Is Hal Steinbrenner ruining the Yankees?

image from newday.com

The last two seasons for Yankees fans have been rather...interesting.  First, we had 2013's injury extravaganza, with the starting catcher, first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, backup third baseman, and left fielder all injured for major parts of the season; yet despite players like Chris Stewart and Vernon Wells getting regular playing time, the team was still in the playoff hunt until the last week of the season.  Then there is this season, with 5 starting pitchers sitting on the DL and the supposedly-revamped offense hitting even worse than last season's.

To put it bluntly, this team has been overachieving mediocrity for the past two seasons, which begs the question: are Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi doing something wrong?

I'd like to redirect the question, however.  Is Hal Steinbrenner to blame?

Say what you want about his father George, the Boss only cared about one thing - winning.  If he felt he needed to fire managers, he fired managers; if there was a big bat on the free agent market that he wanted, then he would go to the ends of the earth to make sure that player was wearing pinstripes the following season.  In the Evil Empire (honestly, it's surprising it took so long for the Yankees to receive that name), he was not just the Emperor, he was Emperor, Darth Vader, and Grand Moff Tarkin.  Baseball was not just his game, it was his life.

And then there is Hal, who has been in control of the team's day-to-day activities since November 2008, and has been part of the decision-making process since even before then.  He has presided over three division titles, four playoff appearances, and the 2009 World Series champions; but in recent years, the team has not had been of the same quality as it has been, and for several reasons.

Everyone who follows the Yankees even remotely knew that going into this past offseason, Hal Steinbrenner had demanded that the team keep to a budget of $189M, the luxury tax limit; although that seems like an incredibly large budget for most teams, when you factor in the fact that the Yankees had massive salaries like CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez already on the books, that is actually fairly limiting, forcing the Yankees to fill out most of their roster with essentially the same budget as the Astros and Cubs, but without the strong farm system to make it possible.  His logic, in theory, makes sense - be budget-minded for one season to reset the luxury tax limits, then splurge the following offseason.  But it is the New York Yankees; the team prints money, and that statement comes from a Yankees fan; everything in the stadium is absurdly expensive, tickets are off-the-charts costly, and it sells merchandise throughout the world.  Unless they know something we don't, then they really should not be fretting over a few million dollars, which is ultimately what the luxury tax limit would save them.

Just like his father George, he has taken a very active (albeit less obvious) role in the formation of the team, often overriding Brian Cashman.  He was the one who gave Ichiro the two-year contract.  He's the one who insisted on the trade for Alfonso Soriano last season.  He's the one who signed Rafael Soriano.  He's the one who....well, you get the idea.  Hal has often ignored Brian Cashman's judgment and has done what he wanted, even if it made little-to-no baseball sense.  Signing Ichiro for one year was questionable, but two was just absurd; but it gave the team the Japanese star - and thus the Japanese market - it had lacked since Hideki Matsui's departure.  While trading for Alfonso Soriano was brilliant short-term, it hurt the team this season and forced them to give up a pitching prospect that Cashman wanted to keep; although I feel Cash is a bit too clingy with his pitching prospects, the logic here was sound: Soriano was up there in age and a one-trick pony.  Once his bat speed diminished and he could not mash the ball, he was useless.  But at the time, it reinvigorated the fanbase for the playoff race, and helped draw people to the stadium.  It brought in revenue.

That's how Steinbrenner runs this team - the bottom line.

While I often disagree with what Cashman does, in general I consider him an amazing GM; through the years, he has made great signings and trades, such as Eric Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Lyle Overbay, and this year's trio of Headley, Prado, and McCarthy.  Generally speaking, he has a good read on prospects; he liked Gardner and Cervelli even before they were considered starter-quality players, and now Gardner is ranked among the league's top underrated players and Cervelli would start in many organizations.  He traded Jesus Montero when many still believed he would be a serviceable catcher.  Every year, he makes the right moves during the season to strengthen the team, and as a friend of mine put it, "he and Theo Epstein (when he was Boston's GM) would engage in a chess match when the two teams dominated the division."  He makes the most of what he has, and in truth, his player development and amateur scouting colleagues are well below-average, on the whole.  Cashman gets a lot of blame when things go wrong, but oftentimes, he's the one keeping the team afloat, especially the last two seasons.

Girardi is another person often the target of criticism, but again, he is one of the team's unsung heroes.  Since 2008, he has seen the bullpen through a number of transitions but has always kept it among the team's major strengths.  With minor issues (such as his insistence on batting Jeter second all through the season and giving Vernon Wells ABs even with Soriano and Granderson on the roster), he has maximized his team in a way few other managers do.  When the time is right, he makes the difficult and controversial decisions, such as pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez in the 2012 ALDS.  If it were not for him, the Yankees would not still be in the playoff hunt this season.

And yet however interesting this season has been, a lot of these issues could have been avoided if Hal Steinbrenner had taken a step back.  Baseball-wise, there were plenty other alternatives to Ichiro, almost all of which would have been better; but none commanded overseas markets like he did.  Alfonso Soriano brought a "hero's return" storyline that generated excitement down the stretch last season, but dubious from a baseball perspective; it was fortunate that he hit like he did down the stretch last season.  And a plethora of other situations would not have happened had the team not insisted on the $189M goal for multiple seasons.  We would be in a very different boat, and arguably a much better one.

That is not to say that the Yankees are totally down on their luck, exactly.  The farm system, although small, looks promising.  The pitching staff, for the first time in many years, looks like a major strength going into the offseason, with plenty of possibility for improvement this offseason.  The team has plenty of flexibility to improve the roster going into the offseason, and could see major developments from multiple prospects as soon as next season.  But the downward trend is beginning, and if Hal Steinbrenner does not back off his bottom-line-above-all policy, then in a few years, baseball fans across the world just might need to find a new worst enemy as they watch the Evil Empire slowly collapse.

Yankees' Pitching Staff Needs Reinforcements

Yankees fans have been hearing all year that this year's star-filled lineup has been hitting significantly worse than last year's rag-tag team which gave regular ABs to Jayson Nix and Chris Stewart.  And although the bats need to start hitting for this team to consistently win, there is, in my opinion, one very concrete issue that needs fixing - the pitching.

I know it seems blasphemous - despite injuries to 4/5 of the starting rotation, the pitching staff has been one of the main reasons this team is still in the pennant race at this point.  It's not talent I'm concerned about - it's fatigue.

Last year, this team was in much the same boat - weak lineup, consistent pitching staff, strong bullpen.  And although the lineup was reinvigorated by reinforcements, namely Alfonso Soriano and Curtis Granderson, both the rotation and 'pen slipped throughout September, especially the bullpen.  The main culprit?  Fatigue.  Just like last year, the starters have been unable to go deep into games on a consistent basis, refusing to give the relievers a rest, and with so many close games, Girardi was forced to lean on his top arms - Robertson, Logan, and Rivera.  With the exception of Mo, his top arms failed him more and more as the month progressed, and in many ways, it was a miracle that their arms didn't fall off.

Not only can that exact scenario happen again, it already is.  Robertson, Warren, and Kelley have not been as sharp of late, and other bullpen options Esmil Rogers, David Huff, and Rich Hill don't exactly inspire confidence.  Capuano and Kuroda cannot seem to get out of the 6th more often than not, Shane Greene is still, after all, just a rookie, Kuroda's arm failed him down the stretch last season and thus needs to be monitored, and Pineda just returned for the first time since April.  The bullpen needs a breather, and the pitching staff needs fresh arms.

Fortunately, help not only can be on the way, it already is.  Possibly as early as his next start, Pineda should be back to full strength, and if he continues dominating the way he did in April and since his return, the Yankees will have traded for an ace from their own DL.  Same with Tanaka - although once he returns, he will be watched with extreme care, there is literally zero reason to doubt that his return would bolster the rotation, and quite possibly breathe new life into the team.

On the back end of things, it's actually a minor miracle for Rogers, Huff, and Hill that they're still around.  Although Huff has been pretty dominant, the Yankees have better options for all three in the minors - Tyler Webb and Jacob Lindgren leading the way - and David Phelps, once he returns, will return to provide relief to the bullpen.

With September 1 call-ups around the corner, expect the Yankees to bring up several fresh arms - and use them, too.  Although the lineup is the area of weakness, in order for the pitching staff to carry this team to the playoffs, the Yankees need all arms on deck throughout the month of September.

Yanks - Sacrifice Defense for Offense?

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports; pic from NY Daily News

At what point in the season do you seriously say, "Screw it, let's try the most outrageous things and pray they work?"

I feel like this blog, and every other Yankees-dedicated site on the Internet, has been highly repetitive - the Yankees cannot hit a lick.  After suffering terrible defense most of the year, the team has finally put together a serviceable infield with Chase Headley at 3B and Martin Prado/Stephen Drew at 2B.  But is it worth it?

Everyone who has seen Stephen Drew this season has said the same thing - the guy is less than worthless at the plate.  Since coming to the Bronx, he has generated all of his value from his glove, and has been a complete waste of a lineup spot, posting a .167/.224/.296 line.  In a lineup that has been the worst in baseball during the month of August and among the worst all season, that is simply unacceptable.

With the team utilizing a DH-by-committee to rest their older players while keeping their bats in the lineup, creating a generic platoon system for this team is rather difficult, but a few things can - and should - be noted:

1. Martin Prado posts a .367/.400/.633 line against LHP this season, compared to a .243/.289/.319 line against RHP.

2. Francisco Cervelli hits .303 against RHP with a .361 OBP and .461 SLG, plus 1 HR, 5 RBI, and 9 doubles; although his slugging percentage is relatively high against lefties, his AVG/OBP are nowhere near as well.

3. Ichiro has a .356/.412/.444 line against lefties, compared to .264/.306/.305 against righties.

4. Beltran has a .249/.317/.452 line against righties and a .212/.248/.356 line against lefties.

5. When Jeter sits, he needs to sit against lefties; it's not a big difference, but it helps.

In theory, the best combination would be to have Prado in right, Cervelli at 2B, and Beltran DH-ing against righties, and Beltran in right, Prado at 2B, and whomever DH-ing.  Now, that is certainly not going to happen, because Beltran cannot play the field at a semi-regular basis, and Cervelli is needed to back up McCann, as well as play behind the plate with Greene (and possibly McCarthy), and just flat-out not being an infielder. 

But that begs the question - when is it time to say "Forget logic" and ask the ridiculous questions.  Can Cervelli play a competent 2B?  Which is more valuable - offense or defense?  Is playing the hot bat with a bad glove worth it?  Or does it depend on whether the starter is a groundball- or flyball-pitcher?

Do I have the answers for sure?  No, of course not; if I did, the Yankees would be paying me to do Cashman's and Girardi's jobs.  But at this point of the season, is it worth a shot?

The answer, unfortunately, is clear - beggars can't be choosers, and this team needs to roll the dice if it wants even the 2nd wild card.

Pineda strong in return, but bats fail to show up, again

Honestly this is getting a little ridiculous: Day in day out the narrative for the game recap is the same: the pitching dominated but had one bad inning, the bats couldn't get anything going and the team lost.......again.

Michael Pineda was strong in his return from the DL, giving up one run over five innings and retiring the first 12 Orioles hitters. His fastball sat in the low-to-mid 90s and his slider had a lot of bite on it, and he showed last night that he can be an important piece in this rotation for the next few years (assuming he can stay healthy, of course).

Likewise, All-Star reliever Dellin Betances dominated the Orioles last night, striking out four in 2-1/3 before giving up a homerun to Jonathan Schoop to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth. From there, Shawn Kelley let the game get out of hand and surrendered three runs as the Yankees lost 5 to 3.

Aside from a two-run homer by Francisco Cervelli, the Yankees offense could not get going until the ninth, and by then it was too little, too late. The Yankees thought they caught a break when Stephen Drew appeared to reach base on an infield single, but then was called out for running out of the baseline. The arguments on this particular call are endless, but one thing is certain - the Yankees missed a big chance, and they come few are far between with this offense.

An off-day tonight, and then the Yanks journey to Tampa Bay to face the Rays.

Yankees - Taking Organizational Inventory

Starting next spring, Gardner and Teixeira will be two of the few links to the 2009 championship left in the Bronx......picture from http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/9ad28ca8df70ae7ae08514394104d9662a128c70/c=0-53-512-341&r=x1803&c=3200x1800/local/-/media/Westchester/2014/07/30/Gardner-and-Teixeira.jpg

Almost exactly one year ago,I decreed that the Yankee season was officially over; while this turned out to be rather wrong, as the team kept their playoff hopes alive until the last week of the season.  I will not be making such a bold prediction now, but I do believe that it is time to take stock of the organization and begin to prepare for the impending offseason.

Let's begin first by listing all the players under team control for 2015, along with their projected salaries(arbitration-eligible and pre-arb players' salaries are predictions, and rookies are given $500K; also includes players not on 40-man):

C Brian McCann ($17M), Francisco Cervelli ($800K), John Ryan Murphy ($520K)

1B Mark Teixeira, $23.125M

2B Robert Refsynder (ROOKIE)

OF Brett Gardner ($12.5M), Jacoby Ellsbury ($21.14M), Carlos Beltran ($15M), Zoilo Almonte ($530K)

CF RF Carlos Beltran, $15M

3B Alex Rodriguez, $22M

UT Martin Prado ($11M), Jose Pirela (ROOKIE)

IF Brendan Ryan, $2M

SP Masahiro Tanaka ($22M), CC Sabathia ($23M), Michael Pineda ($550K), Ivan Nova ($3.6M), David Phelps ($1.2M), Shane Greene ($500K), Chase Whitley ($500K)

RP Dellin Betances ($520K), Adam Warren ($600K, Shawn Kelley ($2M), Jake Lindgren (ROOKIE), Preston Claiborne ($550K), Bryan Mitchell (ROOKIE), Tyler Webb (ROOKIE)

So this bunch of players which vaguely resembles a baseball team would cost a grand total of $183,137,857; one of the highest payrolls in baseball already, and there's still a lot to be desired.  For example, this team lacks a true SS, has a big question mark at 3B with Alex Rodriguez, and could use additional starting pitching, as Ivan Nova is recovering from Tommy John surgery, Masahiro Tanaka's status is uncertain for next year and CC Sabathia is recovering from major knee surgery and has not pitched well of late even when healthy.

Fortunately, some possible options are already on the roster, and in fact may be already "auditioning" for the 2015 squad - Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Brandon McCarthy.  Since arriving in the Bronx in July, Headley and McCarthy have done nothing but shine; Headley has been driving the ball with more authority and continuing to make excellent plays on defense, while McCarthy has reinvented himself once more, pitching to the tune of 4-1 with a 2.12 ERA, and the sabermetrics show that this is no mere aberation - he has truly dominated opposing lineups since arriving.  While Stephen Drew has not exactly gotten off to a flying start, he has brought excellent defense to 2B and has already proven that he can handle the pressures of the AL East; in fact, his struggles, like Kendrys Morales's, can be attributed to the extended hold-out at the beginning of the season and lack of a true spring training.

Things are not exactly at their brightest in the Bronx at the moment, but the team does look to be in good shape to make major roster upgrades in the coming winter.  Minor league phenom Rob Refsnyder looks ready to step in at 2B next spring, and should almost certainly be given the job; fellow prospect Jose Pirela has shined at AAA as well, and could see regular playing time as a Ben Zobrist-type player - he has played 2B, SS, 1B, and OF in the minors, and was strong defensively at all positions.  Combined with 3B/2B/LF/RF Martin Prado and IF Brenday Ryan, and the Yankees look to have some much-needed roster flexibility, as the team will most likely utilize a revolving-door DH with Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, and other aging stars.

As mentioned earlier, the team could use some additional pitching depth and a few impact arms in case Tanaka needs surgery.  While the rotation has been a strength this season, none of them are or even project to be front-line starters; while an abundance of #3 types is nice, the addition of one or more #1 or #2 starters this offseason would turn this rotation into one of the most feared in baseball.

Is Stephen Drew auditioning for Jeter's spot?

Jeter and Drew are the Yanks DP-combo for the rest of the season, but is Drew really here to succeed the Captain? Pic from ESPN.GO.COM, Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Unless you're living on a rock, you know that this is Derek Jeter's last season.  Everywhere you look, somebody - the YES Network, other MLB teams, Michael Jordan, ESPN, random fan in section 403, row E, seat 9 - is honoring the life and career of the future Hall of Fame shortstop.

Actually, no, scratch that.  Even if you live under a rock you would know.

While everybody's making a big deal about Jeter's exit, only Troy Tulowitzki is making a big deal about what is fairly obvious - the Yankees, for the first time since 1996, will be entering the offseason without a clue who will man SS the following spring.  Unlike Mariono Rivera, who had an obvious successor in David Robertson, the Captain has no heir apparent. 

Which begs the question: did the Yankees trade for Stephen Drew with the intention of replacing Jeter?

Now, at the onset, that seems quite ridiculous - after all, he's not under contract for next season, has been hitting quite horribly this season, and for me at least, his swing did not seem the perfect fit for Yankee Stadium (he may be a lefty bat, but he's not exactly a power bat).  And noticeably, he was called on to play 2B, not SS.

But think about it a moment - what possibilities are available for next season?  Besides Drew, they are:

1. Hanley Ramirez, free agent - Perhaps the biggest name on the market, has potential to hit for power and for average, gets on base a ton, and has excelled in a relatively-big market like LA.  He'll cost big though, including a draft pick, and will require big bucks to steal from the Dodgers.  Very poor defensively, and may project more as a 3B.  *Might* be worth it, on the right deal.

2. J.J. Hardy, free agent - A very intriguing option for the Yankees - he's shown that he can perform in the AL East, plays excellent defense, and has hit for power, although not this year.  Does not get on base all that often, as of late, last having an OBP of .310+ in 2011. Depending on the Baltimore front office, he might be tied to draft compensation.

3. Jose Pirela, AAA - He's been raking in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year, posting a .313/.358/.440 line with 8 HR and 12 SB in 469 AB, all while playing solid defense at 2B, SS, 1B, and the outfield.  While he very well might succeed at the big league level right now if given the opportunity, the Yankees might not be comfortable putting two rookies in their infield (him and Rob Refsynder, next year's projected 2B); for next season at least, expect him to be a super-utility player, much like Ben Zobrist.

Stephen Drew plays solid defense, as can be seen by his near-seemless transition to 2B.  He's shown that he can handle a tough town like New York, and is no slouch at the plate either; I'd argue that his struggles to date were due to a lack of spring training - since coming to NY, he's gone 5-for-13 with 2 XBH and 5 RBIs.  He's clearly not the worst choice of the bunch.

Further evidence for this reasoning comes with who they gave up - Kelly Johnson.  Despite playing only 3B, 1B, LF, and RF, he still is first and foremost a 2B; granted, he may currently be injured, but common sense would dictate that if you wanted Brian Roberts gone, you could simply plug in the 2B on your roster.  But they didn't - in fact, they traded him away to get a natural SS to play 2B, which many view as comical .

But this move might have been based not just on this season, but with an eye towards 2015 and beyond.  If he finishes the season strong, it might not be a bad idea to re-sign Drew and let him at least start the season there; if he doesn't perform and Jose Pirela or somebody else does, then simply plug him there and turn Drew into a backup utility infielder - by playing him at second this year, you're expanding his usefulness for the future.

Is this definitely what the Yankees are doing?  Not necessarily.  But while fighting down the stretch this season, it's not unthinkable that the Yankees are already looking towards the post-Derek Jeter days.

Yanks' Beleaguered Pitching Needs Help, Not Excuses

David Robertson has led the Yankees bullpen, one of the best in baseball; but now its arms are burning from overuse; pic from ESPN.GO.COM, AP Photo/John Minchillo

The fans are tired of it.  The pitching staff is tired of it.  Even Joe Girardi, ever the optimist, is tired of it.  And most tellingly, even the hitters are tired of it.

Enough is enough.  No more saying, "The bats will come around," "These guys are better than this," "They're due for positive regression, any day now."  The offense must come out of its shell.

Time is running out.

Even with a -29 run differential, which says the Yankees should sit 7 games below .500 at 51-58, battling for last place with the Boston Red Sox, New York is still in contention.  The team is 56-53, just five games out of first in the division and 2.5 out of the second wild card spot.

All that is thanks to the elite bullpen and patchwork rotation which, despite injuries to 4/5 the Opening Day rotation, has produced at league average.  To date, the Yankees have used 28 pitchers, including 17 different relievers and Dean Anna.  The 'pen leads all bullpens with 391 strikeouts, led by closer David Robertson (26/28 saves, whose 2.81 ERA and 1.08 WHIP are inflated by one atrocious outing), All-Star setup man Dellin Betances, and middle-inning rocks Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren.  It has been a major strength, consistently preserving slim leads and picking up the slack for the rotation, which has been unable to regularly go deep into ballgames.

But elite use brings overuse, even for Girardi's well-managed bullpen, and overuse brings fatigue, and fatigue brings reduced effectiveness.  Anybody who has seen the Yankees lately has noticed that this has been true, with the exception of David Robertson and Shawn Kelley.  Adam Warren and Dellin Betances have seen their average velocities slightly dip, their breaking pitches not as sharp, their mechanics clumsy and off, their control shaky; this was fully on display in the Yanks' 12-11 win against the league-worst Texas.  Sure, Betances may have reached 101 on his fastball the other day , but it required a full 3 days rest, and was during a much-win game on national TV, when adrenaline is at its highest.  

There are two possible ways to reduce the workload of the bullpen.  First is most obvious - the rotation needs to go deeper into games.  While you would not expect the likes of Chris Capuano and Shane Greene to consistently take games into the 7th, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, and David Phelps (pending injury) very well can, and help is on the way.  Michael Pineda reached 94 MPH on his fastball Sunday during his rehab start and may return from the DL sooner than expected, possibly as early as 10 days from now; if he picks up where he left off in April, besides the pine tar, he will effectively be the Yankees' equivalent of a trade deadline front starter acquisition.  And perhaps even more importantly, rookie phenom Masahiro Tanaka will play catch tomorrow; if all goes well, he may well be back on the mound to lead the Yankees' September playoff push.

Rotation reinforcements notwithstanding, the Yankees can still find bullpen help....in the lineup.  This lineup has the potential to be, if not elite, at least very good, especially with the latest acquisitions of Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado, and all of whom have started hitting well lately.  But that means naught if Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, and Brian McCann don't start performing even remotely near their career norms.  To date, Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira have been leading this weak lineup; at times, they have been the only ones hitting the ball hard on a somewhat regular basis.  But that has to change - they can't do it alone.

While it may seem apples and oranges, an offensive surge will definitely help the bullpen.  When the offense scores 9 or 10 runs, or even 6 or 7, you usually don't need to go to your best relievers; you might even get away with just using your mop-up guy, or leaving your starter in longer and let him get himself out of trouble.  When the offense scores runs, the manager has more options.  This year, Girardi has had to manage as if one or two runs given up means game over; if the offense can pick it up, he can give himself - and especially the bullpen - a little room to breathe.

The relievers have been saving this team from a lot of trouble this year; it's time for the offense to stop making excuses and instead return the favor.

Roster Flexibility is Baseball's New Inefficiency

The movie Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt (shown here), has brought sabermetrics and small-market strategies to the public. Now its time for the next (albeit small) shift in the baseball market.

Moneyball - everybody knows it.  Baseball fans, moviegoers, the tourists from Luxembourg and Palau.

At heart, "Moneyball" is very simple - exploit the inefficiencies of the current baseball market to put the best product possible on the field.  It is both simple and complex, looking at things like flyball/groundball rates, BABIP discrepancies, platoon splits, and most famously, OBP.  It's constantly evolving, constantly finding new sources of inefficiency, constantly redefining itself in the ever-changing baseball atmosphere.  And, despite popular belief, it's not just the ideology of the small market - both the Yankees and Red Sox are known to heavily use sabermetrics and follow these principles.

Well, lately, I've been thinking about what the next inefficiency in baseball will be, and I noticed a trend.

1. Analysts are making a huge deal about the Yankees playing many players out of position this season (Kelly Johnson, Yangervis Solarte, Brendan Ryan, Stephen Drew, Martin Prado)

2. Ben Zobrist has done everything except catch, and has accumulated 34.5 WAR over 9 seasons

3. The Rays traded ace David Price for a mid-rotation pitcher and a utility player (Nick Franklin)

For a while, that first one was really bugging me - I played in various local baseball rec leads for ten years, and I spent time literally everywhere except 2B and behind the plate.  These guys are major league ballplayers; at some point in their lives, all of them were the best players on the field, and so probably played SS and/or CF.  In my mind, while I understand changing positions is not the easiest thing to do in the world, it's not as big of a deal as people make it out to be.  All it takes is some - *gasp* - practice.  Especially for shifts like SS to 3B, or any position to 1B.

Now let me make myself clear - a player learning a new position can not and will not become a defensive whiz overnight.  It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes mistakes - and unfortunately, sometimes in games too; oftentimes, the mistakes made aren't physical, but instead mental (for example, Brian McCann did not know what to do against the Blue Jays) .  While a player might know in theory what to do, in the heat of the game he might panic and freeze.  That's understandable, and does explain why many teams are reluctant to play guys out of position.

Which is exactly why I believe that this exact sort of thing will become the new inefficiency exploited by teams.  Right now, what's stopping a team from pinch-running for their first baseman in the top of the ninth of a tied game?  The fact that the only other player on the team who can play first base is DH-ing.  Pinch-hitting for the weak-hitting second baseman?  The other 2B is playing third, the LF only has three career innings at 3B, and the team has no OF on the bench. 

When a situation arises where a player is played out of position, it becomes a big deal.  Remember that epic 13-inning game between Boston and New York on July 1, 2004?  After Derek Jeter bloodied himself in the stands, people forget what happened next - 3B Alex Rodriguez moved back to his natural SS, RF Gary Sheffield moved to 3B, Ruben Sierra moved to RF, Bubba Crosby moved to LF, and DH Bernie Williams took the field in center.  Or that game on July 7, 2003, when Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano were injured in the first inning?  Robin Ventura played 2B for the first time in his career. Vernon Wells played both 2B and 3B last year; same with Francisco Cervelli; remember Lyle Overbay, right-fielder?

Point is - all these games are etched in my mind, just like all those games where a fielder comes in to pitch.  At the time, it's either funny or scary, depending on the exact circumstances of the game.  But it's not that big of a deal - in no cases were there any catastrophes in the field; in fact, Vernon Wells made a neat play at third base!

These guys are all professionals; they can all play ball.  That's why I think teams are about to place more value in players who can play multiple positions competently.  It's much easier to mix-and-match during a game when half the players on the field and your entire bench can play three or four positions each, especially for a National League team.  Resting players and giving them half-days off as DHs also becomes easier when you have multiple options at every position, and especially if you have a few guys who can play catcher in addition to one or two other positions.

Unlike platoons, OBP, and the focus on BABIP and sabermetrics, player flexibility is not going to revolutionize baseball; it is extremely unlikely you can build a team centered on players who can play three or four different positions.  But it will give managers more options and peace of mind in the field, and might just be worth a few wins - and that's all that might stand between October golf and October glory.

Yankees Acquire Stephen Drew and Martin Prado

(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images); from http://boston.cbslocal.com/2014/05/20/report-red-sox-sign-stephen-drew/

The impossible has happened - for the first time since a minor trade in 1997, AL East rivals Yankees and Red Sox have completed a trade, swapping infielders.  The Yankees have sent utilityman Kelly Johnson (currently on the DL) to Boston and received Stephen Drew in return.  According to sources, Drew has been told that he will become the team's primary second baseman, replacing Brian Roberts, who has been DFAed.

Both Johnson and Roberts have not provided the Yankees with much this season, both offensively and defensively this season - Roberts leads all 2B in errors - and while Stephen Drew has not been all that impressive this season (.176 AVG, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 0.3 WAR), he is strong defensively, provides the Yankees with some flexibility around the infield, and there is the hope that a change of scenery and a pennant race will spark his bat.

Also today the Yankees traded power-hitting prospect Pete O'Brien to the Diamondbacks for 3B/OF Martin Prado.  Prado, who is under contract for next season, has a .270/.317/.370 line with 5 HR, 42 RBI, and 1.3 WAR.  While not exactly a big bat, he does provide the Yankees with power in RF, his expected position in the Bronx, and will serve as a definite upgrade.

Based off the last two weeks, it is clear what Brian Cashman's strategy this July was - for a fringe playoff team like the Yankees, rather than gambling the (limited) farm for an outside shot at October, he made several minor gambles that could greatly improve the team - Chase Headley, Brandon McCarthy, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado - all while giving up only replacement-level players and low-level prospects.

How will this gamble pay off?  We won't know until October.

The Yankees Problem - They Can't Get on Base

Gardner and Ellsbury lead a weak Yankees offense..........picture from http://itsaboutthemoney.net/archives/2014/04/15/gardner-and-ellsbury-living-up-to-new-contracts/
Given that the Yankees have lost 4/5 of their starting rotation, common sense would dictate that the Yankees' number one problem this season would be pitching. But so far, it has not. Thanks to an elite bullpen and strong outings from the likes of Chase Whitley and Shane Greene, New York has has a 3.81 team ERA, smack in the middle of the AL, a solid 1.255 WHIP, and are 3rd in the league with 857 K (for reference, better than last year's rotation, which carried the team, and the 2009 championship team).

Just like the trainwreck that was 2013, and despite the acquisitions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, the problem this year is hitting - and in some cases, this year's offense has been worse than last year's. Let's compare the two:
                         2013                2014 (scaled to 162 G)
     AVG              .242                         .252
     OBP              .307                         .313
     H                   1321                        1385
     R                    650                          634
     HR                  144                          136
     SB                   115                          114

Neither of these are all that inspiring, but it's amazing to realize that in a lot of ways, last year's lineup did better - a lineup which gave regular ABs to Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Jayson Nix, Travis Hafner, and even Chris Stewart, who combine this year to have a line of .229 AVG/5 HR/35 RBI/-0.5 WAR!

So what, exactly, is the problem? After replacing those guys with Ellsbury, Beltran, and McCann, while also seeing a surprise run by fan-fav Yangervis Solarte and the returns of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, this offense was supposed to be at least consistent, if not flat-out dangerous. But it's not - why?

It seems cliche, but it's really simple - they can't get on base. As already mentioned, this team has an OBP of .313, 12th in the AL; only Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have OBP over .350, which is what I consider a "good" OBP; again, for perspective, in 2012, Eric Chavez's was .348.

This team needs to simply get on base more. Unfortunately, that's a case of easier-said-than-done, especially this point in the year. Ellsbury and Gardner must continue to produce, as must Jeter and Teixeira. Brian Roberts and McCann must continue their recent hot streaks. Beltran needs to get fully healthy and drive the ball. Chase Headley must continue to recapture his old self. And Girardi must play the hot hand whenever he can, like Francisco Cervelli right now.

But most importantly, this team needs to capitalize whenever a runner finds himself in scoring position; this offense-starved team cannot afford to leave runners on base, because they simply don't find themselves there all that often. Fortunately for them, the Blue Jays lack pitching, and the Orioles' offense isn't much better.