Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Russell Martin: Why Yankees’ Surprise Star May Lead to Trade of Jesus Montero

New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman has had a bull’s eye on his chest since before I can remember—both from opposing fans attacking his spending habits and impatient fans attacking any missed opportunity.

Though many criticisms of his pitching decisions are warranted, his ability to make moves without writing the big check has been underrated at times.

Much like his savvy Jon Lieber move—in which Jon overcame surgery to go 14-8 in addition to making three excellent playoff starts—Cashman put away the checkbook this offseason in favor of good old fashioned scouting.

He took chances on Eric Chavez, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Andruw Jones and Kevin Millwood, and all are making him look like a very smart man.

None of these, however, is his greatest move in preparing for the 2011 season. That would be scooping up a 28-year-old former All-Star catcher for the price of a middle reliever.

Russell Martin was just what the Yankees needed in a backstop—especially in a year that Jorge Posada would be bowing out gracefully from the crouch he called home for 15 MLB seasons.

Martin has been far better than advertised, and he currently lands in the top five in the American League in home runs (6), slugging percentage (.656) and OPS (1.047).

The irreplaceable contributions to the Yankees don’t end there for Martin, as he has been an excellent clubhouse presence and a respected caretaker of a pitching staff held together by gum and duct tape.

The French-Canadian—in conjunction with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild—achieved in just two short weeks what others had failed to do for 12 seasons prior.

New York’s duo convinced AJ Burnett to step out of his comfort zone, trust them completely, and transform a developing changeup from novelty into weapon.

Now the Yankees must ask themselves if April was merely a coincidental hot start, or whether Martin is showing signs of a return to health and to his past stardom.

If they decide the latter, especially considering Martin’s age, he may just be the perfect placeholder until heralded prospects Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez mature into MLB-ready options.

Injury fears will always be at the epicenter of any Martin extension conversations, but his resurgence could allow New York to swap some of their catching depth for much-needed pitching help.

Could the first prospect sealed for delivery be none other than the No. 1 prospect in their system?

Hitting phenomenon Jesus Montero suddenly becomes expendable if Martin is tabbed as a multi-year filler, and Montero’s unique bat makes him the most coveted piece New York has to offer.

If Triple-A performance is any indication, Montero is more than ready for a shot at the big leagues—he’s batting .407 with a .925 OPS in about 60 AB.

The Yankees need a front-of-the-rotation starter, and no one would hesitate to second that notion.

The only way they can acquire one without giving up the nearly untouchable LHP Manny Banuelos, however, is to hand over Montero on a silver platter to anyone with a top arm.

In an ideal world, the Yankees would be able to pry a Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, Jonathan Sanchez, or Gio Gonzalez away from a rotation—though I’m not sure that will end up being much more likely than obtaining Felix Hernandez.

What we do know is the Yankees are having their eyes opened to the fact that Russell Martin, if healthy, can provide years of production at a position they have three top prospects at.

It is far too early to count on Martin’s body holding up until July—let alone until 2014—but continued success would put the thought in the back of their minds moving forward.

I’m as much an advocate of Montero’s bat translating favorably to MLB as any scout around the league, but I think he is the fourth best long-term catching option in the organization.

Alex Rodriguez’s need to DH at a much higher frequency as he ages—coupled with Mark Teixeira’s lengthy contract at 1B—makes it difficult to imagine Montero cementing himself at any other position.

I think Montero will be dangled at the deadline for that very reason, and Yankees fans may be forced to watch another “Fred McGriff” grow into a superstar bat in another city.

Nevertheless, it will unquestionably be the right move if that sacrifice leads to five to seven prime years of a top-end starter in the Bronx.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

1927 Yankees vs. 1961 Yankees: Who’s Better? A Position by Position Breakdown

Many consider the 1927 New York Yankees the greatest MLB team ever assembled.

Most of this credit is given to the heralded “Murderer’s Row” lineup including Hall of Fame inductees Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs—though having two Hall of Fame pitchers in Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt certainly didn’t hurt.

Others would argue for the 1961 Yankees—a star-studded roster in its own right with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Whitey Ford.

Though the latest generation of fans would fight to the death for their 1998 team, and rightfully so, I’m going to focus on the two immortal Yankees teams of the past—breaking them down position by position.

One player will be picked in each position battle, and a tally will then be made at the end to create an “on paper” favorite if the two were to play head-to-head in a World Series.

Without further ado, let’s get started with a look at catcher where you will not see Yogi’s name—he had since moved to the outfield at this point of his career. Here we go:

C – Pat Collins/Johnny Grabowski ’27 vs. Elston Howard ‘61

The 1927 Yankees had a platoon situation at catcher which also included contributions from a third catcher named Benny Bengough.

While Collins was the best offensive threat—compiling a .407 OBP in 251 Abs—he and Grabowski combined for a 29 percent caught stealing rate (33 for 114).

The 1961 Yankees, on the other hand, had one of the best catchers in MLB at the time in Elston Howard. He hit .348 with a .387 OBP and .939 OPS that season, and added an exceptional 50 percent caught stealing rate (20 for 40).

The Decision: Elston Howard – ‘61

This is an easy one for me, as Howard was both a dynamic offensive and defensive player in 1961—beating out the less productive trio of the ’27 roster.

1B – Lou Gehrig ’27 vs. Bill “Moose” Skowron ‘61

Lou Gehrig, arguably the greatest first baseman in the league’s history, had an otherworldly season in 1927—hitting .373 with 47 HR, 175 RBI, 52 2B, .474 OBP, 1.240 OPS, and 149 R.

Yes, these are actual statistics…and you can throw in 18 triples while you’re at it.

“Moose” Skowron, meanwhile, put up decent power numbers with 28 HR and 89 RBI. His .318 OBP and .790 OPS at a power position at first base were far from his best years as a Yankee in 1956 and 1960.

The Decision: Lou Gehrig – ‘27

Remember when I said the decision at catcher was easy? Well this one is the equivalent of being asked whether you’d rather have a massage at the hands of Minka Kelly or a colonoscopy.

Lou Gehrig put up numbers that even gamers could not produce on Xbox 360, and had in my opinion one of the two to three greatest seasons in the history of the game in 1927.

2B – Tony Lazzeri ’27 vs. Bobby Richardson ‘61

Hall of Fame second baseman Tony Lazzeri was at it again in 1927, as he collected 18 HR, 102 RBI, a .383 OBP and .866 OPS for a position and time period that rarely witnessed years like these.

Richardson had his best MLB season the following year in 1962, and his best World Series in 1960—where he would have been the easy choice for MVP if not for Bill Mazeroski’s timeless Game Seven home run.

In 1961, however, Bobby could only muster a .295 OBP—not enough to prevent the defensive gap between the two to be overcome by Lazzeri’s offensive prowess.

The Decision: Tony Lazzeri – ’27

Richardson was the far superior defender, and put up some solid offensive years in his Yankees career, but 1961 was not one of them. Lazzeri takes this one in a landslide.

SS – Mark Koenig ’27 vs. Tony Kubek ‘61

Koenig had 62 RBI, 99 R, and 34 extra-base hits in 1927, which was a very representative offensive arsenal for any shortstop of the time period.

Kubek had an impressive 52 extra-base hits to go along with 84 R in 1961, as well as earning a reputation as one of the best double-play shortstops in the game (turning 107 of them that season).

The Decision: Tony Kubek – ’61

Offensively, the two are very similar in an overall side-by-side analysis. Defensively, however, I cannot ignore Koenig’s 47 errors in 1927.

Errors are not the end-all in determining defensive abilities in ballplayers, but 47? That makes Kubek’s 30 look like Ozzie Smith at his best.

3B – Joe Dugan ’27 vs. Clete Boyer ‘61

Dugan could not be considered much of an offensive threat in 1927—managing to gather 44 R, 2 HR, 43 RBI, and 29 extra-base hits.

Boyer, who like Richardson had his best year as a Yankee in 1962, did not fare much better than Dugan in 1961. He topped Dugan with 61 R, 11 HR, 55 RBI, and 35 extra-base hits, but he hit an anemic .224.

The Decision: Clete Boyer – ‘61

This explanation could be virtually copied verbatim from the shortstop debate, as offensively neither man separated himself with conviction.

Boyer was possibly the greatest defensive third baseman in Yankees history—some would argue Graig Nettles—which is what pushed him over the top in a close battle.

LF – Babe Ruth ’27 vs. Yogi Berra ‘61

First of all, let me acknowledge that Babe Ruth is viewed primarily as a RF.

Ruth played 56 games in left field in 1927, and it did not seem fair to completely wipe out Roger Maris’ record-breaking season by matching him up with the Sultan of Swat.

How could 61 home runs be crushed so easily? Well, Ruth had 60 of his own—adding 164 RBI, 158 R, a .356 AVG, .486 OBP and 1.258 OPS. What’s even more horrifying is that no one would consider this Ruth’s greatest year in pinstripes.

Berra was a 36-year-old in decline in 1961, but was still able to produce 22 HR to help chip in. It’s impossible not to respect Yogi, but this fight was over before the bell was rung.

The Decision: Babe Ruth – ’27

I will keep this short and sweet. Babe Ruth is the best hitter in MLB history, and 1927 was no different.

CF – Earle Combs ’27 vs. Mickey Mantle ‘61

Combs, an excellent player and offensive force in the Bronx, hit .356 with a stellar .414 OBP and .925 OPS in 1927. He also produced 65 extra-base hits—including 23 triples—and scored 137 runs as part of “Murderer’s Row”.

Mantle was at the epicenter of one of the most captivating seasons in Major League Baseball history, and would go on to have his best Yankees season since his back-to-back MVPs in ’56 and ’57.

“The Mick” would put together 54 HR, 128 RBI, 131 R, .317 AVG, .448 OBP, and 1.135 OPS—while leading MLB in walks and slugging percentage.

The Decision: Mickey Mantle – ‘61

Combs put up excellent numbers, and easily could have beaten out many others in a head-to-head battle.

The Yankees outfield is a crowded one in this debate, however, and Mantle had one of his immortal seasons.

RF – Bob Meusel ’27 vs. Roger Maris ‘61

Meusel had a rock solid 1927 season offensively, and did everything that could have been expected of him.

He drove in 103 runs, had a .393 OBP and .902 OPS, and stole 24 bases—all while only suiting up for 135 games.

Maris’ 1961 season needs absolutely no introduction. In many baseball fans’ eyes, it still represents the true pinnacle in single-season home run history—and I tend to agree with them.

Amidst unimaginable stress and torment, Maris slugged 61 HR while amassing 141 RBI, 132 R, and a nearly 1.000 OPS.

The Decision: Roger Maris – ‘61

This is yet another opportunity to keep it short and sweet, as there is truly no explanation needed. Maris had baseball’s greatest exhibition of power since Ruth’s 1927 season.

1927’s Pitching Staff

1. Waite Hoyt: 22-7, 2.63 ERA, 256.1 IP, 1.16 WHIP, 23 CG

2. Herb Pennock: 19-8, 3.00 ERA, 209.2 IP, 1.30 WHIP, 18 CG

3. George Pipgras: 10-3, 4.11 ERA, 166.1 IP, 1.35 WHIP, 9 CG

CL - Wilcy Moore: 19-7, 2.28 ERA, 213 IP, 1.15 WHIP, 6 CG, 13 SV

1961’s Pitching Staff

1. Whitey Ford: 25-4, 3.21 ERA, 283 IP, 1.18 WHIP, 11 CG, 209 K

2. Bill Stafford: 14-9, 2.68 ERA, 195 IP, 1.16 WHIP, 8 CG

3. Ralph Terry: 16-3, 3.15 ERA, 188.1 IP, 1.08 WHIP, 9 CG

CL – Luis Arroyo: 15-5, 2.19 ERA, 119 IP, 1.11 WHIP, 29 SV

This call is about as tough as any that I’ve come across in this discussion, and is one that came down to the tiniest of details to separate the two from each other.

Both staffs are headed by big-time Hall of Fame arms in Hoyt and Ford—though Ford’s innings, strikeouts, and ability to dominate give him the edge.

Having a second Hall of Fame hurler in the second slot gives 1925 the edge back in their favor, though Stafford performed plenty well enough in 1961 to make it close here.

Pipgras was not 1927’s third starter entering the World Series, but he was given the start and performed admirably. Terry had an out-of-body season, however, which gave 1961 back the lead by a nose.

This brings us to the final call, and there was only one closer who could come out on top as difference-maker: Wilcy Moore.

Not only did Moore pitch 213 innings while only starting 12 games in 1927, but he threw a Game Four complete game to close out the World Series after saving a one-run contest in Game One.

Arroyo had about as good a year as you can have as a relief pitcher in the time period, but the determining factor was Moore’s versatility to both start and close with extreme efficiency.

The Decision: The 1927 Pitching Staff by the Slimmest of Margins

Who Wins the Head-to-Head Series?

The Closing Breakdown:

The 1961 Yankees took the position by position hitting breakdown over “Murderer’s Row” by a head-to-head margin of 5-3.

While it should technically be a 4-4 tie if Ruth was switched over to RF, the ’61 team wins the coin flip with its ability to bring an infinitely more dangerous bat off the bench—or slotted in at hypothetical DH—in Johnny Blanchard (21 HR, .305 AVG, .382 OBP, .995 OPS in 243 AB).

Unfortunately for the 1961 team, they did not perform as dominantly on the field as they should have on paper—losing the runs scored battle by a considerable margin.

The 1927 Yankees won a microscopically close battle in the pitching staff race, which sealed 1961’s fate in the overall head-to-head breakdown.

Miller Huggins was the superior manager to Ralph Houk by virtually any standard, and 1961’s complete lack of any speed on the bases took away their chance at taking advantage of 1927’s poor catching arms.

The Final Call: The 1927 Yankees Win the Series in 7 Tight Games
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