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5 Big Questions: 2011 New York Yankees

We here at Baseball Professor think about our readers first and ourselves second—albeit a close second. That’s why we decided to reach out to other bloggers (who follow their respective teams more closely than we do) to give you a deeper look into the important issues every fantasy owner has to come to grips with this season. Our eighth installment is with the New York Yankees and comes courtesy of Will Moller from It’s About the Money.

For a complete trip around the Majors, check out the other 2011 team previews in this series.

1) Derek Jeter’s 2010 season was less than ideal. He struggled through the worst season of his career and then got caught up in contract negotiations that didn’t go as smoothly as everyone expected. Still, as the calendar turns to 2011, the Yankees have their captain. Do you expect Jeter to rebound in 2011 or has age finally taken its toll on one of the organization’s all-time greats?


Jeter‘s a hard one to figure. We’ve heard these bells before, most recently following the 2008 season in which Jeter saw significant drops in both his on-base and power tools, leading to (up to that point) the worst single season offensive performance of his career (.343 wOBA). The following year, Jeter was an easy target for the mainstream media, which wondered if Jeter’s glory days were over. He responded with a tremendous 2009, bashing his way to a .334/.406/.465 slash line, while turning in his best defensive year (at least by UZR). The only reason he didn’t win the MVP that season was that Joe Mauer was even more out-of-this-world.

Jeter’s career BABIP is .356—a number he was well shy of last season (.307). This is rather odd, as his ground ball/fly ball ratio was the highest of his career (3.60 relative to a career 2.50 average), and ground balls have higher BABIPs than fly balls. This may be a function of the balls he is swinging at, as his O-Swing rate was by far the highest of his career (28.2% relative to a 20.5% career average) and his O-Contact was equally high (meaning that he’s swinging at and making contact with, balls that are outside of the strike zone a lot more often than previously). Is Jeter’s batting eye slipping? Or is he having to cheat to catch up with fastballs? Both could be contributing factors.

With all the above in mind, the only reasonable answer is that while Jeter’s very unlikely to ever put up an MVP-type season again, he’s very likely to revert back upwards towards his career averages in both BABIP, GB/FB and O-Swing. The deltas (change from season to season) last year were simply too large to be likely trends—they all seem like outliers. Look for Derek Jeter to be (gasp) under appreciated on draft day this season.

2) Like with Jeter, age seems to be catching up with Alex Rodriguez. While the power production was still there, his .270 average and four stolen bases in 2010 were both career worsts. Give us your 2011 projections for ARod.

Look for A-Rod to pick up a bit more speed on the basepaths in 2011—the further he gets from hip surgery, the better. What worries me the most with Alex is the dip in OBP, combined with a similar jump in O-Swing and O-Contact to Jeter (though not quite as dramatic). Come to think of it, this occurred with a number of the bombers’ offensive players (Nick Swisher comes to mind as well), which begs the question: Is batting coach Kevin Long counseling his batters to be less picky (perhaps based on the success Robinson Cano has had with such an approach?)

To me, Alex is at a fairly deep position. Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright,  Kevin Youkilis, Evan Longoria and A-Rod are all premium players, and Adrian Beltre just turned in a monster season in 2010. Even Jose Bautista is a pretty strong player to fill your 3B spot. Especially if you’re taking keepers into account, A-Rod is—at best—3rd on that list, and possibly 4th, which means he’s probably slipping to the 3rd round for a clean start draft. As with Jeter, I bet this makes him under appreciated—he’s a good bet to put up a better season than his 2010, both because his numbers weren’t even close to his career averages, and because he’s further and further away from the surgery. His value is definitely affected by keeper rules in your league and don’t expect another MVP season out of the Yankees 3B going forward.

3) Russell Martin was widely considered one of the game’s best catchers as recently as 2008, but two down seasons since have robbed him of this distinction. Are Yankee Stadium and the Bombers’ offense enough to get Martin going again?

Calling Russell Martin‘s 2009 and 2010 seasons “down” is…well, it’s being very kind. He was very, very good in 2007, when he went .293/.374/.469. Since, his slugging percentage by season: .396, .329, .332. He went from an offensive monster (for a catcher) to being decidedly below average (wOBAs of .307 and .306 the past two seasons). He also suffered a significant hip injury in August of 2010, that put him out for the season (never a good datapoint).

There’s a lot of optimism amongst Yankee fans that Martin can be a real contributor—but I don’t share it. The real reason they went and signed him was that their alternative, once they decided to put Jorge Posada in the DH spot, was Francisco Cervelli. Now, the ‘Cisco kid is a fan favorite, and he had one hell of a start to last season…but water tends to find its level. Francisco’s wOBA through April was .387—that’s monstrous. In May it was .338—which is pretty darn good for a backup catcher. The next three months, Cervelli was a disaster, putting up wOBAs of .245, .240 and .235. For reference, .330 is about average (including all batters). Catchers get some leeway for their defensive position…but if your wOBA is below .280, defense almost no longer matters. You’re not a major league player. Brian Cashman knew that he had to bring in a catcher who could produce at the plate.

This is a very tough position to fill in fantasy—so I expect Martin to be owned in most leagues—but you can probably wait until later rounds to scoop him up unless there’s a massive run on catchers early.

4) New York helped shore up their bullpen by signing Rafael Soriano, but Yankees’ fans worldwide should be concerned about their current projected rotation. Everyone knows C.C. Sabathia will be a workhorse, and Phil Hughes was great before tiring down the stretch in 2010, but what can we expect from A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre? What other starters should fans know about?

This is a tough question to answer. The Yankees have acquired a number of journeymen starters to try and pin down the 5th spot—none of whom are likely to be anything worth owning on a fantasy team (Mark Prior, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia)  Either way, I don’t expect Sergio Mitre to get many starts for the Bombers in 2011, and I don’t see any of the above pitchers being ownable in any but the deepest leagues.

On the rest of the rotation spots, expect C.C. Sabathia to be his usual self, worthy of selection in the early third round on (ADP of 21.8 in ESPN leagues). If he gives you a low-3 ERA that’s a bonus, but playing in bombastic Yankee stadium in front of a rapidly aging set of position players, this is going to be increasingly unlikely. I’d look for a 3.5-3.7 ERA, 17+ wins, around 200 Ks, and a WHIP between 1.15 and 1.25.

Phil Hughes is the real prize to be had, mostly because after his second half last season (in which he seriously tired down the stretch), people are going to have forgotten how ridiculously good he was to begin the season. Good luck getting Sabathia without overpaying for him (whether in draft position, or trade value). Hughes is the ace of the future on this Yankee staff. He possesses true swing and miss stuff, much like Josh Beckett in his prime. Watching him pitch the beginning of last season, you saw a lot of batters take some serious cuts at Hughes’ pitchers—the kind of swings that you expect to turn into line drives—only to come up completely empty. His fastball, despite only getting as high as 92-93 mph on most days, moves enough off of expected vectors that batters have serious trouble centering it. When he tires (late in games, or late in the season) that movement diminishes, and you start seeing a lot more hard-hit balls.

As far as A.J. Burnett, heck. I’d love to tell you what to expect, but I haven’t got a clue. Bill James‘ projection system pegs him at about a 4.00 ERA—which the Yankees would be thrilled with. Oddly enough, this is only enough for 12 wins, per James’ projections—a difficult proposition in front of this Yankee offense unless one is giving up a ton of unearned runs. Burnett’s K/9 was below seven last season for the first time since 2001—a troubling sign—while his walks were right around his career average. Personally, I’d sign up for anything below a 4.50 ERA. He’s also prone to the “explosion” game. You know that game that ruins your head-to-head week because it’s so bad. Rather than give you any sort of consistency, he’ll dominate one game, and be a disaster the next. Not the kind of player I like running out on my fantasy teams, even if the aggregate is good.

With Pettitte gone (sob) the No. 4 spot is taken by Ivan Nova, and who he is (at least to fantasy owners) remains to be seen. As with the scrapheap players mentioned above (Colon, Prior, Garcia, etc.), I’d probably avoid him unless we’re talking an extremely deep league, or a league where wins are dramatically overvalued (because with the Yankee offense behind him, he’ll get his share of Ws). Nova is not a top prospect, and if he can be a serviceable No. 4 starter (think ERA+ around 100—straight league average) the Yankees will be thrilled.

The names on the horizon to watch are Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman and Manny Banuelos, all of whom could possibly see time in the show in 2011. Betances has the filthiest stuff of the trio, but has had trouble staying on the field. The nearly 7-foot tall Brackman had a horrific 2009, but dropped his BB/9 rate from 6.4 to 2.5 last season, and looks ready to emerge. Banuelos has flashed 97-mph heat (though he normally sits around 91-92) and has a dirty changeup. Of the three, I like Banuelos the most—but I can understand people who want to dream on Betances’ pure stuff.

5) Baseball America ranked Jesus Montero the fourth-best prospect in baseball entering 2010. Known for his bat, it’s very possible Montero will end up changing positions in order to become an everyday major league player. When do you think we’ll see Montero in New York and what position will he be playing?

If Jesus Montero remains in New York, he’ll be catching. There are two parts to this: The first is that if he can be even passable at the position, it multiplies his value to the team. The second is that there’s just no other open spots for him on the Yankees.

There’s been talk of moving him to RF, as his arm is absolutely strong enough for the position, and he’s athletic enough to play the outfield. However, making that switch would take a lot of time in the minor leagues, and Montero has just about nothing left to prove with the bat, making such a transition very unlikely. There’s been talk of moving him to 1B as well—but that spot is taken by Teixeira for the next six years. Finally, there’s DH, which is going to be constantly clogged by senior citizens—Posada will take the role this season, but you can bet that A-Rod and Jeter will both get time off in the DH slot as well. No reason to waste a premium batting talent like Montero in a part-time role.

The Montero hype is probably never going to be greater than it is right now, especially following Baseball America and Keith Law’s rankings of him recently. I’m looking into acquiring him in all leagues—but won’t overpay just because he’s finally a top-10 prospect. Personally I’m planning to trade for him one or two months into his ML career, after he’s shown his typical new level struggles, and when people are beginning to question his previously high valuation. Hopefully his owners in my leagues don’t read this column!

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About the author: George graduated with a degree in Journalism, but instead of walking at his graduation, he walked down the aisle at his wedding. He’s been playing fantasy baseball for over a decade and his interest and knowledge in the sport is as big and growing as his eyebrows are bushy…and growing. (@BaseballProf)

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