Five Questions: New York Yankees

The Yankees started off 2007 at 21-29 and it looked like they would miss the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. They went 73-39 over the rest of the season to capture the AL Wild Card. Unfortunately for them, that meant another first- round playoff exit.

When Alex Rodriguez opted out of the last three years of his contract, the Yankees were at a crossroads. They could’ve let Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera leave as free agents and used the draft picks as part of a rebuilding effort. However, Rodriguez came back and the Yankees re-signed him despite their proclamations that they would not if he opted out.

From there, Posada and Rivera were re-signed and Andy Pettitte came back on a one-year deal. The net effect is that the 2008 Yankees don’t look to be much different than the 2007 Yankees personnel-wise. However, they’ll be a year older and more reliant on some young pitching.

On the non-player side of equation, there’s a new sheriff in town and his name is Joe Girardi. Girardi’s hiring is one of the big stories in Yankee-land, and one of the five questions I’m going to look at.

1a). What does replacing Joe Torre with Joe Girardi mean?

After 12 seasons at the helm of the Yankees, Torre turned down an incentive-laden, one-year extension which he felt was insulting. The Yankees moved quickly to find a replacement, interviewing just three candidates (Girardi, Don Mattingly and Tony Pena) before deciding on Girardi. Conventional wisdom is that the impact of a manager is usually not large over the course of a season, but there certainly will be some impact. I’m going to use some of the questions that Bill James uses in his Manager in a Box pieces to highlight some of the key differences between the two Joes.

Year of birth
Girardi: 1964 (age 43)
Torre: 1940 (age 68)

Record as a manager
Girardi: 78-84
Torre: 2,067-1,770

Characteristics as a player
Girardi: Played 15 seasons as a poor-hitting catcher with a good defensive reputation. In his best offensive season, he put up an OPS+ of 85, and for his career he had an OPS+ of 72. He had only three seasons with more than 400 AB and ended his career with a line of .263/.315/.350. He did make one All-Star team, in 2000 at age 35.

Torre: Played 18 seasons and was a very good hitter, with a career line of .297/.365/.452, an OPS+ of 128. He won the MVP in 1971 and made seven All-Star teams. He played mostly as a catcher, but also played third base and first base.

Is he intense or easy to get along with?
Girardi: By most accounts, Girardi is an intense competitor. This caused him trouble in his only season as a manager: He reputedly did not get along with Marlins owner Jeff Loria, which probably is a good sign.

Torre: Torre was the prototypical players’ manager. For the most part he handled the media deftly and kept his players out of the limelight, with one particularly glaring exception in Rodriguez. His players generally seemed to like playing for him and respected him.

Set lineup or a rotation system?
Girardi: It’s tough to assess Girardi on this, since he’s managed only one season and it was with a very inexperienced team, but he used 75 different lineups in that year (excluding pitchers). That seems high, but it’s actually pretty typical.

Torre: Torre used a lot of different lineups over his time in New York, although injuries often played a role in that. On the pitching side, he was very rigid in assigning roles, particularly in the bullpen, and tended to overuse his trusted relievers in low-leverage games when his team was leading. By burying the relievers he did not trust, he likely contributed to their ineffectiveness; they would tend to be rusty without regular work.

How many players has he made regulars who hadn’t been regulars before?
Girardi: Again, Girardi only managed one season, but he broke in Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham, Jeremy Hermida, Mike Jacobs and Hanley Ramirez. How much credit he deserves for that is certainly debatable—he didn’t have much choice with the roster he was given in many cases—but Ramirez’ MLB success after some uninspiring minor league performance in particular looks like a resounding success.

Torre: He’s considered a manager who favors veterans over young players, but there’s a long of list of players whom he broke into the bigs. Just looking at his stint with the Yanks, Derek Jeter, Rivera, Posada, Alfonso Soriano, Ramiro Mendoza, Ted Lilly, Nick Johnson, Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang come to mind.

Does he prefer good offensive players or glove men?
Girardi: It’s tough to say with Girardi, although by trying to put Jason Giambi at first base this year I’d say he may lean toward offense.

Torre: It’s a mixed bag. He makes common use of defensive substitutions in late innings and had a proclivity for a good defender at first base. He ran Jeter out there every day, but in his mind that may have been for defense. Torre’s Yankee teams were typically good-hitting and poor-fielding, but how much of that is on him and how much of that is on the front office is a fair question.

Does he like an offense based on power, speed, or high averages?
Girardi: No idea.

Torre: His Yankee teams tended to hit for power, but he liked to bunt and hit and run a fair amount, and those teams tended to run a good bit, usually with good success rates.

What’s his strongest point as a manager?
Girardi: It remains to be seen, but he seems well-prepared and hands-on.

Torre: Probably his relations with the media and his players.

I think Torre’s management style had gotten stale. After 12 years it’s certainly understandable. Yankees upper management had grown frustrated with his propensity to manage on hunches and personal favorites, and there were plenty of leaks to the media critiquing Torre in 2007. I think Torre tends to get too much credit for his team’s success in certain circles and not enough in others, but after seven straight seasons of postseason disappointment, the writing was on the wall.

Girardi comes with a reputation as an intelligent guy and a bit of a hard-ass. He is not without faults. The record of his young pitchers’ health in Florida is certainly a cause for concern, although there’s nothing particularly egregious in how he handled his staff looking at pitch counts and usage. He gets a lot of grief for bringing Josh Johnson back to pitch after an 82-minute rain delay, but Oliver Perez came back in the same game.

The reports out of Camp Girardi are certainly encouraging, although spring training pieces are usually encouraging. Several Yankees are claiming they came into last year’s camp out of shape and that Torre’s lackadaisical spring training approach contributed to the team’s slow starts the last few seasons. This year Girardi called each player during the offseason and told them he expected them to come into camp in shape. Several players are noticeably slimmer, including Wilson Betemit, Brian Bruney, Giambi and Edwar Ramirez (kidding). We’ll see if that translates to wins.

1b) Who is Hank Steinbrenner and why won’t he shut the hell up?

George Steinbrenner’s age and health have pushed him out of the limelight and his sons Hal and Hank have assumed the leadership of the New York Yankees. The media have loved Hank’s rise to prominence, as he seemingly doesn’t realize that you don’t have to tell the reporters every single solitary thought that enters your head.

A lot of Hank’s talk is scary to Yankee fans, but so far it’s hard to quibble with the direction the team has taken. The Yanks had a good offseason overall. For example, while having Johan Santana would have been nice, the reputed price tag made it less of an upgrade than conventional wisdom would have dictated.

Let’s look at the oft-rumored Phil Hughes/Melky Cabrera/prospect-for-Santana package. Santana projects to be worth between 50-60 runs better than a replacement-level pitcher. Hughes projects to be 20-30 runs better than a replacement-level pitcher over about 50 fewer innings. So that, on its surface, is a 30-run or three-win upgrade. But by losing Cabrera, the Yankees would have to move Johnny Damon into center field and Hideki Matsui back out to left. Using zone rating and their arm ratings, here’s how I have those players projected defensively:

Cabrera in CF: +5 range, +5 arm
Damon in LF: +2 range, -5 arm
Damon in CF: -2 range, -5 arm
Matsui in LF: -11 range, 0 arm

Cabrera in CF, Damon in LF: +7 range, 0 arm, total +7
Damon in CF, Matsui in LF: -13 range, -5 arm, total -18

That’s a 25-run defensive downgrade, which just about removes any benefit from swapping Hughes plus replacement level pitcher with Santana. One caveat is that other defensive metrics think Cabrera is a very poor defender. If you go by that, then the trade makes a lot more sense.

Oh yeah, Hank Steinbrenner. If Hank takes after his dad, he may be prone to poor baseball decisions and overreacting, although to this point he’s been all bark and no bite. While he may look silly with some of the stuff he says, he hasn’t actually done anything dumb yet. That’s far more important.

Hal Steinbrenner has not been in the limelight much, but he is just as important to the team’s future as Hank, since he’s the one in charge of the team’s finances.

Brian Cashman is in the final year of his deal as general manager, and how Hank and Hal run the team in 2008 will likely have a big impact on whether he returns. With Boston clearly running one of the better front offices in the game and with Tampa Bay oozing with young talent, any front office mistakes could be crippling to the Yankees in the years to come.

2a. Is it a mistake to rely so heavily on Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy?

I don’t know that it’s a mistake, but I think it’s a calculated risk. Consider the following list of pitchers:

Jeremy Bonderman
Roger Clemens
Jon Garland
Tom Glavine
Roy Halladay
Al Leiter
Greg Maddux
Jake Peavy
Brad Penny
Jose Rijo
C.C. Sabathia
Johan Santana
John Smiley
John Smoltz
Jeff Suppan
Javier Vazquez

They range from league-average innings-eaters to future Hall of Famers. They also have something else in common: They all debuted in the majors by the age of 22. Collectively, here’s their major league performance prior to turning 23.
W: 194
L: 225
IP: 3,556
H: 3,620
R: 2,031
ER: 1,850
HR: 398
BB: 1,532
K: 2,596
ERA+: 90

Here’s how that same group has performed from age 23 on.

W: 2,090
L: 1,379
IP: 30,660
H: 28,383
R: 12,921
ER: 11,768
HR: 2,677
BB: 9,104
K: 23,953
ERA+: 131

Some pretty good pitchers have pitched pretty poorly upon their first exposure to the majors. Eventually, their talent won out as they made the necessary adjustments, but this is a real and legitimate concern for the Yankees’ chances of contention in 2008. If the combination of Hughes/Chamberlain/Kennedy can give the Yankees 450-500 league-average innings, the Yanks should be in good shape. If not, that will make contending that much harder.

2b. Joba: starter, reliever, or both?

Joba Chamberlain is universally considered to be one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. While his meteoric rise through the Yankee farm system was a testament to his talent, it also presents the Yankees with a dilemma.

The Yankees rightfully realize that a good starter is more valuable than a good reliever. Joba’s probably too good to keep in the minors, but he hasn’t been pitching long enough to work up to a full starter’s workload. There’s no hard and fast rule as far as increasing a pitcher’s workload every year, although Tom Verducci’s rule of 30 innings is a pretty good guide.

If we assume the Yankees will not want to increase Chamberlain’s workload by more than 30 innings from 2007 to 2008, he’s probably going to have an innings limit of around 140. He can’t be a full-time starter with that kind of limit, so the Yankees are going to start him in the bullpen.

The Dodgers did this with Chad Billingsley and it worked out well last year. The Yankees hope the rest of their bullpen will pitch well enough that Chamberlain can be moved to the rotation midseason without impacting the team’s late-inning performance.

3. How much longer can Jeter’s bat carry his glove at shortstop?

Jeter’s defense at shortstop continues to take away from his value as a player. Last year may have been the worst defensive season of his career, at least according to zone rating. Jeter made 27 fewer plays than an average AL shortstop last year, which translates to being about 20 runs below average.

Jeter may have been partially hampered by a knee injury, but even when healthy there’s little doubt that he is a poor defender. Jeter’s bat was worth about 22 runs above an average shortstop last year, so his defense dragged his overall contribution down to average. If better health can help Jeter bounce back a bit defensively (from the -20 area to a more reasonable -10), then the Yankees can probably continue to carry him at short.

However, he’s at an age where decline should be expected, both offensively and defensively. Jeter was a legitimate MVP candidate in 2006 and an average contributor in 2007. Which Jeter shows up in 2008 will play a big part in how the Yankees perform.

4a. Robinson Cano, great second baseman or greatest second baseman?

Cano lost 36 points of batting average in 2007. Despite that, he lost only 12 points of OBP while maintaining roughly the same isolated power (SLG-AVG). Cano’s biggest weakness entering 2007 was his plate discipline, but he improved his walk rate from 3 percent of his plate appearances to 5 percent. That’s still not great, but it is an improvement. The league average walk rate is around 8.5 percent. If Cano can approach that while maintaining his other skills, he’ll be worth another half win or so on offense.

There’s some question about how much power Cano will be able to add with his current hitting approach. His career HR/FB rate of 11.3 percent isn’t bad. The problem with Cano is he is a groundball hitter. More than 50 percent of his batted balls have been ground balls. Ground balls are more likely to be hits than fly balls, but they’re also less likely to be extra base hits and more likely to be double plays. If Cano changes his approach to hit for more power, it will likely come at the cost of his batting average, although the tradeoff may be worth it.

Cano also made strides defensively in 2007. His zone rating has improved from .816 as a rookie to .827 in 2006 to .846 last season. That’s the difference between being an average defender and being worth about 10 runs above average. I would project Cano to give back some of his defensive gains because of what he did in 2005 and 2006 as well as regression toward the mean, but if he can maintain that defense while hitting like projected, he could be the best second baseman in the American League.

4b. Is Cabrera really a starting center fielder?

If he hits .273/.327/.391, probably not. J.C. Bradbury’s PrOPS says he should have hit .285/.340/.396. The average AL center fielder hit .272/.340/.414 last season. That’s only a difference of around four runs over a full season, so if Melky hits closer to his PrOPS and gains what a typical player does from ages 23 to 24, he should be average offensively. If his defense is what zone rating says, he’s average at his position. If his defense is what John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system says, he’s a replacement-level center fielder.

5. How much will Posada and Rodriguez decline?

Both Posada and Rodriguez arguably had their career years in 2008. Their offense was collectively worth around 250 runs for the Yankees by linear weights. They should both be expected to decline in 2008, but how much they decline will be a big factor in whether the Yankees have a good offense or a historically good offense.

Posada projects to be about 20 runs worse this season by most projection systems. Rodriguez projects to be about 25 runs worse as well. That’s close to five wins that will have to be made up by other players on the team. The most likely candidates to make up some of that would be Cano and Cabrera, as they are still at ages where they should improve. Other than that, the Yankees have to hope for a slight rebound from Damon, Bobby Abreu and Giambi, all of which are feasible if not particularly likely.

Wrapping it up

The Yankees project to have the top offense in baseball again in 2008, even with the expected declines by Rodriguez and Posada. I’ve got them projected to score around 930 runs this season.

Their defense won’t be particularly great with Jeter and Giambi out there, but Damon replacing Matsui should help a bit. I figure them to be about 15 runs below average defensively in total.

On the pitching side, Pettitte and Wang should be good for 400 innings of 4.00-4.25 ERA, so the Yankees will sink or swim on the backs of their young pitching. If they get an overall average performance out of them and an average performance out of the bullpen, they are probably a 95-win team. If they get a 5.00 ERA out of the non-Wang/Pettitte part of the pitching staff, they would be closer to an 88-win team.

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