As per the division of labor here at Bronx Banter, now that Alex has hipped you to the changes the Yankees announced after last night's 6-2 victory over the Devil Rays, its my turn to try to figure out what effects they will have on the team's performance.
To begin with, the announced changes occur in three areas, defense, offense, and roster construction:
Defense: Robinson Cano replaces Tony Womack at second who replaces Hideki Matsui in left who replaces Bernie Williams in center. Offense: Cano replaces Bernie Williams Roster: Cano replaces Steve Karsay
Let's take them in order.
The Yankees are far and away the worst defensive team in the major leagues according to Baseball Prospectus's Defensive Efficiency stat, which evaluates a team's ability to turn balls in play into outs. As a result they are giving up nearly a half an earned run per game more than they would be with a league average defense as per the Defense-Independent Pitching (DIPS) stats on ESPN. In addition, they've allowed 19 unearned runs thus far, a full 14 percent of the total amount of runs they've allowed this season. By comparison, just seven percent of the runs allowed by last year's team, which was average defensively, were unearned.
The moves announced last night are designed to do something about that. Using Baseball Prospectus's Rate, as an indication of defensive ability, Bernie Williams, the one player being deleted from the defensive picture altogether, has been eight runs (per 100 games) below average thus far this year. In his place the Yankees will play Hideki Matsui, whose only extended exposure as a centerfielder in the United States came during a Williams injury in 2003. In 46 games in center that year, Matsui was six runs below average. Of course, he was seven runs below average in left that season and has shown improvement in each of the past two seasons to the point that he's thus far been a dead average left fielder this season. If he can bring that improvement over to center, the Yankees to stand to see a meaningful improvement there. However, if Matsui's abilities in center and left are not commensurate, the shift will do little to nothing to increase the number of balls hit to center field that are turned into outs.
The one advantage that Matsui does have over Williams in center is the ability to make quick, strong, accurate throws to the infield. Matsui doesn't have a particularly strong arm, but it is at least adequate, and he's particularly adept at getting rid of the ball quickly. Meanwhile, Bernie's arm has gone from poor (in his prime) to awful, the final straw coming on Sunday when Eric Hinske scored from third on a fly out to shallow center and Bernie's throw was so late that it was cut off before it even got to Posada at home. This, according to Cashman and Torre, who point out that Bernie is suffering from tendonitis in his elbow, is the reason they finally decided to get Bernie out of center, and it is the only thing that can undoubtedly be expected to improve with Matsui in center.
In left, where, as I said, Matsui has been playing average defensive thus far this season, the Yankees will install Tony Womack. Womack has played 126 games in the outfield over the course of his career, starting 102 of them. All 102 of those starts came as the Diamondback's regular right fielder in 1999, a season in which he posted a spectacular 110 Rate (ten runs above average) at that position. That's not much of a sample, and Womack has aged five years and undergone one Tommy John surgery since then, but it is reason to believe that Womack could be at least as good if not better defensively in left than Matsui has been thus far. Factoring in Womack's speed and taking a second look at that 110 Rate in his one season as a starting outfielder, one could reasonably expect a defensive upgrade in left. Incidentally, many have already compared Womack's move to left to Chuck Knoblauch's in 2001. I could never understand the complaints I heard about Knoblauch's outfield defense that year and going back to the numbers I still can't. Knoblauch was five runs above average in left field in 2001.
The final defensive change is replacing Womack at second with rookie Robinson Cano. I don't have any statistical evidence to share regarding Cano's defense, as he will be making his major league debut tonight, but I can tell you what he's replacing. Historically, Tony Womack has been a terrible defensive second baseman. In his career year with the Cardinals last year, he was ten runs below average in the field. That was just his third full season as a second baseman (his other three seasons as a starter came at shortstop). In the other two, he was 13 runs below average in the first and 15 runs above average in the second. That above average year appeared to be a major fluke, but Womack has been a staggering 20 runs above average at second thus far this year. While it is incredibly unlikely that Womack would have maintained that level of play, it's even more unlikely that Cano, whose defensive reputation is mixed (he leads the Clippers with four errors), will be able to replace it. That said, Cano looked good in the field this spring, and should be able to play a better second base over the remainder of the season (this based on the misguided assumption that Cano will last that long as the Yankee starter) than Womack would have (assuming Womack would have reverted to form), thus giving the Yankees at the very least (though perhaps also at most) a modest upgrade at all three positions effected by these changes.
Offensively, things are a bit different. Womack and Matsui remain in place, though both will now have the added distraction of learning new positions (though one could argue that the distraction could snap Matsui out of his current 3-for-24 slump). What's more, with Bernie on the bench, Womack will likely be permanently installed in the second spot in the order (though with Womack on a 10 for 25 tear that will actually increase the on-base percentage at that spot in the order), with Cano batting ninth. Most significantly, of course, is the replacement of Bernie's bat with Cano's. After seeing a sharp decline in his production in 2003 and repeating that decreased level of performance in 2004 (.268 GPA both years), Bernie has really been scuffling thus far in 2005, hitting .247/.324/.312 (.224 GPA) in 106 plate appearances and seeing fewer pitches per at-bat than in any season since 1992. Cano, meanwhile, has hit .333/.368/.574 (.309) in 114 plate appearances with Columbus.
I'm not prepared to take Cano's 2005 stats at face value, however. For one thing, he's never shown that sort of power before. He's never slugged above .500 at any level in the minor leagues and this spring just one of his 10 hits went for extra bases. In addition, he's displayed a disconcerting reluctance to draw a walk over his minor league career, taking ball four once every 17.24 plate appearances, which is the exact same rate at which Tony Womack draws walks. As a result, Cano has a .326 career minor league on-base percentage and .047 isolated discipline (again, not far from Womack's .319/.044). Looking at the stats above, his isolated discipline thus far this year has been .035 as he's drawn just six walks in 114 plate appearances (one every 19 PA). Also, these are his numbers at triple-A, and are sure to decrease with a move to the majors (PECOTA projected him at .255/.298/.389 - .231 GPA). Consider the case of Andy Phillips, who posted a .366 career minor league OBP with a .070 ISD by drawing a walk once every 10.6 plate appearances, but has yet to draw a walk in 33 major leagues trips.
I've been suspicious of Cano for a while, but was willing to believe that, as he's just 22, he could emerge as a legitimate candidate for the Yankees second base job in 2006 with one more full year of triple-A seasoning in 2005. He looked to be making the most of that opportunity in Columbus. One could even argue that his surge in slugging (8 doubles, 3 triples and 4 homers in April) is evidence of typically late-developing power. But I fear this knee-jerk call-up will derail his progress rather than give him a chance that could not yet be described as either much-deserved or long-awaited. Meanwhile, it seemed a fair bet to assume that Bernie would be able to right his typically slow-starting ship to produce numbers similar to those he put up over the past two seasons, which were markedly better than Cano's career minor league numbers (.252 GPA).
Of course, if anyone thinks that the changes announced last night are going to be permanent, they may also be interested in this bridge I've been trying to sell. To begin with, the Yankees have a minimum of two more roster moves they need to make during this Devil Rays series alone. Cano replaces Karsay, who was designated for assignment, meaning he was removed from the 40-man roster and placed on waivers, where he is likely to be claimed. That restores order by bringing the Yankees down to eleven pitchers with a five-man bench, but it was also announced that Randy Johnson, despite his protestations, will not make his start on Wednesday due to the tightness in the left side of his groin (his push-side) that emerged in the ninth inning of his duel with Roy Halladay on Friday night. The Yankees don't expect to put Johnson on the DL (and by the way, this injury is minor and not related to his age or his knee, so take your told-you-sos elsewhere), but have said that they will call up double-A starter Sean Henn to make Wednesday's start (more on Henn prior to his start tomorrow).
That means someone else will have to go, the most likely candidates being Bubba Crosby and Andy Phillips, who are made somewhat redundant by Bernie's demotion to the bench. Of course, demoting one of them would return the Yankees to 12 pitchers, and then there's the issue of Tanyon Sturtze being ready to come off the DL. Sturtze could hold off until Thursday, and thus replace Henn on the roster, but that's still 12 pitchers, and then there's the impending return of Ruben Sierra perhaps as early as this weekend.
Sierra brings up another point. With Bernie ruled unfit to play center, Sierra, Giambi and Williams give the Yankees three men on their bench who are unfit to play defense. It had been my hope that Phillips, who can hit with power and play three infield positions, would have made Sierra expendable upon his return, but after his diamond tiara performance last night (5Ks), he's looking less and less ready to step into the roll as the Yankees' go-to bat in close and late situations and spot starts, particularly against lefties (he has a fierce small-sample reverse split right now). Not that I've given up hope. I still believe he'd be a better choice than Sierra over the long haul (note to Andy: take a few walks, you'll get better pitches to hit), but given this his window of opportunity he appears to be failing to convince the Yankees of that. Meanwhile, this is just further evidence of how much Giambi's contract screws up even the slightest attempt by the Yankees at proper team-building and roster construction. Sadly, the albatross status of Giambi's contract likely played a part in the Yankees' decision not to sign Carlos Beltran to a similarly lengthy deal this past offseason. As Alex said, this all could have been avoided.
With all of that said, it is my belief that the changes that are being implemented tonight are the prelude to a trade that will occur between now and the end of May, with the two most tantalizing available players being Placido Polanco and Mike Cameron.
Polanco plays Gold Glove-level defense at second (ten runs above average on his career) and can play equally well at short and third. He's currently struggling for playing time behind the hot-hitting rookie Chase Utley (.327/.387/.545 - .310) at second and the ice-cold David Bell (.207/.258/.310 - .194) at third (only Charlie Manuel knows why). I would happily trade Cano and a reliever or two for the 29-year-old Polanco. I would also give serious thought to playing Andy Phillips at third, moving Alex Rodriguez to shortstop, and installing Derek Jeter in center, with Polanco as a possible replacement at third should Phillips scuffle, which at worst would return the second base situation to it's current state and drastically improve centerfield. Polanco hit like Bernie over the past two years, but for a Gold Glove second baseman (as opposed to a stone statue in center) that's mighty fine.
Mike Cameron, meanwhile, is a less desirable option, but one that would more directly address the centerfield situation. Cameron, currently on the Mets 15-day DL with wrist tendonitis, is getting the old Wally Pipp from 23-year-old Victor Diaz (.275/.412/.507 - .312) and is expected to be shopped once he's activated, which could be as soon as this weekend. Cameron is almost three years older that Polanco, makes more money this season and, whereas Polanco is playing on a one-year arbitration deal having failed to find a suitor as a free agent this offseason [pause for the fire in my belly to subside], is under contract for $8 million next year with a $6.5/0.5 million option for 2007. Cameron is a two-time Gold Glove winner in center who is indeed above average in the field (topping out at ten runs above average in 2003). At the plate, he's more of a mixed bag, and could actually bring about a decrease in production compared to Bernie's last two seasons, particularly if the wrist tendonitis which as him on the DL effects the speed and strength of his swing and the severe decrease of plate discipline that dropped his OBP to .319 last year is reinforced by the fact that he also hit 30 homers for the first time in his career in 2004. Still, his defense just might be worth the gamble on his bat.
Ah, but that's all mere speculation. Hopefully we'll have something concrete to discuss in the near future. In the meanwhile, the Frankenyanks make their debut behind Kevin Brown at the Trop tonight. I can't say I'm eager to see this.