Grantland logo

The 30: The Replacement Killers

With a cast of castaways, the Yankees have become baseball’s underdog success story.

Travis Hafner

Since we’re fans of what-if scenarios here at Grantland, here’s one courtesy of a conversation I had with Baseball America‘s Jim Callis over the past few days, one that started with a discussion of Clayton Kershaw:

The Dodgers drafted Luke Hochevar (twice!) but failed to sign him. The second time they selected him came with the 40th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Hochevar fired his agent Scott Boras in the middle of contract negotiations, replaced Boras with Matt Sosnick, then agreed to terms on a signing bonus of just less than $3 million. The very next day, Hochevar switched back to Boras and reneged on the deal. He played independent ball for a year, then reentered the draft in 2006. This time, Kansas City drafted him first overall and Hochevar signed to become a Royal.

But what if the Dodgers had signed Hochevar in 2005, as it appeared they had before the big backout? Andrew Miller was a hot commodity in the ’06 draft, eventually going no. 6 overall to the Tigers. If Hochevar weren’t taken no. 1, Miller might not have made it down to Detroit’s spot. And if Miller weren’t there for the Tigers, the next guy on their wish list was … Clayton Kershaw.

A year and a half after the Tigers drafted him, Miller got shipped to the Marlins as one of two centerpieces (the other was Cameron Maybin) in the trade that brought Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit. What if the Tigers still lusted after Cabrera in December 2007, only instead of Miller being the bait in a deal for the slugger, it was Kershaw? Would Kershaw be the Marlins’ franchise player? Or would Marlins ownership have staged a fire sale a few years later one way or another, making Kershaw property of another team … say, the Jays, in a modified version of last winter’s blockbuster? Would the Jays’ path have played out differently (for this year and the future) if Kershaw were the big get in that trade rather than Jose Reyes or Josh Johnson? Or what if the Tigers kept Kershaw? They’d then have the best right-handed starter and best left-handed starter on the same staff … only possibly without arguably the best hitter in the game, assuming a Cabrera trade never happened.

While you chew on all that, consider this: The Padres could’ve had Justin Verlander with the first overall pick in the 2004 draft, but chose homegrown shortstop Matt Bush instead, one of the most damning examples of how cheap ownership can torpedo a team’s fortunes for years with one chintzy move.1 But let’s say the Friars did the right thing and drafted the player who has accumulated more than 80 percent of the Wins Above Replacement compiled by the top 10 picks in the ’04 draft. Would Kershaw have become a dominant force in the American League, with Verlander torching NL West opponents, only from 120 miles down the road in San Diego? Would Stephen Drew or Homer Bailey have been the player who’d have ended up in Detroit instead of no. 35?


1.

Had the Padres not taken the cheap route, they still preferred Stephen Drew over Verlander that year. So San Diego would’ve landed a decent player had they opened the wallet, but still missed out on the best pick.

One final twist. Without Verlander and assuming Miller or Kershaw was the team’s top pitching prospect, but still developing on the farm … would the Tigers have targeted a pitching ace instead of a big bat? If so, think back. Who was the biggest-name starting pitcher who switched teams within a few months of the real-life Cabrera trade? That would have been CC Sabathia. And if Sabathia never signed with New York, which other front-line starter might’ve ended up a Yankee? Roy Halladay? Cliff Lee, before he had a chance to reject the Yankees in the real-life present?

Doc Brown had it right. Don’t mess with the space-time continuum. It could cause a chain reaction that could destroy the entire universe. Or merely our own galaxy.

It’s Week 6 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

4. NEW YORK YANKEES

For the first time in two decades, the Yankees came into a season as underdogs. This was still a talented team, one that featured a perennial MVP candidate in Robinson Cano, one of the best and most reliable aces in CC Sabathia,2 and a good enough supporting cast to portend a winning season. But the Yanks went north this spring with so many key players on the disabled list, they seemed doomed to finish behind … well, someone, even if no consensus AL East favorite popped up in their stead. The injury situation has only gotten worse as the season has progressed, as this Baseball Prospectus/MLB Depth Charts rundown shows.


2.

We’re assuming Hochevar didn’t create a time paradox here.

The Yankees Disabled List

C Francisco Cervelli — FRACTURED HAND; placed on 15-Day DL (4/27/13); transferred to 60-Day DL (5/1/13)

1B Mark Teixeira — STRAINED TENDON IN WRIST (3/6/13); likely out 8-10 weeks; placed on 15-Day DL (3/22/13), transferred to 60-Day DL (5/12/13)

3B Alex Rodriguez — HIP SURGERY; out until at least June; placed on 60-Day DL (2/13/13)

3B Kevin Youkilis — STRAINED BACK; placed on 15-Day DL (4/28/13)

SS Derek Jeter — RECOVERY FROM ANKLE SURGERY; placed on 15-Day DL (3/22/13); transferred to 60-Day DL (4/27/13); expected back in second half

OF Curtis Granderson — FRACTURED FOREARM; out 10 weeks (2/24/13); REHAB

RHP Joba Chamberlain — STRAINED OBLIQUE; placed on 15-Day DL (4/28/13)

RHP Ivan Nova — ELBOW INFLAMMATION; placed on 15-Day DL (4/27/13)

RHP Michael Pineda — SHOULDER SURGERY on 5/1/12; placed on 60-Day DL (3/15/13)

LHP Cesar Cabral — FRACTURED ELBOW (March 2011); placed on 60-Day DL (3/26/13)

That is preposterous. The Yankees are missing their would-be starting third baseman, the guy they acquired to replace their third baseman, the better of the two middling catcher options they had left after letting Russell Martin bolt for Pittsburgh, an All-Star first baseman, an All-Star outfielder, two starting pitchers, two relief pitchers, and one of the greatest shortstops of all time. Even if A-Rod, Teixeira, Jeter, and (maybe) Granderson aren’t the players they were at their peak, these were still significant pre–Opening Day losses, made worse by in-season injuries to Youkilis and Cervelli. But a funny thing has happened on the way to what figured to be a disappointing season for the Yankees and their decimated lineup: An unlikely group of scrap-heap players has caught fire, lifting the Bombers to the second-best record in baseball, and somehow making the Yankees — the Yankees! — one of the best underdog stories of the year.

The three most productive hitters in the Yankees’ bargain-aisle shopping spree have been Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay. This would have been gigantic news in 2006, the year that trio combined for 96 home runs. Last year, those three combined for just 208 games played, generating a paltry 1.0 WAR between them. The Yankees were in no position to be choosy. They signed Hafner to a one-year, $2 million deal, hoping he might be able to pop a few homers over Yankee Stadium’s ludicrously short porch in right and right-center before the inevitable injuries hit. They scooped up Overbay on March 26, mere hours after the Red Sox let him go, with the promise of $1.25 million if he actually made the big league club. Wells was the most contentious deal of the three by far, setting the Yankees back $14 million for this season and next, even after the Angels picked up two-thirds of the remaining salary on the last two years of his oppressive $126 million contract. The Wells deal in particular looked insane, given the Yankees’ supposed commitment to pay less than $189 million in payroll next year, thereby avoiding another year of luxury-tax violations and saving as much as $50 million (and maybe even more) in penalties alone.

The Yankees now appear likely to ignore that $189 million threshold next year, which makes you wonder why they weren’t more aggressive shoppers last winter, whether for top free agents, big trades, or even just trying to re-sign Nick Swisher and Martin.3 But Hafner, Overbay, and Wells have blown away the Yankees’ wildest dreams. Even after a recent slump, Hafner is still hitting a robust .269/.387/.527; Overbay is slugging .483, his homer and five runs knocked in keying a win Friday; and Wells is hitting .295/.343/.540, his own homer and three-hit performance Sunday sparking another win that helped lead to a Yankees weekend sweep over the Royals.


3.

Especially when you consider the Yankees’ woeful lack of recent success in developing elite talent via the draft.

Hafner and Overbay in particular are shining examples of the weirdness that surrounded the Yankees offense through the first six weeks of the season. Through Saturday’s games, Hafner was hitting .300/.410/.557 vs. right-handed pitchers, vs. just .158/.333/.421 vs. lefties; Overbay was hitting an off-charts .329/.376/.646 vs. righties, but just .114/.114/.171 vs. southpaws. Granted, both Hafner and Overbay had racked up those splits in small sample sizes, with just 59 combined plate appearances against lefties. Still, enormous splits have been the norm for the Yanks in 2013. Through Saturday, they were hitting .274/.339/.467 against righties and just .221/.291/.350 vs. lefties. Even acknowledging the short porch’s siren song and the team’s efforts to assemble lefty hitters with some pop to take advantage, that is a gigantic split.

How gigantic? Here are the biggest gaps between a team’s numbers vs. right- and left-handed pitchers, dating back 25 years, using OPS:

Yes, OPS is a bit of a blunt instrument, and Yankee Stadium’s quirky dimensions do skew the numbers somewhat. Still, it’s telling that the Yankees are on pace to sport the biggest split when facing right-handed pitchers vs. lefties of any team in more than a quarter-century. Thing is, that’s not even the weirdest part. Though the Yankees have fielded one of the league’s least productive offenses vs. left-handed pitchers, they also, improbably, own the best record in baseball against lefty starters, tied with the Rays at 9-4.

In many ways, that statistical oddity tells us more about the Yankees than anything else. It tells us that a team can hit terribly against a certain subset of pitchers but still win a bunch of games thanks to elite pitching. It tells us that six weeks still constitute a small sample size, one which can make three bottom-of-the-barrel pickups look good to great (probably won’t last) and allow the Yankees to play much better than you’d expect looking at raw runs scored and runs allowed totals, thanks to an MLB-best 7-1 record in one-run games.

Now here’s the best news: Even if this shockingly strong start is a fluke, that doesn’t mean the Yankees should expect to crash to earth. Nova and Granderson are due back this week, Youkilis within the next week or two, Teixeira and Cervelli hopefully next month, Jeter and others hopefully a few weeks later. Add those players to a pitching staff anchored by Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Mariano Rivera, and David Robertson, with Cano at the height of his powers, and this starts to look like the same old contending Yankees. Especially if they add a righty-swinging platoon bat or two4 to augment the weaker side of the offense.


4.

Ben Francisco is not the answer.

With no clear favorites and likely no truly dominant teams in the AL East, the Yanks needed to somehow find a way to stay competitive with so many core players on the shelf. They’ve done a hell of a lot better than that, and now those injured players are starting to return. So even if the team’s biggest early surprises all turn to pumpkins, it might not matter much. They’ll have already done everything the Yankees could have hoped for — and then some.

5. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Since his first day in the big leagues, Madison Bumgarner has always been overshadowed by more famous pitching teammates. He made his major league debut in 2009, as Tim Lincecum was wrapping up his second consecutive Cy Young award. When Lincecum’s star began to fade, Matt Cain emerged as the acknowledged ace of the staff. Ryan Vogelsong became the better story, disappearing from the majors for five years before emerging as one of the National League’s stingiest starters in 2011. Even Barry Zito, long ridiculed for the monster contract he got (for which the Giants owners deserve most of the blame), upended Bumgarner on the sports pages with his huge run late last season and into the playoffs.

But at this point, Bumgarner has seized the reins, emerging as the best pitcher on a very talented but also evolving staff.

His talents were on full display Saturday. Facing a Braves lineup that whiffs a lot but also scares you to death with its league-leading power, Bumgarner was a human buzz saw. He struck out 11 in seven innings, including a career-high six batters with his curveball, all six of those swinging. Braves hitters took 53 swings against Bumgarner’s pitches, putting just 14 of them into play — good for a season-low 26 percent in-play rate for Bumgarner. The Braves swung and missed on 16 pitches, tying Bumgarner’s season best.

That start pushed Bumgarner into some elite company. He ranks ninth in the NL in strikeout-to-walk rate at 4.2-to-1. He sits tied for fourth in the NL in Wins Above Replacement, trailing only early fireballs Adam Wainwright, Matt Harvey, and Jordan Zimmermann. He’s working on career bests in strikeout percentage, whiff rate, first-strike percentage, and making hitters swing at pitches out of the strike zone. His slider has been nearly unhittable yet again but it’s hardly his only dominant pitch, with Bumgarner’s curve owning the day Saturday, his fastball working well throughout the early season, and his changeup also settling in as an above-average pitch.

The Giants have plenty of reason for optimism this year, from Buster Posey chasing another MVP-caliber season to Hunter Pence rediscovering his power strike, Brandon Crawford angling for a breakout year, Zito continuing his late-career surge, Lincecum bouncing back from some hard times, and the back of the bullpen looking solid yet again. But the discovery of a new ace, one who’s younger than Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, Matt Moore, Tony Cingrani, and Patrick Corbin, and signed to one of the most attractive contracts in the game, should inspire more optimism than just about anything else. Even if that optimism remains somewhat quiet.

15. KANSAS CITY ROYALS

The lineup was supposed to be decent, with gusts up to very good. The Royals ranked a middle-of-the-pack 17th in wRC+ last season — a stat tracked by FanGraphs that measures offensive production while adjusting for park and league effects. Looking at the ages of Royals regulars provided reason to believe that multiple breakouts were on the way: Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer were entering their age-23 seasons, with Mike Moustakas at 24, Alcides Escobar 26, Billy Butler and Lorenzo Cain 27, and infield prospect Johnny Giavotella standing by in Triple-A at age 25.

So far, youth has not been served. The Royals rank 24th in team offense, behind even the lowly Astros. After dropping three straight at home to the Yankees, Escobar is now .255/.289/.362, with Butler at .228/.350/.377, Hosmer .270/.344/.351,5 Perez .283/.304/.375, and Moustakas .209/.288/.364. There’s more. Banjo-hitting utilityman Elliot Johnson has wrested playing time from fellow banjo hitter Chris Getz at second base, which will likely accomplish nothing. Jeff Francoeur can’t hit at all in right field, so Ned Yost has been implementing a quasi-platoon with Jarrod Dyson, who also can’t hit. Only the Marlins have hit fewer home runs in 2013 than the punchless Royals.


5.

SB Nation’s Justin Bopp passes along this terrifying nugget: Ross Gload, lifetime: .281/.325/.408. Eric Hosmer: .262/.321/.406. Royals fans, you may now scream in horror.

Kansas City has already executed a total makeover for its pitching staff, which is the main reason the Royals sit just a game and a half out of first place in the AL Central, despite losing six of their past seven games. But except for second base and right field, K.C. has mostly stuck with what it has in the starting nine, given the team’s limited resources and the time and effort they’ve put in cultivating what was hoped to be one of the most dynamic young lineups in the game. Rany Jazayerli and I have a longer conversation coming out soon that covers the puzzling lack of growth shown by the Royals’ cadre of young talent.

For now, we can say this: James Shields, Ervin Santana, a few flukish wins for Jeremy Guthrie, a hard-throwing bullpen, and two or three producing hitters surrounded by a lineup full of disappointments might give the Royals a shot at their second winning season in 20 years. But they’ll need more than that to crash the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

25. CHICAGO CUBS

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating, if only because it’s so gratifying to see this work: One of the best elements about being a team in the middle of a major rebuilding job is that you get to throw things against the wall to see what sticks.

Nate Schierholtz is one of those players. With a career high of just 362 plate appearances in a season, Schierholtz has never been a consistent regular in the big leagues, or even the lefty-swinging side of a platoon from April through September. The Cubs have given him that chance this year and so far he has responded, hitting .291/.333/.524.

Luis Valbuena is one of those players. He spent years in the minors racking up some impressive OBP numbers and decent pop for a middle infielder, but Valbuena never stuck around long with a big league club, bouncing from the Mariners to the Indians, briefly ending up as property of the Jays,6 then finally getting claimed off waivers by the Cubs last spring. When Ian Stewart went down with an injury, Valbuena got thrust into Schierholtz’s role, only at third, getting the majority of at-bats at the hot corner as the lefty side of a platoon. He has quietly been one of the most productive third basemen in the league, hitting .272/.385/.489; only Cabrera, Manny Machado, Evan Longoria, David Wright, and the surprising Josh Donaldson have been better hitters than Valbuena among third basemen with 100 or more plate appearances.


6.

… because nobody in the known universe likes toys, or gaming the system, more than Alex Anthopoulos.

Kevin Gregg is one of those players. The Orioles released Gregg last September after a disappointing season, making it look like the veteran reliever might’ve reached the end of his major league career. The Dodgers scooped him up in February only to cut him loose a few weeks later. Signed on April 14 when the Cubs’ closer situation predictably went to hell, Gregg won the ninth-inning job almost immediately. He notched his sixth save Sunday, running his strikeout total to 12 in 9⅓ innings and keeping his ERA at 0.00.

Scott Feldman is one of those players. Writing about Feldman last week (from a fantasy perspective, though it appeared you could say similar things about his real-life performance to that point, too), I said this:

Coming into this season, Scott Feldman owned a career 4.81 ERA. It wasn’t all bad, of course. You could blame some of those runs allowed on the harsh pitching environment at Arlington in which he toiled for eight years. There were flashes of strong results, such as the 2009 season that yielded a 17-8 record and 4.08 ERA — though even then his numbers weren’t supported by strong peripherals. For fantasy purposes, Feldman’s name wasn’t one you had to remember at the draft table, unless you were in a really deep league.

Feldman’s first three starts this year did nothing to change anyone’s opinion. Lasting just 14 combined innings, he allowed 15 hits and 10 walks, for a 4.50 ERA. Except that ERA was a gift, the result of the stat’s silly way of distinguishing “earned” runs from “unearned” ones. Turns out Feldman actually allowed twice as many total runs as he had earned runs — 14 in 14 innings. Throw in the weak contributions of the Cubs’ offense and defense and you had a mediocre pitcher playing on a lousy team, someone you wouldn’t think would be worth starting against anyone.

Feldman has been blazingly hot since. At first that hot streak looked like the result of favorable scheduling, after he rolled over the Marlins and Padres in back-to-back starts. Now it looks like something more might be going on. Feldman shut out Texas over seven innings Monday, then struck out six and allowed a single run over six innings against the Nats on Sunday. In the Nationals’ case, you had an offense that actually ranked lower than San Diego’s by advanced metrics. But with each passing start, Feldman takes another bite out of the sample-size police. Over his past five starts, he has posted the following line: 33⅔ innings, 29 strikeouts, 10 walks, 1.60 ERA. Three unearned runs and a batting average on balls in play below .200 have played a role in forging that streak. Still, if nothing else, Feldman is starting to cobble together enough solid performances to make other teams take notice.

And really, that is what we’re talking about here. Schierholtz is 29 years old and likely won’t be a regular or even a semi-regular on the next winning Cubs team. Gregg is a soon-to-be-35-year-old closer who looked washed up a year ago and just happens to be riding a hot streak. Feldman looks like he could be at least a serviceable starter, but the Cubs only have him signed for the rest of this season, at $6 million. If the Cubs can convert those three players into younger talent with potentially lasting value, that would be a huge win. If the 27-year-old Valbuena shows he has staying power, that would be an even bigger bonus.

The big news for the Cubs is the seven-year, $41 million contract they just gave Anthony Rizzo, one that could reach nine years and about $70 million if various options and incentives kick in. With Starlin Castro signed through at least 2019, the Cubs have now locked up two of their building-block players into their early free agency years, covering what may well turn out to be many, and maybe most, of their prime years. You make that kind of move when every other team locks up their best young players, leaving slim pickings on the free-agent market.

The Cubs will have more money with which to build the rest of their roster, adding premium draft picks, big-ticket international signings, choice trade acquisitions, and what little quality free-agent talent there is to a core that’ll star the likes of Castro, Rizzo, and Jeff Samardzija. But as the Yankees have shown, having a keen eye7 for available, cheap talent can be an essential tool even for clubs with ample resources. Given they’re still early in the building process, this might end up being the height of the Cubs’ Dumpster-diving period. Might as well make the best of it.


7.

… or getting lucky, depending on your point of view.