Five questions: New York Yankees

2009 was a obviously a very successful year for the Yankees. The offseason spending spree, which netted the team Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett, paid off big time, with 103 regular-season wins and a 27th World Series title.

While last season’s roster churn was fueled largely by free agent movement, this winter’s mostly involved some big trades. Sure, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui came off the books, but the really big events were the deals that netted the team Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez.

Despite the recent success, the Yankees have faced a number of questions this offseason. Joe Girardi already answered the related questions of the fifth starter and Joba Chamberlain‘s immediate role, while questions as to Derek Jeter‘s future are unanswerable until after the season. Instead of providing yet another voice to the chorus singing answers to those questions, we’ll focus here on some that may be less overdone, but no less important.

1. Is the offense susceptible to left-handed pitching?

Perhaps the Yankees biggest offseason acquisition was Curtis Granderson from the Detroit Tigers. Granderson will play center field and is currently projected to bat seventh. The biggest knock on Granderson throughout his career has been his inability to hit left-handed pitching. As Matt Klaassen points out over at Fangraphs, Granderson’s career .358 wOBA breaks down to .380 against right-handers and .270 against lefties. In general, his entire offensive game degrades against lefties. He walks less, strikes out more, and hits for a lot less power. And this has been consistent for a while. Still, as Klaassen argues, that doesn’t mean Granderson is expected to show that large of a platoon split going forward. Using the findings of The Book, he estimates that Granderson’s projected wOBA against southpaws as .311.

So Granderson is still somewhat of a black hole against lefties, but not likely as bad as he’s shown so far. What about some of the other Yankees?

There are three other lefties in the starting lineup and three switch hitters. Brett Gardner has shown a small platoon split in his short career, while Nick Johnson has demonstrated a small reverse split. Teixeira is a little bit better from the right side than the left, as is Nick Swisher, while Jorge Posadais about the same from both sides of the plate.

The bench will likely have Randy Winn and Marcus Thames, who generally hit left-handers well (although Winn was horrendous against them in 2009). And Thames may see some time in a platoon with Gardner in left field, which would help the offense against lefties (although hurt the defense).

All in all, despite being a little bit left-handed-heavy, there are enough weapons in the lineup that it won’t get completely shut down by left-handed pitching. And while the AL East has some good left-handed pitchers in Jon Lester, David Price, and Brian Matusz, there really aren’t that many lefties that the Yankees will see on a regular basis.

2. Will home runs continue to fly out of Yankee Stadium?

The early part of 2009 saw a tremendous number of home runs at the brand-new Yankee Stadium. The first months of the season saw many complain about the number of balls reaching the seats, with Peter Gammons going so far as to call it “one of the biggest jokes in baseball.” Many people began to blame the weather patterns of the new stadium. The story was big enough news to get weather provider AccuWeather in on the discussion.

The conclusion? It was more likely the fences rather than any wind tunnels causing the home run explosion in right field. But still questions linger.

As Yankees blog River Ave. Blues explains, however, the new Yankee Stadium was actually a mild pitchers’ park in 2009. While there were a lot of home runs hit, offense in general was reduced. So the “biggest joke” turned out to be missing most of the punchline.

And what’s more, Greg Rybarczyk of HitTracker found in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010 that Yankees pitchers managed to reduce the number of fly balls opposing batters hit to right field as the season progressed.

So 2010 may see a number of balls flying into the right field seats, but if 2009 is any indication, there will be a lot more from Yankees hitters than from visiting players.

3. Will Jesus Montero ever don the pinstripes?

For those of you who aren’t aware, Jesus Montero is the best position player prospect the Yankees have had in a long time—probably since Derek Jeter. Well, that’s not entirely true, since Montero is somewhat of a man without a position.

Nominally, he’s a catcher—which makes him the best hitting catching prospect since Mike Piazza. The problem is that he may be worse behind the plate than Piazza was. And Piazza appeared to be pretty close to the line of “as bad as possible but still allowed to catch.” So even though the Yankees would seem to have a need for a young catcher with Jorge Posada getting up there in age, Montero’s future remains cloudy.

Most analysts believe he will shed the tools of ignorance before too much longer—most likely moving to first base or designated hitter. But the Yankees have Teixeira locked up long term at first and, with an aging roster, will likely want the flexibility to rotate players through the DH spot. General Manager Brian Cashman is less certain that Montero will need to move—although Cashman acknowledges the possibility. In an interview with NoMaas.org, he explained: “Whether he stays behind the plate, is a first baseman, a rightfielder, a DH—that remains to be seen. But he’s got one of the best throwing arms in the minors, he’s got some of the best blocking … he’s just so big, mechanically he takes a lot longer in his release.”

Everyone agrees Montero’s bat will carry him to the majors in the next few seasons, which is why he’s a consensus top-five prospect despite the defensive questions. Will he get a chance with the Yankees? That remains to be seen. If Montero’s not able to stay behind the plate (and he’s got competition from Austin Romine in the catcher-of-the-future battle), it seems unlikely that he’ll find a spot on the Yankees unless he can make the move to the outfield. While no one has released a timetable for a decision, one needs to be made in the next year or so, since Montero’s bat is nearly ready for the majors. He’ll spend this season in Triple-A Scranton, where hopefully a final determination of his position can be made. Otherwise, Yankees fans can probably look forward to seeing Montero smash home runs for another team in 2011 and beyond.

4. Is this finally the year the Yankees have to stand pat?

In a question somewhat relevant to Jesus Montero, will the Yankees be able to pull of a midseason deal if the situation warrants it? The team’s forays into free agency and the trade market over the past few seasons have severely depleted both the available budget and the available pool of minor league talent to deal.

Cot’s has the 2010 Opening Day payroll at a shade under $210 million. With a payroll that high, there are signs the team is feeling something of a budget crunch. Many believe the recent release of Chad Gaudin was to save roughly a million dollars. Couple the current obligations with the upcoming free agency for legends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera (plus Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez) and you can understand why the team might be unwilling to take on any additional salary.

But suppose the Mariners fall out of the race early and are willing to deal Cliff Lee. Suppose also that the Steinbrenners agree to pay the remainder of the $9 million owed to him. Do the Yankees have enough firepower to make that deal?

The answer depends on the balance of tactical and strategic thinking in the front office. Clearly Lee would improve the Yankees’ chances to win the World Series in 2010. But he would also cost a fair amount in terms of young players. Recent trade deadline deals for expiring contracts haven’t gotten quite the return that previous ones have, but we’d have to assume that the Mariners would ask for Montero and either Phillip Hughes or Joba Chamberlain in the deal. Maybe Jack Zduriencik would settle for less, but assume the cost would be substantial.

The farm system has a lot of interesting arms and some recent draftees at the low levels, but the upper levels are fairly bare beyond Montero, Romine, Mark Melancon and Zach McAllister. Trading three of your top prospects in one offseason will do that to you—although the system wasn’t necessarily that strong even before the trades.

With an aging core at the major league level, and limited financial flexibility, retaining a set of youngsters who can contribute might be more important now than it has been in many years for the Yankees. That tune has been sung before, but it seems to ring more true this time.

While it’s surely possible that Cashman will pull another Bobby Abreu trade out of his back pocket, the more likely scenario has the Yankees dancing with the players that brought team. And that might not be such a bad thing in either the short term or the long term.

5. Can the Yankees repeat as World Series champions?

The Yankees are certainly in a good position to make the playoffs. Using DiamondMind and the five major projection systems, the Replacement Level Yankees Blog developed team level projections for the 2010 season. The Yankees had the best projected record in the majors—averaging 96 wins. The team won the division 41 percent of the time, and the Wild Card an additional 22 percent of the time.

That said, there are definitely things that could go wrong and keep the team out of the postseason. The AL East looks to be the toughest division in the American League this season. The Rays, Red Sox and Yankees all have reasonable claims to be the top team in the league, and only two of them can advance. It wouldn’t take much for the Yankees to end up as the odd man out in that race. If any of the big five (Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Teixeira, Posada or Sabathia) go down for an extended period of time, the team could see itself fall behind Boston and Tampa Bay. Of course the same statement is true for any team with title aspirations, but the Yankees’ age means there’s likely a greater chance of occurrence.

If New York can successfully navigate the treacherous AL East and reach the playoffs, the team will be positioned quite well for success. A rotation of Sabathia, Vazquez, Burnett and either Pettitte or Hughes stacks up well with any team. It’s impossible to predict the playoffs, but it’s fair to say the Yankees would have at least a 12.5 percent chance of winning the championship. And on Opening Day, that’s about all you can hope for.

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Comments

  1. Adam said...

    Have you ever seen Montero catch or is this entirely based on assumptions?  I’ve read several articles this spring where scouts say it’s entirely possible he’ll remain behind the plate.

  2. Adam said...

    Here is one from a few days ago:

    “Until he’s firmly entrenched in the big leagues, there will continue to be questions about Jesus Montero’s ability behind the plate. I’ve said it before, but Montero still looks like he has enough ability to stick behind the dish. He’s made some strong throws and has a good working relationship with his pitchers. Footwork, however, is definitely still an issue. He tends to open up on his throws to second, and he needs to improve on shifting to his backhand side to block pitches. Overall, though, his hands have looked soft, and the arm is strong enough to indicate he has the core skills to stick as a big-league catcher. He’ll always need to put in extra work defensively, but the talent is there.”

  3. Dennis said...

    Was the slightly reduced offensive production in the New Yankee Stadium due to the Yankee’s pitching staff, or did the Yankees also show a reduced level of offense in that stadium?

  4. Dan Turkenkopf said...

    Adam,

    I haven’t personally seen Montero behind the plate, but many of the prospect rankings talk about the likelihood of his move.

    For example, Keith Law said “Montero is really a “CINO” (catcher in name only), as few people outside the Yankees organization believe the giant player… can stay behind the plate, even with the improvement in his throwing in 2009.”

    John Sickels said “For now, Montero will remain behind the plate, waiting for a DH spot to open up in New York.”

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen other comments along the same lines.

    It’s actually pretty encouraging to see him making progress as a Yankees fan.  I’d love to see him take over for Posada after 2011.

  5. Dan Turkenkopf said...

    Dennis,

    The ranking as a pitcher’s park is essentially due to the total scoring in home games being lower than in road games (adjusted for things like total innings played, the park factor for the road games, etc.).  So it’s not just a result of the Yankees pitching staff.  It does seem like the home run results are because of the Yankees approach to pitching at home though.

  6. Steve G said...

    Dan

    are you a little worried about the age of this team?
    jeter-36
    mo-40
    posada-39
    arod-34
    pettite-38

    also, posada was listed as the #1 player most likely
    to decline in 2010 by Bill James in the THT Annual. What do you think?

  7. Steve G said...

    Dan,
    thanks for the response. Here’s another question for you. Are you worried about Robinson Cano’s inability to hit in the clutch? According to http://www.mlbexpertanalysis.com/blog/?p=46, Cano was THE worst clutch hitter in the game last year and more conventional methods like BA with RISP (.207 in 09) show the same thing. Is this just a function of luck or is this a worrying trend that we will see continue in 2010?

  8. Dan Turkenkopf said...

    Steve,

    I am somewhat worried about the age – mostly around Posada.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he declined, but hopefully it’s not a Varitek-like cratering or an injury.  I’m not ready to hand the reins to Montero or Romine yet and I don’t think Cervelli is a full-time players.

    Neither Jeter or ARod have had major issues with injury (provided the hip is okay) and both are coming off of good seasons.  I think we’ll see some decline from Jeter, just because last season was so good. 

    I’m not certain Pettitte would be a big loss if he went down.  Between Chamberlain, Mitre and some others, you could probably replace most of his production.

    Mariano is just otherworldly.  He’s got to slow down some day, right?  No one is going to replace Mo, but there are a bunch of relievers who could fill in for a while if need be.

    Boston has their own share of old/injury-prone players to worry about.  So Tampa Bay looks to be in the best shape of the teams from that perspective, but I’d put their “healthy” team just behind the Yanks and Sox.  Like a lot of races, this one will come down to who stays healthy.

  9. Andy said...

    @Steve G.:

    One of the ways to approach this is to look at Cano’s BABIP, or Batting Average On Balls In Play, with RISP, or Runners In Scoring Position, especially compared to his full-season BABIP.

    Low BABIPs can indicate bad luck on batted balls, i.e., line drives right at a fielder.

    Cano: .267 BABIP with RISP for his career, .210 in 2009, which is considerably lower. So he appeared to have significantly worse luck last year.

    BABIP-with-RISP is not the only factor, but it seems to suggest that Cano may be quite a bit better this year with runners on

  10. AMusingFool said...

    Montero greatest hitting catcher prospect since Piazza?  He’s better than Wieters or Mauer?  I’m just asking because while I’ve heard good things about him, I haven’t heard nearly the hype I heard about those two.

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