Friday, February 27, 2004


It's early Friday evening. I'm going to see a friend's sketch show (parental advisory) at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater this evening so I'm killing some extra time at the office. Most of my coworkers have gone home and I feel like I finally have a moment to clear my head. Which is good, because I need to clear out my backlog of unaddressed happenings in Yankeeland. Let's take them in order of importance:

1) Bernie Williams had his appendix removed yesterday and will miss a minimum of three weeks.

What does this mean?

Long term, not much. Curt Schilling had his appendix removed in the middle of last season. He missed his three weeks and came back at full strength. No harm done.

Short term, it means that there will be no battle for centerfield. Kenny Lofton will start the season as the Yankee centerfielder. That means that Jason Giambi should start the season as the Yankee DH. Tony Clark and Travis Lee will still be battling it out to play first, but there's a now chance that they will both make the opening day roster.

Is that good or bad?

This is good because it means that Lofton, easily the better defensive centerfielder, will indeed have a solid chance to show Joe Torre what he's been missing defensively for the past few seasons. That's not to say that Lofton is Mike Cameron out there, but as my previous post pointed out, his larger range and success against righty pitching indicates that he should play the majority of the innings in center this season. This is also good because it will allow Giambi extra time to rest his knee and allow it to heal. Giving Lee and Clark a little extra time to sort themselves out could be good as well.

But this is also bad because it means that ever-loyal St. Joe might simply hand Bernie the centerfield job upon his return, rather than giving him the opportunity to lose it fair and square during spring training. On the other hand, if Torre leaves Lofton in center, as he should, and makes Bernie the DH, it may mean that Torre has become a big enough fan of Kenny's that Lofton will become entrenched at the top of the Yankee line-up. Lofton batting one or two means that Bernie or Jorge will bat seventh. There is no excuse for taking that many extra at bats away from either of those players and giving them to Kenny Lofton. Bernie should bat second, Lofton eighth or ninth, end of story.

I'm hoping that the reason Bernie will not make the opening day roster is so that he won't have to travel with the rest of the team to Japan. Rather he can begin an abbreviated spring training around March 18 (three weeks from the day of his surgery) and can join the team for their home opener against the White Sox on April 8, which would give him a total of six weeks of recovery time.

Sez the Boss: "I've always liked Kenny Lofton because he's a good basketball player."

Also note that the linked article includes a history of Bernie's injury problems. His knee problems date back to 1998. His shoulder problems to 1999.

2) Aaron Boone was released to make room for Travis Lee on the 40-man roster.

What does this mean?

The Yankees are good businessmen. Boone violated his contract by playing basketball and suffering a potentially season-ending injury. The Yankees voided his $5.75 million deal and paid him $917,553 to hit the road.

Is this good or bad?

Nothing but good. The Yankees could still resign Boone to have him as an option at second base should he come back late in the season, or for 2005. A deal weighted toward 2005 would make sense. But really, there's no good reason to offer Boone much of anything unless another team shows strong interest. Boone may have stunk up the joint during his three months in pinstripes (save for that one swing), but if he can become a viable defensive second baseman (he was a strong defender at third and played well at second in 19 games for the Reds in early 2003) he may be one of the better options out there. That is, unless the Boss gets a whiff of what Jason Giambi suggested yesterday.

3) Tyler Houston has been released.

What does this mean?

The Yankees won't have to bother cutting him in March because he failed to report in February. Guess he figured his odds of beating out A-Rod for the third base job were pretty slim.

Is this bad or good?

Well, I wouldn't say it's bad, but when you sit down and think about it, Houston did have a chance to break camp with this team. As it shakes out right now, Steve Karsay will start the season on the DL (as I've long suspected), as will Bernie Williams as a result of his appendectomy. That means that Travis Lee, Tony Clark and Mike Lamb could all make the opening day roster. Houston's not much of a third baseman, but neither is Mike Lamb, and Houston is a better hitter. And Tony Clark, despite a big upside, is a total question mark. Houston could have easily made this team as a lefty bat off the bench in place of Lamb and might have even held on to a spot after Bernie returned should Clark falter, which is not unlikely.

The x-factor in all of this is the Yankees potential acquisition of a second baseman, such as the Orioles Brian Roberts, who would force Miguel Cairo to the bench. Bruce Markusen discusses some of the Yankees options at second in his latest Cooperstown Confidential over on Bronx Banter. Oh, did I say Miguel Cairo? Early word is that Joe Torre is leaning toward Enrique Wilson at second. Makes sense, he's a dud in the field and perhaps the worst hitter in the majors.

More wisdom from King George: "I predict he's going to have one hell of a year." (the "he" is Enrique Wilson)

4) Jon Lieber tweaked his groin last week.

What does this mean?

Very little. Typical spring training muscle strain.

Is this bad or good?

Well, technically bad, but I wouldn't sweat it. Reports on Lieber have been excellent all around. Should only be a minor setback.

5) The Yankees took a second look at El Duque today and are considering Pedro Astacio as an alternative insurance starter.

What does this mean?

The Yankees are freaking desperate for some rotation insurance.

Is this good or bad?

These guys started a combined seven games in 2003 because of injury and both are in their mid-30s (officially). This is bad. I'm just glad the Yankees never pulled off that long-rumored trade for Astacio back in 2001.

Alright, enough with the format. What else has gone on?

Gary Sheffield offered to pee in a cup but the union said he couldn't, so some sportswriters have started attacking him as all all talk, no walk. Whatever. Jason Giambi lost some weight rehabing his knee and everyone's saying it's because he stopped juicing. Both players have connections to BALCO and have testified in the current hearings. Meanwhile, the Yankees have banned personal trainers from the weight room. This comes after Jason Giambi's personal trainer was banned from the clubhouse last season after being under payroll as a batting practice pitcher in 2002. It is also in response to a directive from the commissioner office banning trainers, agents and other peripheral nogoodnicks from official team facilities. This is all going to get uglier before it gets better (see Wendell, Turk and Kent, Jeff). I think it's time to drop the 'roid news and allegations until we have something concrete to talk about. Derrick Turnbow's gotta feel good about this, though.

In other news, the Boss has been talking contract extension with St. Joe, but Torre isn't ready to make a decision quite yet.

Hideki Matsui has added five pounds of muscle. Let's hope he uses it to hit the ball in the air this year.

And finally, this happened last weekend, but it's the sort of spring training item that I love (and no, I'm not talking about Kevin Brown getting hit in the ankle).

posted by Cliff at 5:52 PM

Thursday, February 26, 2004

3 for 5 

The Yankees finally signed first baseman Travis Lee yesterday to a one-year, $2.25 million contract (with a $3 million/$250K club option for 2005). As a result the Yankees now have five players trying to squeeze into three positions: Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Kenny Lofton, Tony Clark and Travis Lee for first base, centerfield and designated hitter.

I'm sort of misstating reality here, one of these men will settle into a reserve role. But then one is likely to be cut during the spring. Assuming Derek Jeter will not step forward to offer Alex Rodriguez the shortstop job, this should be the most compelling position battle in Tampa this spring.

In order to best determine how these five players can best be utilized by Joe Torre, let's assume each man has an equal chance of becoming a starter and begin by looking at what they offer at the plate.

As discussed in my Bronx Banter piece on Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi's value at the plate over the past three seasons has been second only to Barry Bonds'. Over that span, he ranks second to Bonds in on-base percentage, offensive winning percentage, and runs created against average, third in total average, runs created per game (behind Bonds and the park-assisted Todd Helton) and secondary average (Bonds & Thome), and in the top ten in slugging, OPS, total runs created, runs created against position, bases per plate appearance, isolated power, every major home run rate stat. Over that period his lowest OBP was .412, his lowest OPS+ was 151, and his average season (dividing by three rather than using a per/game or per/PA formula) looked like this:

.302/.441/.594 (1.035 OPS, .347 GPA) 108 R, 35 2B, 40 HR, 116 RBI, 122 BB, 111 K, .791 OWP, 10.00 RC/G

'Nuf said.

Bernie Williams 2003 campaign was plagued by chronic knee and shoulder injuries, resulting in his worst season since his first as a starter back in 1993. Bernie also turned 35 in September. But reports of his demise may be greatly exaggerated. Prior to 2003 there was no discernible downward trend in Bernie's numbers. Bernie has posted an OPS+ of 140 or more five times. Two of them were in 2001 and 2002, and his 2002 season was actually better than his 2001 campaign. Bernie's average (divided by two) numbers over those two seasons were:

.321/.405/.507 (.912 OPS, .309 GPA) 102 R, 185 H, 37 2B, 22 HR, 98 RBI, 80 BB, 82 K, 9 SB, .689 OWP, 7.63 RC/G

A switch hitter, Bernie has fairly even splits with a slightly higher average and OBP batting right against lefties, but more power batting left against righties. Giambi, a lefty, also has fairly even splits, though he hits righties for more power. Both are very valuable offensive performers and should play everyday.

Bernie Williams OPS+ for his miserable 2003 season was 109. Kenny Lofton's OPS+ in 2003 was also 109, but it was his best since 1999. A league average hitter in 2000 and below average in 2001, Lofton's numbers have actually been trending upwards over the past two seasons, despite the approach of his 37th birthday this May. The average of Lofton's past two seasons looks like this:

.279/.351/.432 (.783 OPS, .266 GPA) 97 R, 31 2B, 8 3B, 11 HR, 48 RBI, 59 BB, 62 K, 29 SB, .560 OWP, 5.70 RC/G

A lefty batter, Lofton's splits are considerable and were most extreme in 2003, his best recent season:

vs. left: .244/.283/.363 (.646 OPS, .218 GPA)
vs. right: .313/.373/.478 (.851 OPS, .287 GPA)

Over the past three seasons Lofton's GPA against lefties was .222, against righties it was .270.

Travis Lee has been a below average hitter over the length of his career. In fact, he's only been above average twice in his career: his rookie season with the Diamondbacks in 1998, and last year with the Devil Rays. Last season was, by every measure, Lee's best season in the bigs. It was also his age-28 season, so there's every good reason to assume that it marked his peak. Thus the best the Yankees could hope for out of Lee this year would be a repeat of what he did for the D-Rays last year:

.275/.348/.459 (.807 OPS, .271 GPA) 75 R, 37 2B, 19 HR, 70 RBI, 64 BB, 97 K, .551 OWP, 5.60 R/G

Those numbers are very similar to the ones I listed above for Kenny Lofton, though it should be noted that moving from the D-Rays to the Yankees should boost Lee's runs scored and RBI totals a good bit.

Yet another lefty bat, Lee has only a slight split and tends to have higher on-base numbers against righties while hitting his fellow lefties for higher average and more power. In fact, in 2002, Lee had a complete reverse split. We'll look more closely at Lee's splits in a moment but first . . .

Tony Clark is a puzzlement. After five solid seasons with the Tigers, Clark's big contract and recent spate of injuries saw him released by Detroit and signed by Boston, where he proceeded to stink to high heaven in 2001. Picked up by the Mets last year Clark was just under league average, a considerable improvement over his lost season in Boston. As a result, it's very difficult to figure out what the Yankees could expect from Clark, but it's pretty safe to say that it's less than they could expect from any of the other players in this discussion. Or is it?

A switch hitter, Clark hits better from the right side against lefties. Ignoring his lost season, Clark was comfortably above average against lefties in 2003 and 2001:

2003: .279/.355/.500 (.855 OPS, .285 GPA) in 68 ABs
2001: .321/.376/.557 (.933 OPS, .308 GPA) in 140 ABs

True those are very small sample sizes, but they do point to the fact that Clark may have some offensive value after all, particularly in light of the severity of Kenny Lofton's splits in the other direction.

Taking the weaker of Clark's two slits above as the safer estimate of what he might do in 2004, this is how they compare to Travis Lee's splits against lefties over the past three years:

Clark: .279/.355/.500 (.855 OPS, .285 GPA)
Lee: .278/.325/.441 (.766 OPS, .257 GPA)

Ignoring the batting averages, Clark's got a good lead on Lee against lefty pitching.

So looking at offense alone it's tempting to set things up like this:

vs. lefty pitching:

1B: Clark
DH: Giambi
CF: Williams

vs. righty pitching:

1B: Giambi
DH: Williams
CF: Lofton

Of course, offense is not the whole picture. Using Clay Davenport's Rate stat (which estimates the number of runs above or below average a fielder is per 100 games--example: 110 is ten runs better than average, 90 is ten runs below average), here are how each of the five players stacks up at their primary position over the past three years:

Giambi, 1B: 102, 108, 102
Lee, 1B: 101, 104, 112
Clark 1B: 108, 108, 82
Williams CF: 97, 86, 96
Lofton CF: 112, 102, 103

In addition to these raw numbers we must remember that Giambi is coming off off-season knee surgery and that Bernie has been hampered by nagging shoulder and knee injuries over the past few seasons.

Based on all of this information, and aided by Lofton's strong splits against right-handed pitching, there is little reason not to play Lofton in center every time a righty is on the mound for the opposition. That would force Bernie in the DH role and Giambi onto the field against righties.

Hideki Matsui (who works as a decent guide as he played in every game for the Yankees in 2003) faced righties in 68 percent of his at-bats last year. Since Matsui is a lefty, he likely faced an above-average number of lefties in late-game situations, so I think it's safe to say that the Yankees can expect to face a righty starting pitcher in over 70 percent of their games in 2004. That would mean that if Giambi plays his usual 155 games, he would spend 108 of them in the field, more than in any either of his previous seasons in New York. Two questions that will need to be answered in spring training are, how completely has Giambi's knee recovered and what effect, if any has the surgery had on his ability to play the field. If Giambi's unable to hold up over 108 games in the field in 2004 it could be a long season in the Bronx.

A look a the prospective line-ups against lefties explain why. Looking at his splits, there is really no excuse other than injury to ever play Kenny Lofton against left-handed pitching. The only problem is that, if you sit Lofton, you have to play either Bernie or Hideki Matsui in center. Bernie's Rate stats of 97, 86 and 96 over the past three years suggest he really shouldn't be playing center. Matsui looked good in center while filling in for Bernie over 46 games last season, but his Rate of 94 reveals that looks can be deceiving. The reality of the situation is that neither man has any range. Lofton playing next to Matsui is acceptable (though certainly less than ideal), but Bernie playing next to Matsui, regardless of who is in center (Matsui's Rate in left last year was 93), is not. Gary Sheffield has never played centerfield in his career and has a similarly uninspiring career Rate of 96 as a left fielder despite better numbers in right.

What's more, if you ignore their extreme numbers in 2003, the common belief that Travis Lee is a significantly better defensive first-baseman than Tony Clark simply doesn't bear out, as Clark had better Rate Stats in each of the previous two seasons. At the same time, that huge difference in '03 makes it very difficult to have much confidence in Clark, who has become an almost completely unknown quantity over the past two seasons. He could field but not hit in 2002 and was a league average hitter but way below average fielder in 2003. Using his 2001 splits he handles both righties and lefties better than Lee, but using his 2003 splits (his lost year of 2002 we're ignoring as a fluke) he was better than Lee against lefties but worse against righties:

Clark '03: .215/.279/.462 (.741 OPS, .241 GPA)
Lee '01-'03: .261/.346/.425 (.771 OPS, .262 GPA)

To further confuse things, Clark still hits righties for more power than Lee, whose power comes mainly against lefties.

Lost yet?

Let's try to boil things down.

Kenny Lofton is the easy choice to play centerfield except that he's the worst hitter of the bunch by far when a lefty is on the mound.

Bernie Williams and Jason Giambi should be in the line-up every day, but neither should be in the field every day because of injury. Bernie should never be in the field at all.

If one of these players is going to be cut it should be either Clark or Lee.

Lee has no holes in his game and is in his prime, but is barely over league average as a hitter and, despite his reputation, is good but not great in the field.

Clark is the second youngest player in this discussion, has a higher offensive upside that Lee and would be the better offensive platoon partner for Lofton, but has become a complete question mark both at the plate and in the field and could be a complete bust.

Considering the strength of the rest of Yankee line-up and the fact that they're trying to replace (or should be) Kenny Lofton's dreadful at-bats against lefties, the reliability of the league-average Lee and his higher defensive upside over Clark (not to mention his guaranteed contract in contrast to Clark's minor league deal) make him the favorite to become Jason Giambi's backup. This means that the basic platoon will actually be:

vs. lefty pitching:

1B: Lee
DH: Giambi
CF: Williams

vs. righty pitching:

1B: Giambi
DH: Williams
CF: Lofton

But things are not that simple. Playing Bernie in center with a flyball pitcher on the mound is simply irresponsible. Fortunately, the Yankees only have one flyball pitcher in their rotation. His name is Javier Vazquez. In the bullpen, Tom Gordon can't seem to decide what he is, but Gabe White is an extreme flyball pitcher.

So here's the plan on paper:

Kenny Lofton starts in center against righties, against lefties when Vazquez is pitching for the Yankees, and should be brought in as a defensive substitution if the Yankees bring in Gabe White (and possibly Tom Gordon) to protect a lead.

Bernie Williams is the DH against righties and when Vazquez is on the mound, but can start in center when a lefty is going for the opposition and Vazquez is not starting. In those cases he should be replaced by Lofton in late situations when the Yankees bring in Gabe White (and possibly Tom Gordon) to protect a lead.

Jason Giambi should start at first against righties and when Vazquez is on the mound, and DH the rest of the time.

Travis Lee should start at first whenever Jason Giambi is at DH and relieve him in the field early in blowouts.

Tony Clark should be cut.

Simple enough, right? Heh.

posted by Cliff at 12:48 PM


My guest post on Alex Rodriguez is now up over at Alex Belth's Bronx Banter.

posted by Cliff at 9:54 AM

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Miss me? 

Man, it's been too long since my last post, and for that I apologize. My excuse is the same as Jay Jaffe's. All of my baseball writing energies of late have been directed toward my contribution to Alex Belth's Yankee Preview Week over at Bronx Banter. My piece should run tomorrow or Friday, or so Alex tells me. Even if it doesn't, it will only be because you'll be treated to guest posts from Jay Jaffe and Chris DeRosa first. Ben Jacobs, Steve Goldman and a tag-team effort from Alex and Rich Lederer are already up. If you haven't read them yet, by all means do so as soon as you can.

Having finally handed my piece in, I should be back in action tomorrow with thoughts on the finally official (pending physical) Travis Lee signing, and a round-up of things I've missed over the past five days.

In the meantime, here's a goof to help me clear my brain of Offensive Winning Percentages, Rate2s and Runs Created per Game as compared to the league average . . .

Like many of you, I'm sick and tired of uninventive, characterless nicknames. Jorgy, Jeets, Mo, Nelly, Sori, Scotty. There's been a dearth of decent nicknames during the Yankees current run. Now, with the arrival of the most influential and meaningless nickname in the game today in the form of Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez, I intend to do something about it (with apologies to Brian at Redbird Nation, who pulled a similar trick for the Cardinals last year--Brian, if you read this send me the link to that post as I can't seem find it). Thus I present:

The Official BRB Nicknames for the 2004 New York Yankees:

Derek Jeter: The Kalamazoo Kid
Bernie Williams: Bernie Guitar
Alex Rodriguez: Dolly
Jason Giambi : Grape Ape
Gary Sheffield : The Tampa Time Bomb
Jorge Posada: Hip-Hip Jorge, Ringo
Hideki Matsui: Godzilla
Kenny Lofton: Hoops
Miguel Cairo: Little Egypt

Travis Lee: The Man Who . . ., The Invisible Man
Tony Clark : Dig ‘Em
Ruben Sierra: El Indio
Enrique Wilson : Interstate
John Flaherty : Mr. Excitement
Mike Lamb: The March Hare

Mike Mussina: Moose
Javier Vazquez: The Fountain of Youth
Kevin Brown: If He’s Healthy
Jose Contreras: El Titan de Bronze
Jon Lieber : Tommy

Mariano Rivera : The Sandman
Tom Gordon: Jumbo
Paul Quantrill: Canuck Amuck, Ski Doo
Gabe White: Triple-X
Felix Heredia: Felix the Cat
Steve Karsay: Jeff Nelson

Joe Torre: St. Joe

I'll leave it to you to figure out why I chose each. Some are obvious, some less so (some of the links should help). All have some significance and all have far more color than "Jeets" or "A-Rod." I'm happy to explain any in the comments. I'm also open to suggestions.

posted by Cliff at 5:23 PM

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