Grading the New York Yankees' Offseason Moves so Far
It was a very busy December for New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
In addressing a plethora of needs the club had as a result of free agency and poor performance, Cashman has ensured that the team on the field in 2014 will be very different from the one that finished 2013.
Let's take a closer look at the Yankees' offseason moves so far and give our best shot at evaluating each.
On December 5 the Yankees introduced catcher Brian McCann after signing him to a five-year, $85 million contract.
Following a poor season both at the plate and behind it, the catching position for the Bombers needed an overhaul. It was no surprise that one of the team's first offseason moves was to sign a backstop.
McCann has six consecutive seasons with at least 20 or more home runs and carries a .277 career batting average. As a left-handed hitter it would seem that the former Atlanta Brave is a perfect fit given Yankee Stadium's short right field porch.
Behind the plate McCann was rated as one of the top five pitch framers in baseball by Baseball Prospectus last year.
The biggest problem with Brian McCann is his ability to play a full season. It has been three years since he last played in more than 130 games, and 2013 represented the lowest total number (102) of games he participated in since his rookie season in 2005.
In spite of his history of health issues and mediocre ability to throw runners out, McCann brings a leadership both at the plate and in the field that the Yankees lacked in 2013. Of all the signings to this point, this one was the most necessary offensively for the team.
Desperate for a healthy, dependable fielder to man the shortstop position during their final September push to make the playoffs in 2013, the Yankees acquired Brendan Ryan of the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later.
While the playoff run failed, the hole left at shortstop by the absence of Derek Jeter was filled at least temporarily.
On December 2 the Bombers brought Ryan back, signing the free agent to a two-year deal.
Ryan is first and foremost a fielder. At shortstop in 2013, he ranked fifth in the AL in range factor (total number of outs participated in) and tenth in fielding percentage (.972) among those with at least 100 games played (he played in 101 games with the Mariners and Yankees).
In 17 games with the Yankees last season, Ryan made one error in 77 chances and turned 12 double plays. He was a welcome sight at shortstop as the team's primary resource at the spot in 2013, Eduardo Nunez, fielded at just a .953 clip.
On the bases Ryan has had success, stealing 67 out of 100 attempts in his career.
His range and solid play on the field made him a valuable asset in September and make him a reliable backup at short heading into 2014.
Ryan will not be known for his prowess at the plate.
A career .237 hitter, he batted .220 in his 17 games with the Yankees (.197 for the year) with a .563 OPS, ranking him among the worst hitting shortstops in the AL. The 11 times he hit into double plays in 2013 rank him in the bottom half of MLB for his position.
Ryan's ability in the field makes him a dependable backup, especially on the days that Derek Jeter is in the lineup as DH. Unfortunately his anemic results as a hitter will keep him near or at the bottom of the order and mean that his playing time will be limited with the Yankees. A good backup gets a good backup grade.
Curtis Granderson's stay with the Yankees came to an end after 2013 and he went on to greener pastures across town with the Mets.
"Grandy" manned center field for the better part of four seasons for the Bombers and averaged 29 home runs and 77 RBI during his stay. In 2013 Granderson only saw action in 61 games for the team, forcing Brett Gardner to shift from left to center for most of the year.
Granderson's departure meant the team was left with Gardner and a cast of aging stars that included 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano, 40-year-old Ichiro Suzuki and 35-year-old Vernon Wells to occupy the outfield in the Bronx.
While Soriano was the most productive of the three "elders," his skills are better suited for a DH spot in the order. Both Suzuki and Wells have shown that their best days are in the rear-view mirror.
In an effort to bolster the outfield and ensure that Gardner would be able to play his natural left field spot, the Yankees signed Boston Red Sox free agent Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract.
Jacoby Ellsbury is 30 years old, making him the youngest of the starting outfielders (yes, he's younger than Gardner by a month).
Like Gardner, Ellsbury is a threat on the basepaths. Three times he has led the league in stolen bases, including last season with 52 swipes. More often than not his speed leads to runs, and he has scored 90 or more runs in four of the last six years.
In addition to his speed, Ellsbury can flat-out hit. He holds a career .297 batting average and in 2013 hit .304 with runners in scoring position (RISP)—a category the Yankees have struggled with in recent years.
In the postseason Ellsbury has proven himself at the plate, hitting .301 over 38 playoff and World Series games.
As a fielder, the center fielder has shown great range, ranking 10th in MLB in range factor. Last season he had just three errors in 353 chances, posting a .992 fielding percentage.
For the Yankees, the biggest concern with Ellsbury is his health. Only twice in his seven-year career has he reached 150 games, the last being in 2011 when he hit .321 with 32 home runs and 105 RBI. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote of the center fielder and injury proneness. It's an interesting article that chronicles Ellsbury's injuries and their causes.
The point being that it seems none of his setbacks would be categorized as "chronic" and appear to be the result of "freak," random events. Still, his inability to remain on the field for a full season has hindered production and as he is signed for most of his 30s, it has to be a concern for the Yankees.
Health issues aside, Ellsbury's flaws are minimal. His arm strength is below average, and he isn't going to hit many round-trippers (he's hit more than 10 just once in his career).
If Ellsbury can remain healthy, he'll become a valuable cog in the Yankee machine. His range, speed on the bases, ability to hit in clutch situations and hustle will endear him to fans. His addition will inject energy to a group that was teetering on irrelevance.
In early December the Yankees signed infielder Kelly Johnson to a one-year deal. It came shortly after All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano agreed to switch coasts and join the Seattle Mariners, signing a 10-year, $240 million contract.
While Johnson's signing helps to somewhat alleviate the hole left with Cano's departure (no single free agent is going to be the answer), his value isn't strictly limited to second base. The former Atlanta Brave, Arizona Diamondback, Toronto Blue Jay and Tampa Bay Ray brings with him a diverse resume.
Johnson is a versatile player who will give the Yankees solid play from a number of positions. In his career the 31-year-old has experience at third base, outfield and first base in addition to his natural second base. With resources being thin at both second and third, and without a definite backup for Mark Teixeira at first base, chances are that Johnson will see plenty of action in 2014.
At the plate the left-handed hitter has good power (he has hit at least 16 home runs in each of the past four seasons) and he hit .291 with RISP last season.
On the basepaths, Johnson is a surprisingly decent base stealer. He has stolen 79 bases in 112 attempts for his career—a 70 percent rate.
In the field he carries a career .982 fielding percentage at second base, .988 in the outfield and .978 at third base. He won't win Gold Gloves, but he isn't going to embarrass the team either.
In addition to not winning any Gold Gloves, Johnson isn't going to win any batting titles in the foreseeable future. His career batting average is .253 and he hasn't hit higher than .235 since 2010 (with the Arizona Diamondbacks). He strikes out at a Granderson-like rate, posting at least 99 strikeouts each of the last four seasons in spite of not playing in 150 games in any of those years.
His lack of 150-game seasons (just two in eight years) can primarily be attributed to his deficiencies at the plate.
Even though Johnson doesn't hit for average, his versatility in the field will be priceless to this version of the Yankees. Without definite answers for third base (a decision on Alex Rodriguez is expected this month), second base or a backup for first base, his signing was greatly needed.
His power will make him a threat in the lineup (probably lower half) and will provide some protection to the middle of the order. The Yankees could have done far worse than Kelly Johnson in free agency.
It is no secret that right now the Yankees' most pressing need is in building up their starting rotation.
Following the 2013 season, the team's starting five were down to the "starting two" as Andy Pettitte retired, Hiroki Kuroda became a free agent and Phil Hughes pitched himself out of the rotation (and ultimately out of New York). All that remained were CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova along with a stable of either injured (David Phelps) or unproven (Michael Pineda, Adam Warren, David Huff etc.) talent.
The team took a step towards resolving its starter issues by re-signing Kuroda on December 6.
Kuroda has pitched well with the Yankees. In two seasons he's posted a 3.31 ERA and a 1.164 WHIP. At times he has flashed "ace" material. In one seven-week stretch from July 7 through August 12 of last season, Kuroda went 4-1 with a minuscule 0.94 ERA and even more eye-popping 0.94 WHIP. There was even talk of the right-hander being a Cy Young candidate.
The biggest plus the Yankees get from Kuroda is his consistency. They always know what they are going to get with him. In 32 starts last season, he went less than five innings just twice—the last being on May 22.
In spite of his age (he's 38), Kuroda has been remarkably durable in starting at least 30 games in five of his six big league seasons. He provides stability to a very unstable Yankees rotation.
As last season wore on, Kuroda seemed to wear down. Perhaps it was the fact that given a poor season from CC Sabathia (he went 14-13 with a 4.38 ERA), he was leaned on to be the No. 1 guy among the starting five? Or perhaps it was his age? Whatever the case, Kuroda's final eight starts are ones he'd just as soon forget. He went 0-6 and saw his ERA climb from 2.33 to 3.31.
At 38-years-old there aren't many more seasons left in MLB for Kuroda and at some point the "decline" will begin. The Yankees are hoping those final eight starts weren't the beginning of the end for him.
Those final eight starts aside, Kuroda was invaluable to the Yankees in 2013. When Sabathia was struggling the most, Kuroda stepped up and gave them "elite" starter outings. In 2014 his consistency may be needed more than ever. This wasn't just a nice signing for Brian Cashman—it was a necessary one.
Since journeyman Kelly Johnson might be needed at other spots in the field, the Yankees continued to look for more answers to filling the void left at second base.
They hope to have found a solution with 36-year-old Brian Roberts. On December 17 the team signed Roberts to a one-year, $2 million deal.
Roberts was once an All-Star second baseman with the Baltimore Orioles and can hit for power (he hit eight home runs in 77 games last season) as well as steal bases (he has a career 80 percent stolen base success rate).
As 2013 wore on, Roberts became stronger at the plate, hitting five of his eight home runs in September.
In the field he is solid and holds a .987 fielding percentage at second base.
It would appear that Roberts' days of being an All-Star are well behind him. Injuries and age have taken their toll on the second baseman and he hasn't played in more than 77 games (last season) since 2009.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the career .278 hitter has a .233 average over the past four seasons.
Can the Yankees really count on Roberts to man second base every day? His history would seem to tell us "no".
Brian Cashman likes to try to capture "lightning in a bottle" from time to time, and this acquisition has all the appearances of that sort of attempt. It is unlikely that Roberts will be able to make it through the entire season without having to miss some time. Performance-wise he'll give them solid play when he is on the field and may occasionally contribute at the plate.
On December 19 the Yankees officially announced the signing of the soon-to-be 37-year-old Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal.
The 16-year veteran outfielder had spent the previous two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of last year's National League pennant.
In Beltran the Yankees get one of the greatest postseason hitters of all time. Over 10 playoffs and World Series the outfielder has hit .333 with an incredible 1.128 OPS. By contrast, Babe Ruth posted a .326 average and a 1.211 (MLB best) OPS in his 10 postseason series. Of course, postseason success will only be relevant if the Yankees can reach the postseason.
Beltran will help them achieve that goal.
Playoffs and World Series aside, Beltran holds a career .283 batting average (including .296 in 2013) and has hit 20 or more home runs six of the last eight seasons.
As a switch-hitter, he provides Yankees manager Joe Girardi with someone in the heart of the order who will pose a threat regardless of what side of the mound the pitch comes from.
Beltran has some speed on the basepaths (he stole 13 bases in 2012) and is a genuine threat with RISP (he hit .374) and ranked eighth in MLB in that category for players with at least 100 games played in 2013.
In the field, Beltran has a solid .989 fielding percentage in right field.
As mentioned, Beltran is approaching his 37th birthday and a decline statistically is to be expected.
The outfielder tends to be a free-swinger at the plate and has 214 strikeouts over the last two seasons.
In the outfield his range is limited and MLB.com ranked him 14th among right fielders (with at least 100 games played) in range factor.
While some decline is inevitable given his age, Beltran will still represent an upgrade in the lineup from the right field and DH spots. His hitting prowess, desire to be a Yankee and uncanny ability to raise his level of play in the postseason make him a positive pickup for the Yankees. His veteran leadership will prove invaluable as the team enters the stretch run.
When Boone Logan signed with the Colorado Rockies this offseason, the Yankees suddenly found themselves without the valuable "lefty specialist" that Girardi loves to utilize in late-inning matchup situations.
In an effort to fill that valuable role out of the bullpen, the Yankees signed former Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Thornton.
Thornton held opposing left-handed hitters to a .235 average, striking out 20 and walking just three. For the season he yielded just four home runs—a key to being able to pitch in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.
Thornton's performance has declined in recent seasons. Since 2009 he hasn't had a WHIP lower than 1.231 and his strikeouts haven't exceeded his innings pitched since 2011.
Was this really the best left-handed alternative to Boone Logan the Yankees could find?