long slumps. Now we get to see if he can sustain this run and get himself in the picture for a second-half call-up or next year’s DH situation.

    It’s worth restating this obvious point: if Montero continues to develop, if Brett Gardner finishes the year the way he started it, it gets very difficult to see where a free agent like Carl Crawford fits in. That’s a good thing in that (a) it speaks highly of the team’s evolving depth at some positions, (b) the Yankees can keep their payroll down, and (c) not give the Rays a 2011 first-round draft-pick. Next year’s draft class is expected to be talented, and the Yankees won’t want to sit out that dance.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Burnett burnout

    Sunday, June 27, 2010, 11:54 AM [General]

    FLABBERGASTED

    Give Joe Girardi 10 points for pinch-hitting Jorge Posada for Curtis Granderson against tough lefty Hong-Chih Kuo, who coming into Saturday’s game had held left-handed hitters to a .000 batting average (0-for-24). Deduct 50 points for failing to pinch-hit for A.J. Burnett with runners on first and third and one out in the top of the fourth inning trailing the Dodgers 5-4. Burnett, in the process of being pounded for the fifth consecutive start, had nothing more to prove on Saturday -- he wasn’t better, despite much ballyhooed bravado after successful sideline and bullpen sessions -- and Girardi had nothing to prove to him; letting Burnett stay in so as to convey a message of confidence in him proved to be an oddly timed and foolhardy gesture. A real message of confidence would be letting him make his next start as scheduled. Letting him continue on Saturday was an act of blind optimism, a completely different kind of animal; wishful thinking is not leadership.

    Had the Yankees tied the game at 5-5 with a sacrifice fly instead of asking Burnett to bunt and then asking Jeter to come up with a two-out hit, then started the bottom of the fourth with a fresh pitcher, the entire game might have changed. Yes, there is an assumption here, that a pinch-hitter would have delivered the fifth run. We’ll never know. The pinch-hitter could have hit a pop-up. He also could have hit the ball out of the park. The only thing we can know for sure is that the pinch-hitter would have had a better chance than Burnett of delivering more than an out.

    Girardi’s gesture proved to be a hollow one just minutes later, when Rafael Furcal executed the old Casey Stengel “butcher boy” play and beat out a high chopper to first and Burnett followed with a walk to Matt Kemp. Faux confidence discarded, Burnett was gone in a puff of smoke. Further misadventures were still to come as Girardi called upon arsonists Boone Logan and Chan Ho Park, who helped put the game out of reach with three more runs, and only resorted to David Robertson, ERA of 1.69 in his last 15 games (16 innings, three runs) when the game was already in the bag for the Dodgers. Deduct five more points, skip your next turn.

    We cannot expect the Yankees to win them all. Nor can we know what would have happened if Girardi would have pursued a different course. However, it is rare that a game so clearly turned on a manager’s decision. Managers don’t always get to have a huge impact on what happens between the lines; their main chance to work magic is when they write out the lineup card and assign roles to their various position players and pitchers. In this case, though, Girardi had a chance to throw the breaks on runaway train Burnett and possibly snatch a victory from the tattooed jaws of defeat. He had 23 innings of bad pitching as evidence that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making the call. Instead, he let the train roll on.

    As for Burnett, the Yankees have minor league alternatives should they choose to shelve Burnett for any length of time, though the most exciting ones are at Double-A Trenton, not Scranton. In the end, though, they may have to muddle through and keep running him out there until he finds himself -- the guy is signed through 2013.  

    2.8 (1 Ratings)

    Patch things up with Torre

    Friday, June 25, 2010, 4:43 PM [General]

    THINKING OF MY FATHER
    From Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat” (1889):

    I went to my medical man… He opened me and looked down me, and clutched hold of my wrist, and then he hit me over the chest when I wasn't expecting it—a cowardly thing to do, I call it—and immediately afterwards butted me with the side of his head. After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription, and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out.

    I did not open it. I took it to the nearest chemist's, and handed it in. The man read it, and then handed it back… I read the prescription. It ran:

    1 lb. beefsteak, with
    1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours.
    1 ten-mile walk every morning.
    1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
    And don't stuff up your head with things you don't understand.

    I followed the directions, with the happy result - speaking for myself - that my life was preserved, and is still going on.

    And now, the baseball stuff.

    OLD FRIENDS, A NEWSPAPER BLOWING THROUGH THE GRASS
    I can’t see a reason to get overly exercised about the Yankees being reunited with Joe Torre this weekend, though in opposition to him except in a sentimental way. The enmity that seems to exist between Torre and upper management in the Yankees organization is regrettable. Torre wasn't a tactical genius, but his calm, humanistic approach to managing the team on the field and the expectations of the owner off the field were exactly what the organization needed when he came along in 1996.

    If some of the claims Torre made when arguing for a new contract after 2007 are true—as reported in Bill Madden’s new George Steinbrenner biography, Torre told the Boss that the success of his teams allowed the Yankees to create the YES Network and build the new stadium—then he allowed his press to go to his head, forgetting that winning those championships was a collaborative exercise and that the Yankees brand predated him. Still, he does deserve some credit for, at minimum, helping to get the focus off of the back pages and back on the standings. And though Torre was reluctant to trust Derek Jeter, if he held back Jorge Posada for far too long, if Buck Showalter had showed the way on Mariano Rivera, at least Torre did ultimately embrace changes that have had hugely positive effects for the organization. It is wrong that there are almost no remembrances of Torre around the new ballpark.

    Over time, the needs of the Yankees changed, and Torre lost touch with some of the qualities that made him such a positive influence. Thirty-three years ago, Billy Martin was given the gift of Reggie Jackson and reacted as if he’d been stabbed in the back. He spent the next few years doing all he could to minimize Jackson’s value to the club rather than exploit his abilities to the fullest. Torre wasn’t quite that bad with Alex Rodriguez, but if Jeter was Torre’s prized stepchild then A-Rod was Cinderella.

    Given that disconnect, which potentially could have damaged the organization to the tune of millions of dollars, as well as some lackluster playoff performances and an oddly subdued reaction to his prize pitcher being carried off by giant flies, and the team had reason to make a change. Additionally, the executive team that followed Steinbrenner père had a different character than that of the Boss and not only didn’t require Torre’s soft-soap approach, perhaps they were offended by it. It’s also possible that Torre let the Uncle Joe mask slip one too many times with the wrong people, as humility was replaced by ego and entitlement, and that alienated the current ownership/executive group.

    Nonetheless, Torre’s contributions to team history, while perhaps not as momentous as he might imagine (this is, after all, a manager who wasn’t thrilled to have a rookie named Jeter take over for the injured Tony Fernandez in 1996), are real, and will remain real regardless of present hostilities. It is to be hoped that someday soon both sides will recognize that and Torre, who will turn 70 this year and won’t be around forever, can have the kind of homecoming he and his fans deserve.

    It was 10 years before resentments between Casey Stengel and the Yankees had healed to the point that his No. 37 was retired. Let’s hope that Torre won’t have to wait that long.

    PHIL HUGHES: A BUMPER STICKER
    Fix A.J., don’t break Phil.

    (And don't stuff up your head with things you don't understand.)

    WE CANNOT DODGER OUR FATE, SO EMBRACE YOUR DESTINY
    Torre’s Dodgers team lacks pitching. The club has allowed 4.6 runs per game in a league that averages 4.4. That this would be their fate was no secret as early as last fall, but the team’s ownership problems prevented much from being done about it. If they want to make a real run at the wide-open NL West, they’ll have to make a deal for pitching, assuming they can take on salary. Until then, it’s pot-luck pitchers like Charlie Haeger and Carlos Monasterios.

    It is the Yankees’ bad timing to show up in Los Angeles just in time for the top of the rotation. Fortunately, their own rotation is set up as well, with CC Sabathia opposing Vicente Padilla, whose home run rate, while not quite as bad as A.J. Burnett’s has been lately, is still high. Consider this odd split: left-handed hitters are only 8-for-40 (.200) against Padilla, but five of those eight hits have gone over the fences.

    The problematic matchup of the series comes in the second game, when Burnett is scheduled for what has lately been his weekly pummeling. His opponent, Hiroki Kuroda, is the kind of pitcher who typically gives the Yankees trouble, with the kind of strong control that defeats their patience. Right-handed hitters have had a particularly hard time reaching base against him, posting just a .286 on-base percentage against the Japanese veteran. It won’t matter if Burnett doesn’t get himself organized.

    The final matchup, appropriately Sunday night’s national game, pits great old lefty Andy Pettitte against potentially great young lefty Clayton Kershaw, probably the best Clayton since the Lone Ranger died. Kershaw leads the NL in strikeout rate, whiffing 10.1 batters per nine innings. He also leads in walks allowed, passing 4.7 per nine; like many young lefties with stuff, he hasn’t yet figured out the whole command thing. Left-handed hitters are batting .188/.289/.341 against him, and if you want a test of Joe Girardi’s managerial sang-froid, here it is: does Curtis Granderson sit on Sunday?

    FINALLY, A NOTE ON BRANDON LAIRD
    Trenton’s Laird has been on a power tear of late, hitting eight home runs in June, including two yesterday. His overall line is .293/.344/.558 with a league-leading 18 home runs, and remember his ballpark: he’s hitting .314/.371/.606 with 10 homers on the road. He also has 76 RBIs, a crazy-high number for this stage of the season—he’s hit 13 of those home runs with men on.

    Laird is a third baseman now and perhaps a first baseman in the Majors. The Yankees are full up at both positions, apparently forever, which means that the 22-year-old Laird, brother of the Tigers’ Gerald, makes for rather obvious trade bait should the Yankees make a move for some help next month. The question his unexpected season—he hit just .266/.329/.415 at High-A Tampa last year and was largely discounted as a prospect—provokes is whether he has made himself interesting enough merit keeping, perhaps for the open DH position in 2011, along with the odd cameo at the corners. Parenthetically, Scranton lacks a regular third baseman, so there is nothing preventing Laird’s promotion should the Yankees feel he’s ready to move up.

    To get the obvious out of the way first, the answer depends on what you might get in return. Beyond that, one has to assess Laird’s potential. He clearly has home run power, but it’s not certain that the rest of his game is strong enough to merit projection as a strong regular. He makes very good contact for a power hitter, but the downside of strong contact is relatively few walks. Laird isn’t old-style Robinson Cano, but 40 walks a season seems like a lot right now. Pencil in a .275 batting average, which might be a lot given his .283 career rate, and you have an OBP that is going to struggle to reach league-average.

    None of that means that Laird can’t or won’t be a quality Major Leaguer. At this stage, we should probably expect that he will be, though his role might not be as a middle-of-the-order regular but as a part-time number seven type. Those players have great value when used appropriately. Is that bird-in-the-hand worth more than a Prince Fielder or a Paul Konerko or Cliff Lee? That’s a judgment call, though in my opinion not a difficult one.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Glass hotel

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010, 4:02 PM [General]

    A brief entry for now, fellow seekers of wisdom and truth, as I take a few moments to myself between hospital visits. My father has had one surgery and got through, has another more minor procedure scheduled for this evening, but assuming all goes well he has received a stay of further surgery and will, I think-I hope-I wish, be released within a few days. He will not be entering the decathlon now or in the future, but he should be around to watch it, and at this stage that is something to be grateful for.

    Speaking of gratitude, I am most appreciative of the Fates, or Bud Selig (who, after all, was one of the Fates during his youth in ancient Greece) for arranging a most compelling baseball season in this difficult season for my family. Every division has a compelling race, with the AL East proving to be a corker. I would also like to thank the Yankees for making Brett Gardner a regular. He is not one of the top run-producers in baseball due to his lack of power, but he is surely one of the most entertaining, a Deadball era throwback in an age of stationary sluggers. I should clarify my derogation of his offensive abilities; to be a tip-top player in this era, you need to throw double-figure home runs into the mix, but at .324/.404/.428 with 23 steals at a fine percentage, Gardner is doing just fine. He’s not elite, but he is having one of the top 30 or so offensive seasons in baseball. The average Major League left fielder is hitting .269/.337/.431; he’s doing just fine compared to the field. Throw in defensive value and versatility and you’ve got a killer player.

    I haven’t figured out A.J. Burnett, but that’s okay because no one else has either. It would be easy, and I think facile, to say that this is who Burnett is, a pitcher who is shockingly inconsistent given the great stuff he possesses. There is an element of truth in that; even last year, he seemed to alternate between no-hit stuff and taking a shower at about 8:05. Yet, even if he was a bipolar pitcher, that meant he mixed in excellent performances with the bad ones. All we have right now is 17 days of bad, four starts that look like batting practice: four losses, 20 innings and a 10.35 ERA powered by a home run rate of 4.1 per nine innings. Burnett might not be injured, but he’s not just missing by a little. Bert Blyleven once gave up 50 home runs in a season. He allowed but 1.7 home runs per nine.

    I suppose it’s obvious to say that Burnett is missing by a lot, but an injury would provide the easiest explanation for his problems. He has a history of getting hurt, and when pitchers start doing uncharacteristic things on the mound, an injury—which they pitcher might be concealing or might not know about, or the team might even be concealing—is the most likely explanation. If the pitcher is not hurt, what you’re left with is that he’s just “lost it,” an unsatisfyingly amorphous non-explanation.

    In another season, the Yankees might be able to cope with the deterioration of one stalwart starter, just as they might have been able to ignore the Great Vanishing Nick Johnson Caper. The AL East of 2010 does not allow for complacent hoping; the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays are all in the same boat: any single unaddressed problem could provide the other two teams with the opportunity to push them out of the playoffs. As such (1) the trading season is going to be fascinating, and (2) the Yankees have got to get Burnett diagnosed in a hurry, whether his problem be mental, physical, or somehow none of the above. Easier said than done, I know, and as such, completely unfair, and yet, that’s the state of things.

    3.2 (1 Ratings)

    Second-guessing

    Saturday, June 19, 2010, 12:10 AM [General]

    COFFEE JOE ATTACKS!

    I hate second-guessing the manager and try hard to restrict this feature to first-guessing or just avoid the topic altogether, because for the most part it’s just not worth doing. However, there are times when I just can’t resist. I usually restrict such thoughts to the playoffs, but Friday night’s game against the Mets provided an example so excruciating, and so topical, that we must proceed.

    With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh, Frankie Cervelli led off with a double. This brought Chad Huffman to the plate. Huffman is neither experienced nor a particularly great hitter, but the manager has to keep in mind that as a rule, a righty hitting against a righty is generally not going to be at as large of a disadvantage as a lefty hitting against a lefty.  Now, take that last statement and double it if the lefty in question is Curtis Granderson. Also take the part about Huffman and add something on the positive side for the Mets having the 39-year-old journeyman Elmer Dessens in the game.

    Despite the annoyingly incontrovertible reality of Granderson’s helplessness against same-side pitchers, Girardi called on him to pinch-hit for Huffman. This provoked a predictable response from Jerry Manuel: he pulled Dessens and brought in a far more effective reliever, lefty Pedro Feliciano. Girardi had painted himself into a corner. Granderson predictably whiffed, missing strike three by approximately the distance between the average Grand Canyon butte. Granderson went down without even moving the runner to third, never mind scoring him. Feliciano then retired Brett Gardner and the incredibly slumpy Derek Jeter (14-for-67 in June; 4 for his last 29). Obviously, had the game been tied there, the remainder would have had a much different complexion.

    Although no one faults Joe Girardi for carefully hoarding the innings of his 40-year-old closer, this was the second game in a row where a Rivera appearance might have meant keeping the game close enough for a final charge (tonight the Yankees nearly climbed the hill anyway). His avoiding him against the Phillies seemed reasonable, but passing on two such opportunities was wasteful. Worrying so much about breaking your best reliever that you don’t use him at all is no different than his being on the disabled list -- either way, he’s not available when you need him. I’m not faulting the use of Chan Ho Park given that the usually arsonistically-inclined Park had pitched well of late, but after Park had helped the Mets to a 3-0 lead and was bailed out of further trouble by Boone Logan, Girardi asked Logan to navigate his way through an additional inning filled with righties and switch-hitters, a move tantamount to throwing in the towel. Logan wasn’t up to the challenge, and the Mets picked up their fourth and final run.

    In the end, the runs scored against the relievers were irrelevant given that the Yankees’ offense failed to score at all. Still, we can’t know how the game might have ended had Girardi had a better night. With the Yankees and Rays losing and the Red Sox picking up another win, the Yankees are another bad day from falling out of first place and simultaneously being caught by the Red Sox. Stay tuned!

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

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