Thursday, January 30, 2014

Masahiro Tanaka, Big Money, and the 2014 New York Yankees

The Yankees re-earn the Bankees/Evil Empire moniker after a brief interlude; I examine the international market; prognosticating Tanaka and the 2014 Bronx Bombers.

The Yankees recently invested the same amount of money offered to Robinson Cano ($175,000,000) and the same amount of money given to two of the best pitchers in the game on contract extensions (Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander), and more than his more-successful NPB brother Yu Darvish (who received 6yrs/$56,000,000) to a pitcher who has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues. To say it's quite the investment would be an understatement, and making it all the more risky is the fact that the Yankees have been snakebitten like this before (in the late 1990s with Hideki Irabu, as well as in the 2000s with Kei Igawa). In investing this money, the Yankees not only gave huge money to an unproven product, but they tossed aside their season-long facade of attempting to keep under the $189,000,000 luxury tax threshold. Both Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander won Cy Young awards (and for Verlander, an AL ROY and AL MVP award to boot) before being given their contract extensions.

The question now becomes one that is straightforward: are the New York Yankees better going into 2014 than they were going into 2013? Let's take a look at the changes for the team since the end of the 2013 season. For simplicity's sake I will utilize WAR as a comparative tool, but one can use any number of statistics (OPS+, for example) or video to make a quality independent comparison.

Catcher: Chris Stewart (0.5 WAR) and Francisco Cervelli (0.8 WAR) to Brian McCann (2.7 WAR)

Obvious upgrade here. McCann is one of the best all-around catchers in the game today. Cervelli is a good catcher, but does not possess the offensive talent nor the pitch-framing ability that McCann does; Cervelli will serve a back-up role on a 1yr/$700k deal as the Yankees continue to evaluate former top catching prospect Austin Romine. Chris Stewart departed for Pittsburgh to compete with another former Yankee catcher, Russell Martin, for the Pirates' starting catcher gig. McCann should be good for 2.5 to 3.0 WAR in his age-31 season, but one can reasonably expect his value to erode within the forthcoming three to four years.

This should be a good contract for the Yankees and for McCann. The catcher is a pull hitter with right-field tendencies, and he leaves Turner Field for the rosier right-field porch of New Yankee Stadium. If he stays healthy, 25 home runs should be an easily attainable goal, and 30 is not out of the question. His RBIs should increase with a more prominent spot in the lineup in a pro-offense ballpark, and his average should hover between .265 and .280 on the year.

Catcher was a major upgrade for the Yankees this off-season. McCann should be a rock behind the plate, and he'll be spelled by a competent catcher in his own right (Cervelli).

First base: Mark Teixeira (-0.2 WAR) & Lyle Overbay (0 WAR) to Teixeira.

Teixeira missed the majority of the season following wrist surgery to mend an issue that occurred while playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Lyle Overbay took his place and played as expected, which is to say "entirely average in all facets." Overbay returned to Milwaukee on a one-year deal. Teixeira will be back in the fold in 2014, playing out Year Six of his 8yr/$160mil deal signed in 2009. Teixeira's bat speed and offensive production have both fallen markedly since 2009, and his offensive output has declined every consecutive year since 2008.

One could reasonably expect about 20 to 25 home runs (if his wrist is fully healthy) with a passable batting average between .250 and .265 for the year. His isolated power (ISO) has dropped greatly in the past few seasons as well, and at age 34 it's a safe bet that it won't be coming back. If his wrist does not heal as expected, this projection becomes far less trustworthy. As it stands now, I would expect Big Teix to put up about 15 home runs and 75 RBIs with an average around .266 in 2014. If Teixeira isn't back to being a power hitter; if he ends up being more John Olerud than Jay Buhner, the Yankees will have issues at first base for most of the 2014 season. It surprises me that they have not chosen to bring Kendrys Morales into the fold, but that could be because they are banking on a full season from Teixeira or Morales has yet to lower his financial expectations relative to his current market value. As of now, the Yankees have no real contingency plan at first base in the event Teixeira struggles or is hurt again. Moreover, Tex has already stated he anticipates feeling stiffness in his wrist for most or all of 2014.

First base will be a big part of the Yankees run at a playoff spot in 2014. If Teixeira is back to some semblance of his old self, his return will be a big upgrade. If not, we could be looking at the AL East's equivalent of Ryan Howard.

Second base: Robinson Cano (6 WAR) to Brian Roberts (0.9 WAR), potentially Scott Sizemore or Kelly Johnson

This will be the Yankees' biggest punch to the gut, bar none. They have chosen to replace the best second baseman in the game with a second baseman who has hardly been able to stay healthy for four straight seasons, compiling 1.0 WAR during that stretch. His backup is utilityman and notorious streak hitter Kelly Johnson, who will alternate between 2nd and 3rd base for New York in 2014.

It's a major gamble overall by the Yankees, and makes their already-risky infield situation look all the worse. One cannot fault Robinson Cano for chasing the money in free agency, but one can fault the Yankees for not finding an adequate replacement with players such as Omar Infante on the free-agent market and Brandon Philips available on the trading block. If Brian Roberts is able to put up a third of the production that Robinson Cano put up in 2013, the Yankees will be able to call this an enormous win...and they still would be down 4 WAR. Being that Roberts has been unable to play 100+ games since 2009, that is an unlikely occurrence. His offensive capabilities have dissolved almost entirely, and injuries have left him a shell of himself defensively. Projecting him to be an average infielder (.250-.260 average, 3-10 HRs, 25-45 RBI, adequate defense at second base) good for 0.0-0.5 WAR on the season is a safe bet.

The Yankees downgraded in an enormous way at second base. Losing Robinson Cano assured a downgrade from the position going into 2014, but failing to sign an adequate replacement and bringing on an aging and injury-prone former All-Star makes the situation more dire. The Yankees will be lucky to get positive contributions from their second basemen in 2014, with two injury-prone players (Roberts and Sizemore) and one very streaky player (Johnson) the top three options to play there.

Third base: Mark Reynolds (0.7 WAR), Kevin Youkilis (-0.4 WAR) Alex Rodriguez (0.5 WAR) to ... ??? (Kelly Johnson, Scott Sizemore, Eduardo Nunez)

What was a terrible mess on the right side of the infield in 2013 has managed to make itself even worse going into 2014. Kevin Youkilis could not get over his back problems, and departed to play in Japan. Mark Reynolds was Mark Reynolds, streaky and horrendous defensively, and he left for a minor-league deal from the Brewers. Alex Rodriguez missed the majority of the season recovering from surgery, returned and played like a slightly-above-average major-league third baseman, and will miss the entire 2014 season after the Biogenesis fiasco. (On top of this, utility infielder Jayson Nix was cut and signed a minor-league deal with the Rays.)

In the stead of these three comes three new luminaries to try and hold down the hot corner in the Bronx: Former Tigers and A's prospect Scott Sizemore, former Braves and Rays utilityman Kelly Johnson, and continually underwhelming Yankee Eduardo Nunez.

Scott Sizemore has been plagued by left leg injuries for most of his career: he broke his left leg and fractured his left ankle in 2009, tore his left ACL in 2012, and re-tore his left ACL in 2013. On top of this, he has hit under .240 with no offensive punch in his career. He is, for comparison's sake, a younger version of Brian Roberts without the major-league resume. If he is fully healthy, I would project him for 1-1.5 WAR on the season; despite the injury and ineffectiveness risks he holds, he's the Yankees' best bet to stick at third base in 2014.

Eduardo Nunez is all bat and absolutely no glove, which is not a great fit at third base for a team with bad options in the rest of the infield. If he gets significant plate appearances in 2014 at third base, you can be sure something has gone horribly wrong. After costing the Yankees nearly 2 wins last season, the hope in the Bronx is that the less Nunez, the better.

Kelly Johnson is a streaky hitter with an above-average glove who can play multiple positions, and it's the latter that made him most appealing to New York for 2014. He got a one-year "prove yourself" deal, and will likely be manning third base for New York on Opening Day. Over 400+ at-bats, Johnson is guaranteed to hit at least fifteen home runs with a small (5-10) number of stolen bases and an average that obfuscates his peak-and-valley tendencies as a hitter. His home run total could be padded slightly by the Yankees' home stadium, but Johnson hits a fairly even distribution of ground and fly balls. He's a pure fastball hitter, and tends to fall into periodic slumps that are often compounded by facing pitchers who get by with other types of pitches. Luckily, Johnson's glove profiles best at third base at this stage of the game, so if he can hit well enough, he could stave off Sizemore at third base.

The Yankees upgraded from last year's fiasco at third, but the stage is set for a similar show with a new cast. Between the three players, expect about a half a win to one win over the course of the season, unless the dominoes happen to fall just right for Sizemore and/or Johnson. Considering the fragility of Brian Roberts, it remains a likely scenario that both will see significant time at second and third base through the course of the year.

Shortstop: Derek Jeter (-0.8 WAR), Eduardo Nunez (-1.8 WAR) and Brendan Ryan (half-season, 0.1 WAR) to Jeter & Ryan

If it wasn't already clear, the bane of the 2014 Yankees will be the same as the bane of the 2013 Yankees: an atrocious infield. Derek Jeter will be a forty-year-old man one year removed from ankle surgery and subsequent leg woes, which is a nightmare defensively. On top of this, he hit .190/.288/.254 in his limited action (73 PAs) in 2013. We could see a bounce-back year, but it's not a safe bet. The number of shortstops to put up positive value at age 40 in major league history can be counted on one hand. For that matter, only five have ever played 100+ games and received 230+ plate appearances at shortstop at age forty. With all due respect to a great career, one cannot reasonably project Derek Jeter for more than 1 WAR in 2014. If he exceeds that, it will be one of the rarest accomplishments in baseball's long history and the icing on the cake for Jeter's career. It would appear thus far that this is what the Yankees are banking on.

I say this because the other option at shortstop (aside from more Eduardo Nunez, which no one wants) in 2014 is the anti-Jeter, Brendan Ryan. Ryan has long been all-glove, no-bat, the antithesis to Derek Jeter for about a half a decade now. In that time frame, Ryan has hit above .250 just once (his outlier 2009 season, in which he had a line of .292/.340/.400 with a .740 OPS for St. Louis), and below the Mendoza Line just as many times.

Yet, unless the Yankees choose to cave and sign Stephen Drew to a 3-to-5 year deal for a significant sum, Brendan Ryan is the Yankees' best option. He may not be the offensive talent that Jeter has long been at short, but Ryan is the prototypical shortstop: can't hit a lick, but his fielding will make up for his deficiencies at the dish. Ryan is the top-rated fielding shortstop of the past half-decade, and while he'll be lucky to hit above .220, his defense may be the saving grace for New York's infield. Project him for 0.3-0.7 WAR in a somewhat-rejuvenated Yankees lineup, and peg him for .225, 3-5 HRs, 30 RBI, a handful of steals, and some outstanding plays in the field.

The Yankees improved at shortstop going into 2014, but only in going from having a black hole at the position to having zero value at the position.

Left field: Alfonso Soriano (half-season, 1.8 WAR) to Alfonso Soriano

We now move away from the atrocity of the 2014 Yankees infield to an area that has been highly upgraded over 2013: the outfield. Alfonso Soriano was acquired midway through the 2013 season from the Cubs, and he seemed reborn at the plate wearing pinstripes again. He's in the last year of an ill-advised yet well-deserved 8yr/$136mil deal handed to him by the Chicago Cubs in 2007. He's still yet to meet a pitch he doesn't like, so his free-swinging tendencies will lend themselves to big offensive numbers. 30 to 35 home runs should be attainable for Sori, along with 80 runs, 75 RBI, and an average hovering around .250 with below-average defense in left field. That said, he should remain one of the Yankees five most valuable offensive players in 2014 unless his skill set finally falls off the table at age 38. The other caveat to his offensive numbers, primarily his average and RBI, is the fact that teams are more likely to employ the infield shift on him in 2014, as he has a lot of pull hits. This could mean more playing time for Ichiro, who is currently relegated to being the Yanks' fourth outfielder.

Either way, Soriano was an upgrade midway through 2014, and he's an upgrade in left field for the Yankees in 2014 over Vernon Wells. How much value he provides remains to be seen, but even zero value would be an upgrade.

Center field: Brett Gardner (3.2 WAR) to Jacoby Ellsbury (5.8 WAR)

One of the Yankees' biggest signings of the off-season, Ellsbury pulled a Johnny Damon and exited Boston for a fat contract in the Bronx to play center field. Ellsbury is being paid like a superstar, paid like the man who hit .321/.376/.552 and went 30/30 with outstanding defense in center field for Boston in 2011. That season has proven to be an anomaly so far. While growing pains are entirely possible in his first year in pinstripes (we've recently witnessed quite a few guys get huge deals in large markets and flop in their first year), his skill set should transfer seamlessly from Boston to New York, and he will remain in the center of a baseball-minded region with all the glitz, glamour, expectations and derisions that come with the largest city in the country.

The main question here is health: Ellsbury is a fantastic player, when he's not injured. He is injured pretty frequently, and far more frequently than a team who just handed him $153,000,000 over 7 years can possibly find comfortable. His contract is almost assured to be a huge detriment to the team down the line, but for the first two to three years he should provide sufficient value to ignore the years and dollars he received. Barring injury, he should be good for an average around .290-.300, 40-50 steals, 90-100 runs, 10-12 home runs, 55-65 RBIs, a good on-base percentage and a great glove in center field. Profile him as a 3.5-4.5 WAR player.

By virtue of the potential value he brings to the table and the fact that his signing allows the Yankees to shift their other speedy, good fielding outfielder from center to right field (consequently pushing Ichiro to the bench with the potential to spell players at the corner OF spots or DH), the Ellsbury signing is a big upgrade for the Yankees going into 2014.

Right field: Ichiro (1.1 WAR) to Brett Gardner (3.2 WAR)

The aforementioned speedy, good fielding outfielder is, of course, Brett Gardner. Gardner had a great bounce-back year after missing most of 2012 due to injury. He was the Yankees' most valuable outfielder in 2013 and their second most valuable position player after Robinson Cano. He played quality defense in center field and provided a little bit of everything offensively: a few home runs, a handful of runs and RBIs, a .273 average and .344 on-base percentage, and 25 steals. Of course, Gardner had stolen nearly 50 bases in 2010 and 2011, so to see that number halved was a disappointment, but also partially a product of the lineup he was in: when adjusted for parks, the Yankees had the second-worst offense in baseball last season. Pushing older (though far more accomplished) players to the wayside was a necessary move, and Gardner represents that to a certain degree: he supplants Ichiro at the other corner outfield position.

Designated hitter: Travis Hafner (-0.4 WAR) and Vernon Wells (-0.8 WAR) to Carlos Beltran (2.0 WAR)

The last major area upgraded for the Yankees on the offensive side was bringing in Carlos Beltran on a two-year deal, ostensibly to play out his final years in the Bronx. Playing DH should help squeeze the juice out of Beltran's bat, and will save his knees from further abuse. This is also a win for the Yankees as it minimizes the need to play him in the outfield, where he has been a liability defensively for about six years now. As he ages and his bat speed slows, we can expect less from Beltran. As it stands now, I would peg him at 2 to 2.5 WAR for the year; expect a repeat of Beltran's 2013 season with St. Louis. His average can be expected to dip a bit from last year's .296, but he may end up eclipsing the project 22-24 HRs by playing half his games in New Yankee Stadium. It would not be by a wide margin, but I could see him exceeding 25 round-trippers for the year.

While Beltran comes with risks in his own right at his age and with his injury history, even a diminished Beltran stands to provide a major upgrade over the tandem of Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells. Wells and Hafner provided some magic at designated hitter for about sixty days in New York before falling apart. Wells is nothing more than a bench player at this stage of his career and would have to accept such a role to continue his playing career. Hafner is one of the sadder stories of the past decade in baseball, a giant of a man with outstanding offensive prowess whose career was derailed by upper body injuries.

We both know Wells was not a competent major-leaguer last season (or for the two years prior to that), so let's just leave it at that.

Starting rotation: Sabathia, Tanaka, Kuroda, Nova, Phelps/Pineda/Warren

And so we come to the biggest question mark for the 2014 Yankees: the rotation. If it all falls into place as hoped, the Yankees could conceivably compete for a championship. That is unlikely to be the case, however.

CC Sabathia lost a few miles per hour off his fastball last season, and the power pitcher struggled because of it. After eight consecutive years of 4.5-7.0 WAR, CC posted just 2.7 WAR last season. His HRs per nine innings and HR/FB ratio had marked upticks, and both were career-worsts by more than 20% over his previous career-worsts in those categories. This is a sink-or-swim season for Sabathia, who is under contract through 2016. Either he will be able to adjust to life as a workhorse who gets by on savvy more than dominance, or he will continue to try and pitch like an ace without having the speed on his pitches that he used to, making it easier for hitters to tee off on him. Playing in the bandbox of New Yankee Stadium isn't going to be able to bandage those numbers, either.

Sabathia is just not the pitcher he has previously been, and the speed is not coming back. His four-seam fastball, which clocked in at 95-96 MPH for most of 2011, dropped down to an average of 90-91 MPH after being down around 92-93 MPH through 2012. His change-up speed has dropped significantly as well. Including playoffs, CC Sabathia has pitched about 2,900 major-league innings, and had elbow surgery in the 2012 offseason. He'll be in his age-34 season in 2013. If the Yankees are expecting him to be a true #1 pitcher in 2014, they're thinking wishfully. Sabathia can still be good, but his ceiling is a #2 starter at this point, and it's more realistic to think of him in the vein of a Hiroki Kuroda: a consistent innings-eater who will win you double-digit games, strike out his fair share of batters, but not overwhelm anyone with what he does on the mound, either.

Speaking of which, Hiroki Kuroda has been rock solid mid-rotation starter for most of his career in MLB, but he's now going into his age-39 season and struggled in the second half of the 2013 season. If he returns to form, expect him to have a lock on the #3 job and continue with his career average of about 200 innings, 12-15 wins, 10-12 losses, 3-4 WAR, and 140-150 Ks to 40-50 BBs.

Masahiro Tanaka will remain the Yankees biggest question mark until he plays a full season of baseball in the United States. His contract pays him money equating him with former NPB star Yu Darvish, and while he certainly has that talent, even Darvish needed a year to fully adjust to the speed of MLB. Tanaka is also not the same type of pitcher Darvish is; Tanaka gets by on elite control and pinpoint pitch location alongside a deceptively-good splitter. Darvish, on the other hand, gets along by striking out as many batters as possible, limiting the damage he would incur pitching in a pro-offense park like the Rangers'. This could be an issue for Tanaka, as he will be moving from the NPB to the AL East and will pitch half of his starts in New Yankee Stadium, a park predicated on offense and home runs. With a very average strikeout rate (about 7 Ks per 9 innings), Tanaka is a better bet to pitch like his countryman Hiroki Kuroda than he is to pitch like Yu Darvish. His ideal comparison would be Adam Wainwright, but unless Tanaka can strike more batters out with his splitter in the MLB than in the NPB, Wainwright will probably remain the superior pitcher in the present.

Ivan Nova is the primary bright spot for the Yankees: a young, cost-controlled starter who managed to come out of their farm system and produce with consistently. This is more than can be said of recent Yankee prospects like Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances. He took a big step forward from a down 2012 season, and while his peripheral numbers are still uninviting as they hover around league average (7.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9), he is a steady presence in the fourth starter's spot with the upside to make himself a useful number three starter in the Yankees rotation in 2014. Project him for 2.5-3.5 WAR, with 10-15 wins, 150 Ks, 60 BBs.

Pineda is trying to make it back to the majors as a fifth starter after a dynamite rookie year that was cut short by injury, which eventually led to a shoulder surgery, which has found him out of the major leagues for two seasons. Lest we forget, Pineda was a power pitcher, which could pose a problem with his repaired shoulder. Beyond that, Pineda was just a smidge above league-average in 2011 despite his excellent peripheral stats, and part of that was due to allowing a few too many home runs. If he can rein that in, he should be better, but we still can't know what to expect from Michael Pineda until we see how he throws in spring training.

Pineda will compete with David Phelps, who has a solid strikeout rate (8.2/9IP) but also a fairly high walk rate (3.6/9IP). While his FIP took a step forward in 2013, his overall numbers took a step back from his 2012 season. Unlike Pineda, he has never had shoulder surgery. However, Phelps has yet to pitch 100 innings as a major-league pitcher, which is something Pineda has already been able to accomplish. Because each pitcher at the back end of the Yankees' rotation has question marks, we can't project either to post more than 0.5-1.0 WAR on the season. My guess is barring a miraculous comeback by Pineda, each will struggle in their share of starts in 2014.

Bullpen: David Robertson (closer), Matt Thornton, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Preston Claiborne, Shawn Kelley, Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren, Cesar Cabral, one of David Phelps or Michael Pineda

This is an area of concern. Gone are the greatest closer of all time (Mariano Rivera, as if you needed an introduction), and a few live arms (Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain). Stepping into some of the biggest shoes to fill in baseball history is David Robertson, an outstanding set-up man and great reliever who reminds me of Ryan Madson a bit: a guy who succeeds in the 7th and 8th innings, but seems to erect a mental barrier between himself and success in the ninth inning. That Mental Berlin Wall will need to be demolished if Robertson wants to remain the closer and if New York wants to remain in competition for the AL East division title. An insurance signing was made by bringing in former Red Sox and White Sox reliever Matt Thornton, a pitcher who struggled in the ninth inning in his own right during his time with the Pale Hose of Chicago.

The remainder of the bullpen will likely be rounded out by David Phelps, former top prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, Vidal Nuno, former Mariner Shawn Kelley, and Preston Claiborne. The Yankees are choosing to go with young, live arms that have unproven or sketchy track records in the major leagues thus far. For this to work, at least one-third of the aforementioned bullpen guys will have to be above-average as relievers, and it may need to be more than that. If Tanaka does not play as advertised, if age finally catches up to Hiroki Kuroda, if Ivan Nova takes a step back, if CC Sabathia loses a couple more miles per hour off his fastball, or if more than one of these scenarios comes to be, the Yankees will likely not have the necessary bullpen depth to compensate.

So we come back to the original question, are the Yankees better in 2014 than they were in 2013? To this, it's best to break it down into sections.

Behind the plate: Yes.
Infield: No.
Outfield: Yes.
Designated hitter: Yes.
Starting rotation: Potentially yes.
Bullpen: No.

So they downgraded in two areas, upgraded in three areas, and potentially four areas. So yes, they should be better in 2014 than they were in 2013, if only because their offense should not be comedic this coming season. However, being in one of baseball's most competitive (if not THE most competitive) divisions makes it much more dubious that they are a playoff team in 2014, which is the real question most people ask when they ask if the Yankees will be better in 2014 than they were in 2013. The Rays only got stronger and have thus far retained David Price (though a trade is still not out of the question this season), adding bullpen arms and depth players. The Red Sox will be formidable as well, and the two are the favorites for the AL East crown. The Yankees look to be a middling 85-90 win team going into 2014, and barring a midseason addition or late-offseason big contract, they will have to scrap to make it into the playoffs over an AL West or AL Central team for one of the two Wild Card spots, even having added three of the five most sought-after free agents this off-season.

After the 2008 season, the Yankees bought up several of the top free agents available, netting them AJ Burnett, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia (as well as Nick Swisher via trade). That team went on to win the 2009 World Series. They have repeated the same moves five years later, only now it's become a more expensive maneuver, and does not even guarantee them a playoff spot come September. Free agency has changed drastically in the five years since the Yankees went on their last spending binge, and the formulas that used to work then are likely to be less effective now. Without spending a good sum of money addressing their farm system, the Yankees will likely find themselves in a poor position come 2015-2017.

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