Sports Outside the Beltway

Yankees’ First Baseman: Only Need Left

From Baseball Prospectus -

The Yankees have a habit of building an incredibly powerful lineup — but then punting on one position. In 1998, they won 114 games and scored 965 runs — but went most of the year with Chad Curtis (.243/.355/.360) as their left fielder. In 2004, their Opening Day second baseman was Enrique Wilson. In 2005, it was Tony Womack, though Robinson Cano had performed his mercy killing by mid-season.

I’ve never understood why the Yankees do this. Runs are runs and wins are wins, and while in 1998 they perhaps had something of a cushion over the rest of their division, almost no roster is safe in the present-day American League. The Yankees could win 95 games next year … and miss the playoffs.

This year, the sacrificial lamb is first base, where recent rumors have connected the Yankees with Mark Loretta and Doug Mientkiewicz. Neither player would appear to offer much; cue the PECOTA projections:

Loretta .269 .336 .376 .257
Mientkiewicz .248 .332 .373 .255

Mientkiewicz was once a very good defensive first baseman but isn’t any longer. Loretta has played about a season’s worth of first base in his career and rates at a -9 FRAA over that span; it doesn’t help that he’s undersized, since a big part of a first baseman’s job is being a target for the rest of the infield. In short, both are replacement-level players, and it doesn’t make any sense to bring in replacement level players at any price.

Besides that, the Yankees have a number of superior in-house alternatives:

Cabrera .278 .343 .411 .272
Phelps .264 .324 .454 .271
Phillips .259 .320 .435 .265

Rule 5 pick Josh Phelps is the Occam’s Razor solution. He no longer flashes the potential that made him the BP ‘02 cover boy but he offers more to work with than Loretta or Eye Chart. Andy Phillips, for that matter, also projects to hit a bit more than Mark and Minky.

But the best solution here is to find a way to keep Melky Cabrera in the lineup. The Yankees would appear to be hellbent on making sure that Jason Giambi doesn’t see any time at first base, a decision which is defensible, but they could facilitate this by keeping Giambi at DH, moving Hideki Matsui to first base, and going with a Cabrera/Damon/Abreu outfield. I realize that last year’s experiment with playing Gary Sheffield at first did not work out particularly well, but with Matusi, they’d have a whole off-season to prepare.

Besides that, this alternative costs absolutely nothing, and ensures that there is no hiccup in Melky Cabrera’s development. Cabrera’s ‘07 PECOTA might not look like much, but he held his own in the majors last year at age 21, and PECOTA identifies some very favorable comparables like Carlos Beltran, Reggie Smith, and even Tony Gwynn. Okay, so it also finds Alfredo Griffin, Dion James, and Junior Felix, but the point is there’s a positive information externality in learning how Cabrera develops, enough to offset some of the uncertainty of seeing how Matsui takes to first base. It’s not out of the question that he could pull a Robinson Cano on the league next year, which would provide a solution for many years to come.

Of course, the Yankees could aim a little bigger, by bringing in a player like Aubrey Huff or Richie Sexson, but Cabrera sets the bar higher than you’d think. Indeed, he is the rarest of commodities in the Bronx: an underhyped Yankee.

I couldn’t agree more. Matsui is the worst OF the Yanks currently have. And Melky isn’t just a slight upgrade, he’s a major upgrade (he led the AL with 12 OF assists this year). If Matsui can adjust to 1b over the winter and during Spring Training, it will create a better offense and defense for 2007. Contrary to popular belief, Sheffield actually did a decent job at 1b (considering the condensed learning curve), so a full off-season should enable Matsui to make a relatively smooth adjustment. The Yanks defense is better with Melky in LF instead of Matsui, and the offense is better with Melky hitting instead of Andy Phillips, Mark Loretta or Doug Mientkiewicz.

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Posted by Harry Yemma | February 11, 2007 | 11:57 am | Permalink

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