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What Do We Have Here?

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On December 9, 2009 @ 2:37 am In Cliff Corcoran | Comments Disabled

2008 Topps [1]Okay, first thing’s first: Curtis Granderson is a Yankee, so who the hell is Curtis Granderson?

Granderson grew up in the suburbs south of Chicago and attended the University of Illinois in the Windy City before being drafted by the Tigers in the third-round of the 2002 amateur draft. A slender center fielder with a nice power/speed combo who bats left and throws right, he moved steadily up the Tigers’ ladder. After a cup of coffee in September 2004 at age 23, he returned to the majors in July 2005 and took over Detroit’s center field job for good that September. In his first full season, Granderson led the American League in strikeouts with 174, but his outstanding defense in center field and average bat against righties helped the Tigers topple the Yankees in the ALDS and claim Detroit’s first pennant since 1984. In his sophomore season, Granderson cut down on his Ks, added 42 points of average, and led the league with 23 triples, turning in by far his best major league season with a .302/.361/.552 line, 26 steals in 27 attempts, and a 14.2 UZR in center, becoming the first American Leaguer to have twenty or more doubles, triples, homers, and steals all in the same season.

Granderson has been trying to live up to that season ever since. In 2008 he posted his best strikeout and walk rates at the plate, but his slugging percentage dipped below .500 and he stole just 12 bases and rated 8.9 runs below average in center according to UZR. This season, both his strikeout and walk rates regressed and he posted a career-low .249 batting average which dragged down his overall line to an underwhelming .249/.327/.453. His steals and defense rebounded, but the latter only got up to about average. Thus, despite making his first All-Star team and reaching 30 homers for the first time in 2009, he arrives in the Bronx off a very disappointing season, one in which he had a lower EqA and UZR than either Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner.

As you’re surely aware, Granderson’s big bugaboo is left-handed pitching. For his career, he’s hit just .210/.270/.344 (.208 GPA) against lefties, and in two of the last three seasons he’s been significantly worse than that against southpaws:

2006: .218/.277/.395 (.223)
2007: .160/.225/.269 (.169)
2008: .259/.310/.429 (.247)
2009: .183/.245/.239 (.170)

The good news is that Comerica Park, while it is a triples-hitter’s paradise, is hell on left-handed hitters, especially left-handed power hitters. It’s next to impossible to hit a triple in the new Yankee Stadium, but it is already well-known as a home-run hitting paradise for hitters of both hands, which means that Granderson is likely to get a significant boost from his home park, particularly as his triples already started to turn into home runs this year. Just a .261/.334/.451 career hitter at Comerica, Granderson has hit .284/.353/.516 on the road, and 20 of his 30 home runs in 2009 came outside of Detroit. As a Yankee, he could well reach 40 home runs in a season, a total which has been reached by a Yankee center fielder just five times, four by Mickey Mantle and one by Joe DiMaggio.

That’s quite exciting, but Granderson isn’t anywhere near a Hall of Fame player, and one wonders just how viable he’s going to be defensively in center field going forward. Once praised for his routes and jumps, both have become shaky over the past two seasons, as anyone who watched the All-Star Game or the Tigers’ one-game playoff against the Twins could tell you. Then again, the Yankees still have Cabrera and Gardner, the latter of whom had the best EqA and UZR (admittedly in a smaller sample) of the trio in 2009. The Bombers could easily slip Granderson’s pop into left field, let Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui low-ball one another for the DH job, and be both content and no less productive than they were in their just-completed championship season. To my eyes, where Granderson is going to play in 2010 is entirely up in the air right now.

As for the years beyond, Granderson is signed for a total of just $23.75 over the next three years and comes with a $13 million club option for 2013, his age-32 season. That’s a good deal for a player with his skill set, which mixes in some decent patience (138 unintentional walks over the last two years) with the power and speed, and one that ends at exactly the right time (Granderson’s top PECOTA comparable player prior to the 2009 season was Andy Van Slyke, whose last productive season came at age 32). If his new ballpark gives him the boost many expect, and Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long can finally solve his struggles with lefties, Granderson will become an absolute bargain and a true star. Of course, the latter is a huge “if.” The flip side of that is that he could prove to be a platoon left fielder as early as 2010, one who could be dangerously miscast as a number-two hitter despite having the high slugging and middling on-base percentage of a five or six-spot hitter.

So what did the Yankees give up to get him? The three-team deal that brought Granderson to the Bronx breaks down this way for the three teams involved:

  • The Yankees get Curtis Granderson for Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, and Phil Coke
  • Tigers get Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth, and Phil Coke for Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson
  • Diamondbacks get Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy for Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth

Jackson and Kennedy were two of the Yankees’ top prospects. Phil Coke was a key member of the 2009 bullpen. Coke was expendable because of the strong late-season comeback of lefty set-up man Damaso Marte, who is signed through 2011 with a club option for 2012, and because of the emergence of rookie lefty Michael Dunn, who was initially part of this trade but salvaged by the Yankees. Marte and Dunn have their issues (Marte will be 35 in February and was on the DL with shoulder trouble for most of 2009, Dunn is an unproven rookie with alarming walk rates above A-ball), but Coke had his own, specifically his gopheritis (1.5 HR/9IP). The Yankees made something out of nothing with Coke, who was converted from starting at age 26 late last year, and they’ve cashed him in before he had a chance to go back to being nothing.

Austin Jackson was the Yankees’ most advanced hitting prospect, but given the speed with which Jesus Montero has progressed, was no longer their top hitting prospect. A center fielder who projected as very much of a Granderson-like player (20 homers, 20 steals, but not a middle-of-the-order hitter, solid but not spectacular defense), Jackson was supposed to spend 2009 getting ready to take over the major league job in 2010, but despite earning rave reviews from scouts, his Triple-A performance left a lot to be desired as he hit a heavily average-dependent .300/.354/.405 with just four homers and 123 strikeouts. In Jackson’s favor is the fact that he’ll be able to repeat Triple-A at the still-tender age of 23 in 2010 and that he was a late convert to baseball as the Yankees’ money was really all that kept him from going to college to play basketball. However, in Granderson the Yankees get one of the better-case scenario versions of Jackson’s future now, and for up to four years. There’s an outside chance that Jackson could prove to be a better player than Granderson, and the Tigers will own him for six years prior to free agency, but by giving up two years and a lot of uncertainty, the Yankees get that player in their lineup immediately, using him to reinforce a world championship squad that had a big hole in its outfield.

Some of the uncertainty the Yankees are giving up comes in the form of Ian Kennedy. Drafted ahead of Joba Chamberlain in the first round of the Yankees’ extremely successful 2006 draft, Kennedy was the third amigo in the young starting-pitching trio of Chamberlain, Kennedy, and Phil Hughes which emerged in 2007. All three had their detours, but Chamberlain returned from his admittedly successful bullpen exile in the second half of 2008, and Hughes made a strong rebound from a pair of injury-plagued seasons by replacing Chamberlain in the bullpen this year. Both are now headed for the 2010 rotation behind CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and, most likely, Andy Pettitte. Chamberlain and Hughes are both top-notch starting pitching prospects with filthy stuff and ace potential. Kennedy, the oldest of the trio (he’ll be 25 a week from Saturday) is more of a mid-rotation arm, a three-pitch pitcher whose best pitch is his changeup. Kennedy frustrated the Yankees in 2008 by nibbling and refusing to throw his curveball, making him a very hittable two-pitch pitcher with some attitude problems. An aneurysm robbed him of most of the 2009 season, but he made a strong comeback at the end of the year, even making a courtesy appearance with the big club in September, a show of renewed faith on the part of the team. Organizationally, Kennedy is replaced by another 2006 draftee, six-foot-six righty Zach McAllister, a third-round pick who thrived after making the leap to Double-A last year and just turned 22 yesterday. If McAllister continues his progress at Triple-A in 2010, the Yankees will never know Kennedy is gone.

So the Yankees gave up two pitchers they could afford to lose, both 25 or older, one of whom has already reached his major league ceiling, and an unproven minor league version of Granderson. Jackson and Kennedy, the latter of whom has spectacular minor league numbers (19-6, 1.95 ERA, 273 Ks in 248 2/3 IP, 0.99 WHIP, 3.55 K/9), both hold the potential to give the Yankees and their fans some buyer’s remorse down the line, but it’s just as likely that neither develops into anything special. Then again, that’s also true of Granderson, who arrives in New York for his age-29 season not as an established star, but as a talented-but-flawed player hoping to fulfill his potential and in danger of becoming a part-timer.

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