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.


    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.

    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.

    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.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Youkilis vs. Swisher in Final Vote

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

    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.

    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.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    An offensive conundrum

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


    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?

    0 (0 Ratings)

    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?

    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.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    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)

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